Thursday, 2 July 2020

Millennial Bond

Pierce Brosnan was Bond, James Bond, 007

Although I always liked some of Roger Moore’s adventures (especially: Live And Let Die, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker) as James Bond, my favourite of all the 007 movies remains Licence To Kill (1989), starring Timothy Dalton. It was the prototype for later evolutionary change to a basic Bond-movie template, switching from the self-parodying quips (of Moore), and the action-adventures of Dalton’s two pictures, to a spy-thriller format that proved to be such a revival formula for Daniel Craig, particularly in Skyfall (2012), and Spectre (2015).

I bought a 007 on Blu-ray box-set, to re-watch this franchise, but soon realised my views about these movies have not changed much. You Only Live Twice (1967) stands out from 1960s’ Bonds, especially for its international scope, and aerial action spectacle - including the gyrocopter Little Nellie, the first new superhero machine of its kind, probably inspired by a modified helicopter appearing in Batman: The Movie (1966). Another aspect I found unchanged by seeing all of these movies again is traditional Bond theme-songs. 'Live And Let Die' (by Paul McCartney & Wings) has the strongest and most effective tune, by far. I still think it works best as one of the very few 007 lyrics that sounds great as standalone recording, distinct from its connection to the movie.          

The next decade saw Bond producers EON (‘everything or nothing’) re-mix an established cinematic blueprint, while including some broadly comic-book tropes of 007 super-villainy into repetitive pro-west espionage plots and flag-waving export scenarios. Moore’s efforts as increasingly-campy Bond reached sci-fi zenith with Moonraker (1979), most watchable for its obvious Star Wars influences, eagerly adopting high-frontier imagery for its classic space-marines finale. In addition to keeping pace with many technological developments, Bond movies always followed popular cultural trends, so blaxploitation pictures prompted Live And Let Die (1973), just like late 1980s’ box-office hits Lethal Weapon and Die Hard shaped the approach to 007 for Licence To Kill, which broke many Bond rules, and so got the first ‘15’ certificate in this usually PG-rated franchise. 

When budgets were increased, creativity flourished with greater possibilities, and so unofficial remake Never Say Never Again (1983) proved a superior entertainment than Thunderball (1965). Promoted from within the producers’ regular crew, film-editor John Glen became the record-setting director of all five official Bond movies during the 1980s. His work may well be lacking much great visual style beyond simple refinement of several recognisable elements, but his unfussy approach, and vast experience gained on previous adventures, mean that Glen remains the most accomplished individual on the standards of this whole franchise. Even if he is viewed as just a creative journeyman, Glen is the closest there is to a genuine 007 auteur, a director who, after nearly two decades of variable efforts - by Terence Young, Guy Hamilton, and Lewis Gilbert (making three Bond films each), clearly redefined the main approach, moods, and themes of what makes a Bond movie so easily recognisable a signature in cinematic terms.

Pierce Brosnan’s quartet of movies in this variable franchise include the favourable usage of sci-fi gadgets with better integration into story-telling, so that any hi-tech tools of spy-craft might be more than just gimmicks in the manner of ‘Chekov’s gun’ style plot-points. Pre-credits sequences of witty stunts also show much improvement, instead of a fall-back dependence upon fairly juvenile action. This greater sophistication of the typical 007 wow factor builds overtly modern cross-genre content into scenarios for a Bond of today’s era. Blockbuster cinema quickly evolved through many global cultural changes (Cold War and Space Age), supporting characterisations from Sean Connery to Roger Moore, so shifting political emphases of Brosnan’s outings kept sci-fi gadgetry and a broad sense of humour aboard while also trying to adapt Bond’s crude ‘dinosaur’ persona for survival in a society where multicultural growth, mega-corporate competition, and inspirational feminism, had practically crushed his renowned masculine prowess. With four pictures, by four different directors, Brosnan now became the main focus for any sense of creative continuity.

Gaining a significant upgrade in production values, with its near-doubling of budget, after a six-year break since Dalton appeared in LTK, Martin Campbell’s GoldenEye (1995) was cause for celebrations in 007 fandom, despite this franchise finally abandoning any direct narrative links to Ian Fleming’s books. Addressing political concerns about global stability in the post-USSR era, Brosnan’s debut as Bond cleverly bridges Gorbachev’s ‘Perestroika’ years, with its prologue set in 1986, before picking up threads of its story a decade later. Judi Dench brings an amusingly maternal authority but wholly matriarchal instincts to her vital role as the new M. No glib remarks or pithy comebacks are warranted here when the hero faces a betrayal of trust. Tightly edited and better polished, and considerably slicker than many previous 007 movies, GoldenEye shares a few aspects with several early Bond movies, although on-going modernisation is roundly characterised in Bond himself as less of a maverick talent, except for his impulsive reactions to mortal threats, and far more of a dedicated team-player. Emerging from a career of dark lies and deceptions, he remains a smooth individualist, yet now the hero’s politically-incorrect shortcomings are identified and examined, and skewered by critique as never before.

Roger Spottiswoode’s Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) has media baron Carver (Jonathan Pryce) launching his info war, using truth as a super-weapon for attacks upon democracy while his ‘edifice complex’ means being a successful celebrity influencer to provoke WW3. As a back-seat driver in a remote-controlled BMW getaway vehicle, Bond’s gadget-phone adds tremendous fun to a combat and chase sequence in a German car park. Following a precedent, set 20 years previously, in The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond is forced into team-work with Chinese agent Colonel Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh). The dynamic duo are especially effective when they’re handcuffed together for a motorbike escape, pursued by an enemy helicopter, through Saigon. Playful and yet physically quite formidable, Lin is 007’s equal, not just another Bond girl. She’s definitely the first proper action-heroine in this franchise and it’s about time, too. With its crucial elements of mass-media exploitation, 'Big Data' manipulation, and fake-news campaigns, the techno-terrorism plotting in TND now seems remarkably prescient. 

