Fear the future

What do we think about when we think about the future? I don't mean the future as in tomorrow or next week, or even next year. I mean, what do we think about when we imagine the future as science fiction writers might imagine it – the future in 50, 100 or 500 years’ time. Although based on everything that happened last year, 2020 seems like the far future.

When we think about the future, we mostly think that it will be awful; at least, that is what our science fiction is saying. You can tell a lot about a society from the science fiction it produces, as it shows how we think about the future. Judging by some of our recent output, we seem to think that civilization will collapse and we will be living in a wasteland like Mad Max: Fury Road or an extremely hostile urban environment like the Girl With All The Gifts.

Visions of destruction are more common than utopias. The works of authors such as Iain M. Banks or Hannu Rajaniemi show there is a lot of scope for telling stories in utopias. We seem to have stopped believing in utopias, probably around the time Iain M. Banks died in 2013. Our visions of the future are more Battlestar Galactica than Star Trek.

There is a lot of uncertainty about the future right now, and a lot of fear. That is understandable. With rogue states testing nuclear missiles, horrendous wars and the rise of aggressive nationalism, the world and the future looks pretty scary. This is reflected in our popular culture.

However, this is not the only time in our history that we have been frightened of the future. In the 1960s there was a lot of fear about the immediate future – in 1963, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, many believed the human race could end in a nuclear firestorm at any moment. As well as this, Western society was deeply divided along racial and political lines and violence was common.

There was also a sense of optimism about the future. It was around this time that Star Trek first appeared on TV. Star Trek had a radical vision of a future without racial tensions, where Americans, Russians, Japanese, aliens and even Scots could go boldly forth together.

Around the same time, Dune was published, and although it did not strike the same optimistic tone as Star Trek, it did show that the future will be vibrant, strange and filled with a terrifying beauty beyond anything we could imagine. Crucially it said that we would survive the Butlerian Jihad and reach the stars.

So if we were frightened in the past, then why are we so grim now? The vision of a future in The Expanse, riven with conflict, seems more likely to come true than the harmony of Star Trek or the discordant beauty of Dune. The key difference is that in the 1960s we were wealthy. The economy was growing and people were getting wealthier, new products and technologies were appearing in ordinary peoples’ homes. The future was arriving through home television sets and commercial flights, and people could imagine this continuing until we all lived on the moon, like in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The reason why we fear the future now is not because we have tangible external threats from North Korea or ISIS, or even homegrown extremists, but because we have an internal crisis in our society that appears unresolvable and is more fundamental than a war or terrorism. A crisis with capitalism itself.

“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” Fredric Jameson said and he was not wrong. We know that capitalism has been in crisis since the 2008 crash. The economies of the West are sluggish and weak. Wages have stagnated for nearly a decade and the cost of living is rising. A house that is not objectively awful is out of reach for most people. We are working hard and earning less. No one feels wealthy or confident about the future.

The main problem is that we don't have an alternative for capitalism, or even for this kind of ‘anything goes’ capitalism – or at least, not one that commands widespread support. Look at the collapse of moderate, social democratic, left-wing parties across the West if you think otherwise. If we cannot imagine a solution to the problems in our society then we cannot imagine a future for our society.

If the futures we imagine are not post-apocalyptic wastelands, then they are oppressive dictatorships likes The Hunger Games or 1984, which is suddenly popular again. This is because we can believe that the capitalism will end in fascism. It has happened before. However, imagining that capitalism will end in fascism is one step closer to accepting that our future is fascism.

We need to start imagining solutions to our problems or will we sleepwalk into tyranny or the complete collapse of society. Science fiction is one place where we can imagine a world where we have outgrown capitalism, or at least a world where we have fixed the problems that are killing our ability to imagine a future that is not filled with suffering.

Science fiction plays an important role in society by showing us how we think about the future. Right now, it is showing us that we think that there is no future. We need a science fiction that imagines a better future - not necessary a utopia, but a way through this crisis.

Sci-fi can provide hope to the hopeless that there will be a better future, which is desperately needed right now. We may be frightened of the future, but it does not have to be this way. Sci-fi can show us something else if it tackles the problems that we find ourselves facing. It can show us that the stars are within our reach. All we have to do is reach out and touch them.

 

2015 a year in film

Another year is drawing to a close and it's time to reflect on what kind of year it has been. In the cinema, it has been a good year for sci-fi films, with Jurassic World breaking the record for fastest film to gross a billion dollars in June and then Star Wars shattering that record in December. The Sci-fi London film festival also introduced me to several interesting new indie sci-fi films and short films; you can read my summary of the latter here.

As with 2013 and 2014, 2015 was dominated by superhero films. Marvel released its usual two blockbusters in the spring and summer. First up was their crossover film Avengers: The Age of Ultron, which combined many great characters, had a charismatic villain and amazing special effects, but failed to come together as a complete narrative. The character development was bitty, spread too thin between too many characters, and at some points just plain dull. We did not need a whole sequence dedicated to Hawkeye’s domestic situation.

Later in the summer, Marvel released Ant-Man, which was much better. What could have been a quite daft story of a shrinking superhero who talks to inspects ended up being the surprise witty action hit of the summer. The climactic fight on a model Thomas the Tank Engine railway was spectacular and hilarious.

20th Century Fox are still desperately clinging to their Marvel properties and this year released Fantastic Four, which I did not see but the general impression was that it was dire. The Batmanifcation (yes, I am still trying to make that a word) of superhero films is such that we were treated to a dark and gritty Fantastic Four. No one wants that, as the film’s poor reviews and box office shows.

This year remakes were out: there was only one prominent remake and that was Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the camp British TV spy show, The Man from Uncle. It was funny and filled with early 60s glamour. I enjoyed it a lot; most of the films I really liked this summer were the ones that did not take themselves too seriously.

Remakes maybe out of style but sequels were hugely popular, especially sequels to spy films, as we had Mission Impossible 5: Rough Nation and James Bond 24: Spectre. Both were very entertaining and true to their respective franchises. Less impressive was Terminator Genisys, which saw Arnie reprise his most famous role and audiences wonder what on earth was going on with the insane narrative.

Jurassic Park and The Hunger Games also had respectable sequels, the latter rounding off an impressive film series, but the best sequel of the year and my film of the year was Mad Max: Fury Road. Directed by the original Mad Max director, George Miller, and starring Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy, the film was visually stunning, a rollercoaster ride of amazing action scenes and had brilliant characters. The real star of the film was Theron playing Imperator Furiosa, a character that surely must become a feminist icon. Fury Road was brilliant from start to finish in more ways than I can describe here, all I can say is go see it if you have not already and if you have then watch it again.

British sci-fi films had a good year, much praise was heaped upon Alex Garland’s Ex Machina for being tense, creepy and making the audience think. However my favourite British film of the year was Super Bob, which I saw premiered at the Sci-fi London film festival. Super Bob is the story of a postman from Peckham who is given superpowers after an encounter with a meteorite. Unlike charismatic American superheroes, Super Bob is self-conscious, awkward and worried that he has signed up to two electricity suppliers. This film is hilarious and moving, in the tradition of many great British independent films. If it is showing near you then I highly recommend going to see it.

Narrowly beaten to film of the year was Pixar’s latest, Inside Out, a film that ponders the question: what if feelings had feelings? This film is laugh a minute, surreal and a tear jerker, like all the best Pixar films. Pixar have been down on their luck with their recent output but this warm and funny film reminds us why they are the best studio in the world at making family films. The central message of Inside Out, that it is okay to be sad and that part of growing up is having complex feelings, is an important life lesson done in an accessible way and with great humanity.

Accessibility and humanity are not how I would describe another of my favourite films of the year, High Rise starting Tom Hiddleston. Based on the classic J. G. Ballard novel, this movie is violent and subversive. It charts the complete moral and social breakdown of a new luxury high rise development with cold, sociopathic precision. The sight of so many geometric shapes and concrete in the architecture of the eponymous high rise pleased my visual sense and the excellent performances from Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons and Keeley Hawes made this a disturbingly intense film to watch. High Rise is not on general release yet, but I would recommend seeing it when it is.

Star Wars cast a long shadow over this year and is undoubtedly the biggest film of the year. The impact was even felt in the indie documentary cinema scene and at the London film festival I saw Elstreet 1976, a charming documentary looking at people who played minor roles in the original Star Wars film and the effect on their lives of the fame it brought.

In December The Force Awakens came crashing into cinema. Demand for tickets was high, booking websites crashed and fights broke out over tickets at a cinema in Lancaster. I am a big Star Wars fan and I loved The Force Awakens. It was true to the spirit of Star Wars, brought back some familiar faces and introduced some great new characters. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega were amazing as the new protagonists and Adam Driver was intense and creepy as the new villain. It is nice, for once, that the biggest film of the year is also one of the best.

Originality was rare in 2015 and that looks set to continue in 2016. Comic book adaptations include Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange from Marvel, X-Men: Apocalypse and Deadpool from 20th Century Fox, and DC’s attempt to launch their own shared universe with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad - both of which I predict will be terrible.

Sequels and remakes to look forward to in 2015 include Independence Day: Resurgence, Star Trek Beyond and the new all female Ghostbusters, which I am cautiously optimistic about. There will also be Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, filling in the events before A New Hope, and for fans of Regency romance and zombies there will be Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. 2016 will also see two high profile video game adaptations in Warcraft and Assassin's Creed, which begs the question has there ever been a good video game into film adaptation?

Some of the biggest surprises of 2015 were films which I had initially written off - such as Mad Max: Fury Road - so I am prepared to be surprised in 2016. However, I think it might be a similar year to 2013, 2014 and 2015 - lots of good films but low on originality. That trend is unlikely to change soon.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Warning: this review contains quite a lot of major spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Make sure you have seen it before reading this as it’s dead good.

Surely it is not news to anyone that there is a new Star Wars film out. There must be bacteria on Saturn that are aware of this. For the second time in my lifetime, a new Star Wars trilogy has exploded into the cinema with more hype than I thought was possible.

Clearly as a culture, we love Star Wars. Or at least the middle class geeky, mainly male, cultural group I move in loves Star Wars. Not even Harry Potter can so completely unite my Twitter and Facebook timelines in squeals of fannish delight. This new Star Wars film has reached near omnipresent status. It is everywhere and everyone is talking about it.

Star Wars has captured the cultural zeitgeist for a number of reasons, but mainly because this time the fans dared to hope that it would be good. Three sub-par, at best, prequels from George Lucas could not dampen our enthusiasm for more Star Wars. Fans are practically salivating with anticipation for another trip to a galaxy far, far away.

The fans have every reason to be excited; J.J. Abrams is a good director and has made two very entertaining Star Trek movies. His rambunctious take on Star Trek strikes me as an expensive means of auditioning to helm the new Star Wars trilogy. I cannot think of a director who would be better for the role. The trailers showed a lot of promise; the force is strong with this one.

There is one very difficult line Abrams had to walk, one that could make or break his take on Star Wars: how much do you rely on the recognisable characters and motifs from the original Star Wars and how much do you make this a film in its own right? Nostalgia verses originality. Clearly the film needs some of both, but getting the right balance is not easy.

Watching Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I must admit that it was great to have the classic Star Wars iconography back, something that had been missing from the prequel trilogy. It was wonderful to see a film with tie fighters, stormtroopers, star destroyers, X-wings and the Millennium Falcon. However, The Force Awakens did not rely too heavily on classic Star Wars characters. I appreciated seeing Lela, C-3PO and R2-D2 again but I am glad their appearances were brief to allow new characters to assert themselves.

