There's been a spate of SF and near-SF movies recently, the reviews of which helped me pull together a thesis or two.
On the one hand we have the well-reviewed and -received District 9. I'm extremely interested in seeing it, especially since people whose opinions I trust had intelligent things to say about it (a sign that the movie provokes thought in the best ways) — and since it managed to beat G.I. JOE in last weekend's box office, which I imagine for the studios is something like the mountain coming to Mohammed.
On the other hand, you have stuff like Benjamin Button and The Time Traveler's Wife. Both are examples of what I call "middlebrow SF": SF written by and for people who wouldn't be caught dead reading that s_____e f____n stuff. It's something that Hollywood has been going back and forth over for decades; this is just the latest burp from that particular case of neverending dyspepsia.
The big difference between these movies and something like, say, District 9, is to what end the ideas are used. One of the dangers of people with no experience writing SF (or something analogous to SF) is that when they attempt to slum it they often have no idea what to do with the ideas. They get mired right back down in the mundane. Button had a particularly chronic version of this problem: here is a guy who is aging backwards, forchrissakes, and not only is the protagonist weirdly incurious about this condition but so is everyone else around him. With Wife, you have time travel and all of its inherent problems (both inside and outside the story) used as a substitute for the other diseases of the month.
One defense that's been raised in favor of this approach is that by focusing on the person and not the "condition", or "gimmick", you get a more human story. Well, yes and no. It's always good to keep your focus on the character rather than his tropes. Batman's attitudes about social justice and his nascent guilt about his parents are more interesting material than his collection of gadgets. But there's a mile of difference between that and acting as if the only difference between Mr. Button and, say, the Elephant Man, is that the former actually got to be handsome for a little while.
I should underscore all of this with the admission that I haven't seen anything in the list yet; I'm going by concept alone. That's dangerous, and I know it. I fully expect to have most of what I say here changed after I watch all the movies I've talked about. That ought to be worth a discussion all its own.
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