Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Super Plunge Lady and the 3D Printed Rocket Car
by Erin Lale

by Daniel Huddleston

Portraits Hung in Empty Halls
by K.C. Ball

Mouse Trap
by Fiona Moore

Basket in the Sky
by Igor Teper

Worlds Less Traveled
by John C. Conway

Redemption of Colony Venturis
by Wayne Helge

Where the Grass May Be Greener
by Rob Butler

Double Time
by Rik Hunik


Do Beavers Rule Mars?
by Thomas Elway

Science Fiction at the Box Office
by Adam Paul




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips




Science Fiction at the Box Office

By Adam Paul

YOU’D BE HARD-PRESSED TO find a human being who lived in modern society and hasn’t at least heard of James Cameron’s “Avatar.” During its 2009 release, “Avatar” was simply monstrous—adjusted for inflation, Cameron’s epic is the third highest-grossing film in history, making well above two billion dollars worldwide. Accordingly, our pop-culture obsession with “Avatar” quickly moved past the usual merchandise and water-cooler buzz and into something far more bizarre. Fans reportedly began suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts after leaving the theater, claiming that facing the real world after spending two hours and forty-two minutes in outer space paradise was too much to handle. A man in Taiwan suffered a stroke and later died after a showing of “Avatar”; his doctor later explained that “it’s likely that the overexcitement from watching the movie triggered his symptoms.” Box office records are broken on a regular basis and more than a few films each year make hundreds of millions at the box office. The madness spurned on by “Avatar” is something else entirely.

Now examine Disney’s “John Carter.” Released in March of 2012, “Carter” shares more than a few passing similarities with Cameron’s box-office titan. Both films revolve around a white man being transported to an extraterrestrial version of the so-called “savage land,” and both white men quickly find themselves feeling more at home with this new adopted culture than with the one they were born avatarinto. The scales of both films are enormous, yet both tell the same simple story that has been at the heart of countless movies that have come before. So how is it that “Avatar” held the top spot at the worldwide box office seven times in a row, while “John Carter” tanked so profoundly as to force a Disney executive into retirement? Ultimately, “Avatar’s” strengths and its failings (of which there are many) make it the poster child for modern Hollywood science fiction. It is happy to forever skim along the surface without ever dipping itself into something substantial; almost akin to a theme park ride rather than a feature film. Its success is due to its strength as a marketable product, and the films that try to combine genuine, intellectual science fiction with the massive (and strictly commercial) scope of “Avatar” rarely, if ever, succeed at doing both. Those looking for a stream of consistent, thoughtful science fiction must ultimately take different routes to find them. One of the few non-visual ways “Avatar” was able to genuinely stand out from the competition was its status as an original idea. Today, the ideal Hollywood film is now the one based on a pre-existing property. Of the ten highest-grossing films released in 2012, there isn’t a single film that breaks from the mold of sequels, remakes or adaptations. Only by stretching into the top fifteen do original ideas begin to poke through (at numbers twelve, thirteen and fourteen), yet even in those three cases each film has its own instantly recognizable selling point. “Ted” has creator Seth MacFarlane’s “Family Guy” brand, while “Brave” has Pixar and “Wreck-it-Ralph” has Disney. As the filmgoer inches closer to the science fiction genre, more and more titles creep up: superhero films, modern updates of fables, toy lines crafted into action movies. All are summer staples crammed under the far-too-inclusive genre of science fiction/fantasy. So when it comes to the films that could genuinely be classified as science fiction, it’s not surprising that the leaders of this pack are composed almost entirely of name-brand fare.

Sometimes the films in question are simply lost causes. What is there to be gained from remakes of “Total Recall” or “The Day the Earth Stood Still?” These films are dead weight, bloated to the point of bursting with dull, listless performances and a glut of CGI effects. They seem contrary to the very nature of science fiction. Similar to classic horror films, the best works of science fiction are frequently those with a political message at their core. “Metropolis” is built on class struggle and the enormous gap between rich and poor. “1984” is a cautionary tale of totalitarianism and government intrusion into the most minute facets of everyday life. So much of what is released as science fiction will check off a few basic generic markers: aliens, time travel, futuristic societies or other phenomena, yet they ignore the essence of science fiction. Films like “Tron: Legacy” may be exciting on a sensory level, but at their most basic there is a fundamental difference between the science fiction that has stood the test of time and the science fiction that is churned out with an expensive coat of visual polish, only to fade after a few years.