The World Is Not Enough (1999) features the best Bond tune of two decades. Scottish singer Shirley Manson and her rock band Garbage here produce a somewhat melancholy ballad. Unusually, there’s also a superbly designed promo video for the song. As leading lady, Sophie Marceau plays heiress Elektra King as a twisted schemer, using Bond’s own nagging conscience against him. Robert Carlyle makes a suitably deranged henchman as anarchist villain Renard, a romanticised bogeyman of sorts. A US physicist, Dr Christmas Jones (Denise Richards), is amusingly cast as the most blatant Bond girl, who’s certainly more effective as welcome comedy-relief than John Cleese is as veteran Q’s understudy. Nuclear terrorism holds no mystery for Bond, of course, but a criminal conspiracy and an atypical use of supporting characters manages to redeem this movie’s re-deployment of several 007 clich├ęs. Putting Bond’s lady-boss M into distress and danger was an inspired move by the screen-writers. Michael Apted’s direction of TWINE is sincerely respectful of Bond conventions, but not afraid to break away from traditional 007 jokiness, so that all the patented innuendo here is grimly sarcastic, or ironic, instead of cheerful and cheesy.

With its dreadfully inapt theme song by Madonna, who also gets a pointless cameo, and a role for talentless Halle Berry, Die Another Day (2002), loudly signals its artistic failures with unfortunate surrender to celebrity dictates for the sake of marketing. Only its glossy style and Brosnan’s routinely sterling professionalism save this from becoming a creative disaster. Decadence and snobbery is customary in this wacky worldview of paranoid 007, where one man’s tourist is another’s terrorist. Typically topical, Bond faces North Korean aggro here, but DAD struggles to cope with some very wrong women chosen for its cast. Madonna seems to have imagined a Bond movie would look good on her CV, even though she can’t act and never even tries here. With her wet-bikini walk-up, as a low-rent Ursula Andress, charmless Berry appears so full of herself with a laughable over-confidence that there’s no room at all for anything resembling a character. Throughout Jinx’s competitive co-operation with Bond, she indulges her childish fantasy about winning a spin-off action-franchise, yet it’s impossible to take Berry seriously as a disposable starlet, never mind a genuine actress. Ambitious ‘entrepreneur’ Graves (Toby Stephens) is a bland antagonist, but, at least, Rosamund Pike is good value as double-agent Miranda Frost, and Rick Yune makes a suitably psycho henchman. Easily the weakest of Brosnan’s Bonds, DAD benefits from classy production spending and some worthwhile effects, adding enough spectacular explosions to brighten Brosnan’s efforts in his final 007 adventure.

Despite a few minor hiccups in characterisation and performance qualities, Brosnan is the very best Bond. He has looks and charm, sharp humour and a measure of sheer coolness that no other actor has ever quite managed, consistently. Most vitally, he demonstrates a profound calmness, and a wholly unique super-heroic ability for playing 007 with a streak of ruthless efficiency. Brosnan was Bond, perfected. His motivated portrayal just delivers the goods without stooping to Connery’s gruffly smirking machismo. There is not even an ounce of spoofy Moore’s smarmy Lothario, and he’s certainly nothing at all like empty ex-model George Lazenby’s place-holder. All the while he’s trying, with grace under pressure to avoid matching up to Dalton’s bleeding-over stunt-furniture approach. Brosnan’s Bond simply revels in the widescreen magic of boldly suave antics.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

DC TV Crisis

Crisis On Infinite Earths (2019)

Following the parallel-world cross-over TV shows Crisis On Earth-X (2017) and Elseworlds (2018), now it’s multi-verse apocalypse time, from Big Bang to an ultimate cosmological annihilation by anti-matter. Defence of DCEU depends on seven Paragons. Core TV series cleverly mixed together include variably-powered fighters and capes in -
The Flash
Legends Of Tomorrow
Black Lightning

But that’s not all, of course. This comprehensive story-line also draws in -
The Flash (1990)
Smallville (2001-11)
Birds Of Prey (2002)
Constantine (2014)
Lucifer (2015)
Titans (2018)
Swamp Thing (2019)
Doom Patrol (2019)
Stargirl (2020)

Movies cited for key scenes, then often sourced (some more than others) for themes re-visited and re-mixed into clever riffs - 
Batman (1966) 
Superman III (1983)
Batman (1989)
Superman Returns (2006)
Jonah Hex (2010)
Green Lantern (2011)
Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016)

Although some of these links and references only amount to little more than in-jokes, or cameo appearances, the sheer wealth of material here adds up to the greatest TV cross-over event, about genre comic-books and franchise shows, while folding its truly epic sci-fi and fantasy narrative into many-worlds theory. This story is big enough for amusing Easter eggs leading to a ret-con finale.

So, although TV event-series Crisis... obviously lacks production values of mega-budget movies like Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, this DC effort manages to catch up and overtake Marvel’s grandest nightmare with the wish-fulfilment of even greater utopian fan-fiction dreams, emerging from a chaos of corporate media (competitive studios, TV networks) plus episodic adventures within multi-verse complexity. Doing its best with a hectic pace and tightly-corralled repertory-style cast, COIE brings cumulative mythology (that includes iconic images from DC book Kingdom Come), fused with a pure comicbook joy, creating this new Age of Heroes.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Prophets of SF

Ridley Scott’s TV documentary series Prophets Of Science Fiction (2011-2) starts with Mary Shelley and shows how medical science has advanced since her era. Mary Shelley was haunted by spectres of death and yet such progressive morbidity fed into her classic novel, a book arguably best made into a movie as Kenneth Branagh’s epic Frankenstein (1994). Shelley’s impact on morality and SF literature, and global culture in general, is explained by scientists (such as Michio Kaku), genre authors (including Kim Stanley Robinson), and Shelley biographers who provide meaty insights linked by presenter Scott’s own philosophical musings. With its frequent use of dramatic reconstructions, plus animated visuals with narration, this recalls classic TV programmes like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (1980). Many authoritative interview clips ensure that a variety of viewpoints are presented, alongside promotional material from today’s innovators.

