When I told Dustin that I was thinking of doing a year in review for science fiction, I had in mind a sweeping discussion of the genre. I envisioned an embarrassment of riches, an article easy to make long and difficult to make concise. Then I pulled down a list of the science fiction films that hit theaters this year, and started to have that plummeting feeling in my stomach, that one that detonates when you realize that you’ve finished half the exam but there are only ten minutes left in the hour.
I started pulling off the ones that might technically be science fiction, but really fit within a different genre more cleanly. Megamind really fit the animated kids genre more precisely. Iron Man 2 has all the power armor that science fiction loves, but just squarely falls into the realm of comic books. Splice felt more horror than science fiction although there were certainly mad scientists and genetic engineering. But aren’t Predators and Daybreakers more horror than science fiction then, one might ask? Yes, but I might point out in response that I am arbitrary and capricious in my classifications. I also included Avatar even though it was released in December of 2009, if only because it kicked off the year and in original or re-release was in theaters in 2010 for longer than most movies actually released this year.
This is the final list of feature science fiction films that got anything like wide releases:
The Book of Eli (January)
Repo Men (March)
Never Let Me Go (September)
Tron: Legacy (December)
Eleven? ELEVEN?!? That’s just sad, before we even get into the aggregated quality of the films. Avatar and Inception are easily the two that are most memorable, the only ones that I expect will be remembered in a decade or two. Judging by the titanic backlash against positively reviewing Avatar, I’ll at least add the caveat that even if you loathed the movie, you can’t deny that it made a lasting mark. Box office is hardly a measure of quality, but at some point quantity becomes a quality in and of itself. Even if the sequel(s) catastrophically bomb and the original fades badly in memory, Avatar is still going to be grinning out from every top-ten box office list you see for the next thirty years, just like Titanic before it.
What is curious though are the common threads that tie the films together. Five of the films are set in dystopian futures, (Avatar, Daybreakers, The Book of Eli, Repo Men, and Never Let Me Go), and six are either mildly futuristic tomorrows (TiMER, Inception, and Monsters), or nominally contemporaneous (Predators, Skyline, and Tron: Legacy).
What underlies most of the films is a feeling of almost abject hopelessness, a sense that not only is nothing okay, but that there is almost nothing we can do to fix it. What saves the day in these films, if it is saved at all, is not human ingenuity but in a retreat to spirituality. There’s nothing wrong with that as a specific solution, but as a universal meme it is depressing and wholly at odds with the great legacy of a century of science fiction stories.
In Avatar, we’ve wrecked the world and must retreat to primitivism for spiritual salvation. Our ingenuity is worthless, merely a vehicle for greed. In The Book of Eli we’ve brought on the apocalypse, and salvation is not in the hands of those who would fight to rebuild, but in an old copy of the Bible. Skyline is an atrocious film but in it we see the hopelessness of our species in the face of an alien invasion. Bullets, drones, rockets, and nukes are shown one by one to be but delay tactics and the only sliver of salvation is love. Even Never Let Me Go, one of the better science fiction films of the year, concludes with the enlightened acceptance of unjust fate.
Only in fits and starts in any of these films do we get a sense of the wonder and exploration that is the hallmark of science fiction. I’m not arguing that we need more happy endings, but that there’s something missing in this year’s films as a body of work that is needed even with sad endings. It’s the old Terminator notion that there’s no fate but what we make. That by Jehoshaphat we might cause our problems, but we find the solutions too.
But it’s even a more nuanced complaint than that. It’s the idea that science fiction is not just about spaceships, aliens or lasers. That’s window dressing, not genre. Science fiction without the science is just plain old fiction, it’s just fantasy with aliens instead of orcs. The spiritual solution is not the scientific one, it’s the cheap way out, the quick and easy Doctor Phil approach to problems. As a species we’ve clawed our way out of the slime by our metaphorical fingernails. We’ve got less muscles, claws, speed, and every other trait that matters, save for the one we actually used to conquer the world.
I’m not discounting the importance of the human spirit, it’s what animates the raw tool of intellect, but this little corner of our fictions is supposed to be about that intellect. It’s not about the monkey finding inner peace, but about his gazing at the stars, his first awkward attempts to use a stick to ward off the lions and tigers and bears, those first sparks of fire to push back the darkness. 2010, have a seat. I’m hoping that 2011 brings the brain back to science fiction.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.