As Hollywood regurgitates sci-fi classics in a remake fever, will we ever again see the likes of Silent Running or 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen?
It took Stanley Kubrick’s landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey to bring science fiction into the realm of ‘serious’ filmmaking. Shortly after, films like Silent Running, THX 1138, Solaris and Logan’s Run carried the pillars of thoughtful science fiction through the 70s and into the 80s. But then things started to turn sour, and while a few great pieces turned up in the form of The City of Lost Children, The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell, intelligent sci-fi soon became a thing of the past.
No recent contributions to science fiction have been as thoughtful or imaginative as the films they so crudely hark back to
Sure, Hollywood is still spewing out sci-fi like there’s no tomorrow, especially since the advent and popularisation of CGI. But while the output has increased, the quality – despite how shiny everything is now – has taken a nosedive. What was once a genre that studied the human condition has been diluted by mindless space operas and pseudo-social commentaries to the point where the term ‘sci-fi’ is now tacked on to as many releases as distributors can get away with. Sadly, few can say that any of the most recent contributions to science fiction have been anywhere near as evocative, thoughtful or imaginative as the films they so crudely hark back to.
Sci-fi has had that thoughtful foundation ever since Metropolis brought audiences a nightmarish, futuristic class struggle all the way back in 1927. Admittedly, somewhere between then and the late 60s, science fiction was more commonly associated with B-movies than it was with existential philosophising. Thanks to the work of auteurs like Kubrick, Lang and Tarkovsky however, thoughtful, intelligent science fiction eventually triumphed.
The power of Kubrick’s seminal work was as much in the scope of its story, as it was in the visual and technical flair of its production. Here there was a film that scaled some of the greatest questions ever asked, that charted the evolution of man and explored the concept of artificial intelligence a year before anyone had even stepped foot on the moon. 2001: A Space Odyssey is sci-fi at its greatest, simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, grounded and transcendent.
There has been impressive sci-fi since the millennium rolled through, but nothing that can compare to the genre’s best
Kubrick wasn’t alone. Tarkovsky provided an equal to 2001: A Space Odyssey with the original 1972 Solaris, a hauntingly slow-paced and supremely human work of art. That same year, Douglas Trumbull (one of the technical geniuses behind 2001) came out with the ecologically focused Silent Running. With stunning visuals, a rich performance from Bruce Dern and a narrative that wore its heart on its sleeve, Trumbull delivered poignant, thought-provoking sci-fi with an emotionally engaging core equal to any other film out there. In the space of four years audiences were given three of the best films ever put to screen, and yet now we’d be lucky to get one such film per decade.
Sure, there have been some impressive and well-realised sci-fi films since the millennium rolled through, but we’ve not seen anything that can compare to the genre’s best. Wall-E was certainly touching, socially aware and wonderfully original, but was it of comparable quality to those aforementioned behemoths? Similarly, while Looper was hugely entertaining and undeniably provocative, its ties to science fiction were too cut-and-paste in origin and circumstantial in purpose for it to have ever been considered a masterpiece. And these are the best of the recent crop.
Sadder still, sci-fi has been sucked into that trendy vacuum of art, thought and imagination that we call the remake. The fantastically atmospheric world of The Omega Man survived the first 30 minutes of I Am Legend, before some studio shat all over Will Smith’s genuinely brilliant performance with some horrific effects, before totally abandoning the concepts that made its predecessor so magnificent. The Day the Earth Stood Still suffered from Keanu Reeves’s existence, Burton’s Planet of the Apes lacked the power of the original and the recent Total Recall was the cinematic equivalent of wrapping a chainsaw in bubble-wrap. And while there are no signs of Hollywood stopping, I must admit that I was quite aroused by the news that Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling would be teaming up for a remake of Logan’s Run.
No amount of lens flare, CGI or gadgetry in modern science fiction can replace what really matters: some concept, idea or purpose
I express my anticipation for that film with a good deal of trepidation, however, as my love for the original far outweighs my will to see it ‘re-imagined’ or ‘rebooted’ or whatever ridiculous term one might use to avoid saying ‘remade’. Films with no physical foundation, no scene, city or structure that looks as if it ever did or ever shall exist are replacing films that once had tangible sets. For all the visual spectacle that these remakes bring to the picture, they lose sight of what really matters in sci-fi: some concept, idea or purpose that no amount of lens flare, CGI or gadgetry can instil in a film.
Ironically, the last sci-fi masterpiece came in 2009 with Duncan Jones’ Moon. Moon was a film that actively sought out a 70s visual style, and wilfully acknowledged the masterpieces that inspired both its narrative and its themes; it was clever, thoughtful and crushingly existential in the way that I had remembered Silent Running being. Moon didn’t try to cover its sources up in shiny new visuals, instead it dressed new ideas in ageing aesthetics – Jones knew what sci-fi was really about. But Moon was five years ago, and we were lucky to get a sci-fi debut from an unknown director that just so happened to be perfect. Whatever that film said about the state of sci-fi, the fact that Hollywood seems to have learned nothing from it says a damn sight more.
Featured image: Universal
Inset images: Warner Bros; Pixar