Second episode H.G. Wells charts wholesale creativity with iconic titles including The War Of The Worlds (filmed 1953, remade 2005), and The Time Machine (filmed in 1960, and curiously remade, by Simon Wells, in 2002). There’s also The Invisible Man, and The Island Of Dr Moreau, with details here showing how new tech follows the notions lifted from Wells’ work. Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven and American author David Brin are most notable as commentators. The truly prophetic imagery for Wells’ movie Things To Come (1936) gave dramatic optimism to social criticism but Wells’ predictive legacy is often ignored when politics meddles with possibilities of scientific progress. Time for a pause... during this TV show’s six episodes, I re-watched Wells’ Time Machine remake, and found it quite reasonably entertaining with enough quality special effects and generic tensions to reverse my previous thinking that, at best, it was mediocre sci-fi or wholly derivative escapism partly inspired by some bleak Darwinian futurism.

Stanley Kubrick’s co-creator of supreme movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), author Arthur C. Clarke, obviously deserves his own episode here, and this chapter brings together his practical invention of telecom satellites and theoretical space elevators in his book The Fountains Of Paradise (1979). Another of Clarke’s co-writers, Gentry Lee, offers enthusiastic insider commentary. Few other SF writers can possibly match Clarke’s importance to modern literary and media fields of genre speculation. And so this potted biography and focus on the maturation of hard-SF themes throughout the 1960s and 1970s. After this episode, I re-watched Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), deciding to try harder to like it more this time. And so I did, because it makes better sense today, especially for its glowing optimism, that ends (well, sort of..?) where Clarke’s hugely under-rated book, 3001: The Final Odyssey (1997) starts, with a cleverly witty tribute to pulp sci-fi’s own time-warped hero, Buck Rogers.

George Lucas seems a decidedly odd choice for this TV series, but his creation of sci-fi adventure franchise Star Wars (1977), exploded SF from cult novels and niche cinema, into mainstream popularity. His genius was to make intellectual imagination into big-screen fun. Amusingly, this episode mostly explores how cutting-edge tech is inspired by hardware in Star Wars media - as if Lucas was the first to imagine cyborgs, robots, levitation, and mental super-powers; despite acknowledging its exactly what everyone wants for Xmas.

For a genre timeline accuracy, Jules Verne should really have been the subject of this TV series’ second episode, but as its fifth this does gain a fittingly ‘retro’ feel, and slippage from optimistic adventure novels to gloomy themes in its study of Verne’s later dark works of dystopian worlds. Literary scholar George Slusser and comics writer Matt Fraction provide interesting comments. Verne’s best loved, and perhaps most influential’ novel 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1870) was adapted several times for the screen, and its versions include these four...

Stuart Paton’s epic silent movie 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1916) is the first submarine spectacular, partly using Verne’s sequel novel The Mysterious Island (1874) as its source material. This is a tale about maritime disasters, pirates, shipwrecks, and castaways, with underwater photography, and some rather eerie scenes of divers hunting sharks on the seabed. Rendered in full scale, the super-sub Nautilus is wholly convincing but Captain Nemo, a former prince of India, is costumed rather like Santa Claus with a bandana.

With big advantages of sound and colour, Disney’s engagingly cinematic 1954 production has escapades to spare, with Kirk Douglas as harpooner Ned Land facing down James Mason’s memorable Nemo aboard his Nautilus - here an engineering masterpiece of steam-punk designs, three decades before the cyberpunk movement was itself quite fashionable enough for easy recognition as a distinctive sub-genre. A giant squid provides the monster action. Although brooding Nemo’s organ-music suits the movie’s darker theme of vengeance, I always felt that director Richard Fleischer’s ocean adventure would have worked far better without its awful songs.

Hallmark’s TV movie, briskly directed by Michael Anderson, stars Richard Crenna as Aronnax, Ben Cross as stern Nemo, and Paul Gross (from TV cop show Due South) as Ned. Whereas Disney’s adaptation lacked a strong female lead, this version casts Julie Cox as professor’s daughter Sophie, a scientist in her own right, when she’s not an obvious romantic interest for class conflict and cultural rivals Ned and Nemo. Sleek, powerful, and modernist, but with stylish interiors, set designs for this Nautilus compare well to Disney’s with better special effects in some sequences, except for the computer animation of a deep-sea monster that only works as surrealism of dragon-slaying, not convincing sci-fi.

Also released in 1997, director Rod Hardy’s two-part TV serial benefits from casting of Bryan Brown as Ned Land, but its real star is Michael Caine as Captain Nemo, while Mia Sara plays his daughter Mara. When a warship hunts a mysterious behemoth, the  young heroes are lost at sea. Soon taken as POWs aboard the Nautilus, French marine biologist Arronax (Patrick Dempsey), with Ned, and black companion Cabe (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), explore the baroque submarine, before they join a sea- hunting party. They manage to adjust to captivity, without hope of escape, especially from cut-priced undercooked visual effects of seabed volcanoes. An ordeal of survival, trapped beneath Arctic ice, develops a new solidarity with Nemo’s agenda, despite legal, ethical, and moral, differences. Verne is written into this narrative as a famous author inspired by others’ adventures. Arronax is haunted by nightmares of drowning, and contends with losing a hand, but Dempsey makes for a rather bland hero, whether in pursuit of knowledge, or freedom.

Also inspired by Verne, British movie Captain Nemo And The Underwater City (1969) begins with a disaster when passengers from a sinking ship are rescued by frogmen from the Nautilus. Senator Fraser (Chuck Connors) meets Nemo (Robert Ryan) who takes them to safety in the domed city Templemer. James Hill directs this family adventure with an eye for spectacle, including golden sets, and a scuba-diving tour with shark-attack action, but there is rather too much slapstick from comic-relief characters. A Theremin recital adds to other-worldly charms. One meddling escapee risks destruction but only the saboteur dies. Oceanic drama continues when a giant mutant manta-ray menaces the Nautilus. Ryan’s grandfatherly Nemo breaks clear from Verne’s traditional dark genius, but it’s quite expected in this colourful fantastique, with Nanette Newman as a Victorian single-mother bringing up her only son to respect peaceful authority, as she considers the possibilities of staying to live in a utopian realm.

