Monday, February 11, 2008

The Man who Fell to Earth and the Desire for Intelligent Sci Fi Films

I have been on a Sci FI kick lately. Some might say I have been on one since I saw Star Wars in 1977. But I say "BAH!!!" to that suggestion, as I am on a more cerebral kick than the ever pedestrian Star Wars. I think it was seeing Sunshine a few months back that really got me going on it. And kick might be the wrong word for it, as I mainly lean towards Sci FI style entertainment anyways. I mean Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite author and I read comic books with ever demanding fervour. So this past weekend I decided to sit down and watch a film I had never seen, but heard much about. I am not sure if it is considered a Sci FI Classic or not, but The Man who Fell to Earth was and interesting thing to watch.

I am not sure why but I have always associated it with The Brother from Another Planet. And as I watched David Bowie's oddity play a visitor from space so well, I also understood that this was in no way as good as John Sayles's Sci FI masterpiece. In fact on numerous times I found myself wishing I was watching Sayles's film rather than the oh so oddly edited The Man who Fell to Earth. The large gaps left in the story were just too disconcerting to really enjoy the film. And I have never read the book it was based on, so I felt at a loss. Though at its core, it was fun to watch the cast play with so many challenging ideas.

For those of you who have not seen it, Bowie plays a space alien, Thomas Newton, who travels to Earth to bring back water to his home planet. And to make it interesting rather than landing and trying to take what was needed by force or enslave the population, Newton creates a cooperation to gain the resources needed to build a return craft to take the water back with him. So we see Newton take on the recluse role of Howard Hughes as he uses the technology of his home world to create World Enterprises Corporation. Over time he amasses amazing wealth and turns it to creating a space craft. This premise is used to explore greed and alienation quite well. And while I was not over joyed by the film direction itself, it was far better than most of the Sci FI film Hollywood throws at us today.

Hollywood is content in pumping out summer block buster tripe dressed in Sci FI clothes and motifs. In fact the ever pleasant, non threatening Will Smith is almost always, for unknown reasons, the Sci Fi de rigor star of these movies, see I am Legend, I, Robot, and Men in Black among many others. And while any of these might be entertaining (I admit I surprisingly enjoyed I am Legend), they are far more in the vein of action movies than true cultural probing Sci Fi that the world knew prior to Star Warization of Sci Fi (yet another reason to be pissed off at George Lucus). For most studios, Sci Fi has become synonymous with inter-textual tie-ins at fast food locales and toy stores (see Star Wars and Star Trek for prime examples) and of course they have to appeal to children that will demand these simulacra. Where is the next Blade Runner or 2001 style critical Sci Fi films Hollywood used to be more than happy to produce?

While Sunshine fit more in the mold of 2001 or Tarkovsky's great Solaris, it was not produced by Hollywood. It was also promoted less than Bacon flavored Pepsi might be. And for the record I quite enjoyed Sunshine, but would have enjoyed it far more with a slightly personable cast. It dealt with alienation and the possibilities of hard science in entertaining ways. So why does it seem that Hollywood is more apt to release films like The Island where the main issue at hand is staring at the attractive visages of cloned beautiful people. I mean there was so much potential within to explore and bring up questions of what is life/reality/the ethics of cloning/etc, but these points were obstructed by beauty. The best Sci Fi deals with our fears and/or desires for our civilization. And for the past decade Hollywood has seemed to basically given up on addressing this on the big screen, almost as if they have given up on the future.

I would wager to say that the last great real Sci Fi movie Hollywood released was over ten years ago, when the criminally underrated Gattaca was released. I could also see an argument made for The Matrix here, but damn it, Gattaca is a far better Sci Fi film, as the fears it percolates and dissects are ones that we can actually hold in our hands; therefore, far scarier. As a quick aside: seriously, who could have guessed Uma Thurman could actually act? How is it possible that it has been ten years (eight if using The Matrix) since Hollywood created a serious thought provoking Sci Fi movie? Am I forgetting a great Sci Fi film during the time between then and now?

And yes, I know i am leaving out those current day episodic Sci Fi epics that occur over the course of weeks or seasons on television. I have another post in mind about them. It just strikes me as strange that a genre with such potential in these ever fluctuating, panic inducing times seems bereft of any serious treatment at the multiplex. Any thoughts on why?

No comments: