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Is sci-fi out of ideas?

It’s supposed to explore the future — so, columnist Mark Harris wonders, why is the genre depending so much on old material?

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Will Smith, I Am Legend

What movie genre is most in need of a savior as the New Year begins? For once, the answer isn’t the musical: With Tim Burton’s arterial-auteurist Sweeney Todd splattering audiences nationwide, Dreamgirls and Hairspray each topping $100 million in grosses last year, and the success of the all-obliterating international multiplatform Chiclet-toothed juggernaut that is High School Musical, we can finally take musicals off the endangered-species list. Instead, let’s turn our attention to an unlikely candidate for a heart-and-brain transplant: science fiction.

Sci-fi is in trouble, though it’s not the kind of trouble that can be measured at the box office, where it looks as healthy and robust as a T. rex must have seemed five minutes before it realized that there was nothing left to eat. The genre has been around for as long as the movies themselves, and flourished for the last 30 years. The problem is, none of the ideas are getting any newer. Scratch that: The problem is, there are no ideas.

The season’s big movie hit is Will Smith’s I Am Legend, the third screen version of a Richard Matheson novel that was published in 1954. In television, fans await the final season of Battlestar Galactica, a spiffy, politically freighted update of a dopey piece of TV debris from 1978; they’re also anticipating the promised launch of a new series that will extend George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise into its fourth decade. Our most popular sci-fi comic-book movies are based on characters that were created more than 40 years ago — or, like Transformers, were inspired by pieces of plastic manufactured in the 1980s. This Christmas’ guilty-pleasure DVD indulgence was a multidisc collection of five different versions of the 1982 film Blade Runner, which is itself based on a 40-year-old Philip K. Dick novel. Personally, I’m holding out for a SuperPlatinum Deluxe Psychotic Edition, which will arrive in a crate containing 47 discs and Ridley Scott himself, who will hang out with you and then rewire your home sound system.

If you’re truly desperate for a trip down memory lane, you can check out Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, another attempt to crossbreed franchises that are now, respectively, 29 and 21 years old: In sci-fi terms, this is like staging a cage match between Grandma and Grandpa. Even J.J. Abrams, whose series Lost (along with The X-Files) comes as close to a genuinely new idea for sci-fi as any major piece of pop culture in the last 20 years, is attempting to reboot the moribund Star Trek for the big screen next year. I’m interested in what he’ll do with it, but I also wish he weren’t boldly going where we have all gone so many times before.

NEXT PAGE: ”Ideally, sci-fi’s next rescuer should be someone whose ideas about the future derive from somewhere — anywhere — other than old sci-fi.”

It’s one thing to revere and refresh a genre’s history; it’s another to live obsessively in the past, especially if science fiction’s whole purpose is to extrapolate elements from today’s world to create a future we’ve never imagined. When it comes to spaceships, giant monsters from afar, cloning, and robots, we’ve now been there, done that, remade it, added new CGI, seen the director’s cut, played the videogame, read the fan fiction, and bought the collectibles. Where do we go from here? The answer always seems to be that we jump backwards, into the same old Cold War/Apollo-mission-era tropes.

Perhaps science fiction needs to be saved from the very people who love it the most. Nostalgia for a form can be annihilating to creativity, so while its devotees are swamped in their own canon, trying to mine now-sacred texts for any new material, I wish a great writer or director with no particular affection for the genre would let his imagination loose and see what it yields. It happened 40 years ago, when Stanley Kubrick, following his own ice-cold muse and his fascination with science itself, decided he wanted to create something that ”extended the range of science fiction,” a genre that didn’t particularly impress him. What nerve! The result was 2001: A Space Odyssey, which changed the game so completely that in movies, the sci-fi genre immediately vanished for a few years while everyone surveyed an irrevocably altered landscape.

Ideally, sci-fi’s next rescuer should be someone whose ideas about the future derive from somewhere — anywhere — other than old sci-fi. It can be done. Just a year ago, no movie genre looked deader than the Western. Then 2007 brought us not only a familiar but lively overhaul of 3:10 to Yuma but also the gorgeously arty mood piece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and a handful of extraordinary films — the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, and even, in its way, Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah — that drew deeply and inventively on different aspects of Western conventions and mythmaking to create something new, often stunning, and not instantly identifiable by genre. Sci-fi desperately needs filmmakers who are interested in bending the form toward their own passions and obsessions as artists. 2001 has come and gone, and right now the future looks too much like something we’ve already seen.

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