The Amazing Captain Nemo (aka: The Return Of Captain Nemo, 1978), updates Verne for a present-day TV revival when US navy divers find the sunken Nautilus to awaken greybeard Nemo (Jose Ferrer), soon recruited to combat the super-terrorist (Burgess Meredith), blackmailing America for a billion bullion ransom in a world where Verne’s biography of Nemo was clearly mistaken for fiction. Only three episodes of this failed series were made, and later edited into this 102-minute movie, now released onto DVD, from Warner’s archive. After he saves Washington, DC. from a doomsday rocket, superhero Nemo accepts another mission for atomic-powered Nautilus, but with nuclear advisor Kate (Lynda Day George), and a saboteur (Mel Ferrer, no relation to Jose), aboard. In their final adventure, Nemo discovers lost Atlantis.

Alan Moore’s millennial graphic novel and following comic-book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was adapted for sci-fi cinema as Stephen Norrington’s blockbuster LXG (2003), about steampunk superheroes assembled to save the British Empire and stop WW1. The team includes Allan Quatermain, an invisible man, vampire Mina Harker, immortal Dorian Gray, and Indian pirate Captain Nemo. His ‘Sword of the Ocean’, Nautilus, gets the heroes across the English Channel to Paris, to recruit hulking brute Mr Hyde, and then Nemo’s super-submarine sails into Venice, continuing its mission, despite being damaged by enemy bombs, all the way to a finale in Mongolia.

Ex-military and politically-minded, Robert Heinlein wrote SF that, intentional or not, courted controversy, particularly with books like Starship Troopers (1959), winningly filmed by Paul Verhoeven in 1997. But then Heinlein created Stranger In A Strange Land, to become a play-book for hippies in counter-culture America. So, whereas previous big-time SF authors covered in this TV series actually formed the nascent genre, Heinlein helped to shape basic tropes into explosive or exploitative new material of competent heroes. Stories in an existing frame-work of ideas, like The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (1966), about the rebellion of a Lunar colony, prompt discussion about humans in space. Harlan Ellison appears, yet only briefly.

A cult writer whose fiction created an extraordinary density of intellectual meanings and emotional interpretation, Philip K. Dick was influenced by his own paranoia and use of drugs. And so his predictive novels and idea-driven short-stories would be readily adapted to modern cinema where virtual reality, alternative worlds, and unreliability of memory form intriguing narratives of Orwellian surveillance and precognition that undermine lifestyles and fracture societies. Mankind crumbles into its own imaginary plots, sinister culture, and questions of truth between science and human experience. This episode is probably the most fascinating in the whole series, and ends when Ridley Scott ponders: “Aren’t most prophets troubled souls?”

Isaac Asimov formalised robot stories with a new complexity of relationships between machines and their human creators, as far more sophisticated than rampaging monsters in pulp-SF. His work suggests that progress from industrial robots - used on assembly lines in factories, to developing advanced tools - for spinal and cranial surgery, is totally inevitable. Later, Asimov became the world’s greatest SF author of non-fiction about science.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Manhattan Projects

Not sure whether I actually like the covers of the MANHATTAN PROJECTS but this minimalist design is quite strikingly distinctive from typical comic-book series.

Jonathan Hickman's frequently absurdist creation is a magnificent genre satire of alternative history, where evil twins mix with alien drones, as amusingly twisted versions of progressive scientists Oppenheimer, Einstein, Feynman, and Fermi, are prompted into confrontations with Roosevelt reborn as A.I., while President Truman leads his masonic Illuminati gang into White House decadence.

Wernher von Braun is a cyborg in a team-up with Russian hero Yuri Gagarin and his talking space-dog Laika. MP is hilarious, perverse, crazily inventive stuff with far more loony ideas and pithy one-liners packed into every page than any dozen other 21st century sci-fi books. 

As international cooperation, not global competition, makes for radical futurism, MP (six volumes) is essential reading for sci-fi comics fans.

Friday, 10 January 2020

2020 Visions

Year’s Best SF Movies 2000-19

This is my listing of the 20 best SF movies of this century, one from each year, so far... I might have seen a few better pictures in the last two decades, but some of these choices have been re-watched several times, so they deserve higher scores. Not all of these films are identifiable as obvious genre classics because, occasionally, I chose a sci-fi adventure with simply the least faults. However, this top 20 was selected with due consideration for a balance of subgenre exemplars and a variety of themes, while trying to avoid too many franchised sequels and remakes (like endless Star Wars and recycled Star Trek, etc), but also recognising that, in Hollywood, at least, 21st century movies are clearly represented by the Golden Age of Superhero Cinema - something that fully deserves to be celebrated, and not just admitted with sneering reluctance by snooty critics. Runners-up are listed in alphabetical order.

X-MEN (2000)
Bryan Singer’s mutants super-team adventure arrived just in time for counter-acting the doom and gloom scenarios of chilling millennial movies, and it boasted a fantastic summer blockbuster affect with a mostly excellent, yet imperfect, cast, portraying various Marvel meta-humans that remain popular in comics. Here we get keen examinations of prejudice and intolerance filtered through a light-weight, yet boldly philosophical, vision of a future populated by sceptics and believers with special abilities. Every sequence of this confrontation has tightly focused interplay between the mutant characters, who mainly avoid becoming stereotypes - espousing different opinions about solutions to stubborn cultural and social problems. After a paranoid US senator (Bruce Davison) - opposed by egotistical anarchist Magneto (Ian McKellan) and peaceable educator Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) - dies, the criminals of Magneto’s rebellious brotherhood head for inevitably violent collision with uniformed responders from a ‘school for gifted youngsters’, clashing with their dark rivals over what’s acceptable as morally-appropriate reaction to oppression by the government. It really kick-started the superhero-cinema boom, and so X-Men deserves full recognition for its successful adaptation of Marvel comics in a live-action movie about teamwork.

