2013 Summer of Sci-Fi Retrospective

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Paul Brian McCoy

I've been known to complain about the lack of good science fiction cinema these days, but I suppose there's rarely been a time when there were consistently good sci-fi films filling the theaters. On average we can get at least one good entry per year, and sometimes we even get three or four. This was especially true from the 50s through the 70s, but really exploded during the early 80s when David Cronenberg and John Carpenter had sci-fi movies out like clockwork every year. The early 90s, however, were kind of a bust. There were good films released, but it wasn't until late in the decade that higher quality work became more regular.

With the turn of the century came the rise of the Superhero film, which helped to statistically increase the number of science fiction films being released, while also boosting the number of bigger-budget science fiction films. As usual, there were hits and misses, but with the spandex-clad set leading the way, a broad range of other science fiction styles and genres rode the wake providing a healthy selection of sci-fi films over the past 13 years - and larger numbers mean more opportunities for quality.

I know, I know. It also means more duds.

Along those lines, people often decry the number of franchises and remakes that fill out those numbers, but this Summer of Sci-fi bucked that trend, with only five films falling into the sequel category and not a single remake amongst the rest (although Star Trek into Darkness could arguably fall into both camps). Even more impressive is the fact that of the eight non-franchise films, only two were based on works from another medium - and some would say World War Z is so far afield from the book, it may as well be an original piece.

But what hit and what missed this summer? Well, let's take a look, beginning with a couple of late spring limited releases (that I'm including since they hit wide release on home video and VOD later in the summer) and wrapping with the return of Riddick.

April 5 - Upstream Color

Who's Responsible:     Director - Shane Carruth
                                    Writer - Shane Carruth

The summer was kind of short on science fiction films that didn't embrace the bigger-is-better philosophy that culminates in massive explosions that usually include entire cities being destroyed. Thankfully, Shane Carruth returned to the scene with his first film since the genius Primer (2004) and good lord is it a mindfuck!

And I mean that in the best of ways.

There wasn't a more sublime and bizarre film released this year. Upstream Color is beautifully filmed and even if you can't follow the vaguely abstract narrative line you still can't help but be drawn in by the utterly believable performances of Carruth and Amy Seimetz as they lose themselves in each other. Literally.

This is a film that uses a strange science fiction concept to examine questions about identity, free will, love and loss. It's profoundly moving and easily one of the best films released this year, science fiction or no.

See our full review of Upstream Color here.

April 12 - Antiviral

Who's Responsible:     Director - Brandon Cronenberg
                                    Writer - Brandon Cronenberg

I'm sure he's sick of hearing this, but the apple didn't fall far from the tree. Brandon Cronenberg's directorial debut, Antiviral, captures the intellectually detached creepiness of his father's early films, but benefits from the lifetime of experience being the son of a world-famous director affords. This film is polished in a way that David Cronenberg's films didn't become until he started getting bigger budgets and bigger actors.

And while there's a definite biological horror going on here, the focus is really on the cult of celebrity instead of body anxieties. There's also a critique of corporate capitalization on the personalities and images of celebrities that blatantly questions the virtual prostitution and/or slavery involved in these relationships. It's a complex film that raises interesting questions about the symbiotic relationships between stars and fans (and the economic forces that manipulate them).

If you're a little disappointed with David Cronenberg's recent divergence into crime and historical drama, you should be pleased to find that Brandon Cronenberg is fully engaged with science fiction and horror. If someone else was going to take up that gauntlet, I can't think of a more appropriate hand on the wheel.

See our full review of Antiviral here.

May 3 - Iron Man 3

Who's Responsible:     Director - Shane Black
                                    Writers - Drew Pearce & Shane Black

There has been a fan backlash when it comes to the Iron Man films and that's understandable. None of them are perfect as wholes but they've still been able to tap into something in the audience that nobody really expected. A large part of that is Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark, but it doesn't stop there. Marvel has been able to find just the right balance of brainless spectacle with thrilling action that is seamlessly accented with humor and likeable personalities.

They're about having fun with the concept of a super genius in a robot suit and the absolutely refuse to take themselves too seriously. But they don't treat it all like a joke either. It's a tightrope walk and, in my opinion, Marvel has yet to stumble.

Fans of the Mandarin will beg to differ.

As far as I'm concerned, this was the strongest of the Iron Man films so far and a great way to kick off Marvel's Phase 2 slate. It broke with the superhero template, with Shane Black instead channeling his Eighties Action Buddy Film and showing just what you can do within the superhero genre. Anyone complaining that Tony didn't suit up enough misses the point that was driven home by the final moments of the film.

