Have any movie directors or producers revealed themselves to be "masters" of science fiction in recent years? In this chart, we look at how some of the contenders for SF mastery have fared.
Update: I apologize, I haven't been online much due to the holidays. I realized that there was an erroneous data point for Andrew Stanton in 2009 that was never supposed to be there. I missed it when I initially looked over the graph, but it's been removed now.
As we've been reflecting on the last ten years, we've been asking ourselves whether any true "masters" of science fiction and urban fantasy have emerged, especially in film and television. It's certainly been a decade of highs and lows, of old masters who've begun to fade and bright new stars just cresting the horizon.
To that end, I've attempted to chart the relative "master levels" of various directors and television producers over the several years. This is an utterly unscientific chart; I looked at the projects these folks have had since 2000 and assigned each one a "master level." The number reflects my understanding of the projects acclaim, its ability to attract an audience (i.e. box office/Nielsen numbers), its awards, whether it succeeded in something unusual (such as a relatively popular foreign language film in the case of Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth or Dr. Horrible's status as a breakthrough web film), and the nebulous sense that it add or subtracted from the individual's "geek cred." The numbers themselves are largely subjective and, of course, you should feel free to nitpick.
The greater purpose was to offer a watercolory sense of whether any "masters" have emerged from this crowd. Certainly, the last year has brought low some of the genres' promising potentials. Joss Whedon entered into the decade riding high on a Buffy/Angel cocktail. Though his name wasn't enough to overcome Fox's confusing treatment of Firefly, but the show's eventual cult popularity led to the Serenity feature film, and the Whedon brand helped make Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog an important moment for web-based content. Perhaps this all made Dollhouse — which has been, by turns, frustrating and brilliant — all the more disappointing, its impeding demise fairly readily accepted, even by Whedon's fanbase. Similarly, Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica, despite being regarded by some readers as the most overrated scifi of the decade, was regarded by many as a turning point for smart, politically savvy space opera. But a rocky final season punctuated by finale filled with dei ex machinae left a lot of folks sour on the entire series. And the Wachowskis, while doing a solid (though Alan Moore-enraging) bit of cinema with V for Vendetta, never quite lived up to the promises of The Matrix.
But there have been plenty of masterful bright spots as well. Bryan Fuller gave us some beautiful urban fantasy with shows with Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, and Pushing Daisies, even if many of his efforts (including the truly amazing The Amazing Screw-On Head) were prematurely axed, or shafted before ever getting off the ground. Guillermo del Toro brought us to great heights with Pan's Labyrinth, even if his other eye candy films didn't hit the same heights.
So have we seen any masters? Peter Jackson has certainly come close. Granted, The Lord of the Rings movies are high fantasy, but they showcased Jackson's ability to handle a difficult epic in a way that not only pleased JRR Tolkien's fans, but also won him mainstream accolades. And his remake of King Kong, which should have been automatically anathema, proved both profitable and well-reviewed. The Lovely Bones has been his blip, earning him his worst reviews in 20 years. But it's more likely that 2009 will be remembered as the year Jackson introduced the world to filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, demonstrating that he has a good eye for new talent and the Hollywood cache to bring that talent to light. It's not for nothing that he made this year's power list.
Another power list member, JJ Abrams, has also given us a good spate of fun and thoughtful science fiction. While he didn't give us the decade's best monster movie, he did manage to reboot the Star Trek franchise in a way that was respectful to what came before and drew in folks who never turned into the TV shows. Of course, we still have yet to see as Lost will end and whether Fringe will survive.
Chris Nolan is on the list of promising possibilities for eventual masterhood. Although Memento wasn't science fiction, it took a "what if" concept (here, what if a man searching for his wife's killer had no short term memory) and portrayed it in a thoughtful, suspenseful, and ultimately heartbreaking way. And he not only shot fresh blood into the corpse of the Batman franchise, he made it Oscar-worthy. And now he's continuing the science fiction thread with Inception.
And, of course, there's the question of whether James Cameron will prove the kind of science fiction as much as he claimed to be the king of the world. His foray into science fiction television, Dark Angel, never fared particularly well in the ratings; it was eventually canceled in favor of Firefly, and it never achieved the posthumous popularity of the later show. But perhaps Avatar is the reinforcement of his previous scifi successes, proof that he can still be relevant where other long-time directors have started to fade away. Hopefully, we won't have to wait another 12 years to see his next installment.
Personally, though, after seeing the delightful Monsters Inc. followed by the superb The Incredibles and WALL-E, I have my fingers crossed for Andrew Stanton and Pixar Studios. Here's hoping that John Carter of Mars is something phenomenal.
Still, singling out directors and producers as possible masters might be missing the point entirely, even when we're talking about movies and TV. Alan Moore might well be your science fiction master, not just because he has written so many fantastic books, but also because those books have captured the imagination of so many directors in the last several years — albeit with varying results. And in the coming years we'll see how comic book writer Brian K. Vaughan — who has been working on Lost as well as the Buffy Season Eight comics — translates to the big screen when Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, and Runaways hit theaters.
So who, if anyone, do you see as your science fiction master? Someone from the list above? Perhaps Russell T. Davis for reviving and expanding Doctor Who? Or maybe writers like Jane Espenson, who have worked on so many of the shows we love? And, with filmmakers like Neill Blomkamp and Duncan Jones arriving on the scene, who might prove themselves master of the genre in the next ten years?
Graph by Steph Fox.
Here's a bonus chart, with more data: