The trouble with sci-fi

Posted by · 10:51 am · June 9th, 2009

Christian Bale in Terminator SalvationIt’s never too late to give another stiff kick to the ribs of “Terminator Salvation,” it seems.  The film just opened in the UK last week, opening the doors for this David Cox blog entry on the Guardian website.  It’s a thorough, well-conceived, smart piece about the fact that Hollywood seems to be making a mess of science-fiction these days, choosing nostalgia over novelty and sadly missing the boat on some of the most captivating ideas that lie right in front of our faces.

Of course, this is why we should all rally around a guy like Duncan Jones who is clearly interested in those ideas and could push the genre, finally, into its brave new world.  But until creative people make the calls rather than fiscally conscious business conservatives, it’ll just be more of the same.  I’m elated that “Star Trek,” a film that at least touches on some more intriguing possibilities if by way of plot device alone, is the highest grossing film of the year.  Maybe that can help signal a change and guys like Jones can get their work out there more and more.  Ditto James Cameron’s “Avatar” when it finally makes its way to theaters.

Here’s Cox’s argument, in a nutshell:

A quarter of a century ago, when The Terminator hit the screen, things were a bit different. Then, advances in computing were a disquieting novelty to many. Hal’s terrifying takeover of the Discovery still haunted cinemagoers’ imaginations from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a time for murderous cyborgs. Now, however, we take artificial intelligence for granted. It’s become humdrum rather than chilling.

Future global conflict was an all too real prospect in the era of the cold war. Post-apocalyptic, Mad Max worlds, like the one in which Terminator Salvation is set, were far from fantastical for a generation living in genuine terror of imminent nuclear holocaust. Today, our fears lie elsewhere…Our own age ought to provide it with plenty of raw material for the performance of these functions. Cosmology, sub-atomic physics and the life sciences are transforming our understanding of reality, while the way human life should be organised has come once more into question.

Yet, Hollywood continues to offer us sci-fi spectaculars that, like Terminator Salvation, seem strangely out of time. Star Wars: The Clone Wars was perhaps the most egregious example of an attempt to suck box-office dollars from the decaying corpse of a cold war masterpiece. Our decade’s superhero sagas carry a whiff of nostalgia for the age of the comic book. Star Trek was a reminder that space was once the final frontier. We’ve learned since then that the frontiers that matter are closer to home.

Read the rest over at The Guardian.  Also, I have to say, I don’t think there is another traditional media outlet that has utilized new media, specifically blogs, as completely and smartly as The Guardian.  The posts are consistently interesting, never derivative and always reflective of the best op-ed journalism or commentary.

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10 responses so far

  • 1 6-09-2009 at 11:32 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    All of that maybe, but Terminator is a franchise exactly about that. Man vs. Machine. So no matter how poor the film may be, adding bioterrorism or environmental issues in the mix will be even more horribly wrong for the franchise.
    But it is true that many films are out of touch with the current zeitgeist, hence my huge love for Sunshine, a completely fresh and original sci-fi take that also nods to the movies of old.
    I’m already not fond of environmental (post)disaster movies or even virus movies for that matter. Space truly still is the final frontier, and I’d really love more films about that. Oh and not remakes such as the proposed Alien film, but true new sci-fi pieces like Avatar.
    And a new Star Trek series please.

  • 2 6-09-2009 at 1:51 pm

    Kyle Leaman said...

    I’m not sure how “Star Trek” isn’t an example of conservative Hollywood. Its a reboot of a LONG running series, that basically recycles the same characters and character motivations, while showing even less interest in philosphy and themes. Add in the 90210 casting for the appeal to the youngsters and a typical time travel plot (approached on in several episodes and films of the series) and it’s odd to think of “Star Trek” as anything close to fresh Sci-Fi

  • 3 6-09-2009 at 3:06 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Well it “looks” fresh. At least, for Star Trek.

  • 4 6-09-2009 at 3:15 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Kyle: The ideas being touched upon (and that actually make sense) are absent from most Hollywood sci-fi cinema. I’m not arguing the characters I’m arguing the science.

  • 5 6-09-2009 at 3:19 pm

    Joel said...

    Kyle: The problem is in your parenthetical statement “approached on in several episodes and films of the series.” Not many of today’s audience know that. It’s what the movie (best film so far this year, by the way) has done for the series by way of modernizing it for teen audiences today. The series *needed* a reboot…badly. And Abrams did that brilliantly and pretty much perfectly. It is fresh sci-fi, but of an entertainment kind. Sci-fi’s trend is penetrating visions of our future, exaggerated or otherwise…but not every sci-fi film demands depth. Some cinema IS meant to simply entertain, which is what Star Trek did to a massive degree. Star Trek, though, is deep to a point. Maybe not to the point that, say, Minority Report was, but to the point that Star Trek pretty much always was.

  • 6 6-09-2009 at 3:21 pm

    Joel said...

    That, and yes, Kris has a point. The science is ridiculous and shouldn’t be scrutinized for “realism” or anything like that. The film is ridiculous, but as Ebert would say, some sci-fi isn’t about what it’s about but about how it’s about it.

  • 7 6-09-2009 at 3:23 pm

    Joel said...

    Or maybe Pauline Kael would say that. Both, I guess, since Ebert’s stolen it on many an occasion.

  • 8 6-09-2009 at 4:01 pm

    Kyle Leaman said...

    Its an interesting argument, but I guess I just respectfully disagree. Outside of the ‘look’, the younger cast, and the updated action and effects, this is not only the same basic universe, but its a lot more shallow one. What seperates The Chronicles of Riddick and Star Trek is not depth or fresh perspective in a genre, its competentcy in the directors chair. That to me, does not make fresh sci-fi

  • 9 6-10-2009 at 12:50 pm

    El Rocho said...

    Science Fiction–at least good sci-fi–is a dying breed. I haven’t seen a real worthy sci-fi film in many years. Same with literature. The last sci-fi film I really enjoyed was Danny Boyle’s ‘Sunshine’. Albeit an uneven ending, it was a fantastic piece of sci-fi filmmaking. And perhaps ‘Children of Men’ as well. But before that…I can barely think of a good one. ‘Event Horizon’ was excellent. And, admittedly, sort of a guilty pleasure, I have always loved ‘Starship Troopers’. But we need to go have a few decades to get anything really substancial. ‘Total Recall’, ‘The Terminator’, ‘Alien’, ‘Aliens’, ‘The Thing’, ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Close Encounters’, ‘Wrath of Khan’, ‘Brazil’ and of course ‘Star Wars’. And, as I’ve read many, only a few sci-fi books I really enjoyed: ‘Ender’s Game’, ‘Dune’, ‘The Puppet Masters’, ‘The Illustrated Man’, ‘Nightfall’, ‘Stranger ina Strange Land’, and a handfull of short stories, manly by Heilen and Bradley. Why is sci-fi such a hard genre to deal with and great something either groundbreaking or at least compelling. Any sci-fi these days seems to boarder on horror or psychological. Soderbergh’s ‘Solaris’ was interesting and had the potential to be somethign quite exceptional, but kinda fell flat. I’m really waiting for a great sdi-fi (and horror film, for that matter, too) to some along and catch me like they used to do, like the one’s previously mentioned.

  • 10 6-10-2009 at 2:24 pm

    El Rocho said...

    Star Trek was indeed an excellent example of where they got it right, for the most part. But Terminator Salvation was a downright disappointment of a movie, but it did tie into the first film–almost like a companion piece–brilliantly.