Well, it took me a few days into 2017… but I can now say that I’ve seen the two science fiction movies of 2016 that I would consider to be great SF. The movies that make me feel good about science fiction movies, and their future… the ones that (should) end up on lists of superior SF movies.
To be sure, there have been plenty of movies in 2016… you might even call some of them science fiction. I would call most of them sci-fi—that is, movies that barely understand the meaning of science, and absolutely won’t let science get in the way of crazy aliens and a nice, juicy explosion. Sorry, but I’m too old to be impressed by crazy aliens and explosions any more. Simply put, these kind of movies don’t move me anymore… and they certainly don’t move me to theaters.
That list includes Star Trek: Beyond and Star Wars: Rogue One, so we understand each other. Regarding the former, I consider it a shame that Star Trek, a franchise that stands for a serious treatment of science fiction concepts, has fallen parsecs away from that in its movies. It’s like watching Star Trek’s mirror universe, where Kirk is an @$$hole, his crew are all screwups and the best you can expect out of them is to say something stupid and fire all phasers at something. They might as well be giving each other Nazi salutes. Pass.
Yeah, blah blah, millennials, blah blah, FPS and the CW, blah blah, sell tickets. I expect that out of Star Wars (and that’s exactly what you get). But Paramount’s turning Star Trek into a Star Wars clone (where the empire is the good guys!) is a lot like putting spinning rims and LED lights on a 1965 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow: You should be ashamed of yourselves.
I have nothing to say about the latter, other than the fact that I was done with Star Wars long before The Phantom Menace came out, and nothing will turn me back on to that essentially vacuous franchise. For the record, I’ve seen neither of these films, and have read enough to know that I don’t care to. Maybe I’ll catch them when they show up on FXX for free.
Aaaand maybe not.
A lot of 2016’s films I would call outright fantasy, not science fiction. And the only fantasy movies I watch are superhero movies. I was a big fan of Deadpool and Captain America: Civil War, and I enjoyed Suicide Squad; but Batman v. Superman was sad, and I haven’t seen Doctor Strange yet. (Been busy.) But again… fantasy, not science fiction.
The rest, I’d just call: Bad. Fortunately, that’s a short list, since so few movies of 2016 actually tried to be serious science fiction. The only one I’ll single out, Approaching the Unknown, did its best to look like serious science fiction, while at the same time demonstrating that it knew less about science than the average sixth grader. If this is what our command of science in the US has wrought, it may be time to move to the EU and hope they’ll lead us into the next century.
So what were this year’s two exceptions in an otherwise low point in science fiction cinema? First of all: Arrival. Hands-friggin’-down. The movie about aliens with their own sense of time, and the scientists trying to learn enough of their language to decipher their messages to us, was beautifully constructed, brilliantly written and wonderfully acted. Though it did end up using the tired old “military guys screw up all alien contact scenarios” trope, I ended up soaking in Arrival‘s every second the way a connoisseur inhales a particularly fine brandy. There was not only a great, intriguing message, worthy of the best in science fiction movies, but they delivered it in an exciting-yet-not-pyrotechnic way.
(And I’m not just saying that because it coincidentally had some common elements from a spec TV script I wrote a year back. Yeah. Completely coincidental. Seriously.)
The second of the exceptional movies: Passengers. Though the movie presents itself (in the trailers) as lighthearted romantic-adventurous science fiction, Passengers turned out to be much more. The story of two awakened passengers on the interstellar ship Avalon, en route to a new planet for humans to colonize, was fun and exciting. The design of the ship was beautifully done, the effects were flawless and the technology looked believable and workable. Although I often kid Jennifer Lawrence about her trademark ability to display stricken terror in almost all of her movies, she and Chris Pratt (and Michael Sheen and Lawrence Fishburne) all delivered great performances.
Passengers wasn’t as serious as Arrival, but it was a good SF flick, nonetheless. It was overly science-showy, just as you’d expect from a big-budget SF film with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in it, but it rarely felt contrived or science-dumb. The over-used trope here was the good old “non-expert humans need to fix the one problem the sophisticated ship can’t fix automatically” bit. But they did a good job navigating around that trope and making the movie feel as if two ordinary people could find themselves in this situation, and not just primal-scream themselves into oblivion.
A lot a lot A LOT of discussion has been centered around the controversial act of Jim prematurely waking up Aurora, essentially dooming Aurora to die before they reach their destination, just so Jim wouldn’t be alone on his own doomed journey. But this is just the kind of question that marks great stories, and great SF: Characters in dire straights and under personal stress, making hard and controversial decisions, and showing their very human strengths and weaknesses. For that reason alone, I consider Passengers great science fiction: I applaud their willingness to explore that controversial idea, and look forward to the conversations and opinions that will be expressed.
So, that was 2016, and the two movies that I think will be remembered, for good reason, for years to come. (They’ll also be going into my DVD collection when they are available.) I’d like to hope 2017 will do science fiction a bit better, but early signs seem to indicate there won’t be a lot of serious scientific discourse in the public arena for about the next 4-8 years. In fact, I pretty much expect much of the popular discussion to be about the virtues of VR porn. Here’s hoping for better… but I’m not holding my breath.