by Derek Johnson
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]
As we left the theater, the Goddess turned to me and gave me her five-word review of All Is Lost, J.C. Chandor's powerful, compelling movie about a man lost at sea: "Gravity on water, less hyperventilating." Her comment sounded a bit dismissive (though it was not; in fact, we would end up discussing the movie for most of the drive home, a rare feat for most movies released within the last 12 months) she was correct: All Is Lost seemed to be movie that Gravity wanted to be, but couldn't quite pull off. Rather than George Clooney's self-satisfied, twinkly smirk and a teary-eyed Bullock contemplating death in Earth's orbit, Chandor's picture focuses on Robert Redford pragmatically dealing with his ship's damage and ultimate sinking. Redford utters almost no dialogue, and what little we know of the character himself comes from a brief voiceover at the movie's opening ("I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't.") and from a few almost incidental clues within the cabin of his boat the Virginia Jean: dirty dishes cluttering his sink, an absence of personal objects or reminders of family. Gravity may possess the accoutrements of a space adventure, things that bring out my inner 12-year-old (a look at the pressure suits in Cuarón's movie inspired the same awe as seeing the diorama of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon's surface did when I visited the Houston Museum of Natural Science when I was nine), and it may have presented a unique high-concept idea (Cast Away in outer space), but I felt more invested in All Is Lost from the very beginning. It's easily among the best movies I've seen this year, far superior to any genre offering.
For somebody who loves genre, that shouldn't be right. But it is.
When I look back at 2013, I was surprised at how little the genre pictures shone. Forget the obvious awful examples like Evil Dead and After Earth; the never-ending stream of terrible sequels and remakes (to say nothing of any post-Unbreakable M. Night Shayamalan) never offered me much anyway, so I never felt badly about returning derision. But others that showed promise never really delivered. Oblivion combined the 70s disaster picture with a couple of cool Phil-Dickian riffs but never gelled into a coherent picture; casting Tom Cruise in a role often played by Charlton Heston didn't help. Neill Blomkamp tried to follow up his very popular District 9 with a fable of the one percent leaving the poor huddled masses of the near future for a Galt's Gulch in near-earth orbit. Unfortunately, Elysium wore its themes so bravely on its sleeve that it never realized its skiffy feet were made of clay, a kind of primordial ooze of genre tropes that refused to clump together into a more complex picture. I put everything I could into being excited by Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim. Giant robots! Giant monsters! It was like the best things I could have asked for when I was that skiffy Golden Age, yet I found Ron Pearlman as a black marketer in alien biologicals the far more compelling aspect of this homage to kaiju. Despite the 21st-century veneer and a budget that would have kept Toho Studios running for two decades, Del Toro conjured only a pale imitation of the classic form. Pacific Rim's effects outpaced those of, say, Destroy All Monsters, but never acquired any of the charm.
When I was growing up in that skiffy Golden Age, I possessed high hopes that, someday, I would see my favorite comic book heroes in top cinematic form. Perhaps I should have been much more careful what I wished for, because the comic book fan who thrilled at Donner's Superman: The Movie and embraced (albeit aloofly) Tim Burton's Batman and, later, Batman Returns, now only wants a brief reprieve from the four-color world brought to celluloid. Five years ago, the release of Iron Man and The Dark Knight appeared to be an embarrassment of riches; today's comic book movies seem little more than an embarrassment. Shane Black might have helmed Iron Man 3, but he did so with the same sensibilities he brought to his screenplay for The Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: diverting and enjoyable though it was, it felt like a letdown, especially after Marvel's The Avengers. Ditto Thor: The Dark World, a far better picture than the first installment (largely because it lacks Kenneth Branagh's lead eye and pretentions), but still felt derivative of other, not always better movies; when your movie borrows from the podracing scene in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, you know you're something has gone afoul. Zack Snyder might have wanted to make the definitive Superman with Man of Steel, but he's no Richard Donner (even if he made Amy Adams a far more interesting Lois Lane than Margot Kidder), and Henry Cavill, despite possessing the right look, is no Christopher Reeve (nor Brandon Routh, for that matter). The Wolverine, by contrast, eschewed most of the more fantastical elements of the X-Men universe to focus on an often taut tale shot through with noir intensity... until the final act, where it deviated into an incoherent mess, its sloppy production a mirror of its underwhelming execution. Call it a near miss.
Buzz surrounding Star Trek: Into Darkness almost deafened potential filmgoers and many fans, but disappointed by imitating past entries. For a series that promises to go boldly where no man has gone before, whether helmed by Nicholas Meyer or J.J. Abrams, it covers territory mapped far better by its creator.
Two critically acclaimed science fiction novels received adaptations, both of which found loyal audiences, but with much equivocation and rationalization. You had to prepare yourself for the hate mail you'd receive if you said something even remotely negative about Ender's Game, despite the defensive, shrill tone taken by those who praised it. Granted, I have never been fond of Orson Scott Card's novel, but I would have forgiven many of the movie's faults had director Gavin Hood managed to bring the tale to something resembling life. Unfortunately, Ender's Game either took far too many chances or far too few, resulting in a genuinely generic movie. My own lukewarm response to The Hunger Games translated to its sequel The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. More interesting than Ender's Game as well as its initial franchise offering, boasting a strong cast and a more intriguing presentation of ideas, its tale of a Machiavellian post-apocalyptic society sending kids to a high-tech Thunderdome nonetheless felt as bloodless as it was, a victim of its own sanitized savagery.
Nonetheless, there were occasional genre pleasures. Bryan Singer's Jack the Giant Slayer never tried to be more than a diverting adventure, even if it too often borrowed from The Princess Bride. The result amused and entertained, even if it quickly vanished from the audience's memory. Europa Report, meanwhile, slapped a high-tech sheen and an alien environment onto The Blair Witch Project. I hoped for something along the lines of Gareth Edwards's Monsters, but settled for the B-movie pleasures it provided: not so much good as good enough. Edgar Wright concluded the Cornetto Trilogy with The World's End, a sprawling romp through the works of John Wyndham and Ira Levin as its heroes crawled from pub to pub. Less metatextual than Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, it nonetheless captured the energy of its predecessors, right up to its ambiguously happy conclusion.
2013 is not over. Perhaps The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug will close the year's genre releases with a roar. I'm guessing, however, that snore might be a more accurate description. We'll see.
Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His stories have appeared in Rayguns Over Texas edited by Rick Klaw and Le Bon Temps magazine. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.
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