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Watching the Future
by Derek Johnson

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

Installment 34
A Year in Review

The Avengers
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
The Hunger Games
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Cloud Atlas
Skyfall 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 my own sake and sanity it means that I no longer have to find in my 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, perhaps for a little while at least, I can forget, despite a few bright spots, what a mediocre year it was for science fiction and fantasy movies.

Going strictly by the numbers and amount of cash they raked in, 2012 seemed another stellar year for geeks and geek culture. When one considers the grosses for Marvel's The Avengers alone (over $600 million in the U.S.), the argument that audiences still had an appetite for things skiffy appeared hard to refute. Indeed, as I write this column, Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey maintains its hold on the number one domestic spot.

Yet there's a part of me that wonders if such a steady diet of CGI magic and steroids-fueled superheroics isn't giving us all a bit of cinematic indigestion. A few scant years ago, with The Dark Knight and Iron Man, film so embraced the fantastic, with such love and care, that it was hard not to become intoxicated by their visual audacity and stellar performances. Hollywood realized our dream; here were strong pictures by talented filmmakers starring incredible actors. Had I told serious moviegoers in 1978, prior to Superman: The Movie hitting theaters, that comic book movies would not only pack audiences but also involve the best thespians in show business, they would have had me committed. Yet few people batted an eye when Kenneth Branagh sat in the director's chair for Thor.

Still, despite the praise heaped on them, even the best efforts often evinced a restlessness, and occasionally a lack of care. Picking on the worst offenders comes too easy these days; seriously, did anybody really think Dark Shadows would do anything but show Tim Burton sinking further into irrelevance? How many people walked into Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter believing they were going to see anything but an eyesore? How much faith did anybody really have that the Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas wouldn't hurt? If anything, knowing the depths of wretchedness to which such offerings would sink only reinforced how misguided some of these projects were.

Unfortunately, more successful movies fared little better. The Dark Knight Rises possessed elements of operatic grandeur, but to get there audiences slogged through a lot of jagged exposition. Men in Black III struggled to recapture the breezy pace and humor of the first, but never quite closed the necessary trap. The Hunger Games had much to recommend it, yet it never matched its source material's intensity or moral ambiguity. Pixar offered a strong female protagonist with Brave, but gave her little to do. And while a number of genre fans and critics praised Rian Johnson's time travel noir Looper, at times their assessments bordered on the too generous, ignoring obvious lapses in common sense and logic.

And then there were those whose awfulness surprised me. I wanted to love Prometheus; with Ridley Scott returning to science fiction after a quarter-century absence, how could I not? Yet Prometheus, which tried so hard to be a 2001: A Space Odyssey for the Cthulhu Mythos, failed in almost every possible way. Yes, it has its supporters, but they all sounded shrill and panicked. Likewise, despite the fact that The Amazing Spider-Man was going to cover ground already mapped by Sam Raimi in 2002, I felt that 500 Days of Summer's Marc Webb might at least get the characters right. Yet Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker acted stupid throughout, Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy proved inconsistent in so many ways, and Dennis Leary as her father proved no match for J.K. Simmons' J. Jonah Jameson.

Not awful, but certainly not good, was Andrew Stanton's John Carter, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars. Here was a movie that should have let its pulp roots dig deep into the red Barsoom sand, and in rare moments did. But it spent so much time revering Burroughs' classic tale that it never really soared. It was the biggest disappointment of 2012, if only because of how much I enjoyed the original novels.

For all of the epic fail at multiplexes, though, occasionally I found things that entertained and pleased me. Though I enjoyed Marvel's The Avengers enormously, I preferred the found-footage superhero picture Chronicle, directed by Josh Trank. Examining what happens when ordinary kids suddenly develop superpowers, it approached the material with a degree of emotional honesty and innovation that larger entries based on existing properties lack. Pete Travis' Dredd, by contrast, was based on an existing property (the classic graphic novel series 2000 A.D.), yet it lost none of the source material's potent nihilism or playful ultraviolence, as occurred in 1995's interminable Judge Dredd. Karl Urban's single-minded portrayal of the title character certainly helped.

If you missed Safety Not Guaranteed, then you missed a charming liminal fantasy about a young reporter who goes undercover to interview a man who placed an ad for a time travel partner. By turns funny and touching, its focus on characters reminds astute genre viewers of the works of Karen Joy Fowler. Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom isn't fantasy, not exactly, but it weaves a seductive magical spell on viewers that fantasy fans should recognize.

And James Bond celebrated fifty years onscreen with not just the strongest movie in the series' golden history but one of the best thrillers of the year. Directed by Sam Mendes, with cinematography by Roger Deakens, Skyfall saw Daniel Craig in his third turn as 007, supported by a cast that included Judi Dench, Naomie Harrie, Bérénice Marlohe, Javier Bardem, and Ralph Fiennes. It stands as one of the year's highlights.

As always, I hope for better next year.

John Carter Safety Not Guaranteed Chronicle Moonrise Kingdom

Copyright © 2013 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, is forthcoming from Rebel Ink Press. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

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