Said new characters were excellent. We had BB-8, the cute new robot rolling around, which looked convincing because it was a physical character that did not rely on computer effects. The new protagonist, Rey (Daisy Ridley), is engaging and sympathetic, from the beginning we are rooting for her to succeed. There is also Finn, a stormtrooper who does not want to be a stormtrooper anymore, played by John Boyega, who delivers the performance of the film, bringing energy and humour to the part. There is also Adam Driver playing new visor-wearing villain Kylo Ren, who is everything a blockbuster antagonist should be, creepy, evil, charismatic and a little bit frightening.

Despite having a mainly fresh cast, The Force Awakens is filled with nods to Lucas’ original trilogy. From when Finn accidently activates the holo-chess set onboard the Millennium Falcon, to Rey living inside a wrecked AT-AT. There are a lot of these cameos of familiar motifs in the film, and it sometimes feels like a roll call of scenes we knew and loved from episodes IV–VI, but it satisfies the audience’s thrust for nostalgia.

There were a lot of nods to past films, but The Force Awakens is a story in its own right. The new characters have lives and adventures of their own and are not crowded out by classic Star Wars characters. Han Solo is the only returning character to play a major role and Harrison Ford does so with the grace and dignity of an elder statesman. This is in contrast to Lucas’ prequel trilogy, which relied too much on classic Star Wars characters - Obi-Wan, R2-D2, Yoda - and did not develop its own characters enough.

The other major flaw of the prequel trilogy was that it focused too much on the internal politics of the Jedi. The Old Republic’s priesthood/Gestapo were not as interesting as Lucas seemed to think they were and each prequel episode always came down to a lightsaber fight in the end. There was an absence of epic space battles or feats of dangerous piloting, which should be the meat and potatoes of any Star Wars films. The prequel trilogy lacked anything as exciting as the battle of Yavin at the end of episode IV.

This issue was addressed in The Force Awakens as Abrams brought the epic. There were huge battles aplenty. The escape from Jakku was a breathtaking scene, with the Millennium Falcon flying loop-the-loops and then racing through the husk of a crashed star destroyer, chased by tie fighters. My heart was in my throat the whole time. As it was during the attack on Takodana when rebel X-wings fly to rescue the heroes and Finn tries to use a lightsaber for the first time. The greatest achievement of the film is its climax, when the rebels attack the new uber-Death Star. It combines daring feats of flying, an intense ground assault and a good versus evil lightsaber showdown. In a phrase: perfect Star Wars.

This amazing sequence was ends with the tragic death of Han at the hands of his own son, Kylo Ren. It was a scene of genuine emotion. So many Star Wars deaths seem hollow, when the audiences does not care about the character, but Han has a special place in any fan’s heart and it was gutwrenching to see him go. Both Harrison Ford and Adam Driver played this scene superbly; it is the jewel in the crown of this film.

The Force Awakens ends with a setup for the next film and a lot of the questions this film raises are left unanswered. I am very excited for episode VIII in March 2017 and I hope it delivers on the promise of this one. J.J. Abrams did an excellent job, taking on one of the toughest directing gigs in Hollywood. He managed to walk the line between the originality this film needed to be a story in its own right and the nostalgia it needed to keep the fans happy. The weight of expectation was enormous and Abrams rose to the challenge ably.

Episode VII has lots of adventure, visual spectacle and epic space battles. This is what Star Wars is all about. This film has the energy and enthusiasm for the classic trilogy that the prequel trilogy was missing. I left The Force Awakens about as excited about Star Wars as I was when I was ten years old. I am now itching with anticipation for more Star Wars films in the future. My faith in the franchise has been restored.

The Martian

Andy Weir's novel of one man's struggle to survive on Mars has become a sci-fi sensation. The book was published to little fanfare but has become a viral success, ending up being Goodread's top sci-fi novel of 2014. The book is tense, well-plotted and uses the scientific detail to enhance the story of protagonist Mark Watney's struggle to survive. It has won over sci-fi reader after sci-fi reader, spread through peer-to-peer recommendations, and become a best seller. Inevitably, a big budget Hollywood adaptation has followed; the question is – can it live up to the book's success?

The short answer is that it does. The Martian is a superb film, entertaining from its witty first scene to the more thoughtful final few moments. Although it is two and a half hours in long, the Martian flies by and I was hooked for all of it. Watney's struggle for survival in the barren, airless deserts of Mars is tense and his fellow astronauts’ plan to rescue him is filled with edge-of-the-seat tension.

Ridley Scott is on excellent form behind the camera. His direction keeps the pace up and the film never drags, a real accomplishment for a film that is quite long and has a large cast of characters. Scott also uses special effects well, the action is intimate and focused on the characters. There are several dazzling scenes that doubtless employed an army of CG artists but no scene feels like hollow spectacle. The action drives forwards the plot and keeps the audience focused on Watney's precarious circumstances.

Scott's film is a very faithful adaptation of Andy Weir's novel. Dialogue, and at times whole scenes, are lifted directly from the book. The plot is identical to the novel: astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is the botanist on the third manned mission to Mars. During a freak sandstorm, Watney is lost and his colleagues are forced to abandoned the planet and leave him for dead. When he awakes and realises what has happened, he sets about finding out how he can survive on Mars until the next manned mission arrives in four years’ time. The problem is that he only has one year's worth of food and the airless, waterless surface Mars is a dangerous place to spend any amount of time. Meanwhile, NASA have found out that Watney is still alive and try to rescue him.

The film takes the novel's most tense scenes and expertly transposes them into nail-biting moments of cinema. The scenes when Watney's Martian habitat collapses and when he finally escapes from Mars make for tense and exciting cinema – the latter scene is one of the best I have seen this year.

All of the novel's large cast of characters are faithfully realised on screen in a series of great performances. Matt Damon excels as the ever upbeat Watney, a character he is perfectly cast for. Chiwetel Ejiofor is great as Vincent Kapoor, NASA’s Director of Mars Operations, the man in charge of saving Watney. So also Jessica Chastain, who plays Commander Lewis, Mark Watney's tormented superior officer. Other great performances are delivered by a stellar cast including Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Kristen Wiig and Kate Mara, but a special mention must go to Benedict Wong who delivers the performance of the film as the hard pressed NASA's Jep Propulsion Lab director Bruce Ng. The only actor who disappoints is Sean Bean, whose enthusiastic performance appears to have been edited within an inch of its existence.

Fans of the novel will be glad to hear that the science of how Watney grows enough food to survive on Mars and the technology behind NASA's rescue plans are not diluted for the film. They feature heavily and are ably crafted into the story so that the audience never feels talked down to or confused, whilst the novel's level of detail is preserved. The Martian shows how a hard sci-fi story can be as entertaining as any action blockbuster, when handled by a competent director with a good cast.

My only criticism of The Martian is that it is perhaps too faithful to the book. Bringing a book with so many scenes and characters to the big screen means individual moments or characters rarely get a chance to shine. The film is long and although the tension remains high, some events are rushed through. It was great to see a film that was so faithful to a book that I love, but I would have preferred a greater degree of adapting the story to the medium of cinema.

The isolation and loneliness, which the novel conveys so well, are not developed in the movie. This could have been achieved with a greater focus on Matt Damon and less on the other characters. A movie which followed his video logs would have been less tense, but would have allowed for a greater character study and would have more effectively drawn out the drama of his struggle to survive in a hostile environment. The climax and denouement scenes are substantially different to the book to show what a more Mark-Watney-focused film would have been like. It would have been interesting to see this movie.

The road which the film could have taken does not detract from how entertaining and enjoyable The Martian is. It is an excellent adaptation that translates the strengths of the book to the screen and adds good performances and tense directing. I would certainly recommend seeing it to any fan of the book or of sci-fi cinema.

Top 5 sci-fi horror movies

Science fiction and horror are natural allies. Science fiction can liberate an author's creativity to come up with new stories and this suits the horror writers’ ability to create imitative ways to scare the reader. Nowhere is the more true than in film, where sci-if concepts can be used to as to unsettle, creep out or completely terrify the audience.

Below is a selection of my five favourite sci-fi horror movies. Before we get started I want to issue a brief spoiler warning for the films that will be discussed below.

The Fly

The sci-fi concept of teleportation serves as the basis for this horror movie. Jeff Goldblum starts as eccentric scientist Seth Brundle who is secretly working on a teleportation device. After some initial failures Brundle gets the device to work with the help of journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis). However when Brundle test the machine on himself he is impaired by jealousy, anger and alcohol and does not notice a common household fly has entered the device. Brundle is fused into a hybrid half-man half-fly creature and over the course the film looses his humanity.

The Fly uses our fear of our animal nature to increase tension. As Brundle becomes more fly he begins to operate under the primal drives of rage and sexual desire. The control that a human usually has over these desires are stripped away as Brundle embraces his animal side. When Quaife discovers that she is pregnant and dreams about giving birth to giant maggot, the film takes darker turn. Brundle is concerned that the child is the last remnant of his humanity and kidnaps Quaife to force her to have the child.

The Fly plays off our fear of break of the thin layer of humanity that separates us from animals. As Brundle becomes more fly he stops suppressing his basic animal desires and becomes more dangerous. In the Fly, the real monster is not the thing Brundle is coming but it is the animal within himself that has been set free.

The Mist

Cinematic adaptations of Stephen King stories have a mixed tracked record for every Shawshank or the Shining there is a Maximum Overdrive or the awful TV adaption of the Stand. However the Mist delivers as a horror movie, it is tense, claustrophobic and violent.

The Mist stars Thomas Jane who wakes up after a thunderstorm to discover a tree has fallen on his house. He takes his son and neighbour to a grocery store where a strange mist surrounds them. Whenever anyone ventures out into the mist strange creatures devour them.

The tension in The Mist comes from setting, the characters are besieged inside the shop and any escape attempt will result in certain death. Events escalate as a Christian woman forms a doomsday cult around here and inevitably some the monsters break in. The Mist keeps the suspense up by showing as little of the creatures as possible, cloaking them in the eponymous mist, but frequently reminding the audience of how much danger the characters are in.

The sense of hopelessness and impending death makes The Mist both dark as well as tense and bloody. Like most of the best horror films the worst events in The Mist are caused by humans and not the creatures that have them trapped.

The Thing

Low budget and with plenty of gore, is a winning formula for horror movies and John Carpenter is the master of this approach. Without a doubt his best film is the Thing for being both suspenseful and gory. An alien space ship crashes near an Antarctica research station and the survivor is not friendly. After killing several of the humans, the base’s inhabitants try to fight back. There is only one catch; the Thing that is praying on them can disguise itself as any of the humans.

The fear of the enemy within your ranks runs across all of humanity and the audience can engage with the sense of paranoia that grips the characters. Unlike most horror movies, the Thing is not an external enemy killed but an internal enemy that must be rooted out. As the Thing spreads and takes over more of the humans we see its true form, a disgusting mix of organs, tentacles and bodily fluid. The Thing moves between tense physiological thriller and out and out gore-fest frighteningly quickly.

A sense of isolation runs through the entire film, which adds to the tension. In Antarctica no one will come to the characters rescue so they must deal with the Thing themselves, before it makes its way to the rest of civilisation and dooms humanity.

The Thing has enough physiological tension to be interesting and enough gore to be exciting. The use of the enemy within story works with the low budget approach and means that when we do see the Thing, it is brief enough and detailed enough to be truly shocking. The Thing is a low budget gore film with an added physiological element that makes it enduringly scary.

Event Horizon

A trip to the edge of the solar system to test a new piece of wormhole technology, what could go wrong? Expect the wormhole created goes to hell and the ship becomes possessed by a violent and malevolent force. The premise of Event Horizon may sound daft but the execution is frightening.

