SCIENCE FICTION COMES BACK TO EARTH

After years of presenting high-flying science fiction, Hollywood is coming in for a landing. The great space race that was launched by "Star Wars" and made tedious by dozens of imitators, finally has lost its momentum. Humanity, not hardware, is at the heart of a new slate of films.

At least that's the promise of film makers involved in some of the upcoming movie releases. While it remains to be seen whether their words will come to pass, the fact remains that, in theory, the notion is commendable--and long overdue.

It doesn't take a HAL 9000 to figure out why. Exploits in outer space--the so-called last frontier--have become as predictable as dogfights between the X-wing fighters and the Imperial Forces. Zipping across the galaxies and dodging asteroids and enemy ships have become as commonplace on the screen as careening car chases. And as boring. In their zealousness to thrill us with the effect , film makers have all but overlooked the affect . In more ways than one, space has become an awfully chilly place.

COMMENTARY This isn't to say that science fiction must radiate warmth--though the all-aglow "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" does seem to have been a catalyst in Hollywood's change-of-heart. "E.T." proved that state-of-the-art wizardry isn't enough. Human emotions also matter. Without them, science fiction is devoid of the two words that give it its allure. What if becomes so what ?

At its best, science fiction is meaningfully prophetic. At its most embarrassing, it tosses all probability to the wind for comic-strip tactics. After a heavy dosage--lately of the latter--the upcoming movies at least suggest promise.

What if some elderly earthlings had a rejuvenating close encounter with youthful aliens? Screenwriter Tom Benedek said he examined some of his own thoughts about aging for his adaptation of the Ron Howard-directed "Cocoon." (Like the recent "Starman," it will also involve a romance between an alien and an earthling.)

What if a high school science project, thrown together in the eleventh hour, yielded something far more significant than a good grade? Writer-director Jonathan Betuel (he also wrote "The Last Starfighter") said his "My Science Project" came from trips he took as a child. "We would always go past these junkyards. I got to thinking, suppose someone, from somewhere else, left something important in the middle of a junk heap?" In Betuel's script, a late-night raid to an Air Force supply dump ultimately propels two kids "up against another dimension, another time and another world." Rick Baker ("An American Werewolf in London") is among those conjuring up the film's effects, including "something from another world."

As (apparent) coincidence, and the industry's leaning toward youth themes would have it, "My Science Project" is one of a trio of films involving kids. In "Explorers," three 13-year-old boys put together their own spacecraft. According to director Joe Dante ("The Howling," "Gremlins"), the movie "is about believing in something enough to make it happen." The majority of the film takes place on Earth. What happens once the kids blast off remains pretty much a mystery. That is, Dante isn't talking. But since co-producer Ed Feldman has likened the film to "Tom Sawyer in Outer Space," and Rob Bottin ("The Howling," 1982's "The Thing") is at work on the special effects, we can surmise that the kids will encounter some otherworldly types.

"Weird Science," also about science-tampering teens, finds a couple of them conjuring up a dream girl, played by Kelly Le Brock (who sharpened her dream-girl skills in "The Woman in Red"). While this one smacks of (sexual) fantasy rather than science fiction, it is also a variation on one of S-F's most enduring themes.

The first version of "Frankenstein" was released in 1910. Since that time, countless screen scientists (not all of them mad, not all descended from Baron von Frankenstein) have attempted to create life from the lifeless.

Given the day's headlines, the Frankenstein story (based on an 1816 novel by Mary Shelley) seems more topical than terrifying. And, in fact, director Franc Roddam has said that "The Bride," a new version of "The Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), will ring modern.

Indeed, while the setting is 19th Century, the names, led by rock star Sting and "Flashdance's" Jennifer Beals, are strictly contemporary. But will audiences still applaud a story (said to include elements of "Beauty and the Beast" and "Pygmalion") that ultimately takes a dark look at scientific exploration? Will they still buy the old "there are some things man was not meant to know" argument?

Since S-F themes are often used as metaphors, the answer is probably. Consider "Creator," starring Peter O'Toole as a Nobel Laureate biologist obsessed with cloning his dead wife. As director Ivan Passer ("Cutter's Way") has explained, beneath the film's scientific layer is a love story about a man who rechannels his values (thanks, in large part, to Mariel Hemingway, cast as a fetching 19-year-old student).

Said Passer: "Peter O'Toole's scientific activities represent his relationship with a wife who died 30 years ago. He's still attached to her, which protects him from the contemporary intrusions of people who are living right now. . . . This film is about what it means to be older, and not want to fall in love, and to be young and to be dying to fall in love."

By the same token, "Enemy Mine," about two warring fighter pilots of the future--one an Earthling, the other a hideous alien creature--is more than an exercise in warfare. If the story line sounds vaguely familiar, it's because it's been done before, in "Hell in the Pacific" and a dozen others about adversaries whose anger ultimately wears down to a kind of understanding (and often, respect) for one another. Yes, allegory can even embrace the hostile surface of the planet Fyrine 4.

Though post-apocalyptic tales also abound in symbolism, more often than not their appeal is more primitive than philosophical. In stories about the day (or week or month or year) after, it's near-impossible not to identify with at least one of the survivors, or, at the very least, to wonder how we would act in the aftermath of the unthinkable.

Would we be cool and unflinching and (wearing black leather) cruising empty roads in the last of the V-8 Interceptors? The saga that began with "Mad Max," and roared more urgently across the screen in "The Road Warrior," will continue with "The Road Warrior II," wherein Max will presumably rediscover his own humanity (after coming to the aid of a band of children).

Amid the ruin of civilization, the ragtag survivors of Earth will attempt to cling to what humanity remains in "Battlefield Earth." Based on the first 440 pages of the 1982 novel by L. Ron Hubbard (who wrote science-fiction stories during the '40s before achieving notoriety as founder of the Church of Scientology), the film (set to begin shooting in February) takes place in the aftermath of alien invasion. Producer Bill Immerman has noted: "The film's aliens have a highly technological society that has submerged human values. We can see, in them, where we might go if we don't watch ourselves."

For those who want chuckles with their cataclysm, "Radioactive Dreams" spoofs the post-nuclear world by unleashing two young men from a bomb shelter after 20 years spent reading pulp novels. The spoof finds them living up to their names of Philip and Marlowe.

Also on the lighter futuristic side: "The Stuff" lampoons the "you-are-what-you-eat" sensibility. As writer-director Larry Cohen has explained: "It's the first picture where the villain is a food (actually, an alien) that attacks people from the food chain." Offbeat aliens are the stuff of "When the Rain Begins to Fall." They're only six-inches tall--at least while they're in cold storage. After thawing out, they grow human-sized. One of them even falls in love with Pia Zadora. It all goes to show, even flights of fancy can have flights of fancy.

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