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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]

Installment 19
"I don't know if it's art, but I like it."
A couple of days ago I attended a podcast on the "essential" science fiction films. What should every fan see? What are the linchpins of the genre? I 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? I lost count of the myriad permutations, and after a time felt a little challenged by my own preconceptions.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind The Road

Those who have read my reviews and regularly read this column know my general position of science fiction movies, or believe they know, and occasionally see me as something of a paradox: a person who professes to love science fiction but offers few kind words to the genre's cinematic offerings. No doubt I frustrate far too many fans who simply want to know if they will enjoy Apollo 18 (hint: they won't) or if Rise of the Planet of the Apes could possibly work without Charlton Heston (hint: it does) or in what possible way Cowboys & Aliens could miss (let me count). Few, I'm sure, want to hear of my indifference to Contagion (sorry, Steven Soderbergh, I'm not buying) or outright hostility toward In Time (which I understand borrows liberally from Harlan Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman"). Moreover, why would I ignore altogether upcoming releases like The Thing prequel or Paranormal Activity 3 or The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I or Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol? (A better question: why does anybody want to see them?)

But if my trade is to say what I think, then providing a gushing review for a mediocre science fiction and fantasy movie (such as Thor) or faint praise for exemplary work that might not be true quill science fiction (Source Code) would be unfair on either count. And when one considers the stance I take, praise or condemnation of any work can seem hypocritical.

Apollo 18 Paranormal Activity 3 Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris Stargate

Why? Because, despite the opinions I provide, they remain just that: opinions. And while I remain fairly rigid on the handful of true science fiction film masterpieces (2001: A Space Odyssey; Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris; Blade Runner), I often recommend movies that don't reach these heights, though not for lack of trying. At times, I'll even praise a picture that requires "alternative standards of excellence," as John Kessel once described one's enjoyment of true quill sf novels. Sure, I'm a snob, but it doesn't mean I can't enjoy myself. I may not think The Fifth Element is the smartest science fiction movie ever made (though compared to, say, Independence Day or Stargate, it's positively cerebral), there's so much to enjoy that I willingly overlook its lack of intellect. Do I contradict myself? Very well; I contradict myself. I am vast, I contain multitudes. To misquote Jack Nicholson's Jack Napier/Joker in Tim Burton's Batman, it may not be Art, but I like it.

But it also presents the challenge science fiction always faces, especially when faced with an unfamiliar audience: how do you bring an average moviegoer into the fold? Believe it or not, sometimes appealing to art isn't your best bet. During the podcast, we were asked which movies we would recommend to a lay audience. I was careful to answer that it depended on said audience. Snob though I may be, compared to some of my other friends I'm a hick, especially if you try to profess your love for wonderfully cheesy B-pictures like David Twohy's The Arrival or even a genre classic like Forbidden Planet.

Master and Commander:  The Far Side of the World Star Trek II:   The Wrath of Khan The Book of Eli

Alphaville By that same token, I have recommended movies with far higher aspirations (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Moon) to friends, only to find them confused as to why I considered them great. Indeed, I stopped recommending movies to one friend because he watched 2001: A Space Odyssey and admitted confusion as to its classic status because it contained not a single space battle. And I no longer suggested movies to another friend who looks at me with horror every time I belittle My Dinner with Andre because the movies I did recommend (Tarkovsky's Stalker; Godard's Alphaville; Alex Proyas's Dark City) didn't fit his assessment of science fiction movies, which he asserted should be far lighter than "real art." (He'd likely have a meltdown if he tried to read Thomas Disch's Camp Concentration or Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside.)

Nonetheless, my rule still stands. I won't give a person who knows Star Trek only through its reboot or through Shatner's hammy television persona a copy of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but I can see almost anybody who enjoys a good adventure story (especially, say, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) enjoying Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. If somebody loves the intelligence or surreal beauty of Buñuel's Belle du Jour, I likely won't bother mentioning Star Wars, but just might give a nod Nicholas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, or Terry Gilliam's Brazil. If you loved The Station Agent, then you're going to be bored to death by what most fans consider the best the genre has to offer, but you just might like Monsters or The Prestige.

Mostly, though, I am forgiving of almost any movie that aspires to Art, even if its reach doesn't quite meet its grasp. Riddled with logical flaws though District 9 is, it still manages to be far more compelling than most other movies because it at least attempts some degree of subtext, which something like Battle: Los Angeles does not. Perhaps my assessment of Chris Nolan's Dickian Inception was overly generous, but it at least shows far more depth and interest than the Dick adaptation, The Adjustment Bureau. For all of my initial lack of enthusiasm for The Book of Eli, it still sticks in my mind for its homage to both The Road Warrior and Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, to say nothing of its lack of the same pretensions which drowned The Road. No, these aren't art. But I like them.

Copyright © 2011 Derek Johnson

Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, will be published by Rebel Ink Press this December. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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