Most years have a few high-quality genre pieces to offer, some years see the release of a genre-defining film and a solid collection of supporting movies, and every now and then there are collisions where two absolute classics are released side-by-side (see: 1968, 1977, and 1982). But, there’s nothing quite like what happened 20 years ago. Eleven science fiction films of note were released in 1997, spanning all subgenres. This piece will discuss each of these films, heralding 1997 as a seminal year for cinematic science fiction.
In the first section, we’ll look at three slow-burn, intellectual science fiction films: Contact, Gattaca, and Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes). These films respect the intelligence of the audience while discussing some of the most classic science fiction concepts.
Based on the 1985 Carl Sagan novel of the same name and directed by Robert Zemeckis, Contact is a slow-burn contemplation of alien intelligence and the consequences of its discovery. It stars Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, supported by an spellbinding cast of character actors: James Woods, John Hurt (RIP), William Fichtner, Angela Basset, Tom Skerrit and Jena Malone as the young Ellie. Its themes include the tension between reason and faith, contemplation of the unknown, and the drive for discovery. Contact sports many low-key special effects, including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it trick with a mirror, but also cashes in on the one big explosion and a 2001-esque visual feast of a climax.
Gattaca weaves a cautionary tale about genetic engineering run amok in a society obsessed with perfection. Ethan Hawke stars as Vincent/Jerome, a man unfortunate enough to be born “the old-fashioned way”. Lacking any genetic assistance, he and his genes are judged as “impure”, and his dream of becoming an astronaut at Gattaca is stillborn. Jude Law (in his first feature role) is the real Jerome, and he provides Vincent with genetic material to obfuscate Vincent’s true origins. With a taught mystery/crime story, Gattaca is a contemplative champion of self-directed ipseity and human achievement, and a fervent opponent of determinism.
Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes)
This Spanish film from Alejandro Amenábar is the source material for Vanilla Sky starring Tom Cruise. Abre los Ojos takes a more serious and curious approach to obsession with attractiveness and sexuality, the response to trauma, and ideas like artificial dream worlds and the ephemeral nature of memory. Edward Noriega plays the narcissistic César, caught in a sex triangle between Sofía (Penélope Cruz; she’d reprise this same role in Vanilla Sky) and Nuria (Najwa Nimri ). Mangled by a car accident and tortured by his disfigurement, César spirals downward as reality morphs around him in mind-bending ways. The film has flavors of The Matrix, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and even things like Inception.
Space Opera, Action, and Comedy/Satire
Not all science fiction in the year of 1997 was dramatic and contemplative; there was also a great deal of fun to be had in The Fifth Element, Men in Black, and Starship Troopers. These films can be loosely categorized as action films, or maybe comedies, or maybe Space Operas. Maybe. Men In Black is a little light on the action and set on Earth, but the film has that “grand universe” feel to it. They’re all funny, though Starship Trooper leans towards satire. However you want to classify these films, they ooze their own distinctive style.
The Fifth Element
Good space opera that isn’t Star Wars or Star Trek is hard to come by. Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element invigorated this subgenre with a vibrant and casual style, and fans of Jodorowsky and French graphic novel artist Moebius should recognize the aesthetic. It’s a bizarre, crazy, and hyperactive kind of film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Aliens collected four stones (each representing an element) from Earth back in the early 20th century, as these stones were the only means for defeating an evil force that appears every 5,000 years. In the 23rd century, the Fifth Element turn up – and it is a beautiful alien woman (Mila Jovovich). Cabdriver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) answers a call-to-action to unite her with the other four elements and save Earth.
Men in Black
This comic book flick about a secret government agency tasked with monitoring alien activity on Earth was the third-highest grossing film of 1997 (#2 will appear later; #1 is a certain Celine Dion vehicle). Blending comedy into genre is challenging, and Men in Black may be the best the sci-fi comedy that isn’t a direct spoof (Ghostbusters is horror; I’ll entertain arguments for Galaxy Quest). There’s solid world-building and a great fish-out-of-water audience proxy in Will Smith’s J, but this film is anchored by the straight-man performance from Tommy Lee Jones. It’s light-hearted tone is balanced with genuine science fiction, somehow blended perfectly.
Speaking of tonal balance and playing it straight, boy oh boy did most people miss the point of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. Edward Neumeier adapted the screenplay from Robert Heinlein’s novel of the same name, but the filmmakers reframed their film as a stone-faced satire of right-wing militarism that Heinlein professed. It’s astounding that many critics took the film at face value, like Verhoeven and Neumeier made Robocop on accident or something. Regardless, the reception of Starship Troopers has improved since its release, and it is now properly regarded as one of the most biting and prescient pieces of satire in the last 25 years. Full of blatant propaganda commercials, poster children falling hook-line-and-sinker for the jingoistic rhetoric, and an ending devoid of hope, Starship Troopers is a sardonic masterpiece.