Runner-up SF movies of 2000:
Paul Verhoeven’s HOLLOW MAN
David Twohy’s PITCH BLACK
Antony Hoffman’s RED PLANET

In the wake of Asimovian robot biography for Chris Columbus’ charming The Bicentennial Man (1999), Steven Spielberg delivered a different style of epic SF (derived from Stanley Kubrick’s project to adapt a story by Brian Aldiss), infused with typically playful fairy-tale elements often favoured by the director’s other genre productions like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977), and E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). After the android boy David (Haley Joel Osment), is adopted by kindly parents as a surrogate son, he discovers he’s unwelcome at home when the human that he has replaced awakens from cryogenic sleep. The noisy reverb of Pinocchio riffs often disturb this movie’s sci-fi orchestrations, but it’s fascinating nevertheless to watch the ‘super-toy’ notions of Aldiss’ fiction turned into colourful visual effects, including a nightmarish circus of mecha destruction. David is a suitably creepy kid even after his programmed imprinting for ‘mommy’. The droid-bear minder Teddy is the pivotal focus in domestic strife. It’s game over when David is cruelly abandoned but campy toy-boy Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) befriends him and there’s some 3D-style animation for Einstein-faced oracle Dr Know (voiced by Robin Williams). Spielberg’s dramatic morality play is about loss of innocence, a unique being yearning to be ‘normal’, and the anticipation of immortality for sentient machines. Several mirrors, and distorted reflections, emphasise Otherness while exploring human impulses to destroy whatever is artificial, in violent reactions to the uncanny valley that only promise doomsday. With its ‘blue fairy’ messiah, the post-extinction closure, borrowing alien salvation from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), is strangely comforting, albeit merely as a fatal lullaby.

Runner-up SF movies of 2001:
Mamoru Oshii’s AVALON
James Wong’s THE ONE
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s PULSE (aka: Kairo)  

SIMONE (aka: S1mOne, 2002)
Andrew Niccol’s satirical comedy about Hollywood stardom pre-empts Kerry Conran’s cult creativity in Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow (2004), a retro styled movie where digital-animation work dominates live-action scenes. That interaction, between virtuality and physical reality, is flipped when Simone - Simulation One - concocts various sit-com routines around the creation of an entirely fictional VR actress, programmed to achieve a unique stardom in movies without ever actually being seen in public. Victor Taransky (Al Pacino) regrets offending and losing his leading lady Nicola (Winona Ryder), but directing a more compliant synthetic actress Simone (Rachel Roberts) salvages his career. Shades of William Gibson’s novel, Idoru (1996), haunt this media-celebrity scenario, while Niccol is analysing a phenomenal status of open adulation found at the junction between human fame and manufactured personality. A post-modern Pygmalion, this anticipates the state of cinema today, where older performers are magically rejuvenated by digital visuals and many live-action superhero movies are only possible as convincing characters because of photo-real animation.  

Runner-up SF movies of 2002: 
Steven Spielberg’s MINORITY REPORT
Steven Soderbergh’s SOLARIS

HULK (2003)
Ang Lee’s masterpiece remains the greatest superhero epic. Yes, seriously! Getting a film director who’s best known for art-house dramas to helm a highly commercial blockbuster was a daring approach, but all the risks paid off, handsomely; resulting in the best film of the year, and its decade. What Lee created was the first serious drama of its type, rich in mutated genre themes and supremely iconic images, derived in part from the very same influential mythological and literary sources which had obviously inspired the comic-book original Hulk’s creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, back in 1962. The singular tour de force blends sci-fi adventures, monster-movie traditions, and miraculous wonders with bravura visuals. It remains far superior in every way to unnecessary sequel/ unfortunate remake, or needless franchise-reboot The Incredible Hulk (2008), which I did enjoy, but still think is rather unexciting, when it’s compared to Lee’s instant classic. For a lot more comment, by me, explaining why HULK is the very best 21st century superhero movie, so far, please read my book (HULK by Tony Lee).

Runner-up SF movies of 2003: 
Jon Amiel’s THE CORE
Bryan Singer’s X-MEN 2 (aka: X2)

HELLBOY (2004)
Superhero comics are the very best medium for combining elements of science fiction and fantasy. Guillermo del Toro’s magnificently inventive Hellboy offers startling proof, and, like only a distinctive few big-screen adaptations (Hulk and The Dark Knight are others), it delivers grander entertainment value and impressively scaled verisimilitude, resulting in a dimensionally supreme version of established narrative concerns that is arguably better than any source material. Much as I admire del Toro’s Spanish fantasy productions like The Devil’s Backbone (2001), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), I prefer the accomplished mix of quirky humour and uncanny action that distinguishes Hellboy from the rest of recent superhero cinema, although Timur Bekmambetov’s hugely appealing and imaginative Russian offerings, Night Watch (2004), and Day Watch (2007), explore similarly horrific territories. For Hellboy, the director continues the good work that he put into Blade II (2002), adds a doomed romance to the existing B.P.R.D. secret agency, and darkly weird Otherness tropes, so this adventure delivers more levels of madcap fun and winning pathos than either of those equally light-hearted, but less interesting, Fantastic Four (2005/ 2007) super-team movies. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) is also very good, and last year’s Hellboy remake delivers its fair share of strange and gory horrors. 

Runner-up SF movies of 2004: 
Timur Bekmambetov’s NIGHT WATCH
Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN 2

The Wachowski siblings, creators of The Matrix (1999), adapted Alan Moore’s comic serial of anarchist rebellion for this Orwellian thriller, very capably directed by James McTeigue, so that it skilfully transcends merely political drama to find refreshing shades of humanity in this destructive revolt against an oppressive British state. Natalie Portman excels as an unlikely heroine, Hugo Weaving’s compelling voice provides a focal point, while veteran John Hurt turns in a suitably electrifying performance as the grotesque tyrant Sutter on TV screens. Skating through grey-area minefields between terrorist and freedom-fighter, enigmatic V shifts from romanticised kidnapping to anti-heroic mentorship, while captive Evey follows his philosophical musings. Pulling together a mythical ‘Gunpowder Plot’ with references to The Phantom Of The Opera and The Count Of Monte Cristo, this movie parallels - without much subtlety - various political and social criticisms of 21st century government surveillance and inherent corruption, for shattering cultural effect, before a rousing and spectacular climax that destroys the Parliament building in one of modern genre cinema’s most violently cathartic set-pieces. Like a rallying cry designed to ward off any encroaching menace of totalitarianism, this picture’s use of the iconic Guy Fawkes mask has since become a symbol of protests everywhere. 

