Five Gold Standards that Make a Great Sci-Fi Film

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We’re in our sixth decade of SF movies and it’s chaos out there. Despite a truly vintage year (it takes two hands to count the good ones) SF quality is erratic over the long term.

Folks, it’s as obvious as requiring two up quarks plus a down to make a proton. We need standards! More specifically, we need a set of gold standards that can be the guiding principles for SF filmmakers, enthusiastic audiences, and of course, humble film critics.

So power up your implants. The future of SF film needs Film Junk’s hive mind toggled on. Let us know where we got it wrong, if at all.

(Government Health Warning: We are talking about hard core SF – not comic book poseurs or fantasy fluff heads.)

1. The Smart Idea Planted in a Great Story

Any SF film that aspires to greatness needs a compelling idea that engages the brain. And this idea needs a good story to make them fertile. Yes. You can say these two criteria are important to any movie but they are especially critical in a film genre that has so many potential distractions. Action themes, alien locales, unrestrained CGI, and ADD (Attention Deficit Directors). Their reliance on black SUVs, overwhelming effects, and scripts that constantly repeat “Go! Go! Go!” are bad for us all.

Smart: Gattaca, Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Code 46

Self-test: Watch Daybreakers. Does it show fresh ways to think about vampires? Or will it be stale blood tropes of the been there, done that variety. Early word suggests 50/50. If so, it fails.

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Film Junk’s Holiday Gift Guide for Movie Lovers

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New Gifting Protocols Breakthrough – Make a Real Difference for 2010!

Film Junk has a radical new approach for your gifting challenges. It’s not the usual generic holiday gift list. It’s a mash-up of groovy stuff that will positively impact all the “personal nodes” in your local area giftnet. It’s called the Film Junk 2010 Protocols for Gift Giving2. Developed by the agile minds of our site staff, this collection takes you places you’ve never been and shows you gifts you won’t believe exist.

But the real breakthrough is our new gifting protocol (patent applied for) based on the square of giving or Giving2. When you follow this protocol, it generates two gifting strategies. First, gift yourself. Makes you feel good right? This much happy without breaking any laws is unbelievable. Then gift others. By the time you’ve used this Giving2 convention, the gifts for you will have re-invented your lifestyle. You’ll be almost as cool as a vampire. And the gifts for the others will finally get you noticed and maybe even liked. (No guarantees please).

So have a ball. Drop us a line on how well it works. When this goes viral, Giving2 followers will get all the credit for the economic rebound of 2010.

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Between Dimensions: The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961)

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Between Dimensions is a continuing feature that examines science-fiction on the screen in all of its forms: big or small, good or bad.

Man fumbles the planet… The first in a continuing series

If you want to sample the golden age of science fiction, The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a good place to start. Since British director Val Guest made the film in 1961, this apocalypse is a little more cerebral than what we’re used to (e.g. the recent new gold standard of 2012). With limited effects, Guest relies on good actors, disaster news reels, and clever staging to make his story real. Set in London, DECF sharply conveys the nervousness of a world discovering nuclear fission for better or worse. In this case, much worse.

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Between Dimensions: Solaris (1972)

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Between Dimensions is a continuing feature that examines science-fiction on the screen in all of its forms: big or small, good or bad.

Bring an overnight bag to your couch. This star trip takes awhile.

Solaris is about first contact and tells its story most authentically. It is sprinkled with tantalizing hints of an incomprehensible alien presence and deftly threaded with some of humanity’s long-standing existential issues. These factors combine to create the conditions that in turn perplex, humble, and threaten the movie’s cast of characters. Be warned however. Solaris is also the ultimate litmus test of a viewer’s attention span. Transformers this is not.

For better or worse, Solaris tells its story (from a novel by the great Russian sci-fi writer, Stanislaw Lem) in almost real time. For better because you are cocooned in layer after layer of allegory and allusion. This style ensures that you are impacted the same way the Solaris’ crew is – frightened by the alien presence, deeply concerned for humanity, and afraid for your own sanity. For worse, because this meticulous layering takes 90 real time minutes. It proceeds with a somnolent rhythm delivered by a stolid Russian cast that will severely test your enthusiasm for wanting to be present at first contact.

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Between Dimensions: Chrysalis (2007)

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Between Dimensions is a continuing feature that examines science-fiction on the screen in all of its forms: big or small, good or bad.

Cops and Robbers Metaphysicalized with Panache

The recent Bruce Willis film Surrogates reminded me of a French film called Chrysalis. Their shared idea – what makes up our identity – can play out many ways. (All the films based on PKD stories are testament to that). My advice? Just skip Surrogates. Rent Chrysalis. Julien Leclercq has directed a smoothly styled film noir (more correctly, un very slick filme bleu-noire) of French cops searching for the abductors of young women who, as illegal aliens, are highly vulnerable to exploitation. Expertly threaded into this somewhat generic story is a dramatic neurological breakthrough. It gives the film its energy by spinning in and out of the basic cops and crooks with inventiveness and a lot of visual elan.

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District 9 Review

District 9
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Written by: Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Vanessa Haywood, Johan van Schoor, Nathalie Boltt

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First contact. Who thought it would be this messy?

