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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

Derek has been reading science fiction since he was fourteen, his exposure to science fiction concepts came not from books but from movies and television. He suspects that he's not alone in this: most members of his generation likely grew up not on issues of Astounding and Galaxy but on syndicated episodes of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone.  

2014
Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
So unpleasant was Derek's experience with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that he viewed his invitation to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug with a dread reserved for family gatherings during the holidays. The screening was not a high frame–rate screening of the first movie, but the experience with the previous outing colored his experience enough that he strongly considered sitting it out. He didn't, of course, and viewing the second part of Jackson's unexpected trilogy as a movie allowed him to concentrate on the movie itself, including many of the problems it faced.

2013
Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
When Derek looked back at 2013, he was surprised at how little the genre pictures shone. Forget the obvious awful examples; the never-ending stream of terrible sequels and remakes never offered him much anyway, so he never felt badly about returning derision. But others that showed promise never really delivered. One combined the 70s disaster picture with a couple of cool Phil-Dickian riffs but never gelled into a coherent picture. Another had giant robots and giant monsters. It was like the best things Derek could have asked for when he was younger.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Recently Derek posted a list of his 13 favorite horror movies, a fundamentally different one than appeared in one of his previous columns. In that particular installment, he concentrated specifically on post-Exorcist works that he thought deserved mention, and that were readily available to modern audiences. He thought (and continues to think) all were effective, even if some appeared controversial. Oddly, the titles he thought might initiate dialogue nobody bothered to remark on, while more recent, less "serious" fare met with howls of outrage. Nobody seemed very surprised at all that Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò: 120 Days of Sodom received attention, yet the inclusion of Frank Darabont's The Mist saw such hostility...

The Avengers Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
As Derek checked his Twitter feed in the hotel lobby where, one floor away, novels, stories, graphic novels, and television episodes received rocket ships in their respective categories, he found himself little surprised at the announcement that Joss Whedon's The Avengers won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. Little surprised, and somewhat disappointed. Could you blame him?

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Derek had not heard of Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, or Edgar Wright prior to stepping into a theater to catch a screening on the opening night of Shaun of the Dead. He had gone only because the premise -- a bored, almost clueless twenty-something seemingly oblivious to the zombies shambling across London's streets seemed rife for good comedy. He didn't expect the movie to be an insightful blend of character and commentary, much less to develop the following it did. Years later, the trio decided to conclude what they have termed the Cornetto Trilogy, this time with The World's End (which bookended Hot Fuzz), an homage to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Village of the Damned. Derek found it to be one of the best movies of the summer, a fitting end to the themes and ideas they presented nearly ten years ago. Derek talks with Nick Frost, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright during their US press tour.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Rotten Tomatoes' has posted a list of the 50 greatest fantasy movies ever made. Derek Johnson is a chronic list maker, and often gravitates to best lists for a variety of reasons. He was keenly interested in how many he might have missed, to say nothing of how much it stretched the definition of "fantasy." He also hoped it proffered movies that compelled discussion. It got a reaction from him, but probably not the reaction its makers hoped. So he decided to offer his own list of great fantasy movies as a companion piece rather than offering his own ten-best.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
We lost the writer who was, arguably, the most influential in modern pop culture. A writer whose influence was so pervasive that it touched generations of audiences, despite his invisibility to many of those audience members. I speak of Richard Matheson, whose name is legend among many science fiction and fantasy fans, but who is, alas, almost unknown outside of genre circles. The name, that is. The work is a different matter.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
From F. Scott Fitzgerald to Michael Tolkin, novelists and fiction writers find themselves as fascinated by filmmaking and film culture as the film industry itself. And why wouldn't they be? Those who make Faustian pacts with studios more manipulative than Mephistopheles must lead lives that perpetually teeter into the illusions they proffer to audiences. It's no wonder, then, that remarkable works examining this DeBordian landscape and its populace of neurotic starlets and sham artists appear regularly in science fiction and fantasy. While many of these works share an interest a place so alien as Hollywood, few genuinely grasp how strange it can be, and how utterly odd such a landscape appears to those who only consume its fare. Writer and journalist Mark London Williams gets it, though. Derek Johnson talks to him

