August 14, 2019

'District 9' and 5 More Influential Sci-Fi Movies From the Last Decade

Ten years ago, District 9 hit theaters and forever changed Hollywood and us

District 9 is one of those landmark movies that leaves people walking out of a theater not only wanting to see it again, but wishing they made the movie in the first place. 

Neill Blomkamp’s R-rated, Paul Verhoven-esque science fiction tale about immigration and race is equal parts parable and action drama. His unique vision and story further help solidify sci-fi as one of the best genres for filmmakers and audiences to explore. As the modern classic celebrates its 10th anniversary today, here are a few more influential films from the last decade that changed how we make and watch movies. 

District 9 (2009)

Blomkamp’s feature directorial debut (with help from EP Peter Jackson) is still the director’s best, and most resonate, movie. It’s novel and inventive handling of the well-worn “first contact” trope with an alien species puts the close encounter through the lens of immigration and racism -- in a way that is more relevant (and troubling) now than it was a decade ago.

From the slums of a South Africa shanty town ironically home to an interstellar species, to the explosive, R-rated climax, District 9 does what all great sci-fi should: Keep audiences talking long after the credits roll. 

What You Can Learn From It

Using sci-fi as a device to tell a story with political or universal themes is something movies and TV have been doing for years, and District 9 is one of the best “What If…?” executions of that practice.

Its low-fi, faux-doc approach to the story allows Blompkamp to deliver summer movie eye candy without breaking the bank. Found footage and low-budget solutions can help give more bang for your big idea’s buck if you’re on a tight budget. 

Star Trek (2009)

J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek movie is his best Star Wars movie.

The very New Hope-y plot Chris Pine’s young Kirk finds himself on, coupled with certain visual callbacks to George Lucas’ original Star Wars, is practically a demo reel for The Force Awakens gig. 

At the same time, Star Trek is character-first blockbuster storytelling; the deep space action and “pew pew” of phaster shootouts are all grounded on the backs of relatable heroes. Even though they have pointed ears or work in space, they feel like real people. Like us. Every panicked breath they take or victory they fight to earn feels like one of our own, and it all goes down with a near-perfect mix of humor and action.

For the first time in the franchise’s history, Star Trek has been afforded a budget that actually makes The Final Frontier feel big. The only thing bigger is the affection audiences have the characters.

What You Can Learn From It

Take away all the explosions and action and space battles, what invests audiences -- what makes this a movie you watch multiple times in theaters -- are the characters. Crafting compelling, vulnerable characters helps keep even the biggest blockbusters at human height. The more attention paid to shaping people that work in space and fly starships as real people -- or, at least, those that operate in ways that feel emotionally honest, given their situation -- the more success you will find with your genre project. 

Ex Machina (2014)

The best Twilight Zone episode Rod Serling never made, Ex Machina marks writer Alex Garland’s feature directorial debuts that is one of the best, most confidently-executed first feature films in the history of the medium.

The slow-burn drama unfolds with arm-rest gripping tension and unease, as an enigmatic tech CEO (Oscar Issac) submits his low-level employee and contest winner (Domhnall Gleeson) to a social experiment involving a more-human-than-human AI perfectly portrayed by Alicia Vikander. 

We’ve seen movies ask before “what it means to be human” and tackle the familiar tropes of what happens when mankind and the sentient machines it creates are forced to co-exist. But Garland, with his Kubrickian approach to the story and visuals, makes it all seem brand new and scarier; the consequences of man playing God are bloody and emotionally damaging. That a machine can comprehend what it means to be human, especially the grey areas that break or make us, better than those of flesh and blood is a compelling (and terrifying) notion that elevates the genre and the filmmaking medium as a whole. 

What You Can Learn From It

What can’t you learn from it. Essentially a feature-length bottle episode, Ex Machina is the poster child for how to execute Hollywood’s favorite type of sci-fi right now: Contained.

Most of the movie is two characters in a room, just talking (or, in the case of Issac, dancing). The script proves that even a “big” sci-fi conceit like tackling artificial intelligence and androids can be serviced with low budget production values that do not detract from the narrative but rather enhance it. 

Keep your plot simple, your characters complex, and your conflict complicated and you can craft a movie that resonates on a gut level like this one. 

Inception (2010)

Braaaahhhm! The iconic trailer and its blockbuster movie left equal parks on pop culture. They also inspired a still-current crop of filmmakers and projects that operate on the higher-end of sophisticated studio entertainment. 

Christopher Nolan’s perfect symphony of visuals, editing, and score underline the complicated-ish plot involving a mind heist by thieves (lead by Leonardo DiCaprio) charged with extracting (or “incepting”) the only commodity more valuable than money: Ideas. While the characters speak fluently in (and too much of) exposition, Inception manages to push past the constant dialogue of plot to deliver a riveting and somewhat stirring sci-fi thriller unlike any we have seen before or since. 

