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Good Sci-Fi Movies (2000-05): Future Imperfect

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Ren Zelen itcherFor me, science fiction has always been less about spaceships and laser guns and more about ideas and the challenges of new science and technology. Science fiction movies at the beginning of the 21st Century ask questions about how we humans might handle progress, and whether technology will outstrip evolution and our ability to control our lives. ~ Ren Zelen

The All-embracing Genre

Discussions about science fiction often tie themselves up in knots trying to come up with a workable definition of the genre. The truth is, there is no definitive definition for a genre that is as notable for its flexibility and hybridity as it is for any conventions imposed upon it.

It is that rare genre that is popular, yet often engages with cultural debates that embrace morality and philosophy and topics such as government, artificial creation, time travel, physical mutation, scientific experimentation, extra-terrestrial contact, and others.

A Sci-Fi Renaissance

The beginning of the new millennium brought a renaissance in the sci-fi movie genre and delivered movies such as ‘Minority Report’ (2002) – one of the best adaptations of a Philip K Dick story (whose prolific array of sci-fi ideas have been plundered by Hollywood).  Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise and Samantha Morton, it dealt with the moral implications of a future where a special police unit is able to arrest murderers before they commit their crimes and the repercussions when an officer is himself implicated in a future murder.  

Spielberg had a phase of making sci-fi movies. In his movie ‘A.I.’ (2001) humans create robotic facsimiles to cater to all their physical and emotional needs. But what about the ‘needs’ of the intelligences they create?  He presented a heartrending story of a robotic boy programmed to love his human ‘mother’ and his desperate attempts to become “real” so that he can regain her love. Spielberg also gave us his updated version of ‘War of the Worlds’ (2005), again starring Tom Cruise with Dakota Fanning.

There was no shortage of sci-fi monster or action movies either.  2000 bought us ‘Pitch Black’ which was directed by David Twohy and made a star of Vin Diesel. The film was shot on a modest budget but developed its own cult following, particularly around the antihero Riddick. A sequel, ‘The Chronicles of Riddick’, was released in 2004, with Diesel back as the title character and Twohy returning as writer and director.

Fans delighted in all the sci-fi stories coming to the big screen in the noughties, but I’d like to take a look at some of the ones that may have slipped under the radar.


Alienating Sci-Fi Movie Recommendations

‘Cypher’ (Vincenzo Natali, 2002)

Well, it might have taken me quite a while to get this point, Mr. Finster, but now that I’m here, I’m going to make the most of it. This is who I am, and this is what I want to do…

Morgan Sullivan (Jeremy Northam), an unemployed accountant bored with suburban life, is pressured by his wife to take a job with her father’s company, but instead takes a position in corporate espionage for Digicorp.

The firm’s Head of Security, Finster (Nigel Bennett), inducts Morgan and assigns him a new identity. He is sent to conventions as Jack Thursby, where he is instructed to secretly record presentations and transmit them to HQ. Sullivan begins to be troubled by recurring nightmares and neck pain. He then meets a mysterious woman called Rita (Lucy Liu) from a competing corporation.

Rita gives him pills to cure his nightmares and neck pain and tells him not to transmit at the next convention. However, after the convention, Digicorp confirms that they have received a transmission, although he sent them nothing. Confused by what is going on, he arranges to meet Rita again. She tells him that Digicorp’s has been drugging him and offers him an antidote. She also warns him that no matter what happens at the next convention he must not react.

Morgan discovers that all the convention attendees imagine themselves to be individual spies working for Digicorp. While they are drugged from the served drinks, plastic-clad scientists probe, inject and brainwash them. Individual headsets reinforce their new identities, preparing them to be used and then disposed of. Morgan manages to convince Digicorp that he believes in his new identity. He is then recruited by Rita’s company Sunway Systems, Digicorp’s major rival, and his life really becomes complicated.

‘Cypher’ turns out to be an intriguing and multi-layered tale of corporate paranoia.

