Quality science fiction is a difficult thing to find. In this age of computer-generated imagery, fancy 3-D technologies and IMAX theaters, the temptation among filmmakers runs high to deliver blockbuster spectacle. While films like "Avatar" and "Transformers" fall squarely within the genre fiction realm in terms of their stories, they tend to trade thought-provoking subtext for big effects and high-concept ideas. To be fair, "Avatar" did feature some noteworthy commentary on the environment and modern-day imperialism, but much of that was lost beneath the spectacle.
We've seen some strong examples of sci-fi over the past several years: "Moon" and "District 9" in 2009; "Sleep Dealer," "WALL-E," "Sunshine," "Children of Men," "Timecrimes" and others in the years before. One name has been noticeably absent from the genre roll-call however: Andrew Niccol. His resume isn't terribly extensive, but Niccol is responsible for two of the strongest sci-fi entries of the '90s: "The Truman Show" (writer) and "Gattaca" (writer/director), also his debut. And now he's back with "I'm.mortal," in which shades of that first movie are clearly visible.
"I'm.mortal" posits a near-future world in which humanity has discovered how to "turn off" the aging process at the genetic level. Here's where things get really funky: in a society where no one gets older, time becomes the primary form of currency. The more of your allotted life that you "spend," the more material goods -- necessities and luxuries alike -- you can buy.
In other words, people are faced with a choice: you can live a life filled with experience and comfort at the expense of longevity or, alternatively, you can settle in for a long, dull existence.
The echoes of "Gattaca" are felt in "I'm.mortal"'s genetic solution to aging. In the 1997 flick, which stars Ethan Hawke, Jude Law and Uma Thurman, knowledge of genetics has progressed to the point that infants can be altered in utero, stripping away potentially unhealthy traits.
The last time Niccol flirted with sci-fi was 2002's "S1m0ne," starring Al Pacino as a film producer who has a digital duplicate of one of his star actors recreated after she walks away from a project. He moved on to more reality-based fiction from there, writing the script for Steven Spielberg's "The Terminal" (2004) and writing/directing the Nic Cage-starring "Lord of War."
I'm not implying that Niccol is the arbiter of smart science fiction, that his '90s work sets any kind of standard against which more recent efforts should be judged. He's simply a talented storyteller who knows how to spin an original science fiction idea. "Gattaca" and "The Truman Show" both illustrated this. And if that previous work is any indication, there's no reason not to expect he'll do anything less than raise the bar for what's to come with "I'm.mortal."
What kind of sci-fi do you prefer: blockbuster spectacle or thought-provoking, character-driven stories? Or do your favorites straddle the line between the two? How do you think the premise of "I'm.mortal" compares to that of "Gattaca"? How is it more relevant to the world we live in today?