A New Era of Sci-Fi is Upon Us - Looking Ahead to Worlds That Await
by Alex Billington
March 27, 2013
"Here is your mission: pass your knowledge on to the next, as it was passed on to you." A new era of sci-fi is upon us. In just a few years we'll be watching another trilogy of Star Wars movies, picking up where the original trilogy left off 30 years ago. Star Trek has already been revived on the big screen, coincidentally by the same director set to bring us the next Star Wars - J.J. Abrams. Ever since James Cameron's Avatar raised the bar with another box office record in late 2009-early 2010, science fiction movies have been back with a vengeance. Aside from Star Wars and Star Trek returning, things are getting more exciting every day, with filmmakers like Chris Nolan, Alfonso Cuarón, Ridley Scott and Edgar Wright venturing into sci-fi.
We have already seen so many fascinating, entertaining sci-fi movies in the last few years, it already feels like we're in the middle of the new era. From the big ones like Avatar and Prometheus, to Dredd and Battle: Los Angeles and District 9, to Tron Legacy, John Carter, Lockout and the Total Recall remake, to indies like Moon, Another Earth, Monsters, Never Let Me Go and Safety Not Guaranteed. Of course, there's no denying it was many of these films that have brought us into this upcoming sci-fi era to begin with. They're responsible for pushing the genre, bringing excitement and originality back to sci-fi cinema once again.
Go to→ The Upcoming Sci-Fi Movies of the New Era
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One of the first articles about this new era that I came across was written last year by Nordling on AICN, in a post titled "Science Fiction Cinema Is Exciting Again" about Cloud Atlas, Looper and Elysium. He says "filmmakers are using the new technology to tell interesting stories as opposed to selling Happy Meals or cereal boxes." Technology has progressed so much, that filmmakers can tell deeper, richer stories that mirror the deeper, complex struggles of today's global society. He adds: "[we're getting] movies that are way more interested in telling compelling stories, using the medium to advance ideas as opposed to just blowing things up. The days of Star Wars are gone, and we seem to be getting more films of higher caliber, full of rich cinematic themes and perspectives." Ironically, a month later it was revealed Star Wars would be back.
"[The sci-fi genre] pushes itself. You've got people like Neill Blomkamp out there. We wouldn't have been able to make Dredd if it weren't for District 9."
-Alex Garland, September 2012
How does the sci-fi genre continue to evolve? That's the question I posed to screenwriter Alex Garland in my interview about Dredd last year. His answer, short and succinct, hit it perfectly: "It pushes itself. You've got people like Neill Blomkamp out there. We wouldn't have been able to make Dredd if it weren't for District 9." I love that idea — it's filmmakers challenging themselves, putting their passions and cinematic desires into storytelling, that keeps pushing the genre. The success of certain films invigorates and inspires, while the failure of others prevents some from getting made at all. It's better not to have an over-abundance to maintain a quality this genre needs to progress. But that's the thing - quality has been rapidly improving.
Over the last few years, movies like Cloud Atlas, Chronicle, Moon and District 9 have proven to audiences and other filmmakers that taking a risk with bold, unique ideas can pay off. Maybe not pay off financially, but cinematically at least. The fact that films like Looper and Attack the Block were even made, got released in theaters, built substantial buzz, and nurtured large fan-bases shows that love for intellectual, entertaining sci-fi is still rampant. Audiences are ready to embrace science fiction that is challenging and exciting and not just another remake. Yes, we've got more Star Wars, Star Trek, Transformers and even Godzilla on the way, but for each of those we've also got original ideas like Gravity, Pacific Rim, Oblivion and Elysium, too.
