Many science fiction movies were released this year. Here’s what I thought of some of them.
The Very Good.
1) Interstellar. A voyage of discovery. Written and directed by a master of science fiction in Christopher Nolan (Inception, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and staring Mathew McConaughey. The movie is about humanity’s search for a new home to escape the environmental disasters ravaging earth. The story explores the imagined effects of a blackhole on the timeline of an astronaut searching for a habitable planet. The movie is very impressive to look at and listen to, with my seat vibrating in semi-sense-around when a rocket took off. I left the cinema full of wonder about space exploration and what other planets might be like. Interstellar was easily the best science fiction movie of the year.
2) Predestination. A very clever Australian time-travel adventure film. Written and directed by the Speirig brothers and starting unknown Sarah Snook and Ethan Hawke. A temporal agent tries to stop a terrorist setting off a bomb that killed thousands of people. The movie jumps back and forth in time, challenging the viewer to keep track of what is happening to whom and in what time period. Snook’s performance is very impressive. It is the best Australian science fiction movie since the original Mad Max. A very engrossing film.
3) Europa Report. A voyage of discovery thriller. Written by Phiip Gelatt and directed by Sebastian Cordero. In the not too distant future, a spacecraft is sent from Earth to investigate the possibility of life under Europa’s ice. On the way, communication systems fail, but they decide to continue with their mission. The movie is shot as if all the footage came from surveillance cameras on the spacecraft. It is a very tense movie with a believable space mission, and the exploration of a moon we know little about. (Note: This movie didn’t get a cinema release in Australia but it became available on DVD in 2014).
4) Edge of Tomorrow. A time-travel action/adventure film. Written by brothers John-Henry and Jez Butterworth, and Christopher McQuarrie, and directed by Doug Liman. It stars Tom Cruise, a man who knows a good science fiction script when he sees one. In the near future, Europe had been invaded by aliens and the Americans are about to launch another D-day to come to their rescue. Cruise plays a callow army media officer who is forced to go in with the invading troops. He is mortally wounded, but instead of dying, his life is reset to the day before the invasion. This time loop occurs many times as he tries to find a way to defeat the aliens. Edge of Tomorrow has a lot of fun with time-travel and is everything a Hollywood blockbuster should be.
5) Transcendence. An ideas driven thriller. Written by Jack Paglen and directed by Wally Pfister. In the near future the memories of a dying scientist (Johnny Depp) are uploaded into a computer creating an artificial intelligence. This AI develops rapidly and revolutionises the use of genetic engineering and nanotechnology. But governments and luddite terrorists are scared of the AI and try to stop it. This is a movie for those who like their science fiction to be full of ideas. It also probably helps to be a person who ponders how the world will change when the technology spike or singularity starts to transform how we live. This is the first movie I have seen that speculates on how humanity might transition through the technology singularity. I liked the movie’s ambiguity, with the viewer never quite sure of how human the AI is and its benevolence towards humanity.
6) Her. Written and directed by Spike Jonze and staring Jaoquin Phoenix. Set in the near future. A guy buys a new operating system for his computer. The operating system is capable of learning and interacting with its users on an emotional level. It is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, so it’s no surprise when Phoenix’s character falls in love with it. With virtually no special effects, this film is all about dialogue. It sucks the viewer in as we hear the operating system evolve. Her is a science fiction movie that finds a new way to explore the tropes of what it means to be human and what happens when AIs become more intelligent than humans.
7) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. A sequel to the excellent Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Written by committee and directed by Matt Reeves. It stars Aussie Jason Clarke. The film starts about ten years after the previous film. In that decade, most of humanity has been killed by a virus. A few hundred survivors live in a stockade in San Francisco. They are running out of oil for power generators so they decide to travel to a dam to try and get the hydroelectric power back online, but they run into the apes. This is yet another film about the fear of the other, but instead of white settlers and natives, we have humans and apes. The apes look very real and speak like animals that are trying to master human speech. It is a good action/adventure film, but not as good as its theme-filled predecessor.
8) Guardians of the Galaxy. Written by James Gunn and a committee, directed by James Gunn. It starred Aussie Chris Pratt and Bradley Cooper as a wise cracking raccoon. This comedy/space opera is set in the distant future where good natured criminals battle an evil despot for the possession of a device that will enable its holder to rule the galaxy. A fun movie, with a heap of special effects, but ultimately is not much more than a good versus evil story.
9) Lucy. Written and directed by Luc Besson who also made the fun Fifth Element. Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy who is captured by a drug syndicate. She has a package of mind-altering experimental drugs surgically inserted into her body. The bag of drugs burst, flooding her system, and the drugs rapidly expand her mind. The film is based on the false premise that we only use 10% of our brain power, and what we might be capable of if we used more of our brain power. Lucy becomes super intelligent and telepathic and uses her new found traits to battle the drug cartel as they try to retrieve their drugs. The film tries to say something about human evolution, but fails. Lucy is just an okay action film.
10) These Final Hours. An end of the world movie set in Perth. Written and directed by Zac Hilditch. A meteor strikes earth at the beginning of the movie, creating a fireball that slowly circles the earth. Everyone knew the meteor was coming and that there were no escaping its devastation. Nathan Phillips plays the central character, a narcissist who just wants to party with his girlfriend on the final day, but circumstances intervene. I had seen much of the clichéd end of the world behaviour before, but the main character’s evolution in his final hours kept me watching.
11) The Rover. Another Aussie end of the world movie. Written and directed by David Michod. Set in outback Australia just after an economic collapse. Guy Pearce plays the central character whose car is stolen and he tries to get it back. Along the way he encounters many Aussies doing whatever they can to survive. Fortunately there are none of the overdone Mad Max stereotypes that all too frequently populate road-trip apocalyptic movies. No bikies with mohawks appear in The Rover. The collapse is never explained, which adds to the movie’s intrigue, but we do eventually discover what is in the boot of the stolen car. Very atmospheric, and a little bit haunting.
The Not So Good.
12) X-Men: Days of Future Past. Another instalment in the hit and miss series. Written by Simon Kinberg and directed by Brian Singer. It took a while to remember what this instalment was about. It involved time-travel so the younger X-men of the previous movie could mingle with their older counterparts from the original movies. There was a memorable slow-motion scene during a prison break out, but apart from that it was just more of good mutants versus bad mutants. Pretty forgettable really.
13) Godzilla. A monster movie. Written by Max Borenstein and directed by Gareth Edwards. Japanese scientists wake a monster from its extended hibernation and only Godzilla can stop it destroying San Francisco. I didn’t care about the characters and thought the movie dumb, especially when the main character sets a timer on a nuclear bomb that they first have to transport to Godzilla before setting it off. Why not wait until they are in sight of Godzilla? Nowhere near as much fun as the 1998 movie. I remember one of the criticisms of that film was that it was mainly set at night so Godzilla didn’t stand out, but the same thing occurred with the new film.
Films I still want to see that were released last year include Infinite Man and Snowpiercer, neither of which came on at my local cinema. I didn’t bother going to see Robocop after its bad reviews.
Overall, 2014 was a very good year for science fiction movies, with a great range of sub-genres. Probably the best year since 2009 when District 9, Moon and the Star Trek reboot came out.