The Best and Worst Sci-fi at This Year's Fantastic Fest

The Best and Worst Sci-fi at This Year's Fantastic Fest

Sep 27, 2012

Welcome to The Last Sci-Fi Blog, a column dedicated to science fiction on film.

The Fantastic Fest Science-Fiction Recap

Although traditionally known for its fine and varied horror selection, Fantastic Fest is also home to countless great science-fiction movies. In fact, there were so many sci-fi movies playing the fest in 2012 that it was impossible to see them all. Here's what I did see, divided up into helpful categories for your reading pleasure.

The Grand Champion: Cloud Atlas

Even if it were a total disaster, Cloud Atlas would get points for ambition. The fact that it's this ambitious and pulls it off makes it a miracle and one of the best films of the year. One of the fastest 164 minutes you'll spend in a theater this year, Cloud Atlas is a treatise on basic human goodness and how your actions reverberate through the ages. Like its source novel, the film isn't as out-and-out sci-fi as most of the films mentioned here, but its cosmic scope (not to mention the clone rebellion and the hover cars) elevates even the costume drama segments into something otherworldly. This is a brave, bold and beautiful movie that wears its heart on its sleeve. It will be the subject of much snark, but Cloud Atlas' optimistic sincerity is a unique and powerful statement in 2012.

Since one paragraph isn't enough to do Cloud Atlas justice, this column will delve into it at length when it opens next month. This is a very special movie and one of the absolute best of the year.

The Brilliant Runner-up: Looper

Look, championing a wide release starring Bruce Willis instead of a tiny indie hoping to find a major festival breakthrough may sound like bad form, but yes, Looper is that good. One of the best science-fiction movies of the past decade, director Rian Johnson's foray into time travel is up there with Moon and District 9 as an instant classic of its genre.

Unlike Cloud Atlas, there isn't a whole lot going on under the surface of Looper, but its joys lie in clever world-building, fascinating character dynamics and an often horrifying examination of time travel gone horribly wrong. Looper doesn't feel like a modern studio film (and to be fair, it was produced independently), it feels like the long-awaited adaptation of a gritty '70s sci-fi novel that was never written. Writer-director Rian Johnson has not made an art film, but he's made pulp so good that it elevates itself to art by default. I'll write more about (and thoroughly spoil) this film in the next column, so all of you have a chance to see it and join in.

The Young Upstart: Antiviral

Brandon Cronenberg is certainly his father's son. Antiviral is rough, nasty and fascinating in the same ways that David Cronenberg's early work is, and if he keeps his icky, pitch-black nerve, he has one helluva career ahead of him. I will default to our own John Gholson's review.

The Big Disappointment: Doomsday Book

A three-part anthology film where each segment showcases a different apocalyptic scenario, Doomsday Book is like all films of this type: a mixed bag. Watching it is like settling in for a Twilight Zone marathon on the Syfy Channel and getting a weak batch of episodes -- it's not that great, but it's still The Twilight Zone.

In this case, it's not that great, but it's still a group of talented Korean filmmakers getting to strut their stuff. The opening segment creates a comedic spin on the zombie apocalypse, but it feels like something we've seen a thousand times before. The closing segment is certainly energetic, but the story (young girl accidentally causes a comet to head for Earth) never actually makes sense or intrigues. The best of the three is the middle segment from the usually brilliant Jee-woon Kim, but even his Bradbury-esque tale of a service robot who achieves enlightenment while working in Buddhist temple is a little dry. Considering how many strong films emerge from Korea on a yearly basis, there's no real reason to track this one down unless you're some sort of completionist.

The Adorable One: The History of Future Folk

The History of Future Folk is a film built to showcase the titual folk duo who perform in character as two displaced aliens from the planet Hondo who have arrived on Earth and discovered music. Naturally, their adorable stage gimmick is the truth in this film, which is about as sweet, cute and family friendly as anything you'll find at Fantastic Fest.

Shaggy and produced on the cheap, The History of Future Folk gets by on game performers and terrific music, which keep the film amiable and adorable even when the fate of two planets is frequently threatened. The highlight is certainly Future Folk themselves, a duo whose musical talent and clever lyrics make them natural successors to groups like Tenacious D and Flight of the Conchords.

The Not-Quite Sci-fi: Errors of the Human Body

Is Errors of the Human Body a science-fiction film? After all, it's a movie about science that was meticulously researched and deals with cutting-edge material that feels futuristic but really isn't. This could be a the starting point for a discussion about how we define sci-fi when it deals with real-world science, but Errors of the Human Body is too forgettable to actually warrant extended discussion. A thriller set in a geneticist laboratory where ideas are being stolen and misappropriated is a good one, the films gets bogged down in dry office politics and endless lectures. Errors of the Human Body finds a pulse in the last act, but it's too late: you're probably already asleep.

The Out-of-Nowhere Surprise: Lee's Adventure

How do you even begin to describe Lee's Adventure, a Chinese movie that feels like the lovechild of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 and Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs The World? You don't. Sacrificing basic sense for a sensory experience, this movie isn't as concerned with telling a story as it is with bombarding you with images, ideas and emotions and hoping they stick. Lee's journeys through time and space to save the life of his girlfriend never make coherent sense, but there's something exhilarating and special about this experience. Told in the language of video games and movie trailers, Lee's Adventure feels vital and alive in ways that traditional narratives aren't.

The One That Got Away: Vanishing Waves

Despite sweeping the Fantastic Awards, I was unable to see Vanishing Waves. I'll catch up with it and talk about in the next column. Promise.

Categories: Features, Reviews, Geek, Sci-Fi
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