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The Science Fiction Films of 2006

It is fairly pointless lamenting the lack of hard SF on the big screen as frankly it is unlikely to give the box office returns necessary to sustain more than the occasional oddity in these less artistically inclined times (exceptions like Primer, good as it is, slip well below the big studio radar). But there is some intelligent SF out there that shows the genre can escape from the gee-whiz techno-fetishism of the blockbuster showcase spectacle that (come on, admit it) we all love. Amidst the mediocrity that has defined this year’s big names there have been some surprisingly intelligent entries that also, shock, provide entertainment value. That this year provided as many examples of good sf as it did can only be applauded, even as we lament the more vacuous or self-worthy of offerings plied by the major studios.

Superman ReturnsDonning the costumes and looking serious for the third time comes those mutinous mutants mired in a miasma of moral ambiguity – The X-Men. Will it be curtains for mutant kind as a “cure” for their afflictions is about to be issued? Will two top thesps out-camp each other with serious prognostications of victory and Armageddon? Will the disenfranchised angel-winged son of the anti-mutant executive turn to good(ish) mutantdom or bad(ish) mutantdom? Will Wolverine ever stop being such a pathetic macho bore? Surprisingly Brett Ratner’s “if it doesn’t move, make it move” ethic resulted in a perfectly serviceable piece of film-making. The battles are big, the stakes are high and any deficiencies with the rushed effects are glossed over with the sheer scale and exuberance of the spectacle. There’s time for introspection and a bit of political ambiguity – just not as much had Bryan Singer been at the helm. But Mr Singer had a superhero project of his own – the stupendously expensive Superman Returns. Having dumped Earth to “find himself in the stars” dippy hippy Superman returns just in time for megalomaniac Lex Luthor to cackle his way through another insane plan involving world domination. Lois Lane has given up the thought of having Superman’s kids (insert Mallrats quotes here as necessary) and shacked up with Mr Sort-Of-Alright-But-A-Bit-Boring and had a kid. Singer clearly reveres both the character (bizarrely – Superman is the most rubbish superhero ever) and the original Christopher Reeves outings. This proves to be both the film’s success and its undoing. With all the seriousness going on, the mythmaking, the post-modern adding of angst, you are eternally grateful for Kevin Spacey’s barnstorming performance as Luthor. The film is a truly spectacular event picture of the old (i.e. Superman 1978) variety which doesn’t just bombard its audience with eye-candy but makes them wait a bit between the glorious set-pieces. The downside is that after an hour and a half it seems as though the ideas have dried up. Inevitably as a genre gains mainstream attention the spoofs start rolling in. With effects technology becoming more affordable the opportunity to parody is becoming easier, especially when anyone in spandex automatically opens themselves to a certain degree of ridicule. Previous attempts include the sublimely idiotic Mystery Men and last year’s limp Sky High. With Jack Black donning the stretchy pants in Nacho Libre the superhero has been brought down to earth with a shuddering bump as he tries to work his way through the lower ranks of the Mexican wrestling circuit to fund an orphanage. Less low-key is Ivan Reitman’s hit-and-miss My Super Ex-girlfriend. Luke Wilson is the hapless fellow who makes the error of dumping Uma Thurman – hell hath no fury like a superwoman scorned. Her vengeance is relentless, but only sporadically amusing.

