Every year, a new pack of science fiction, fantasy, horror, superhero and other genre films tease us with hyped-up anticipation, peppering the zeitgeist with their characters, situations, catch phrases, and imagery. Going to see these movies while thinking about the inevitable discussions that will ensue is part of the fun of the cinematic experience and, I’d argue, part of what makes the internet so great. We can immediately find like minds or someone to debate with about our favorite new film.
But which of the many genre films released this year were the important ones? Which films, be they good, bad, or Prometheus, demanded our discussion? Below are the ten I think we had to talk about whether we wanted to or not!
The concept of this movie—Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, et al. as superheroes— might have sounded like a film to skip and leave in the Ice Age/Happy Feet/ Madagascar bargain bin. But seeing Santa Claus wielding swords and being charmed by Chris Pine’s Jack Frost was beyond compelling. This concept could have been executed cynically but instead Rise of the Guardians was a corny family film that felt like a slightly normal movie. It looks beautiful, and best of all, it’s unique.
I’m not crazy about Joss Whedon. It’s a terrible thing for a good nerd to admit, but I often find something a little too cutesy about his dialogue, his characters and his conceits; it’s like he can’t play anything straight. But Cabin in the Woods, a collision of all the various horror tropes with a high-concept meta-fiction layered over it created something any fan of storytelling had to see. Regardless of whether you liked the “twist” at the end of the film, this story stayed with us for weeks and will likely factor in to every conversation about horror films from now on. Cabin in the Woods is a game-shaker.
Well, I absolutely, positively, hated the ending of this film (Spoilers here!) and was disappointed by aspects of the film on so many other levels. BUT, Looper was an original science fiction film, set in a future that did not deal with spaceships. There was no franchise or foreknowledge that it relied on and it was far more beautifully shot than your standard blockbuster. Buried in Looper is a better, more thoughtful, tidier movie about the paths we do and don’t take that doesn’t rely on cheap narrative tricks. The performances were all fairly solid, as well, from Joseph-Gordon Levitt, to Bruce Willis, to Emily Blunt, and even Paul Dano! (More Paul Dano, please.)
This statement puts me in a definite minority among Batman fans, but here goes: I’ve never totally loved the Christopher Nolan iterations of Batman. There’s something about these movies that feels as it they’re bullying the audience into liking them, as they translate Batman mythos and characters into something more fiercely earnest, then fill those roles with awesome, respectable actors.
My biggest issue with both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is the essential problem plaguing all Batman movies: the character’s actions are inexplicable and Batman himself never changes. And while The Dark Knight Rises is probably a poorer film than its predecessor, and has all sorts of heavy-handed political imagery, it is a better Batman movie than the other two. And that’s because the caped crusader himself actually seems to be—for once—the main character. Instead of the intentionally affected brooding Bruce Wayne, the Batman of The Dark Knight Rises admits he actually might want to be happy some day.
It’s so strange that despite the basic terribleness of Quantum of Solace, the culture was collectively excited for the newest James Bond film. Was it because they knew American Beauty director Sam Mendes was at the helm? From anecdotal evidence only, I’d say this wasn’t the case. Just like no one knew Michael Chabon was partially responsible for the John Carter script (we’ll get to that soon enough) the big legit names attached to Skyfall weren’t really part of why we were so excited for it. Instead, I’d argue James Bond is one of these immortal fictional spirits. No matter how much culture moves past the antiquated notions of the super spy, he keeps finding new ways of haunting us. Luckily, Mendes and everyone else involved were aware of this and as such, put Bond’s relevance on trial in this film. The results were unlike any Bond film before, and all the better for it. This one might be impossible to top.
5. The Hobbit
Worth seeing for the “Riddles in the Dark” scene alone, The Hobbit has a lot going for it when you subtract tedious talk about the frame-rate and the 3D. Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen are fantastic, the New Zealand Middle-earth scenery still delights and there are a few funny scenes with the dwarves.
The reason this one is on the discussion list here is because the verdict is still out on whether The Hobbit movies will matter. And though Tolkien scholars (apologists?) may strike me down, I can’t help but think a really tight single film would have been a slam dunk, whereas the drawn-out trilogy threatens to make this beloved story less about its titular hobbit and more about the other characters who orbit him.
