Science Fiction and the 21st Century
A discussion I've had with Lion a few times is the relative merits of the science fiction juggernaut The Matrix. We've never gotten to the point of agreeing about pretty much anything in terms of objective quality (I'm of the "it's awful" camp, he's of the "it's flawed but brilliant" camp), but one thing we can agree on is this: despite flaws, the outright stylistic theft, and the utter nonsense involved with The Matrix- it was a seminal moment for the genre of science fiction in film.
The 90's were an awful time for science fiction. The great sci-fi directors of the 80's moved on to "serious" film, like James Cameron and Titanic. The themes of 80's science fiction largely died out with the crumbling of the Berlin wall. The apocalypse via the form of a nuclear holocaust no longer seemed quite so imminent. And most importantly, film technology had reached a strange holding pattern: CGI had been on the horizon since TRON, but didn't seem to be progressing all that much through the late 80's and early 90's.
The technology was good enough to be clever and interesting at times, but not to the point where you could build a world entirely different from our own. Movies like Waterworld certainly tried with set pieces costing up to $22M, but with a total production budget of $175M in 1995, it was abhorrently expensive and had almost no chance to recuperate its costs. (Keep in mind that non-production costs are unknown, but can usually be estimated at about 50% of the production costs: that's an extra $87.5M).
These issues resulted in most of the science fiction films of the 90's either fitting into one of two categories: (very) near future, or alternative version of our world. Certainly there were exceptions, but they were rare: Independence Day, Dark City, and the existing intellectual properties that entered the 90's out of the 80's like Aliens 3 and Back to the Future 3. Most of the films were closer to Men In Black and the happily forgotten Cronenberg feature eXistenZ, neither of which required extensive CGI or sets.
It wasn't until 1999 that the modern science-fiction movement began with The Matrix. The Matrix used CGI and sets together to create a semi-believable world in a manner that hadn't yet been realized in a successful movie (Dark City had done the same thing a year before, but nobody saw that in theaters).
This isn't to say that computer imaging and green screens replaced set building entirely. A look at 2004's pulpy science fiction film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow shows that the industry still had time before that was practical. Instead, digital filming and digital post-production allowed directors to combine the sets and CGI intertwined. The Matrix wasn't the first to do it, and it wasn't the most perfect application of the technology, but it was the first to do it successfully.
It wasn't an immediate shift, but it was close to it. 2000 had the release of Pitch Black, X-Men, and the notoriously awful Battlefield Earth. 2001 was the year of even worse films with The One and Planet of the Apes being the notable releases. 2002 was the year the movies that were approved in the aftermath of The Matrix were released. Everything from dystopia movies like Equilibrium and Minority Report to the varied genre films of Solaris (psychological drama), 28 Days Later (zombies), and Spider-Man (figure it out).
In fact, a quick look at the category pages for 1990's science fiction films and 2000's science fiction films on Wikipedia shows the 2000's had over 100 more sci-fi films made than the 90's. This can partially be attributed to the rise of independent filmmaking, but a lot of it has to do with the rise in available technology and the capabilities of the technology.
Genre films rise and fall like any other pop culture cycle, but rarely is it so attributable to a specific watershed moment like the rise of science fiction films over the last 15 years. Maybe genre filmmaking will shift back to high fantasy (of which there have been notably few movies over the same period of time), or maybe it'll go in a new direction. It's certainly fascinating to look at.