As we transition into the more offbeat science fiction films, the quality of the films becomes more dependent on taste. These movies have a horror/thriller flavor to them, and so adopt the kitsch charm of that particular subgenre. These films include the deep-space horror Event Horizon, the creature feature Mimic, and the psychological mystery Cube.
Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson, Event Horizon stars Sam Neill and Laurence Fishburne and is not the best science fiction film either has appeared in. The crew of the Lewis and Clark respond to a distress call from a ship orbiting Neptune, where they discover the derelict Event Horizon, once thought lost in space. It is found that the crew of the Event Horizon opened a rift in the space-time continuum (explained by the standard poking a hole in a piece of paper with a pencil, recently appropriated by Interstellar). On the other side of that hole? A hellish nightmarescape that possesses the crew to turn murderous. Though panned upon release, Event Horizon has gained a significant cult following for its unabashed ridiculousness and so-bad-it’s-good style.
We’re starting to get into the deep cuts here with Guillermo del Toro’s second feature film (after the amazing Cronos). Mimic is less balanced, but nonetheless has some interesting ideas and techniques that the viewer should recognize as belonging to del Toro’s phantasmagoric aesthetic. The story focuses on a hyper-evolved cockroach that grows large and develops the ability to mimic its human prey. The concept is a little silly and monster-of-the-week, but the execution from del Toro makes it palatable – and quite unsettling at times.
As we continue across the globe, we come to the Canadian science fiction thriller Cube from director Vincenzo Natali. This film is like a headier Saw on steroids, right down to the broadly-drawn characters, wooden acting, and skeletal story. Built on the “strangers awaken in a bizarre room with no knowledge of how they got there” trope, Cube is set in an ever-morphing dungeon of numbered cube rooms, a set of which are booby trapped. Different characters have their own theories as to why they are there and how the dungeon works, but very few real answers surface. Cube has also developed a cult following in recent years, though personally I can’t stand the acting long enough to appreciate the film’s peculiarities.
Bad Sequels: Featuring Colons
Finally, we come to two bad sequels: The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Alien: Resurrection. Though these films would have been at home in the action section, I preferred to keep the original films to themselves. Both of these movies have strengths, but they are few and far between, even in comparison to the decidedly cult appeal of the aforementioned horror films.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
As mentioned previously, The Lost World: Jurassic Park was the second-highest grossing film of 1997. As a follow-up to the masterpiece that was the original, it leaves a great deal to be desired from a plot and character perspective, but it does boast amazing visual effects and rousing action set pieces (especially the velociraptor tall grass sequence). Jeff Goldblum and Julianne Moore do their best with what they’re given, but in the end this film is just a structural mess. I’ll admit to a certain cynicism here, and perhaps my interpretation of this film as a cash-grab is unwarranted. But then a drop-out gymnast kicks a raptor from makeshift even bars, so I don’t really worry so much.
As unnecessary as The Lost World was, Alien: Resurrection puts it to shame. By hand-waving “cloning” in the opening credits, this fourth entry in the Alien franchise is able to write itself out of the corner of the definite ending of Alien 3, though there still isn’t anywhere for it to go. Many of the same story beats are hit: xenomorphs escape and kill people, there’s a rag-tag group of space travelers, and there’s even another secret android. Though the ending is laughable and stupid, brief stretches of the film are interesting, most notably the cloning room sequence. Still, it’s hard to classify Alien: Resurrection as anything but the very worst film in the Alien franchise (AvP flavors notwithstanding).
Was 1997 the greatest year for science fiction in film ever? Two of the top three grossing films were science fiction, and three of the top 10 (The Fifth Element was #9). This collection of 11 films traverses all subgenres, and sports seminal examples of the space opera, the sci-fi/comedy, satire, space marines, and slow-burn intellectual dramas. Other years may boast more influential films (I’m looking at you, 1977 and 1982), but no other year executes the variations of the genre so well. Large or small, dramatic or comedic, satirical or serious, the panoply of science fiction from 1997 is unrivaled.
I’m aware that this list isn’t exhaustive, but it hits the major films. Of these films, which have you seen? Do you have a favorite? Was 1997 the best year science fiction ever spent on the big screen? What other years would you consider in the running? Would you like to see more posts like this, looking at years like 1982 or 1999? Please comment below with answers to these questions or anything else that you feel needs to be said. As always, I appreciate the eyeballs, and I hope you got sufficient enjoyment out of this piece to justify the time you spent reading it. If so, please consider sharing it on all the things.