Searching for sci-fi/fantasy films like Aquaman outside Hollywood leads us to — Enthiran?

Baradwaj Rangan

Dec 13, 2018 08:18:10 IST

The upcoming release of Aquaman this week made me wonder if there’s another country that makes this kind of movie.

Of course, it’s not difficult to find sci-fi films – in the broadest sense – in foreign languages. We have the surreal sci-fi of The City of Lost Children (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Marc Caro; 1995; French). We have the thriller sci-fi of The Incident (Isaac Ezban; 2014; Spanish). We have the noir sci-fi of Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard; 1965; French). We have the horror sci-fi (based on a story by Nikolai Gogol) of Forbidden Empire (Oleg Stepchenko; 2014; Russian).

We have anime sci-fi films like Akira (1988) or Ghost in the Shell (1995), which look nothing like Hollywood - they are most definitely “foreign” films, both in terms of language (Japanese) and in the sense of having a unique aesthetic, a signature look-and-feel. Andrei Tarkovsky’s somnambulistic sci-fi films (in the dreamy sense of the term, though some may also resort to the “putting you to sleep” sense of the term) like Solaris (1971) and Stalker (1979) are also one-of-a-kind. You could argue that the 2002 remake of Solaris, directed by Steven Soderbergh, was meditatively paced, too, but it fleshed out the lovers (one dead, one alive) to make us root for them, Hollywood-style. Owen Gleiberman smirked in Entertainment Weekly: “Soderbergh has come up with a plodding and far less psychologically arresting version of Ghost.”

But is there, outside Hollywood, the goofy faux-mythic sci-fi/fantasy of an Aquaman? Are there other countries that have left a stamp on these superhero cum quasi-mythical cum sci-fi/fantasy stories, i.e. the “genre” that George Lucas basically created with Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)? The French director Luc Besson has certainly tried, with big-budget spectacles like The Fifth Element (1997) and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017). These films are in English and very derivative of Hollywood, but there are intriguing “foreign” touches nonetheless – say, in the playful creature design or the neon-bright colour palette.

Besson has said that this is the result of two sets of influences. “I was raised with Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, but also Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, and Godard. I enjoy American movies a lot, but I also enjoy different kind of film and I try to reflect that in my films.” But American critics weren’t impressed with Valerian. In a dismissive review in the New York Times, AO Scott wrote, “Imagine crushing a DVD of The Phantom Menace into a fine powder, tossing in some Adderall and Ecstasy and a pinch of cayenne pepper and snorting the resulting mixture while wearing a virtual reality helmet in a Las Vegas karaoke bar.” Todd McCarthy, in Variety, was crueller. “Hollywood studio chiefs can breathe easy that, this time, at least, they’ll escape blame for making a giant summer franchise picture that nobody wants to see, since this one’s a French import.”

Besson, who based his film on Pierre Christin’s 1967 comic series Valérian and Laureline, expected this. “I can feel the resistance when it comes to the American audience,” he said in an IndieWire interview. “I can feel it, I’m not blind. ‘Oh, that’s not a Marvel? Oh, she’s not totally an actress yet? [Star Cara Delevingne was a successful fashion model.] What is Rihanna doing there [see clip above] and who’s this weirdo French guy?’ I can feel all that.” He also felt that American sci-fi was way too serious. “If you are telling me that the world tomorrow is the world that we see in all those sci-fi films – which is that it is raining, psychologically the hero is wondering what he should do, and it’s all so dark – I’m going to kill myself, because if that’s the future, I don’t want it.”

Whatever the reason for the film’s underwhelming performance (it cost something like $180 million, and recouped just a little more in the worldwide box office), it ensured that this “genre” continues to remain a Hollywood specialty, just like the wuxia spectacle remains a Hong Kong/Chinese film industry specialty. Is it that other film industries cannot fork up the budgets necessary for seamless visual effects, which are a crucial component in making us buy into these strange new worlds? (Going by Valerian, the answer is no, but then, the kind of budget Besson worked with is rare in foreign films.)

Or is it that — outside of the odd Luc Besson film — we don’t come to know about the existence of these films? In one of these columns, I wrote about the Norwegian disaster movie called The Wave (2015). The film was a total surprise. Given that most Scandinavian exports have been along the likes of the Ingmar Bergman drama, you end up stereotyping the cinema of this region as glum and arty and obsessed with meditations about life and God’s existence and death — and here’s this high-octane film about people fleeing a giant tsunami.

Fun fact: Google up “best foreign sci-fi films” and you’ll find a few Indian films in the mix. One of the entries in CBR.com’s 15 Foreign Superhero Movies Better Than Anything In The DCEU is… Krrish 3. (“It’s wild”) The article even looks forward to Krrish 4, “where Hrithik Roshan will play the hero and the bad guy this time around. It’s this kind of cultural excitement that the DCEU has lacked almost from the beginning.” Head over to screenrant.com and what do we find in 15 Insane Foreign Sci-Fi/Fantasy Movies You’ve Never Heard Of? Shankar’s Enthiran, which combines “Bollywood costumes and dance numbers with some hardcore sci-fi action set pieces. Enthiran is truly a one of a kind mix.” Perhaps, while searching for this “genre” outside Hollywood, we don’t have to look outward. Maybe it’s right in our backyard.

Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).

Updated Date: Dec 13, 2018 11:12:43 IST