Event Horizon works so well because the revelation of what has happened is spread out over the course of the film. Event Horizon starts with a straightforward rescue mission, which slowly gets worse and worse. Sam Neill is great in the role of the wormhole ship’s creator who goes slowly insane when he is confronted by what he has created.

The tension builds through theological horror, confined spaces, no escape in space, and through moments of gut churning gore. Director Paul W.S. Anderson makes able use of both approaches to horror.

Event Horizon starts off as science fiction and becomes fantasy as the plot develops. As the story moves away from our reality so does the tension until the audience is lost in a world of pain and chaos. When the final revaluation comes it makes perfect sense in the context of the story and is completely terrifying.

Alien

One of my favourite movies of all time and certainly my favourite sci-fi horror movie. Ridley Scott's atmospheric horror movies owes as much to the art of H.R. Giger and Francis Bacon as it does to the science fiction of Isaac Asimov. The tension builds slowly and steadily, there is little music and it is long time before the mysterious predator is revealed. When it is finally shown to us it is the stuff of nightmares, a creature that is completely alien, impossible to reason with and utterly deadly.

When the freighter Nostromo picks up a strange signal they divert to investigate an uncharted planet. When the crew lands, they discover a crashed alien spaceship and a huge horde of eggs. One thing leads to another, John Hurt sticks his face in an open egg and later an alien killing machine explodes out of his chest and starts picking off the crew. It’s left to Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to escape the before she too is killed.

The production design of alien lays on the atmosphere, the Nostromo is all steam pipes, cramped spaces and dark places to hide. I cannot think of anywhere worse to be trapped with a monster. The tension builds as the body count rises and leads to a terrifying final confrontation between Ripley and the alien.

Those are my favourite sci-fi horror movies. Do you have any to add to the list? Let me know below.

My thoughts on watching films in London

On my way up the tube escalator, I stare at the posters that line the walls. Charity fun runs, exclusive estate agents, gyms offering extraordinary weight loss in an improbably short period of time. Then something catches my eye: rows of people sat in front of a cinema screen, the London skyline lit up behind them. It looks brilliant. Watching a film on a cool summer night with a spectacular view of iconic London landmarks. The magic of cinema transposed into a modern urban setting. Gone are the plain out of town multiplexes in shopping centres, instead this cinema in the heart of a global city. The event was probably very expensive, even considering the outrageous prices charged by some cinemas, but worth it for the experience.

I am the target audience for this event and others like it. I fit into the correct consumer demographic; someone who describes themselves as "passionate" about film in consumer surveys. I am young, urban, liberal, interested in culture, professional, modern, with no children and in possession of disposable income. I am someone who values experience over possessions, who thinks being well travelled is more important than owning a good car. I am a cliché of the late twentysomething, early thirtysomething Londoner, writing this blog post on an Apple product in a chain coffee shop.

A range of products and experiences have risen to cater for this lucrative demographic, one of the few that feels wealthy – or, at least, is not concerned about personal debt. These products includes secret cocktail bars, immersive zombie survival theatre and restaurants with unusual themes. All have the inflated prices that comes with urban chic. Rooftop Film Club is just another example of this.

Do not mistake any of the above for a criticism - these events are a lot of fun and usually put on with dazzling creative flair and attention to detail. They are experiences perfectly crafted to make you feel like you are a part of something exclusive, something special. Life would become boring if it only consisted of the same pubs, TV shows, books, etc, and these unusual events provide the variety which keeps life interesting. London is an expensive, crowded, noisy, dirty place to live, and these unique experiences make life in the capital worth living, they remind you how magical London can be. I feel very fortunate to be in a position (in terms of time and money) to experience some of them.

A lot of these experiences include new ways of exhibiting film. I am certainly in favour of deconstructing what a film screening is and taking it in new directions. Film screenings should not be confined to multiplexes or the basements of independent DVD shops. The ways of experiencing film should be as diverse as film itself. Also it is a great idea to combine the screening of a film with complementary experiences, from meals to immersive theatre. This process of bringing the film to life while still keeping the immersive experience intact is a fantastic new way to experience cinema.

You can probably sense a rather large ‘but’ coming in the near future. Changing the way we exhibit film is a positive thing but the films on offer are becoming increasingly generic. These new screening events typically choose successful films from the 70s, 80s and 90s - Star Wars, Back to the Future, Shawshank Redemption - great films from the heyday of blockbusters, when they were still fresh and original. Alternatively they show the most mainstream franchise blockbusters from today, the Marvel shared universe, the DC shared universe, reboots of classic films series and TV shows - Mad Max, The Avengers, The Man From UNCLE. The ways of exhibiting films are getting more interesting while the films themselves are getting duller.

This is a process we are seeing across mainstream cinema as a whole. The multiplexes are investing in new projection technology and sound systems to make the cinema experience more immersive. The range of food and drink being offered is expanding beyond popcorn and Galaxy Minstrels. New and exciting ways of watching films are starting up from curated online streaming services like MUBI, to events like Hot Tub Cinema. The multiplexes have never been shinier but Hollywood's rising levels of risk adversity means our choice of film is getting narrower. We can choose between different competing superhero franchises, actions movies into embarrassingly high number of sequels, or formulaic vehicles for stars and directors who should have retired a long time ago to make way for new wave of original cinema. There is a limit to how fancy you can make a multiplex to cover up how uninspiring the films are.

Events like Rooftop Film Club, Hot Tub Cinema or Secret Cinema rely heavily on the good films from the past. This partly due to the cost of acquiring prints of new films and the fact that if you are going to spend north of £50 on a cinema trip, most people would prefer to know they will enjoy the film. Still, this reliance of successful blockbusters of the past only underlines how humdrum modern blockbusters have become.

We are drowning in sequels, remakes and adaptations and there is barely an original film in sight. This is partly why events like Rooftop Film Club are popular, as they are a way to breathe novelty back into the cinema-going experience in an age where novelty is too risky for the big budgets of mainstream blockbusters.

There is nothing wrong with events such as Rooftop Film Club, which I have perhaps unfairly focused on in this article. The cinema experience these new film exhibitions offer is interesting and innovative. Seeing a classic film on a hot summer night with one of the world's most iconic skylines around you is a once in a lifetime experience. My source of disappointment is that events like this are necessary to keep people like me passionate about cinema because the regular cinema going experience is so devoid of passion.

I would prefer more original films in regular, boring, cinemas to boring films and original ways of showing them. I would happily make that trade to have some more variety from Hollywood. Rooftop Film Club and similar events are fantastic ways to enjoy film as well as injecting some originality into the medium. However, they are, at best, a temporary fix to the problems of Hollywood becoming increasingly risk adverse. As films become increasingly similar and fans are offered less choice, people will turn away from the medium and interesting ways of showing films will not stop this. As much as I enjoy original ways of screening films, I would prefer some original films.

Superbob and independent films

As film fans, it is important that we support independent films whenever we can. Sometimes this seems difficult, Hollywood is so monumentally powerful and posses such vast marketing apparatus that getting a smaller film noticed seems almost impossible. Despite this, film fans are more powerful now than they have ever been: through Twitter, Tumblr, forums and blogs, we all have a platform and we can use it to get more films that we like made. When a film fan sees a film they like it is important to make as much noise about it as possible, as through working together in this grass-roots approach we can shine a light on quality films that would otherwise be overlooked.

It is essential that film fans do this because it is through independent films that we can control how we are portrayed in the cinema. Films are immensely powerful; they create lasting cultural impressions and can even result in political change.

Not having control of how your country or subculture is portrayed in film or TV can be very damaging. Most people's impressions of Africa are based on stereotypes that are supported by Hollywood films or TV. If more people watched films made in Africa, such as Timbuktu or Fishing Without Nets, then viewers would understand that there is poverty in Africa, but the continent is much more complex than the stereotypes would have you believe. It is important to support independent film so that your country or subculture can exercise control over how they are portrayed on film and not just hand that power over to Hollywood completely.

Supporting a film is also a way to see representations of yourself on screen – that is, if you are not a middle class white American man. Recently, I saw a film that I want to make noise about so that more people get an opportunity to see it. This film is the British film Superbob, about an ordinary postman from Peckham who becomes a superhero when he is struck by a meteorite.

The film takes place in and around South London, mostly in Peckham, an area that is not usually the subject of films. If your experience of the world is only through Hollywood films, you could be forgiven for not knowing that Peckham existed, and if your only experience was through mainstream TV you would think that it was still inhabited by Del Boy and Rodney. Peckham is a vibrant, interesting part of London and it is time that this was reflected in a film. It was refreshing to see a London that is reflective of ordinary people's lives. This was not a film focused on the well-heeled Kensington or Notting Hill set, nor was it a film about hyper-cool Hoxton hipsters. This was a film about a London which ordinary Londoners can recognise.

Another reason why it is important to champion smaller films is that independent cinema showcases a wider variety of stories than the mainstream Hollywood output. Superbob is another good example of this. There are not many films focusing on British superheroes, we see a lot of super-powered charismatic Americans saving the day with witty one liners, but it was a nice change to see a superhero who was self-conscious and modest in a very British way. Superman makes proud statements on what it means to be human, whereas Superbob is concerned that he is signed up to two home energy suppliers. This humour and this type of character is absent from mainstream Hollywood movies, so we need to support it in independent cinema to see more of it.

Above all, Superbob should be championed because it is a great film. The writing is witty and clever. It has a great cast, including Brett Goldstein and Catherine Tate. The film has a warm story about love and being yourself at its core, which allows Superbob to transition from heartbreakingly sad to trouser-soilingly funny in the same scene. What Superbob lacks in budget, it makes up for in heart and wit.

Superbob is a great film because it is different, fresh and original when compared to a Hollywood output which is becoming increasingly generic. Superbob is also extremely entertaining, regardless of the wider industry context. It is a film that film fans should be shouting about because it deserves to reach a wide audience.

The roar of the Hollywood promotional machine can easily drown out a small British movie. That is why it is important that film fans make noise about the easily-overlooked independent films. Films like Superbob are great pieces of entertainment, but they are also important cultural documents and a record of the way we see ourselves. It would be extremely sad if this record was lost and it would be extremely sad if a great film like Superbob did not get the recognition that it deserves.

Are franchise blockbusters dumbing down cinema?

Last week, Simon Pegg caused a stir when he implied that cinema has been "infantilised". Like most media circuses, this one turned out to be an exaggeration and Pegg's more detailed explanation is well worth a read. Whatever Pegg's actual views, he is not alone in expressing this sentiment that cinema is dominated by adolescent fantasies at the expense of real art. This argument is as old as cinema itself but I want to examine this claim in regards to recent cinema trends, because in Pegg's own words: “Sometimes it’s good to look at the state of the union and make sure we’re getting the best we can get.”

The trend in cinema currently blamed for infantilising the medium is what I call the “franchise blockbuster”. This includes the Marvel and DC super-hero shared universes, but also the trend to bring back expired film franchises (Star Wars, Mad Max, Jurassic Park, etc) or start new franchises using works popular in other mediums (The Hunger Games, Mission Impossible, etc).

I partially agree and partially disagree with the idea that this trend has dumbed down cinema or excluded films of greater artistic metric. Although it is true that there was a brief period where artistic movies were the most commercially successful (Tax Driver, The Godfather, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, etc) this period only lasted a few years between Easy Rider in 1969 and Raging Bull in 1980. It is also important to remember that this period occurred between the collapse of one dominant commercial model in Hollywood, the studio system, and the rise of a new one, the modern blockbuster which begins with Star Wars.

