Yesterday I finally saw The Cosmonaut, a crowd sourced and crowdfunded sci-fi film from Spain, and I was simply blown away. Beautiful, evocative, thought provoking and bold – that’s how I like my sci-fi.
When I was working on Iron Sky, we got in contact with these Spanish guys who had a film project of their own that was also based in crowdfunding and crowd sourcing. I got immediately interested in it, since the themes and the promises of the project really appealed to me personally. The creator of the film had gotten obsessed with the Space Race era rumors of failed Soviet space missions that were hushed. This was woven into an idea of a film of a lost cosmonaut, who returns to Earth and finds it empty of human beings. The Cosmonaut is not only a film, it’s a transmedia project spanning a number of webisodes, a book, and much more. In the time of writing this, the film will e released online under Creative Commons in a couple of days.
The premiere of The Cosmonaut was earlier this week, and I gave Timo a hand in arranging and promoting a big screen premiere here in Finland also. We did a little speech beforehand, introducing the film and talking a little bit about sci-fi, the director Nicolás Alcalá chimed in via Skype video chat to say a few words about the project, and then the film started rolling.
There’s always the moment of slight cringiness when you start watching something like this that you have backed yourself. Oh god, please don’t let it suck. Well, I was certainly heard on that little prayer. When the end credits were rolling, I was sitting stunned in middle of the shuffling audience. The Cosmonaut shot right up to my top-5 of sci-fi films. The story was beautiful, the casting was just so and the actors did a bang up job, and the visuals and the soundscapes were evocative. Furthermore it was something my sci-fi sweet tooth had been hungering for some time now: uncompromising, smart sci-fi that didn’t look down on the audience.
Frankly, I haven’t watched that many sci-fi movies lately, since to be blunt, most of them are really fucking stupid. There, I’ve said it, feel free to call me a snooty elitist geek now. Then again, sentiments like this are heard also from within the industry, with the finger pointing at the management.
In my little speech before the film I talked a little bit about the state of sci-fi film. As someone who was brought up with Lem, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov and Strugatsky, in my thinking sci-fi is a genre which whacks you with an idea that makes you think of things in a new light. Of course, sci-fi has been also entertaining from the beginning. In the old pulp stories you had a whole lot of martians, rocketships and ray gun battles. That certainly holds true in the big money sci-fi you get out of Hollywood nowadays – you have a lone hero, US marines or maybe a couple of agents saving the world at least four times per year, and let me ask you a question: when did you last see a big money sci-fi film without a single assault rifle in it?
The thing is, that’s just a small slice of what sci-fi as a genre is. Sci-fi has traditionally dealt with big, new, difficult ideas – or especially in case with Eastern Bloc sci-fi, with the everyday world in a way that got through the state censorship. And if you think this is just some ye olde time Soviet thing, let’s think a moment about Kirk’s and Uhura’s kiss, shall we. This seems to be totally absent in the big project sci-fi lately, apart from naivistic slogan level stuff such as Avatar’s “trees good, greed bad” epiphany.
It’s ages since I’ve felt really challenged, or even particularly moved by big screen sci-fi. An example from the late springs to mind: Oblivion. It had potential to do something interesting, but then in the middle you got Einar the Expositioneer stepping in once again and explaining the whole thing away in case there was a brick on the cinema wall that didn’t get what the plot was. Also, it relied on the traditional What A Twist, which is starting to get damn old. Another film I just saw, Cloud Atlas fared much better, and it stands out as an example that proves the rule for me – that film has stayed rattling in my head ever since I saw it, and I really need to pick up the book one of these days.
The Day the Movies Died is an article that sums the situation with big money films pretty well. The Inception was the smartest sci-fi you saw on big screen in ages, and it had hard time getting made – and in the end half the movie is firefights inside peoples’ dreams. J. Michael Straczynski slammed the TV channel bosses in an interview earlier this year, where he amongst other things said “2001, one of the most classic SF motion pictures of all time, could never get made today. Not a chance. Too cerebral, they’d say. Not enough action. All the crowdsourcing in the world won’t rewire the neurons engaged in that kind of thinking.”
The times, they are changing, though. Nowadays anybody with the will and the drive can create even a very effects heavy sci-fi film without the backing of big studios. The gatekeepers have more or less lost their monopoly in deciding which sci-fi films can be made and especially distributed around the world. There’s been a steady trickle of interesting stuff that’s more or less independent, such as Moon, Monsters, Primer, Trollhunter and so on. Now there will be more filmmakers like The Cosmonaut guys who can take a step even further and go “screw your lowest common denominator, I’m going to make an art sci-fi film in the style of old Soviet films, and it will be a love story framed around a cosmonaut lost in space, and we will release it for free on the internet. And, most importantly, we are going to make it slow, arty and fucking awesome, so up yours traditional wisdom of Hollywood!”
I’m convinced that decades from now when we look back to the opening years of 2000’s, it will be the creative, driven nuts such as The Cosmonaut crew who will be behind the sci-fi classics of this time, and nobody will remember the produced-to-porridge Hollywood gruel but as footnotes in film history.