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Although geek movies have pervaded the box office in recent years, movies made by genuine visionaries are in short supply. It's not that Joss Whedon's Marvel's The Avengers or Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight aren't great movies, or that there aren't great things in, say, Jon Favreau's Iron Man, but when it comes to daring, truly original directors tackling subject matter that might appeal to science fiction fans more steeped in literature than visual media, few of even the best directors appear up to the challenge. In the past, Derek Johnson gave short shrift to the director of what he now thinks is one of the best, if not the best, science fiction movie of the past ten years: Shane Carruth, who turned in the twisty time travel tale Primer in 2004.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Recently, Derek noted that the Future used to be a place, as real a destination to movie goers and the general public as Chicago or Los Angeles, and about as strange to those who grew up a perfectly ordinary suburb during the heights of paranoia infusing the decade of the 1970s. The visual language of the movies released during that period shared many similarities: perfect geometries and Spartan design aesthetics. A recent viewing of three different 1970s dystopias -- George Lucas's THX 1138, Woody Allen's Sleeper, and Michael Anderson's Logan's Run -- served to reinforce this observation.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
One thinks that, as a critic, Derek might be somewhat immune to cinematic tulip crazes , especially with what seems to pass for film anhedonia in most. Yet even today, he can feel himself awaiting something that looks so awe-inspiring that he practically dances in his chair as he awaits its arrival, or wish he'd had a motion-sickness bag for what he is often certain will be a train wreck of epic proportions. This hit him full force with two previews that opened the press screening of Jack the Giant Slayer. The first was Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim. The second was Man of Steel.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Let's say that you want to spend this Valentine's Day with your significant other the way Derek Johnson spends most of his evenings. And let's say you want to, if not embrace the holiday, then give it a respectable nod with a love story. And let's say you're a science fiction and fantasy fan, and want something with enough geek cred to maintain your identity, but you already know every line of Somewhere in Time, The Empire Strikes Back, The Princess Bride, and The Fifth Element. In that spirit, Derek offers these ten movies, which should suffice for any true blue fanboy (or fangirl) who wants to inject a little skiffy romance in their evening's entertainment.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
As is evidenced by the fact that we are celebrating a new year, the doomsayers who wrung their hands at the end of the world -- foretold, they assured all of us, by the Mayan calendar -- were as wrong as Karl Rove predicting Mitt Romney's Ohio victory on election night. Although for his own sake and sanity it means that Derek no longer has to find in his Netflix Instant Watch queue yet another painfully earnest documentary featuring wild-eyed soothsayers who toss apocalyptic prophecies that have more to do with their own imaginative wish fulfillment than anything having to do with this ancient calendar, it also means that Derek can forget, despite a few bright spots, what a mediocre year it was for science fiction and fantasy movies.