I personally love sci-fi. I'm sure it has to do with being raised on continuous viewings of Star Wars, Flight of the Navigator, E.T. and "Alf", plus intensely following certain 90's sci-fi movies that left an imprint (mostly Independence Day, The Fifth Element, Starship Troopers, Contact, Men in Black and Gattaca - 1997 was a fantastic year for science fiction). Looking back at that time, it's interesting how closely this upcoming era mirrors what happened in the late 90's. Excitement for sci-fi back then hit its peak in 1999 with Star Wars: Episode I (and The Matrix), which came just a few years after some of these phenomenal 1997 sci-fi classics. Now we'll be getting lots of strong sci-fi movies in 2013, two years before Star Wars returns again in 2015.
As someone who has a special place in his heart for a lot of sci-fi, I'm still just as excited for each and every upcoming movie as I am about revisiting the classics. When I get to experience a film like Looper or Cloud Atlas, even Prometheus, no matter the results I'm just happy to be seeing more science fiction. Especially from filmmakers that I love, filmmakers that naturally push storytelling and quality no matter what genre they're working in - Rian Johnson, Ridley Scott, The Wachowskis. Was Prometheus as groundbreaking and incredible as we were all hoping? No, unfortunately not. But that doesn't mean it wasn't exciting as hell to see anyway; to know the man who gave us Blade Runner and Alien and yet notoriously stated six years ago, "sci-fi films are as dead as westerns," was finally getting back to the genre. But that was just the start.
Now it's time for even more amazing filmmakers like Chris Nolan, Neill Blomkamp, Alfonso Cuarón, J.J. Abrams, Edgar Wright, Guillermo del Toro, Zack Snyder, Joon-ho Bong, The Wachowskis, Gareth Edwards, David Twohy, Matt Reeves, Wally Pfister, Joseph Kosinski, Doug Liman, M. Night Shyamalan, Gavin Hood, Bryan Singer and Spike Jonze to continue to evolve the genre next. All of these filmmakers, and many others, have sci-fi films in the works right now, from a few major 2013 releases (mostly arriving starting this summer) onwards into 2015 and beyond. And that's not even getting into any of the Star Wars movies or Lucasfilm's standalone features, which will definitely liven things up.
It's also getting exciting to see Hollywood occasionally push stories further into the sci-fi realm just for the fun of it. Seth Rogen's This Is the End and Edgar Wright's The World's End, both comedies about the world ending, will be out this year. Even Shane Black's Iron Man 3 seems to be leaning a bit more towards sci-fi, same with Snyder's Man of Steel and Now You See Me. Last summer there were films like The Watch, Battleship and Amazing Spider-Man that went overboard with sci-fi even when they didn't really need to, which might've been pushing it a little too far, but that's a whole other discussion for another time.
My mind has been nearly overloaded with sci-fi over the last few months. Between the criminally underseen indie Upside Down and Cloud Atlas, to the gasp-inducing Chris Nolan & Star Wars announcements, there's been a resurgence of science fiction mania. I've decided to not only take a quick look back at some of the greatest sci-fi movies in the last five to ten years that have influenced this latest era, but also organize the definitive guide to nearly every upcoming sci-fi project arriving in the next few years. But before I get into that, I have been wondering what it is recently that's making us crazy for sci-fi all over again. Is it something in the air? Was it Ridley Scott and James Cameron reviving the genre? Was it 3D enhancing the experience?
There's no definitive answer, because the genre is continuously evolving and pushing itself, just like Garland said. But I tried to find at least one major influence in our modern society that was encouraging a renewed interest in science fiction. After writing an entire post about the Russian meteorite influencing filmmakers, I realized it's the stunning and infinitely-vast universe we live in that remains the greatest inspiration of all.
Is Cosmic Fascination Fueling Sci-Fi Interest?
Science fiction as a genre is most often influenced by our contemporary society - its concerns, its worries about the future, its current fascinations, its technology. We've reached a point now where, stepping beyond the bleak future envisioned in movies from the 70's and 80's, sci-fi is pretty much real. In our pockets we all have devices that can connect us to anyone and anything around the world instantaneously. Go back just 50 years and that would've been considered magic, fiction. So if that kind of technology is commonplace in 2013, which fascinations of today inspire new sci-fi stories? The answer might partially explain why science fiction is so popular again and why exploring the cosmos is one of the trends in so many modern sci-fi films.
