Tuesday, March 01, 2005

And the Helios goes to ...

The Oscars have come and gone. The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films has its award ceremony on May 7th, so it's time to start thinking about the best flicks of those genres from 2004. Here's the link to the Saturn Award nominees page. The nominees are about what you'd expect.

Here are some of my favorite genre movies from last year:

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" was for my money the best science fiction movie of 2004. Not too much in the way of special effects in this movie, just good screen writing that keeps tight control of the plot, well-managed direction, and superb acting by some of my favorites: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood, and Mark Ruffalo. It takes place in the present but it's pure science fiction as it explores the mind-bending consequences on human behavior of a new technology that can selectively wipe away bad memories from a person's brain.

In the mainstream sci-fi genre "I, Robot" was a safe bet. Adapted from the works of Isaac Asimov, it doesn't feel much like Asimov, with its car chases and it's thrilling conclusion at the robot headquarters where the world will be saved if our heroes destroy the giant supercomputer controlling all the rampaging robots. It's really convenient for sci-fi heroes that so many villains have not gotten hip to the whole notion of distributed command and control. One properly placed bomb and the world is always saved. Yet whatever the movie's safe conventions its vision of the near future feels about right as we see Chicago with familiar buildings alongside futuristic structures, people walking around on ordinary looking streets with robots mingling among them. It looks more normal and likely than the future in "Bladerunner" did, for instance. It's also not based on the writings of Philip K. Dick. Please let this be the start of a trend.

For spaceships and action, "The Chronicles of Riddick" provided plenty of both. Although it doesn't measure up to its predecessor, "Pitch Black," the new movie is worthy as a sequel because it takes Riddick's story in an entirely other direction. The visuals are stunning, even better than "Sky Captain's." The plot is hardly more than an action movie, there's no situation so dire that it can't be beaten to death by Vin Diesel's fists, but the story does end at an unexpected place. It's also suggestive of today's world of religious combat with an invading army crossing the galaxy and converting the conquered along the way. And did I mention that the movie looks damn good? The Academy must think so too because special effects is its only nomination.

A quirky favorite of mine from last year is "The American Astronaut." It was made in 2001 but it was in theaters in 2004 so it counts. This movie is a sci-fi rock musical made effectively on a low, low, very low budget. It's more than a little bit avant garde and there's a feeling throughout the movie that there's some private joke lurking just below the surface about to be told. Some have wrongly compared the movie to David Lynch's "Eraserhead," but it's more like Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man." If you liked that, you might like this. The story doesn't really matter so suffice to say it involves a chase across the solar system from Ceres, to Jupiter, to a space station, and then to Venus. The attraction of this movie is that it combines science fiction with the musical. That's right, the characters sing and dance, even the serial killer villain has a song and dance number. Cory McAbee, of the band The Billy Nayer Show, which makes a cameo appearance at the bar on Ceres, wrote, starred, and directed. The movie is available on DVD from Netflix. Rent it. I dare you.



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