Home > Entertainment, Movies > 2009 Science Fiction Roundup

2009 Science Fiction Roundup

“When science fiction has become science reality it becomes next to impossible for fiction to break the plateau of fantastic implausibility.”


The best Science Fiction films of 2009

Wow. If you’re a lover of Science Fiction, then what a year 2009 was. Between the epic blockbuster juggernauts that shone at the box office to the massively improved television offerings that explore more intelligent subject matter, one thing is for certain: The 20-something year pop culture stagnation ends here.

This was the year that Science Fiction became accessible pop culture fiction once more. We haven’t had this kind of reneissance in creative writing since The Matrix debuted in 1999. That was before before the Wachowskis turned it into an indiscernible mess of philosophic meadering and overdone kung fu, eventually going Jerry Bruckheimer on an otherwise brilliant plot in 2003.

But the revolution has not only occurred on the big screen. Massive waves are being made on television as well – and it seems just as how Brian Michael Bendis gave Marvel Comics a right good shot in the arm in 2005, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci seem poised to turn both television and cinema on their ears.

Why do I mention these two guys? Largely because they have been behind three of the biggest science fiction events this year. Even if we discount Transformers 2 (which Michael Bay turned into his usual explosionfest), we still have to credit these two guys with their brilliant ability to reinvent genres as they did with the astoundingly masterful J.J. Abrams rebooting of “Star Trek”.

However, they weren’t the only folks at the top of the pile. James Cameron, the king of cinema, returned to break his own 13 year box office record, previously held by 1997’s Titanic, with the science fiction epic, “Avatar”. Then newcomer Neill Blomkamp blew our minds with District 9, a major sleeper hit that no one saw coming. Think science fiction on Apartheid. It was brilliant.

Best Story: Star Trek

Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman found a way to reboot a dying genre without violating any of the past 40 years of accepted Star Trek dogma, without violating the laws of physics (too much), while preserving all the key characters that we’ve come to know and love, while preparing us for a new adventure.

If you think that I’ve paid too much attention to Star Trek over the last year, you have to be able to appreciate how difficult it is to create something new out of something old without pissing off the fan boys, while simultaneously earning the genre some new fans. As a writer, that is really hard to pull off.

We live in the post Star Wars, post Matrix age, where audiences have literally seen everything. So it becomes increasingly difficult to wow them anymore. Furthermore, when science fiction has become science reality, it becomes a daunting task to break the plateau to new domains of fantastic implausibility.

Through a simple manipulation of space / time tunneling (which treats time travel as equivalent to cross dimensional travel – a subtle homage to recent developments in M Theory), Orci and Kurtzman gave us a new Star Trek without sacrificing the old one. The film’s plot is a stroke of pure genius.

Honourable Mentions: Pandorum

The plot twist at the end is just wicked cool.

Best Allegory: District 9

Every piece of science fiction is an allegory of some real world construct – usually a social construct – but significantly warped to express the fears of today’s man about tomorrow’s world. Blade Runner, The Matrix, THX 1138 and Avatar are all productions more or less plotted along the same story lines.

District 9 took a whole different route.

If you were born as early as the 70’s or earlier, then you most likely passed through the turbulent 1980’s, when Apartheid and segregation gripped South Africa. Fast forward 20+ years, long after Apartheid has died, comes one of the single most brilliant allegorical works of Science fiction ever made: District 9.

District 9 occurs in a parallel universe, where instead of Apartheid affecting the blacks in South Africa, it affects a race of aliens whose craft lost its power module and got stuck in the earth’s atmosphere. This incites humanitarian organisations to lead an effort to evacuate the relatively harmless beings from their suspended craft – and that’s when all hell broke loose in Johannesburg.

If you understand the atrocities that were committed against blacks during Apartheid and the uprising that followed with their champion, Nelson Mandela, then the plot of this film will automatically sell itself. Even though some black consciousness groups took umbrage with the film’s gritty and frighteningly realistic portrayal of human nature in motion, it was no less amazing.

