Who Is Our Next Sci-Fi Film Visionary?

By: Daniel Reynolds

After documenting the Wachowskis’ gradual slide from self-made Godheads to cultural afterthought – a process that took the better part of a decade – it came as something of a shock to catch the response to Neil Blomkamp‘s latest techno-opus, Chappie.

The film, which stars a robot on a quest to learn what it means to be human (while blowing shit up good), opened wide in theatres last week. It earned a mere $13.3 million dollars – subpar given its $49 million dollar budget. In most other circumstances, this would be no big deal – just another failed concept vehicle dumped out in the first quarter of the year, a semi-original idea sacrificed on the altar of the almighty franchise and sequel. But with “wunderkind” Blomkamp involved, it feels like something different.

His name is Chappie.

His name is Chappie.

Less than six years ago, Blomkamp’s District 9 blew the doors off expectations for a high concept sci-fi action movie. His film, created on a shoestring $30 million budget (compared to say, Tranformers: Revenge of the Fallen’s 2009 budget of $200 million), earned a staggering $115 million, snagged a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, and most importantly, showed the world an alternative to the rapidly metastasizing big budget movie market. It offered a better way.

Since then however, the return on Blomkamp’s films has diminished. Worse still, in place of money a sense of unease around his filmmaking has bloomed. The once powerful apartheid allegory of District 9 now looks morally incoherent in retrospect; the Matt Damon as saviour to Elysium‘s Latino-populated Earth feels gross; the bizarre racial charge coursing through Chappie (kicked off by Die Antwoord’s white front man Ninja teaching the titular robot how to be “gangsta”) has become too large an issue to ignore.

In short, Blomkamp is not the high-minded sci-fi visionary we were looking for. Turns out he’s just another director grinding out semi-soulless – and wholly clueless – action movies. He can blow shit up real good, but many had high hopes for much more.

This leaves us at a loss. If not Blomkamp, then who is out there to take up the mantle as the next great sci-fi visionary? Who will make the films to stand at the opposite end of the franchise spectrum, seize the cultural Zeitgeist, and toss us out along the cutting edge?

I’m here to figure that out.

We have here a list of candidates, divided into reasonable group, who represent the directors best equipped to boldly go where no man has gone before. I’m here to define a case for and against each name so as to see who should take Blomkamp’s place as the most vital sci-fi director working today.

First a caveat: Obviously a success story like Blomkamp’s will have to come from a filmmaker who is currently off the cultural radar. He’d have to be a complete unknown. Therefore, I’m limited to semi-established names mostly in need of a bigger audience or platform from which to broadcast their original ideas.

(Second caveat: Yes, unfortunately the list is mostly men. The list of sci-fi filmmakers who fall in the visionary camp is disturbingly short on women and that doesn’t appear to be changing soon. Did I miss a name? Please tell me I’m wrong on this.)

Take us to tomorrow.

Take us to tomorrow.

The Candidates

Big Tent Possibles

These are the group of directors who already have some big movie making credentials. They could also probably produce whatever movie they wanted.

Brad Bird

Why Him? While Bird biggest live-action break came with the Mission Impossible franchise (his Ghost Protocol is much better than you remember), he cut his teeth making instant classics for Pixar (The Incredibles, Ratatouille). Oh yeah, and he’s responsible for The Iron Giantthe best “boy and his robot” movie ever made.

Why Not? His newest film, Tomorrowland, looks like it will be packed full of visual splendour, but I remain unconvinced one can go full visionary while working with Disney (and George Clooney). Too much is at stake for them to allow Bird to cut loose.

Gareth Edwards

Why Him? Edwards is coming from the right place. His 2010 film Monsters is the kind of lo-fi oddball picture on which future visions are based. He also made a Godzilla movie that managed to not completely bork its whole legacy.

Why Not? Godzilla sagged big time through its middle third (before Ken Watanabe did this) despite Edwards’ dedicated focus on the monster itself. Plus, wouldn’t you know it, he’s making a Star Wars film in 2016. (And Godzilla 2).

Alfonso Cuarón

Why Him? Did you see Children of Men? How about Gravity? Yeah. He’s on the list.

Why Not? Unfortunately, if you read further down Cuarón’s filmography it becomes clear that he’s more interested in following his muse wherever it takes him – a Harry Potter movie, a coming of age story, a Dickens adaptation. He’ll do what he wants.

Rian Johnson

Why Him? For my money, Johnson is one of the most original and inventive filmmakers working today. His last film, Looper, was a tonally perfect time travel movie that actually made sense. It also hugely out-performed his previous two non-sci-fi movies, proving that there is an audience out there for Johnson’s engrossing high-concept output.

Why Not? Our man Johnson is signed on for Star Wars Episodes VIII and IX, and you know what? I ain’t even mad.

The Auteurs

A couple of unique filmmakers who work outside the genre, but can (or will soon) operate within the confines of science fiction.

Denis Villeneuve

Why Him? Canadian hero Villeneuve is not only one of the best filmmakers in Canada, he’s also the guy who’s been tasked with making Blade Runner 2. In case you forgot, Blade Runner is on the Mount Rushmore of sci-fi films. Good luck, Denis!