In the last few years, I've noticed a resurgence of interest in the cosmos, space, space travel and the universe beyond our solar system. Maybe it has to do with younger generations' growing disconnect from religion (grounded on Earth) and science itself becoming more interesting on its own. In less than three months into 2013: physicists have confirmed the existence of a Higgs(-like) particle, a bus-sized meteorite disintegrated over Russia in sonic-boom-causing brilliance, and every day NASA adds more awe-inspiring photos to their astronomy archive. I can't be the only one who feels my subconscious fascination with the scientific reality of our universe is what drives my excitement for so many of the spectacular sci-fi movies we see nowadays.
As we know, Prometheus was all about asking (but not answering) questions about existence, while bringing us away from Earth to figure out why there is life on this planet we call Earth. Sure, there's the "escapism" aspect of movies and the desire to be in a whole other world. However, instead of just showing us another world and frolicking around, we're getting real characters with complex, compelling stories in these worlds. Not that we haven't seen this in many great sci-fi movies before, but it's becoming the norm again, which is important to keep invigorating and evolving sci-fi when there's more Star Wars and Star Trek on the way.
While society continues to quarrel over the division of wealth, something that will be addressed in upcoming sci-fi like Elysium and Oblivion, at the same time we have wealthy people like Richard Branson trying to turn science fiction into science reality. He has already conquered technology, travel and entertainment on Earth, so now even he's headed off of this planet and up into the stars with his Virgin Galactic program, practically ripped straight out of a sci-fi story. We can spend Saturday evenings staring in awe at the USCSS Prometheus, pouring over viral artwork late at night, then spend our weekdays wondering when and how Branson's "SpaceShipTwo" will actually make space trips possible in our lifetime. I can't wait to visit Mars!
It's no longer insane to believe that one day soon we'll be mining asteroids and sending humans to Mars - NASA is working on both. Until then, we can always make a few more Mars thrillers (like Ruairi Robinson's Last Days on Mars) but sci-fi cinema has to push further. Now we're getting Europa Report, with a crew trying to reach Jupiter's moon, and Chris Nolan's Interstellar, about an "interstellar voyage to the furthest reaches of our scientific understanding." We need to keep our minds on the edge of their "seats" while we're in the theater, which is getting harder when our actual universe is breathtaking enough in its natural awe.
Even though the Space Shuttle was introduced in 1981, over 30 years ago, it was amusing to see almost all of Los Angeles nearly lose their minds with excitement when Endeavour rolled through the city. Obviously there's an intense fascination with space and the technology that takes us off of this planet, and filmmakers are even capitalizing on that by making movies more "realistic", or "grounded", as if all this could possibly be real one day (giant Jaeger robots, trips to other planets). To make everything feel more real, effects need to be seamless - fully rendered but never questioned. It was Blomkamp's District 9 that set the most recent precedent for perfect integration, and he might do it again with Elysium. Or something else brand new will.
Technology Opens the Door to Limitless Storytelling
One of the biggest factors that's changing the way sci-fi is made is technology. On one hand, it allows movie studios and Hollywood filmmakers to create vast worlds on small green screen sets, and envision complete characters out of nothing and make us believe in them. On the other, it allows up-and-coming filmmakers and budding talent to experiment with non-existent budgets, and also create vast worlds from their own home. This visual effects revolution, which we've known about for a while, has rocked Hollywood by way of all the (mostly sci-fi) shorts that are made and released online. Most of the good ones will usually land the director an agent/manager in Hollywood, or sometimes even an entire directing gig, like Wes Ball of Ruin.
From personal experience, I know that all of these shorts, even the mediocre ones, are being watched closely by Hollywood. Sometimes they influence development ideas before we even know about them. Having the technology at our fingertips, and the ability to learn on our own, is what has opened the doors for creativity. In addition to shorts like Stephan Zlotescu's True Skin and Wes Ball's Ruin, which are featured in the new era, there are others like Kaleb Lechowski's alien-machine film R´ha that sent chills through the industry. That short looked better than some Hollywood movies and it was made entirely by a 22-year-old filmmaker.