While the fantastic final showdown between a warrior mech and an army of bounty hunters deserves honourable mention, the heart of the film lies with its protagonist, a bumbling relocation clerk of Dutch descent, who finds himself the unwilling hero and unlikely martyr of an intrepid alien civilization.

If you love sci-fi at all, go see District 9. You will not be disappointed.

Honourable Mention: The Battle for Terra

Think Avatar minus the Avatars – and you have Battle for Terra. The animated movie was obviously geared more towards children, even though it deals with some very weighty themes – some of which, I’m sure, will go over the heads of most young children. The film is certainly worth the rental for a family viewing.

Best Innovation: Avatar

One of the most prolific components that becomes the decisive selling point of really good science fiction film making is the special effects factor. Even if you have a great story, science fiction often requires the use of trickery to visually sell the story, thus engendering the necessary suspension of belief.

Over the last 20 years, James Cameron has been at the cutting edge of special effects in Science fiction. He furthered the advancement of stop motion effects for Terminator (1984), and co-developed the use of CGI for live action films like The Abyss (1989) and the actioner, Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992).

When you watch a special edition DVD of any of James Cameron’s movies, you realise that this guy is not some clueless director who asks for his team to make the impossible real. He gets down and dirty with the technology in the process, and seriously geeks it out until he finally achieves his visual objective.

Once again, Cameron has upped the ante.

Cameron has done for movies with Avatar, what George Lucas did with Star Wars, The Wachowski brothers did with The Matrix and Stephen Spielburg did with Jurassic Park: He has pushed the limit on an existing technology to produce a whole new range of special effect: Full facial motion capture.

Motion capture is nothing new. That’s how animators can make video game characters move so realistically. However, while their body movements were real, the facial expressions had to be hand animated, often producing what is now infamously known in the special effects industry as the “Valley Effect”.

The human brain can determine instantly when an animation isn’t realistic. That’s how we can immediately tell the difference between cartoon animations and human movement. In cartoons, the dip between belief and unbelief is fairly smooth and wide on a brainwave curve because we know it isn’t real.

Thus, the Valley Effect is where a hand created animation looks so realistic that it eventually becomes creepy. The sensation of ‘creepiness’ occurs right at the point when our brains almost buy the animation as realistic – until we spot an animated action that is certainly not human. This failure in suspension of belief looks like a sharp dip on an otherwise smooth brainwave curve pattern, right near the point where total suspension of belief would have occurred.

The effect is most notable in Square Pictures’ Final Fantasy (2001). The valley effect in the facial animations was so prominent, that the few people who saw the film were so creeped out by the strangely realistic animation that they ended up boycotting the movie, and Square Pictures eventually went broke.

To defeat this effect, James Cameron rigged his actors with full body motion capture suits, complete with a head rig that recorded their facial expressions. This means that animators simply had to plug the recorded vectors into their pre-rendered computer models, and voila: Perfectly realistic facial animation.

Defeating the valley effect was one thing, but rendering the world of Pandora using 3D lens was a whole other accomplishment. While most 3D movies go for gag effects meant to startle the audience, Cameron went for a camera technique that recorded 3D in much the same way our eyes see live objects.

Using two cameras which filmed the action using a virtual focal point, Cameron was able to capture full 3D images just as how they are seen in the real world by our eyes. The effect presents an overwhelming sense of being “there” without settling for gags meant to make the audience react via subconscious reflex (a painfully common assault in most other mediocre, 3D films).

The end result is a gorgeous, almost technically impossible cinematic experience that is so profoundly breath taking, that most people kept going to see it again and again because of the stunning visual presentation. Avatar’s story is nothing new. It’s basically Pocahontas on sci-fi steroids. However, most people who’ve seen it don’t care about that travesty of plot swindling.

It’s Avatar’s eye candy that kept audiences coming again and again.

Honourable Mention: District 9

The photorealism of CGI aliens interacting with live action elements has to be a new achievement for Lord of the Rings special effects gurus, Weta Digital.

