Science fiction has been an important genre in filmmaking since its earliest days. Georges Méliès’ A Trip To The Moon was one of the earliest and most pioneering, and marked the beginning of a long relationship between the genre of possibility and the moving image.
The way science fiction has been used in movies, however, varies widely, just as it has taken many forms in literature. Some sci-fi movies are merely horror stories draped in a futuristic cloak (see It! The Terror From Beyond Space, or its ancestor, Alien), or Arthurian fantasies with space stations instead of castles (Buck Rogers, Star Wars).
Although common in literature, the subgenre of hard science fiction, that is more interested in ideas than laser battles, is comparatively rare in cinema. Looking back over the history of film, genuinely intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi movies come along only occasionally, and the reason for this is understandable. Unusual, untested ideas are risky in the world of filmmaking, and in a genre that generally requires plenty of financial investment, such projects are difficult to get off the ground.
Now and again, though, the planets align, and along comes a great sci-fi movie. And while you can look back at every decade for good examples, the 1970s saw an unusually high concentration of distinctive and brave sci-fi. Between March 1971 and May 1972, for example, moviegoers were treated to the likes of The Andromeda Strain, A Clockwork Orange, THX 1138, Silent Running, Slaughterhouse Five and Solaris.
Every single one of those films is full of thought-provoking ideas, relatable characters and unforgettable imagery, and in many cases their influence can still be seen in films even forty years later.
The rest of the decade saw the release of weird yet loveable sci-fi movies such as Dark Star, The Terminal Man and Saul Bass’ one of a kind ant invasion film, Phase IV. Say what you like about the red underwear of John Boorman’s singularly odd Zardoz, but it’s hard to imagine such an individualistic film being given the go-ahead these days.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), still the most influential sci-fi movie ever, dealt with the kind of heavyweight themes (death, Cartesian philosophy) seldom seen in cinemas, and if you watch the remarkable documentary, Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner, you’ll realise how miraculous it is that the film was ever made at all.
Blade Runner is a handy example, in fact, of why financiers seldom touch weightily themed sci-fi scripts. Its growing stature may have ensured that it eventually made money, but its reviews were tepid when it was initially released, and its producers’ blood must have run cold when such an expensive film struggled to make much more than $6 million on its opening weekend. At $28 million, Blade Runner‘s budget was only a little below the production cost of The Empire Strikes Back, released two years before.
Nevertheless, great sci-fi movies still get made, and the past few years have seen something of a renaissance in hard science fiction on the big screen. What we’ve actually begun to see, in fact, is a generation of filmmakers who’ve found a way to marry the lofty themes of hard sci-fi with the kind of pace and spectacle that still makes their movies appealing to a multiplex audience.
It’s something Christopher Nolan managed astonishingly well with Inception last year. While not perfect, it explored deep philosophical themes, while still delivering a crowd-pleasing, high concept action movie.
This year saw the release of director Duncan Jones’ sophomore feature, Source Code. Like Inception, it managed to meld the intelligence of a hard sci-fi novel with a rip-roaring thriller premise.
Source Code sees its protagonist, Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), repeatedly journey back to the same time and place, a train bound for Chicago, to prevent a terrorist bomb plot. Its premise borrows considerably from the classic TV series Quantum Leap (a debt it readily acknowledges with more than one subtle, yet loving reference) but it’s handled with enough intelligence and drive to make it more than a mere gimmick-laden thriller.
Stevens’ nightmarish situation, in which he’s forced to relive the same eight minutes over and over again until he completes his mission, is surprisingly similar to Jones’ first film, Moon. Like the protagonist of Moon, Stevens finds himself in a situation that’s entirely out of his control, and in one excellently handled rug pull sequence, discovers a disturbing truth that alters everything he thought he knew.
Source Code‘s premise is reminiscent of the comedy, Groundhog Day, or director Chris Marker’s 1962 film, La Jetée, which directly inspired Terry Gilliam’s wonderful Twelve Monkeys. That Source Code can be compared favourably to classics such as these is a sign of its quality.
It’s difficult to say any more about Source Code without spoiling the secrets it holds, and thanks to Ben Ripley’s writing and Jones’ superb direction, you’ll want to discover every one of them for yourself. Remarkably, Source Code manages to wrap up its complex story with an ending that’s satisfying and thought provoking, no mean feat in itself.
Source Code is inarguably the best in a current crop of intelligent sci-fi. George Nolfi’s The Adjustment Bureau, which married the paranoia of Philip K Dick with a romance plot about hats, and Neil Burger’s superb Limitless, are similarly thought-provoking and well made, and there’s still Another Earth, Xavier Gens’ The Divide, and Andrew Niccol’s potentially fantastic In Time to come later this year.
It’s too early to say whether we’re in the middle of a full-blown sci-fi renaissance, but we definitely can say that the past couple of years have seen some genuinely excellent examples of the genre. And with directors like Chris Nolan and Duncan Jones injecting the thought-provoking subtexts of great sci-fi with the crowd-pleasing pace of a multiplex movie, audiences have recently been treated to films that really do offer the best of both worlds.