It just wasn’t a good year.
Granted, Science Fiction cinema hasn’t had good years for a while, now. The LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy heralded the arrival of fantasy as a viable genre in cinema, while SPIDER-MAN showed that big-budget spectacles could stem from the many pre-established comic-book mythologies. But I’m trying to focus on pure SF here. Cut away the adaptations and the sequels and there isn’t much left. Trying to find good movies from a sample of less than a dozen titles, considering Sturgeon’s Law, makes it difficult to find more than two noteworthy titles.
A few classic works of written SF were adapted or re-adapted in 2007. I AM LEGEND’s third incarnation made it to the screen in December, and while the first half of the film is generally good, the last act took a quick turn for the dumb-and-rotten with its nonsense god-sopping finale. THE INVASION was also a third adaptation of a classic story (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), but it completely failed as a film, boldly reheating clichés and suffering from jarring tonal shifts. THE LAST MIMZY was an odd choice for an adaptation (taking inspiration from a decade-old classic SF short story), but it eventually made a mockery of its source material by once again taking an anti-intellectual tone and forcing the story into a familiar Hollywood template. NEXT was supposed to be adapted from a Philip K. Dick story, but it jammed everything into a lame action film topped with an ending that cheated viewers. None of those four can justifiably be called good films, though THE LAST MIMZY can hold an adult’s attention momentarily, and the first third of I AM LEGEND is worth seeing for the best depiction yet of a post-apocalyptic New York.
2007 also had the usual number of sequels. ALIEN VERSUS PREDATOR 2 was slightly better than its predecessors, but not by much, and even the improved result wasn’t worth recalling once the credits rolled up. RESIDENT EVIL 3 was also better than its predecessors, but still didn’t deliver much –although there are half a dozen striking images sprinkled throughout the film. 28 WEEKS LATER, on the other hand, wasn’t better than the original, and even exasperated by its willingness to repeat all the clichés of the first film while adding an extra layer of nihilism. There’s probably a warning waiting to be issued against all SF/horror sequels out there, but clearly some people think they can make money out of them. In horror/SF terms, at least the PLANET TERROR segment of GRINDHOUSE had the good sense to understand how ludicrous it was, and made the most out of it. See PLANET TERROR. Don’t see any of the three other sequels.
A slightly more original type of adaptation is to boldly steal from a line of toys, and that’s how TRANSFORMERS finally made it to the screens this year, though it worked far better in terms of blockbuster action than in SF terms, where it was clearly awful in ways that only summer tent-pole events can afford to be. See it for the fights between giants robots (if you can stomach the chaotic directing), but don’t ask any questions about anything else.
So what’s left? Well, there were actually two Science Fiction movies in 2007 that weren’t adapted, weren’t sequels and weren’t parodies of something else. Only one of them was worthwhile.
If SUNSHINE was, by a significant margin, the most purely science-fictional film of the year at the multiplex, it had numerous and significant failings as a film, up to and including dumb plot mechanics and exasperating lapses in pacing. But it truly attains a magnificent grade of failure when it begs to be taken on hard-SF terms, because the errors of this film are the type of breathtaking stupidity that could be mocked by dull twelve-year olds.
Which makes ironic that the only good, original, satisfying SF film of 2007 that I saw was MEET THE ROBINSON, a Disney animated film designed for twelve-year olds. Bright twelve-year olds with hope in the future, faith in the wonder of science and a penchant for off-beat humour. Sure, it’s for kids. Sure, it’s coarse and maybe naive and broad in all the usual Disney clichés. But it sustains scrutiny (I saw it twice in a month, the second time in 3D-IMAX), leaves a charming feeling and presents a hopeful view of the future that is far closer to the classic attitude of science-fiction than anything else I’ve seen in years.
Granted, an even better SF movie of 2007 may be lurking at the video store. The newest straight-to-DVD episodes of BABYLON 5 and FUTURAMA await in my stack of DVDs to see. I have yet to see smaller films such as SOUTHLAND TALES, THE SIGNAL, THE NINES, SLIPSTREAM or MAN FROM EARTH. I’m still waiting for the American release of foreign films PARAGRAF 78 and VIKAREN. Hey, anything’s possible.
