Ad Astra (3.5 Stars)
Avengers: Endgame (4 Stars)
Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker (3.5 Stars)
There are only three Science Fiction movies in this years crop of Oscar-nominated films. Of the three, however, I would argue that only one of them is a true ‘sci-fi’ film. When I think of science fiction, I think of writers like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke. A science fiction story transports you to a different world, but one that you can recognize as a possible future (or past) version of our own. Things are different but in a rigid, theoretically bound sense. I like a strong intellectual premise behind the constructed reality – something to tease the mind and provoke thought. So, for me, comic book-style ‘science fiction’ doesn’t quite cut it. I want my heroes to be normal folk who, somehow, manage to figure out how to live in the environment that is so unique. Perhaps a corollary of that is that there is a certain overriding seriousness in tone and message. Movies lacking these elements, while classified as sci-fi by others, don’t necessarily make the cut for me.
So, based on what I just said, I have by definition, eliminated two of the three movies. Both of them were tremendous fun to watch and I enjoyed them. I just wouldn’t consider them ‘serious’ sci – fi. The Avengers movie I enjoyed so much that I gave it 4 stars. The visual effects were mesmerizing and I enjoyed getting lost in the complexities of the story. But I enjoyed it more as an adventure than as science fiction. Perhaps we need a genre for ‘comic book’ movies where these films can stand alone.
And, of course, I liked the last Star Wars movie much more than the critics did, probably because I didn’t go into the story demanding as much as the hard core fans. It is extremely difficult to tell a story that will tie together nearly 42 years of story-telling across nine different movies with nearly that many directing and writing teams that will satisfy the most die hard fans of the legendary phenomena. As someone who watched in awe as the first menacing starship loomed overhead in the opening moments of ‘A New Hope’, I loved the first three movies. But, for me, life sort of intervened and I’m not even sure I saw the next three (the prequel). So, yes, its true, I don’t have as much invested in this story as many viewers – the hardcore fans – do. Still, I enjoyed the new characters and loved Rey as an updated take on a female lead. Maybe I wasn’t as critical as others because I didn’t follow the story as much as they did.
Still, though, Star Wars was fun because it was light and airy. It didn’t fit my definition of ‘serious science fiction’, but it didn’t have to. It was still a delightful way to spend an evening.
So that really leaves just one film to fit the bill as ‘serious science fiction’: Ad Astra. The world created there isn’t too far in the future. And yet it is sufficiently different that it provokes head-scratching puzzles as we try to understand the relationship between the individual and the bigger society. Psychology seems to be much more important, and possibly, more accurate in this new world. And that raises profound issues of social control and an individual’s role in society.
Add to that, superb technical craftsmanship in the presentation of new worlds, and an incredible sonic experience throughout and you have the makings of a true ‘sci-fi’ experience. And, of course, it helps that this might be one of Brad Pitt’s best performances.
Last year there were eight entries in the sci-fi genre. One was a Star Wars ‘side story’ (Solo: A Star Wars Story), two were ‘comic book adventure movies’(Avengers: Infinity Wars, Black Panther), and three were animated features (Incredibles 2, Isle of Dogs, SpiderMan: Into the Spider-verse). So, by my arguments raised earlier, I don’t treat them as serious science fiction candidates.
That leaves Ready Player One and A Quiet Place, both of which I liked very much. A Quiet Place tells the story with extremely minimal dialog, which makes it a unique movie. There is a reason for that, of course, as sound becomes an incredibly significant feature of this sci-fi world, meeting my criteria for a sci-fi movie more than adequately. Ready Player One is an interesting merger between the gaming world and reality. The visuals here are also outstanding and the concept of switching back and forth between these equal realities is very challenging.
(As a side note, Isle of Dogs is a Wes Anderson animated feature, and while I’m not sure quire how it qualifies as science fiction, it is well worth a view.)
So you have several options in science fiction movies from both this year and last year. Surely you can find something you will like.