Like Looper, here’s another science fiction film not involving spaceships or robots. Hell, there isn’t even any time travel! And while the Suzanne Collins novel is significantly better than this adaptation, it’s notable that Collins has not only a story credit on the film, but a screenwriting credit, too. Even Rowling didn’t have as much impact on the Harry Potter films as Collins had on this. And while the film was plagued by too much arty-shaky cam, The Hunger Games is a memorable milestone and, in many ways, a solid indication as to where action-adventure science fiction is headed. Is Katniss the Luke Skywalker of our time? In all fairness, she’s certainly a more realistic character, and despite what’s in store for her in the next two film adaptations, she seems poised to hang around the zeitgeist for a while.
3. The Avengers
Okay, okay. So you know my feelings about Joss Whedon. We all know why The Avengers mattered. Because it was awesome. Right? Look at all the cool heroes fighting together! Wow. Robert Downey Jr. is funny. How great was Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk? Cry for Agent Coulson! Love Cobie Smulders!
But is that all there was to The Avengers? A bunch of flashy nonsense that made us all collectively squee and then pretend to be excited about the person who shows up in the post-credit sequence? I’d say the deeper importance of The Avengers is in its sheer audacity. And while I find myself agreeing with aspects of A.O. Scott’s New York Times review in which he worried that “the price of entertainment is obedience,” I’m not sure it’s oppressive as all that.
Personally, I have no burning desire to see The Avengers again anytime soon, but for all accounts, this experiment shouldn’t have worked. 10 years ago no child would have cited Thor or the Hulk or even Iron Man as his or her favorite hero. But now, through damn smart marketing, and some genuine affection for these characters, they’re all back. Some of us have been fans of them forever, but it doesn’t really matter, because ultimately the reinvention of something that had effectively died in the public consciousness is impressive. And despite my concern over The Avengers (and Whedon) possibly being overrated, there’s no denying the smile on my face as I left the theatre.
2. John Carter
What is this movie doing on the list? John Carter sucked, right? I mean, it failed at the box office and it was totally stupid. What were they thinking with this movie? Consider this: John Carter is a film based on a novel called A Princess of Mars, the first book in Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars series, published nearly 100 years ago. The first John Carter story is actually called “Under the Moons of Mars” which was published in 1912, making the film John Carter, the 100th birthday celebration of the character.
Unlike some other classic pulp SF heroes like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, John Carter has never really been adapted or depicted on film. This movie, then, was the return of a classic hero who’d been forgotten by a good portion of the culture. Further, part of the screenplay was written by Michael Chabon, who lovingly attempted to make the character relevant without destroying the basics of the story. (Honestly, the results are genuinely charming.) But like John Carter himself, this film is plucked seemingly out of time and place, making it feel…odd. It’s too bad, because with different marketing and not so much wiz-bang stuff to compete with, John Carter might have been a hit. As it stands, it was a great experiment, and case study in where we’ve been in science fiction. Should it have looked at where we’re going? I don’t think that was the point.
For me, Prometheus is the ultimate gift to a science fiction fan/critic. The film looked beautiful, had amazing performances, impressive scenes, and was genuinely trying to be a science fiction movie. Add into that the notion of it taking place in the Alien movie universe and actually serving as a kind of sideways prequel. On top of that, the themes in the movie are about as big as a movie’s can get: what is the meaning of life? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Best of all, the movie is a total mess.
Prometheus is like the love child of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and well...Alien. Was it deeply, deeply flawed? Did aspects of the movie make zero sense both logistically and thematically? You bet! But does the movie suck? No way! I think dismissing Prometheus as “sucking” is depriving oneself of the fun of figuring out the endless ways the movie could have been great. For fans of science fiction, Prometheus was the one we really can’t stop talking about.
And if Ridley Scott makes a sequel as aesthetically cool as this, we’ll be talking about that one for a while, too.
Now readers, let me know how wrong you think I am and which genre films you thought were essential to the discussion!
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.