‘Teknolust’ (Lynn Hershman Leeson, 2002)

Anxious to use artificially intelligent robots to improve the world, Rosetta Stone (Tilda Swinton), a bio-geneticist, devises a method through which she can download her own DNA into a “live” brew she is growing in her computer. She succeeds in breeding three Self Replicating Automatons – S.R.A.s – that look human, but are actually intelligent machines.

These cyborg clones must habitually venture into the real world in order to obtain a supply of the Y chromosome in the form of semen to keep them alive. Unfortunately, their periodic treks into the outside world leave the males they obtain the chromosome from with a strange virus that overtakes both their bodies and then their computers.

If you enjoy movies like ‘Ex Machina’ you should check out this rather more radical and original take on the fem-bot genre.

‘Equilibrium’ (Kurt Wimmer, 2002)

To feel. ‘Cause you’ve never done it, you can never know it. But it’s as vital as breath. And without it, without love, without anger, without sorrow, breath is just a clock… ticking…

‘Equilibrium’ is set in 2072 in Libria, a city-state established by the survivors of World War III, where a totalitarian government requires all citizens to take daily injections of “Prozium” to suppress emotion and encourage obedience. All emotionally stimulating material and artistic expression is banned, and “Sense Offenders” – those who fail to take Prozium – are executed.

The story follows John Preston (Christian Bale), an enforcement officer who begins to experience emotions after accidentally missing a dose of his drug. This makes him question his own morality and actions while attempting to remain undetected by the suspicious society which he serves. Ultimately, he decides to aid a resistance movement using advanced martial arts, which he was taught by the very regime he is helping to overthrow.

The look of this movie is very much influenced by ‘The Matrix’ so if you liked that film you should give this one a look. ‘Equilibrium’ avoids being a mindless action movie by borrowing themes from various science-fiction classics.

‘K-PAX’ (Iain Softley, 2002)

I will admit the possibility that I am Robert Porter, if you will admit the possibility that I am from K-PAX. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a beam of light to catch…

A man known as Porter (Kevin Spacey) claims that his is actually an extra-terrestrial from the planet ‘K-PAX’, 1,000 light years away and that his name is prot (uncapitalized and pronounced with a long O). He is committed to a Psychiatric Institute in Manhattan where psychiatrist Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges) attempts to cure him of his apparent delusions.

Perplexingly, prot is able to provide detailed answers to questions about himself, K-PAX and its civilizations and when Dr. Powell introduces him to a group of astrophysicists, prot displays a level of knowledge that astounds them. prot also exhibits total control over the other patients at the Institute, each of whom believes that he is indeed an alien. He claims to have journeyed to Earth by means of “light-travel” and explains that he can take one person along with him when he returns. Most of the patients beg to be the one he takes.

Upon learning that many of his patients expect to leave Earth on July 27, Dr. Powell confronts prot, who explains that it is the predetermined date for his departure. As the hospital staff watch, the camera in Porter/prot’s room cuts to static at the precise moment prot said he must leave Earth.

Dr. Powell finds Porter lying on the floor in his room in a catatonic trance, prot having apparently left his body and returned to K-PAX. The other patients do not recognize Porter as he is being wheeled out of the room. They discover that one of them is missing – Bess, a woman who had remained mute since her home was destroyed in a fire. She is never found.

‘K-PAX’ has entertaining performances from the always watchable Spacey and Bridges and the movie tantalizes us with the difference between what might be seen as delusional and that which is simply unlikely.

‘Primer’ (Shane Carruth, 2004)

Aaron, I can imagine no way in which this thing could be considered anywhere remotely close to safe. All I know is I spent six hours in there and I’m still alive… You still want to do it?

Most sci-fi aficionados have at least heard about the indie movie ‘Primer’, written, directed by and starring mathematician Shane Carruth. Viewing is almost considered a personal challenge for any sci-fi veteran as the film presents an intellectual conundrum.

