The last decade has been a wasteland for sci-fi fans. We've all looked back fondly to the late 1970s and the 1980s, when we had lots of cool films to pick from. Sure, the big ones dominated the decade and the conversation – stuff like E.T. Alien, The Abyss, Star Wars, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Tron, Blade Runner, Back to the Future – but we also had lots of intriguing little films with a sci-fi flair. It was the decade of Altered States, Scanners, Mad Max, Enemy Mine, Starman, Escape from New York (it might be easier to say everything John Carpenter directed), Life Force, even the original The Terminator. They weren't the epic adventures of Captain Kirk or Luke Skywalker, just thrillers or dramas that just happened to have a sci-fi flair to them. It was sci-fi at its roots – speculative fiction, our world tweaked just enough to be a little shocking and strange.
But by the 1990s, those stories dried up. Given our leaps in computer technology, it's ironic that we failed to use them for good sci-fi movies, but I guess we thought we were living in the future and the genre just had nothing left to tell. We also lost sight of the fact that a good sci-fi story doesn't have to be enormous and effects driven. It could just be a story with some funky, non-existent elements.
The late 2000s seem to be shifting that in a delightful way. We still have the huge films – Star Trek, Inception, Avatar, Tron: Legacy, Battle: Los Angeles, the upcoming Cowboys and Aliens and The Green Lantern – but we're back in a nice niche renaissance with films like Moon, Never Let Me Go, District 9, Splice, Children of Men, Primer, and The Fountain. Of course, these have been scarred across the last part of a decade, scattered like little genre bread crumbs to keep us living in half hungry hope. But 2011 may be the year we returned to a real renaissance. Have you noticed the last five weeks? In rapid succession we enjoyed The Adjustment Bureau, Paul, Limitless, and Source Code. That's one month full of sci-fi! It has been the best five weeks ever; the mirage at the end of Death Valley.
All of these films had detractors. None of them were perfect, but I think they were all enjoyable. You may even read them and say that Paul wasn't sci-fi, it was comedy, or that Limitless or The Adjustment Bureau barely fits into the definition. But they do! I would even argue they might be the best kind of sci-fi for the multiplex – and this is coming from someone who loves time travel, space battles, and complicated philosophy in her sci-fi – because it's not overwhelmingly driven by its genre, but merely offers a peek into another world. It's still stuff that gets people thinking and talking, but it doesn't turn them off by featuring chestbursters, lightsabers, and fears about the time space continuum. It's just a taste. For audiences fumbling their way back to a time and place where these stories are just part of what's on tap. It's good to remind Hollywood and moviegoers that science fiction doesn't always have to cost $500 million, and feature state-of-the-art 3D and a CG Jeff Bridges or Zoe Saldana. It can simply feature a little clear pill that makes a man into a frenetic genius, or leaves a hero and its audience disoriented with time paradoxes, or it can go all out and star an alien with squishy eyes. Smaller movies go further to show us what the genre is capable of than the summer blockbusters do. I'd argue that the best sci-fi stories have always been told under the tightest constraints.
If you missed the past five weeks at the multiplex – skipped over Limitless because you loathe its star, forgot about or didn't get Source Code, or thought The Adjustment Bureau looked too mushy – then I urge you to go check out as many of the above as possible. If we want another rapidfire succession like this, we have to support the best stretch Hollywood has given us in more than ten years. Pick any one of them, and you won't be disappointed. Believe me, it was a darn good month to be a genre fan!