Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Sci-Fi Drama

Most of the great works of science fiction go for the big ideas. You know, the future of society, the limits of mankind, the nature of reality, etc. But there are a lot of science fiction stories that are just that... stories. Many of them copy ideas from those that came before, and many are there just for entertainment value, but once in a while a science fiction story comes along that is also really good drama. What makes such a story exceptional is that it uses a science fiction backdrop not as a way to engage the mind so much as a means of touching the heart. Somehow, that seems to make it even more memorable than it would otherwise have been. I'd like to dedicate this entry to some sci-fi films that I remember mainly for their human element, rather than for their science. None of these are classic material, but all are original and left an impression for me.

Frequency (2000) - Jim Caviezel plays a New York cop who, thanks to a highly active electromagnetic storm in the upper atmosphere, connects with his deceased father (Dennis Quaid) in 1969 using his Dad's old ham radio, the same one his Dad was using 30 years ago when a similar electrical storm occurred, and just a few days before his tragic death in a warehouse fire where, along with his fire fighting squad, he had rushed in to save a victim. The story turns from sad to sweet when the son manages to save his Dad from death and instantly change their personal history, even though the son still remembers the old history as in a dream. But changing history is fraught with peril, and the new turn of events puts his mother in grave danger, as well as several other women who become victims of a serial killer who otherwise would have died. Feeling responsible for several more deaths that shouldn't have been, father and son now work across time to prevent them from happening with the aid of the case file that the son is able to access through his precinct. Whew, that's just the beginning of the plot turns and twists, which all work pretty well until the last 15 minutes of the film when it gets a little twisted out of shape. But on the way, there is some decent acting, story telling, and character development. I think what made it stick for me was the heartfelt way the relationships between father, mother, and son are portrayed. This was also the only film that ever played with the idea of watching history change in real time as you influence it by talking to someone in the same location 30 years ago. That was a very neat trick.

Enemy Mine (1985) - This film takes a common war theme, that of two enemy soldiers stranded somewhere who must learn to work together to survive, who soon find that they are not that different and become the best of friends. In this case, we are in the year 2092, and the warring factions are humans and a race of reptilian-like aliens called Dracs (from Draconia - the most overused enemy alien world name). The film surprises you in just how far it takes the relationship of these two characters, one of which, believe it or not, is played by Dennis Quaid again (see above). And Louis Gosset Jr. puts on a great performance as the alien. During the years of making do on the planetoid upon which they had crashed, they save each other's life and learn about each other's cultures. Dracs give birth asexually, and this one ends up having a kid while dying in the process of childbirth. But his human friend has promised to raise the Drac child and bring him back to Draconia. Thus ensues a surrogate father relationship of sorts between Quaid's character and the Drac child in which the former ends up having to rescue the kid from slave labor and eventually get him home, all the while being suspected of treason by his own race. I know it sounds ridiculous, but somehow it works. It makes you think, and draws you in. Once again, the ending gets a bit out of hand, but I suppose space dramas suffer from climax envy.

Cocoon (1985) - Released in the same year as the above, this film was a little more light hearted. It centers around a group of senior folks living in a rest home. Some of them like to sneak out at night for a dip in the pool next door. One day, that pool becomes a fountain of youth for them as a result of it being used as an incubator for a visiting group of aliens coming back to retrieve their lost brethren. What is memorable about this film is that despite its alien underpinnings, it really spends most of its time dealing very poignantly with questions about our desire to cheat death, and whether that is right or not. It is also interesting in how it contrasts the maturity of the aliens with the immaturity of the residents. Of course, then it really blows it at the end by letting them all hitch a ride on the space ship to enjoy youthful bliss despite their having ruined the aliens mission with their self-centeredness. I think Ron Howard just likes happy endings.

Starman (1984) - Here is a film about a romance between a woman and an alien which could have been a cheesy mess, but which rises to a higher level thanks to the careful handiwork of director John Carpenter, who takes the material dead seriously. The characters are well performed and mostly convincing, including Jeff Bridges' portrayal of the tender-hearted alien who takes the form of his acquaintance's recently deceased husband. Carpenter has enough respect for his audience's intelligence to try to capture some sense of believability, and also use the story to make a statement about the best and worst of humankind. It takes place mainly during a long road trip through the heart of southern midwest America with beautiful cinematic shots of the landscapes. The moody, Vangelis-like electronic score also seems to work well with the story. It might not work for everyone, but somehow it leaves you with a good feeling.

For the sake of completeness, I've listed below some of the films in this category that were neither good sci-fi nor good drama:

Batteries Not Included (1987) - It's hard to ignore a Spielberg sci-fi film, but this was another post-ET attempt to mix aliens and cuteness that just didn't work. Who can really get interested in a story about a bunch of people in an abandoned apartment building fighting the evil developers who want them out? Getting help from some tiny extra terrestrial flying saucers that come out of nowhere doesn't make it any more interesting.

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