Franchise blockbusters are only the most recent form of the blockbuster and I disagree with the accusation that these films are dumbing down cinema. Most often this accusation is usually aimed at sci-fi films or comic book adaptations because these are the highest profile franchise blockbusters. This argument implies that sci-fi or superhero films can never be clever or tackle important real world issues, when there are many counter examples. Sci-fi films such as Elysium or District 9 and superhero films such as Super have used the conventions of their respective genres as a prism to explore real world issues.

Science fiction films have always lent themselves to spectacle and spectacle has always dominated the box office, because film is a visual medium. There is a view summarised by Pegg that: “the more spectacle becomes the driving creative priority, the less thoughtful or challenging the films can become.”

I do not believe this is true, as spectacle based blockbusters can also be very artistic such as films like Alien, Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner. It is not a valid reading of film history to claim that the blockbusters of the 1980s destroyed the artistic credibility of the 1970s, they just changed it.

It should also be remembered creating great art was not a priority in the period before blockbusters came along in the late 1970s. In the 40s, 50s and 60s there were a lot of generic studio films, most of which have been forgotten because they were generic. One reasons why three decades look so good in retrospect is because we only remember the good films. There was no golden age of artistic integrity which we should go back to, and the idea that there was needs to be resisted.

That said I do think the desire to be innovative, challenging and emotional has been pushed out of cinema. The main reason for this is because studios are becoming more risk averse and not chancing innovative or challenging films because they could lose money. This is manifesting itself in the dominance of franchise blockbusters. As cinema goers, we are getting a lot of the same types of film over and over again which is making cinema more boring.

I do not think that franchise blockbusters are themselves to blame for cinema becoming more boring. The current wave for films tied into existing franchises are just a wave or artistic movement like any other, muscle men action movies in the 1980s or melodramas in the 1950s. The wave will break, no artistic movement lasts forever.

However there are two trends in modern cinema which I find collectively troubling. They are that cinema is becoming more boring and more franchise blockbusters are being made. The artistic movement of franchise blockbusters has produced as many good films as any other cinema movement, Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are as good as any blockbuster from the 1980s or 1990s and some films such as Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy have had both complex plots and explored complex characters in a subtle way.

The only reason that franchise blockbusters are making cinema more boring is that our cinema diet consists only of franchise blockbusters. Eventually audiences will get bored of franchise blockbusters (I predict this happen somewhere around the time of the Aquaman film) and cinema goers will stop paying to see them. When the fun has gone out of franchise blockbusters and they all become generic, this will end the movement, just as too many dull action movies like Collateral Damage killed the muscle men films. This natural process of artistic movements rising and falling will continue and another new type of blockbuster will take its place. This is not something to be worried about. If you do not like a fashion simply wait, it will change.

The excessively risk averse nature of studios could mean that cinema becomes so dominated by franchised blockbusters that the audience for cinema disappears almost completely. This will most likely happen when audiences are lured away by some other medium, such as video streaming services. It happened before - in the 1960s, the studio system was so reluctant to embrace counter culture that they kept making the same generic pictures they had been making since the 1940s. Film audiences were put off by the old fashioned Hollywood products and lured away by TV, where shows like the Monkey were reflecting cultural changes. Audience could abandon the cinema complete if the studios continue to make franchise blockbusters long after everyone is sick of them.

If this were to happen, it would be a significant event in cinema history, and we might get a brief period of creativity like we did the 1970s after the fall of the studio system and before the rise of the modern blockbusters. However, the process of movements rising and falling will continue and any artistic period will not last long before a new commercial model exerts itself.

Franchise blockbusters are a victim of the changing circumstances, namely studio's risk aversion, and not the cause of them. If cinephiles really do get bored of them then franchise blockbusters will go away as no artistic movement lasts forever. The one thing all artistic movements have in common is their belief that they are special, transcendent and permanent, when in reality they all end. Periods of change between artistic movements are the most interesting and the most creative. They are when certainties are questioned and possibilities open up. However these periods are always brief and commercial models reassert themselves quickly.

Film fans have always worried about cinema becoming too much of a spectacle and not being artistic enough. I do not think movies are dumbing down. They are just changing and they will change again in the future.

Avengers: The Age of Ultron

Warning this review contains spoilers

Everyone must be aware by now that there is a group of fictional superheroes known as the Avengers knocking about. There must be amoebas on Titan who know that Robert Downey Jr is charismatic as Iron Man and that Chris Evans is strangely likeable playing Captain America. The Avengers have become a part of our cinematic landscape, along with being quietly disappointed about the number of sequels/adaptations and the lack of original films.

Now the Avengers we know (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, etc.) and a few new ones (Quick Silver, Scarlet Witch, The Vision) are back and have teamed up to fight a new big bad in the form of Ultron, a psychopathic machine intelligence that is intent on destroying humanity.

Avengers: The Age of Ultron is an action movie at its heart, and it certainly does not lack for gripping action scenes. There are at least five spectacular fight sequences scattered throughout the film, each one more impressive and dazzling than the last. Avengers: The Age of Ultron is a movie that makes full use of the cinematic toolbox to create a treat for the eyes.

My personal favourite action sequence is fight mid-way through the film between the Hulk, ably played by Mark Ruffalo, and Downey Jr's Iron Man in a new extra large suit of armour. Superhero crossover movies are at their most fun when the heroes fight each other, as it settles the questions teenage geeks spending hours pondering: who would win in a fight between X and Y. This kind of drama is not the basis for Shakespearian intrigue, but it does make for spectacular viewing.

As a science fiction film, it has to be said that this is a little light on the science. It is still not clear if Thor is an actual magical god-being or an alien, and characters like The Vision are more fantasy than science fiction. However, James Spader’s Ultron is a brilliant villain, an out of control AI without a care for human suffering, intent of improving the world by destroying it. This is not original writing – the basic plot is little different from Terminator or The Matrix – but I have a weakness for AI-run-amuck films and Avengers certainly delivers this. Spader excellently camps it up as the evil Ultron and clearly loves every minute of being the villain.

A film that has the combined cast of four other films is understandably overflowing with characters, and writer/director Joss Whedon ensures that they all get their moments and all get a character arc. The best of these is Quick Silver’s and Scarlet Witch's redemption arc as they both begin the movie in the service of Ultron and then go over to the Avengers when they see how evil he is. This is nimbly handled and had some great acting from Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in their respective roles.

Every character’s role is weaved into the plot of the film, but I was left feeling that some were not necessary. The cast is perhaps too large and the pace would have suffered under a less capable director. Hawkeye, The Vision and Black Widow could have been jettisoned and the film would have been improved, although the removal of the latter would mean that there was only one woman with a substantial role in the film.

Cutting the number of characters would have left more time to develop the ones that remained. The arcs of characters such as Thor and Captain America are rushed, and at times barely coherent. In an ensemble superhero film, less is certainly more.

This lies at the heart of what most disappointed me about Avengers: The Age of Ultron. I was left feeling that Whedon was more committed to bringing in as much of the wider Avengers franchise as possible than to making a good film. Whedon has worked with ensemble casts before and handled their arcs and characterisation much better. For example, Serenity also has an established ensemble cast, however in that film each is given several moment to shine, where as in Avengers: The Age of Ultron characters such as War Machine and the Falcon are hardly in the film, which makes me wonder why include them at all other than to give the audience a knowing nod to the other films in the Avengers franchise.

Audience love knowing nods: it makes them feel clever and part of a club, and everyone loves that, but knowing nods do not make a good film. Developed characters and interesting scenes make a good film, but clearly this was not the priority when making the Avengers: The Age of Ultron, or there would be less cameo appearances and more time spent on developing the core characters. For example, an extended segment exploring Hawkeye's domestic situation was dull and pointless, but apparently necessary. Cutting Hawkeye would have allowed more time to develop more interesting characters, such as Thor and Captain America.

Whedon does make all of this work and also brings his trademark humour to the film, which makes it hugely enjoyable to watch. Avengers: The Age of Ultron takes itself a lot less seriously than Batman and is all the better for it. Witty lines pointing out the absurdity of the whole film make it more believable than trying to earnestly sell the conflict between a man in a clown suit and a man dressed as a bat as a deep meditation on the human condition.

However I do feel that Avengers: The Age of Ultron takes itself too seriously and tries to make all the characters relatable, which is not necessary. The audience’s lives are nothing like those of Tony Stark or Steve Roger, so why do we have to relate to them via their personal lives? Avengers: The Age of Ultron is an action movie and great action movies of the past, such as Alien or Predator, were lighter on character development and better on motivation - basic survival - and they are stronger movies for it.

Despite these weaknesses, Avengers: The Age of Ultron is a brilliant rollercoaster of a film. It is funny, has good actors, great writing and amazing visuals, it will certainly be the best superhero film of the year – and maybe the best sci-fi/action movie of the year if Star Wars 7 is more Phantom Menace than New Hope. I would highly recommend that any fan of superhero, sci-fi or action movies head down to their local multiplex and see Avengers: The Age of Ultron.

Leonard Nimoy obituary

The 1960s were a formative time for popular culture and nowhere is this truer than for science fiction. In 1963, William Hartnell first took a voyage through time and space in the TARDIS; in 1965 Frank Herbert published Dune; in 1968 Stanley Kubrick and Author C. Clarke collaborated on 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, one of the most seminal science fiction beginnings in the 1960s was in 1966, when NBC premiered a TV show that promised to boldly go where no man had gone before. Over the years and series which followed, Star Trek has come to define science fiction, phrases like “redshirts” and "set phasers to stun” are well known to the fans of the genre because of the iconic characters which brought them to life.

Of course, one of these iconic characters were Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy. Spock was a character who on paper is difficult to relate to, cold and logical, he could have been a two-dimensional parody of non-human characters, but Nimoy brought the humanity out in him through his subtle performance. It is because of Nimoy that Spock became the character most geeks, myself included, related to the most. He was the outsider, the one who thought and acted differently to everyone else, but just as much a part of the team as the hot-blooded Kirk or the ever-exasperated Scotty. It was through Spock that most young geeks learned to believe that the future would be better, in the future we would be accepted.

Star Trek encapsulated that spirit of optimism which possessed 60s science fiction. At a time when there was civil disorder, rational strife and it looked like nuclear annihilation was inevitable, people looked to the future for a solace from their fears, and Star Trek showed them a future where humanity had not only survived but flourished in peace and harmony. Today's science fiction has a much more pessimistic outlook, from the unending grimness of Battlestar Galactica to the bloody Imperialism of Ancillary Justice and endless zombie apocalypses, we are now scared of our future. It is important to remember a time when we thought our problems would decrease in the future and not multiply.

Nimoy was born in Boston in 1931 to Ukrainian immigrants of orthodox Jewish background. Nimoy started acting at school and at community college, acting which was not stopped by service as a sergeant in the US army. When he left the army, he moved to New York where Nimoy worked a series of jobs around acting before getting noticed on TV shows like Rawhide and Perry Mason, then came his big break when he was cast in Star Trek.

The show was cancelled after three series due to low ratings, but it had already captured the imaginations of a generation and the characters at its core become some of the most loved in science fiction. It is an extremely difficult job to take a character from a script and bring them to life in a way that is believable; it is even more difficult to bring that character into the hearts and minds of millions of people. Nimoy created in Spock a character people genuinely loved, a character whose very existence made a difference to his fan's lives, this is the highest goal of any actor or writer.

As the popularity of Star Trek grew, Nimoy and co. took their characters to the big screen where they worked on some of the most iconic science fiction films of all time, most notably the sublime Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. Nimoy remained central to the film franchise, going on to direct Star Trek 3 and 4. Some of my earliest memories of enjoying science fiction is watching these films on VHS cassettes recorded off the TV. The ones which really stick in my mind as forming a strong early impression are 1 and 3, I am not sure why. It is partly through watching Nimoy and co. playing these iconic characters in amazing space adventures that I first learned to love a genre which would come to define a lot of my life.