The last decade has seen a remarkable resurgence in the popularity of the horror film but history repeats itself and we are seeing the fruits of success in the inevitable line-up of sequels and remakes (we won’t trouble you with the tedium of The Fog or demean ourselves wittering on about the PG-13 rated travesty The Wicker Man). So we have Grudge 2, a sequel to a re-make and a re-make of a sequel where Sarah Michelle Gellar (soon to be seen in The Return whose poster isn’t exactly the same as The Grudge at all, honest) passes the spooky reigns to another group of creeped-out strangers in a strange land. Hey, at least it’s not dubbed. More haunted houses in An American Haunting which is, well, like The Haunting (1963) but set in America. And not as good. Amiable enough, with a good turn from Donald Sutherland the film-makers were clearly unsure how to market their film so added in a needless bookending device. Final Destination 3, another entry in the guilty pleasure fairground ride of a franchise (this time they even set it in a fairground) where teenagers who escape their pre-destined death face gruesome and elaborately over-the-top demises. Although exceptionally graphic, the sheer loopiness of the set-pieces and the sense of ghost train joie de vivre makes this a great popcorn-muncher. Kate Beckinsale returns wearing her Kate Beckinsale Impractical Tight Black Number (TM) in Underworld: Evolution, an improvement on the first part but still a complete mess. It’s vampires vs werewolves again with our foxy vamp in the thick of the trouble. And then there’s that sick bunny of a film Saw III (so successful that you can guess what we’ll be writing in twelve months time…) – so revolting that they had to call ambulances to cinemas to aid distraught patrons. Well it is exceptionally sadistic, relentlessly nihilistic and misogynist (let’s see, she’s naked and tortured, he’s clothed and tortured…) but ultimately you never get to know any of the characters except by their means of death. The twisty revelations are fun but by the time you get there you’re hoping everyone’s put out of their misery quickly so that you can rush home and make a cup of tea. Eli Roth doesn’t make this mistake in the similarly brutal, borderline xenophobic Hostel. Roth’s ghastly frat boys stomp around Europe in search of cheap sex and drugs, their Animal House (1978) antics resulting in some very messy business in the heart of ex-Soviet Europe. It engages precisely because Roth has invested time (arguably too much) establishing the characters. Sean Bean fans will surely have rejoiced at the thought of not one but two horror films starring the actor. The Dark, set in Wales, shot on the Isle of Man for tax reasons, has the actor living in a remote cliff-top house. His ex-wife and daughter arrive and the daughter begins to see a ghostly girl who wishes to return to the land of the living. Unfortunately her return means that someone else must take her place in the world beyond. The Dark comes into its own because of its menacing monsters – a bunch of surly killer sheep. It almost manages to pull off this most unlikely of threats. Mr Bean also has wife and daughter issues in Silent Hill, a stylish adaptation of everyone’s second favourite Konami video game franchise (the chances of a Dance Dance Revolution film seem surprisingly slim…). Ultimately this is too reverent to its source material (at one point she searches a desk, finds a key and later has to open a door with it – they may as well stick an energy bar in the corner of the screen) and as such comes across as a series of surreal zombie set pieces intercut with Mr Bean looking anguished and helpless. It does, however, look fabulous and is, surprisingly, centred almost entirely on the female characters. But it is very stony-faced in its dedication to being “serious” horror, an accusation that could not be aimed at Snakes on a Plane. The title is the film and as prime a concept as they get with tough guy Samuel L Jackson getting irate about those “oedipal” snakes on this “oedipal” plane. His job is to protect a valuable witness from assassination by a powerful crime syndicate. The syndicate’s way around the problem is breathtakingly stupid and impractical – get the passengers impregnated with pheromones and let loose hundreds of poisonous, randy snakes on a jumbo jet mid-flight. Snakes On A Plane mostly lives up to its B-Movie premise with dumb jumps, scares and crass humour. There’s more fun in the British horror comedy Severance, a sort of Carry On Hostel, as a group of itinerant office workers on a team building exercise in Eastern Europe find themselves lost and under the watchful eye of some very nasty psychopathic killers. Featuring the cringeworthy motivational boss and the usual range of office caricatures (the toady, the stoner, the geek) the twist lies in the bloody demise of these fishes out of water. Slither tried desperately to take the gross horror comedy back to the heights of Peter Jackson’s most famous film Braindead (1992). Unfortunately it missed its mark, but it tried hard. Written and directed by James Gunn (Tromeo and Juliet, Dawn of the Dead remake and, er, Scooby Doo) it stars Firefly’s Nathan Fillion as a hapless police officer in a small town investigating some very strange and sticky goings on. It’s fun while it lasts, with an amiable cast, but the gags are only for chuckles and the gore’s too gross for a non-horror crowd, but not gross enough to put it on par with Braindead. Still, it hit the spot better than Scary Movie 4 or the big screen debut of Ant and Dec in the overlong Alien Autopsy.

