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2009: The Year of Smart Sci-Fi

Posted by LiveFor on December 16, 2009


By Richard Bodsworth

As 2009 comes to a close the inevitable “reviews of the year “come out to play like The Warriors. I always like to look back, build a list and maybe sadly watch my Top 10 in order. While I was compiling, I noticed that the vast majority of them were Science Fiction films and it dawned on me it has been one Hell of a year for Sci-Fi. Something we were sorely starved of last year with the likes of the wooden wonder boy Keanu Reeves in The Day The Earth Stood Still. So I thought it may be appropriate to have a look at the Sci-Fi films of the year, in what I guess you could call, “2009: The Year of Smart Sci-Fi”

It seems to be universally accepted within the film industry that you can’t make a low budget Science Fiction movie, it’s all got to be about effects, explosions and all that nonsense. Shit, if science was at all like it is in films I might have received a higher grade on my exam at school. However, with his debut feature film, MOON, director Duncan Jones managed to turn that notion on it’s head. Shot on a budget of £2.5m, Moon is a dark, thought provoking modern classic. Making use of retro effect techniques like miniatures, the lunar landscape and the vehicles look as entirely, if not more, authentic than in most films using excessive CGI. But with Moon, the visuals only serve as the backdrop for the psychological core as Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) battles with the idea he may not be alone on the Lunar base. Jones’ direction coupled with the haunting score of Clint Mansell help create a claustrophobic environment not unlike that of Alien. Sam Rockwell’s tour de force performance is one of the best I have seen all year (bearing in mind I have yet to see Clooney’s Up in the Air) and hopefully there is a chance he will be acknowledged by The Academy come February‘s nominations.

Despite having a slightly bigger budget than Moon another debut feature director, Neil Blomkamp, showed you don’t need the net worth of a small country to make great Sci-Fi with the fantastic DISTRICT 9. After an alien spacecraft stops above Johannesburg, South Africa, the malnourished species onboard are given asylum on Earth. After a while some of the extraterrestrials become engaged in criminal activities with some becoming violent. As a result the human public want more control over the new arrivals. The government therefore sets up a secure camp called District 9, and the aliens – derogatorily referred to as “prawns” are sent there. However, crime again begins to spiral out of control and the camp becomes a shanty town. We follow one of the men in charge, Wikus (Sharlto Copley) of relocating the “prawns” to the new District 10. Filmed partially documentary style, the initial set up of showing how the aliens come to land on Earth is simply brilliant. Sharlto Copley’s improvised dialogue, especially during the relocation process, adds to the realism and builds a great character. Not unlike Moon, the film does feature some impressive visual effects but they are put on the back burner (for the first part of the film at least) as Blomkamp weaves the completely believable scenario with the underlying themes of xenophobia and the use of a privatised military. The final act does fall into action packed blockbuster territory but not without the thought provoking build up, all the more poignant by the country in which it is set. Under the watchful eye of Peter Jackson, you really wonder what the producer/director duo’s Halo could have been.

Sadly it seems lately, the best thing to do when times are tough is for big studios not to bother investing large sums of cash into original films and so we are spoon-fed the endless list of, sequels, prequels and reboots. While some are pointless, unoriginal and frankly crap (as I shall mention later), J.J. Abrams take on STAR TREK showed how it should be done. The film benefits immensely from the talented screenwriting combo of Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. By using the time travel and alternate universe plot, the film is able not to disrupt the continuity set by the previous films and television series. I believe J.J. Abrams best attribute is his ability to pace a film perfectly, he showed this with MI:3 which is personally my favourite of the trilogy. This pacing makes sure we aren’t stuck in the almost boring plot points of an origins story, something Wolverine could have benefited from. Casting of the younger crew was also spot on, no actor overdoing their part and turning it into a parody. Critics may argue that the new film failed to portray the usual themes of the earlier incarnations, but I’m convinced the filmmakers did an excellent job with the amount of stuff they had to fit in as it was a prequel. It is intriguing to see what is next for the Enterprise.

While these were some of the highlights, there were also some spectacular failures this year including the laser blasting bukkake that was Michael Bay’s TRANSFORMERS 2: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN. After praising Orci and Kurtzman for Star Trek, their talents were nowhere to be seen in this loud, overlong, plot less monstrosity. It’s easy to Bay bash so I will stop, even though there is no chance he will because yet again suckers (myself included) queued up, paid the entrance fee, and there will continue to more films like it for years to come.

The daggers were already out before the film was released when McG was announced as director for the 4th Terminator outing in TERMINATOR SALVATION. Minds were momentarily put at ease after some footage was shown and I myself was genuinely excited… then I watched it. Just another plot less action film with too much shooting and not enough character, a high profile and talented cast ultimately wasted. I know some people enjoyed the film, even reading some 4 star reviews but isn’t this always the case? When a film with big expectations is released people think it is instantly great then after consideration and a few years down the line, opinion changes. See the Star Wars prequels, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull etc. It would be nice to see these big budget films concentrate a bit more on story instead of thinking about what can be blown up next.

So what can we expect in 2010’s Sci-Fi bundle? No doubt there will be a few surprises along with a few disappointments, but three films that should be marked on your film calendar include, Nimrod Antal’s PREDATORS. The film written and produced by Robert Rodriguez is apparently a direct sequel to the original 1987 Arnie classic, but that is yet to be confirmed, it is also rumoured the big man himself may even cameo as his original character, Dutch. Starring Adrien Brody, Topher Grace and Danny Trejo there is every chance it could be an ultimate flop, but here’s hoping Rodriguez knows what he’s doing. Cant be any worse than Alien vs. Predator: Requiem anyway.

Probably my most anticipated is Christopher Nolan’s, INCEPTION. The trailer is short, and all we really know about the plot is it‘s “contemporary science fiction action thriller set within the architecture of the mind”. But with a cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger and the legendary Michael Caine how can you not be excited?

Finally at the end of the year TRON LEGACY. The footage already released has been simply breathtaking and word is it has come along way from that.

As you may have noticed, the biggest Sci-Fi film of the year and most probably the decade is not mentioned here. Sadly it has not yet been released. Look out for a separate Avatar review in the next few days.

A great article by Richard. Looking forward to the Avatar piece. Be sure to check out the LFF Review of the Year.

What have been your science fiction highlights and lowlights of the year?

3 Responses to “2009: The Year of Smart Sci-Fi”

  1. Great article,couldn’t agree more about Moon,easily in my all time top 10 films.Looking forward to Inception,it’ll be interesting to see the return of Tom berenger who slipped off the radar many years ago.

  2. leslie simpson said

    Not having seen Avatar yet I can’t comment, but I agree with Mr Bodsy about Moon & District 9. They were among the standout films of the year from any genre.
    I think that Fede Alvarez is worth a mention too. Panic Attack! was an amazing short from 2009, and it’s certainly whet my appetite to see more – another sci-fi prodigy in the making? Although I’ll be surprised if we see anything feature length for a year or two.

    I’m looking forward to the return of Vincenzo Natali with Splice. And yeah, it’ll be interesting to see whether time has been kind to Mr Berenger. (He was also good in Someone to Watch Over Me, the Ridley Scott film).

    Great article again!!

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