2012
Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
At the end of November, io9 released its selection of 19 science fiction movies that could, in Annalee Newitz's words, "challenge your preconceptions about reality and force you to rethink your place in the universe." A very bold statement, that, and while Derek disagrees with some of her choices, he finds little to call it life-changing... He finds many of her other choices, from Fritz Lang's arresting Metropolis to Andrei Tarkovsky's sublime Stalker, inarguable.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Inclusion stands among science fiction's chief virtues. While infighting breaks out, often about where the center presently resides, fans and critics think nothing of accepting works outside the genre into the pulp folds. Despite this, Derek Johnson admits to balking when it comes to extending the James Bond series, either in print or on screen, the same courtesy. It's not that he dislikes Bond but he finds the adventures featuring Ian Fleming's famous secret agent fit uncomfortably with science fiction, like a Savile Row suit not tailored for Bond's Walther PPK.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Growing up in Alief, a once-burgeoning suburb in southwest Houston, Derek's diversions from the mundane life came from books and movies. He checked out whatever adventure stories he could from the library, and when he could braved crowds at the multiplexes springing up like weeds. If he missed a movie in release, he had to hope it would play on television at some point… and that he was home to watch it, and could stay up past his imposed bedtime. My how things have changed these days.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Unrealized adaptations of great novels clutter soundstages across the globe. Often the movies in question seldom rise from development hell because of budgetary concerns or because artistic ambitions exceed studio of filmmaker grasp. Some cannot overcome the structural challenges. And then Derek thought of David Cronenberg.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
As the summer draws to a close, the movies that surprised Derek the most during this steroid-enhanced release season possess little in the way of genre tropes (though both touch on fantasies of some kind or another) and often uneven quality. He's speaking of Steven Soderberg's scattered yet still interesting Magic Mike and Adam Shankman's often lame-brained yet infectiously charming musical Rock of Ages.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
People love their series. Fans love them because a new entry allows them to return to beloved characters and further exploration into a created world, whether that world imagines a 1938 with only tangential relation to the real location on the timeline (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) or leaves the comfort of a planet's gravity well altogether in favor of a galaxy far, far away (Return of the Jedi). So it's all the more frustrating when the key items that brought us so much joy fail to provide the same level of entertainment. Derek considers the possibilities of the third and final chapter in Christopher Nolan's Batman series.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
It was May 1982, and Derek was living in Alief, a suburb rapidly going to seed in southwest Houston, and he had just finished the eighth grade. His freshman year of high school loomed three months away like some unspeakable eldritch horror, teen angst as written in some profane collaboration by S.E. Hinton and H.P. Lovecraft. As a means of escape, that summer he stayed in a small Central Texas place with his father. They'd drive the thirty miles into Austin each day and, using his allowance, he'd watch a movie during the afternoons. During the summer of 1982, he saw an awful lot of movies. Not just good ones, but great ones.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
As Derek and his family walked out of Houston's many movie theaters on Westheimer Blvd., he was absolutely certain that his life couldn't get any better. It was December 1978, and, impossibly, a movie he was convinced couldn't possibly exist not only proved extant but also exceeded every conceivable expectation he might have had. He had just seen Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie. And it breathed life into the four-color sequential art he had been reading for over four years.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
The science fiction world lost another giant. On March 10, 2012, Jean Giraud, the artist also known as Moebius, shuffled off this mortal coil. An artist whose incredibly surreal work included the incredible panels for The Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius, Derek first consciously encountered him in 1984, when he purchased a couple of volumes of Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Incal at a secondhand store in Houston.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Hollywood has declared war on Mars. Let's be more specific. With only a handful of days before it begins its theatrical release, John Carter appears poised to be one of the biggest flops in the history of cinema, a sort of Heaven's Gate for the geek set. No sooner did the trailer for director Andrew Stanton's adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars run during the Super Bowl than The Daily Beast's Chris Lee cited the as-yet unseen adventure film "with Avatar-size ambitions that's being greeted sight-unseen as the next Ishtar."

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
The future used to be a destination. It used to be The Future. And like a Zeno paradox, the closer we got to it, the more unattainable The Future seemed... until we realized that the destination had been demolished, the hundred-story skyscrapers of Fritz Lang's Metropolis and the pristine courtyards of William Cameron Menzies's Things to Come are now a never-ending string of strip malls selling cheap cell phones and tax advice.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
As we begin 2012, Derek is looking at upcoming science fiction releases and, as usual, finds himself indifferent to most of the proposed offerings. Granted, 2011 wasn't the complete disaster he anticipated -- despite the usual dogs and high-profile disappointments, a few modestly entertaining efforts, surprise hits and one or two gems played at his local multiplex and the nearest arthouse -- but for the most part he viewed much of his film-going experience with a mixture of apprehension and dread... and, sadly, he feels the same way whenever he thinks of the genre movies opening next year.

2011
Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
A couple of years ago Derek caught the movie Taken at the discount cinema outside of Austin. He paid $1.50 to watch ex-CIA officer Liam Neeson rescue his daughter from white slave traffickers and he can honestly say he got his money's worth, but no more, because he never completely engaged with the material. Part of it was due to the standard movie thriller ridiculousness but more of it had to do with its betrayal of how the best thrillers should work, a point driven home to Derek after catching a recent performance of John Frankenheimer's classic shocker Seconds.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
In the late 70s, Ridley Scott, hot off the success of Alien, and Harlan Ellison discussed the challenges inherent in making a film adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune, to which Scott was, at that time, attached. Ellison, as he recounts in Harlan Ellison's Watching, pointed out the insurmountable challenges, but Scott remained convinced of its feasibility, telling Ellison, "The time has come for a John Ford of science fiction movies." Derek has a look at some possible candidates.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Recently, Derek attended a podcast on the "essential" science fiction films. What should every fan see? What are the linchpins of the genre? He served with a distinguished panel, and everybody mentioned so many different titles that after the discussion the moderator suggested the possibility of extending the topic. For example, could we name the worst science fiction movies? How about the best hard sf movies? What about science fiction movies from other countries? Maybe science fiction anime? Blends of science fiction and noir? He lost count but...