The immediacy of the horror film, its very disreputability and links with grunge culture, has given it a distinct advantage when it comes to putting the finger on the pulse of audience expectations, at least at a basic level. Horror has consistently proved to be a highly profitable niche genre and the returns on often modest budgets are solid. The small budgets and high turnaround give horror much of its relevance – note how quickly the trend for creepy 12A horror gave way to the sadistic excesses of Saw III and Hostel post Iraq (an almost identical reaction to that of the Vietnam War in the 1960’s) as horror films mirror society’s fears. Cinematically SF has, by nature of its development time and general reliance on special effects technology, always had to catch up. Last year’s responses started trickling in with Lucas’s declared anti-Bush Episode Three and Spielberg’s twin responses of War of the Worlds and the non-genre but extremely good Munich. Fortunately this year’s offerings are less bombastic, more considered and offer some hope of revitalising the science fiction genre, which has recently been consisting of guys in spandex and big spaceships. This is the dystopian science fiction film where the future isn’t all good guys and bad guys, there’s little in the way of extra-terrestrial interference and the metaphors relating to the current political climate are as clear as a freshly Mr Sheened window.

V For VendettaThree very different films all offered a bleak vision of our near future, but what is surprising given their diversity in tone and style – one is slick, one grimy, one animated – is how good they all were. V for Vendetta naturally attracted the ire of many – any Alan Moore adaptation gets a grilling regardless of quality (LXG was fair bait, From Hell was seriously underrated). But V for Vendetta told its story well, intelligently and packed in some action too, even if Matrix fans wanted more kung-fu and literary sorts couldn’t take the noise. Add the politically radical message favouring a sort of anarcho-communist future for Britain with terrorist acts aimed at the government and the net result is one of the more thought-provoking pieces of popcorn fodder in years. More strife for Blighty in Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of P. D. James’s Children of Men offering a world of anarchy and violence as the population descends into nihilist self-interest following the failure of anyone to conceive for nearly twenty years. If there is no future generation why bother protecting anything? Clive Owen stumbles unwittingly on a potential saviour for the future, putting his life in jeopardy and forcing him on the run in a police state on the brink of collapse. Cuaron films his dystopian future with a grimy realistic look that is at times astonishing – the immediacy of events reinforced by some of recent cinema’s most memorable long takes. A bleak future also awaits an animated Keanu Reeves (no sniggering at the back there) in A Scanner Darkly, surely cinema’s finest attempt at adapting Philip K Dick. Undercover cop Bob Arctor must break a drug ring, a ring in which he finds himself the main suspect. A user of the highly addictive Substance D, his hold on reality becomes increasingly weak as the investigation progresses. Richard Linklater uses a rotoscoping technique to disorientate the viewer and place them in a world of hopelessness and paranoia – the drug talk moving from slacker stoner humour (a Linklater speciality) to outright hostility in a few hazy sentences. Any hopes that the ending would be less bleak than the novel are shattered.

Fortunately, as the dystopian films show, there is more to cinematic science fiction than wacky aliens and super-powers. More contemporary forays into the speculative or fantastical fiction have been attempted this year, with varying success. Unfortunately this year’s The Lake House, featuring Keanu again, managed to [re-make a perfectly acceptable modern Asian film in American for no readily apparent purpose and] throw any plausibility out of the window. The principle is loopily charming – two people in the same house, separated by two years, form a slow romance by writing each other, a feat achieved by an apparent time rift in their postbox. Sadly the Euro-art-film pretensions and the way that the characters can interrupt each other mid-letter – how does that work then? – drain any suspension of disbelief. Tony Scott, the film-maker for whom the term intellidumb was invented, returned with another Jerry Bruckheimer produced piece of slickness. Déjà vu gave us a reasonably intelligent (if you didn’t think too hard), yet pacey story as Denzel Washington finds himself travelling back in time via some vaguely defined wormhole gubbins to prevent a terrorist attack, whilst managing to fall in love. Bridging the gap between the dystopian science fiction film and the superhero film was much derided Aeon Flux. Moving along at a pace that shows its roots as MTV’s successful anime homage the film never flags in its inventive visual style and parade of futurist surrealism. Although ostensibly a live action interpretation of Japanese science fiction staples it nonetheless has the feel and design of a European science fiction comic, one where the ideas and vision supersede cohesion. Ultimately it fails because it tries too hard to make everything coherent, but this is a minor point for what is, for the most part, originally executed genre entertainment.