Tony Stark is Iron Man despite the suit, not because of the suit.

This was a clinic in how to do spectacle while maintaining the heart and soul of the character.

See our completely contradictory full reviews of Iron Man 3 here and here.

May 17 - Star Trek into Darkness

Who's Responsible:     Director - J.J. Abrams
                                    Writers - Roberto OrciAlex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof

This was a film with very impressive action scenes surrounded by the stupidest script of the year. Somewhere along the way from the initial ideas and what made it to the screen, Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof lost their grip on simple storytelling basics and gave in to the most brainless pandering to nostalgia I've ever seen in a film.

This was a movie where the only reason anything at all happened was because it had happened in a previous Star Trek film. The only internal justification for any of it was that Peter Weller was more militaristic as a reaction to the destruction of Vulcan, so when, in a ramped up attempt to defend Starfleet, he discovered Khan, he recruited his genetically enhanced brain as a super-weapons-designer.

After that, it's just pastiche held together by stupidity and action set-pieces.

And I'm coming to this, not as a Star Trek fanboy, but as a science fiction fan. I actually enjoyed Abrams' relaunch of the series immensely. It was filled with iconic character moments and was a thrill ride. Sure, it lacked some of Roddenberry's idealism, but in the end, that didn't bother me. It's not what bothers me about Into Darkness either.

Star Trek into Darkness bothers me because it is devoid of a single original idea, stealing not only from the obvious (Wrath of Khan), but from nearly every Star Trek film so far. Even that wouldn't be unforgiveable, but scenes are stolen in the stupidest way possible, losing even the nostalgic connections that would allow them to resonate with older fans and draw in new ones.

It was just an entirely empty experience that ultimately, in the exact same way that the later Man of Steel would, lacks any real sense of purpose or meaning beyond fleecing fans of the franchise with the spectacle of mass murder and explosions. It's not the most cynical film of the summer, but it's a close second.

See our full review of Star Trek into Darkness here.

May 31 - After Earth

Who's Responsible:     Director - M. Night Shyamalan
                                    Writers - Gary Whitta & M. Night Shyamalan
                                    Story by Will Smith

Nope. Sorry. I'm not even going to bother with this one.

June 14 - Man of Steel

Who's Responsible:     Director - Zack Snyder
                                    Writer - David S. Goyer
                                    Story by David S. Goyer & Christopher Nolan

I have to applaud the idea of trying to tell the Superman story realistically and treat it as a first-contact scenario. It's not an original idea, of course, as practically every single comics publisher has attempted to create their own Superman analogue, with Marvel's own Hyperion being - in my opinion - the most successful attempt with JMS' reimagining for Supreme Power back in 2003. It was a version of the mythic hero suffused with paranoia and a believable iteration of just what would happen if the government got their hands on a super-powerful being as an infant.

Man of Steel sidesteps the government intervention into the Kent family's discovery of an alien boy, but embraces paranoia and fear rather than the traditional truth, justice, and whatnot, to create an interesting variation on the Superman theme, but never quite captures the iconic qualities a Superman story requires. Goyer's script also tries to establish Kal-el as your stereotypical "Chosen One" who had a natural childbirth (in a world where a "DNA Matrix" establishes who you are and what you'll be) and was encoded with all of Krypton's genetic history.

Apparently after giving birth to him, though, his mother had no other real role to play in this vision of the character, as his sneaky father also created an Artificial Intelligence version of himself who pops up whenever needed to provide backstory and literal Deus-ex-machina escapes. I guess he never asked mom if she wanted to come along for the ride and see her son all grown up, too.

Clark Kent's mother is also a shadow in the background as his life is guided by his human father - who is filled with government paranoia to the extent that he refuses to even let Clark save him from what would be an easy rescue (It's presented as some sort of noble sacrifice, but it's really just fear and psychological abuse). This, along with his earlier suggestion that maybe young Clark should have let a busload of kids die rather than save them so his secret would remain safe, makes this version of Pa Kent a travesty. The death of his father, in the traditional story, serves the purpose of illustrating for Clark that even with all his power, there are some things he just can't stop. It humanizes the character and creates a bond with the human race that ennobles everything he does from that point on.

Here, it shows that even in death, his father's fears and paranoia are more valuable than saving a life. There was nothing I recognized as Superman in this character. This was Goyer, Nolan, and Snyder making their own alternative version of Superman that substituted murder and massive destruction for heroism and hope, only to then wipe it all away with a kiss and a joke as though none of it really mattered.