In the Hollywood realm, there are still films that strive for this ideal. The difficulty is that the system they are produced in tends to warp the genuine idea at the heart of science fiction. It’s not by coincidence that “Avatar” and “John Carter” have so many similarities. Cameron’s film is clearly an attempt to recreate the feel of a pulp science fiction novel (of which the “Barsoom” series is the perfect example) for modern-day audiences. But when shaping the film for the widest audience possible, the story Cameron is trying to emulate begins to erode. Jake Sully, “Avatar’s” hero, should ideally be torn between two worlds: the alien and the human. But in crafting his alien life to be as inviting and beautiful as possible (and thus draw in more audience members who wish to escape their own lives and join this perfect society), Cameron saps all the conflict out of his film. Each Na’vi is an ideal specimen, staggeringly good-looking and in perfect physical shape. Tsu’tey, the alien tribe’s fiercest warrior is the only Na’vi to ever display a negative quality throughout the course of the film. Distrustful of the film’s hero, he is hostile and unpleasant but eventually that sole negative characteristic is purged away. In sacrificing himself during the film’s final battle, Tsu’tey redeems his past sins and dies an honorable death, pledging devotion and respect to the white male at the center of the story.

Creating a fictional world so ideal that it causes clinical depression is a terrific way to sell movie tickets, but it continually chips away at the foundation of “Avatar’s” story. Sully has no reason to be torn between two worlds. The Na’vi world promises a life of peace and love with peak physical ability and beauty for everyone. The human world seems wholly devoted to the destruction of the Na’vi, and little else. The star-crossed romance cannot exist when one side is so uniformly good and the other so uniformly evil. “Avatar” will never be a film on the level of “Metropolis,” but it still has elements of greatness hidden deep within it. Those elements fail to emerge solely because selling the experience of “Avatar” holds greater significance than crafting a worthwhile film.

There is a risk inherent in Hollywood science fiction. It has become increasingly apparent that there are only two means of getting a big-budget science fiction film through the system—by tethering the film to either a pre-existing franchise or a popular director. A film based solely on a name brand seems doomed to failure almost at its outset. A popular director is able to create a more singular artistic vision, but as is the case with “Avatar,” the results are not always ideal. As these trends develop, they have also begun to merge. With increasing frequency, the director-backed film is also a franchise film. Happily, in the majority of cases the director is able to persevere. Take Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children of Men,” which is an absolutely brilliant piece of dystopian science fiction, yet is also an adaptation of a novel. By technicality it must be lumped into the dreaded category of sequel, remake and adaptation. However, this matters considerably less when a talented filmmaker is at the helm. Here, the source material is prized for its artistic value rather than its ability to increase potential ticket sales. J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” remakes are competently made action films that draw lovingly upon the original series, while “District 9” stands strong as a feature-length version of its director’s original short film. The reworking of source material, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. But when the remake overtakes the original idea to the extent that we’re seeing today, it is clear that a vein of creativity in the film industry has run dry.

Yet a talented director can’t always be counted on to save a film from the constraints of the pre-existing franchise. “Prometheus” is an ideal example. Every penny of its colossal budget is put to full effect onscreen. The sets feel ancient and alien and far beyond human comprehension; future technologies have just the right touches of familiarity and otherworldliness; the monsters are brought to life through a deft blend of computer and practical effects. This is a film that would seemingly uphold every positive aspect of Hollywood science fiction. It took an enormous amount of money to produce but made much more than that in profit. At the same time, the presence of Ridley Scott in the director’s chair ensures artistic merit. And yet, the lengths taken to tie “Prometheus” back to the “Alien” franchise mar it beyond repair. The mythology behind the creatures is an incomprehensible mess, and the inclusion of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation (an “Alien” series staple) adds needless plot contrivances and cheapens the characters’ motivations. Were it not a sequel but simply an original science fiction film directed by Scott, “Prometheus” could have been something truly special. As it stands, it is simply another in a long line of disappointing sequels.

