Here's a theory: The trajectory of science fiction in film is best told through the Aliens series. Sure, sci-fi existed before then, but none of it had blockbuster potential until Star Wars and Star Trek came and uprooted the entire genre (and, as such, became genres in and of themselves). But Ridley Scott's initial, chill-inducing Alien told a truly terrifying story in a terrific and thoughtful way — it made money as well, raking in $80,931,801 in the U.S. alone, a significant chunk in 1979. Then, in the '80s, producers realized that science fiction had true blockbuster potential (see: Scanners, Cocoon, and Terminator). With a much-inflated budget, Aliens was popcorn fodder, in its purest, most entertaining form, with amazing action sequences, a simple plot, and lots of big machines. When the '90s rolled around, things became a little darker and quirkier, and directors turned to science fiction for experimentation, like The Matrix, 12 Monkeys, or The Fifth Element. (Though, it should be noted that Alien 3 may be the darkest of all of the Alien movies, but David Fincher vocally hated the studio's edit, even though the tone was similar to his later film, Fight Club.) Alien: Resurrection, of course, indicated a typical choice for what was a reboot prototype: an ensemble cast, a character emerging from the dead, and most importantly…a critical flop. (Ed. Note: Jean-Pierre Jeunet directed this film, the same guy who helmed Amélie. Weird, right?)
Which brings us to Prometheus, Scott's return to the series, and a perfect example of the state of massively financed science fiction in the 2010s. Alien helped popularize the idea that science fiction could be both a thinking person's genre and a massive blockbuster — but that modern incarnations, like Prometheus, seemed to slap together beautiful visuals with vague lessons in humanity. That does not a good story make. Chalking up the entire Alien narrative to "wanting to meet your ambiguously motivated maker to find the quote-unquote meaning of existence" made diehard fans feel a bit like this. The bloated budgets of today's sci-fi movies seem to only lead to very expensive disasters, either critically, box-office-wise, or, usually, both. (Examples: See Dredd, Cloud Atlas, Book of Eli, Oblivion, After Earth, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, I Am Legend, or Predators. Some of those did okay, but not one stole the hearts and minds of viewers like, say, Alien.
(Please note: There are exceptions to this rule, but they either need to redefine the way we watch movies, like Avatar or have Steven Spielberg involved, like Minority Report or Super 8.)
Yet, even with this dire landscape laid out for the thinking science fiction fan, all is not lost: There are a new crop of amazing films which serve to both entertain and illuminate. The key difference is, they have no money. A belted budget forces directors to show less action, rely on emotional tension instead of expensive reveals, and most importantly, tell stories that are about real, tangible issues instead of creating some vast comment on the nature of life as expounded by, say, Will Smith. In her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, science fiction author and goddess Ursula K. Le Guin explains that science fiction is a "thought-experiment," and "a thought-experiment is not to predict the future, but to describe reality, the present world." Of course, there are still science fiction films that are just made to dazzle you, like Pacific Rim, or Gravity, but they are smart enough to stay in their lane and not aim to teach us a Lesson with a capital "L". In fact, some of the best independent film being made today is science fiction.
So it may be possible to make the claim that sci-fi is best when the budget is thin — or at least sans box office expectations and studio interference. Perhaps large studios have something to learn from scrappy filmmakers. Either way, the most exciting indie movies today turn to science fiction to help tell a story, one that feels both topical and timeless. Le Guin herself believes the duty of the science fiction storyteller is to dramatize a current "trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, and extend it into the future." Perhaps science fiction works best as a commentary on modern society, with just a twist of imagination?
With Elysium hitting theaters this weekend (a film we have been quite excited to see) and reviews coming in as lackluster, perhaps its time to rethink the sci-fi blockbuster, and, like quirky dramas, reclaim the genre for the film buff. Here are our favorite small budget indie picks we'd put up to Scott's Prometheus any day.