War is hell. And now Neill Blomkamp, the director of District 9, vividly demonstrates that apartheid is also hell. In a blistering, hard-edged blend of science fiction storyline, corporate morals inspired by the Third Reich, and adrenaline spiked action, District 9 does for science fiction what Saving Private Ryan did for war movies. Let me quickly add there is no preaching. Blomkamp doesn’t show and tell. He shows and shows and shows again in a no-respite avalanche of agonized faces, seriously wrecked bodies, and searing emotions.

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Between Dimensions: Star Trek is Ours (An Intergenerational Rant)

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This new Star Trek movie. It’s not real. I mean it’s not the real Star Trek. You see, my generation (the boomers if you need to know) owns Star Trek. We saw it first. We saved it from cancellation. And we kept it alive for 79 episodes and six films. So make no mistake. We own it. It’s encrypted with our generational genes. And we never gave it away. We like it the way it is. Don’t even think about doing a tribute movie. We’re the ones who preserved Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and the crew in amber. And so they cannot be re-imagined, re-invented, re-vivified, or re-interpreted. They can only be rerun.

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Between Dimensions: Starman (1984)

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Between Dimensions is a continuing feature that examines science-fiction on the screen in all of its forms: big or small, good or bad.

Starman Still Connects… But With Keanu?

As the winter of ’09 has refused to depart gracefully, some movie time travel seemed a smart avoidance technique. I found myself stopping in 1984 wondering how well Starman would hold up after a quarter-century. I had vague memories of Jeff Bridges acting but nothing more. I’m pleased to say that Starman remains an excellent film. More surprisingly though, it seems to be what fans were expecting from Keanu, Scott Derrickson, and company in their unsatisfying remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

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Race to Witch Mountain Review

Race to Witch Mountain
Directed by: Andy Fickman
Written by: Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback (screenplay), Matt Lopez (screen story), Alexander Key (book)
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, AnnaSophia Robb, Alexander Ludwig

This race runs on two tracks – one wins, one doesn’t.

You really have to watch Race to Witch Mountain with both eyes. One to see the movie that was made for an audience of tweenies. The other to judge the movie against an average director’s competency scale. Somewhat schizophrenic I admit but you know Film Junk always takes the big risks for its readers.

Let me say right up front that I enjoyed both movies but one more than the other. With my one eye, I saw a film that could be enjoyed by anyone from 8 -14. It portrays two ingratiating teens that are both heroes and aliens. (Perhaps someone like that lives with you). A cab driver with the heart of a Boy Scout stands in for their parents. And lots of authority figures blow things up in a mostly frustrating effort to catch them. It’s a typical Disney recipe and for this eye, it works really well.

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Watchmen: A Non-Reader’s Perspective

Geeks always champion shaky propositions. Their slightly off-center dress code comes to mind. Their wanton mastery of the obscure is another. And of course there’s the subject at hand – Watchmen. In this movie (based on the comic book novel) they try to compensate for their perceived shortage of props by investing philosophical import into an arguably lightweight achievement.

In this case, Alan Moore, the author of the novel did come up with a high concept for an underdog genre. His portrayal of the various Watchmen characters turned the super hero mythos inside out, exposing their assorted afflictions while making them more relevant and compelling. Like all good polemicists, Moore used the emotional anxiety of his times (the Cold War, the fear of nuclear Armageddon) to give his philosophical observations force. And he relentlessly projected a brutish and dismal characterization of humankind throughout the narrative. Is it any wonder his story was enthusiastically adopted by our fringanista friends? When you expose the nastiness of humanity long enough and loud enough, for them it’s a knee-jerk fist-pump (you know what I mean).

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The Day The Earth Stood Still Review

The Day the Earth Stood Still
Directed by: Scott Derrickson
Written by: David Scarpa, Edmund H. North (original)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Jaden Smith, John Cleese

Gort, we hardly knew ye.

To set the mood for The Day the Earth Stood Still, I listened a lot to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. It didn’t include my favorite Floyd track, “Comfortably Numb”. That sentiment was uncomfortably close to the male lead’s notorious acting style. I wasn’t about to take any chances on tainting my enjoyment of this much-anticipated film.

For those of you who are fans of Robert Wise’s 1951 version with Michael Rennie, you will find much to appreciate here as similar philosophical issues are raised and addressed. What is less successful are the awkward mechanics brought to bear to keep the plot moving. An intriguing premise is mutated by conventional cinematic ploys and the potential for wonderment is lost.

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Between Dimensions: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Between Dimensions is a continuing column about science-fiction and other unearthly matters written by Curt Dwyer.

Sci fi nerds (including yours truly) live with the knowledge that the more alien an alien gets, the more indistinguishable he/she/it will be from a god. In the case of The Day the Earth Stood Still, this plays out badly for Klaatu our planet’s first alien visitor. The humans fearful of his seemingly omniscient abilities, shoot him. Given that Klaatu knows a lot about Earth, I’m surprised he expected anything less.

Seriously though, this gem of a movie from sci fi’s golden age builds from this quantum naiveté to craft a story of honesty, innocence, and hope. It uses its star’s monasterial aura, inspired casting, and quickly paced story to lay out a case for a dramatic change in human behavior. You could call it galactic intervention therapy.

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