"I think it's movies like DISTRICT 9 and Gareth Edwards' MONSTERS, movies that are about more than just weird aliens and explosions, movies made on the cheap and yet remain incredibly cinematic, that have boosted the new science fiction into high gear."
-Nordling of Ain't It Cool News
As the technology gets cheaper, and becomes more readily available for any consumer to learn and use, it pushes the entire industry forward. Filmmakers are less concerned about the technology being a roadblock and more concerned about the story and characters and how they are unique. Which, at this point in the evolution of sci-fi, is very important. As Nordling pointed out, technology has provided an opportunity to make "films that challenge the seemingly popular misconception that good science fiction has to be heavy on spectacle and light on ideas." The sci-fi movies of the past few years, like Super 8 and District 9, were proof to Hollywood that intelligent stories can also have intelligent visual effects. They set the stakes for this era.
From here, the possibilities are endless. Filmmakers growing up today aren't thinking about how much film they'll need to buy or if they can rent that camera, it's all about finding a worth story to tell and a world to tell it in, and figuring out a way to make that happen. Even if it means doing all their own animation during their spare time on grandma's computer. There are no limits on the stories they can tell. We're now in an era where 9-foot-tall blue Na'vi aliens are considered just another race, and a movie adapted from Edgar Rice Burroughs' seminal John Carter of Mars story fully realized with 4-arm, green-skinned Tharks is regarded as the genre's biggest blunder. What an odd time this is, but it's also a time of exploration and innovation. A time where Kickstarter can fund any crazy idea anyone has, as long as enough other crazy people like it, too.
While the technology is inspiring young and on-the-rise filmmakers with endless possibilities, it's pushing Hollywood to be even more creative to keep up. If effects work that good be done that quickly by anyone, then ILM and Weta need to deliver work that still blows us away and revolutionizes the industry. But that's what the summer movie season is for, and that's why they like working with filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro, J.J. Abrams and Darren Aronofsky on their projects. These are the kind of filmmakers who care just as much about the story as they do the visuals, and about balancing everything inside of an intimate but detailed world. Their requirements for ambitious storytelling demand the industry stay ahead of the curve.
James Cameron made some of the greatest leaps in cinematic technology with Avatar. Not only did he gives us completely computer-generated characters that were more realistic than they've ever been before, but he built a virtual world for them to interact with while filming. The way he was able to merge the digital world with the physical set and real actors opened so many creative doors in Hollywood, showing that the world is no longer a limitation, and it can be used to enhance the story. Just like a good visual/special effect can and has in many great sci-fi films before. We can easily build incredible worlds, now let's explore them.
Looking Ahead to Sci-Fi Worlds That Await
One of my favorite conversations last year was our interview with Jon Spaihts, co-writer of Prometheus, who we met and ended up talking with for almost an hour. One topic we spent a lot of time on was world building in sci-fi. Spaihts reiterates: "I think no matter how dazzling a cinematic background you lay behind a story, you are only going to invest to the extent that you connect to the characters you are watching…" He's hoping to see the genre evolve from its current geekier trends to something more grand and fascinating: "I want to bring back the macrocosmic space opera with high concept driving that story." To my ears, that sounds exactly like what Chris Nolan is planning for Interstellar, and where this new era might be headed.
Another great line from Nordling's article: "As special effects become more inexpensive, I think studios can take even more risks on these compelling stories and with the opening up of new filmmaking technologies that are even more immersive than ever, we could be seeing some amazing science fiction movies in the near future." I couldn't agree more. There are so many wonderful worlds to explore, stories to be told, characters to meet. He continues: "I can't wait to see them and talk about them. For a science fiction fan like myself, this is a very exciting time." Indeed it is. We're entering that new era, and I'll be in theaters to experience it.
