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Not Dead: The Science-Fiction Film Genre Will Rise Again

September 8, 2007

Sir Ridley ScottKudos to Sir Ridley Scott and his contribution to the science-fiction film genre. Not only is he the director responsible for two of the greatest films of the genre in Alien and Blade Runner, but I owe him a personal debt of gratitude for being one of a handful of filmmakers that inspired me to become one myself. But even as he rolls out his final, definitive edition of Blade Runner, he’s chosen to declare the genre officially dead.

The science-fiction genre in cinema may very well be in stasis. We will no doubt continue to see movies which are turned out in an effort to create the next Star Wars, the next Blade Runner, and even the next Matrix. . . Each one adding another measure of dead weight to the genre. But it has already started to dawn on a handful of courageous and visionary filmmakers in Hollywood and throughout the world, that the future of the genre does not necessarily lie somewhere out there, but rather a journey focused on the expansive reaches of the human soul and imagination.

Science-fiction as a filmic genre started to emerge through films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Forbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) with cultural reference born of the optimism of technology’s gift, as well as fears of the nuclear age and the threat of Communism. Invasion of the Body Snatchers Lobby CardAnd while films from this era would certainly form a certain golden era unto itself, it wouldn’t be until 1968 that the genre would begin to become fully filmic, at its peaks more mature, and increasingly less dependent on a literary heritage.

Even as humanity was venturing into outer space for the first time, Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey would reach a level of storytelling and vision that to this day remains without equal. Because of films like 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, Andrei Tarkovski‘s films Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), Spielberg‘s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), or the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-83), from here on out, the genre would stand out as far beyond a mere sub-genre. At this point, even if a film were derived from a secondary source, they would often be judged on merits separate from the source material. Why? Because film at this point was starting to inform both the literary and filmic genre itself, and filmmakers like Kubrick, Scott and Lucas were challenged to innovate, rather than simply re-creating one author’s vision or being limited to the ideas in the pages of an individual book.

The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003) would take some of the first and most powerful steps to change the genre. As attitudes toward technology were already becoming decreasingly less certain and ever-more ambivalent, the Wachowskis would not only start the dismantling of the genre by dealing with themes of societal alienation and the fear of technology, but new ideas would be emerge through the intermingling of numerous forms of current and classical mythology from a wide background of cultures.

And while the Wachowskis were certainly not the first to do so, they pondered the nature of soul and existence at the right time in science-fiction cinema. Still later on Steven Soderbergh would put the question of soul, existence and divinity at the heart of his interpretation of Solaris, which to this day remains an unfairly derrided, and greatly underrated film.

It seems as if for as long as humanity has codified methods of contemplating and exploring science and spirit, we have been led to believe that ne’er the twain shall meet. That ideal however, is proving to be as archaic as belief in a flat world.

Author Fritjof Capra and his work The Tao of Physics has become a classic exploration of the similarities between quantum physics and eastern thought, and increasingly embraced as a salient volume. Dr. John Hagelin‘s work in the field of quantum physics and unified field theory, points to the veracity of Vedic thought as it pertains to its understanding of consciousness, even in writings dating back as old as 1200 BCE. Varied voices such as Christian mystic and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Terrence McKenna and Alan Watts all point to unmistakable crossroads where science and matters of the divine appear to lead to one another. Truly, this is just the beginning of our journey.

The future of the science fiction film genre will deal not only with forthcoming convergence of these varied fields of thought and new existential questions; not just of what lies beyond or within, but why humanity even deserves to continue. And if it does how will it do so?

Perhaps one of the paramount examples of this New Era existential film can be found in Darren Aronofsky‘s The Fountain, not only the finest film of 2006, but The Fountain starring Hugh Jackman & Rachel Weiszcertainly one for the sci-fi cinema canon. It’s dealings with human mortality set in three separate, yet concurrent time periods also sets the structure of the genre on its ear, and thus enlivening it. Where this film was missed and misunderstood in 2006, I have dead certainty that the film will reach the same sort of status and favor as classics of the genre such as Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Alfonso Cuarón‘s Children of Men, based on the novel by P.D. James fits into a grittier, less promising future, but nonetheless highly valuable for the candor in which it warns us of the possible future. This is not unlike the sort of first rate material appearing week after week on the Sci-Fi Channel‘s Battlestar Galactica.

And while Bob Shaye‘s The Last Mimzy met with a modicum of box office success and critical acclaim, this family film dealt in the same ideas of science and spiritual convergence for the family moviegoing set. More than anything else, it seems to be marketing success (or imagination) that has been dead within the genre.

Hollywood needs to hear the banging at the door for a while before someone answers it, and when someone delivers a project that meets with all of those alchemical elements of story, performance, direction, timing, luck, audience appetite and heart, I believe the genre will emerge from its cocoon.

The type of filmmakers that will be delivering the next great sci-fi epic will venture into this sort of territory. Folks like Guillermo Del Toro, Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson to name just a few are the kind of filmmakers who have a shot at blowing the genre wide open. Terrence Malick also has something coming which may venture into this territory of the future.

Furthermore, I envision the shape and texture of sci-fi cinema-to-come will be less about saucer shapes, slick metallic surfaces, and flashing lights. Nor will it be stories of spaceships set on a wagon-train to a promised land or other-world visitors promising to be humanity’s saviors and deliverers of peace. Instead, I see a future more organic, even in the shape of imagined machines and vehicles. Sharp edges and corners rounded off to tree-limb like curvatures. Most importantly, will be the stories where both promised land and savior will come in the form of humanity’s own divinity.

To those aspiring and working screenwriters out there, take note: the future of the genre is already happening. I think in looking you will find that there is a wealth of material out there which represents the future of science fact which is more fascinating than anything that has been done and redone in current cinema. It’s important to note that it won’t simply be a landscape of utopia, free love and beauty, but I think hope sits just on the horizon. And to Sir Ridley, I respectfully suggest that in order to see the life and the future of the genre, look for the stories which travel through humanity’s journey within, or the perils faced on the way there.

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