If William Gibson is correct that future, having arrived, is not evenly distributed, then we must come to terms with the fact that it hit everyone with equal force in 2016. From the sudden announcement of David Bowie’s death in January to the passing of Carrie Fisher in December, from the results of Brexit to the election of Donald Trump to the White House, we experienced 2016 in the manner of car crash victims growing cold as we await the sirens of ambulances that may never come, stationary K.’s begging for mobile castles trapped in Zeno’s paradox. So much with us is the future that the past suggests stability even as we reinterpret its events.
Should it surprise us, then, that our most popular entertainments either focused on reimagining the past or on confections that took root decades before the birth of its most of its most ardent modern fans, be they new chapters in the neverending Marvel story (two new tales, Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange, remarkable less for their appearance on multiplex screens than their ability to engage, however fitful that engagement) or an extension of the Enterprise’s five-year mission (Star Trek Beyond, which spliced together the sensibilities of the original series and, under the directorial eye of Justin Lin, the momentum of the Fast and the Furious franchise to enjoyable if forgettable effect)? Should we really marvel in disbelief as the Star Wars series became the product we wanted with Rogue One, jettisoning the magic we’ve longed to feel since 1980 for competent if routine storytelling? As pop fare, these presented reasonable diversions for one’s hard-earned coin (provided one caught them at a dollar theater on half-off days), yet their summits rested on low heights, and myopia muddied their horizons. The ambitions lay exclusively in their special effects…and even these did little more than remind audiences of earlier movies. Doctor Strange bends cityscapes into Escher-like knots, but Christopher Nolan tied them with far more expertise in Inception.
It’s amazing that the genre didn’t transform into a pillar of salt with its perpetual nostalgia. And yet studios released features that charted new territory, with stunning results. Director Jeff Nichols turned his eye to science fiction with Midnight Special, about a boy and his father pursued by both government agencies and a religious cult because of the boy’s otherworldly powers. Boasting a strong cast and an assured hand, Midnight Special only falters at its climax, a transcendental moment whose wonder never makes sense. It may be beside the point, as Nichols appears far more interested in the characters than the skiffy material. Midnight Special owed a bit too much to the Spielberg of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., but it never depended on viewer nostalgia.
Denis Villeneuve directed the strongest science fiction movie of 2016 with Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s classic novella “Story of Your Life.” This bittersweet movie told the story of a linguist (Amy Adams) who must serve as interpreter for aliens who come to earth, only to begin viewing the universe as the aliens do. It’s an odd story to translate to screen, yet Villenueve makes it work with a strong script by screenwriter Eric Heisserer (who finds the perfect balance between hope and tragedy) and a powerful cast that includes Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker. Add a moving, haunting score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, Arrival proved that science fiction movies do not need to sacrifice characters for ideas.
Closing out the year were several excellent movies playing at the Other World Austin film festival, including the claustrophobic Capsule, the Israeli romantic comedy OMG, I’m a Robot?!, and the dystopian insurance thriller Stille Reserven. The best movie I saw at this year’s festival was Somnio, writer/director Travis Milloy’s feature about a prisoner who must outsmart an AI in order to escape. This one-man show starring Christopher Soren Kelly at first glance owes some debt to Duncan Jones’s Moon in its Kafkaesque situation, yet it remains its own picture throughout, in no small part due to the honesty of its vision, and stands with Arrival as one of the genre’s best movies.
Lastly, the television show Black Mirror found a home on Netflix for its third season, delivering a half dozen harrowing episodes about living in our technological age. It’s most chilling episode was “Shut Up and Dance,” in which a teenage boy must carry out orders delivered by text messages or find all of his secrets leaked by anonymous online trolls, but it also menaced denizens of the future with the threat of falling social media status (“Nosedive”) and internet shaming (“Hated in the Nation”) as well as the veiling of reality via digital overlay (“Men Against Fire” and “Playtest”). But Black Mirror offered hope with “San Junipero,” a virtual-reality haven where love can replace personal pain. It’s a message that we need, especially in a world weary from future shock and awe.