There’s a certain type of sci-fi story that we all know: visitors from beyond make contact with humans and teach us something important about who we are and where we’re heading. It’s in 2001, Arrival, and Independence Day—well, maybe not the last one so much, but you get the idea. One of the great things about Gattaca, Andrew Niccol’s 1997 masterpiece, is that it doesn’t need an outside other to deliver a powerful, moving message about humanity; instead of aliens, we get a meditative, deeply introspective examination of the human spirit that’s limited strictly to humans. The result, I’d argue, is one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made.
In 1975, a little movie about big trouble in a New England resort town came along and changed American cinema. That movie was Jaws, the Steven Spielberg-directed shark thriller that’s credited with inventing the summer blockbuster. Not only was Jaws a runaway box office success, but it was a bit of an anomaly in the fabric of 1970s American filmmaking. After all, from a certain point of view, the ‘70s can be understood as the American art house decade; in no other period did auteur-driven movies—such as The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and The French Connection—find so much mainstream success. Jaws, though, gave audiences something totally different, and people came in droves to see it. And then, just two summers later, audiences’ desire for big budget, genre-drive movies was cemented when Star Wars took the entire world by storm.
But for all their similarities, Star Wars did something extraordinary that Jaws did not.
Well, well. Look at A New Hope hogging all the Star Wars attention this month. I suppose it’s a big deal that the landmark film is celebrating its 40th anniversary, but like Luke and Han bogarting all the glory from Chewie at the Yavin ceremony, something’s being forgotten. Because there’s another Star Wars anniversary that no one’s talking about:
The 15-year anniversary of the release of Attack of the Clones.
If you’re still reading this, know that I’m being facetious—at least partly. Because, no, Attack of the Clones isn’t equivalent to A New Hope. I’m not a crazy person. But I do love the prequel movies. I love them for the way they expanded the Star Wars universe, I love them for their ambition, and I love them for the tragic story they weaved. I’d even go so far to say that, in a world where tent-pole summer blockbusters couldn’t be more formulaic, the prequels are more deserving of praise than ever. It’ll be a long, long time before we see a big budget franchise display the kind of boldness George Lucas did in those three films. I mean, let’s face it: he could have just remixed the original trilogy. He could have taken his success and replicated it. But he didn’t. For better or for worse, Lucas gave us something different, something unique, and that alone will always be worthy of admiration in my opinion.
I don’t know how Kathryn Bigelow is still making movies. Don’t get me wrong—I’m very, very glad she is, because she’s one of the best directors around. Up until 2008’s The Hurt Locker, Bigelow directed movie after movie that went unnoticed or unappreciated. While a box office success, Point Break doesn’t receive nearly enough credit for being one of the most stylish action movies to come out of the ’90s. Near Dark—my goodness, Near Dark is vampire movie paradise. The Weight of Water is fascinating.
And then there’s Strange Days, which is Bigelow at her best, delivering a sci-fi thriller/noir that’s prescient even now, in 2017. In 1995? To say it was ahead of its time would be like dropping a 1967 Chevelle into Victorian England and calling it advanced.
The more I think about The Fifth Element, the more I realize it’s a movie that shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does. It’s such a pastiche of different influences, from Blade Runner to Chris Foss to Akira to Star Wars to The Incal (so much so that Jodorowsky sued The Fifth Element writer/director Luc Besson for plagiarism). Yet never, to me, does The Fifth Element feel like a rip-off, or a second-rate version of something greater. Because while the movie wears its influences on its sleeve—with joyful exuberance, in fact—it also subverts every single one of them by refusing to take itself seriously. It’s like Besson took a sample of sci-fi’s greatest hits, put them all in a blender and hit frappe—while maniacally laughing the entire time.
My goodness, is Starship Troopers an under-appreciated movie. It’s also a strange movie, even by ’90s standards. It shares a space with Demolition Man, representing satirical sci-fi movies that, now, have more or less become a punchline. Demolition Man—while it’s admirable for what it was trying to do—suffers from poor execution. But Starship Troopers hits the exact mark it’s going for; it’s just largely misunderstood by audiences.
The thing is, if you watch Starship Troopers with a straight face, it doesn’t work all that well. It’s weirdly melodramatic, the performances aren’t all that good, and the antagonists are just giant bugs, amongst other things. It can be seen as “one-dimensional” or “immature,” as Roger Ebert, and other critics, have complained. But, as with all Paul Verhoeven movies, Starship Troopers is not meant to be watched with a straight face. Verhoeven makes movies with his tongue buried so deep in his cheek it almost comes through the other side, and that penchant for taking something very serious not seriously at all is one of the things that makes Starship Troopers so uniquely great.
For most Star Wars fans, there’s one true thing that surrounds us, and binds us. Sure, we may squabble about which movie is the best and argue over who Snoke really is (it’s the angry resurrected ghost of Qui-Gon Jinn, obvs), but we all agree that there’s no such thing as too much Star Wars. But the fact is, only so much Star Wars exists. Granted, when all’s told between movies, TV shows, canon novels, non-canon novels, video games, board games, and comics, there’s a lot of content out there. But as the dust is settling on the box office juggernaut that is Rogue One, a grim reality is taking hold: there’s eleven long months that separate us from our next cinematic Star Wars fix. And if you’ve already read/watched/consumed everything there is to consume, you’re going to need to fill your time with…something.
Well, if you can’t have Star Wars, there’s always the next best thing: Stuff that’s like Star Wars! Here’s six novels that can help tide you over until Episode VIII drops in December.
Well, we now have it: the very first Star Wars anthology film (and, in my opinion, it’s an absolutely magnificent one). It’s the first of two anthology movies that are on Disney/Lucasfilm’s docket, the other being the Han Solo installment, covering his pre-A New Hope adventures and slated for a May 2018 release. Judging by Rogue One’s terrific $155 million opening weekend, there will be plenty more standalone Star Wars tales to come. Which is a good thing.
But, these movies don’t come without challenges. Particularly, it’s always going to be tough to get casual Star Wars fans to understand how the anthology flicks fit into the overarching story. Since 1977, the Star Wars story has been confined to the episode movies, and those have pretty much been all about the Skywalker saga. Sure, the Star Wars universe itself has long stretched beyond the episodes with the story spilling into books, infamous holiday specials, comics, TV shows, video games, and more. But to most Star Wars fans, the movies are what “counts,” and Rogue One has now broken the Star Wars mold—it has redefined that idea of what’s essential.
There’s a moment in Arrival where Louise (played wonderfully by the always perfect Amy Adams) is in the alien spacecraft and, acting against military orders, she removes her protective suit. The soldiers accompanying Louise’s mission to find a way to communicate with the aliens—dubbed the heptapods—don’t know how to respond. Do they stop Louise? Abort the mission? Something worse? Despite knowing the air is breathable and the atmosphere is harmless, the soldiers are still stunned by Louise’s decision, and they are absolutely unwilling to follow her lead. They don’t share her impulse or her willingness to take a risk.
But, most of all, they don’t share her faith.
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