Death of the Epic

The Lord of the RingsThe arrival of The Lord of the Rings arguably killed the epic. Virtually every traditional fantasy film – pumped out at a consistent rate in an attempt to duplicate The Lord of the Rings success – since has flopped. Think merely of other (mostly children’s) book adaptations, such as Eragon, Beowulf and The Golden Compass. The Chronicles of Narnia are still being churned out, but they lack the pervasiveness into the mainstream subconscious that something like The Lord of the Rings has. The old, familiar worlds of dragons and elves and knights were instantly rendered moot after Middle Earth. The epic formula has seemingly ceased to grab audience’s imaginations, other such epic flops include The New World, Kingdom of Heaven, Troy, and HBO’s critically applauded but quickly cancelled Rome. As popular as The Passion of the Christ was at the time, it is largely forgotten and irrelevant now. The successes have been such films as Harry Potter and Twilight, which have taken us into a postmodern pastiche of fantasy elements – witches, wizards, vampires and werewolves repackaged for the 21st century.

The Last Arias of the Space Opera

District 9This decade brought us Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Did the total suckitude of these films kill traditional science fiction, or had we already outgrown traditional science fiction by the time they rolled around? I believe that it was a combination of the two (not to mention the sour taste in our mouths left over from The Phantom Menace). The post-9/11 world was ready to deal in black and white; good vs evil, but by the time Revenge of the Sith came out, we were ambivalent and jaded.

Firefly, and its film follow-up, Serenity, followed a group of antiheroes against the Imperial-like Alliance was similar to this template, but showed the steps we started to take away from the space opera. The new Star Wars dealt in black and white when we needed shades of grey: it left a void that science fiction storytelling in the manner of Battlestar Galactica would fill. Stargate: SG-1 and its spinoff Stargate: Atlantis each had a good run (Atlantis not so much, depending on who you ask), but both have ended, leaving the new Stargate: Universe in their wake, the premise of which – a motley crew lost in space – seems to be a missing link in the paradigm shift from old to new school science fiction.

A Galaxy Close, Close By

Far from the space operas or making contact films, in the latter years of the decade science fiction explored the off-beat and quirky side of space, and the reality in the dystopian futures. Dystopian futures have gone from the distant future to the frighteningly recognisable future: from Children of Men, where Clive Owen wears a London 2012 t-shirt, to Idiocracy and Wall-E, where real issues we can identify with now are thrown out exponentially in a starkly real satire.

Films like Sunshine and Moon explored our immediate space – rather than a galaxy far, far away. And District 9 didn’t even go into space at all. Sci-fi (or SyFy, apparently) has always been a good barometer of social issues contemporaneous to the culture that created it, but with films like District 9 and shows like Battlestar Galactica, the allegory is all too clear – pointing a firm finger into the face of society.

Elements of science fiction and fantasy were seen in film and were especially pervasive in television, with the incorporation of magic realism, magic, mythology, and things like time travel into the everyday verisimilitude of shows and films like Lost, Flash Forward, Pirates of the Caribbean, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the infamous Twilight.

To Boldly Split Infinitives

But this trend was not all encompassing. The overwhelming success of the Star Trek reboot – even after a realization that the old methods of science fiction storytelling were no longer relevant – clearly argues that traditional science fiction is still alive and well. The result was a happy-go-lucky winner: something standing in stark contrast to the prevailing mood of the decade. While most franchises grew darker, and most reboots had an underlying grimy social core, Star Trek was all flash and panache: a one-off or a sign of things to come in the decade ahead?