Nimoy and Spock have been parodied over the years. As Star Trek came to define science fiction, its mannerisms were imitated and mocked. Nimoy, I assume, had a sense of humour about this because he participated in a fair few of these parodies of his famous character, most notably in the Simpsons where he appeared several times.

Nimoy also remained attached to the serious side of Star Trek fandom, appearing at conventions and in the two most recent Star Trek films. Even well into his 80s, he was still performing, appearing recently in the music video to Bruno Mars’s The Lazy Song.

The early days of Star Trek were part of science fiction’s formative years, or at least the formation of what we popularly understand to be the genre. Great writers, actors and characters will come in the future but the adoration that has been heaped upon these early luminaries is not something that we will see again. Put simply, once a genre's worth of fans’ hearts have been captured for the first time, nothing will ever be that loved again.

Nimoy was one of the last living connections to that early days of the genre, when we were optimistic that science could solve the world's problems and science fiction could show us how it was done. Now it serves as a warning of the terrible future we are sleepwalking into. That sense of passion, of optimism, that love was something unique and special and Nimoy was not only a part of it but he was central to it. Make no mistake that he is a titan of the science fiction genre who will be greatly missed.

“Live long and prosper.”

Science fiction at the BAFTAs

Awards season is upon us, the time of the year when movie studios have to pretend that all of this is about art and not about making as much money as possible out of a line of films that look increasingly similar every year. This ends later this month with the Oscars, but before that we have the British Academy Film and Television Awards, which function along the same lines as the Oscars.

Personally, I prefer the BAFTAs, as they are slightly less preoccupied with American self-congratulation and contain a selection of foreign language and art house films as well as each year’s award blockbusters. The BAFTAs will take place this Sunday (8th February), and I have taken the time to look into how well the science fiction genre will be represented at the awards.

The answer to this question depends very much on how you define science fiction. In its purest form, the genre is underrepresented at the BAFTAs, but some borderline SFF titles do have nominations.

Birdman, the art house superhero film, has a lot of nominations, including in the best picture category. Birdman stands a good chance of going home with at least a few awards. Hopefully Michael Keaton will win best actor for his superb comic performance, in which he mocks himself and Batman mercilessly. However, the film would be better classified as magical realism, rather than science fiction or fantasy. Birdman does pays homage to the established archetype of the current generation of superhero films – namely that everything must be Batman: for evidence of the Batmanification of all superheroes, see the ludicrous dark and gritty Fantastic Four trailer.

The Grand Budapest Hotel also has a lot of nominations, again including best picture, and is a delightfully funny and distinctively odd film. It is set in a fictional, slightly mythical Eastern European country at a vague point in 20th century history. Again the film pays homage to many fantastical archetypes, but without being expressly fantasy.

Some of the other best picture nominees are likely to appeal to fans of science fiction, most notably the biopics of Steve Hawking (The Theory of Everything) and Alan Turing (The Imitation Game). Obviously these are historical dramas about real life scientists and both have strong performances at their core, but they are further evidence that film award bodies consistently overlook the science fiction genre.

The other major categories fare the same as best picture – for example, best director also has nominations for Birdman, The Theory of Everything and The Grand Budapest Hotel, but Christopher Nolan is cruelly overlooked for the masterfully directed Interstellar and James Gunn is similarly snubbed for the excellent Guardians of the Galaxy.

Children’s science fiction is well represented in the animated film category, with Don Hall and Chris Williams nominated for Big Hero 6, Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable for The Boxtrolls, and Phil Lord and Christopher Miller for The Lego Movie. The later is one of my favourite films of last year; it is funny, emotional and innovative. Why it has not been nominated for an Oscar for best animated film is beyond me. The Lego Movie thoroughly deserves to win in this category.

Science fiction films are better represented in the ‘technical’ BAFTA categories. Interstellar has nominations for original music, production design and cinematography – in all three of which the film excels. Hans Zimmer’s score is dark, brilliant and contributes to the film’s edge-of-our-seat tension. The film is also beautifully shot, and the retro look of the its production design creates a timeless vision of the future.

Special visual effects is the category traditionally dominated by Hollywood’s big budget science fiction films, and this year is no different. Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, X-Men: Days of Future Past and the last Hobbit movie have all been nominated, and all were visually stunning. However, I find it hard to believe that visuals is the only way in which the science fiction genre has excelled itself in the last year.

Guardians of the Galaxy has a nomination for best make up and hair; the design of the alien creatures was very convincing, and it deserves a win in this category. This film was my favourite of last year, it is funny, spectacular and moving. In terms of the filmmaking craft, it is much better than the worthy biopics and art house films that are nominated for best picture. There are clearly certain genres that get nominations for awards and certain ones which are ignored. Looking outside the blockbuster science fictions which came out last year, there are many brilliant independent science fiction films such as The Phoenix Project which deserve award recognition.

Interstellar has a few nominations for being slightly more highbrow and acceptable, but it is still looked down on for being science fiction. Guardians of the Galaxy and other superhero films are snubbed further for not being considered artistically valid. This is despite the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy is better than most of the best picture nominees.

Apart from the technical categories, which are largely ignored by the press, science fiction as a genre is under-represented at the BAFTA awards this year. This has nothing to do with the sci-fi films of last year being below par: Interstellar and Guardians of the Galaxy are easy as well made as The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything. This is evidence of the fact that only a certain type of film gets nominated for BAFTAs.

The BAFTAs should be an interesting night of awards; I hope that Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel do well, but from the perspective of a sci-fi fan there is an odor on under-appreciation from the nominations.

Birdman

In 2002, Charlie Kaufman could not adapt Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief for the screen and so instead wrote a film about his struggle to adapt the book. Adaptation starting Nicolas Cage, the film which came out of this, is self-consciously everything Orlean’s book is not but is still a very entertaining watch. The same can be said of Birdman, that it is both a film about adapting and is a failed adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

Birdman deals with the same themes as Carver’s short story: the complexities of love, abusive relationships, and suicidal thoughts. However, in narrativeit is very different to the original story. Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, a washed up movie star who used be known for playing a superhero called Birdman.

Riggan wants to reignite his career with a Broadway adaptation of Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but he has to deal with a difficult co-star (Edward Norton), his recovering addict daughter (Emma Stone), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan), his current girlfriend (Andrea Riseboroug), an actress who is in a dysfunctional relationship with Norton’s character (Naomi Watts) and a theatre critic with a vendetta against him (Lindsay Duncan). On top of all this, Riggan is haunted by Birdman, who mocks his failures and chides him for giving up on the film franchise.

Birdman is a loving parody of the current superhero-dominated movie landscape. Keaton’s association with the Batman franchise, the epitome of the superhero craze, underlines this. Birdman himself is a thinly veiled Batman, he has the same gravely voice and a very similar costume. In one excellent scene, Birdman becomes enraged with a TV interview with Robert Downey Jr. and bullies Riggan about being the original superhero and giving it up.

Keaton excellently sends himself up throughout the movie, he has all the desperation of a washed up has-been, all the ambition of a struggling actor, all the aloofness of a self-centered artist. Norton is also a superb self-parody in his role as the self-involved serious actor who rants about “being real” on stage, while the rest of his life falls to pieces.

As well as parodying superhero films, the high art theatre world comes in for a roasting. Many stage archetypes are sent up, there is Norton as the primadonna stage star, Watts as the nervous actress making her theatre debut, Stone representing the effect of exposure to a world so focused on creating art and exploring inner emotions that real life relationships have been left to collapse.

Birdman is an exploration of modern trends in film and theatre. There are some good points about how superheroes have gone from blockbuster entertainment to serious art form, and how the struggling theatre world is trying to maximize its appeal with television and film actors, while said mass entertainment actors are trying to use theatre to gain artistic credibility. In one of the film’s best scenes, Duncan’s theatre critic lambasts Riggan for his egocentric production and contaminating her art form with his popular entertainment. Riggan hits back with how her elitist world is dying and needs people like him to keep it alive.

The film tackles several serious issues. Riggan blasts the current social media obsessed youth for not engaging with the real world and his daughter tells him that the world has moved on and Riggan is trying to cling to relevance without changing himself. Birdman is also an honest look at how superheroes have invaded every aspect of our artistic culture, even the theatre.

Points are made about the integrity of the theatre as a serious artistic medium where performers can explore complex emotions and nuanced characters. It is also pointed out that theatre is mainly experienced by older, middle-class white people, who are detached from other people’s problems. Whenever serious debate takes place in the film, it is always even handed and conducted in an entertaining way; the film never lectures or is preachy.

As well as artistic debates, the themes of love and difficult relationships are explored. Riggan has a dysfunctional relationship with her daughter, who herself looks for love in the wrong places - mainly Norton’s truth obsessed actor. The scenes we see from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love mirror the relationships in Birdman, we see unconditional love in difficult times, we see emotional betrayal, we see violent and self-destructive urges.

The most complex relationship explored in the film is Riggan’s relationship with himself, as personified by Birdman’s frequent appearances. Birdman tries to break Riggan down and convince him he is a failure. Riggan fights back but cannot escape his own haunting self-doubt. Riggan is a man searching for relevance in a world that has changed, whilst being unable to let go of his past.

Magical realism is used throughout Birdman, there are many scenes which could be interpreted as existing only in Riggan’s mind or by the fact that he actually possesses supernatural powers. The film blends together the emotional depth of a drama film with scenes of explosive action similar to any superhero movie. The use of magical realism allows Birdman to stay true to both genres, it is both superhero movie and cerebral drama. I was left not sure if Birdman is an art house superhero film or an art house film about superheroes.

Much like Kaufman’s Adaptation, Birdman is a film full of surprises which defies classification. It spans the worlds of popular culture and high art and manages to be entertaining on all fronts. Most of this is due to the superb performance from Keaton as Riggan/Birdman and the excellent supporting performances from the rest of the cast. Birdman excels as a movie, and I highly recommend that everyone go and see it.

2014 a year in film

In order to write my summary of the sci-fi films of 2014, first I looked back at my review of films of 2013. A year ago, I said that 2013 was a good year for film but not a particularly original one, and the same can also be said about this year.

Much like last year, the big winner in 2014 was Marvel. Their Avengers shared-Universe franchise continues to deliver entertaining films and strong results at the box office. They started the year with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a huge improvement on the dismal Captain America: The First Avenger. The present day setting, inclusion of other Avengers stars like Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson, a scattering of spectacular fight scenes and a genuinely menacing villain made this a hugely entertaining film.

However, Marvel’s big hit of year was the space opera adventure film Guardians of the Galaxy, my favourite film of the year. It was visually stunning, hilariously written, had likeable characters and a strong story. Guardians of the Galaxy marked something of a departure for Marvel and thus was a gamble, but it paid off amazingly well. Guardians of the Galaxy brought the fun back to summer blockbusters and reminded me of the films I loved as a child, from Jurassic Park to Men In Black, because of the way it blended visual spectacle with a sense of humour.

Guardians of the Galaxy shows that humour and warm characters, when combined with good writing and able directing, can be just as successful as a gritty setting and dark themes. DC should take note of how Marvel is bringing the fun back to superhero movies, as their overly serious tone is chasing the fun from summer blockbusters.

Marvel's properties at other studios fared less well this year. The X-Men crossed over with themselves in X-Men: Days of Future Past. It was good to see Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in one film, and all of them delivered a good performance. Peter Dinklage showed that he is just as watchable out of Games of Thrones as in it, and Jennifer Lawrence is always good – but the whole ended up being less than the sum of its parts. Despite the stellar cast and competent directing from Bryan Singer, the end product failed to light up the screen in the way which X2: X-Men United had. However, it was still enjoyable enough to make me look forward to future X-Men big screen outings.

