Sci-Fi Do or Die

Wow!  It is mind-boggling how many great films are out there, so many that deserve a mention.  I’ve been wanting to write about science fiction movies for some time.  When I was a child, I would look in the TV Guide and see “Sci-Fi” as the genre type of a movie.  Somehow that didn’t translate to science fiction, but to “extra scary”, like scary in hi-fi or something, scary semper fi.

Splice (2009) is a character development story which uses sci-fi to amplify the development.  A couple of romantically linked genetic scientists, Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley), are performing cutting-edge DNA-splicing research funded by a pharmaceutical company.  They create hybrid animals in the lab for possible medical use.  At one point, they decide to kick it up a notch and mix in human DNA, and the result is astounding.

Splice has one of the best developed plot lines you will ever see — a racecar engine is at work here.  As the creature they have conceived constantly evolves so does the story, in fascinating and frightening ways.  Rather than stick to the standard Hollywood line of mutant-alien on the rampage, the characters here act in real, human (or semi-human) ways.  There is nuance here.

Clive and Elsa name their creation Dren (a deliberately androgynous Delphine Chanéac), and so begins an intimate family story of mother, father and daughter — but with that raciness of Alien just below the surface.    A strong bond is formed among the trio, and that bond carries over to the audience.  You feel connected to all three, and as such the quickly paced developments keep you hanging from start to finish.  At times the family is quite happy, but like keeping a lion for a pet, the wild side of Dren is bound to break free.  8/10.

While on the subject of genetic engineering, I should now recommend the masterpiece Gattaca (1997, Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law).  Yes, masterpiece with a rating 10/10.  The story here is set in the “not too-distant future” where how hard you work, how smart you are, or how well you execute your talents doesn’t matter — all that matters is your genetic makeup.  You were either naturally-born or a product of genetic manipulation.  Now the DNA science here is not so otherworldly as that presented in Splice.  Here it is a matter of choosing the single, optimal fertilized egg from mother and father to go on and become your offspring — why leave it up to the chance of nature?

Ethan Hawke and Ernest Borgnine in Gattaca

What is more scary is the Big Brother-inspired world that the ostensibly beneficial science has manifested.  Quick, automated genetic screenings occur frequently — at a work entryplace finger-prick turnstile, with a spot check of urine, or the collection of a small bit of hair or skin that might have been left at one’s desk.  For our hero Vincent (Hawke), if any of these checks show him to be what he really is — naturally-born and thus “in-valid” or “degeenerate”, he will be immediately jettisoned into that other class, subjugated to work as nothing better than a custodian.

But Vincent truly is a hero.  He has the highest aspiration: to be an elite astronaut and fly to the far reaches of space.  He is smart and tenacious, so he enlists the help of a liason to assume the identity of a man with first-class genetic credentials, a former swimming star named Jerome (Law).  But this is no identity theft, rather, a mutually beneficial arrangement.

A sweeping and spirited film, Gattaca centers on the will and determination of Vincent overcoming his handicapped birth.  The absorbing tale is further enhanced by a beautiful, clean, cinematic look, which accentuates the purity of the story.  What else?  Excellent performances by an all-star cast including Gore Vidal, Ernest Borgnine, Alan Arkin and the always charming Tony Shalhoub, and to cap it off a beautiful, haunting, perfectly suited original score.

All of that might not catapult Gattaca to masterpiece level and a 10 rating.  The plus factor here is the elevation of the human spirit at the edge of an important and daunting new frontier.  In capturing our imagination with its universal themes, Gattaca earns my highest recommendation.

* * *

Now onto what I call “pure” science fiction: Moon (2009).  I think of it as pure science fiction I suppose in the sense that it is a more traditional type, not dealing with genetic manipulation at all.  Gattaca has not so much to do with a pure science fiction backdrop as it does with a dedicated individual overcoming the odds against him.  On the other hand,  Moon from the outset puts you right in that sci-fi state of mind.


The story is that of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), a solitary mine worker manning a station on the moon.  His job is to venture out from his base to collect product from large mining vehicles which dig up and convert ore, fairly automatically, then return to base.  At the base he is most occupied not with a lot of particular tasks, as again things seem fairly automated, but with simply making time go by — for which he has invented a number of diversions.  The automation is greatly assisted by GERTY, an artificially intelligent robot extension of the base’s interior voiced with a mild sinister undertone by Kevin Spacey.

There is no evidence of any ill intent that GERTY may have toward Sam; it seems he is there very much to help.  But because GERTY, and the film’s atmosphere both within the base and out on the moon very much evoke 2001: A Space Odyssey (prior post), especially that sense of desolation and loneliness in outer space, we feel as the story progresses that at any moment GERTY will turn on Sam.

But that does not exactly happen, certainly not in the way of 2001Moon‘s similarity with 2001 goes no further than the ambiance it creates.  Moon is it’s own quite brilliant story.  That story is of Sam attempting to get by on his own with no more companionship than GERTY and occasional broken communication with Earth, most notably his wife.  Or is she his wife?  Is he really Sam?  For this little surprising gem takes us down that Film as Soufflé path best represented by Mulholland Dr.  And that’s all I am going to say about the story, for the more you are surprised by this movie, the more will you be delighted.

Again, Moon is its own quite brilliant story.  It’s not David Lynch and it’s not Stanley Kubrick.  It fills a unique niche in the chronology of science fiction film; 9/10 verging on a perfect 10.

* * *

I’ve written more about these three movies than I planned.  My general intent is to merely utter a recommendation, but in so doing I remember more and more how great some of these movies are, and so I carry on a bit longer.  So, it seems I have space for just one more movie.  A part two on Sci-Fi will be forthcoming.

The Box (2009) was another surprisingly great movie.  I know I am using the word ‘surprise’ too much, but so often I go in expecting some small variation of rote pablum that I become overtaken when instead I experience talent and craftsmanship.

The Box is about a married couple and their son, who are beginning to struggle financially.  The husband (James Marsden) works in the space industry, and his wife (Cameron Diaz) is a teacher.  Now a note about her.  Cameron Diaz is probably the best actress of her generation, demonstrated once again by a telling scene early on in the movie: In her classroom, she is challenged by a student to show her feet.  When she does, she reveals webbed toes.  The Box not being Splash, the result is nothing but dead melancholy.  Diaz handles that scene, as with all her work, on the highest order.

The Box

So onto the story!  A mysterious package arrives in the mail, containing a locked wooden box.  Later, an equally mysterious man with a sort of disfigured half-face (a perfectly cast Frank Langella) arrives at the home, to explain that if the button on the box is pushed, two things will happen.  One, they will receive one million dollars.  And two, someone they do not know, somewhere in the world, will die.

Now if that’s not a great premise for a movie I don’t know what is.  I shall not be giving away too much to say that the button is pushed; if not, the movie might well reach a premature conclusion.  The million dollars is delivered right away, but this couple discovers equally quickly that Pandora’s Box has been opened.  Odd things begin to happen, and soon enough the sympathetic couple are on a path to restore normalcy to their lives.

I hate giving away details about movies which so expertly yield a wonderful story, so I will not do so here.  I will say that though the story here is quite immersive, the ultimate explanation of the odd events left me a tad wanting, but that may just be a personal preference issue.  Because of this, I had thought this movie an “8”, but now as I think about it, The Box is such a fresh vision, a great odyssey, and prevails so clearly in my mind, that I render it a 9/10.

Enough for now.  Next post, expect a little comedy to lighten things up.


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