The Rebirth of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Movies and Television

I’m not really a movie guy; I’m much more comfortable sitting at home with a book in one hand and a glass of bourbon in the other while orchestral versions of Final Fantasy (and other video/computer game) music floats in the air. In part, this is because of my social inclinations:

  • I’m highly introverted and need alone time; why would I pay to be surrounded by the noises and smells of other people?
  • I like that I can read a book at my own pace instead of waiting around; the average movie pacing is too slow for me.
  • If I watch a movie in theaters, I can’t re-watch it without paying again.
  • Books are within the domain of my imagination.

But largely, this is actually more generational than anything. When I was growing up, geek movies and tv shows were terrible. Sure, you had Star Wars, but what else was there? You could either go for the inanely slow and confusing (2001: A Space Odyssey), the campy and cheesy (Galaxy Quest, which I love), or the underbudgeted (original series BSG). This is most clearly seen in superhero movies. They were either overly melodramatic and operatic (every Superman movie ever) or ridiculously silly (Jack Nicholson as The Joker; Arnold Schwarznegger as Mr. Freeze; Jim Carrey as The Riddler). Now, I don’t mean to impugn Batman or Batman Forever. Those movies were good in their own right, with Jack Nicholson portraying a much more over-the-top Joker, and Jim Carrey being on of my — guiltily — favorite movie comedians. But there was a certain sense in which science-fiction and super hero movies and fantasy movies were all made very tongue-in-cheek, with a sense of ‘we don’t really take this seriously; isn’t it so silly?’

It wasn’t until I went to college that I started to see a flood of such serious movies. Yes, there had been hints, like LotR when I was younger, and the popularity of the Harry Potter movies, but the former represented a legacy of fantasy and the latter was largely aimed at kids. And of course, there was Firefly, but its cancellation had hardly given reason for optimism. And there was the remake of Doctor Who, but it so heavily straddled the line between serious and campy that it was hard to see it heralding a new age of on-screen science fiction. And the last super-hero movies had been Spiderman, which, while constructed with a serious tone, and enjoyable (in my opinion) were less super-hero movies and more ‘teenager’ movies (granted, part of that is simply the tone of Spiderman). However, a few movies and shows came out that for me, really symbolize the birth of serious science fiction.

  • Super Hero Movies
    • Christopher Nolan’s Batman – I hesitate to call it ‘my favorite Batman’, but it was certainly the first attempt at a serious super-hero movie.
    • Iron Man – Again, a similar theme, wrapped up in a Blockbuster shell with a touch of Robert Downey Jr.
    • V for Vendetta/Watchmen – Two very serious graphic novels re-imagined on the big screen.
  • Historical Fiction/Steampunk
    • Sherlock Holmes – Sherlock Holmes may not be Fantasy or science fiction in the strictest sense, but it is eminently literary, and the movie adopted a steampunk tone which had only previously been attempted in a very tongue-in-cheek way (Wild Wild West/League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Let’s not forget Robert Downey Jr.
  • Science Fiction
    • District 9 – This movie was very serious, and actually science fiction in a way that many sci-fi pieces avoid; it actually is a thought experiment. The original thrust of science fiction was ‘what if?’. Science fiction, through that lens, is an extension of the Socratic tradition of hypotheticals. However, a lot of sci-fi reads more like ‘look at this cool universe let’s play around with it!’. District 9 forces the watcher to think in a way that is reminiscent of older science fiction, like Asimov or Bradbury.
    • Star Trek – This, for me, is one of the corner stones. Star Trek is olde science fiction, the sort of thing you think of when you think low-budget sci-fi with campy plots and racist undertones. Yet the new Star Trek movie had all the trappings of a serious movie, while still internalizing the tone of the serious (Chekov’s horrible accident, a pseudo-scientific solution to a ridiculous problem, a steady conflict between logic and gut instincts, and of course, and alternative universe/timeline plot).

And I am glad for this. I always felt a bit separated from sci-fi/fantasy culture because I’ not the type of person who enjoys watching a bad movie and laughing along; I’d much rather just spend that time alone. I had solid exposure to the literature of sci-fi and fantasy, and had never felt motivated to step into other media; movies and TV shows. Now, you can’t turn around without tripping over a movie with a geeky foundation. It’s a good time to be a geek.

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