The Great Yokai WarWith the big three franchises off the radar for this year (Mr Potter returns for what we hope is a better outing than the pompous Goblet of Fire in 2007 as do the Narnia crew, while hopes of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit fade into “what if…” territory) there seemed to be little for fantasy film fans to sink their teeth into. Even Tim Burton took a backseat after the mighty one-two of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the sublime Corpse Bride. There was Gore Verbinski’s cash cow (more on that later) and some smaller contenders. Eragon told the tale of a farm boy who found a dragon’s egg and fulfilled his destiny defending his homeland from an evil king, played with lashings of ham by John Malkovich. The small British film Mirrormask looked gorgeous, but somehow didn’t live up to its promising beginning. A ravishing triumph of film-making, but where the heart was superseded by the design, this Gilliam-esque fairy tale is still well worth a watch. Speaking of whom, Gilliam himself managed to return closer to his old form and familiar themes with Tideland where a young orphaned girl is left alone in her house on the prairie. Described by Gilliam as “Alice in Wonderland meets Psycho”, Tideland is funny, moving and strange. Pulling a stunning rabbit out of the hat following last year’s insane superhero film Zebraman, Osaka’s most notorious and prolific filmmaker, Miike Takashi, came up with an epic fantasy unlike any other – The Great Yokai War. Filmed for a ridiculously low budget this is free-form imaginative fantasy at its finest. Bullied schoolboy Tadashi becomes the Kirin Rider at a local festival and is set the task of recovering the Great Goblin Sword. This is a required item because there is evil stirring. Tadashi is accompanied by a variety of yokai, spirits that inhabit all things, on a dangerous journey to confront the evil lord and save Japan from destruction. What sets The Great Yokai War apart is the sheer range and diversity of the creatures in its bulging bestiary; rubber necked women that snake around, umbrellas with tongues, walking walls, cuddly rodents, scaly fishmen, bubbling pollutant monsters, there’s probably even a kitchen sink there. Over a hundred unique creatures populate the frames of the film, all of them with distinct personalities. Less suitable for the kiddies is Tsui Hark’s glorious return to form Seven Swords – a fantasy epic re-working of (surprise, surprise) Seven Samurai (1954) where a disparate band of heroes armed each with one of the titular swords do their darndest to stop the dastardly overlord from pillaging the land. This is exhilarating film-making, visceral and energetic, packed with scenes of superhuman endeavour, deep tragedy, betrayal and loyalty. More big blades abound in the (tragically straight to video here) CGI feature Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, a chaotic mismatch of alternate realities, fantasy and science fiction. It’s a bit of a mess but who cares when it looks this good? There are motorbike chases, demons, giant robots, packs of savage dogs and hardly a moment goes by without some universe-threatening punch-up. Obviously those seeking realistic physics need to steer clear but for sheer entertainment this is in a class of its own.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest proved to be the year’s most profitable film, indeed one of the most profitable films ever. The original was the sleeper hit of its year but the sequel went, inexplicably, through the roof. You’d have to be pretty po-faced not to have enjoyed every goofy minute of Curse of the Black Pearl and Dead Man’s Chest offers more of the same, only bigger, louder and with larger coffers of doubloons to splash out on the production. But somehow the end results seem a little less enthralling – like coming off the best rollercoaster ride ever and going on again. It’s still enjoyable but a little of the magic is gone. Kiera Knightly goes all bodicey-feisty, Johnny Depp is superbly outrageous and Orlando Bloom still can’t act for toffee. The basic premise seems to be to split everyone up in a convoluted way so that they can get back together in an even more convoluted way. There are some great set pieces, cannibals, kraken and all manner of cod proclamations. A similar tale of all-out set pieces could be levelled at Mission Impossible III, the feature debut for J. J. Abrams, the man behind Alias and Lost. There are more rounds fired than a John Woo film, more big explosions than Bond and lots of gadgetry and techno stuff. The film is worth mentioning for the trailer alone – a brilliant piece of work that totally wrong foots the audience. Sadly, though the towering performance from Phillip Seymour Hoffman is all that there is to recommend it, it’s overblown, overlong and frankly just plain dull. The immediacy of hand-held camerawork that made Children of Men so immersive appears lazy here. If you’ve got a budget, buy a dolly. Far better in the gadgets and hi-jinks genre (Bond’s back to basics approach excludes it from this round up) was the affable Stormbreaker, based on the popular books by Anthony Horowitz. This really is teenage wish fulfilment as schoolboy Alex Rider finds himself capable of avenging the death of his adopted parent because he has inadvertently learnt the skills necessary to be a top British super-agent. Yes it’s preposterous but find a film listed here that isn’t – Stormbreaker is fun, exciting and, more to the point, (Pirates – that’s you) coherent. Meanwhile Déjà vu gave us a reasonably intelligent (if you didn’t think too hard), yet pacey story as Denzel Washington finds himself travelling back in time via some vaguely defined wormhole gubbins to prevent a terrorist attack, whilst managing to fall in love. Far more low-key was The Thief Lord, a nicely understated children’s fantasy shot though an apparently muddy lens around the streets of Venice. It’s an escape fantasy that takes two brothers into an underground world of homeless children under the protection of the self-styled Thief Lord. The way that the existence of magic is kept in doubt places the film ostensibly in the real world but the melting plot of literary homage (Peter Pan, Oliver Twist, Something Wicked This Way Comes) indicates a more fantastical outcome. An ideal Sunday afternoon watch with the kids.

