On the eve of one of the most anticipated movie releases of the summer (“Cowboys & Aliens”), I find myself thinking about cinema’s long history of sci-fi-flavored action flicks from summers past and how they differ from other types of science fiction. When I recall some of the biggest summer blockbusters of my childhood (like “Armageddon,” “Independence Day,” and “Men In Black”) they all tend to have some element of science fiction in their premises, yet I think of them as straight-up action films. Why is this? Is it their big budgets and commercial successes, or is it something more nuanced about their stories? Part of why I group these movies in the action genre is probably because of their mass appeal, but I think it’s also due to the way their science-fiction elements are used to incite plot events as opposed to using them to say something insightful about human nature. I realize I have an even further peculiar tendency when it comes to categorizing movies of this vein, because in terms of what I arbitrarily consider “real sci-fi” I’ve invented two sub genres: “hard-core science fiction” (the movies that take place in outerspace or other unrecognizable realms where characters beep, warble and fluff up their fur to communicate) or “pop science fiction” (movies that have scientifically impossible premises yet take place in a relatively recognizable world).
The distinction between this last category and your typical summer blockbuster is, of course, a semblance of thematic depth within the “pop sci-fi” movies’ implausible premises. Some good examples of this sub genre would be the first two “Terminator” movies (1984 and 1991), “12 Monkeys” (1995), “The Matrix” (1999), and “Minority Report” (2002). Christopher Nolan took a stab at this kind of sci-fi with “Inception” (2010), and I’m inclined to group the recently-released-on-DVD “Limitless” (2011) in this category as well. As you can tell from the expanses of time between each of my examples, however, there are not that many movies of this ilk coming out of Hollywood anymore, and I became aware of just how much I miss indulging in this sub genre while watching “Limitless” a few nights ago. This, after all, is my favorite type of movie – somewhere between blockbuster-caliber action and beeping robots roaming desert plains of a distant moon – and I now have a strong desire to discover new “pop sci-fi” gems. Are there any other films you would group into my personal little invention of a sub genre? Any sci-fi movies that you consider mandatory viewing, no matter what type of science fiction they are? I can’t wait to hear your suggestions!