“Looper” and “Prometheus”: What distinguishes sci-fi from fantasy?

Image credit: 20th Century Fox

Science fiction, for me, is about man and science, where science is bizarre, grotesque, visionary or downright crazy. Growing up, I had my fill of sci-fi with books like The Andromeda Strain and The Stepford Wives, and films like The Day of the Dolphin and Soylent Green. And there were the futuristic sci-fi movies like Logan’s Run, Planet of the Apes and its sequels (all of which I saw as a child), The Omega Man and The Time Machine. My favorites as an adult include The Matrix, The Minority Report, Twelve Monkeys, Inception and The Terminator.

But if a film revolves around, or includes in any major way, mythical creatures (who may or may not have supernatural or magical powers), it isn’t sci-fi but fantasy. Admittedly, the two often overlap but if the mythical creature is central to the theme, then, it is fantasy even if, as a whole, the film also delves on fantastical science. That’s my peg. You may have yours and it may be different from mine but the hell if anyone says mine is wrong simply because it’s different from his. So, Godzilla is fantasy. So is Star Wars. So is The Ten Commandments.

Apparently, then and now, the distinction between sci-fi and fantasy is heavily blurred. It doesn’t need to be but what can I do? That The Little Price is categorized as a science fiction behooves me. I saw two films recently that are both labeled as sci-fi, one was good and the other was a waste of time — and the one that was a waste of time more properly falls under “fantasy” than sci-fi.

Prometheus is an updated and modified Alien. Same director, same general story line, a lot of similar details but with better visual effects. In short, the same horror story set in a spaceship and, additionally, some still unchartered planet.

Archeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway discover etchings on the wall in a cave in Scotland, analyzes them to be a star map similar to those found in other locations of ancient cultures. They conclude that the maps were left by the forerunners of the human race, the “Engineers”, who were not originally from Earth.

To discover the origins of the “Engineers”, Shaw and Holloway become part of a mission to a distant moon, financed by Weyland Corporation. The ship that takes them to the distant moon is Prometheus. They find structures that prove the existence of a technologically-advanced civilization but the mission is disrupted and disaster after disaster strikes after someone steals something from the aliens, someone becomes an unwilling host to alien DNA and someone gives birth to an alien.

Perhaps, it isn’t not really surprising that Prometheus feels too much like Alien since it was originally envisioned as a prequel to Alien. I am aware that Alien has gained cult following over the years and I wouldn’t be astonished if Alien fans sing praises to Prometheus. Personally, although I was awed by the visual effects, I found the computer-generated larger-than-life visuals too exhausting. Over-the-top exhausting. When the mind is bombarded with too much visuals non-stop, it gets tired then bored after a while, and the awe is replaced by a hankering for a real story. And that was exactly what happened. After I stopped gaping at the visuals, I started anticipating a good story that never materialized. Boo.

And. AND. For all its pretense at being a sci-fi film, there was the inevitable moralizing about leaving alone things that only GOD is meant to twiddle with. Naturally, with the obvious implication that all the catastrophes that befell the crew of Prometheus were punishment for dipping their hands where only GOD’s belonged. You know, kinda like that bishop who said that the typhoon disaster in Mindanao was (his) GOD’s way of saying don’t pass the Reproductive Health Bill. To my mind, that proves even more that Prometheus is a fantasy rather than a sci-fi film.

Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper (2012)

Image credit: TriStar Pictures & FilmDistrict

Looper… Okay, I have to admit that I almost gave up after the first twenty minutes. I was bothered by the obvious prosthetic make-up that Joseph Gordon Levitt was wearing. What the heck was that about? Good thing I didn’t walk out. As soon as Bruce Willis made his first appearance, Levitt’s weird face was explained.

In 2074, time travel is a reality and illegal. Instead of killing those who have offended them, criminal organizations send their victims back in time where they are killed by contract assassins called  “loopers.” When the crime lords want to terminate a looper’s contract (“closing the loop”), his old self would be sent from the future and the young self, the looper, kills his old self. Joe (Levitt) is a looper and a drug addict who, one day in 2044, finds he has to kill his older self (Willis). So, the prosthetic make-up was meant to make Levitt’s facial structure resemble that of Bruce Willis.

Young Joe fails to kill Old Joe which makes Young Joe a target for his criminal boss because failure to close a loop is punishable by death. Meanwhile, Old Joe has another agenda — kill the crime boss who ordered his execution. When Old Joe was picked up in 2074, the scuffle resulted in the death of his wife. Old Joe thinks that if he can find in 2044 the child version of the crime boss, Rainmaker, who ordered his death, he can save his wife from death in 2074.

Young Joe finds the child before Old Joe does and falls in love with the child’s mother, Sara (Emily Blunt), who assures him that if she had the chance to raise the child with love and guidance, he would not turn out to be the dangerous bad man that Old Joe talked about. Believing her and convinced that the child deserved a chance to choose another path, Young Joe kills himself to erase the presence of his old self in 2044.

Despite the romance between Young Joe and Sara, Looper is neither a love story nor a feel-good movie. It is violent, some scenes are very disturbing visually and contextually. But it is a good movie, as strange as that may sound. Not exactly because it is a novelty because time-space continuum as a theme has been in films for a long time in the form of romance (Somewhere in Time, The Two Worlds of Jenny Logan, The Time Traveller’s Wife), comedy (Back to the Future), thriller (Déjà Vu) and out-and-out sci-fi (The Terminator and Twelve Monkeys). Still, Looper manages to bring a new and odd twist to an old but still fascinating theme. Definitely worth my time.

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There's more to movies and TV shows than the story and the characters. Sometimes, the jewelry and costumes are the real stars.

Except for quotes, stock photos and screen grabs, all text & images © Connie Veneracion. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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