But for the moment, the initial summation still holds: 2007 wasn’t a good year for SF in cinema.
On the other hand, SF in video games seems to be growing up. I had a really good time playing PORTAL and BIOSHOCK: Even if the SF elements of those games weren’t wholly original, execution and audacity made them memorable. The simplicity of PORTAL was bolstered by great writing and an even better execution for a short but intense playing experience. Meanwhile, BIOSHOCK was a gift to everyone who once suffered through an Ayn Rand novel, and presented a lovely art deco portrait of an underwater city. Furthermore, I’m still looking forward to the PC ports of HALO 3 and MASS EFFECT.
But even as we mourn SF cinema, some genres closely associated to SF did well in 2007.
Not comic-book adaptations, though: FANTASTIC FOUR 2 was only slightly better than the putrid original, and SPIDER-MAN 3 was a notable step backward after the generally successful SPIDER-MAN 2. A classic case of what happens when everyone starts believing their own hype. And I’m purposefully not saying anything about GHOST RIDER for reasons that will be clear to anyone who has suffered even a fraction of the film.
But fantasy was, once again, a cinematic winner. Sure, BEOWULF, PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN 3 and THE GOLDEN COMPASS were average films at best, but STARDUST made up for it, and the fifth HARRY POTTER film delivered the usual dose of Potterness, even if the film was less accessible to those who hadn’t read the book.
There was the usual amount of dross in the horror field, but also a few gems: 1408 was a cool little B-movie, GRINDHOUSE delivered a horror-type experience unlike any other (it was the single best three hours spent in a movie theatre in 2007) and THE ORPHANAGE showed once again that horror is often best executed outside the borders of the Anglosphere. I inexplicably missed THE MIST in theatres, and am now hopping in anticipation of its video release.
Looking ahead at 2008, some titles are already more promising than others. No one knows much about CLOVERFIELD except that it looks cool. Pixar’s WALL-E carries the Pixar logo, and that’s quite enough to get anyone interested. M. Night Shyamalan’s also coming back with THE HAPPENING: for better or for worse, what else do you need to know?
More adaptations of prose SF are planned. Looking at the list of 2008 SF films at IMDB, I see titles such ad BABYLON A.D. (From Maurice Dantec’s novel), DORSAI, DRAGONRIDERS OF PERN, ENDER’S GAME (riiight), JUMPER, LITTLE GREEN MEN, ANT-MAN, THE FLASH, IRON MAN, MEG (still?), PATTERN RECOGNITION, ROADSIDE PICNIC, THE SINGULARITY IS NEAR, THE SPARROW, THE STARS MY DESTINATION, THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE and WORLD WAR Z. Scepticism is indicated for all of these titles: It’s not a matter of whether they’ll be good as much as whether they’ll be made at all.
Remakes, as usual, also count: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, DEATH RACE, BATTLE ROYALE, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, CREEPSHOW, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. Any or all of those may never exist.< /p>
Sequels? But of course: DANS UNE GALAXIE PRES DE CHEZ VOUS 2, HELLBOY 2, THE INCREDIBLE HULK and THE X-FILES 2 (Why?) Meh.
