Rian Johnson, Neil Blomkamp, and Duncan Jones are three of the most exciting filmmakers today. What do they have in common? They all excel with original genre material and they are all fairly resolute in their refusal to compromise their creative powers.
In a way these three men represent the first wave of 21st century directors who are looking at folks like Scorsese, Spielberg, Kubrick, and Jackson and making films that exude a love of these big popular films, and yet are only successful because beneath this sense of love lies a truly unique perspective on how a movie should look, feel, and play. In other words, these guys aren't hacks. They're legitimate talents who in my mind are saving smart genre filmmaking.
Johnson got things started in 2005 of course with Brick, his startling and refreshing homage to hardboiled detective fiction starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But this trio really came onto the scene in 2009 when they each released movies in the summertime that weren't summer movies in the modern day sense, but still fit the requirements for everything a summer movie should be. First came Johnson's The Brothers Bloom, a heist film in love with the scattered structure of classic heist movies yet firmly interested in telling its own story. Later that summer saw the release of Duncan Jones' debut, Moon, a film with serious nods to 2001 (and also, according to him, Outland and Silent Running), yet that's precisely why it was so successful. Some called it derivative, but I think it did remarkable things for a sic-fi genre that was morphing with the action genre. Movies like 2001 represent the physical and metaphysical heights science fiction can reach, and so with a struggling genre I actually applaud Jones for going back to Kubrick and setting the record straight that traditional sic-fi was still possible. It's smart, dealing the complications of extracting lunar energy, and psychological, like a desert island movie in space in which isolation is often a greater test of a man than any physical opposition. August of that summer then brought Blomkamp's District 9, abandoned the E.T./Alien template and made aliens as imaginative and frightening and intense as they've ever been. The writing is stellar and intelligent, the special effects nifty and convincing (and puts most 200 million blockbusters to shame) and the acting brilliant. One of the cool things about Moon and District 9 is that the stars are great actors without the baggage of the typical star. Sam Rockwell didn't do much to move him into leading man status (in a way he's too wiry and convincing to do anything but supporting roles, which he's been soaring in his entire career), but he was amazing in this. As far as an actor having a movie to himself, I'd take Rockwell over Tom Hanks in Cast Away in an instant. And then of course there was Sharlto Copley, the protagonist of District 9 whose sharp, intense face, relatively unknown status, and raw intensity contributed greatly to the realism that Blomkamp was striving for. It's not surprising that Moon and District 9 are probably the best pieces of science fiction in this young century.
Johnson held off on sic-fi until 2012, when he released Looper, an exquisite piece of work that's the most startling and exciting time travel film since 12 Monkeys, a film a lot of people (myself included) see as the best time travel movie ever (though I'd also be happy to argue Primer into such a conversation). I say the film's startling not because it takes time travel into places it's never been (on the contrary, it accepts that "it fries your brain like an egg" and doesn't really go beyond that) or because in general it tries to blow its viewers' minds, but because when most big movies reach their second half and speed up, this one slows down. It's truly refreshing to see a film grow in its complexity rather than compromise its own intelligence and the audiences' for the sake dull spectacle.
Prior to that, Jones returned with Source Code, a pleasantly low-key sci-fi train thriller that was ambitious in its ideas and efficient in its storytelling. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it was that it showed Jones was no fluke; the fact that he went down in scale while his budget went up speaks wonders in an age anything studio driven tends to undervalue the intelligence of the viewer with bombastic pyrotechnics. Its logical problems aside, Source Code essentially gave its audience an explosion of ideas rather than literal explosions, and that's something well worth embracing.
And that leads to Blomkamp's follow up to District 9, which arrives in theaters in about a month. It's called Elysium, and while I'm definitely not sold on it, my hopes are high that it will save this summer marred by mediocrity and disappointments. Like Jones in Source Code, Blomkamp now has a bigger budget and movie stars, yet this is still his project. He proposed it, he wrote the script, and he was given $90 million to make something I hope and expect will live up to the standards he set with District 9. I imagine Blomkamp has plenty of secrets stored up that aren't being revealed in the film's trailers. While it looks like this will be a slicker product that his first film, Blomkamp seems to by trying to maintain some of the grit that made District 9 such an intense and visceral experience. But besides the basic plot, which seems sort of like a reversal of Metropolis, there's really no information to be had, and that's a good thing. I'll approach it with an eager mind.
I imagine studios are looking at Johnson, Blomkamp, and Jones as candidates for big sci-fi movies, and yet I don't see them falling into the trap letting studio execs manipulate their personal visions and goals. Blomkamp even recently stated that he would be unwilling to make the compromises often necessary when doing a big studio movie. So for now those wondering if he might be the the man behind the third Star Trek can put that idea to rest. And I'm completely fine with that, as long as these filmmakers are still getting their personal projects financed. We've seen each of them start at humble beginnings and then rise in financial department without losing control of their creative agendas. May that continue to be so.