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[WATCHING THE FUTURE] 2015: A Debased Odyssey

It’s telling that 2015’s two biggest movies—Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens—happened to be science fiction, or at least adventure stories in science fiction drag.  Genre fans who complained that their one, true literature or mode lacked representation in pop culture circles found themselves crowded by theatergoers who (often) remained blissfully ignorant of such names as George Méliès, Fritz Lang, or Christian Nyby (or, for that matter, John Carpenter) yet thrilled at the dinosaur chases and planets-killing superweapons that flashed across the screen.  The ease with which now accept robot uprisings (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and time travel to prevent said uprisings (Terminator: Genisys) seems remarkable, and stands as proof that, at least in cinematic terms, the genre wars are over.

On the surface, things not only look promising for genre cinema but also look better than ever.  Genre materials, once a staple of B-movie experiments, now blend so seamlessly with the apparatus of daily life that one finds it impossible to believe that the materials exist only as digital sleight-of-hand.  Wonder infused us when we witnessed the first brontosaurus stomping across the field in Jurassic Park, yet never quite offers the same revelatory experience in Jurassic World, perhaps because Colin Treverrow and his team of filmmakers took great pains to blend Chris Pratt’s mugging with velociraptors so that we no longer think we are witnessing an illusion.  It took George Lucas’s Star Wars to make us believe in a galaxy far, far away, but J. J. Abrams’s seventh entry in the series took pains to smooth over the original motion picture’s most obvious special effects blemishes.

Unfortunately, in most cases, once these filmmakers loosed their visual tricks, what remained up their sleeves turned out to be little more than empty space.  Once again, dystopias (Insurgent, Maze Runner: Scorch Trials, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2) crowded the multiplex, yet often demonstrated just how barren and boring (to say nothing of youth-obsessed) oppressive futures have become.  (Some speak well of the utopian Tomorrowland, yet it vanished before it found an audience.)  Watching the diverting Ant-Man, one might be forgiven for believing Marvel had not peaked last year, yet Avengers: Age of Ultron bored more than it thrilled, and the joke running across Facebook has DVDs of Fantastic Four being given away for free because no store wants it on its shelves.  Most responded similarly to the vapid Jupiter Ascending, though a cult audience continues to develop around it.  Neill Blomkamp tried making two member of the South African zef group Die Antwood into movie stars with Chappie, and deserves some commendation for attempting to portray a future outside of the United States or Europe, yet never told much more than the story of a robot developing a soul in an age of dispirited machines.  Promotional materials for Self/less included interviews with scientists on the cutting edge of brain research, yet the movie itself, like director Tarsem Singh’s previous The Cell, never transcended its beautiful visuals, often bogging down in the most clichéd thriller elements.  (At times one wished for Ryan Reynolds to be as good as he was in Green Lantern, then we remembered that particular enterprise with the appropriate existentialist despair.)  The future may have arrived, but its all-too-even distribution was sludge.

2015 marked the 50th anniversary of Thunderball, the James Bond movie released during the height of the spy craze of the 1960s.  The craze came full circle with no fewer than six high-profile spy movies released, none of which as good as they could (or should) have been.  Matthew Vaughn brought his usual energy to Kingsman: The Secret Service (which included a church melee so visceral that it baptized its congregation in blood), but never bothered to include any substance.  One may level the same criticism at Christopher McQuarrie, who added a somewhat noirish veneer to Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (as well as a meaty role for Rebecca Ferguson), but never made the impressive stunts or double-crosses very memorable.  I was tempted to give Paul Feig’s Spy the benefit of the doubt—Feig had directed Bridesmaids, a movie I absolutely hated—not least of which because the premise sounded interesting; I laughed in inverse proportion to my fellow audience members, who found the Melissa McCarthy vehicle hilarious.  Given the subject matter, Bridge of Spies delivered less than it promised, though Spielberg still elicited a strong performance from Tom Hanks as a lawyer negotiating the spy exchange involving U-2 pilot Gary Powers.