Finally, the grand list of IMDB "Sci-Fi" releases for 2008 currently includes all of the following, some of which have been "upcoming" for years now. Behold, giggle and don’t hope for much: 12TH MAN, 2K3, 317, 9, ACHE, ADVENTURES OF LUTHER ARKWRIGHT, ALIEN TRESPASS, ALL SAINTS EVE, AMSTEROID, ANGRY PLANET, ANTIGRAVITY, ANT-MAN, APPARATSPOTT – DAT MOKT WIE GISTERN, BANE, BLOCK-66, BLUE ROAD, BOX, BUCKY O’HARE, CAVE WOMEN ON MARS, CHASSIS, CHEUNG GONG 7 HOU, CHILDREN OF THE HUNT, CHILE PUEDE, CHRYSALIS, COWBOYS AND ALIENS, CRAZIES, DANTE 01, DARK SIDE OF HEAVEN, DE DÍA Y DE NOCHE, DEAD AIR, DEAD AMERICANS, DEAD WEST, DEATHLOK, DEVICE, DISCOVERY, DOOM PATROL, DOOMSDAY, DOZERS, DRAGONBALL, DROWNING MAN, DUEL, ECHOES OF EXTINCTION, EIGHT BY TEN, EKTOPOS, ENTITY, ESP AFFAIR, EYEBORGS, FANTASTIC PLANET, FIRESTORM, FIRST STRIKE, FLASH, FLY, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE, FOUNDATION, FRANKY S.T.E.I.N, FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT TIME TRAVEL, GAME BOYS, GB: 2525, GHASTLY LOVE OF JOHNNY X, GLENN, GRAYS, HAMLET A.D.D., HARVEST MOON, HIGH RISE, HORACE K48, HOUSE OF RE-ANIMATOR, HOW TIME FLIES, HUNTER’S MOON, IDENTITY THEFT, IN A SPIRAL STATE, IN THE COUNTRY OF THE LAST THINGS, INALIENABLE, INK, INTERROGATION, INZER0: FRAGILE WINGS, IRON MAN, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH 3D, KURZZEITHELDEN, LARKLIGHT, LAST MAN, LAST WARRIOR, LEVEL SEVEN, LIBERTY, LICKED, LIKE MOLES, LIKE RATS, LONG LOUD SILENCE, MAGDALENA, MAX NEPTUNE AND THE MENACING SQUID, MEDUSA HOUR, MEET DAVE, MINDFLESH, MINTY: THE ASSASSIN, MR. NOBODY, MUTANT CHRONICLES, MUTANTS, MYSTERIOUS, NAMING THE FLOWERS, NATURAL MAGIC, NIGHT OF THE REVENGE OF THE EVIL ZOMBITRON SPY-BOT, OBITAEMYY OSTROV, OBJECTIVE, ODYSSEUS AND THE ISLE OF THE MISTS, OUTLANDER, PARASYTE, PESTICIDE, PHOTON EFFECT, PLAGUERS, PLATFORM, PORTAL, POX, PUSH, QUALITY TIME, RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH, RAM, REARRANGED, RED STAR, RED WORLD, REJSEN TIL SATURN, REPEAT OFFENDERS, RIARU ONIGOKKO, RIDDLE OF THE SPHINX, ROADSIDE PICNIC, ROBODOC, ROCKETBOY, ROCKFISH, ROEL, SCANNERS, SCOURGE, SEED, SERES: GENESIS, SILICON VALLEY, SIMON AND EMILY, SIPHON, SLEEP DEALER, SLICES, SMARTPARTS, SOMBRERO, SORSVONALAK, SOULMATES, SPACE 3001, SPELL FOR CHAMELEON, A, SPIRITUAL WARRIORS, STAR BLAZERS, STAR CHILD: THE BEGINNING, STARSHIP II: RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMSES, STARWATCH, STONE’S WAR, STRATAGEM, STREAM, SUPER CAPERS, SURVEILLANCE, TALKING WITH DOG, TELEPATHY, THEY BITE, TOMO, TRANSBEMAN, TRENCHES, TRES DÍAS, TRUFFE, TYRANNY, UMBRA, UNFORGETTABLE, UNTITLED BRANDON CAMP/MIKE THOMPSON PROJECT, VACATION, VANQUISHER, WASATCH DEVIL, WASTE OF SPACE, WASTELAND, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, WHITE WALL, WICKED CITY, WIND RAIDER, WOW! (GENERATION P), YESTERDAY WAS A LIE, YO SOY OTRO, ZENITRAM, ZOO… whew!
Cynics can at least take comfort in the certitude that when it comes to disappointment, SF movies never fail to deliver expectations. No matter which year this is.