There's a really interesting article up at Popular Mechanics right now, "Hollywood Sci-Fi's Bronze Age: Are Comics to Blame?" by Erik Sofge. Erik runs a comparison of the SF films that were released in 1982 - Blade Runner, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Thing and Tron, and compares it to 2007's Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, 28 Weeks Later, I Am Legend, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, The Invasion, Resident Evil: Extinction, Spider-Man 3 and Transformers. He then asks if the wealth of comic book projects isn't gobbling up the same resources that once went to smart SF.
Now, personally, I love a well-made comic book adaptation, and I think that there's always been loads of crap peppered with a few gems coming out of Hollywood and always will be. It wouldn't be hard to make a list of 100 smart SF films and another list of 100 dumb ones; and the smart ones aren't necessarily the good ones and the dumb ones not necessarily the bad ones (I love The Fifth Element!) Furthermore, the boom in effects technology, coupled with the lowered cost of same, means that the coming years are going to see more SF films than every before, smart and dumb, because the coming years are going to see more of everything than ever before. So I'm sure we've got some gems in the works right now, and some clunkers. And I'm not too worried about it.
Of course, Erik is right to be worried that "interest in science is at a low point in this country. Gadget and robot-related news might score high marks online, but there’s a difference between reading a blog and getting a doctorate." Here he links to "Educator Panel: U.S. Science Needs a Sputnik-ian Wakeup Call" by Matt Sullivan, who says " With American high school seniors performing below the international average for 21 countries in math and science...there needs to be an ambitious plan to increase awareness of scientific education." Amen.
And you know I think more SF is good for that. In fact, the top comment on Erik's article is:
james cameron made me a robotics engineer. i watched terminator 2 when i was 10,and it was the first time i went to a cinema.cameron rocks!!!!
Lately I've been considering how even the dumb stuff (and I'm not counting Terminator 2 in that category) has a role to play in inspiring people. I think that anything expansive and imaginative has benefits, even, you know, that dreadful Lucas stuff... Anything that inspires sense of wonder can inspire, right?
Of course, I have to applaud Erik when he concludes, "What’s missing from Hollywood sci-fi, and what the comic adaptations continue to smother, is a celebration of smarts. The smaller movies have them—films like Sunshine and Primer. In fiction, writers like Charles Stross are pushing the limits of the genre. Maybe next year’s Star Trek reboot will make quantum physics look cool again. And if anyone can return some credibility to science-fiction movies, it’s James Cameron, whose long-gestating Avatar (about a human remote-operating a robot on a distant, alien planet) also shows up next year."
Again, they'll be a lot more films like Primer coming down the pike, as it just gets cheaper and cheaper for a basic level of SF effects to be produced by the almost-average Joe. And they won't all be from Hollywood either. I imagine there's at least one or two mind blowing SF films being cooked up on someone's home computer right now, if not their cellphone.
And I would point to this article from Fast Company, "Rebel Alliance," by David Kushner. It's about the cabal of sf fans that are revolutionizing television with their visions (quite a few of whom - like Battlestar Galactica's Ron Moore - are very knowledgeable when it comes to literary SF.) The article is really about "transmedia" - how TV producers have to think about extending their storylines into other media such as games, comics, and online sites, but it also illustrates without calling out the fact that as movies seem to be getting sillier, television is getting better and better, richer, more "novelistic."
And David's article echoes my own optimism when it concludes, "The Geek Elite are well aware that they're creating a future that may ultimately pass them by. 'There's someone out there who will figure out how to relate the Internet and narrative beyond my old-fashioned notions,' [Joss] Whedon says. 'But I think whoever cracks that is not going to be someone who's made it huge in television. It's going to be some guy we just don't know about yet.'"
I, for one, can't wait to meet 'em.