On paper, Ian Fleming had a banner year with his two iconic spies.  Unfortunately, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. saw Guy Ritchie toning down his frantic signature while the duo comprising Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill generated no chemistry whatsoever.  Meanwhile, Spectre delivered one of the most beautiful James Bond movies in recent memory, but failed to deliver the urgency or relevancy that made Casino Royale and Skyfall so engaging, in part because Daniel Craig looked as if he had more compelling things to do.

Given the sheer number of disappointments science fiction showcased on movie screens, one might think that it made the good movie outstanding by comparison.  And yet, the good work stood out not just when compared to its genre brethren but also when compared to 2015’s best movies.  Granted, 2015 simply didn’t see enough good, true-quill science fiction for me to provide a top ten list, but it provided enough for me to give a reasonable top five, with honorable mention given to an effective horror movie.  (Yes, my tastes run to science fiction, so the inclusion of supernatural horror throws off the more traditional fare.  Deal with it.)

So, with that, here are my top five science fiction(ish) movies, in no particular order.

    1. Spring (directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead): Following the death of his mother, a young man (Lou Taylor Pucci) expatriates to Italy, where he meets a beautiful student (Nadia Hilker) who is not all that she seems.  An unusual, haunting, often beautiful picture that starts as a love story, shifts into horror, and winds up being a science fiction picture.  Think of Spring as a story written by the late Lucius Shepard in one of his sunnier moments.  A small movie deserving of a wide audience.
    1. Ex Machina (directed by Alex Garland): A reclusive billionaire (Oscar Isaac) invites a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) to an exotic getaway to serve as the human component in a Turing test that will determine if the artificial construct Ava (Alicia Vikander) can pass for human.  Garland’s use of isolating locales underscores the Gothic nature of his story, while his principal cast gives the same detached intensity one might find in Stanley Kubrick’s best movies.  The final shots make little sense, but by then it doesn’t matter.
    1. Mad Max: Fury Road (directed by George Miller): In the 30 years since Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, one assumes that Max Rockatanksy would be more petulant than Mad, especially in the guise of Tom Hardy.  Not so.  Mad Max: Fury Road offers some of the most amazing stunts you will see in any movie this year, propped by the engaging story of the warrior Furiosa (Charlize Theron) leading a group of women out of reproductive slavery.  Bold, dizzying, and often insane, Mad Max: Fury Road shows that there’s plenty of life yet in director George Miller’s desolate wasteland.
    1. The Martian (directed by Ridley Scott): I’ll admit that I enjoyed Andy Weir’s The Martian, though I wasn’t as knocked out by it as my friends were.  Weir’s novel made an effective, efficient thriller, one that also gave hard science-fiction fans enough data to chew on throughout, though botanist Mark Watney’s problem-solving often felt repetitive.  Scott’s adaptation, by contrast, lost none of what made the novel work, and improved it by making its characters far more interesting and grounded.  Additionally, as we trudge through another year in which our headlines come from a Philip K. Dick novel, a movie that offered a hopeful vision of the future became not just welcome but necessary.
    1. Time Lapse (directed by Bradley King): I saw this during the Other Worlds Austin film festival last year and thought highly of it then.  I’m thrilled that this film noir time travel tale is available on Netflix.  Three friends find a camera that takes photos of the future.  They begin to use it for personal gain, until other begin learning what it can do.  A taut, spare feature, one that uses its small high-concept idea to riveting effect.

Honorable Mention: It Follows (directed by David Robert Mitchell): A teenager (Maika Monroe) sleeps with her new boyfriend, only to learn that he has passed to her a monster that will kill her unless she passes it to someone else.  Mitchell’s movie harkens back to the slasher era of the 1970s and 1980s, with a moody atmosphere and an encroaching sense of dread that follows his young cast.  If it begins to fall apart halfway through, it maintains an earnestness that keeps its audience watching.

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