Why Not? Like Cuarón, I’m unsure of how dedicated Villeneuve is to science fiction filmmaking. And let’s be honest, the degree of difficulty on a Blade Runner is higher than a flying car. Failure here may scare him away for good. Good luck, Denis!

Kathryn Bigelow

Why Her? This may be a reach, but that’s the point. A female sci-fi director is basically the unicorn of this whole process. That’s not to say women can’t be visionaries – they most definitely can – but man, Hollywood has let itself down by not doing right by directors like Bigelow. Sure, her Strange Days is only loosely a sci-fi movie, but it’s got style and flair for days. And it actually looks cool. That counts for something.

Why Not? Ever since winning the Best Director Oscar for Hurt Locker, and helming the modern war masterpiece Zero Dark Thirty, it looks unlikely Bigelow will ever go back to making films that involve “digital recordings of other people’s thoughts” (or vampires).

Dredd, back from the dead.

Dredd, back from the dead.

Indie Hopefuls

Some small-time filmmakers with big potential.

Pete Travis

Why Him? Who? Travis came out of nowhere (well, England) with 2012’s Dredd. If you’re still asking questions then you clearly have not seen it; Dredd is a film you remember – violent, searing, immediate. Travis salvaged a character thought to be thoroughly destroyed by Sylvester Stallone. That counts as a huge, huge accomplishment.

Why Not? Apparently not a big enough accomplishment. Travis has been spinning his wheels lately making non-sci-fi TV movies that no one in North American has seen (or heard of). Not sure he cares.

Mike Cahill

Why Him? Cahill’s responsible for a couple of little S sci-fi movies (Another Earth and I, Origins) that plum the depths of human emotion in powerful and interesting ways. Give him a budget and an editor and we may be onto something here.

Why Not? No one is interested in giving him a budget or an editor. Now he’s making a TV movie called The Magicians. Things are not looking good at the Mike Cahill Sci-Fi Summit.

Alex Garland

Why Him? Hard to believe that Garland (who’s been writing films since 2000’s The Beach and is responsible for Dredd, Sunshine, and 28 Days Later) is just now getting into directing. His newest film Ex Machina involves artificial intelligence and a sexy female robot. It’s also got Alicia Vikander (ready to breakout), Oscar Isaac (definitely ready to breakout), and Domhnall Gleeson (still named Domhnall).

Why Not? Why not indeed? Critical response to Ex Machina has been very strong so far. The stars may be aligning here.

Shane Carruth

The one and only.

Shane Carruth

Why Him? Carruth is a singular filmmaker. The closest comparison is probably Terrence Malick (in both style and temperament) and that only half explains Carruth’s strange oeuvre. Both Primer and Upstream Colour defy easy explanation, both dabble in something scientific, and both raise a lot of bizarre and interesting questions.

Why Not? Both films are also extremely hard to make sense of. Raising questions is good, but an answer now and again (without watching each film multiple times) would be nice. Carruth is probably too out there for most.

Wild Card Contenders

Now we get to some names that defy an easier category.

Josh Trank

Why Him? Trank first burst onto the scene with the peerless Chronicle and has since been tapped to reboot the Fantastic Four franchise. If Chronicle is any indication, he’s got ideas to burn.

Why Not? Unfortunately it looks like he’s about to get sucked into the superhero industrial complex. We may never hear from him again.

Duncan Jones

Why Him? Go figure: Jones made two subversive small-scale films (Moon and Source Code) and showed an ability with genre work that merits high praise.

Why Not? Ah, but that’s being used to make a Warcraft movie? What the hell here, guys? I love the story of Thrall as much as the next guy, but does the world need another orc-based saga?

Joseph Kosinski

Why Him? Like Trank, Kosinski appeared to drop out of thin air with TRON: Legacy. It wasn’t near as inventive as Chronicle (or even close to as good) but it had visual verve and packed in a few good ideas (that were summarily steamrolled by Disney; head’s up Brad Bird!)

Why Not? Leaving off the notion that Oblivion, Kosinski’s Tom Cruise-led sci-fi original, failed to set the world on far (despite some funky production design), he’s just signed on to make another freakin’ TRON movie. This wild card category has officially flown out of orbit.

Ex Machina, so life-like.

Ex Machina, so lifelike.

The Winners

If we’re being honest (and can set Star Wars aside), I’d give the crown to Rian Johnson. He’s shown a knack for pushing sci-fi story elements into new places. His skills with world building are unmatched (even on something small like Brick) and he’s got style to burn.

In the not-Star Wars category, I’m pulling for Alex Garland, who looks about ready for take-off with Ex Machina. He’s still got a ways to go before we forget the batshit ending to Sunshine but his heart is in the right place. As for the rest of the names: either they’ve moved on to different things, they’ve found success that moves them away from the realms of pure sci-fi or they’ve been lost to established properties.

And hey, who knows, maybe Blomkamp will smash this new Alien movie out of the park, learn a lesson or two, and return to reclaim his crown.

Stranger things have happened.

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