The Amazing Spiderman 2 opened to poor reviews and poor box office, and seems to have single-handedly killed off Sony's attempts to make a shared Universe franchise out of Spiderman. The trailer looked awful despite the fact that Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone and Jamie Foxx are all strong talents. Full disclosure: I did not actually see this film, so it might have been better than the impression that I got. However, in my view the best thing which could have come from The Amazing Spiderman 2 is Sony selling Spiderman back to Marvel so that he can appear in Avengers: Infinity Wars, which is due in late 2017.

Adaptations not based on comic books had a good year, a notable standout being The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1. Jennifer Lawrence is fantastic in the role of Katniss Everdeen, the reluctant hero in the war against the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The third film in the franchise impressively upped the stakes and the tension whilst keeping the characters forefront. The use of present day sets and locations, as opposed to futuristic ones, brought home the reality of the conflict which looked more like events which are unfolding in the Ukraine rather than a sci-fi film. Philip Seymour Hoffman also showed that he was a giant of film acting who will be sadly missed. This movie could have been a filler before the last part of the Hunger Games next year, but it turned out to be a solid stand-alone film.

The surprise hit of the year was The Lego Movie. This could have been either a new Toy Story or a painfully extended Lego advert. It turned out to be the former, hugely funny and with a real sense of warmth which the early Pixar films did so well. At several points I laughed so much that I cried, Will Ferrell was especially good as the villainous Lord Business and Will Arnett’s Batman stole the show in every scene in which he appeared. The story was ridiculous and charming, filled with great set pieces, comic pratfalls and a climax which managed to be funny, tear jerking and make a serious point all at the same time.

It was a close run race for film of the year, but The Lego Movie was just narrowly beaten into second place by Guardians of the Galaxy (mainly because of my love of space opera). The Lego Movie was still hilariously funny, had a good story and great characters, I am struggling to think of any reason why anyone would not like this film.

Quality original films were thin on the ground this year, as they have been for several years, but one stand-out film was the Christopher Nolan-directed Interstellar. Having finished his Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan has gone back to big budget grown up sci-fi, which makes me very pleased as I really enjoyed both Inception and The Prestige. Matthew McConaughey starred in his near future wormhole-based adventure film, which was beautifully shot and had real tension throughout. The performances from McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, John Lithgow, Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain anchored the visual spectacle in personal drama. This coupled with an excellent surprise cameo from a well-known A-list actor meant this was one of the best acted films of the year.

Where Interstellar really shone was in its direction, production design and music. Interstellar is breathtakingly shot, confirming Nolan’s place as one of the most visually-interesting directors working today. The score from Hans Zimmer kept me on the edge of my seat and the film was lovingly designed with real thought about what the near future might look like. Interstellar is a powerful, interesting, emotional and clever film. It shows you can push the envelope of cinema and entertain at the same time, and that audiences will respond positively to this.

Elsewhere original films did poorly. Luc Besson, who is usually a safe pair of hands for a sci-fi action film, directed the sub-par Lucy starring Scarlett Johansson. Besson’s usual visual flair was out in force, but after three interesting opening scenes all tension evaporated from the film and we were left with a series of empty spectacles and boring action set pieces. It goes to show that you can have an enormous effects budget, a director of amazing sci-fi films like The Fifth Element and a strong casting including Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi and Amr Waked, but still end up with a film which is pretty to look at but ultimately quite boring.

This year I took some time to explore the thriving indie sci-fi scene through the Sci-fi London film festival, and I was very impressed by what I saw. Firstly the The Phoenix Project was an interesting low budget sci-fi thriller which owed much to Primer, but was still one of the best original sci-fi films I have seen in a while. Director Tyler Pavey did great work with a small cast, a small budget and limited locations, I will be very interested to see what he does next.

At Sci-fi London I also enjoyed Who's Changing, a fan-made documentary about Doctor Who through the years. It features contributions from leading members of the fan community, cosplayers, former companions such as Ace (Sophie Aldred) and Leela (Louise Jameson), journalists, and rank and file fans. This film is a labour of love and was really interesting to me, a die-hard Whovian, but I would recommend it to any Who fan, old or new, dedicated or casual.

I wish I had seen more indie sci-fi films this year, and will endeavor to do so in future. The vitality and creativity of the indie sci-fi scene is a ray of hope to a genre that is so dominated by huge Hollywood franchises that even I worry that sci-fi cinema risks becoming bland. Indie film-makers are doing some great work on low budgets, and I look forward to seeing more of their output in future.

Marvel continues to dominate sci-fi cinema but their output for the last two years has been very good so I am not too worried. Based on the quality of the last three Marvel films, I have high hopes for 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-man, especially the former which had a very impressive trailer.

This year as also been good for sci-fi action movies which ditch the gravelly voices and grimness, and take a more light hearted approach. Movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie remind me of the films of my childhood, when the emphasis on blockbusters was to be fun, and I hope this trend continues. In 2015 we can look forward to a film adaptation of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and a ‘Goosebumps’ film, both of which hopefully will be lighthearted fun.

I predict little will change in 2015 as franchises, comics (mainly Marvel) and adaptations continue to dominate the box office. This can be illustrated by a list of what to look forward to in 2015: next year will see the end of the Hunger Games franchise, a new Bond movie, a new Mission Impossible movie, a new Fantastic Four movie, a new Terminator movie, a new Mad Max movie, a new Jurassic Park movie and a new Star Wars movie. The latter I expect will be the big noise of 2015.

The state of cinema is unlikely to change soon but there are still plenty of quality films coming from the established franchises. There are also fresh ideas coming through from interesting indie filmmakers, and always the chance of a surprise at the box office next year. Much like a year ago, I will have to conclude by saving that I do not know what 2015 will hold but I can guarantee that I will be in the cinema finding out.

The Eternal Past

You might think that looking out of date is not a problem for science fiction, but it happens surprisingly frequently. How we imagine the future (or the past for that matter) says more about the present than what is likely to happen in the future. Our vision of the future is a portrait of our present ambitions and fears. From H G Wells's enthusiasm at the dawn of the machine age, to George Orwell's fears of totalitarianism, and to the atomic optimism of Isaac Asimov, science fiction novels have described the present and then looked out of date within a few years. With this in mind, how do authors or film-makers stop their future becoming dated?

This can be a big problem for films where their entire look can become outdated, sometimes in only a few years (we're still waiting on those hover boards from Back To The Future 2). However, this problem can also affect books when the cultural zeitgeist moves on. Dune’s themes of a consciousness expanding drug, spiritual awakening and revolution captured the mood of the 60s but have since been left behind by contemporary debates.

Some works just end up looking like the past. The computer system, M.O.T.H.E.R, in Alien looks very much like the larger brother of the BBC Micro. In 1979, the design of M.O.T.H.E.R probably looked very cutting edge, but now computers have evolved beyond blocky green text on black backgrounds and chunky multi-coloured keys. The whole system looks as dated as the industrial design of the rest of the Nostromo.

However, this does not reflect poorly on the film – quite the opposite, it enhances its aesthetics because it contributes to the run-down out-of-date feel of the entire ship. This is a part of one of Alien’s themes, that in the future there will be still be bad jobs. The dirt, hard work and danger of the Nostromo is the counterbalance to the shiny, clean Enterprise. The harshness of their working conditions explains why the characters are interested in investigating the strange planet if it brings them more money – or at least prevents them being fired. The computer design says more about information technology in the late 70s/early 80s, but the overall aesthetics of the film contributes to the narrative.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels are filled with gadgets that are atomic powered. From atomic blasters to atomic belts, the novels are a love letter to the optimism of the early 1950s. It was believed that the world would change completely now that atom was split, and it did. However atomic optimism melted away during the Cold War with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, and today we see the belief that atomic power will solve all our energy problems as ridiculous as the idea of fitting a tiny nuclear reactor into a belt.

This said, Foundation is a record of how people felt when it was written. Asimov's vision of the future captures the mood of the time and reminds us of how the past viewed the future, which in turn tells us about the opinions of the past. After the Second World War and the devastation it left behind, by the early 1950s people were ready (and in fact needed) to feel good about the future, and recent technological progress was a something to feel good about. This coincided with the writing of some of the great science fiction books of the time including Author C. Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night and Robert A. Heinlein’s Red Planet.

Greg Bear's novel Eon was written in 1985 but is set in 2005. However, in this 2005 the Cold War is still raging, the Soviets have a moon base and Eastern and Western orbital weapons platforms face off against each other. This may seem ridiculous today but it is a telling insight into the fear in the 80s of a never-ending Cold War with expanding weapons and expanding horizons. Another example is 2001 (was made in 1968) which imagined our present to have Strong AIs, moon bases and human-piloted missions to Jupiter. Yet there is no internet, smart phones or social media.

These are the difficulties of predicting what society will be like in a few decades. Predicting hundreds or thousands of years into the future is impossible. Life in the year 4,000 maybe almost completely unrecognisable to people today. My advice to writers is not worry about making inaccurate future descriptions and concentrate on telling a good story.

Some works of science fiction are able to make accurate predictions about the future. One example which comes to mind is the film Minority Report, which accurately predicts a few current or near future technologies including gesture control, tablet computers and non-lethal law enforcement weapons (in this case, a personal water cannon).

Minority Report includes these devices because technology experts were brought in to consult on the film. Even with experts advising on everything from future car design to town planning, it is still only possible to accurately predict what is likely to change in the near future. Our lives today are radically different to the average Victorians’ and it will be nearly impossible for an author to accurately predict what day to day life will be like in 2150.

One way to avoid being a victim of the constantly evolving popular zeitgeist is to consciously evoke the look or themes of the past. Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar opted to go for a retro blocky look to its design. It would have been easy imagine an Apple future - all smooth surfaces, bright colours and thin glass - but instead the ships and robots of Interstellar are boxy, heavy and dark. They look more closely related to the above-mentioned BBC Micro than to our modern ideas of computers.

There are several possible reasons for this choice, one of which could be to imply that in the future smooth and sleek design has gone out of fashion and angular design is popular. This trend can already be seen when comparing the cuboid design of the PS4 and Xbox Obe with the curvey PS3 and Xbox 360. It could also be because Interstellar is set in a future where knowledge of machines and computing has been lost, and thus adopting a retro design visually implies technology is moving backwards.

Whatever the reason for this design, the effect is to give the film's look a feeling of timelessness. In our future, when design ideas have moved on, Interstellar will not look as out of date as it would have if it had been a vision of the future based on current ideas of what technology looks like.

If an author or filmmaker wants to avoid appearing out of date by accurately predicting what the future will be like, then they should set their work in the near future (like Minority Report) as it is only possible to predict the near future. However, the best way to avoid your work dating as Eon has is to adopt the themes or designs of the past as a model for your future. Jonathan L. Bowen, the director of the indie sci-fi film The Phoenix Project, described this as 'the eternal past'. Bowen’s film adopts past technologies and visual styles to avoid it looking out of date in the future.

It is also worth remembering that there is nothing wrong with an author's vision appearing dated if it serves the narrative (like Alien) or makes a statement about the present (like Foundation).

How we view the future is an important record of what values and ideas are important to us now. Our fears and aspirations provide deep insights into who we are. This is something every science fiction author or filmmaker should remember.