This next set of sci-fi movies hitting this year including Oblivion and After Earth and World War Z have even decided to re-imagine our own planet. They will try to make audiences believe what we're seeing isn't really Earth, it can't be—but it actually is. How did it get that way? Was it our fault? What does seeing that make you think? I love the kind of thoughts a vividly realized world can evoke, which is one of the many reasons why I'm so excited to explore so many different worlds in so many different sci-fi movies coming up.
In all truth and honesty, I can't wait to get back to the Star Wars universe; or JJ's Star Trek universe; to any world Neill Blomkamp or Joe Kosinski dream up no matter where it is; to Marvel's cosmic universe. I'm already anxious to find out what Wally Pfister is envisioning for Transcendence, taking us inside a computer like Tron again, and what Chris Nolan has up his sleeves for his heroic Interstellar sci-fi voyage. Based on the cryptic one-line description, that sounds like this might be the pinnacle of the new sci-fi era in the way Nolan might be testing the limits of "our scientific understanding" both as an audience and as a modern society. To top that off, The Wachowskis are back into sci-fi in a big way with Jupiter Ascending.
Thinking back over the past few years, I have so much admiration for all that we've had the chance to enjoy, even the biggest failures, for trying and still staying true to their worlds (e.g. John Carter, In Time, Skyline, Dredd). But for each failure I also think of all the successes, all the indie gems and sensations that helped push the genre along (e.g. Primer, Another Earth, Sound of My Voice, Chronicle, Attack the Block, Moon, Timecrimes, Extraterrestre, Melancholia) and what they might inspire next. I love being enthusiastic about what's ahead, because being excited about the next evolution in a genre as beloved as sci-fi is what keeps these filmmakers motivated to challenge themselves, to never get lazy, and to always strive for the amazing.
I also need to mention The Hunger Games, the "Twilight replacement" series adapted from a popular set of novels, but unlike Twilight, this one is all out sci-fi. It's almost more of a post-apocalyptic action-thriller, which is the same classification most big Hollywood sci-fi movies fall under, but it has all the elements of good science fiction. If anything, this is keeping Hollywood studios enthusiastic - that young females and young males are both interested in sci-fi right now, and it's not so much the world/setting that would scare any of them away, it's moreso about making sure there's a great story and characters to follow. Catching Fire is next in the series, due out this November directed by Francis Lawrence (of I Am Legend previously).
After all of this excitement, I thought it best to end with a quote spoken by James Cameron about the one and only Stanley Kubrick and his seminal sci-fi classic 2001. Part of the Making of 2001 doc found here.
"Even to this day, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey remains the all-time great science fiction film. Its groundbreaking photographic techniques still influence modern special effects. But as our films get ever more spectacular, 2001 reminds us that it's the ideas behind the spectacle that are still the most important special effect of all."
A crucial reminder for the next generation—and current generation—of filmmakers. Spoken by a true sci-fi master himself. For the first time since launching this blog, I feel like we're entering a time where science fiction cinema will not only be the biggest box office draw in Hollywood, but also be responsible for pushing filmmaking technology and the limits of storytelling. It's thanks to a combination of the greatest filmmakers working today exploring the genre as well as the endlessly inspirational and stunning universe we exist in. The same wonder that makes us look at the stars and imagine other worlds is the same wonder driving this new era of sci-fi. An era of Jedi, Klingons and Na'vi, yes, but also of new beings, new planets, new places.
I'm so excited to explore the many worlds that await us in the many spectacular sci-fi movies being written, filmed, edited and finished right now. Let's usher in this new era with an optimistic look at the projects, and the filmmakers behind them, in hopes that it continues to inspire original ideas to enthrall and entertain us.
↑ Is Cosmic Fascination Fueling Sci-Fi Interest?
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Go to→ 9 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the Past Five Years
Go to→ The Upcoming Sci-Fi Movies of the New Era