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Fans and critics cite the 50s as the Golden Age of cinematic science fiction. Granted, the period saw so many groundbreaking movies that most cinema historians accept the period's classic status as a given -- mention of some of the decade's classic movies must include Forbidden Planet (1956), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), This Island Earth (1955), Them! (1954), The Thing (From Another World) (1951), among others. Derek began wondering whether we should consider the 80s a second Golden Age, rather than, as some might term it, a Silver Age.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
The aliens are here. Again. And they're out to wreak havoc. Again. What started as H.G. Wells's commentary on imperialism in 1898 has turned, each summer, into an update on the art of special effects, possessing at best the merest sliver of intelligence that Wells and his myriad successors bring to any First Contact tale. Indeed, the Martian tripods loom large each time visitors arrive to cinema screens, often with far more noise but with far less visual frisson no matter why they decide to make Earth's prime real estate their battlefield. Derek Johnson imagines Herbert George spins in his grave faster with each retelling of his classic novel (and by now some enterprising MIT grad should hook him up to a generator).

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Derek went to see Chariots of Fire at the Fox Theater in Austin in 1982. He tried to see Academy Award winners whenever they were playing. The preview that played before the movie began was for the major Harrison Ford release that summer, Blade Runner. Derek cannot remember a single scene from the movie, but he can tell you, almost shot for shot, nearly thirty years later, exactly what happened in that preview. He remembers walking out of the theater babbling about it, and how it was like nothing he'd ever seen.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Over the Memorial Day Weekend, Derek decided to indulge himself by going to the movies for an entire day, something he hadn't done in a while -- something that used to occur regularly when he was in his teens and, on occasion, early twenties. But when most multiplexes screen anemic fare, to say nothing of advancing age, clawing his eyes out with rusty forks appeals more than the prospect of trekking from screen to screen at the local multiplex to view such cinematic atrocities. Fortunately, the Alamo Ritz in downtown Austin held a Day of the Apes: all five Planet of the Apes movies shown back-to-back, for, according to the Alamo Drafthouse's website, "over 8 armageddonlicious hours of blazing gorilla warfare."

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Civilization is a Faustian bargain. For every progressive step, individuals and societies pay some equal price. Farming allows us to feed large groups of people, but at the cost of settling populations to till the land, thus diminishing hunter-gatherers. Understanding the universe often means giving up our superstitions, forcing us to question our most basic religious beliefs. Circumventing this bargain poses the same problems as creating a perpetual motion machine. All of the schematics designed by the most earnest Da Vinci wannabe won't sidestep the first law of thermodynamics. But the dream persists. It fuels most science fiction, and has since the days of Victor Frankenstein.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Derek first read Bram Stoker's Dracula when he was eleven years old. At the time, it fit in nicely with his other reading which leaned heavily on adventure fiction of the period. His cinematic viewing was limited to two screen iterations of the infamous Count Dracula, both in a comedic vein. He went on to read classic vampire stories along with watching horror films like The Lost Boys, Near Dark, Once Bitten and Bram Stoker's Dracula. And now along comes Red Riding Hood and Beastly.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Derek's love affair with cinema began when he was twelve years old, with John Williams's bombastic opening fanfare that began The Empire Strikes Back. It almost ended abruptly a year later, with Wallace Shawn's nasal pleading with André Gregory to keep his electric blanket in Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre. At the time, he was trying to see everything that was given generally unanimous critical praise, especially to things that would not normally have come across his radar. Recently, he recorded it on his DVR and watched it again for the first time in nearly thirty years. And guess what?

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
It's January, a time when, traditionally, the pickings for quality movies tend to be slim. The studios have released what they consider to be their best work in time for Academy Award consideration, and so have made the beginning months of the New Year, often right through April, to release, to put it kindly, substandard product. For movie fans, this is a pretty bad time. What's a cineaste to do during this fallow, infertile period? Quite a bit, actually.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
As 2010 winds down, Derek considers the best genre movies he has seen this year… and he feels as if someone has edited significant chunks of memory. It's not that you couldn't find something worthwhile showing at the multiplexes -- any year that offers Winter's Bone, The Social Network, The Ghost Writer and the Coen brothers' fine remake of True Grit certainly has done something right -- but few, if any, of those with geek chic matched the quality of 2008. Or 2009, for that matter.

