Alien invasion alert! A colony of science-fiction movies is beaming down onto movie screens in quiet neighborhoods across the nation this year, with a second wave poised to strike in 2001.
This conquest was inevitable. From the world's first science-fiction movie, "The Mechanical Butcher" (1895), to coming releases such as "Battlefield Earth," "The Imposter," "The Hollow Man," and "The Red Planet" (see list, page 16), sci-fi movies have steadily infiltrated the public consciousness like a phalanx of extraterrestrial body snatchers.
Science fiction, unlike the western, has never gone out of fashion. If anything, the genre's interest in the future and "the unknown" offers paradigms to answer questions posed in an increasingly complex world.
"Our culture has become a sci-fi one," says Bonnie Hammer, executive vice president and general manager of the Sci-Fi Channel, a cable TV network, in a recent telephone interview from New York.
"The way we live our everyday lives has an element of science fiction in it - it's no longer something that people say could possibly exist if we stretched our imagination many years out. That makes the genre more accessible," Ms. Hammer says.
Accessible indeed: Science-fiction movies currently account for 8 of the Top 15 biggest domestic-grossing movies of all time.
"Sci-fi is always a viable genre. Always will be," explains Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., a box-office tracking firm in Los Angeles. "It's malleable and can move with the times. No matter what happens with changes in society, technology, or even spirituality, it can be tailored for the current audience."
Hollywood's tailors may follow fashionable trends, but they don't always stitch the right pattern. The stellar sci-fi successes so far in 2000, like "Pitch Black" or "Galaxy Quest," have been joined by close encounters of the worst kind, duds like "Bicentennial Man," "Supernova," and "Mission to Mars."
A series of flops in any other genre would herald its hiatus. What qualities does science fiction have that keep it in orbit?
"We're in the year 2000 - and yet everyone is looking around, wondering where their flying car is," explains Harry Knowles, founder of the heavily visited "Ain't It Cool News" movie Web site. "Sci-fi allows you to see something you've never seen before."
As the perfect vehicle for mankind's rich imagination and impulsive desire to explore new territories, the genre has filled a fundamental cultural black hole: the need for a modern form of mythology.
"In history, myth and legend was passed down through horseback and campfire [until] they became apocryphal," says Roger Christian, director of "Battlefield Earth" and veteran collaborator on the "Star Wars" series (which was directly influenced by Joseph Campbell's noted book on mythology, "The Hero With a Thousand Faces").
Science-fiction cinema was born out of a need for modern collective campfire stories to celebrate heroes, Mr. Christian says.
"Science fiction attempts to define the cosmology of the age through mythological tropes," says lecturer Kurt Lancaster, who teaches a course on sci-fi at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
"It is a common saying that science fiction predicts the future. But that really is not the case. Thought-provoking science fiction examines who we are as a people in the present and where we are headed."
Fantastic plots allow filmmakers to boldly go into themes such as the environment ("12 Monkeys," "Silent Running"), the nuclear bomb ("Planet of the Apes," "The Abyss"), the cold war ("The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Star Trek V"), governmental tyranny ("THX 1138," "The X-Files"), and the fear of an impersonal industrial society ("Metropolis," "Brazil"). Many others, such as "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Contact," have raised the issue of whether humans are alone in the universe.
Lately, the genre has turned a thematic corner, according to Robert Thompson, director of the center for the study of popular television at Syracuse (N.Y.) University.
"Instead of looking out to that which is beyond us," Dr. Thompson says, "science fiction is looking into the infinite that is within us - inner space." "The Matrix" and "Dark City" are recent films that pose thought-provoking questions about the nature of reality and who, or what, is shaping it.
Other movies ask, "What constitutes life?" Steven Spielberg's next film, an incomplete Stanley Kubrick project called "A.I." (for artificial intelligence), concerns an android that develops self-awareness and wishes to become human. Dr. Lancaster notes that the similar-themed "Bicentennial Man" asks, "Is life something that's mechanized [or] is it something that's centered in thought?"
These movies, like "Star Trek: First Contact," "Blade Runner," "Terminator 2," and "2001" before them, employ robots as a metaphor to illumine the qualities that best define humanity - or inhumanity.
At the other end of the same spectrum, cyborg characters like Darth Vader, RoboCop, and the Borg from the "Star Trek" series reflect human fears of becoming integrated with machines. These themes don't seem outlandish in light of advances in biological nanotechnology and the publicized experiments of a British scientist who interfaces with his computer through a silicon chip implant in his arm.
Similarly, the prescient examination of gene manipulation in the recent "Gattaca" and cloning in this fall's "The 6th Day" are relevant at a time when human-genome projects are making headlines.
"Sci-fi is trying to get back to some of the earlier premises of morality stories and ethics," Hammer says. "Science fiction of the future has to have a moment of hope, not pure despair."
It would be overly optimistic to suggest that all future sci-fi movies will explore interesting topics, but "The Matrix" demonstrated the bankability of a marriage between thoughtful ideas and action. The Web site for the coming Mars movie, "The Red Planet," boasts that it deals with "questions about God, man's destiny, and the nature of the universe."
Studios are also adapting cerebral works by celebrated author Philip K. Dick into the films "Imposter," "Minority Report," and "A Scanner Darkly." Mr. Spielberg is returning to serious science fiction with "A.I."
A push for high-quality science fiction, meanwhile, is also coming from innovative TV series such as Sci-Fi Channel's top-rated "Farscape" and the syndicated "Babylon 5."
Will the genre slow from warp speed anytime soon? Not likely, says one director.
"Hollywood has run out of villains," Christian says with a laugh. With the cold war over, the Russians don't fill the bill. "In the scripts I read, the Serbs are the new villains in Hollywood.
"Alternatively, you [can] have an endless supply of villains from outer space."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society