Science-Fiction Movies of 2008

According to the Internet Movie Database, no less than 508 titles were loosely classified as “Sci-Fi” for calendar year 2008. The vast majority of those titles haven’t been seen by any significant audience: Cutting away those titles that haven’t been rated by at least 1000 people cuts down the list to only 37 titles, although it still includes a number of direct-to-DVD, video-game and TV series titles.

There are still quite a few titles in that list that I mean to see at one point or another. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is probably the one I’m most curious about, but titles such as Dante 01, Futurama: Bender’s Game, Resident Evil: Degeneration, City of Ember, Doomsday and Starship Troopers 3: Marauder could tempt me in video stores.

Then there are the titles I don’t really want to see. Those I consciously avoided in theaters. Many of them qualify as SF only as pretexts: Meet Dave? Space Chimps? X Files: I Want to Believe? Thanks, but -really- no thanks. I had enough trouble with the bad movies I did see in theaters, but aren’t worth more than a mention. Journey to the Center of the Earth? Not worth seeing if you’re not seeing it in 3D, and even then not so much. The other flop adapted from a French SF novel this year was Babylon A.D.: although the first minutes hold some promise, it degenerates all the way into one of the most incoherent film you’ll have the misfortune to see.

It’s a toss-up as to whether “bad” is better than incoherent, but there are a few examples to help you decide. The Day the Earth Stood Still and Death Race both prove without any ambiguity that the whole concept of remakes in an abomination. Meanwhile, The Happening was the final straw for many ex-fans of M. Night Shyamalan; never mind the dumb script –if you’ve seen a more inept direction of good actors in a major motion picture this year, please let me know. I wasn’t terribly fond of Jumper either, but at least it’s got a few more interesting sequences in it. Meanwhile, Star Wars: The Clone Wars was an ill-advised attempt to take a straight-to-TV feature for kids and market it as a motion picture for all.

Other films were mild-to-medium pleasures. Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs was a bit off compared to most Futurama episodes, but even clunky Futurama is a treat. The Incredible Hulk wasn’t completely successful, but it had a few good moments. My expectations for it were low, but not as low as for Superhero Movie, which may serve to explain why I didn’t completely hate it as much as I wanted to.

But once you remove the scum, three or four pretty good SF movies of 2008 remain in the stew. The Dark Knight may or may not be Science Fiction: It does contain at least one strong SF moment with its surveillance technology, but there’s no denying that the considerable pleasures of the film have little to do with Science Fiction. Iron Man was already closer to conventional SF with its technologically-enhanced protagonist: I didn’t go as wild for it as many others did, but it’s a perfectly adequate and rewatcheable film.

Still, 2008 had two minor masterpieces. WALL-E is the most obvious of the two: Put together with an astonishing amount of skill, it transcends genres to become an instant classic on the same level as many of Pixar’s best films. It’s certainly artistically ambitious, and it’s only the nagging thematic reservations I have about the film’s intentionally muddled moral message that keep me from loving in wholeheartedly.

But I have no such restraints regarding Cloverfield, still one of the most vivid cinema experiences I had in 2008. If you buy into the first-person conceit and the street-level view of a monster rampage, it’s remarkably well-controlled, and almost relentless in its intensity. It’s Godzilla done right, transforming a science-fictional spectacle into a terrifying horror film. I’m a sucker for clever, and Cloverfield is very, very clever.

In related genres, Fantasy had a tough year. Deprived of Harry Potter, it couldn’t thrive on insipid YA fantasy such as the Spiderwick Chronicles or Twilight. Repo! The Genetic Opera was more peculiar than good, whereas Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian was instantly forgettable. The only true fantasy film of 2008 I wanted to watch a second time was Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, which weaved a decent amount of thematic depths and strong visuals.

2009 promises much (357 titles!), but it’s up to anyone’s wildest predictions to guess whether anything will stick. The best bets at this time seem to be Coraline, the long-awaited Watchmen, Knowing (if only because Alex Proyas is directing), Monsters vs Aliens, Terminator: Salvation and Terra. This is also the year where Star Trek will be re-invented with a new cast: I confidently predict that fans will hate it a lot more than the general public. I just-as-confidently predict that Transformers 2 and Harry Potter 6 will make a bit of money.

But the only way to know for sure will be to make it through the next twelve months.

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