2010
Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
It seems like only yesterday that Halloween was upon us. But a month later, we come to the holiday that many take far more seriously, the one in which people invest far more emotion and economics. Bah, humbug. There are movies that Derek does like to pop into his DVD player during the holidays, and that, given very little fudge factor, actually fit as Christmas movies. In that spirit, he has decided to list ten of those, each of which he feels is worthy of being considered "Christmas movies." 

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Damien Walter at the Guardian recently posted an article entitled "Why Hollywood Can't Get the Hang of Science Fiction," in which he stated that, after more than a century of cinema and despite a wealth of source material since the inception of science fiction as a literary form, only two science fiction masterpieces, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Bladerunner, have ever been filmed. Almost immediately after Mr. Walter posted this opinion, comments appeared making a plethora of suggestions to add to his very short list. Derek felt that Mr. Walter's list lacked one movie on his list of masterpieces.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Halloween is once again almost upon us, and once again some of us will want to prepare by tripping the dark fantastic.  In that spirit, Derek has decided to list ten movies that he feels are truly worthy of being part of the video library of those who enjoy this season.  There are, of course, disclaimers.  Derek has tried to avoid any of the movies out of Universal's classic period, since that list would be far too easy. For that same reason, he has also avoided most of the great movies in Hammer's horror canon.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Vampires are having a good year.  From the publication of both the second in Guillermo Del Toro-Chuck Hogan Strain trilogy and the first in Justin Cronin's Passage trilogy, to the release of Let Me In, Matt Reeves's remake of Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In, and the soap opera shenanigans of the Twilight movies, there are so many bloodsuckers to shake a stake at, that one could be forgiven for feeling a tad overwhelmed by the undead… and for wondering why similar love isn't being shown for the vampire's shaggier pop culture cousin, the werewolf. Derek thinks he knows.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Recently, on a panel Derek discussed with others which movies they would take if they were to be stranded on a deserted island. All suggested some amazing movies, and fortunately Derek was the only one who turned film snob by saying he wanted to bring along Stanley Kubrick's seminal science fiction motion picture 2001: A Space Odyssey. Most of the other panelists groaned, which he understood, but would want to take it for the simple reason that it still moves him in a way that no other SF movie can. Later, he remembered a conversation that he had with Paul O. Miles about this cinematic gem.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
As Derek writes, Christopher Nolan's Inception has grossed over $165 million in United States domestic ticket sales. While not exactly the same level of success as his previous movie -- The Dark Knight grossed $351 million after its first two weeks -- it nonetheless bodes well for Nolan, who took what could have been an incomprehensible, self-indulgent mess and managed to find a successful blend of art-house indie flick and crowd-pleasing blockbuster. It may not be perfect but at least it managed to be one of the summer's top tier movies without asking its audience not to check its brain at the door.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
Had you asked Derek, ten or eight or even five years ago, who he would pick as the best, most consistent filmmaker directing movies of the fantastique (to use John Clute's term), the last person he would have cited was Christopher Nolan. Granted, when Batman Begins opened five years ago, Derek thought it showed a genuine feel for and a high comfort level with the tropes of the comic book movie -- surprising, especially when one considers that Nolan's three previous full-length cinematic efforts contained little to no science fictional or fantastic content. And yet...

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
In 1980, Derek rode with a friend's family to the Westchase Five in Houston and stood in a line snaking around the shopping center housing the theater, waiting to purchase tickets for the earliest available showing of The Empire Strikes Back. As they waited, they sat reading comics and discussing what wonders might be visited in this sequel to Star Wars, which was at that time the life-changing movie for most. None of them knew what to expect, none of them really knew what to anticipate.

Watching the Future Watching the Future
a column by Derek Johnson
First, Derek has to offer an apology. Though he has been reading science fiction since he was fourteen, his exposure to science fiction concepts came not from books but from movies and television. He suspects that he's not alone in this: most members of his generation likely grew up not on issues of Astounding and Galaxy but on syndicated episodes of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. Derek has some thoughts on this year's Hugo Awards for Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. Fans seems to have an embarrassment of riches. Or at least it seems that way on first glance.

Copyright © 2010 Derek Johnson


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