And that's the most appalling thing about this film. None of it mattered. The death of Krypton, Pa Kent, the tens of thousands of collateral damage casualties, the flattening of Metropolis, or even the murder/execution of Zod; none of it meant anything. None of it mattered. It was murder porn and spectacle with no soul. It was the most cynical film of the summer.

That's not how Superman rolls.

June 21 - World War Z

Who's Responsible:     Director - Marc Forster
                                    Writers - Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof
                                    Screen Story - Matthew Michael Carnahan & J. Michael Straczynski

Despite the fan backlash, the extensive reshoots, and having no real connection to the book it's named after, World War Z was a surprisingly tense and exciting film. It's one of the rare times when the zombie genre has been utilized to do something different from your standard "trapped in a room with a-holes" scenario.

By taking the story global, and having the budget to make it realistic, World War Z separated itself from the pack and showed that zombies actually do have mainstream appeal (as if The Walking Dead hadn't already made that case). I've included it in this summer's sci-fi round-up because it focused more on the biological threat than on the existential horror that zombie films usually embrace.

Here, the zombies are caused by an unknown pathogen that resembles a super-rabies. The transformations are quick and violent, with actors going into convulsions and contorting themselves before leaping to their feet to chase down fleeing victims. It was a very effective stylistic choice that amped up the tension immediately. Once the outbreak began, everything went to hell overnight.

But the thing that really sets this film apart is the philosophy behind it. Try as they might, most zombie stories have a hard time dealing with the idea of hope, or with finding meaning. The nihilistic streak inherent with having flesh-eating monsters clawing at the door and busting through the windows is overwhelming. World War Z, however, figures out a way to pluck hope from the ashes of society and pull people together to face the impending apocalypse. 

I would have ranked this as a successful film just for that. Luckily, it's well-acted, dripping with suspense and tension, and the hyper-aggressive ant-hill zombies are a unique visual approach that taps into a primal insect revulsion I've not seen utilized anywhere else. Well done.

July 12 - Pacific Rim

Who's Responsible:     Director - Guillermo del Toro
                                    Writers - Travis Beacham & Guillermo del Toro

Talk about a film that missed connecting with the right audience.

Pacific Rim was the perfect film for twelve year-olds and fans of Kaiju films who've maintained contact with that inner twelve year-old. Unfortunately, thanks to the salting of the earth that the Transformers franchise has accomplished over the past decade, most audiences weren't ready to engage and commit to an original work that did that Michael Bay shit right.

And this was that shit done right.

From character and tech design down to actually filming action sequences that could be followed and made sense, del Toro knew exactly what he wanted and put his vision on the screen with absolutely no filters. Pacific Rim is the perfect all-ages science fiction action adventure film. It's also a film about hope, teamwork, and making the world a better place without a single cynical bone in its body.

This film wasn't made so that somebody in marketing could cash in, or to prey on the obsessions of a pre-established fanbase. It was all about creating something original that kids and adults could geek out over together. At the same time it's an example of world-building on a massive scale that respects the audience enough to not make us sit through the obligatory first film that establishes the world in play.

That's the mark of a confident film maker. Del Toro knows that we can get what we need from the intro and then dives into the story in-progress so we can get to the big stuff without wasting any time. I can understand the urge for some fans to compare it with the original Star Wars, but I don't think it's as viscerally satisfying as Star Wars due to a couple of things.

Mainly Star Wars followed that now-discussed-into-the-ground Hero's Journey in lockstep and that shit just works. It's emotionally satisfying in a way that Pacific Rim lacks thanks to a narrative that borrows more from the standard professional wrestling nature of Kaiju film. As such, it's exactly what del Toro intended, but American audiences - especially the adult geek fan who strives to justify the seriousness of his/her obsessions in the imaginary eyes of the judgmental masses - need to be spoonfed those emotional connections to prove they're not just wasting their time.

Whatever that means. It's almost as if the American geek audience has lost the ability to just have fun.  

July 26 - The Wolverine

Who's Responsible:     Director - James Mangold
                                    Writers - Mark Bomback & Scott Frank

In a summer of gigantic blockbusters and city-leveling climactic battles, James Mangold's The Wolverine offered a refreshing respite. At least until we got to that horrible CGI ending. Up until those final twenty or thirty minutes, The Wolverine was a very impressive character study that followed Hugh Jackman's Wolverine to Japan in a loose adaptation of the classic Claremont & Miller miniseries.

