Everything is wrong with modern sci-fi
"One of the problems with science fiction," said Ridley Scott back in 2012 ahead of the release of Prometheus, "is the fact that everything is used up.
Every type of spacesuit, every type of spacecraft is vaguely familiar. The corridors are similar, the planets are similar. So what you try to do is lean more heavily on the story and the characters."
Great science fiction has always done just that. So why have a recent string of releases shown less interest in the story than the spaceships? Is sci-fi a genre in trouble?
This year, Netflix films Mute and The Titan have received abysmal reviews, the former being termed a "catastrophically misjudged riff on Blade Runner" with another reviewer asking simply "what did I just watch?". This despite a cast that included recent Emmy winner Alexander Skarsgård and being directed by Duncan Jones of the stunning 2009 science fiction film, Moon.
In the latter, Sam Worthington plays a former pilot undergoing genetic experimentations to adapt to life on one of Saturn's moons after earth becomes unliveable. The premise of the film falls apart at the gentlest of prods (why mutate humans to live on a new planet when you could adapt them to live on earth's new climate?) and the writing is painful throughout.
Netflix has also rebooted sixties series Lost In Space to a lukewarm reception and Alex Garland's Annihilation, based on the best-selling book by Jeff VanderMeer, was embroiled in a whitewashing controversy and pulled out of a cinematic release in big markets like the UK.
In any case, the film received middling reviews, something particularly disappointing in the light of Garland's extraordinary 2014 sci-fi film Ex Machina. Writing in The Atlantic, Christopher Orr called it "a beautiful heap of nonsense" noting that it had "the feel of brainy, high-end science fiction, but ultimately neither the underlying structure nor content."
And yet you don't have to go back many years to find, in films such as Arrival (2016), Inception (2010) or Interstellar (2014), computer generated galaxies and aliens that aren't a smokescreen for poorly developed characters or a bad script.
Amy Adams performance in Arrival was particularly gripping, as was the film's central 'what if' premise about how the earth would respond if descended upon by alien lifeforms, and the global conflict that might ensue.
Science fiction triumphs when it reminds us what is at risk of being lost or left behind on earth. New York Times critic A.O. Scott noted that Interstellar is about "longing for home" adding that it "answers an acute earthly need, a desire not only for adventure and novelty but also, in the end, for comfort.
At this year's Oscars, satirical horror Get Out won a best screenplay award and fantasy fairytale The Shape of Water picked up five including best director and best picture. Both represented a win for genre films with brains, proving such a thing can be successful.
Smart horror A Quiet Place, recipient of outstanding reviews and the only film of 2018 thus far to make over US$50m on its opening weekend, is shaping up to be another example.
As Arrival star Jeremy Renner said in speaking to Esquire about 'grown-up' genre films, "I feel like Hollywood spoon-feeds people a lot of dumbed-down material. Yet there are a lot of smart people out there who want to be entertained."
And yet when it comes to sci-fi, the most recent slew seem to have forgotten that it doesn't matter if you believe the spaceships are real if you can't believe the characters on them are.