Big year for science fiction

 Last year may have given us the greatest 12 months of science fiction film ever. Looking back, it seemed like a full decade’s worth of great sci-fi was jammed into 2009. Hopefully it will turn out to be more than just a spurt. Maybe it’s a sign that we are entering a new golden age of science fiction film making. Let’s hope so because science fiction matters more than ever here in the early 21st century.

We need to be challenged, to have our collective cage rattled, and nothing does that more effectively than science fiction. A good sci-fi film is more than mere entertainment. It may offer a peek inside ourselves or a new perspective on our society. It introduces us to big concepts we probably are not thinking about—but should be. In a time when fewer people read books and increasing numbers watch movies, mentally stimulating films are invaluable. One way or another, we need as many members of our species thinking about big issues as possible. The deeper implications of genocide, extreme poverty, climate change, racism, war, robots, evolution, viruses, computers, space, extinction, and visions of the future should be on the minds of everyone these days—not just the geeks who read Asimov.

If you missed them in theaters, please don’t let these 2009 films escape you forever. But remember, don’t just watch them; think about them, and ask yourself questions. Here is a checklist to help:

Star Trek. I had concerns about this reboot of the great franchise. With its risky portrayal of young versions of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the crew, combined with the leadership of a director who publicly admitted that he was not a hardcore fan of Star Trek, I saw plenty of potential for disaster. But it all came together just fine. There was enough loyalty to Trek lore in place to satisfy most Trekkies and there were enough explosions to placate the teen masses needed to make blockbusters profitable these days.

Star Trek’s vision of tomorrow remains the most hopeful. In this fictional future, the problems of poverty and war on Earth have been solved, and people are busy exploring a galaxy teeming with interesting lifeforms. What more could we hope for? Question: Can we overcome the worst within ourselves to one day travel to the stars?

District 9. Cool film and totally plausible. What would we humans do if we suddenly found ourselves playing host to a few hundred thousand aliens? That’s easy. We would feel insecure, develop deep prejudices against them, force them into shantytowns, exploit them for profit, and find excuses to kill them. What, you doubt any of that? Please, that’s what we do to our own fellow humans, despite the fact that we are all 99.9 percent genetically identical! It’s a safe bet that we would do the same to outsiders who really were significantly different. Question: Will we ever outgrow the “us” vs. “them” game?

Moon. This excellent low-budget film presents convincing drudgery on a Moon mining base mixed with corporate slime who place profit before life. What’s not relevant to our lives down here about that plot? Question: What makes you “you”? Is it your body, your memories, your dreams?

The Road. I haven’t seen this post-apocalyptic drama yet, but if it’s half as good as the Cormac McCarthy novel it’s based on, it should be well worth the price of admission. The story is about a father and son trekking across a dying, cold landscape under a filthy sky. Question: If we humans succeed in our insane effort to poison and darken this beautiful world, would the will to survive and love for another be enough to keep you going?

Terminator Salvation. A fine addition to the Terminator saga. Go ahead and laugh, but when robots with artificial intelligence decide they can run the planet more efficiently than we can, don’t come crying to me! Question: Will intelligent machines of the future be content to remain our slaves?

Surrogates. While I was not impressed with this film overall, it did deal with the important idea of robots and virtual reality eating away at our physical lives. This is sure to become a prominent issue in coming decades. Question: Is it okay to live some, most, or all of your life in a virtual world?

Time Traveler’s Wife. While I would label this movie “romance” rather than science fiction, it does center on time travel and that’s enough to earn a mention here. Time travel is not the crazy idea it once was. I have interviewed and written about Dr. Ronald Mallett, a University of Connecticut physicist, who is attempting to construct a time machine capable of sending sub-atomic particles back in time. If he or someone else pulls that off, people may follow. It’s still a very long shot that may prove to be impossible, but the pursuit is exciting. You may be hearing more about Mallet soon. Spike Lee is reportedly developing a film about his life.  Question: Is time travel to the past possible?

Avatar. James Cameron’s highly anticipated “Avatar” did not disappoint. Not content to have destroyed the biodiversity of their own world, humans look to do the same on Pandora, a beautiful moon inhabited by humanoids who are a lot better at working and playing well with others than we tend to be. Question: Will we stop squandering the Earth’s natural wealth before it is too late?

Leaving the theater after watching Avatar, I felt Cameron’s message was uncontroversial: genocide and destroying biodiversity are bad things. Silly me, I suppose I should have known better. To my surprise, I have since learned that some moviegoers were offended by the film. They said they didn’t like being lectured to and having one man’s opinion pushed on them. Wow, it’s 2010 and we are all still not on the same page when it comes to genocide and environmental destruction!

Like I said, we need many more good science fiction movies, because humankind still has a lot of inspired thinking left to do.

Guy P. Harrison’s columns appear twice per month in the Observer. Contact him at [email protected]

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