I watched "Limitless" last night, which was essentially a new spin on "Flowers for Algernon," with an ending that some are going to find audacious and some are going to find an outrageous cheat. I might write up a full review of it later, but I want to talk about the bigger trend it's part of first. "Limitless" is one of a string of smaller, solid science-fiction films from earlier this year that I've been catching up on. There was also "The Adjustment Bureau," loosely based on a Philip K. Dick story, that sent Matt Damon and Emily Blunt off on a metaphysical adventure, and "Source Code," which gave us alternate universes, time travel, and a little bit of body swapping. The indie circuit has also been serving up good buzz about Mike Cahill and Brit Marling's "Another Earth," Joe Cornish's "Attack the Block," and Miranda July's "The Future," which all have science-fiction elements. Meanwhile, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" turned out to be a surprise late summer hit with a lot of critical support behind it.
2011 has been pretty good to science fiction fans so far. This isn't to say that there haven't been stinkers. We're currently smack in the middle of that invasion of alien invasion movies, which hasn't yielded many gems. "Battle: Los Angeles" and "Super 8" managed decent returns, but there have been some major flops like "Cowboys and Aliens" and "Mars Needs Moms." And of the ones I've seen so far, nobody has been doing anything novel or interesting with the concept. Frankly, the higher profile, bigger budget science-fiction films tend to be more concerned with putting their money on the screen than doing anything interesting with thier material. But that was always understood to be the tradeoff. Any film that wanted to include things like space travel or fully realized utopian societies always cost too much to risk being too cerebral or too niche. "Inception" was a big fat exception. Recently, however, that's started to change.
The cost of big, shiny, cutting-edge special effects still sends the budgets of tentpole films skyrocketing, but they've also come down enough that a good director who knows what he's doing can now tell much bigger stories for much less, or at least comparatively less. "Limitless" was peppered with eye-catching visual effects sequences, and cost less than $40 million, a steal for any action thriller these days. "Another Earth," with all its beautiful panoramic shots of a doppelganger planet, cost $150,000. Suddenly the big ideas are affordable. So why not have a romance like "The Adjustment Bureau" take place in a universe where every door is a potential teleporter? Why not make a brooding domestic drama with the literal end of the world as a backdrop, like "Melancholia" or "Take Shelter"? Now suddenly everyone seems to be making science fiction films, all the weird, brainy, alternative, oddball science fiction films that used to only be the domain of the auteurs and the independents. I seem to be stumbling over a new one every week, instead of two or three in a good year.
And they've been finding their audience. While most mid-range dramas and romances have been disappearing, the smaller-scale high-concept science-fiction feature has been carving out a niche for itself over the last few years. "Limitless," "Source Code," and "Adjustment Bureau" were all made for $30-50 million apiece, got released during the slower spring months, and made back their budgets plus a little extra, though none broke $100 million. All three were aimed at slightly older audiences, all dealt as much in ideas as action sequences, and I doubt any of them would have been made if they had been more expensive pictures. Well, maybe "The Adjustment Bureau" would have gotten through based on Matt Damon's involvement. But in that case, it would have been considered a major flop and probably put the studio off from making anything else like it for a long while.
I'm keeping an eye on several titles coming up later in the year like "In Time," "Contagion," "Hugo," and the remake of (the remake of) "The Thing." And I'm probably the last one holding out any hope that "Real Steel" won't be as silly as it looks, but this year has been full of surprises, so you never know. But what I'm really excited about is next year, and the year after, and all those smaller, under-the-radar science-fiction films that I haven't heard about yet, but that I know are getting made thanks to this year's crop of successes. Let's hope they can keep a good thing going.