Tuesday, 16 January 2018
Douglas J. Ogurek’s top five mass market science fiction/fantasy/horror films of 2017
Once again, sci-fi/fantasy/horror (SF/F/H) films dominated the U.S. box office. Star Wars and superheroes reigned as the top grossing films in 2017. The latest Star Wars installment (The Last Jedi) came in at number one ($583 million at the time of this writing), while five superhero films ranked within the top ten. Others included a fantasy/musical (Beauty and the Beast), an animated action/adventure (Despicable Me 3), a fantasy/action/adventure (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and, thanks to an enchantingly creepy clown, a horror (It).
All ten were either remakes or part of a series. This shows how much the filmgoing public leans toward the familiar and the predictable.
Nevertheless, following are my selections for the best mass market SF/F/H films in 2017. Though numbers three through five rank within the top ten grossing movies, the top two spots do not. What sets these two apart is their concept originality, depth of character, and the complex themes that they explore. They give the viewer something to think about, and they don’t rely too heavily on special effects.
#5: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Four very different high school students get pulled into a video game world that leads them to challenge their beliefs about themselves and each other. The viewer escapes into a consistently funny, sometimes touching story highlighted by the Dwayne Johnson/Kevin Hart duo’s boyish charm and Jack Black’s portrayal of a self-centered teen female stuck in a middle-aged male’s body. The tropical setting (filmed in Hawaii) and underdeveloped, goon-like secondary characters add to the film’s lighthearted mood. Full review.
#4: Wonder Woman
Marvel gracefully inducts a full-fledged female champion into the pantheon of big budget contemporary superhero films. Gal Gadot’s Diana/Wonder Woman quickly wins over the viewer – she leaves her idyllic, women-only island and arrives in World War I London with a mix of wonder (“A baby!”) and shock at that society’s misogynistic and sometimes callous tendencies. And from an action perspective? Wonder Woman lives up to her name with the lethal combination of agility and power that she displays during fight scenes. Some action sequences – watch for the one in which Wonder Woman rallies the Allies – are breathtaking, even if you know what the filmmakers are doing is way over the top. Full review.
#3: Thor: Ragnarok
The only thing that’s heavy about the god of thunder’s latest adventure is his hammer Mjölnir… and that’s what makes this film such a pleasure to watch. Director Taika Waititi takes the viewer on a mind-blowing interplanetary romp rich in humor, otherworldly settings, and characters that range from temperamental to odd. Thor has his work cut out for him – he faces off against a gigantic beast, a presumed ally, an eccentric dictator, and a powerful sister/goddess intent on revenge. This is dumbed down entertainment at its best. Full review.
#2: Get Out
Fortified by humour and suspense, Get Out gives the cliché-saturated horror genre a much-needed shot in the heart. It tells the story of budding photographer Chris Washington, an African American who visits his white girlfriend’s wealthy parents’ estate. Something is off with the African American hired help – they behave strangely. Oddity builds upon oddity until Chris discovers the shocking secret behind this world of white privilege. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, with its novel ideas and implications about race, deserves the critical acclaim that it received. Full review.
Explosions, weapons, superheroes, and special effects dominate the contemporary moviegoing experience. Thus, the SF/F/H film that manages to entertain while, for the most part, avoiding these elements achieves something special. Most of M. Night Shyamalan’s films accomplish this feat. He takes the road less traveled by exploring original ideas that stem from a simple question – what if?
Split examines victimization and questions the extent to which a man who suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID) can, through his shattered mind, alter his body’s chemistry. Like other Shyamalan films, Split serves up a potent mix of subtext, technique, and atmosphere, plus it leaves the viewer with something to ponder. The protagonists have no superhuman abilities; rather, they are three teenage girls trapped in their captor’s lair. Anya Taylor-Joy delivers a strong performance as Casey, a quiet girl who is wise beyond her years (common in Shyamalan films). The snippets from Casey’s past that are gradually unveiled add to the film’s foreboding ambiance and support a climax that is much more than a physical confrontation.
The film’s greatest strength is James McAvoy’s gripping portrayal of Kevin Wendell, who suffers from DID. The personalities that emerge from this consummate performance range from that of a little boy to a British matriarch. Not since Heath Ledger’s the Joker have I seen an SF/F/H character who evokes so much curiosity about what he will say or do next. Full review.
See Douglas’s top five SF/F/H picks from 2016 and 2015.