This is not a top ten list – I find ranking counterproductive, when compared to taking an inventory of the things from last year most worth talking about.
In this case, that’s science fiction: A lot of great movies came out in 2017 as did a lot of spectacularly terrible ones, but I feel most qualified to discuss the year’s releases in terms of the genre. SF is about answering questions,and so I ask, collectively, to this year’s science fiction movies: What were the what-ifs this year; the strange yet familiar worlds? In a time when the future seems dark with both uncertainty and despair, what do we hope – or fear – the future could hold? I’ll ask in chronological order.
While we’re asking questions, aren’t spaceships cool? And robots, and weird aliens?
FILMS FROM THIS YEAR I’M NOT COUNTING AS SCIENCE FICTION:
Split, Kong: Skull Island, Wonder Woman, The Dark Tower, It, Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, whatever TV show you’re thinking of
GET OUT (February 24th)
Where else to start? Call it what you like – “horror”, “social thriller”, “documentary” – but the crux of Jordan Peele’s electrifying debut movie is an undeniably science-fictional concept. One of the powerful things you can do with SF is to take a metaphorical perspective on the world (the rich feeding on the poor, men trying to make women objects they own) and turn it literal, so the rich are vampires who literally drink people’s blood, or men make robot women and try to replace all the regular, free-willed ones.
Peele’s idea, which goes by the name “Coagula” and I find terrifying, contains elements of both those examples, but comes from a uniquely black perspective: Everything about its nature and mechanism comes back to the body, the skin you live in, and how everyone treats it as more important than who you are inside. Good stuff.
LOGAN (March 4th)
Stan Lee, the legend goes, conceived the idea of the mutants and the X-Men as a way to minimize the work that needed to be done on origin stories. Sure, everyone will take the odd science experiment gone wrong here and there, but when you consider the sheer size of the Marvel universe, the large-scale solution of “Some people are just born with cool superpowers, enough to qualify as a minority group” gives you a lot more freedom for a lot less suspended disbelief.
Logan presents itself as a counterpoint to the rest of the X-Men, a refutation of the action-packed, romantically tragic “Mutant and proud” ethos, taking place in a world where mutants aren’t born anymore. The sense of encroaching realism as disappointment carries over into the film’s vision of the year 2029: A future barely removed from parts of our present, design and industrial elements only barely removed from the modern day, and nothing but some slightly improved devices and a general sense of dusty, worn-out age to show any time has passed.
COLOSSAL (April 27th)
In the same way that some people hold there are only nine or so plots, there are essentially two things you can do with a giant monster. King Kong, the progenitor of the genre, humanized its gargantuan creature, giving it an emotional arc that belied the fact that it was a huge prehistoric animal that smashed up midtown Manhattan, but Godzilla, the rebirth of the concept into what we know today, treated the title beast as a force of nature: Not just inhuman but living on too huge a scale to comprehend. With some minor variations, these two dramatic concepts have formed the backbone of every giant monster story you can think of.
That’s why Nacho Vigalondo deserves kudos, for thinking up a third thing you can do with a giant monster: Making it a force of nature of a person. It would be too simple to say the enormous monster in Colossal is Anne Hathaway, any more than we are the worst thing we’ve ever done: Nevertheless, that worst thing is there, as undeniable a fact as a giant monster crushing you underfoot, and it’s your responsibility.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOLUME 2 (May 5th)
What kind of person would want to kill everyone in the galaxy, and how do you make that person a meaningful character? It’s a tough question to answer – Marvel as a whole has been kicking that can down the road for nearly six years, with Thanos – but James Gunn has had to do it twice over, with the villains of his Guardians movies – after all, the galaxy needs someone to be guarded from.
Lee Pace’s poorly-lit, declamatory Ronan The Accuser was a weak point of the excellent first movie, but the sequel gives us a villain with a much more metaphorical weight behind him – for a start, he’s named “Ego” – realized with some of the most imaginative CGI I can recall. Ego’s vision for the galaxy is beautiful, influenced by everything from Versailles to Oz, and features a lot of early ‘70s environmentalist, transcendentalist science fiction concepts. Above all, though, it’s only meant for him, and no one else, and that’s the mechanism that judges itself to be worth more than all life in the galaxy – one man’s unchecked Ego.
OKJA (June 28th)
Here’s a giant monster story that ends up pretty securely on the “humanized” side of that binary I mentioned earlier. Okja distinguishes itself by delving into the logistics of its titular creature, a genetically engineered livestock animal. The animal (pronounced “Ach, ja”) is owned by a darkly satirical American megacorp, and sought by a particularly wacky animal rights group, but its story follows the little girl who winds up taking it as her pet, and going on an adventure to get it back.
It may not seem like it, but this is all an advancement of the science fiction elements of the story. By showing us all these people and groups and events that spring out of Okja’s presence, the film is exploring the social implications of a new technology, which is as science fictional as it gets.
SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (July 7th)
Speaking of which, let’s talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Why? Because the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t want to. Twenty movies or so into the grand endeavor, they’re still afraid to admit what they are: Captain America can cameo in a Thor movie, the events of that can set up a Doctor Strange movie, but at the end of the day there’s very little done with the universe as a universe – a persistent setting, similar to our world but where all this SF weirdness happens on an increasingly regular basis.
