It’s been a while since I posted here, but I have seen two recentish movies over the past couple of months, demonstrating how “hip” and “with it” I can be. One of these movies is the best science fiction film released this year. The other is the worst. I say this having seen only a couple of the sci-fi movies this year has brought us.
I saw The Hunger Games and Prometheus. As much good as I saw in The Hunger Games, it just wasn’t executed well enough for me to say it was as good as Prometheus, which I more or less hated. I missed out on the 3D re-release of Phantom Menace and the third Men In Black movie, but I’m sure no one will remember seeing them twenty years from now. I missed Dredd, which I’ve heard was a lot of fun. I missed the unnecessary Total Recall remake. And what the hell was John Carter? It flopped, and I don’t know anybody who saw it.
Given what I’ve seen and my expectations of what I haven’t, the movie I think is the best sci-fi flick of 2012, in case you couldn’t tell by that banner image, is
Rarely does Hollywood really nail sci-fi. Sorry, nerds, but when a Hollywood exec looks at the genre that is science fiction, he wants to know how much shit is going to dazzle your eye because John Q. American doesn’t care about what science fiction is about. John doesn’t care about projecting our minds into the future to examine the long-term effects of today’s decisions. John doesn’t care about how our technology affects our culture. John doesn’t care to ask the question, “What if?” and respond to it in a creative, but not entirely unrealistic fashion. John wants to see spaceships explode. So it’s unlikely that we’ll see any major Hollywood film treatments of Cory Doctorow novels any time soon. In a way, it’s really nice that _Looper_ didn’t have any kind of source material like that. It stands well on its own as an original story.
Great science fiction movies are often brought forth from small-time writer-directors because they’re passionate about what they’re doing. The instant you throw 200 million bucks at it, it goes to shit. Mad Max shows us the horrors of a world without compassion. The Road Warrior is an analogue for oil wars. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is a flashy, star-studded waste that betrays the harsh sincerity of its predecessors. Beyond Thunderdome had more than twice the budget of the first two films combined, and it’s the worst of them all. When producers are willing to drop a whole bunch of money on good sci-fi source material, you wind up with Johnny Pneumonic.
Looper was made on twice Thunderdome‘s budget, but a third of The Fifth Element‘s, and the best thing about it is that all those cool sci-fi elements that money bought are the least important things about the movie. Looper is about an unfortunate future United States where the economy has collapsed completely, leaving room for more organized crime. In the future, time travel will be made possible and illegal, leaving all time travel in the hands of criminals. Gangland-esque bosses strike up deals with down-on-their-luck, young guys: do our dirty work today, and you’ll be very well taken care of; then a few decades from now, we’ll send you back in time to be disposed of by yourself, thereby “closing the loop” of your mob job.
When Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt in some pretty astounding Bruce Willis makeup) meets his future self (Bruce Willis looking like Bruce Willis), he fails to kill him, and Old Joe escapes, beginning a series of events involving Joe’s boss Abe searching down both Joes. Joe hides out with a single mother among the Kansas cornfields, and begins to bond with her son. And that’s where I’m going to stop relaying this plot because we’re getting really quickly into spoiler territory, and this is one movie I don’t want to spoil for anyone.
My point, though, is that even though the movie has some big booms, some car chases, shootouts, hoverbikes, telekinetics, and a future Kansas City that’s as gorgeous as it is terrifying, the movie is about something that isn’t time travel. I don’t care to dissect the movie so fully today, but I think it’s about cycles of abuse, with one generation of it ensuring its presence in future generations. There may even be a subtle argument against gun control in there. Whatever it is, the director (Rian Johnson, who gave us the phenomenal Brick back in 2005 and the passable The Brothers Bloom in 2009) appears to be in full command of it. In a clever scene, Johnson breaks the fourth wall by having Old Joe explain something to his past self:
I don’t want to talk about time travel shit. Cause if we start talking about it, then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws. It doesn’t matter.
He’s right, of course. It doesn’t matter if these time travel rules are Back to the Future rules or Terminator rules or Primer rules (and if you haven’t seen Primer, go watch it twice). It’s not important. What’s important about it is that it’s necessary to tell this story, which is about something so much better than some convoluted time travel plot. Just revel in the creepiness that is a man trying to walk down the street, but falling to pieces like a leper because someone out there is dismembering his past self, and pay attention to what this movie has to say.
The Worst Sci-Fi Movie of the Year
It’s Pitch Perfect. Hear me out.
Pitch Perfect is Bring It On for the Glee crowd. Substitute a capella singing groups for cheerleading. Modernize it a little bit by making the main character’s ultimate goal in life to be a DJ. Give her a Mac and some headphones and she’s Skrillex a la Tina Fey. Nothing to see here. Move along.
But it takes place in an alternate universe. No, this isn’t something the movie comes right out about, but all the clues are there. Nowhere in our universe is there a college with multiple a capella-centric fraternities and sororities. And nowhere in our universe has anybody in our entire history had an impromtu a capella street battle. See, in the universe of Pitch Perfect, there are these things that look a lot like rap battles, except instead of taking place in run-down, inner-city nightclubs, they go down on nearly whitewashed college campuses. And there are rules that contestants have to obey. Who knew barber shop quartets and Broadway tunes could be so street?!
It seems to me that most of the movie’s budget was blown on licensing songs they could cover (like Ace of Base’s song you wish could have just died with its era, “The Sign”; holy shit, did they play that one out here!), and that left no money to use on shooting even moderately interesting performance scenes. There’s hardly any choreography to speak of, but that’s okay since Pitch Perfect, like so many other things Hollywood’s been vomiting up lately, has a built-in audience, and whether the audience likes it or not is completely secondary to the fact that every ticket this movie sold was sold when they aired the trailer between segments of Glee.
I don’t have to tell you whether you’ll like this movie or not. If you’ve seen the trailer, you already know. If you’re into Glee or the baker’s dozen of karaoke-themed competition shows currently airing, you’ll probably think it’s pretty good. The chicks can sing. They can be surprisingly homophobic at times, which is sorta strange to me, considering half the movie’s target market is probably gay.
Anyway, if you only have time to watch one of these movies, make it Looper. If what we pay for as an audience affects what kind of movies we get to see in wide release, let’s tell them we want more genre-transcending sci-fi.