by Derek Johnson
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
Two years is a long time, especially in genre circles. At this time in 2008, I considered the genre-related media I had seen, and felt almost embarrassed by how much good work had been done. The Incredible Hulk surprised many by being not middling but pretty good. Iron Man surprised us all by being not pretty good but very good. The Dark Knight became one of the best movies of its year (not to mention the most successful), thanks in no small part due to Heath Ledger's iconic interpretation of Batman's nemesis. I almost missed Let the Right One In, and would have had it not been for Lucius Shepard's praise. I'm glad I caught it, because it was one of the most sublime vampire movies I've ever seen. Pixar's Wall·E managed to be one of the company's best productions as well as one of the best true quill science fiction movies in a long while, though I'm sure the irony of what became of the human species was lost on audience members gorging themselves on jumbo popcorns and sodas so large they required lifeguards. Cloverfield and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army pleasantly surprised me, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street somewhat disappointed but still entertained me. Even Quantum of Solace, which was a major letdown after Casino Royale, had enough to stay in my mind long after the credits rolled. The best of times indeed.
As 2010 winds down, I consider the best genre movies I've seen this year… and I feel as if someone has edited significant chunks of my memory. It's not that you couldn't find something worthwhile showing at the multiplexes -- any year that offers Winter's Bone, The Social Network, The Ghost Writer and the Coen brothers' fine remake of True Grit certainly has done something right -- but few, if any, of those with geek chic matched the quality of 2008. Or 2009, for that matter.
Don't get me wrong. In terms of volume, movies that might appeal to science fiction and fantasy fans never stopped coming. The first part of the year alone saw the release of The Book of Eli, The Crazies, Kick-Ass, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, The Lovely Bones, The Wolfman, How to Train Your Dragon and Legion. Martin Scorcese's Shutter Island might have been based on a Gothic crime novel by Dennis Lehane, but also contained enough material to appeal to connoisseurs of the fantastic. The Swedish crime thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn't technically science fiction or fantasy, but somehow reminded me of the works of William Gibson. And that's just through April; the summer's genre influx began with the dreadful remake of The Clash of the Titans and ended with the joyous pop culture stew of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The fall's dubious efforts (Let Me In, Red, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I) or winter's execrable releases (Tron: Legacy) were impossible to miss. Every month averaged at least one, and often two, genre pictures.
For all of 2010's attempts to separate science fiction and fantasy fans from their hard-earned cash, only a bare handful met minimum standards of competence. A very tiny minority managed to linger in the cinematic memory longer than a trace of perfume in a crowded auditorium. (Hell, even I can't remember some of what I saw over the course of the year.) One or two turned out to be things I could place on my Best of Year list.
There was Toy Story 3, which showed that a movie series can actually grow up with its audience. Children may have laughed at the antics of Woody, Buzz and Jesse, but adults laughed louder at Barbie's and Ken's sexual politics and the Mission: Impossible-style escape from a daycare. And while children might have cried during the end, it was the teenagers and adults who shed the most tears. Too many chases and an annoyingly ambiguous ending hampered Christopher Nolan's Inception, but it still evoked the spirits of Philip K. Dick and M.C. Escher (with a little bit of Fritz Leiber). Nolan's dreamscapes might have seemed too logical, but in terms of sheer construction his movie functioned like a Swiss watch. For my money, it was also the most beautiful looking movie of the year. Monsters, a very low budget offering that I caught at a late showing at the Alamo Drafthouse, remains my pick for best science fiction film of 2010. Indeed, if I was going to pick only one movie that I would urge people to see, Monsters would be the one.
And that's pretty much it.
The rest were too often middling at best. Let Me In competently remade Let the Right One In, but only just. Too often it reminded me of Gus Van Sant's shot for shot remake of Hitchcock's Psycho: efficient but pointless. Red made a mediocre graphic novel modestly entertaining; The Losers took a modestly entertaining graphic novel and turned it into a painfully bad movie. The Crazies had its B-movie charms, but those couldn't overcome its more obvious faults. A Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland seemed like a sure thing, but in execution was as bland as unseasoned tofu. Kick-Ass showed real promise before collapsing into formula almost twenty minutes in. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I certainly had fan appeal -- people began waiting in line early that morning to catch the advanced screening I attended, something I haven't witnessed since the days when I stayed in line for hours to catch a showing of The Empire Strikes Back -- but like its title character who finds himself stuck in the middle of the forest, it never managed to find a way out of mediocrity. And while Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time was even more forgettable than the last movie adaptation of a videogame, well, it could have been worse.
And there were worse.
God, were there worse.
Universal did right in making The Wolfman a period piece, and then went horribly wrong by making its Victorian London look like a pale imitation of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, released two months earlier. Letting Anthony Hopkins leave teeth marks on the scenery didn't help. Repo Men took an energetic, entertaining novel in the tradition of Robert Sheckley and Thomas Harris, and turned it into a poor satire that, by turns, went too far over the top and never went far enough. I wanted to enjoy Ridley Scott's Robin Hood despite the presence of Russell Crowe, only to find that Crowe was the least of the movie's problems. (I understand that the original script, entitled Nottingham, featured a love triangle between the law abiding Sherriff, Robin Hood and Maid Marian. A pity that's not what was filmed.) I dubbed Clash of the Titans, a remake of a movie I wasn't all that crazy about to begin with, the worst movie I saw in 2010… until I saw Vincenzo Natali's Splice, which, despite an interesting mix of the sensibilities of David Cronenberg and William Faulkner, was so laughably bad that I wondered why so many prominent critics thought so highly of it. And then there was Tron: Legacy, a misfire on almost every level (though the soundtrack was good). I never saw The Last Airbender, so I have to take the word of others who thought it one of the most execrable things to hit screens this year. After that and The Happening, I'm not sure how M. Night Shayamalan still has a career.
I shouldn't judge a film year based on its worst releases, but given how crappy 2010 was, I feel justified in complaining.
Here's hoping 2011 proves wonderfully memorable.
Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.
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