A common complaint about contemporary science fiction cinema, from the kind of people who complain about such things, is that the balance seems weighted toward big, noisy pictures where stuff blows up, and that any interesting SF concepts mainly tend to serve the purpose of putting Will Smith (or Shia LeBeouf, if Will’s busy) in the position where he can punch the alien robots and make the requisite acerbic wisecrack. Sometimes that kind of picture can really hit the spot, no question, but what of the cerebral SF film, based on ideas rather than action? These are a bit less common, but there is at least one current director consistently making them, and the release of his latest such effort, In Time, is a good an occasion as any to take a brief look at the career of that picture’s writer/director: Andrew Niccol.
The New Zealander made his writing and directing debut with 1997’s Gattaca, a look at a future where genetic engineering has created a sharp divide between the engineered and the non-engineered; although discrimination is technically illegal it still runs rampant and one man (Ethan Hawke) seeks to get ahead by assuming the identity of a member of the privileged class. It’s rock-solid SF and catnip for geeks—the title is made up of the first letters of the nitrogenous bases of DNA: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine—not to mention the visuals, meaning design and actors, are all absolutely gorgeous. As a movie it has its odd bits that don’t quite gel, but from the perspective of an intelligent fan of SF it’s a very fun couple hours.
Niccol’s next SF script—which he didn’t direct—was 1998’s The Truman Show, a just-ahead-of-its-time look at reality television. Jim Carrey, in an unusually restrained and focused performance by his standards, stars as a man who has spent his entire life starring in a television show without his knowledge; his entire world is constructed and scripted, and everyone he comes in contact with is an actor. The story concerns what happens when he finds this out. While not as overtly SF as Gattaca, it’s just as concerned with identity, the contemplation of one’s place in a world one isn’t quite part of, and the unfortunate ends to which technology can be employed. Also, any critical examination of mass communications and media belongs, if not under the auspices of SF, at least under “related subjects.” The Truman Show may not have aged terribly well, but that was less its fault than reality’s; reality TV exceeded the reach of any attempts to parody it years ago, and the only reason reality producers don’t factory-farm reality stars a la The Truman Show is that it’s too expensive, proving that one way in which SF fails to accurately forecast the future is in its underestimation of human venality.
Niccol’s next directorial effort, which he also wrote again, was S1m0ne, an attempt at a slightly lighter tone while still exploring SF themes. In this, a filmmaker (Al Pacino) needs to re-shoot part of his picture but his lead actress refuses to come back, so he comes up with the idea of using a computer-generated actress to play the part. Everybody thinks she’s real, though, which leads to complications. S1m0ne is not great, and suffers in comparison to Niccol’s other work (and to William Gibson’s novel Idoru, which, symmetrically, doesn’t match up terribly well to Gibson’s best either), but it’s not a complete loss by any means. And, in contrast to a lot of other movies that pass for SF these days, at least Niccol tried.
Unless one counts Nicolas Cage as an alien, Lord of War is not SF (nor is it good), which makes In Time Niccol’s return to the SF genre. If auteur theory of cinema holds true, it should have lots of pretty actors, lots of handsome production design, and ideas worth discussing when the picture’s over. I for one call that a good night out at the movies.