The backbone of these films is simple, based on the character and plot diagram of Alien. Assemble an assorted crew that has at least one hero, a science officer and perhaps a lethally selfish coward like Paul Reiser’s company man, Burke, in Aliens (1986), load them onto a star-crossed spacecraft, and then "Houston we have a problem:" artillery shell-sized asteroids, zero-gravity fires, a sun on the verge of becoming a supernova. The disaster effects are spectacular, but serve as a high-tech sleight-of-hand to divert attention from hackneyed story elements.
But, arguably, the most clipped film is 2001: A Space Odyssey. Novice writer Lowell Cannon with Jim and John Thomas (Wild Wild West) clip author Arthur C. Clarke and co-author and director Stanley Kubrick’s story to the bone for their Mission to Mars. In Clarke and Kubrick’s story, an alien intelligence catalyzes manlike primates into modern man through the mysterious agency of a black monolith, a mathematically proportioned slab of stone. 4,000,000 years later, just past the turn of the second millennium, another monolith is discovered on the moon which emits a radio signal aimed at Jupiter. Dave Bowman — the sole survivor of the Jupiter mission after its Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer, HAL, suffers a murderous cybernetic breakdown — finds a third monolith near Jupiter which opens a star gate. Dave passes through the gate to find himself transported to alien space and eventually transformed into the next evolution of man.
Cannon and the Thomas brothers discard the primordial backstory and cut to the chase. The first manned Mars mission finds a large dome of sand that emits a sound pattern on contact. When the crew beams back a sound in response, a storm erupts and builds into a sand tornado whose funnel seems to kill with intent all crew members except mission commander Luke Graham (Don Cheadle). A rescue mission arrives to find a nearly feral Graham — and a monumental stone structure resembling the commonly accepted, elongated face of a space alien that has lain hidden beneath the sand. As the crew members put their heads together, the writers clip and twist an audio coding device from Contact (1997) allowing rescue leader Jim McConnell (Gary Sinise) and his crew to gain admittance into what appears to be a solid stone object. Inside, a holographic alien guide shows them the history of life on Earth which began when Martians seeded their next-door planet with their DNA. Jim accepts a ride in what proves to be a dormant Martian spacecraft and takes off for strange new worlds as his crew rockets back to Earth. Man as the product of alien manipulation, contact by sound via a stone alien artifact and transport to an alien world reveal Mission to Mars as a dumbed- and scaled-down 2001.
Though Mission to Mars may be the greatest exploiter of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Red Planet takes perhaps the film’s most famous character, HAL, and lobotomizes and feminizes him into the mute and lethal AMEE (Advanced Mapping Excavation and Exploration robot — pronounced Amy). All that remains of HAL is the surveillance camera lens cybernetic eye and pathological programming to kill crew members.
While Supernova plugged in an evil human enhanced in power and near indestructibility in the role of Alien, a film called Pitch Black took a fresher approach to the alien monster movie, featuring innovative visuals and a fresh assortment of characters.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cloning thriller, The 6th Day, may be the best the end of the millennium has to offer to sci-fi fans. Let’s hope the beginning of the next brings science fiction more rooted in life than in someone’s DVD collection.James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org