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The Year That Sci-Fi Saved

‘Stranger Things,’ ‘Westworld,’ ‘Black Mirror,’ and more offered a blissful reprieve from reality in 2016

(Netflix/HBO/21 Laps Entertainment/Ringer illustration)
(Netflix/HBO/21 Laps Entertainment/Ringer illustration)

The past 12 months let a lot of us down, but only because many of us made the mistake of restricting ourselves to real-life stories from 2016. This year’s weakness was actual events. Its strength was science fiction.

If sci-fi isn’t having a moment, it’s only because Big Questions about existence and liberal use of green screen are always in style. Sci-fi has up years and down years, but the genre itself is the black box that survives when the rest of culture crashes. Maybe they actually should build the whole pop culture out of sci-fi.

The biggest factor in sci-fi’s favor is space. Sci-fi owns space, which is infinite, and therefore very valuable property. Space’s silent, frigid relentlessness always ups the stakes; where life is most out of its element, sci-fi is most at home. Sometimes the sci- is so scintillating that the -fi feels like overkill. In the first-ever non-fictional spacewalk, Soviet cosmonaut Alexey Leonov left his small capsule, floated in vacuum for 12 minutes, and then went back inside. The broad strokes sound boring. The specifics supply enough material for a movie. Leonov’s suit swelled and stiffened, which made it hard to maneuver. To loosen the suit, he risked the bends by unilaterally letting out half his air supply (there was no time to ask for advice). It worked, but not well enough; he got stuck in the airlock, and the exertion it took to reorient himself was so extreme that the sweat inside his suit was “up to his knees.” On the return trip, the module’s automatic reentry system malfunctioned, which forced Leonov and his pilot to fire the rockets manually, with perfect precision. They landed in the Siberian wilderness — which was only slightly warmer than space — surrounded by bears and wolves, which sounds like the setup for The Grey. And that mission was a success. Space makes even stepping through doors suspenseful.

Of course, lots of excellent sci-fi isn’t set in space. There’s time travel, which never makes sense but always seems like it might be about to. There’s alternate history, with its questionable marketing campaigns. You’ve got your standard dystopias, your basic Michael Bay and blasters, your artificial-intelligence ethics and your hard sci-fi, where characters ask completely natural questions such as, “Space, man, have you no respect for science?” That’s just a small sampling.

Sci-fi is the most zero-G genre, not only in the literal sense that its characters are often unbound by gravity, but also in the sense that it’s only as dragged down by the weight of the world as it wants to be. It can completely detach the tether, like Commander Matt Kowalski, or it can hold up a (probably black) mirror to modernity to show where we’ve gone wrong by providing a glimpse of the hellscape we’re headed toward. Leonov, like all sci-fi heroes who survive harrowing space travel, probably learned a lot about himself by confronting the void. “My feeling was that I was a grain of sand,” he said of his spacewalk. At its best — sometimes even at its most mediocre — sci-fi can tap into our core curiosity and deliver a little of what Leonov felt (without the swollen space suit). Also, it has aliens and lasers.

Sci-fi had atomic-clock-precise timing in 2016. At every creative slump or societal crisis, sci-fi was waiting, beckoning us a little closer so it could press a reassuring tentacle to the glass. Remember this past summer? Hot, humid, relatively devoid of quality content? The breakout small-screen hits of the previous summer (Mr. Robot, Unreal) stumbled or slumped, many of the big-screen would-be blockbusters bombed or disappointed, and young viewers were out on the Olympics. Maybe they weren’t tuning in to see Michael Phelps win even more medals because they were watching a show with more pool-related suspense than the Rio Games: Stranger Things.

Stranger Things’s mixture of fan-theory-friendly phenomena, atmospheric music, young-cast camaraderie, and 1980s nostalgia hooked millions of Netflix subscribers almost instantly, and its eight highly bingeable episodes, released all at once, made it the summer’s escapist lingua franca. That it was also an homage to timeless movies made decades before most of its leads were alive only drove home sci-fi’s inter-decade dominance.

As pre-election anxiety peaked in late October, the newly released third season of Black Mirror reinforced our fears that the world was heading down a dark path. We wallowed in dystopian prestige drama until we saw something scarier.

And then, as post-election depression peaked in mid-November, Arrival appeared just in time to soothe our souls by suggesting that the Trump presidency has, in some sense, already happened and thus maybe isn’t worth worrying about. After that, there was Westworld, which saved us from wondering, “Wait, who’s in the cabinet now?” by encouraging us to devote our attention to pressing questions such as “Do we buy that old Jimmi Simpson might look like Ed Harris?” Westworld ended HBO’s protracted search for a worthy Game of Thrones successor, and Doctor Strange ended the autumn box office slump, recording the second-biggest debut of any franchise in the Marvel movie stable (behind Guardians of the Galaxy, the only Marvel movie more sci-fi than Doctor Strange). Sci-fi is the slump-buster; when in doubt, set your story in the future.

Despite its track record, we’re still sci-fi skeptics. Consider Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, which will probably be the second-bestselling video game of 2016 despite being released in November. Infinite Warfare sci-fi-ified the long-running CoD series to such an extent that the first level starts on the icy surface of Europa. At first, no one was pleased: When the trailer revealed that the military shooter would be taking a time jump from its usual modern-day setting, the internet revolted, making its agita felt via our era’s most meaningful outlet for collective unrest, YouTube downvotes. (Only Justin Bieber’s “Baby” has more.) When the game came out, though, the critics — who collectively pronounced the game Pretty Good — largely celebrated the single-player campaign while decrying a lack of innovation in its core gameplay mechanics and multiplayer modes. After all the online outcry about the sci-fi scenario, the setting was the best thing about it. Which makes sense, because the setting was space.

Sci-fi’s high ceiling comes with a low floor, sometimes in the same X-Files mini-season (which also aired in 2016). There’s too much technobabble and too much implausible plotting, and Syfy makes too many original movies. Even in another banner year, sci-fi spawned Independence Day: Resurgence, The 5th Wave, and Synchronicity. But in 2016 it was possible to plot a course from one piece of quality on-screen sci-fi to the next without ever touching terra firma, thanks in part to several more series or movies I haven’t yet mentioned: The Expanse, 11.22.63, Midnight Special, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and Star Trek Beyond. And sci-fi is so generous that despite already saving the year several times over, it has more gifts in store for the final few weeks of the year: Rogue One and Passengers, a movie about two people with nothing to do for 90 years, which would be a boring premise if it weren’t also set on a spaceship that has a robot bartender who looks like Michael Sheen.

So if, in any scene of your film, there’s something on the spacecraft that can’t be fixed from the inside and someone has to do an EVA, please make that apparent in the preview so that I can steel myself for the sheer terror of venting suits, rapidly emptying oxygen canisters, and dangerous debris juxtaposed with the stark beauty of orbit/a starfield/an alien landscape. If your movie has a shot of a spaceship soundlessly sliding through vacuum, traveling toward a distant destination at an unfathomable speed but seeming almost to stand still because space is incomprehensibly huge, please give me several months’ notice so that I can reserve a centrally located seat for opening night. (Salute to Sunshine for maybe being the best at this.) And if your MPAA rating mentions “some sci-fi violence,” I don’t need to know any more. You had me at “some sci-fi,” this year more than ever.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified a character from Gravity; his name is Matt Kowalski, not Mike.