Mockingjay - Part One

The third part of the film Hunger Games film series lends itself to some obvious criticisms, being the adaptation of first half of Suzanne Collins’s novel it could have been slow paced, with little plot development and suffering from having to set up the second, excitement filled part. In short it could have had the same problems as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or Twilight: New Moon. As well as being a part one there are also very high expectations, the film is based on a best selling novel and follows up two critically acclaimed box office topping hits. Mockingjay also stars run away box office sensation and critical darling Jennifer Lawrence. Between all these factors the stakes for Mockingjay - Part One are high. Despite all of this The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One is a good film, the strong characters are put at the forefront of this picture and watching them is extremely entertaining.

The focus on their relationships grounds the film and stops it floating off into a debate about totalitarianism or being simply a series of vapid set pieces.

The strong performances from the able cast bring the characters to life (even those with little screen time), which makes the personal and interpersonal conflict vivid against what could have been the overpowering weight of the extra personal conflict. The three main conflicts are balanced against each other which stops the film becoming abstruse, melodramatic or just empty spectacle.

The personal conflict which follows Katniss Everdeen, Jennifer Lawrence, reluctantly becoming the face of the uprising against the oppressive Capitol, is handled well with an interesting exploration of the role of reluctant hero and the symbolic figure head. Katniss has always been a great reluctant hero, the perfect antidote to glory seeking superheroes that currently dominate the big screen.

Katniss’s reluctant hero is much more realistic and interesting to watch, Lawrence is ably shows the two sides of her personality: the raging Mockingjay, icon of the revolution, and the withdrawn teenage girl yearning for a normal life.

Lawrence is very good with the complex character of Katniss, bringing the character to life through her contradictions, from unrestrained anger at the violence of the Capital’s oppression,to heart breaking sadness when she sees the personal consequences of the struggle, to normal teenage angst and desire to be left alone by destiny. Where the character could have been confused, Lawrence makes her seems like a real person, filled with frailties and strengths.

Interpersonal conflict is very important in teenaged stories, with their strong focus on relationships. Mockingjay Part One avoids clichés even with characters who only appear briefly and could have been stereotypes. The supporting cast all get there moments to shine and each character adds a different dimension to the story, from the politicians and generals on either side, to Katniss family and friends struggling to live normal lives during a war.

I am glad Mockingjay Part One avoided a tired love triangle storyline common to many young adaptations. That would have been too obvious for a series as subtle as the Hunger Games and that is rooted in the extremes of life, from murderous teenagers to full scale open conflict between state and citizens.

More interesting interpersonal relationship are explored such as that of her family, her commanders and her enemies. The stand out performance of the film is Donald Sutherland as the Capital’s leader, the maniacal President Snow, who is equal parts Caligula and Stalin. A special mention must go to Philip Seymour Hoffman who turns in a great performance as calculating and manipulative Plutarch Heavensbee, producer of Katniss’s propaganda videos. He is great as ever, a talent that is sadly missed.

Some of the strongest moments of the film are in nuanced relationship drama. Extrapersonal plot developments, the rebellion itself, kept to a minimum or happen off screen so that they do not overpower the movie. This is not just a war film, it is about these characters continuing lives set against the backdrop of a war.

The most accomplished moments of extra personal conflict are not explosive action scenes but the contemplative scenes, Katniss visiting a field hospital or pausing for a few minutes by a lake. The strength of these scenes is that they also develop personal conflict, Katniss resolving to become the symbol they need in the field hospital, and the interpersonal conflict, Katniss bonding with her comrades at the lake side. Several conflicts turn on the same key emotional scenes, extra personal conflict and interpersonal conflict developing when Katniss sees a video of her love interests Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) doing propaganda video for the Capitol, rebel leader Alma Coin’s (Julianne Moore) speeches pushing personal and extrapersonal conflict forwards as Katniss becomes the Mockingjay and the rebellion steps up its efforts.

The war, or extrapersonal drama, is shown unflinchingly. The conflict we are shown is reminiscent footage we have all seen of the current conflicts in the Ukraine or Syrian. The ravishes of war in Mockingjay are also similar to reports I have read recent conflicts. The military set pieces appear to be modern, not futurist, or even looks a bit retro (the grey industrial landscape is reminiscent of the 70s or 80s) which makes the violence of the conflict appear very real. Mockingjay’s overall tone is grim tone, there is the horrors of war, the breakdown of personal relations and the Katniss doubt that if she can bear the weight of being the symbol the rebels need. The emotional tone is dark but the movie stops being oppressive by having enough inspiring movements such as the solidarity the rebels experience during a Capitol bombing raid.

The film is not perfect, it has some negative points. Peeta's character suffers from underdevelopment, not being particular interesting the first place and Hutcherson being a less than gifted actor. The rebellion could also have been explored more depth, the rebels are not shown as being completely virtuous but the politics are very one sided. The Capital is bad and the rebels are noble, reality is rarely like this and a more nuanced conflict would have been more realistic.

Despite these criticisms The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part One avoids all of the pitfalls it could have fallen into and ends up being a very well made film. The only drawback is that is raises expectations for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part Two. If part two can exceed part one than it will be a stunning end to the series. However the second half of Mockingjay turns out, I am certainly excited to see it after the strength of this film.

Zombies are not dead

I had become tired of zombies. For a while , zombies were my favourite sci-fi B-movie villain. There had been a string of really good zombie movies, most of them British. 28 Days Later (2002) updated zombies to a modern urban environment and made them scary again. Shaun of the Dead (2004) brought zombies to my manor of North East London and managed to be a movie that was in equal parts genuine horror and hilarious character-based comedy.

Then it all went wrong, with a string of formulaic Hollywood zombie films. Finally there was Zombieland (2009); billed as pastiche of the zombie movie, it lacked either humor or charm. What Zombieland proved was that when a genre reaches the point of being mocked it has completely run out of original ideas.

What makes Zombieland boring where Shaun of the Dead was brilliant was that the latter was a completely serious and scary zombie movie with funny characters. Zombieland aimed far lower, at being a straight comedy, and managed to be not even particularly funny – although Bill Murray did have a great cameo.

For a while, I was tired of zombies and thought that nothing could rekindle my interest. Then three great titles came along, and none of them were films.

First was the Playstation 3 game The Last Of Us released in 2013. Set in a world which has collapsed after a zombie uprising, the story follows Joel, who lost his daughter during in the initial zombie uprising and now lives a cynical, survivalist life. He is given the job of transporting Ellie, a teenage girl who might hold the cure to the zombie inflection, across America. The journey is long and dangerous, they have to face zombies, dangerous survivalists, soldiers and cannibals. During the journey Joel and Ellie bond and Joel is eventually able to reconcile the loss of his daughter.

The Last Of Us succeeded where a lot of zombie movies have failed by having engaging characters. Joel and Ellie have a great dynamic and have a real emotional journey. There is more to their story then just surviving zombies, they have to find a way to live in a world that has collapsed. As an audience, we are frightened when they are threatened because we want them to survive. The story and the writing of The Last Us was much stronger than any film I have seen recently.

Last year, In The Flesh (2013) started on the BBC. It began with only three episodes but managed to be easily the best show of 2013. Earlier this year, a second series with a full six episodes was shown and this cemented the show’s reputation as one of the best on TV right now.

In the Flesh is also set after a zombie uprising but, unlike The Last of Us, civilization defeated the zombies and found a partial cure through regular injections of a new drug. Now the former zombies are being returned to society as PDS (partially deceased syndrome) suffers. The show follows Kieren Walker, who is returned to his family in the small Yorkshire village of Roarton. Kieren faces the prejudice and open hostility of a small community coming to terms with a big change.

In the shows zombies or PDS suffers are clearly a metaphor for the social changes which have gone on in Britain since the 1960s. Part allegory on immigration, part analogy for homosexuality, In the Flesh makes a point about how hard it is for people to accept others who are different, even within their own family. Kieren goes on a painful emotional journey, where he has to deal with the circumstances of his death, the hostility of people he used to call friends, the rise of a new anti-PDS political party, and an undead separatist movement.

In the Flesh is gripping because it has an intelligent point to make, but it also has strong characters and an emotionally-engaging story. We long for Kieren eventually to find someway he can live in peace, despite his difference.

Recently I have finished reading M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts (published June 2014), which is also set in a world after a zombie uprising. As in The Last Of Us, humanity only survives in a few survivalist camps and the rest of the world has been overrun with zombies, or ‘hungries’ as they called in the book. The novel follows Melanie, a girl in a strange school on an army base. In many ways Melanie has a normal life – she loves school, has a crush on her teacher Miss Justineau, and enjoys stories about the Greek myths – but quickly we learn that there is something very unusual about Melanie.

Melanie and the children in her class are caught somewhere between being human and a violent ‘hungry’. They can learn and talk but also have insatiable desire to eat human flesh. She is a part of program to study the hungries to find a cure. When the school is attacked, Melanie, Miss Justineau, the brutish Sergeant Parks, the callous Dr. Caldwell and the green Private Gallagher are thrown out into the dangerous world of hungries and violent survivalists known as junkers. Surviving in the ruins of London relies on them all working together, but as the novel progresses they find it hard to trust each other.

The Girl With All The Gifts is one of those novels which grabs you on page one and whisks you away with a captivating story. Although Melanie is a strange character to be inside the head of, her sense of wonder at the world outside her classroom is completely captivating. The novel has nail-biting tension, beautiful writing and engaging characters. Carey plays with the reader’s sympathy and it is brilliant how he is able to make you fall in love with characters you hated at the beginning of the novel.

All three of these works leave the wider zombie situation unresolved, and instead focus on the characters and their emotional journey. We can relate to them as people searching for friends, love or home in a hostile world, as it is something we have all experienced to a greater or lesser extent. In these three cases, good writing and engaging characters make a great zombie story, just as they make a great story in any other genre.

It is also interesting that none of these stories focus on the initial zombie uprising but instead deal with how people live in a changed world. Stories about zombie uprisings have been done to death, but there is still life in the zombie genre by finding original ways to approach zombie stories. Zombie films may be dead, but my love of zombies lives on in other media.

2013 a year in film

As the curtain goes down on 2013, it is time to overcome the hangovers and food comas of Christmas and look back at the year that was. This is the end of my first year running Nimbus Space and I wanted to take this opportunity to summarise the eventful year of films.

First off, it has been a good year for comic book and graphic novel adaptations. The superhero genre continues to dominate cinemas and delivered some of this year’s highest grossing films. Marvel had two releases this year, Iron Man 3 and Thor: Dark World.

The former was a great success, being both funny and spectacular. The film rests heavily on Robert Downey Jr’s charisma as he adds the slight touches of humour so evidently missing from the po-faced Batman movies. However a sharp script and good supporting performances from Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce make this a solid film. Thor: Dark World was a similar fare, funny in places but let down by weak performances and a lack of any real emotion. The unstoppable Marvel machine continues its march towards Avengers: Age of Ultron in 2015 and the Phase 2 films are, overall, decent.

Elsewhere, comic adaptations fared less well. Man of Steel was over-long, heavy on the action, light on the character development and generally uninspiring. It proved that Zack Snyder is one of Hollywood’s most underwhelming directors, taking his subject matter too seriously and forgetting basic action film principles like the need for relatable protagonists. Kick Ass 2 turned in a good performance from Jim Carrey (when was the last time that could be said?) but ultimately failed to be funnier than the original.

2013 was also good year for adaptations from non-comic based sources. One of my favourite films of the year was The Hunger Games: Catching Fire based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. This packed a fair amount of action as well as some insight into totalitarianism into an accessible film. The protagonist Katniss is one of this year’s most empathetic characters and is superbly played by Jennifer Lawrence.