The characters were interesting and charismatic (for the most part), the action was grounded in traditional Yakuza and Samurai styles, with Wolverine's healing factor being the only real extravagance (not counting the claws, of course), and there was a concerted effort to tie Wolverine's past to his present that even made X-Men: The Last Stand work in this continuity.

If it weren't for that awful ending, this would have easily been the best X-Men movie yet, despite not having any other X-Men really in it. The smaller scale was a genius move on the studio's part before we get bombarded with the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past.

See our full review of The Wolverine here.

August 2 - Europa Report

Who's Responsible:     Director - Sebastián Cordero
                                    Writer - Philip Gelatt

In what is without question the most pure, hard sci-fi of the summer, Europa Report manages to tell a story that is both enthralling and exciting while maintaining a "found footage" approach that shouldn't work as well as it does. With a split narrative that cuts back and forth from the chronological story of the first manned mission to Jupiter's moon, Europa, up until an accident cuts off our explorers, to the "discovered" footage of what happened after the connections home were severed - for good, as far as the characters know.

The overall story is fairly simple, but what makes this film special is the attention to detail. This is an extremely believable representation of what an extended space mission would be like, right down to the annoyances of personality conflicts and the tedium of maintaining the equipment. Viewers with a low tolerance for character building and admittedly passive plotting will want to give this a pass, but sometimes you've just got to give yourself over to real science fiction as opposed to science fantasy.

Granted there's some fantasy once our heroes get to Europa, but even that is handled in a subtle and character-driven way that makes the overall experience all the more satisfying. If you're looking for science fiction that doesn't feel beholden to the city-leveling explosion section of the audience, Europa Report is the film for you.

August 9 - Elysium

Who's Responsible:     Director - Neill Blomkamp
                                    Writer - Neill Blomkamp

Many viewers didn't have a problem with the downright idiotic social criticism going on in Neil Blomkamp's follow-up to the complex and successful social criticism of District 9.

I did.

While the set and tech design of Elysium was beautiful and believable from top to bottom, the ideas on display were simply stupid. The plot left quite a bit to be desired as well, succumbing to clichés and character motivations that strained credulity to the point of being insulting. Either Blomkamp thinks the audience is filled with idiots or he's not as bright as District 9 made him seem.

Movies like Star Trek into Darkness and Man of Steel were huge disappointments mainly because they simply failed on every level but the spectacle, but in my heart of hearts, I didn't really expect much from them. Everything about Elysium had built up expectations to what, I suppose, were unrealistic heights. After all, District 9 wasn't brilliant, but it brought a level of intellectual honesty that was just missing here.

Elysium was the biggest disappointment of the summer. It may be the biggest disappointment of the year.

The only thing that keeps me from despairing about Blomkamp's next film is the fact that Ninja and Yolandi from Die Antwoord might be in it.

See our full review of Elysium here.

August 23 - The World's End

Who's Responsible:     Director - Edgar Wright
                                    Writers - Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright

The final entry in the Cornetto Trilogy didn't miss a step, bringing Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost back together in a bittersweet ode to growing up, growing old, and fighting robots.

And drinking.

With a soundtrack loaded with early Nineties classics and a different take on friendship than in the previous films (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), The World's End was a boozy, anxiety-ridden sci-fi experience that never failed to embrace the genre without giving in to parody.

Personally, I felt the ending fell short, but up until that epilogue, The World's End was a perfect way to wrap up the trilogy despite not quite living up to the pinnacle of Hot Fuzz. After all, what could?

See our full review of The World's End here.

September 6 - Riddick

Who's Responsible:     Director - David Twohy
                                    Writer - David Twohy

I'm one of those weirdos who thought that Chronicles of Riddick was infinitely more enjoyable than Pitch Black, even though I still really enjoyed Pitch Black. Chronicles just had a balls out, take no prisoners approach to world-building that was exciting and goofy all at the same time. Riddick is a step sideways in the franchise.

Left alone to die on a barren planet, Riddick makes friends with a dingo-like dog creature, summons a slew of mercenaries whose ship he intends to steal, and then they all have to band together to survive the onslaught of horrible scorpion-like monsters.

It's simple and low-budget, expanding on the ideas in Pitch Black while staying true to the vision of Chronicles. Plus Katee Sackhoff is in it and is smoking hot, kicking ass and taking names, making this one of my favorites of the summer.

As with Pacific Rim, this is a thoroughly enjoyable, cynicism-free sci-fi action adventure that hearkens back to the heyday of Heavy Metal magazine. You might think its Seventies-style attitudes toward machismo and cocksmanship are too much for your tastes, and that would be perfectly understandable.

I dug it.

See our full review of Riddick here.

Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.

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