Spider-Man Homecoming is the first Marvel movie since probably Iron Man 3 to actually reckon with the MCU: Peter Parker has a relatively normal life, but even if he wasn’t Spider-Man, we see how deeply he’d be affected by living in a super-heroic world, with elements from the other movies seeping into his language, culture, leisure, work, and hopes for the future. By the happy accident of having all those movies before it, it becomes the most complete science-fictional culture I can think of in a while, and it’s one of the biggest dividends the MCU has paid in terms of making the movie better, so far.
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (July 14th)
The nature of humanity is a struggle between our civilized and wild selves: We’re fundamentally inadequate at being either a single ordered body or a churning mass of base emotional flesh, because the influence of the other half always creeps in eventually.
For half a century, the Planet of the Apes series have been interrogating the degree and intensity of this divide – what would happen if one end of the binary was just a little more weighted, than it was with homo sapiens? The series’ answers have varied over time, but War proposes that, simply put, just about anything would be better than what we have now, and starting fresh with people as a whole can only pay dividends. After everything that’s happened this year, this is a message a lot of people will be receptive to.
VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (July 21st)
The late ‘60s and early ‘70s were a pivotal moment for science fiction. The Space Age reaching its peak meant that the concept of humanity in space had to be confronted as a reality, and the question of what face humanity would present to the stars was found to be already answered. Some creators grew bleak, but others, like Jean-Claude Mezieres, saw space as a vector for beautiful possibility.
Mezieres’ adventure comic, Valerian et Laureline, has been adapted after decades of attempts by Luc Besson, and watching the movie you can see why he kept trying: The environments and concepts we see are some of the most imaginative things in a wide-release movie. Always striking in their familiarity yet fascinating in their diversion from what we recognize, with every penny of the hundreds of millions of dollars it took to realize up on screen. It’s a shame the plot and characters aren’t nearly up to the same standard, or we’d have been talking about this for a long time.
STAR WARS EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI (December 15th)
Considering my stringent definitions for what is and isn’t SF, you might be surprised I’m putting this in the retrospective. I was surprised, myself, to find that the latest Episode is a science-fictional reckoning of the Star Wars universe’s status quo.
Rian Johnson brings an analytical perspective to a lot of the fantasy-inspired universe that we take for granted, after four decades as a pop-cultural cornerstone: The story hinges on new (space-)naval technology that changes the mechanics of all those titular spaceborne conflicts, and crucial subplots examine the ramifications of what happens when you live in a galaxy where those conflicts are a regular fact of life.
ALIEN: COVENANT (May 26th) and BLADE RUNNER 2049 (October 6th)
Where else could we end? A year is a long time, but at the same time it seems ludicrous, how much work some people can cram into 365 days. Just look at Ridley Scott, an eighty-year-old man making more vital and experimental movies than a lot of newcomers.
Like many Hollywood veterans, though, the vagaries of unchecked capitalism in mass media means Scott is forced to go back to his well-remembered old stuff to make a living: This year brought us the eighth (NOTE no, not six – there’s no reason not to count the AVPs, let’s not stand on ceremony) Alien movie and the second Blade Runner movie, which show a kind of convergent evolution thanks to Scott’s influence.
Non-humans; created rather than evolved life, is the order of the day: Not only do androids exist in both films, not only are the regulations and limits of that existence central to the story, but both the alien and the blade runner in Alien and Blade Runner have now been built rather than made. Created life is always a rich vein for representation – they can mean anything from children to art to technology. Scott, though, doesn’t hold them to as high a standard: He holds they shouldn’t represent much more than ordinary people, should be allowed to live and love and fail and learn, probably even more so than the beings that created them.
It’s a worthy concept, but it’s interesting to see how it gets twisted around the two very different movies they appear in. Both movies are attempting to recreate the genre and story style of their predecessors, so Covenant is bound to be a gory, atmospheric monster movie heavy on the man’s inhumanity to man, but it clashes with the offbeat Gothic mystery that forms the lion’s share of the narrative. Meanwhile, 2049’s vague, ethereal gumshoe noir ends up dovetailing with the exploration of inhumanity, in a strangely uplifting way. Denis Villeneuve recast Scott’s vision through his own trademarks of alienation, paranoia and regret, to create a solution to the mystery that’s indefinite enough to feel real.
Of course, you may disagree with me about most of these. Science fiction is always tied up in personal interpretation, more than it sometimes seems: A genre founded on a clarity of construction, of telling you what the rules are and how the things work, means that consuming a lot of it will lead you to create rules of your own – rules that might seem as unbreakable as the law of gravity. It can be hard to come to stories of distant worlds with any kind of distance.
That’s why I want to end a year on a reflective note: Us fans of SF movies are ridiculously, hilariously lucky. Look at everything I didn’t even mention this year – the perfectly average Life or the fascinatingly misguided Ghost in the Shell remake – and think what a bumper crop of speculative cinema we’ve had this year. It’s a blessing worth counting, I think: In a darkening world, you have to find the light, especially at this time of year.
After all, why do you think so many winter holidays are based on candles or fires or stars?