Best Adaptation: Watchmen

As far as comic book adaptations  go, there are three films that stand out far beyond the rest: Ironman (2008), The Dark Knight (2008) and Watchmen (2009). For deep thinking sci-fi fans like myself, Watchmen was nothing short of pure brilliance. Zach Snyder may have taken some liberties with the source material, but the final product, in my opinion, was nothing short of SUPERB.

To be honest, while I do regard Watchmen as one of the greatest works of written fiction ever made (it quite literally redefined the concept of ‘Superhero’), the ending of the comic book would never have translated well to film as portrayed. The end of the film adaptation was far more realistic and thus much more likely to be accessible to more modern movie-going audiences.

Watchmen is only superseded by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight (2008).

Best Picture: District 9

I really had to wrestle with this decision because there were some really good contenders this year. Star Trek is probably my favourite film of 2009. However I liked Star Trek more for its lighter entertainment value even though it was a very well crafted piece of artwork, from story, to acting, to visual effects.

Avatar is a very sexy movie. However, it’s only sexy to look at. The story is nothing new and has been featured again and again, ad nauseum, by every film since the first one to document the true life events of Pocahontas. After seeing it twice (I saw Star Trek 5 times), Avatar was still fresh, but I found myself not caring about the story. I was looking at the hips of the Na’vi females (particularly Zoe Saldana’s Avatar) and wondering if I’d have hit that.

Yeah. The animation is that good – even if the story is vaporous at best.

There were some other great stories along the way, namely, a brilliant Sci-Fi horror film (Pandorum) and an excellent Sci-Fi mystery (Moon) both of which reinvented the concept of “plot twist” – even though the latter had some inexplicable plot elements that just did not work well to convincingly sell the story.

However, of all the great releases this year, District 9 hit me with such a profound sense of realism and yet, managed to elegantly balance that with a quantum of escapism that made the film both a very important allegory of real world events (perhaps the most important since Lord of the Rings’ allegorical reference to World War I) and a surprisingly satisfying piece of entertainment.

Unlike all the other science fiction films of 2009 however, the story of District 9 is more of a tragedy. It puts away the ultimate high fructose happy ending for something far less sweet, but far more powerfully emotive. The symmetrical arc of its main protagonist from bumbling fool to unwilling hero – especially in the frightening way it was portrayed, is not something that one soon forgets.

I found myself marvelling at the brilliant construction of the film’s premise and how it portrayed the true ugliness of human nature, brilliantly contrasted against the ugly (but far less harmful) alien asylum seekers. District 9 is a triumph of substance over marketing. It’s one of those stories that stays with you long after the credits roll – and that’s why it is my pick for best picture.

My only regret is that even though District 9 is Oscar nominated for best picture, it is probably going to be ousted by some art house piece like “An Education“. At least James Cameron’s ex wife, Kathryn Bigelow has “The Hurt Locker” in the mix, which is my pick of that lot. One wonders how Cameron must feel with his Avatar and her Hurt Locker in the mix. Hmm. Curious, this is.

Best Television Series: Fringe

If you have not yet started watching Fringe, you are missing out on quite possibly the most intriguing, plot intensive, character driven, science fiction prime time series ever conceived since X-Files. Yes, it’s that big. The plot twists from episode to episode will keep you coming back for more.

Ofcourse, I would expect nothing less from master dream weavers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. They’re behind Transformers, Fringe, Star Trek and a host of other cool franchise reboots since 2007 and they are on fire! Fringe is as obssessed with parallel universes as X-Files was with aliens.

But it’s just how the plotting is done that is so brilliant! Each episode provides a clue to a big reveal at the end of the season. The reveal is so prolific, that you subconsciously have an “Oh sh*t” moment, just before you crap your pants and wet yourself – because trust me, you will never see it coming.

Honorable Mention: Star Wars – The Clone Wars

This 3D animated series packs some serious entertainment.

