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As the Millennium Closes In, Are Americans Searching for the Big Answers in Sci-Fi?

May 12, 1997|STEVEN SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You don't have to watch the skies or surf the Internet. It's official: The aliens are landing this month.

And in June, July and August.

This summer, studios are boldly going where their competition is going: into deep space, as a record number of big-budget science-fiction films vie for mainstream crowds and repeat-viewing fans.

The battle began last week, with director Luc Besson's $90-million futuristic fantasy "The Fifth Element," starring Bruce Willis. By the end of August, it will be joined by "Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World," the sci-fi comedy "Men in Black," Jodie Foster in director Robert Zemeckis' "Contact," the sequel "Mortal Kombat Annihilation," Laurence Fishburne in the space ghost tale "Event Horizon" and the comic-book-derived "Spawn."

And that's not counting two sprawling productions planned for summer, but pushed back to fall: Paul Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers" and chapter four in Fox's franchise, "Alien Resurrection."

In space, no one can hear you scream--but here on Earth, you can hear a few anxious whispers over whether there are too many sci-fi films out there.

"I tried to get Zemeckis to move 'Contact,' " says "Men in Black" director Barry Sonnenfeld half-jokingly, "because he's coming a week after I am. And he's a big, manly director."

Likewise, "The Fifth Element," which grossed an estimated $17.2 million this weekend, will feel the breath of "The Lost World," which stakes its ground on May 23.

At least half these films hover around a $100-million price tag, but it doesn't take Mulder and Scully to see why studios are willing to gamble: the right "event film" could be the next "Independence Day" or "Star Wars."

"The fan base of science fiction goes 10 times," explains "Mortal Kombat" producer Larry Kasanoff. "Those kids get out of the theater and go right back in line." (The first "Mortal Kombat" feature grossed over $120 million worldwide, while last summer's "Independence Day" took in over $800 million.)

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Those same hard-core fans also create worldwide publicity, by trading reviews and other comments on the Internet. The surprise success of "Stargate" in 1994 was credited in part to a campaign targeting Net users; since then, Hollywood has become increasingly slick at luring genre buffs with Web sites, downloadable film clips, personal e-mail and other electronic honey.

"We had a teaser trailer [on the Net] for one minute, unannounced," Kasanoff recalls. "In one day, it led to hundreds of sites and thousands of e-mails."

But science-fiction cinema is almost as old as film itself; why so much alienation this summer? Movie-makers and sociologists have several theories:

No. 1: It's part of Millennium Fever, as an anxious planet approaches the year 2000 (or strictly speaking, 2001).

"The millennium is taken by many people as an excuse to obsess about where we're going in society," says Stephen O'Leary, an associate professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, and author of the forthcoming book "A Prescription for Millennium Fever."

"There's a distinct element of hope and fear . . . and film serves a function similar to the great narratives of popular religions in previous centuries.

"When you walk into a theater, you may not really believe in aliens, but you suspend your disbelief to enjoy a film. And when you walk out, something has been chipped in your mind. The line between fact and fiction is eroding."

Which leads to . . .

Theory No. 2: America is going through a nationwide spiritual malaise that seeks answers in a mix of religion and technology--i.e. sci-fi. Exhibit A: the Hale-Bopp-chasing Heaven's Gaters.

Theory No. 3: We're running out of human bad guys.

"It gets harder and harder to have villains that are politically correct," says Barry Sonnenfeld. "The great thing is, at the moment, there's not a very strong alien support group. You can shoot them, kill them, jail them without offending people."

And finally, Theory No. 4: Today's science fiction is the fact of tomorrow.

Laments "Mortal Kombat's" Kasanoff: "The hardest thing about being a science-fiction producer is putting the fiction in it. You develop a movie about genetic research cloning and realize somebody cooked up a sheep in a lab.

"I can fly from London to New York in 2 1/2 hours, open my computer, see dailies of my movie online in my hotel and e-mail notes, all in four hours.

"The world is on the verge of such enormous change, and movies are always a way of helping a culture swallow and understand something new. It's cathartic."

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This summer's crop seems especially well tuned to the zeitgeist. "Contact" (which spent 20 years floating in development) explores the interaction between earth and an alien life form--shades of last year's discovery of possible life on Mars, and cult beliefs that Hale-Bopp guided extraterrestrial hosts.

"Jurassic" and the fall release "Alien Resurrection" deal with the ominous possibilities of scientific reproduction. Today a sheep named Dolly--so why not a stegosaurus?

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