Welcome to an occasional feature on Empire, Five For The Diary, in which we round up mini-trends and look at upcoming movies, books and whatever else takes our fancy to leave you a little better informed on what’s upcoming. In today’s slice of preview-y goodness, we’re looking at some of the hard-core, high-IQ sci-fi movies headed our way over the next six to eight months and why they’re worth looking out for…
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE Rian Johnson is one of those directors who is always worth watching. He only has two films under his belt – excellent high school film noir Brick and the little-seen but vastly-stylish Brothers Bloom – but this time he's widened his scope and delved into full-on science fiction. Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who also led Brick) both play an assassin who kills people sent back from the future via illegal time travel technology. The problems start when JGL's future self, Willis, arrives back for disposal. Should he kill himself? Can he trust himself? Etc.
Time travel's one of those things that doesn't always work on film, especially if you're a bit of a pedant ("But if they avert the war, Kyle Rees never comes back in time, John Connor is never born and they never avert the war! It's a huge paradox!"). But Johnson is a smarter and trickier customer than that, so this one should play around with the possibilities and give us a more Dickian twist to the tale (see, for instance, A Little Something For Us Tempunauts).
We're hopeful, too, that this could establish Johnson a little more firmly as a commercially attractive director, thanks to Willis' presence and Joseph "so hot right now" Gordon-Levitt's appeal (hopefully visible past the prosthetic nose). After all, we only have one Chris Nolan in Hollywood at the moment; we need a few more directors capable of making high-concept films with high IQs at the same time.
SEE ALSO Time travel stories like Terry Pratchett's Night Watch and Diana Wynne Jones' A Tale Of Time City also deal with characters meeting their younger / older selves, albeit in a sillier way.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE The ruined Earth is a familiar trope in science fiction, which is no surprise given how it plays on our worst fears and the suspicion that the way we live now can’t last forever. It’s also generally easy for filmmakers to create, too: just head to some remote, godforsaken corner of the globe (Milton Keynes, say), burn a few cars and Bob’s your uncle. So in that sense Elysium shouldn’t be any great shakes. But on the other hand, this is Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to District 9, so we’re expecting something a little more inventive than your average.
Apart from anything else, Blomkamp’s Comic-Con presentation made it clear that this is a timely tale about the 99% having to live in the detritus left by the 1%, who in this story literally consider themselves above the rest of the world on floating cities. Matt Damon’s Max suffers radiation poisoning and is told he’ll die – but, convinced that there is treatment available in the cities above, takes an Elysium’s identity in an effort to find a cure. The only problem then is that the life he assumes comes with its own complications.
The little released so far all points to a sci-fi that deals with similar themes to District 9, but writ larger and more extreme. The very lack of aliens and outsiders should help make Blomkamp’s point, and do what sci-fi does best: make big points about the way we live now.
SEE ALSO Last year’s admittedly unsubtle In Time, or – much better – Metropolis. There’s a reason it’s a classic.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE Six stories stacked like Russian dolls, a central cast that crops up again and again throughout the millennia covered by the whole, and a whole heap of wigs and prosthetics. The latest effort from the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer is the adaptation of one of those books that’s supposed to be thoroughly unfilmable – and with good reason, given its structure and chronologically complex plot.
So there’s a bit set in the Pacific in the 1800s, a segment in 1930s Belgium, a section in 1970s California, a near-contemporary sort of gangster tale, a dystopian near-future full of cyborgs and a distant, post-apocalyptic future where humanity has descended to barbarism. And amid all of this there are Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon and James D’Arcy.
Ambitious is the correct description, in other words. But if they miraculously do make this work, what other unfilmable sci-fi awaits? Could we see some of Iain M. Banks’ weirder Culture novels? Might China Mieville hit the screen? Is it possible that we could one day see a Dune worthy of the name? Probably not – but we’re still very intrigued by Cloud Atlas, and optimistic after that epic 5-minute trailer.
SEE ALSO Twelve Monkeys, for sci-fi that will likewise bake your noodle, or 2001: A Space Odyssey for a similarly ambitious scope.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE A Tom Cruise sci-fi film is something worth getting excited about. Here’s the thing: while Will Smith is on record as saying that he consciously chose sci-fi films as a means of becoming a bigger star, Tom Cruise only seems to have chosen those that particularly struck his fancy – and this is the first of his three not to be directed by one S. Spielberg (no, we’re not counting the Mission: Impossible films even though they arguably technically qualify). This effort, from Tron Legacy’s Joseph Kosinsky, will hopefully have all the visual flair of that belated sequel but a bit more, y’know, coherence and tension.
What really pricked our interest, however, is the plot. Cruise is a veteran soldier sent to a remote planet to wipe out the remains of an alien race there, only to arrive and discover another traveller who makes him question his mission. We’re hoping the questions he asks are something along the lines of “Hey, is xenocide such a great idea? How would we feel if someone tried to wipe us out? Have you guys really thought this through?”
Everything else is so far under wraps, to the extent that we would be engaging in wild speculation if we say too much more. But with a bit of luck, this should be another example of the sort of thinkier, smarter sci-fi that Hollywood is beginning to seriously indulge in again.
SEE ALSO Ender’s Game, which is soon to be a film but is already a great book, or you can watch Starship Troopers and just think it through.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE We shouldn’t really need to say much more than “Guillermo del Toro’s first film in four years” to get you booking time out to see this one, but just in case, let us add this much: giant monsters vs. giant robots. We’re talking proper huge, 25-storeys high creatures battling in city streets. And while it's now going to be post-converted to 3D, apparently without Del Toro's enthusiastic approval, it should look spectacular whichever way you see it.
Typically, the Mexican multi-tasker (he’s also shot second unit and edited as he goes) has assembled a cast of great character actors with which to populate his beautifully designed world. Idris Elba, Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam and Oscar nominee Rinki Kikuchi lead the way, with Charlie Day, Burn Gorman and Del Toro regular Ron Perlman in support. But he’s also focused on creating a believable world for these titanic battles. Everything is battered and worn, much of the equipment on its last legs and humanity suffering the physical, moral and economic effects of regular monster attacks throughout every level of society (like, what is a giant monster attack on Hong Kong going to do to the Hang Seng? Del Toro actually thinks about stuff like this).
If all goes to plan, what we’re going to see is a monster mash of epic proportions that’s married to some interesting sci-fi ideas (where are the monsters coming from? Why? How?) and great characters. And after the frustrations of years of prep on The Hobbit and At The Mountains Of Madness, it will be great to see a Del Toro blockbuster finally on the big screen.
SEE ALSO Any of the Kaiju movies we list here and maybe Gamera as well.