What You Can Learn From It

Nolan’s reliance on exposition -- characters basically serve as vessels for speaking the rules of the writer-director’s plot at all times -- is the exception to the rule. Do not think that because Nolan pulled off this screenwriting no-no that you can. Unless, of course, you have a resume like his. 

Also, DiCaprio’s Cobb is a problematic anti-hero that the movie tricks us into rooting for, despite the fact that his want and need hinge on giving an innocent person (Cillian Murphy) a false catharsis regarding Murphy’s pained and estranged relationship with his death bed-ridden father. Cobb gets to go home to his kids (nevermind that their grandfather could just bring them to Cobb) only if he successfully incepts Murphy’s character with a fiction that stands for the truth. That’s real shi**y. Don’t have your characters operate as de factor good guys when their whole arc hinges on committing a deplorable act; I don’t care how cool the gravity-defying hallway fight is. 

Arrival (2016)

Director Denis Villeneuve, working off screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s Oscar-nominated script based on the Ted Chiang short story "Story of Your Life,” pulls of an enviable sci-fi drama with Arrival. A fresh take on “first contact” with an alien species with the most unique of appearances for movie aliens, Arrival’s story about how language and time can transcend their linear concepts -- along with existence -- is anchored with all-timer performances by Amy Addams and Jeremy Renner. 

What You Can Learn From It

Don’t be afraid to take narrative risks with your material, even if what you’re working on is a studio feature. Just cope ahead for the eventual push back from stakeholders or fiscally-conservative studio heads that bump into what they perceive to be “problem areas” with your heady material that are, in reality, projections of their fears regarding what they think is your project’s commercial viability. 

Thoughts and feelings are not reality; Villeneuve and his team endured constant notes from producers and studio execs about making changes to the movie that would make it feel more commercial and familiar -- which would go against the whole point of why the movie was made at all or why they agreed to invest in the making of it. (At one point, it was suggested that Addams’ character be made a male. And not a linguist but maybe a soldier). Stick to your guns effectively, and be selective and respectful of the hills you want to die on. Because it could get bloody. 

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

In a decade or so, this will be one of those movies, like its 1982 predecessor, that we’ll be hitting ourselves for sleeping on upon its theatrical release. 

2049 is stronger whodunit and more character-driven story than the original, a daring and visually challenging (all hail Roger Deakins!) ode to what filmmaking can and should do when afforded the most anamorphic of canvases and the most complex and resonate of characters. Ryan Gosling’s K, a Blade Runner Replicant charged with hunting down his own kind, must join forces with Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) to solve a mystery that leads K to achieve a level of humanity lost on those born with it. 

Haunting and exciting, visceral and poignant, Blade Runner 2049 is a detective drama about finding one’s soul -- and the cost of such a worthwhile pursuit -- hiding out in a big-budget studio film. Attention must be paid to the exceptional craft and performances in every frame. 

What You Can Learn From It

World-building is a collaborative effort. The screenplay is the load-bearing column the various craftsman use to build the details needed to pull it off. Every penny is on the screen, and it is all in support of the drama and characters. Blade Runner 2049 feels like a future both menacingly far away and too close for comfort. Its lived-in verisimilitude, along with its five-minutes-into-the-future aesthetic, supplies us with a perfect blend of “how-did-they-do-that?” eye candy and characters we are pathologically incapable of not caring about.

If there’s anything better, we don’t wanna know about it.

 

Your Comment

5 Comments

Top 10 films of my life Blade Runner - 2049, my review. https://leslyleonlee.wordpress.com/2018/09/28/like-tears-in-the-rain-bla...

August 14, 2019 at 1:08PM

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Lesly Leon Lee
Director of Photography
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30 minutes too long. Jared Leto was worthless. Story was extremely trite even for a rehash/recycle. It looked great, but not remotely close to looking as good as Blade Runner. Ryan Gosling gave a really strong performance, but Villeneuve is overrated. "You ever seen a miracle?" - trash writing.

August 14, 2019 at 9:42PM

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Jake
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Strongly disagree. Both movies are master pieces. The poetry and amazing visuals of both films are sculpted with golden block letters in movie history beyond the SF genre.

August 15, 2019 at 5:24AM

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First one is of course a masterpiece. The second is a rehash/recycle that while decent, would only be considered a masterpiece by the Dark Knight fanboy genre of people.

August 15, 2019 at 12:31PM

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Jake
565

Then who is properly rated ("not overrated") director according to you?

August 21, 2019 at 3:16PM

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District 9 is from one of my favourite directors. The movie is absolutely great. But the camera is too shaky for me to watch for the second time. Sorry, could not really appreciate the camera work.

August 16, 2019 at 3:41PM

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Dibyendu Joardar
Director of Photography
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