I'll give some impressions from recent sci fi films, like Star Trek: Into Darkness, below. But first some retro-looks.
== Successes and failures: older sci fi flicks ==
The always-brashly relevant site io9 has a run-down of the "12 Most Unfaithful Movie Versions of Science Fiction and Fantasy Books." A fun romp and - as you might guess - a chance for shared misery with other authors who have seen "liberties" taken with their original material.
In fact, I am more forgiving of some of these films - even Kevin Costner's version of my novel The Postman - than many would expect.
For example, Soylent Green may have veered a bit in plot focus, but nothing about the "soylent" part of the film was incompatible with Harry Harrison's world in the novel Make Room! Make Room! which was vividly portrayed pretty much as he wrote it. Above all, Soylent Green was excellent, vivid and beautiful cinema… and also probably the most effective film in history at scaring folks into becoming environmentalists. Which I cannot say for the earlier and relentlessly preachy Silent Running, which we recently watched again. Silent Running had some fine moments, but was far too heavy handed to be truly effective -- and Joan Baez makes my ears ring. (With apologies to fellow ex-hippies.)
I also forgive the silly Freejack flick, simply because it got more people to read Robert Sheckley (it was based upon Immortality, Inc.). And now I will enrage some others by saying I bet Bob Heinlein would have chuckled at Verhoeven's approach to Starship Troopers. All of Heinlein's preachings are there… all of them! Veerhoven argues with RAH, using symbolism to rebuke and provoke. I found it a fascinating conversation and the subsequent arguments that raged among Heinlein fans would have pleased him.
== Successes and failures: Recent Movies ==
All right, I know I owe you that thoughtful essay on Avatar and other serious science fiction films. I do hope to get to it. Meanwhile, we've watched some other recent flicks and I'll give quick impressions. (Warning: some spoilers below!)
(Note: some 2013 Science Fiction offerings were clearly in the category of "wait for the DVD." The Tom Cruise and the Will Smith offerings, for example. One could tell from afar that they are old, old, old and tired concepts, retreaded with nice effects. We have a big TV… and can wait.)
Star Trek: Into Darkness. Folks wrote in, predicting I would hate this latest episode in the re-boot, because the core villainy originates within the Federation,. Aren't I the guy who most fervently celebrates Gene Roddenberry's optimistic vision of an improvable human and sapient civilization? (A very rare message indeed, these days.) Hence it may surprise folks to learn that none of my fears were realized. J.J. Abrams delivered a fun and vivid -- if a little popcorny -- Trek adventure that I found entirely faithful to the wholesome and uplifting Roddenberry-Trek mythology.
Sure, there was a Starfleet villain. So? That happened often enough in the older films and the varied TV series. The key point is that the conspirators were acting in secret and in violation of the Federation's core principles. Hence, the scenario was not an indictment of civilization as a whole, nor a proclamation of the hopelessness of democracy -- as you see perpetrated relentlessly in the Star Wars prequels -- but rather it's a tale about society's ethical immune system (manifested by Enterprise and crew) discovering and neutralizing a lethal and immoral aberration.
That is what good sci fi does: "Watch out for mistakes! Pay attention to potential failure modes! Then envision that citizens can cure them with courage, openness and belief in us."
(Indeed, with just five minutes of alteration, that's the message James Cameron might have delivered via Avatar. Alas that, instead, he chose to spread a poison.)
On a less ethereal plane, I thought J.J. Abrams dealt pretty well with the rascally immaturity of the new version of James T. Kirk by giving us a tale of maturation. Fine. Chris Pine is growing on me. I wasn't keen on this re-boot, but I think it could work out fine. (I'd like to see a more thoughtful use of the old (Nimoy) Spock. I believe he would be more nuanced in his "interference." Indeed, what's blatantly called for is an intersection of the parallel worlds, giving Pine (conveying different Kirks) even more range. But that awaits my someday having beers with Mr. Abrams.)
Oh, but then there's the other villain in ST:ID. Yes… sigh… you-know-who. Okay. I winced, for about three seconds. Then I got over it, decided to go along, and thoroughly enjoyed the performance. Even the deliberate counter riff to the moving death scene in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Self-indulgent? Sure, but in a way that shared our fan-crush with a nod and many winks. Hey, there are worse cinematic torts and (in real time) I talked myself into loving it.
