Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Science-Fiction & Fantasy Films, 2001-2010

Numbers 2-4

Our survey of the decade is drawing to a close, with my favourite ready to be announced on New Year's Day.  For today, though, three remarkable forays onto the big screen worth the attention of all SF/F fans.

4. Batman Begins, dir. Christopher Nolan, 2005

I might have done better to treat Nolan's Batman franchise as a single entity, but both films are so remarkable that they deserve their own space.  Batman, of course, had a long (and to my mind, not particularly interesting) history before Nolan's involvement; Batman Begins is a thrilling journey into how Bruce Wayne/Batman came to be.  There is always a fascination with origin myths.  The material could easily be flaccid and cliched: boy experiences trauma, but returns stronger to exact his revenge*.  Christian Bale is such an effective Bruce Wayne that the audience never feels they are watching something they have seen before, and the film is particularly impressive in the way it demonstrates the darkness at Wayne's core--and shows that as essential to the 'Batman' persona.  I prefered it, by a whisker, to The Dark Knight, because the emphasis was so squarely on Wayne/Batman; the later film's focus on The Joker and Harvey Dent for me dilutes that a fraction.  But they are two magnificent films.

3. Inception, dir. Christopher Nolan, 2010
You may by now get the idea that I'm a fan of Nolan's work, and you'd be right.  Always willing to challenge the boundaries of commercial cinema, Nolan has a deep understanding of how to construct a story to keep the audience's attention.  Inception has all the trappings of a Philip K Dick story - games about the nature of consciousness and identity, weird but consistent inner worlds - but with an adamantine control of structure.  It works as a film not because of all the Dickery, but because the underlying model is the old-fashioned heist movie.  Nolan works with a number of his favoured actors--Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy--and Leonardo di Caprio is no Christian Bale, he is strong enough to lead this film.  The film explores three dreamscapes, and had the third been as strong as the first two, Inception would have been top of my list.  As it stands, the comparative weakness of that last section just tarnishes the lustre of what remains an extraordinarily accomplished and ambitious film.

2. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, dir. Peter Jackson, 2001-03
If The Lord of the Rings was conceived as a single novel, then the film sequence should also be regarded as one--very long!--piece.  It is not flawless--some of the minor characters are stock buffoons, and the triple ending of the final film is deeply wearisome--but it has such epic scope and brio that almost everything can be forgiven.  Fidelity to the source material is not always necessary in film, and Jackson tweaks where he needs to, and in some respects he improves on Tolkien.  The monumental scale of the battle scenes astounds even today, and the quality of the ensemble cast (especially in the first film) is compelling.  The sense that the fate of the world is at stake is much more present in Jackson than Tolkien.  The Lord of the Rings, on the big screen as on the page, remains the touchstone against which future fantasy will be measured.

* a description which fits The Dog of the North and Vance's Emphyrio equally well.  It ain't the plot which does it.


C. N. Nevets said...

Batman movie: ditto what I said before.

Inception: haven't had a chance yet, but it's on my very-soon list.

LOTR: so well done. Almost every change was on the improvement on the book. Loved those. Just waiting for the extended edition on blu-ray to come out.

Tim Stretton said...

Inception is worth making an effort to track down. It's clever enough to survive transition to the small screen, even though the visual pyrotechnics are hugely impressive.

On LOTR, Jackson realised that Tolkien's vision was not cinematic, and brought a grand visual sensibility to the whole. Tolkien never set out to be humorous, but I think Jackson's forays in this direction ("No-one tosses a dwarf!") did not add to the lustre of the whole.