Sunday, April 12, 2009

Science Fiction Making Real Comeback

As I sit here watching the futuristic film "Sleep Dealer" on a clear, cold NYC evening (it comes out next week in NY/LA - we'll review it on REEL TALK next weekend), It dawned on me that we're starting to see the return of the thinking man's Sci-Fi.

By that, I don't mean movies with silly premises and genre cliches ("The Invasion") or films with good ideas and lousy execution ("Jumper"). I'm talking about pictures that go to the heart of what science fiction is all about: Examining issues impacting the real world through the prism of speculative scenarios.

"Sleep Dealer" for example, is a story set in a near-future world basically run by corporations, where water is a precious commodity held over the heads of the less fortunate. It also involves people's memories as a valuable asset bought and sold like drugs. I'm halfway through it (I paused the screener to write this) and it's fascinating/disturbing at the same time.

It reminds me of the kind of science fiction films made in the 70s and early 80s, like "Soylent Green" and "Outland." Those films questioned the direction of modern society and theorized where we were headed, was not a very nice place. Depressing, sure. But it made you think.

That all changed with "Star Wars." No, I'm not going to bash George Lucas for changing the direction of the genre (and movies in general). I'm a GINORMOUS fan of the Force. But as much as I love the SW universe, I usually find myself drawn to less swashbuckling type of science fiction fare, such as "Blade Runner."

Over the years, those type of movies, real morality tales wrapped in lavish production designs and set in dystopian futures, have sort of disappeared from cineplexes. Science fiction certainly hasn't. But besides the Terminator and Matrix series, what other Sci-Fi films have really made an impact in the past 25 years?

Not many.

Part of the blame probably goes to Hollywood's increasing focus on the bottom line. Tough to take a chance on a genre film that will most likely come with a hefty price tag (due to effects, sets, etc) if it doesn't have the requisite elements to make it a blockbuster. And I don't remember any Spinner Cars on Toys R Us shelves when "Blade Runner" came out, or any Sean Connery action figures from "Outland."

But also, I think the most recent generation of filmmakers, having grown up and immensely influenced by "Star Wars", viewed that as the template for the Sci-Fi they wanted to create. Obviously there were exceptions, like the two I mentioned above, and also "Minority Report," a very underrated film IMHO. But by and large, filmmakers didn't want to make you think; they wanted to wow you, entertain you.

Perhaps that's changing.

Besides "Sleep Dealer" there is also a movie called "Moon" due out this June that I guarantee will have diehard Sci-Fi fans drooling over their 'Starlog' magazines. I caught an early screening a few weeks ago.

It stars Sam Rockwell and is directed by Duncan Jones. The film follows a mining company employee Sam (Rockwell) stationed on the Moon. As his three-year assignment comes to an end, his grasp on reality is beginning to slip, exacerbated by the extreme loneliness of the job. He begins to doubt his true purpose there and the paranoia only gets worse. Besides dastardly corporate behavior and a healthy skepticism about our dependence on technology, the movie examines how our tech-obsessed society is isolating us, even as humanity continues to overpopulate the earth.

With a masterful performance by Rockwell as its lynchpin and a doozy of a plot twist to boot, "Moon" is as compelling and thought-provoking a science fiction film as I've seen in years.

The director Jones, who is David Bowie's son FYI, does a great job capturing the clausterphobic atmosphere, the remoteness Sam is forced to endure. It's practically a one-man play, because for most of the film Sam's only company is a robot named GERTY (voiced in perfectly creepy fashion by Kevin Spacey).

Even more impressive is that the film is a true indie production - the budget was a reportedly miniscule $4 million. That's a pittance for almost any kind of film, much less science fiction.

Do yourself a favor and check the film out when it hits theaters in June. Same with "Sleep Dealer" next weekend. If you're a fan of intelligent science fiction that doesn't have one laser blaster or manhunting robot in sight, then you need to support these movies. And pray for other filmmakers with vision to jump into the genre.

Otherwise, prepare yourself for a lifetime of Nic Cage nonsense like "Next" or "Knowing."

Ugh. Talk about a frightening future!

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