You like Me, You Really like Me! ; despite Its Share of Box-Office Busts, Science-Fiction Keeps Happy Movie Fans in Orbit

Article excerpt

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"). …