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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Sci-fi: Dying Pastime or Rising Genre?

Published: February 8, 2013
Section: Opinions

As the son of a pair of proud nerds, I have always been interested in science fiction. Whether I was running around the house screaming in terror at Darth Vader’s revelation from “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” or seeing the magic of “Dr. Who’s” sonic screwdriver for the first time, I’ve always had a soft spot for sci-fi in my heart. Yet, lately I’ve been disappointed with the selection of movies coming out. I often find myself turning away from new sci-fi releases. With its lackluster showings as of late, I’m left to wonder: is sci-fi slowly dying off in the box office?

One of the worst flops of recent memory was “Total Recall,” a 2012 reboot of an acclaimed 1990 tale of a construction worker in 2084 who discovers his memory was wiped and that he’s a secret agent. While this incarnation of the franchise was highly anticipated, critics slammed it, picking apart almost every element of the film (with the exception of some action sequences). Sadly, this is a trend that is becoming more and more common with sci-fi films. Many rely on flash and spectacle rather than focus on how characters are affected by the technology around them and the morality that ensues. This is not to say that spectacle hasn’t always been a large part of the appeal of sci-fi films (blockbusters such as “Independence Day” and “Terminator 2, Judgment Day” were based largely on their visual appeal). Yet, good sci-fi films have always boasted memorable and sophisticated characters, but few such characters have presented themselves in recent films.

These flops can be attributed to one thing: a public that is finally losing its taste for intense on-screen action and instead seeking in-depth characterization and drama. While I share a love for action films like “Avatar” and “Transformers,” I’m glad this trend of “action for action’s sake” is coming to an end. Films should showcase the journeys of individuals, and the trials and choices they face along the way. It is this conflict and drama that all great films share in common. These former standards in sci-fi films have since been discarded for the visual spectacle, a detrimental choice.

Hollywood has not completely abandoned sci-fi, however, as some good films have come out recently. J.J. Abrams’ 2009 hit “Star Trek” revitalized a franchise long known for having only a small, tight-knit fan base of “Trekkies.” It highlighted popular actors like Karl Urban and Simon Pegg to create a fast-paced, action-oriented space epic. The “Iron Man” franchise has also contributed to the popularity of sci-fi films, as Tony Stark’s lack of superpowers forces him to rely on his own inventions (wondrous examples of technology that are both plausible to modern viewers and futuristic at the same time). As with “Star Trek,” big-name actors such as Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson have breathed new life into this technological superhero.

It is worth noting that interest in sci-fi will likely continue to grow, thanks to the wide array of brilliant TV shows targeted toward youthful generations. Series such as “Dr. Who” keep teenagers and college students riveted, while grittier cartoons like “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” and “Transformers Prime” are seeing increasingly respectable ratings. These and many other shows are allowing sci-fi to become more of a mainstream item for TV connoisseurs, as can be seen by fan bases even here at Brandeis. One can scarcely walk through Usdan without hearing discussion about the latest “Dr. Who” episode, or nervous chattering about the upcoming “Star Wars” films and whether they will destroy the beloved franchise or carry it strongly into another decade.

While many sci-fi films have flopped in the box office, and it can be argued that the “golden age of sci-fi” has ended, this year has plenty of movies coming out that may reverse this trend. “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “Iron Man 3” call upon veteran actors and directors to bring sci-fi into the spring with a bang, while “After Earth” and “World War Z” will strike a more serious chord this summer. The fall’s lineup of “Thor: The Dark Worlds” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” also promise to keep the year going strong. All of these titles are highly anticipated and most believe they will be well-received both by critics and box offices. It remains to be seen, but 2013 stands to be a great time for sci-fi films to redeem their reputation.