Science-fiction movies are thinking less and feeling more. A genre once heavy with futuristic hardware and mind-blowing themes has discovered its gentler, more sensitive side. Two movies now playing neatly display this evolution.
Representing the more traditional approach is âDistrict 9,â Neill Blomkampâs yarn about a race of lobsterish aliens stranded on Earth. Blomkamp, a South African, uses the setup to comment on his countryâs history of apartheid and race relations. Itâs a classic example of sci-fi providing a metaphor for real-world concerns.
In the other corner is âThe Time Travelerâs Wife,â Robert Schwentkeâs adaptation of Audrey Niffeneggerâs best-seller about a woman in love with a man who is temporally unhinged. Without warning, he may be yanked into the past or future, only to return after hours or even weeks.
Relationship movies invariably require conflict, but this is a whopper.
Both films are about ideas, but one approaches mostly through the head, the other more through the heart. For the most part, the traditionally themed âDistrict 9â succeeds. The touchy-feely âTime Travelerâs Wifeâ resonates less, but itâs indicative of the current state of science-fiction films.
âDistrict 9âsâ Blomkamp describes himself as a massive science-fiction fan, but he says heâs not certain about the uses of the genre.
âFilms are actually given too much credit for affecting society,â he says from Chicago. âThe way I look at it those topics addressed in âDistrict 9â affected me growing up in Johannesburg. I needed to examine them. I have no answers, but this stuff has been on my mind a lot.â
Besides the obvious images of one race manipulating another, the film also depicts black South Africans rioting against the alien newcomers, whom they see as competition.
âThat was inspired by things going on while we were making the film,â he says. âWe woke up just before our shoot to the whole city tearing itself apart. Millions of illegal Zimbabwean refugees had poured into the country, and now you had impoverished black South Africans demanding that impoverished Zimbabweans be thrown out because theyâre competing for jobs.
âIn just a few weeks 40 or 50 Zimbabweans had been lynched, shot or burned to death. Thatâs a very raw nerve, and itâs reflected in the film.â
Science fiction has always speculated about whatâs to come, and Blomkamp says Johannesburg always felt like a dystopian future to him.
âYouâve got a few rich folk getting richer, and everybody else getting poorer and living in ever-decreasing circumstances,â he says. âItâs whatâs happening in other countries as well. … I just fear thatâs the way things are going.â
On the other side of the equation, âTravelerâ director Schwentke says his film âisnât about the hard science or physics of time travel. Itâs a metaphor for all kinds of afflictions â for disease, for mortality, for the need for love.â
Time travel is crucial to the narrative because it allows the filmâs hero to experience his marriage not chronologically but in jumbled order â a nontraditional way of telling a love story, Schwentke said.
âIt was a different way to make a movie about the stages relationships go through,â he says. âIn that regard itâs kind of a love letter to my wife. But throughout we went to great lengths to root any conflict in real, relatable emotions. Above all else I wanted it to be an epic love story.â
For the first half hour, âDistrict 9â is a mockumentary chronicling the arrival on Earth 20 years ago of a huge spaceship. It took up a position in the sky over Johannesburg, and in old TV footage we see human commandos entering the disabled vessel to discover a race of starving, stinking bipedal crustaceans.
Removed from the still-hovering craft and herded into their own township, these âprawns,â as they are dismissively known, live in filth and decay, fighting among themselves, dabbling in crime and rioting over their preferred delicacy â canned cat food.
Now after two decades, the government agency in charge of these visitors has decided to forcibly move them to a more remote location. In charge of the eviction is mousy bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), whoâs exposed to some sort of extraterrestrial chemical cocktail and finds himself quickly mutating into an alien/human hybrid.
We follow the rapidly changing Wikus, now a fugitive pursued by shadowy government operatives. Itâs like one of those Hitchcock movies about a man on the run, terrified and unsure of where to turn. Taking a traditional sci-fi approach, Blomkamp examines contemporary society through a new prism.
âThe Time Travelerâs Wife,â on the other hand, uses a fantastic idea to put audiences in a romantic swoon. Lots of women deal with a man who pulls the occasional vanishing act, but Clare (Rachel McAdams) has it bad. Her husband, Henry (Eric Bana), has a genetic condition that makes him time travel. In the middle of a conversation or while making love or while dressing for their wedding ceremony, Henry may simply evaporate, leaving behind a pile of clothing. Heâll wake up naked in another time and place, struggling to survive until something deep inside clicks, and he finds himself back in the âpresent.â
Despite all that, Clare is destined to love him. Perhaps she never had a choice, for from childhood she has periodically been visited by the decade-skipping Henry. She has grown up fantasizing about him.
Women, it turns out, are the most faithful fans of extreme horror and terror films. Theyâre the driving force behind our current crush on vampires (the âTwilightâ books and films, cableâs âTrue Blood,â for example). They are among the most loyal fans of Joss Whedon, who created âBuffy the Vampire Slayer,â âFireflyâ and âDollhouse.â And ABCâs âLostâ wouldnât be the phenomenon it is without the female demographic.
A science fiction film can still have plenty of big ideas and shiny metal things â but if you want to win over the whole audience nowadays, youâd best bring along some feelings.