Earlier in the year J.J. Abrams brought out a sequel to his 2009 hit Star Trek entitled Star Trek Into Darkness. Abrams is proving to be a competent action sci-fi director and this film was hugely enjoyable. Benedict Cumberbatch camps it up excellently as the legendary villain Khan. This bodes well for Abrams’ new Star Wars film, expected in 2015.

Original sci-fi did less well this year. The best movie was clearly Elysium, the follow-up to Neill Blomkamp’s surprise 2009 hit District 9. Matt Damon and Jodie Foster fight over a literal wealth gap in this near-future dystopian action adventure which ultimately proves to be less clever and original than District 9. This year’s big turkey was After Earth, the Will Smith/Jaden Smith team-up which preformed poorly at the box office. Oblivion also lacked tension, made little sense and served only to further erode Tom Cruise’s box office credentials.

Despite this there were a few surprise hits this year. Guillermo del Toro remains one of the most creative directors working in Hollywood. This year he gave us Pacific Rim, an epic sci-fi action adventure which was beautifully shot and boasted great performances from Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi.

However my favourite movie of this year was Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s balletic space survival movie, the first movie to use 3D as a means to enhance the narrative. Sandra Bullock was excellent in this movie, which had scenes so spectacular I found myself holding my breath in the cinema. This was a movie that made full use of the film-maker’s toolbox and delivered on all accounts.

So what do we have to look forward to in 2014? Marvel have two films lined up for us. First off, Chris Evans reprises his role as Captain America alongside Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson. This could go either way but Jackson is usually worth the price of admission. Later in the year Guardians of the Galaxy will be released. This film marks something of a departure for Marvel to a more sci-fi space-based thriller as opposed to Earth-based superhero movies. Let’s hope it’s more Thor and less Green Lantern.

The X-Men are back and are crossing over with themselves in Days of Future Past, meaning Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy will reprise their roles from X-Men: First Class. Both are very watchable and Bryan Singer is back at the helm so I am curiously optimistic about this film.

Meanwhile the Hobbit trilogy will draw to a close with The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies. The second part was spectacular but there is no artistic justification for such a short book being made into three films.

Reboots will also be out in force next year with a new RoboCop film, a new Godzilla film and new Planet of the Apes film, this time entitled Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Sequels will be well represented with Sin City: A Game to Die For, Amazing Spider Man 2, Transformers: Age of Extinction and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.

Looking down the list of releases for next year original content is thin on the ground. Tom Cruise will star in time travelling, sci-fi action adventure Edge of Tomorrow and Christopher Nolan will direct wormhole-based sci-fi thriller Interstellar.

2013 has been a good year for film, if a not particular original one, will 2014 follow suit or will it be full of surprises? I cannot say, but I can guarantee that I will be in the cinema watching what happens.

Gravity

Veteran film critic & general British institution Mark Kermode once described 3D cinema as ‘phoney-baloney gimmickry’. To date there has been little evidence to contradict him. A raft of 2D animated & live action movies have been aggressively upgraded to 3D for dubious commercial reasons. Audiences have complained of headaches, blurred vision or not being able to see any difference.

It seems that no film can use 3D to enhance the narrative experience and this technology will be confined to the dustbin of cinema gimmick along with the double feature and scratch-and-sniff. Now director Alfonso Cuarón has created Gravity, a film which might just redeem the new format.

Gravity is a film that is designed for the big screen. After leaving the cinema I felt the impact of that movie would be lost on even the best HDTV/Blue-Ray home entertainment combo. I paid extra to enjoy it in IMAX and felt that even a traditional smaller cinema would lose something of the film’s visual flair.

There is plenty of spectacle in this film. There is spectacle in seeing the international space station ripped apart in a moment and there is spectacle in watching the continents on Earth slowly pass underneath the protagonists. However what is really impressive about the film’s visuals is Cuarón’s long sweeping camera shots that move around, above and below the subjects, as weightless as the astronauts the film focuses on.

The spectacle is also in Cuarón’s wide shots, full of detail, most of which would be lost on a screen any smaller than IMAX. Gravity is a big film, big in budget, big in scope and big in impact.

The plot can be written on the back of a postcard. Sandra Bullock is Ryan Stone, a medical expert who is currently installing a prototype medical scanner to the Huddle Space Telescope. She is assisted by Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) a veteran astronaut on his last mission. When a Russian satellite is destroyed it creates a global domino effect of expanding space debris. These collide with Stone and Kowalski, destroying their shuttle and hurling them into space. The two must work together in the most inhospitable environment to survive and make it back to Earth.

Plot is not the focus of Cuarón’s hard-sci-fi disaster movie, instead this film is all about the visuals, mainly the 3D which is used to create a sense of depth. The 3D shows us how far from Earth the protagonists are, the scale of the international space station and the distance between objects in orbit. Cuarón creates a feeling of openness and emptiness greater than John Ford did in his classic westerns. Space is a frontier that opens onto nothing and where fate is cruel to people who venture there.

The 3D is also used sparingly, when it can be most effective. Only a few times during the film do objects fly out of the screen towards us, and these are during the movie’s most intense moments. To break up these spectacular scenes of orbital destruction, Cuarón uses long sweeping shots, moving around characters, in and out of their point of view and across space. He aptly moves from long shots to extreme close ups without an edit.

However great the 3D is, visuals alone cannot make a film great. Gravity has a great character and a great performance at its heart. The danger to Ryan feels very real and is subtly conveyed by Bullock’s stunning performance. A significant amount of the film is given over to her, alone in space, trying to survive. It is hard to act through extended close up shots without any other actor to bounce off but Bullock handles her character masterfully.

She creates a convincing arc for the character from nervous space virgin at the start, through the extreme terror of a helpless victim to commanding confidence by the end of the film. Truly this is a film to challenge an actor and Bullock delivers an Oscar-winning performance if ever there was one.

Ryan is a great character: she is played well, has a strong backstory, convincing character arc and genuine emotional responses. I rooted for her more than I have any other recent hero or heroine from a Hollywood blockbuster. In her simple terror and the everyday nature of her character, we as an audience can really relate to her. We are able to put ourselves in her position and see the action of Gravity through the character’s eyes.

The simple story perfectly facilitates this. When Ryan succeeds I felt like cheering and when things look bleak for her I felt a real lump in my throat. This was partly due to the seriousness of the film. Throughout I thought it was a real possibility that this film would not have a Hollywood ending and that Ryan might be left drifting alone and cold in space when the credits rolled.

A great film is made by combining impressive visual trickery with strong story and empathetic characters. Gravity is a movie that has all three. However, the visuals are the greatest achievement here; for the first time 3D was used to enhance the narrative experience and not just to provide a great visual experience. It perfectly conveys a sense of weightlessness in space as we watch screws or pieces of satellite debris float past.

Gravity is a movie that makes use of the entire film-maker’s tool box to create a visually spectacular and deeply emotional film. The 3D is amazing, but without the good characterisation and strong performances it would not be enough to support the film. Other directors of 3D movies should take a leaf out of Cuarón’s book. This is how it is done.

Thor: Dark World

What do the Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel all have in common. They fall down in the third act. They all start off pretty well, but all three fall apart at the end. When they expand into bloated action set pieces and the story is lost in an attempt to cram as much spectacle as possible, these films fail to capitalise on their promising opening and middle sections. Contrast these films to the great action movies on the 1980s: Aliens, Predator, Die Hard. These undisputed classics of their genre only become tighter and more focused in the third act. The action boils down to one-on-one conflict of hero against villain where good can ultimately triumph over evil.

Sure, there is plenty of spectacle in Aliens's final conflict but it does not end with a hundred eggs hatching and Ripley fighting off hordes of aliens. Instead it ends with her fighting the queen; it’s a battle of alien terror against a human fighting for survival.

In the end these films become a distilled version of themselves, not an expanded version filled with nameless, faceless, pointless characters who only exist to be punched by the heroes. Many Hollywood action blockbuster now have a third act problem; however good they are in their set-up and development, these films fall apart at the resolution stage.

So does the latest offering from Marvel, Thor: Dark World break the mould?

The quick answer is that this film is much better structured than previous Marvel titles. The plot flows together well and leads to an appropriate conclusion. After the film-makers have established the main characters in the audience’s mind they can get on with the action, skipping the need for a tedious ‘introducing everyone’ stage.

The plot of Thor: Dark World is little more than an excuse for a series of action set pieces. It makes little sense and hangs on a series of bizarre coincidences. At some time in the distant past Thor’s grandfather defeated a race of dark elves who wanted to destroy all light using a weapon known as the Aether. Now the nine worlds are about to align and the dark elves have returned to use the Aether to destroy them all.

Thor’s love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) accidentally finds the Aether in an abandoned warehouse in London, which is pretty convenient given otherwise there would no point in having her in the film. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to save her from the dark elves, have a brief period of emotional angst and then stop the dark elves destroying all nine worlds. The only snag is that to do all of this, he must enlist the help of his treacherous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

It’s not uncommon for action blockbuster to place the plot and characters as secondary to the action, and in this case it is worth the series of beautifully designed, thrilling set pieces. It is also nice to see that this movie does not end with excessive property damage like Man of Steel & Avengers. That was getting boring. The final action scene in Greenwich doesn’t lack spectacle but manages to keep the action much tighter in focus as Thor battles against the dark elves’ leader (Christopher Eccleston).

Ending the film with Thor facing off against a super-villain is much more interesting than watching a group of people fight an army of faceless alien villains whose motivation is unclear at best. I can see why it was necessary to end the Avengers that way; watching six superheroes fight one villain wouldn’t be that thrilling. That’d be a pretty one-sided fight as the Avengers are pretty bad-ass.

However in creating these characters who possess enormous power, I feel the film-makers have lost the relatability of their protagonists. Die Hard’s John McClane is an everyday man in a strange situation, something we can all relate to. Superheroes are special by their very nature and are thus more difficult to relate to. Thor makes this problem worse by asking the audience to place themselves in the shoes of a Norse God.

We are supposed to relate to Thor via his real world problems – namely, his love life. Thor’s father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) wants him to find a nice Asgardian women like Sif (Jaimie Alexander) who has no discernible personality and almost no screen time. However, there is no tension in this story, partly because of Alexander’s lack of screen time and partly because it is clear from the start that Thor and Jane Foster will end up together.

The rest of the film has little emotional resonance. The big emotional moment in the middle of the film falls flat and doesn’t make Thor any more sympathetic as a character. This isn’t helped by Hemsworth’s terrible, wooden performance.

The rest of the cast are little better, however. Eccleston is unrecognisable under layers of make-up and does little more than fill the role of a two-dimensional villain. Hopkins phones in his performance and the usually very watchable Portman is on worse form than usual.

Idris Elba, who could act the socks off the rest of them in this sleep, turns up for five minutes as a pointless character. Only Hiddleston as Loki delivers in the movie. He is the only one with a credible emotional reaction to the main emotional scene. Hiddleston clearly delights in playing the trickster Loki and manages to be both funny and dark alternatively throughout the film. All the other characters are either there as window dressing or are completely pointless.

Thor is still a great character for an action movie: tough, courageous, lots of enemies to fight and nine worlds to save. The series of action set pieces both in London and in Asgard are breathtaking and stand up to the impressive legacy of action scenes the Avengers movies have built up. The visual effects, set design and combat choreography are all excellent which is what you want from an action film.

Despite this I was left with the feeling this was a very average movie. In many ways, it was acceptable and somewhat of an improvement on previous films in the franchise, but it offered nothing new or innovative.

I preferred the more paired down ending to a huge expansive set piece, the characters came through better and none of the visual impact was lost. Overall Thor: Dark World is one for the Avengers fans. They’ll love it for sure, but the general cinema audience might be left a bit cold.