Speaking of self-indulgence, did any of you notice the arrival of Dr. Carol "Can I cook?" Marcus? Oh gawd. Why do directors do that? Still, I told myself to "shut up and eat more popcorn." All told, it was fun. Refreshing. Even going so far as reprising the music from the Original Series. The STII/TNG/Goldsmith musical themes were better, by far, but had grown exceedingly over-exposed and stale.
Want depth in your cinematic sci fi? Try Chistopher Nolan. Heck, these days, I'm delighted just to be able to watch something that contains some goodness, plot consistency and clean fun. J.J. Abrams delivered those and I can wait for brain food.
And Other Films more briefly: Cloud Atlas (based on the novel by David Mitchell) was not as murky as I expected. We could all follow the threads. The blatant homages to Blade Runner and Soylent Green and other classics got tiresome, after a while. And the whole reincarnation point was thin. Still, it was pretty. And I chuckled a few times over the makeup-makeovers. Popcorn, requiring lots and lots of butter.
I left out Looper from my first draft. Shouldn't have. It was a meticulously thoughtful effort. Time travel is truly hard to do well, but this one tried very hard and a careful analysis on paper reveals one of the two dozen or so causality models for time travel stories might, sort-of, work... or at least hold together well enough for a consistent story. The crime premise is dopey, but you have to overlook something and it drove a solid movie plot. SO much better than Surrogates! Even forgot the popcorn on my lap.
Some things, however, no amount of can be saved by no amount of condiments. We recently rented Part II of Atlas Shrugged: The Movie. (I had to. I am a bit of an "Ayn Rand scholar" and felt behooved.) I had few hopes for an entertaining or enlightening evening… and all expectations were met. I do admit that the film-makers have striven hard to be faithful to the source material! That is always gratifying to an author… almost enough for me not to wish (fervently) that they hadn't.
Atlas Shrugged: Part One had been pretty damned awful, tendentious, illogical, preachy, dreary and dumb... but there were moments of charm, as I describe here. (Wherein I also demonstrate, decisively, that Rand was the greatest of all acolytes of Karl Marx, even if they disagreed over the teleologically ordained end point.) Alas, Part II had all of the dreary-awful traits of Part I... without any of the redeeming qualities.
I was reminded of Frank Herbert's Dune, in which you start rooting for the Atreides family only because their opponents are so vampiric and grotesquely-cartoonishly awful, and hence you are able to squint and not notice that the Atreides are - themselves - oppressive monsters. Likewise, in Atlas Shrugged, a litany of inane and calamitously self-destructive "laws" (that bear no relationship with any real world politics) are passed by the U.S. government, serving as strawman excuses for the rise of what would otherwise be recognized as a lunatic cult, led by a man who (in the more detailed novel) deliberately sabotages all American industry and the nation's ability to feed itself, while crooning "followwwww meeeee" in hypnotic tones to one ubermensch "creator" after another. A cult of uniform obedience to the Big Man that would make David Koresh and Jim Jones envious.
Mark this well... I consider myself to be a "libertarian" in the sense that Adam Smith was a genius - and a much more ethical man than anyone credits - who helped establish our positive sum Enlightenment and taught us how to harness human creative competition, unleashing a cascade of great things. I consider it to be one of the great tragedies of modern intellectual and political history that the American Libertarian movement has been hijacked away from those roots, down paths of solipsistic madness, enticed by a spite-propeled, child-hating, crypto-Marxist woman whose appeal should be limited to brief obsessional flings by nerdy-male college sophomore under-achievers. No greater proof can be seen than the overwhelming rejection at the polls by the American people in 2012, despite the Libertarian Party having its best candidate ever, and despite the apparently determined self destruction of the Republican Party. Twin facts that have William F. Buckley spinning in his grave.
Never mind. My previous essay said it all, exposing not only Rand's Marxist roots, but the stunning inability of her followers to explain the lack of children, procreation or the possibility of a future in her strange "utopia."
== Sci fi films in a lesser mode ==
See a terrific mini movie, six minutes long, about terraforming Mars… in French!(With English subtitles.) C'est étonnant et merveilleux ouvrage de la science et aussi science fiction! Felicitations et bon chance!