This steady, if paltry stream of science fiction films helmed by talented directors does create a consistent glimmer of hope for the future of the large-scale science fiction film. However slim the selection of upcoming movies may be, one can still find worthwhile films by following the few directors who consistently make science fiction with a balance of spectacle and intellect. The latter half of 2013 still has a handful of potential greatness to offer in the form of Neil Blomkamp’s “Elysium” and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.” Both offer high-concept, effects-laden science fiction with high-profile celebrity actors in lead roles. Both also come from filmmakers who have recently released outstanding science fiction films. It may not be much, but it’s the new reality for those who enjoy the scale that Hollywood films have to offer. You simply sit and wait for one of the few directors that you cherish to put out another film.

And of course, Hollywood is not the only place where one can find science fiction. It is simply the route that is most popular today- the modern audience expects a science fiction film to have the most cutting edge visual effects and there are but a few outlets able to provide the kind of monetary backing required to create them. When one moves into the realm of independent and foreign cinemas, however, the opposite swiftly becomes the case. High-end visuals are a rarity, not the norm, and the best films from non-Hollywood sources create captivating alternate worlds by utilizing a few small effects in ingenious ways. It’s the concept of “art through adversity” at work. With less to play with, the minds behind these smaller films have to stretch each dollar to its fullest extent.

Few films typify this concept better than Nacho Vigalondo’s 2007 film, “Timecrimes.” The film is devoid of any kind of recognizable special effect. The only images onscreen that ever break from reality are the presence of a time machine (essentially a large tank of mysterious liquid in a room full timecrimesof equally mysterious control panels) and the rare occasion where one time traveler spies another. All the typical time-travel tropes are present in the story, but they unfold in a world that never stretches from the bonds of reality. Hector, the film’s protagonist, is continually warned about the dangers of altering the past. He observes his past selves living through moments we’ve already seen in the film. Yet the film barely ever shows two Hectors onscreen at the same time, and the experience of time travel is simply a straight cut from Hector getting into the machine to Hector emerging from it. When nothing onscreen looks unbelievable, the suspension of disbelief shrinks away and the film becomes innately human. Hector’s first experience after traveling back through time is something simple and instantly relatable—he enters the machine at night and steps out a moment later into shining daylight. There is no grand reveal of his return to an earlier time; only simple observation that keeps him grounded as a relatable protagonist.

“Timecrimes” uses these same methods to turn Hector into a veritable science fiction monster. At the onset of the film, Hector’s world is pallid and lifeless, composed of few colors besides beige and gray. The more he travels through time, the more his color palette begins to grow. He dons a murky black coat and wraps bright pink bandages around a facial wound, giving him the air of a Universal creature of the 1930s or 40s (somewhere between the Invisible Man and the Frankenstein monster). In order to preserve the various timelines that skitter throughout the story, Hector is forced lower and lower towards acts of violence and terror. At first, he attempts these reluctantly, and solely to protect his future, but as his image degrades, so do his morals. By the last act of the film, Hector removes the bandages, displaying his damaged and misshapen face as casually as he threatens and torments other characters. Hector becomes a monster in the simplest and most elegant sense—he commits horrific acts not out of malice or joy, but because he believes what he is doing is right.

Even in the foreign and independent markets, the methods for hunting down good science fiction remain the same: follow the director. Vigalondo’s newest science fiction escapade, “Extraterrestrial,” was released just last year (although reviews have been mixed). Bong Joon-ho, the Korean director who created one of the most exciting monster movies of the last decade in “The Host,” has the post-apocalyptic “Snow Piercer” set to release sometime in 2013. Gareth Edwards pulled off convincing space invaders with 2010’s “Monsters” and has now been given the reigns for a new Godzilla film. Clearly, even directors far outside the sphere of Hollywood influence have a way of being drawn into the fold.

Good science fiction is not as plentiful as it should be, and far too often the better works have to deal with the ever-looming shadow of the big-budget science fiction film. However, today’s film landscape is still far from a lost cause. Those with enough determination are certainly capable of sifting through dirt to find the few science fiction gems that emerge each year. Those hard-earned discoveries become something to be held close and treasured; something passed along the grapevine to other fans in the know. Like the filmmaker on a tight budget, a less-than-stellar situation can be molded into something to cherish. infinity

Adam Paul is an avid film and TV buff, spending an unhealthy portion of each day staring at moving images projected onto a screen. He is studying film at Virginia Commonwealth University and works as a freelance writer and film critic.


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