Runner-up SF movies of 2005: 
Karyn Kusama’s AEON FLUX
Steven Spielberg’s WAR OF THE WORLDS

Apart from the singular exception of the last ‘Wolverine’ movie, Logan (2017), I’m not a fan of Hugh Jackman. However, in this costume drama about stage magicians, he’s quite tolerable, while basking in the glowing performances from genuinely brilliant actors like Christian Bale, Michael Caine, and Scarlett Johansson. Perhaps the finest of this cast is David Bowie, as inventor Tesla, astonishing in a role that improves with repeat viewings. As this period mystery’s plot, based on a novel by Christopher Priest, unfolds gradually, and the damning secrets of a miraculously theatrical illusion is revealed, tension builds up to an eerie finale of ultimate horror. Watch closely and trust nobody, as every trick’s ‘pledge’ means pretence, and turns for cheating death offer the what, when, where, and how, of a whodunit, disguised by unlucky encounters and the judgement of obsessively deceitful rivals for unwavering commitment. Subverting truth, whatever the tragic cost may be, The Prestige is a foolproof entertainment, whether you choose to believe in the magic of movies, or not.

Runner-up SF movies of 2006: 
Alfonso Cuaron’s CHILDREN OF MEN
Brett Ratner’s X-MEN: THE LAST STAND

Giant spaceship Icarus II is on a vital mission: to launch a nuclear payload into the faded Sun, and revive it. Danny Boyle directs a uniformly excellent international cast, including Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, and Michelle Yeoh, with a concern for veracity in details of astronomy and physics. Despite its borrowings from John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), and Peter Hyams’ 2010 (1984), this stylish offering is undeniably spectacular with space-suit scenes for its urgent repairs to radiation shielding, but fires still damage the ship and the sunlight, in such close proximity, is just as deadly. Metaphorically, it’s a descent into hell, with all of the psychological dissonance and chaos that such a fall from grace might provoke. Considering this interpretation, aspects of the movie’s absurdly dramatic conclusion, when its plot slides off-beam as a slasher in space, to reference gothic horror in Event Horizon (1997), and Walter Hill’s disowned Supernova (2000), actually make good sense; so it’s killing spree is not a totally inappropriate twist. Everything that could possibly go wrong here does so, crazily, and with maximum shocks for a climactic impact, especially when maniacal villain Pinbacker (Mark Strong) claims he has spoken to his god, as if he really means the devil. Curiously, almost all of this British production’s stars later appeared in superhero movies, as if SF provides the credibility of ‘previous experience’ that is formally required to play comic-book characters.

Runner-up SF movies of 2007: 
Hitoshi Matsumoto’s BIG MAN JAPAN
Nacho Vigalondo’s TIMECRIMES

Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, including Batman Begins (2005), astonishingly re-works the familiar caped vigilante from DC comics and movies, and finally banishes the 1960s’ TV legacy of Adam West’s camp crusader that’s held back this variable franchise from any serious attempts at delivering crime drama or urban action. Basically, it is the creative difference between comedy-adventure and realistic thriller. For me, superhero movies are always at their best when the film-makers treat the original material quite seriously. The Dark Knight delivers a blend of superbly performed characters and livewire practical confrontations between terrorist-psycho the Joker (Heath Ledger, achieving a legendary status), and Christian Bale’s masked thuggish champion. Its dynamic action eclipses all from recent James Bond, or Jason Bourne, and Jack Bauer, put together, and it presents fans with a new benchmark in big-screen heroism, intended for a mature audience.

Runner-up SF movies for 2008: 
Jon Favreau’s IRON MAN

Before its dazzling title sequence, this movie about conflicts between superheroes begins with a brutal murder. This marks a serious approach to its material, based on the comics by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and Watchmen is virtuoso film-making as Zack Snyder continued to hone creative techniques, blending graphic realism with stylised artistry, as he’d done on remake, Dawn Of The Dead (2004), and Spartan epic, 300 (2006). As each of the main characters are introduced there are shifts in tone, from urban crime drama to weird sci-fi and back again, and so the movie’s narrative spans various genres, just as its generational story pulls together the compelling and concise alternative history that sets this movie’s milieu apart from all the imaginary cities of DCEU, presages developments of the convoluted timeline for the MCU, and also foreshadows those unexpected prequels of the X-Men franchise. Watchmen’s most important role, today, as a pivotal picture in this century’s superhero-cinema boom is unquestionable. No matter which edition you might see - theatrical, director’s cut, or ultimate version - it’s a genuine classic.

Runner-up SF movies of 2009: 
James Cameron’s AVATAR
Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter’s CARGO
Neill Blomkamp’s DISTRICT 9

Writers might often be asked: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ A poem by Edgar Allan Poe suggested “All that we see or seem/ Is but a dream within a dream.” Perhaps the dream-dimension of imagination is the primary source of everything. Rightly acclaimed as one of this century’s best science fiction creations from Hollywood’s dream factory, Christopher Nolan’s superbly intricate action-thriller follows its extra-legal characters ‘down’ through stream-of-consciousness narrative episodes into various levels of lucid dreaming to steal information or implant ideas. With generic virtual-reality links back to The Matrix (1999), and Dreamscape (1984), node-spotting, plus the illusions of sensory experiences etched into popular cyberpunk imaginations ever since Brainstorm (1983), Strange Days (1995), and Existenz (aka: eXistenZ, 1999), this compelling psycho-mystery noir mines a variety of surrealist influences, including Cocteau’s avant-garde Orpheus (1950), amidst a range of sources and for exhilarating visuals, whose impact was re-deployed for Doctor Strange (2016). Following the advent of virtuality movie-production techniques, Inception might also be appreciated as a witty metaphor about many potential cinematic head-space entertainments to come, not to mention cyber-lifestyles of the near future.

