Yesterday I posted ten reasons why I thought Inception was the greatest Science Fiction film ever made but I missed one. It is pretty rare that big ideas and big budget go together and Inception is the exception. We have since seen clever films like Source Code get some investment but even now we more often get things like Transformers and Avatar where the budget and the quality of the writing are equally obscene.
If you look at the older movies that had serious money spent on them like Star Wars, E.T and Alien (it was serious money at the time, now it would be small change) they are great but the central conceit is always fairly simple.
Clearly there are films like Blade Runner and The Planet of the Apes that explore intelligent ideas but they started on the page and there has never been a shortage of smart science fiction on the book shelves. Even wibbly wobbly timely wimey stuff like 12 Monkeys and Terminator had much more humble origins. Both of those movies were actually based on the same no budget short film, French film maker Chris Marker’s sublime La Jetée.
Around the same time as Inception we did get District 9, Monsters and Moon but all of these are examples of how it is now possible to make your film look expensive without it actually being so. The fact is that the smartest original science fiction is commonly the cheapest.
There has also been a run of smaller films recently that take sci-fi ideas and make them almost incidental. Robot and Frank is a nice example of this where the story is about an old man fighting against dementia and his best friend just happens to be an android. Safety Not Guaranteed and Sound of My Voice, both released in cinemas last year and now available on DVD are two more nice examples; little films with big sci-fi sensibilities.
Safety Not Guaranteed gets its name from the last line of an ad placed in a newspaper:
“Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.”
That same ad did genuinely appear in a newspaper in 1997 but only because one of the editors needed something to fill a space at the last minute. He must have suspected some writer/director would see it and think it was a good idea for a movie.
It is a good idea for a movie and the story revolves around a magazine journalist in search of the story and the man who posted the ad. What follows is like a modern day version of Peter Shaffer’s stage production The Royal Hunt of the Sun. In that play a Spanish Inquisitor comes to believe that the Aztec King he is guarding might actually be the Sun god he claims to be. The emptiness of his life makes him susceptible to the most ridiculous religious fanaticism. In Safety Not Guaranteed we see a skeptical yet directionless twenty something slowly entertaining the notion that the thing this nut job is building in his garage might actually be a working time machine.
It is a nice light hearted parable about our desire to believe in something and how people with great conviction can be very convincing.
Sound of My Voice is more serious in tone but deals with very similar ideas as two journalists desperate for a story infiltrate a highly secretive cult and discover that the leader claims to be from the future. Once again we see how one of them is compelled to believe this ludicrous assertion. At its heart it is a very powerful study of the power of cults but there remains the question of whether or not this character might actually be a time traveller and the film might actually be science fiction.
Both films play with viewer expectations in the same way that Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige slowly asked its audience to accept that there might really be magic behind the magic tricks. The audience questions how much it is prepared to suspend disbelief just like the two journalists at the centre of the stories.
I won’t give away the endings of Safety Not Guaranteed or Sound of My Voice (or The Prestige) but proper sci-fi or realistic drama they both build themselves around notions of how people would react to science fiction ideas in a factual world.
I do recommend you search out both, Sound of My Voice in particular which was in my top five films of 2012. If you want something that deals with these genre ideas in an intelligent way then look no further. If you think that all science fiction needs to feature giant robots then move on, there is nothing for you here.
Are these ones for the kids?
Both films are rated 15 so this is slightly more grown up sci-fi (or is it sci-fi) than Star Wars and E.T too.