Engineers Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) build and sell error-checking technology with the help of their friends Robert (Casey Gooden) and Phillip (Anand Upadhyaya). But when When Aaron and Abe accidentally invent what appears to be a time machine, Abe builds a version capable of transporting a human and insists on putting the device to the test.

As the two friends obsess over their creation, they discover the dark consequences of their actions when they meddle with time.

I promise you, this movie will take some unravelling. If you don’t fancy anything too intellectually demanding, you might rather watch something like: ‘Casshern (キャシャーン Kyashān)’.

‘Casshern (キャシャーン Kyashān)’ (Kazuaki Kiriya, 2004)

We are the Neo-Sapiens. Bow down before us…

‘Casshern’  is a Japanese tokusatsu film adaptation of the anime series of the same name. It stars Yusuke Iseya as Tetsuya Azuma/Casshern, Kumiko Aso as Luna Kozuki.

A fifty-year war between the Eastern Federation and Europa ends, with the Federation taking control of the Eurasian continent. A resistance movement rises in Zone 7 and the Federation mobilizes its military. However, the war and heavy industry have exhausted the Federation and polluted the environment.

Dr. Azuma senior discovers Neo Cells, human cells that, theoretically, can be used to regenerate human tissue. The Neo Cells are only found in the genome of “a primitive ethnic group.” He states that he can develop the Neo Cells for human use, but is quickly denounced. But Kaoru Naito, from Nikko Hairal Inc., offers Dr. Azuma sponsorship. Azuma is persuaded when Naito insinuates that accepting will also help Dr. Azuma cure his wife, Midori, but this is only the beginning of a sinister adventure.

As with most Japanese movies of this kind, ‘Casshern’ is rather lovely to look at. I always prefer subtitles to overdubbing and if you do too, be ready to pay attention to the dialogue.

‘The Jacket’ (John Maybury, 2005)

When you’re dead, the one thing you want is to come back…

Miraculously recovering from a bullet wound to the head, Gulf War veteran Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) returns to Vermont in 1992, suffering from periods of amnesia. One day while out walking, he sees a young girl, Jackie (Laura Marano) and her alcoholic mother (Kelly Lynch) in despair beside their broken-down truck.

Starks and Jackie quickly form a friendship and she asks if she can have his dog tags as a keepsake. He gets the truck started for them and continues on his way. Shortly afterwards, a man driving along the same highway gives Starks a ride but they get pulled over by a policeman.

Starks is next found lying on the deserted roadside near the body of dead policeman, himself injured by a bullet from the policeman’s gun, with the weapon on the ground nearby. Although he insists that there was someone else at the scene, he is not believed because of his amnesia. Starks is found not guilty by reason of insanity but is incarcerated in a mental institution.

Starks is placed in the care of psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Becker (Kris Kristofferson). In December 1992 Starks is forced to undergo an unauthorized treatment designed by Becker: he is injected with experimental drugs, bound in a straitjacket and then placed inside a morgue drawer as a form of sensory deprivation. While confined in this situation, he is somehow able to travel fifteen years into the future in short bursts.

He meets an older version of Jackie (Keira Knightley) at the roadside diner where she works. Seeing him standing forlornly, she takes pity on him and offers him shelter for the night. While in her apartment, Starks comes across his own dog tags and reveals his identity to her. Jackie tells him that Jack Starks died on New Year’s Day in 1993, and so he cannot possibly be who he says he is and asks him to leave.

Starks is transported back to the future on several occasions during the course of his treatment and manages to earn Jackie’s trust. They try to make use of his time-travelling ability so as to remove Jack from the hospital and save his life.

If you enjoy time-travelling stories this is an interesting addition, with shades of Ken Russell’s ‘Altered States’.


Let Us Think The Unthinkable

Science fiction movies have been articulating our sense of excitement, wonder and awe for over a century, but they are also telling conduits for our fears, apprehensions and disquiet concerning the possible paths our future may take.  

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