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December, 2005 : Feature:

Auld Lang SF

Celebrating the New Year with A Few Good Movies (and a Few Bad Ones)

"New Year's eve is like every other night; there is no pause in the march of the universe, no breathless moment of silence among created things that the passage of another twelve months may be noted; and yet no man has quite the same thoughts this evening that come with the coming of darkness on other nights."

That's the wisdom of American writer Hamilton Wright Mabie (1845-1916), and though he couldn't have known it, he captures perfectly why the ending of one year and the beginning of another puts so many people in a science-fictional mindset, even those who have no idea that's what's happened to their thinking.

The resetting of the calendar every January 1 is a startling reminder of the artificiality of our system of measuring out the days. It serves, as good SF does, to point out the simple fact—but a fact far from obvious to most people—that the way things are is not the way things must be. (Why 31 days in December? Why are the months named as they are? Why are the years numbered as they are? Could it all have been different?) It makes us aware, if only for the briefest instant, that we live by rules and guidelines and cultural strictures that we rarely think of at all. We are, for a discomforting moment, suddenly fish who see the ocean we swim in, an ocean to which we usually don't even give enough notice to even take for granted. It's no coincidence, perhaps, that the Roman year-end celebration of Saturnalia, many of the traditions of which we continue at holiday time and particularly on New Year's Eve (wild partying, drunken bacchanalia), was considered a "time out of time," offering a perspective on our everyday lives from a remote distance.

Science fiction fans are used to thinking that way, being exposed all the time to alternative realities in the entertainments we consume. It's surprising, then, that more SF movies haven't been set around the ending of the year—there are very few movies of any genre, in fact, that take place on New Year's Eve.

One that enjoys something of a cult following is 1984's Night of the Comet, a zombie-holocaust comic-horror flick in which most of the world is killed by weird rays from a passing comet—while the film never explicitly states the comet's flyby occurs on New Year's Eve, it is clearly just after Christmas, and the world celebrates the comet's arrival like it's New Year's Eve, with mobs of people in Times Square, for instance. The events of 1972's The Poseidon Adventure do take place on New Year's Eve; if the film isn't quite SF, it does appeal to SF fans with its techno-adventure and its plot that hinges on matters of engineering and science. It's more than generous to call 1999's Entrapment SF: master thieves Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sean Connery are out to steal a mint from one of the world's biggest banks, and their plan involves lots of gadgets and computers. Their plan takes advantage, in fact, of the computer confusion surrounding the Y2K programming problem that we were all so concerned about back then. That aspect of the plot is preposterous, naturally—certainly so in retrospect, now that we're safely on the other side of that imaginary divide between the 1000s and 2000s and know that the digital apocalypse did not come to pass—but the worry about Y2K, unwarranted at the time or not, was a natural urgency for any film to glom on to.

It's not surprising, then, that most of the SF films—all four of them!—set around a New Year's Eve are set around the New Year's Eve of our lifetimes: December 31, 1999. The goofy American-produced Doctor Who TV movie, from 1996, has the Doctor's archenemy, the Master, up to no good and plotting the molecular destabilization of the Earth, though this seems to be an unintended (if fortuitous, from the Master's perspective) side effect of the latest version of his regenerations-spanning plan to kill the Doctor. The setting at this noteworthy New Year's Eve is almost incidental, though it does allow for the spectacular quantum fireworks, so to speak, of the aforementioned molecular destabilization of the Earth to be dismissed by the rather dimwitted inhabitants of that planet as some sort of result of all those nines in their calendar system ticking over to zeroes, as if the universe were keeping count with them. Morons.

End of Days, from 1999, is likewise better avoided except by the most devout Arnold Schwarzegger fans. It's barely SF anyway, more Christian-fundamentalist fantasy, as Satan returns to Earth looking to get a son from a human woman before the last gong strikes on December 31, 1999. Bonus points to the film for actually maintaining a connection between the bad guy's evil deeds and the ominous date—the counting system for years must be a constant knife in the back to Beelzebub—but all those bonus points come back off for failing to resolve the time-zone issue. Surely Satan could just keep flying west, the better to outrun Arnold's drunken cop out to stop him as well as his temporal deadline.

No, if you're going to spend New Year's Eve this year—or any year—with a couple of great SF flicks, start with 1995's Strange Days, written by SF master James Cameron (Kathryn Bigelow directs). There's an edgy end-of-the-world grit to this dark technothriller, not one borne of computer glitches or religious nightmares but a function of a massive breakdown of society (there are hints in the film's rich backdrop that the religious nightmares of some, at least, may be helping to fuel that breakdown). Paramilitaristic cops check IDs of drivers on the streets of Los Angeles, and "gas is three dollars a gallon," some guy yells on talk radio; governmental corruption is rampant, and dissent is stifled in the most final way. Ten years after the film was made, it feels more relevant than ever. But Strange Days' true SFnal genius is in its plot, driven by a new technology, one that records sensory and emotional experience, being used in ways its creators didn't expect, ways that may well change the descending-into-chaos world of the film.

But even Strange Days, great as it is, is but a pale shadow next to one of the most sublime SF films ever made: Wim Wenders's 1991 Until the End of the World. Produced long before the Y2K problem was ever perceived, it nevertheless recognizes the momentous psychological barrier December 31, 1999, represented, and explores the psychological implications of that date in myriad, subtle ways. The plot is structured as a chase around the world in the last days of 1999, as the inventor of a new technology that records dreams and experiences (Cameron must have been influenced by this when writing Strange Days) takes his toy around the globe making recordings, followed by a woman he encountered along the way. This is SF at its finest, drawing fascinating characters whose lives and adventures we can't help but get caught up in, and exploring how technological innovation—and the social and cultural changes that happen in its wake—affect our lives. The world of 1999 as viewed from 1991—before cell phones, before the Web, before a lot of the things we've so quickly come to take for granted—is a place that gets more remote with each passing year, but the feeling Wenders captures, of people adrift in a sea of rapid change and using technology both to bring others closer and distance themselves, sometimes simultaneously, still seems fresh and fitting. Wenders sees that great barrier of 1999/2000 as a line of decision, one at which we all must choose whether to let our machines master us, or whether we shall master them.

I'll leave it to you to discover which choice his people make.


Copyright © 2005, MaryAnn Johanson. All Rights Reserved.

About MaryAnn Johanson

MaryAnn Johanson is one of the most popular and most respected film critics publishing online—Time magazine likes her "snarky, well-informed commentary [and] breezy style," and Variety calls her "one of online's finest" film critics. She keeps a weather eye on Hollywood at The Flick Filosopher.

COMMENTS!

Dec 9, 03:08 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of New Year's Science Fiction. Add to MaryAnn's list? Dispute it?

The article is here.
Dec 17, 09:24 by Michael Andre-Driussi
Good article. I myself rank "Strange Days" above "Until the End of the World," but maybe that's just because I have a Wm. Hurt allergy!

Here's a plug for a science fiction movie that many probably missed: "Primer" (2004). Available on Netflix, this is a low-budget (fact), high quality (opinion), time travel tale. It has qualities of a great Philip K. Dick story. Seventy-seven minutes long. (Pronounced "prIm3r" by the writer/director/actor, like the coat of paint, rather than "prihm3r," like the schoolbook. FWIW.)

It almost kind of fits into the holiday mode of the article, too! That is to say, it starts off in the holiday season, and while most of the story happens a few months later, still there's a very "New Year's Eve" feel to it all: regrets over the past, New Year's Resolutions, and stuff like that.

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