When Spaceballs, the epic comic parody based on Star Wars, came out in 1987, a little known and now forgotten film critic announced that Spaceballs signaled the demise of science fiction film as a genre. His logic was as follows: The appearance of a comic parody 10 years after the original film release could only mean that science fiction had little new to offer. In short, the genre was doomed, strangled in a dead end by a dearth of original material.
Yet here we are almost 30 years later, and last year (2015) over 30 feature length science fiction films were released into the American film market. True, some of them (eg: Jupiter Ascending, Pixels, and Hot Tub Time Machine 2) were horrible – or simply silly – with little social, technical, creative, or artistic merit. Others (eg: Jurassic World and Terminator Genesis) could only be explained as money machines drawing on the reboot of established SciFi brands. SciFi films for the summer of 2016 had similar problems; Star Trek: Beyond, Independence Day: Resurgence, and Ghostbusters are all largely considered flops despite famous heritage. Looking only at these films, one might agree with the critic’s accusation that science fiction was out of material.
But lets take a closer look, especially at 2015 for which we have a full year of films – including the important Thanksgiving and year-end moviegoing weekends. Several science fiction movies released in 2015 were well worth seeing, and still others were seriously good movies.
So what makes a “seriously good” science fiction movie?
+ Craftsmanship: A seriously good movie must meet high standards for story, acting, script, special effects, and other basic mechanics of a movie.
+ More than Entertainment: A seriously good movie needs to be thought provoking. In particular, it should look at social, political, or scientific issues. Alternatively, the movie can inspire us to improve the world we live in – or will live in.
+ Plausibility: Finally, viewers must walk away from a seriously good movie believing that what they have just seen is possible.
Unfortunately, the plausibility requirement automatically excludes some long time favorite SciFi movies from consideration as “seriously good,” but movies that get all the craftsmanship elements right are well worth seeing and we have plenty of them in our sample of 2015 movies. Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens and Mad Max: Fury Road fall into this category. These movies are both entertaining and engrossing; they can be as much fun as a two hour roller coaster ride.
2015 saw several commendable efforts that went beyond entertainment. For example, both Tomorrowland and Hunger Games benefit from having underlying themes that are more important than plot and almost as important as the special effects. Both movies are arguably more than raw entertainment. Both, however, lack plausibility, both succumb to Hollywood desire for flash, and Tomorrowland additionally suffers from weak craftsmanship – predictability and a somewhat obvious lecturing tone. Besides, it doesn’t take long to find other 2015 SciFi movies that are worth seeing – depending on your tolerance for foul language (Chappie) or your patience with familiar concepts (Self/less).
Of the 2015 crop of SciFi movies, the ones that meet all the criteria and qualify as “seriously good” are Ex Machina and The Martian
Tension builds steadily in Ex Machina, but you won’t find any explosions and little gore in this low key film. The movie is sexy but shows no sex. The special effects are seamless and (along with the sexiness) serve the tragic plot line and the underlying messaging. If you haven’t seen Ex Machina, put it at the top of your list.
The Martian, unlike Ex Machina, wants very badly to be a blockbuster film, and in the end it caves to the shallow demands of Hollywood to serve up a thoroughly unplausable climax. Up to the very end, however, The Martian largely adheres to good science, good film craftsmanship, plausibility, and thoroughly entertaining storytelling. If you’re a science fiction fan, you’ve undoubtedly already seen The Martian, but it’s worth seeing twice. If you aren’t a science fiction fan, you’re still likely to enjoy The Martian. Either way, just close your eyes at the end.
With movies like Ex Machina and The Martian, science fiction has shown that it is far from dead as a film genre. If anything, SciFi is gaining strength.
As humankind becomes more confident of the future and of our own ability to shape it, good science fiction helps us imagine the science, technology, and social changes that are possible. We can investigate both the outcomes that we want to avoid and the opportunities that we want to embrace. Science fiction is far from dead. More people embrace seriously good science fiction than ever before. We just have to hope that Hollywood – or someone – will make the movies.