Runner-up SF movies of 2010: 
Jon Favreau’s IRON MAN 2
Nimrod Antal’s PREDATORS
Strause brothers’ SKYLINE

‘Opposites attract’ is a characteristic plot in rom-com pictures. For any sci-fi romance, it becomes absolute certainty, whether story conclusions mean ‘true love conquers all’, or not. Based upon a short story by Philip K. Dick, George Nolfi’s commercially savvy, but nonetheless engaging, New York thriller stars Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. Mysterious agents of planned destiny struggle to keep sincere politician Norris from encounters with a wonderful dream-girl, but even threats of psychic lobotomy by meddling adjusters fail to deter his pursuit of Elise. When sinister fate collides with free will, generating ripples that affect hidden structures in human reality, obsession vies with ambition for impulse control. Secret knowledge is a core trope in sci-fi drama (“..he’s got a hat. He’s in the substrate!”), yet even Alex Proyas’ apocalyptic Knowing (2009), never captured all the uniquely challenging defiance of TAB, a metaphor for interventionism and recalibration practiced by uncanny micro-management, who aren’t like restorative fixers Sapphire & Steel. Instead, they represent the fallacy of a benevolent dictatorship. Although quasi-religious overtones are, thankfully, minimised, faint echoes of cult-movies like Dark City (1998), witty Twilight Zone TV episode A Matter Of Minutes (1986), and, of course, The Matrix trilogy, are present like tick-box accreditations in cosmological background noise.

Runner-up SF movies of 2011: 
Kenneth Branagh’s THOR
Matthew Vaughn’s X-MEN: FIRST CLASS

AVENGERS ASSEMBLE (aka: The Avengers, 2012)
‘And there came a day, unlike any other...’ Despite its episodic tale of super-villainy and extraterrestrial invasion, Joss Whedon tackles this grandiose franchise project seriously, but makes it fun. Avengers Assemble suffers only mildly from the impositions of blatant check-list filmmaking, with iconographies of cheesy political simplifications to fantastical combat spectacle manipulated into self-reflexive coherence by philosophical determinism. There is a concerted effort to blend together various canonical elements, originated by a host of comicbook writers (from Stan Lee, and Roy Thomas, to Mark Millar), although not all decades of Avengers lore, mined for this compressed take on their classic origin story, are served well by Whedon’s insistence upon irreverent references. Packed with highbrow versus lowbrow dialogues, while generalised culture-clash motifs, of past/ future, human/ alien, politics/ morality, are extended even into its eclectic soundtrack, where Schubert is rudely interrupted by AC/DC, this astutely confident melting-pot builds up a considerable narrative momentum when it aimed to be the greatest team-up event in screen history.

Runner-up SF movies of 2012: 
Pete Travis’ DREDD
Andrew Stanton’s JOHN CARTER
Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS

GRAVITY (2013)
Previously, Alfonso Cuaron directed grimly dystopian actioner, Children Of Men (2006), but this frequently astonishing space thriller looks even better. Sandra Bullock gives a stand-out performance as the astronaut trying to get back home after disaster in orbit. With visual effects never less than utterly convincing, this offers extraordinary spectacle like a NASA documentary gone horribly wrong, so edge-of-seat, nail-biting tensions are guaranteed. Unless you care nothing for people, and the world where we all live, Gravity is a richly composed story of survival against crushing odds, with danger and misfortune at every twist and turn, and enough heroic intelligence and great courage, in a terrifying adversity, to overcome any problem. Scary but inventive and inspiring, this benefits from making rapidly-ageing George Clooney its sideshow attraction, with a staunchly feminist appeal that is never once annoying - as Bullock can sometimes be in weaker movies.  

Runner-up SF movies of 2013: 
Shane Black’s IRON MAN 3
Zack Snyder’s MAN OF STEEL
Guillermo del Toro’s PACIFIC RIM

Splicing Terminator and Trancers into Marvel’s mutant lore, Bryan Singer returns to this franchise he started in 2000, almost effortlessly folding up Matthew Vaughn’s enjoyable prequel X-Men: First Class (2011), into sync with X-Men, and X-Men 2 (aka: X2, 2003), while combining mature and young versions of reckless Magneto and competent Prof. X, into canon-shattering ret-con, where the established timeline of devolutionary tragedy in Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), is briskly shunted aside in favour of bright hopes, eventually presented here as utopian futurism. While speedster Quicksilver’s raid on the Pentagon, and Magneto’s levitation of a stadium to blockade the corrupted White House, deserve first and second prizes for set-piece spectaculars, the complicated, never confusing, plot flashes through acid-testing eras, for a climactic leveraging by moralistic influencers that changes X-chronology for the better. Following rebooted Spider-Man and Superman movies, here’s a multi-layered treatment specially formulated for comics fans who revel in diversity, playing chicken-and-egg with its character-building moments, and recursive imagery. Does time-travel really heal wounds of the psyche? Will this epilogue’s resurrections withstand closer scrutiny, or is any generic paradox-clause acceptable, as a simplistic hand-waving excuse for feel-good closure, because it offers a fuzzy deliverance from intolerance so anything-is-permitted results are welcome after so much persecution angst?

Runner-up SF movies of 2014: 
Luc Besson’s LUCY

Without any aliens or sinister elemental forces, Ridley Scott’s spacesuit movie is a kind of revisionist Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964), mixed with Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995). An enthralling story of survival and endurance, it’s about the Right Stuff, and reckless yet sanely innovative rocket science. Stranded on Mars alone, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is believed dead by his crewmates, evacuated to avoid a storm. The Martian is a fascinating hard-SF drama of laudable optimism, yet just as confrontational in its sombre aspects of loneliness and mortality as it is an escapist adventure. Notwithstanding its NASA and JPL recruiting-poster traits, here’s a visionary director’s presentation of problem-solving by a superb ensemble cast, that includes Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Sean Bean, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Kate Mara, who all exude professionalism, and/ or enthusiasm, in key roles, while the movie’s routinely spectacular planet-scapes, of magnificent scale, conjure up a sense of wonder, despite the title character’s isolation and potentially deadly troubles on a daily basis. Against the grain of today’s genre cinema, where Star Trek and Star Wars movies form the nominal model for space opera, The Martian is exemplary, with happily unobtrusive tributes to sci-fi milestones: Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Scott’s own Alien, Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997), and Hollywood’s version of Solaris (2002). What shines through even brighter is hopeful Clarkean futurism mixed with the can-do attitude of Heinlein’s archetypal ‘competent man’ for an admirably peak-performance protagonist, a man who seemingly believes that ‘specialisation is for insects’. Watney embodies ‘true grit’ and lacks sentimentality while revelling in humorous asides boosting an impressively heroic story of determination, fighting against despair. With thrills and in-jokes outdoing even Gravity, it’s the best space movie, in our familiar Solar system, since Peter Hyams’ classic 2010 (1984). If only the real world were as glorious as science fictional creations! The extended edition adds ten minutes, and every moment of this movie is something to be treasured.

