Here is where I get into trouble. My idea of Sci-Fi is that it’s fictionalized science (duh) that’s plausible, references existing innovation and research, and is somewhat rooted in reality, at least as we perceive it to be. It is not the same thing as fantasy. Films like Star Wars or Transformers are not science fiction; they are fantasy. If you truly believe they are based upon science, you need to find a cool place to sit down and drink plenty of fluids until visions of Ewoks and Wookies leave you in peace.
Often the two genres are combined, likely by good folk who can’t tell the difference between a chicken and a duck. A simple solution is to throw them both in the water and the one that doesn’t drown is the duck. A similar principle can be applied to Sci-fi and fantasy films: is there any possibility that what you’re watching could possibly happen? If it floats, it is science fiction. If it’s magical, exciting, full of weird and wonderful places and things, chances are it’s fantasy. Not gonna happen, though, no matter how much you might want it to.
Most films in this genre should begin with what we already know to be true or possible, then take us to a level where things start to go awry, usually due to human arrogance. It is probably the most ethical of film genres, addressing that no-mans-land where knowledge has to reconcile with morality. 90% of Sci-fi plots are based on something we have researched without considering the long-term consequences. The other 10% either try and mollify our fears of what’s out there or try to scare the bejesus out of us by suggesting that we, innocently minding our own business, can suddenly be devoured by an extraterrestrial force. The latter holds little interest to me, at least as science fiction, but one example of the former appears on my list.
And they are:
Close Encounters of the Third Kind – Steven Spielberg (1977)
Spielberg deserves much credit for going against the longstanding current that anything “out there” is only interested in harming us. He’s probably right. Any superior intelligence that is able to make its way to our planet would likely have evolved from that very human trait of shooting first, asking questions later. He also works in some interesting subliminal communications that triggers an obsession with the upcoming close encounter involving Richard Dreyfuss and a bowl of mashed potatoes. FX master Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey) presents some imaginative and original ways to suggest that we’re “ not in Kansas anymore.” John Williams basic five-tones score forms the heartbeat of the film, and top that off with one of the best cinematographers ever, Vilmos Zsigmond , backed up by none other than John Alonzo, Laszlo Kovacs and Douglas Slocombe. This film also marked the beginning of a successful partnership with editor Michael Kahn. It’s a wonder-filled journey that starts with darkness and a loud aural crescendo and finishes with dazzling visuals and plenty of heart, all cobbled together by the 70s Hollywood cinema hall of fame.
Ex Machina – Alex Garland (2015)
Artificial intelligence has been a popular subject for science fiction films probably since Dave wrestled for control with HAL in 1968. Now, however, they come in the form of Alicia Vikander instead of a tin box with an all-seeing red light. She is the creation of the brilliant Nathan Bateman, played by the equally brilliant Oscar Isaac. Things get complicated when Caleb, a young programmer, shows up for a free visit, gets to know Ava (Vikander), and begins to blur the line between what is human and what is not. Garland, who also wrote the script, opens up numerous questions about power and entitlement with regard to increasingly intelligent creations. Are they just dolls intended to “serve”, or do we consider the human intelligence with which they have been imbued as reason enough to treat them with the same respect as other living things? And if we take the latter route, what are the guarantees that it will not backfire; in other words, has the being been programmed with empathy and conscience as well as intelligence? Beautifully complex but simple-looking FX are a standout, as are the performances. This was Garland’s first foray at directing and I’m anxiously awaiting his sophomore effort.
Moon – Duncan Jones (2009)
Here is another directorial debut and it’s a shame more people did not see it. Cloning is the issue this time and its done as part of the general business practice by Lunar Industries, a mining company, by supplying disposable workers. But this isn’t artificial intelligence – these are human beings unaware of the plans laid for them, or even aware of the fact that they are third or fourth generation versions of their original selves. It’s a complex scenario and the lead is played to the hilt by Sam Rockwell, one of those actors who is so good at disappearing into his characters that you don’t remember what else he has done. It’s a small film – only 97 minutes – but was a major awards player in no fewer than 19 festivals and year-end honors lists. See it. It will blow your mind.
Alphaville – Jean Luc Godard (1965)
Yes, Godard made a science fiction film, a fact that makes both sci-fi and auteur fan boys on both sides foam at the mouth. The film, which explores the consequences of a technocratic dictatorship, was made over 50 years ago but…let’s just say we should all revisit it soon given the direction we humans seem to be heading. Its also considered a “Noir” venture and likely served as inspiration for more modern films like Blade Runner. No flashy sets or FX required here as following Godard’s train of thought on individualism vs a controlled society needs no distractions. His improvisational style – and the film – inspired jazz composer William Parker to write an “Alphaville Suite”, a pop group took the name, a couple other groups had songs called Alphaville, and…wait for it…there is an upper class suburb in Sao Paolo, Brazil, called Alphaville. That is called influence, and why Godard makes my list here.
Planet of the Apes (reboot trilogy) – Rupert Wyatt / Matt Reeves (2011/2014/2017)
So you’re saying to yourself, “ What the hell do monkeys on horseback brandishing automatic weapons have to do with plausible science?” The answer is a tricky combination of two very simple factors. Using animals in testing where increased intelligence is a serious byproduct is the first one; the second is the appearance of a virus that renders humans unable to converse. This is not a good combination when viewed from your place at the top of the natural hierarchy. The resulting nightmare – first realized by novelist Pierre Boule over half a century ago – is fantastically reimagined in this reboot of the Sixties camp series. I will go one step further. It is one of the very few film trilogies where all parts are equal and fit together as tightly and perfectly as grandma’s jigsaw puzzle. Rupert Wyatt directed Rise of the Planet of the Apes, then Matt Reeves took the reins for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes. Most film series fail or bore by the second or third venture, some so badly we just want them to go away. As for this series, the conclusion is, sadly, complete and final. Much well deserved admiration goes to Andy Serkis (Caesar). You can CGI a hairy face and simian body, but the capture of facial expression, especially the eyes, needs a good, expressive actor dotted-up, and nobody is better at this than Serkis. His Caesar is a complex, empathetic, fully drawn and acted character. It’s time to move into the current century and recognize these creations for the stunning achievements they are. Hey, maybe that would make a good sci-fi script: Oscar recognizes a non-human, CGI-created character and SAG goes berserk! Now send in the clones!
There you go, five riveting entries that you may or may not have been expecting. Plausible, thought provoking and based on current science that is already challenging accepted moral and ethical boundaries. What should we add (careful – no Jar Jar Binks sithiness)?