Two lady in the water films vied for our attention. One, the teen-chick-flick Aquamarine, offered Splash (1984) with hunks, the other, Lady in the Water, purported to be a fairy tale. M Night Shyamalan’s latest was not greeted well by the critics or the public. Caretaker Cleveland Heep finds a naked Narf in an apartment complex’s swimming pool. She needs to return to the Blue World in the claws of an eagle but is being hunted down by vicious creatures that dwell in the grass. Shyamalan always manages to make the extraordinary appear ordinary, it is one of the things that makes his work so appealing. The Lady in the Water continues the themes that are present in his other works and has the potential for being a great little film. Unfortunately it never realises this potential – the plot regularly grinds to a halt only to be kick-started by another revelation squeezed out of the knowledgeable but irritatingly tight-lipped Mrs Choi and some of the self-reverence is a touch tiresome

Pan’s Labyrinth Probably the most difficult films to categorise this year were Pan’s Labyrinth and The Prestige. The former, by director Guillermo del Toro, was moving and imaginative in a way quite unlike any other. Set in 1944 during the Fascist overtaking of Spain a young girl, Ofelia, is forced to live with her new step-father; an evil captain who treats human life as nothing more than an inconvenience. However her new home has an old labyrinth where she meets a domineering faun who tells her she must complete three tasks to claim her rightful place as princess of a grand kingdom. The contrasts between the magical realm and the hell of war make Pan’s Labyrinth a fairy tale for adults – at times brutal, at times beautiful. Throughout the film you doubt everyone’s motives bar Ofelia’s, so the tension is mounted high. This is magical film-making at its very best – Gilliam, Burton and Svankmajer rolled into one. More magic in The Prestige, from Christopher Priest’s novel, as two magicians form a deadly rivalry. Assured and perfectly crafted, The Prestige benefits from tight scripting and a superb cast to make another (really, this is too much in one year) intelligent film for adults. Unfortunately the teaser trailers promised Batman vs Wolverine, causing cinemas around the country to be invaded by fidgeting brats to the 12A rating. Add some swearing please, Mr Nolan, and make the next one a 15…

Perhaps the dearth of franchise excess helped things along but, almost in spite of itself, 2007 turned out to be a solid year for genre cinema.

The Winners (and there were many, many contenders):

Best SF: A Scanner Darkly

Best Fantasy: Pan’s Labyrinth

Most Gruesome Horror: Hostel