You can’t talk about science fiction cinema in 2021 without beginning and ending with Dune (HBO Max). So, OK, Dune. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, it’s a great many things: sprawling, Shakespearean, very sandy. The worms are awesome. Oscar Isaac gets quite naked, and then he gets quite dead. Timothée Chalamet, as Paul Atreides, falls in love with a girl, played by Zendaya, who’s on screen for all of seven minutes. (Total runtime: 2h 35m.) They barely speak; most of their courtship proceeds in visions and hazy dreams—the safest of social distances. Lamest game of Seven Minutes in Heaven ever.
Not that most real-world teens would even play Seven Minutes in Heaven these days. If they didn’t already prefer to achieve sexual awakening as Paul does—remotely—then the past two years of Covid-19 protocols will have inculcated in their psyches the belief that a policy of No Touching is not only law-abiding but, for a lot of them, ideal. Far easier to flirt online than to spin a bottle, an activity both germy and only quasiconsensual. So Dune is, in its way, the perfect sci-fi movie for 2021: a chaste, adolescent Zoom romance.
Even more adolescent, despite the considerably older age of its star, is the Ryan Reynolds vehicle Free Guy (Amazon Prime), which imagines the same teleromantic scenario as Dune, except the guy falls for the girl not via dreams but across ontological levels. He is an NPC in an online video game; she is one of the game’s human players. “I really want to kiss you,” Reynolds says to the woman, in Free Guy’s freakiest scene. “Is that weird?” Yes! But she agrees, watching on her computer screen and trying not to dissociate as her lookalike avatar locks lips with a sentient program. The future of first kisses, in other words, is interdimensional.
Or fourth-dimensional? In the YA love story The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (Amazon Prime), a boy stuck in a time loop meets a girl stuck in the same time loop, and said girl won’t kiss said boy until she realizes that said kiss is the final vertex of a 4D hypercubic map of perfect moments, the completion of which will release them both from this “temporal anomaly.” There are repeated references to Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, and Doctor Who, all of which should feel forced but don’t. Neither does the famous line taken from Taken in this year’s other lovey-dovey time-looper, Boss Level (Hulu), starring Frank Grillo as a muscle-bound ex-soldier with a particular set of skills who’s forced to relive the same day over and over again, enduring death by all manner of stabbings, shootings, beheadings, and explodings as he tries, with the help of Michelle Yeoh’s sword, to find a way to rescue his old girlfriend (a confused Naomi Watts), kill the final boss (a very confused Mel Gibson), and save the world from spacetime collapse (the source of the confusion). Again, love wins the day, even if Watts is in the film for about as long as Zendaya is in Dune.
Perhaps, at this stage, you’d prefer your women on the more visible side of things. If so, consider the French film Oxygen (Netflix), whose main—nearly only—character is a scientist played by the marvelous Mélanie Laurent. She wakes up in an AI-controlled cryogenic pod and must figure out how to escape it before the titular oxygen runs out. Who put her there? Where even is there? Soon enough, she begins to remember a man. A husband. The love of her life. Who died in a horrible pandemic back on Earth. Yes, that’s it: She’s part of a mission to save the human race, predicted to die out completely in two generations.
Too soon? In the middle of a real-life pandemic, it may be uncomfortable, or just plain unconvincing, to watch a movie about a fake one—unless that movie happened to be made before the real-life pandemic and thus suffers from none of the literalities and falsities of art created in immediate response to catastrophe. Such is the case with 2021’s best sci-fi film, Little Fish (Hulu), which was filmed way back in 2019 but only came out this year. In it, Emma and Jude, played by up-and-comers Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell—who are in the movie for the same amount of time—meet on a beach, fall in love, and get married, just as a virus begins to spread across the planet. But the disease isn’t primarily physical, as Covid is; it only affects memories. Jude gets it first, slowly forgetting the woman he loves. “I haven’t forgotten how you feel,” he says to her, midway through his illness. “Will you touch me?” she replies. It’s the most romantic, the most touching, scene of the year.
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Because touch, whether now or far into a socially perma-distanced future, will always be the thing. If the sci-fi cinema of 2021 affirms anything, it’s the value—the absolute necessity—of not forgetting how people feel. Even if the person is a robot, as in the climate-apocalyptic Finch (Apple TV+). Even if the consequences are deadly, as in the climate-apocalyptic Voyagers (HBO Max). Even if the filmmaking is really quite terrible, as in this year’s worst sci-fi movie, the climate-apocalyptic Reminiscence (HBO Max), in which a sad man would rather, in the end, touch the memory of a dead woman than touch nothing at all.
There’s even hope, finally, for that which must begin and end this loving, looping conversation about one of the strangest-ever years in science, fiction, reality, everything: Dune. It’s not quite fair to complain that Zendaya is only in the film for seven minutes, of course, because Villeneuve has always envisioned his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s original scientific romance as a two-part saga. In the second half, planned for 2023, Paul and Chani finally get to date, and we—hopefully, by that point, on the other side of an epidemic not only of viral plague but of mass, inhuman touch-starvation—will watch as their long-distance courtship blossoms into dizzying, dangerous physicality for the very first time.
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