Runner-up SF movies of 2015: 
Alex Garland’s EX MACHINA
George Miller’s MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Zack Snyder’s follow-up to Man Of Steel (2013) is an outstanding example of how taking comic-book superheroes very seriously can result in screen-entertainment breakthroughs that establish new benchmarks for this often maligned subgenre of SF-fantasy movies. It boasts action inspired by Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns (1986), but BvS is far greater than just one comic series, and its extraordinary commentary on vigilantes, heroism, meta-human politics, and corporate corruption - as represented by Lex Luthor - in a showdown with social conscience, makes for interpersonal and inter-city conflict that becomes darkly weird before a conclusion of mythical proportions. Introducing Gal Godot as DCEU’s imperfect Wonder Woman, is this project’s finest achievement in a challenging scenario of scathing character-based humour, suicidal tragedy, and electrifying thrills for the final act’s heroes-versus-monster spectacle.   

Runner-up SF movies of 2016: 
Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL
Anthony and Joe Russo’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
Bryan Singer’s X-MEN: APOCALYPSE

After several animated movies and TV serials based on Japanese comics, this cyberpunk franchise was adapted into a live-action movie starring Scarlett Johansson, with Takeshi Kitano and Juliette Binoche as top supporting players, directed by Rupert Sanders. GITS is set in the Asian megalopolis, a dystopian realm where mostly-robotic super-cop Major Killian investigates terrorists while also uncovering the dark secrets of her own forgotten past. Johansson turns in a good performance as the stoic Major, a coolly violent operator in an urban jungle of hacked tech, broken minds, and ubiquitous corporate criminality. It offers a truly chilling alternative to Denis Villeneuve’s sadly overlong sequel Blade Runner 2049, where human virtues struggle to maintain their survival alongside the omnipresent wholly intrusive systems of control and exploitation. GITS also benefits from much better action sequences than its genre rival and, unlike BR 2049, it doesn’t wallow in trivial sci-fi minutiae. With brisk character development, GITS hauls the elements of its comic-book SF-horror source into a milieu every bit as polished and stylish, but manages to avoid the too-leisurely pace that makes Villeneuve’s movie feel like a sadly numbing experience of cyber-futurism when compared to Ridley Scott’s masterwork. Admittedly, the differences in quality between GITS and BR 2047 are only slight, and this movie wears its influences (that include Scott’s BR) somewhat openly - but it has sharper pitch and vigorous tempo, which feels like intelligent rock ‘n’ roll weighed up against strait-laced classical music. My choice is a preference for movies without pretension, not the result of a song contest.

Runner-up SF movies of 2017:
Denis Villeneuve’s BLADE RUNNER 2049
James Mangold’s LOGAN

Dread him, run from him... Thanos arrives, at last... The Russo brothers draw together most MCU threads, from cosmic to earth-bound, developing these disparate strands of science / magic (Iron Man, Doctor Strange), human / alien (Black Widow, Groot), meta-human / android (Captain America, Vision), and youth / immortal (Spider-Man, Thor), for fighting the space tyrant’s quest for six gems of ultimate power. With cosmic adventures,  unlikely team-ups, battlefield heroics, fugitives and romantics, surprise attacks and siege prep, here the Avengers’ milieu explodes from international to interstellar, when invaders strike at heart-lands and boggle minds in locations from Knowhere to Wakanda. Although sometimes troubled by random quips or jokey attitudes by actors falling out-of-character for gratuitous improv, this glorious culmination of Marvel’s decade-long assemblage of an extended cast serves up impressively staged, yet often winningly informal, set-pieces on monumental scales. For its grim finale, there’s a fearlessly heavy and brutally emotional knockout blow of such intensity that this movie’s closing twist really makes the downbeat ending of Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980) feel like a summer holiday. 

Runner-up SF movies of 2018: 
Steven Spielberg’s READY PLAYER ONE

This sci-fi actioner repackages everything that was good about superhero movies Green Lantern (2011), and Wonder Woman (2019), but lacks any of their worst faults. Written by co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, this origin tale about space warrior Captain Marvel is derived from various elements of comics by Roy Thomas. Brie Larson is great fun as test-pilot Carol Danvers, who gains cosmic powers and saves the world from war between alien races. Set in the 1990s, it’s a cleverly effective prequel to several movies in the MCU franchise, including Avengers Assemble and Avengers: Endgame. Telling its own tale of secret history, hidden agendas, unforgiveable betrayals, and explorations of genre themes from UFOlogy to star cops, Captain Marvel offers feminist perspectives on superhero cinema that blends its socio-political relevance of Kree military hunting Skrull refugees with a tragicomic style. It’s clearly influenced by far weaker MCU pictures, like Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014), and Thor: Ragnarok (2017), but without sacrificing its human drama in favour of the blithely absurd farce adopted by those previous attempts at generating a successful formula in this franchise of comic-book adaptations. Larson’s mindful portrayal is a super-heroine with a human heart. She’s not a killer, a monster, a demi-god, or a genius. The MCU looks much safer in Carol’s hands.

Runner-up SF movies of 2019: 
Robert Rodriguez’s ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL
Anthony and Joe Russo’s AVENGERS: ENDGAME
Simon Kinberg’s X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX