In an interview with IGN, director Zack Snyder cheerfully affirms the description of his recently released Man of Steel as “a full-on science fiction film.” Indeed, the comic book movie may prove to be the year’s best science fiction film despite other high-profile efforts which land more overtly within that genre.
Good science fiction uses fantastic but plausible alternative realities to posit profound philosophical questions. What does it mean to be human? Are we alone in the universe? Is there a god and, if so, what’s he like? Bad science fiction telescopes its agenda, attempting to answer its own questions with unearned authority in an attempt to proselytize.
M. Night Shyamalan has offered examples of both. His alien invasion tale Signs, offered from the perspective of a family struggling with faith as they mourn the passing of a mother, artfully asks whether providence exists. A later effort, The Happening, attempts unsuccessfully to make horror monsters out of plants and preaches with such sanctimony that it might as well be a promotional video for the Sierra Club.
There were echoes of The Happening in this year’s science fiction release from Shyamalan starring Will Smith and son Jaden. Essentially a shipwreck story, After Earth takes place in a future where everything on Earth has evolved to kill humans. Because, you know, we’re so destructive that the planet had to immunize itself against us.
The other big science fiction release this year was the Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion, which was apparently so bad that it prompted NPR to call it “the most incoherent piece of storytelling since John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth.” That was until people saw After Earth, which also warranted comparisons to the infamous Scientology-inspired commercial bomb.