Highly Anticipated for 2010

It seems to be getting better and better. The plot lines for the following films have me intrigued – even though one is essentially a ramped up, updated remake of a 1980’s classic. It seems that today’s writers were yesterday’s movie junkies and they have finally broken onto the scene. I can’t wait for:

  1. Iron Man 2 – If you’ve read the comic, you’ll know why. Iron Man and Warmachine take on Whiplash and the US Gov’t. Jon Favreau returns as director with Robert Downey Jr. Don Cheadle starring in the key roles.
  2. Clash of the Titans – An update of the 1980’s classic telling of the Greek story of Perseus vs. the Pantheon. ’nuff said. This visual extravaganza stars Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes and is directed by Guy Ritchie. Since we already know the story, we’re only going for the eye candy and hopefully, some good performances from the British cast.
  3. Alice in Wonderland – Alice goes back to Wonderland for an actual sequential storyline (unlike Lewis Carol’s disconnected points of madness). Should be solid popcorn entertainment at the very least, if they don’t cause Carol to turn in his grave. Tim Burton directs Johnny Depp and Anne Hathaway in yet another fantastic romp into the land of the frighteningly weird.
  4. The Last Airbender – Based on the Japanese animé import “Avatar: The Last Airbender“, M. Night Shyamalan directs this martial arts / fantasy epic about a boy with the ability to control wind vectors as he struggles to end a war with other nations featuring combatants with similar control over fire, water and earth. This Superbowl trailer looks very promising. Hopefully, Shyamalan won’t kill the franchise.
  5. Repo Men – In a future where expensive replacement organs are covered by monthly payments, repo men reclaim the leased vital organs from delinquents – even if it means killing them. The plot twists however, when one of the repo men can’t pay for his artificial heart. Then the company he works for comes after him. The concept is fairly original, even if the plot is not. This is an interesting twist on the “betrayed by your family” theme. Here’s hoping the final outcome does not disappoint. I am quite intrigued. Jude Law and Forrest Whitaker star.
  6. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – Video Game adaptations usually fail, even though this looks hot visually. Jerry Bruckheimer of Bad Boys II fame is producing, so I know we’ll probably get some solid action in there. I don’t have high hopes for the film, but having played the video game, I’m keeping an open mind. Jake Gyllenhaal stars.

This is just a preliminary list. If there are any additional films you think I should be looking out for, please drop a note here. I’d love to hear of it.

See you at the movies.

  1. willy
    February 25, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    Xeno and stewy you should both check out flash forward: What if everyone on earth was a momentary prophet?

    Suppose everone on earth fell unconscious for two minutes, and during that time, they all had dreams — dreams that matched up with each other — dreams that later experience showed were premonitions of the future?

    What if the premonition you saw was something you didn’t want to happen? Suppose you were living on the streets eating out of garbage cans? What if your wife and child had died? What if you were in prison for the murder of your best friend? How hard would you work to change that future? What would you give up to make it not happen?

    When an unexplained event causes exactly that — when everyone blacks out for 137 seconds, everyone gets a vision of what they will be doing six months in the future. Then they wake up to chaos — crashed cars, planes, bathtub drownings — all the things that can go bad in the world when suddenly no one is at the wheel for two full minutes.

    What happened, who caused it, and was there a deeper ulterior motive at play? Was it intentional? Can it be controlled? Will it happen again?

  2. Stewart Panton
    February 7, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    I dunno, I’m not exactly comfortable with Shyamalan directing avatar… I just dont see him as a action/adventure/epic style of director, when I think of Shyamalan all I see is horror flicks and big plot twists… Maybe he’ll surprise me though.

    Alice looks like it should be a wicked flick though, my interest is definitely peaked there. I dunno why but repo men look like it might fail, but then again other movies have surprised me more. Other than that I agree with your list of upcoming movies to watch for, I see yet another year where I shall go broke watching movies.

    Never watched Fringe myself either, quite frankly I dont watch much TV anymore because it has just been failing epicly, I really only watch Dexter, but you have raised my interest in it. Shall check it out

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