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This is a companion article to one I wrote for Realms of Fantasy a few months back. Instead of writing yet another article about the thirteen best science fiction films we've all seen (you know, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Alien, etc.), I thought it'd be a lot more interesting to take the road less traveled and examine some SF films which are less well-known, often undeservedly so.
A quick disclaimer: please pardon the hyperbole of the article title. If you're a SF film buff, you've almost certainly seen some of the films listed below. But I'm hoping I listed a few you haven't seen, as well. Or you may know of a film that certainly deserves inclusion on such a list, but which I neglected to mention. If that's the case, write in and let us all know about it.
As I noted in Realms of Fantasy, the task of choosing which thirteen films was made more difficult by the old definitions debate: what makes a film science fiction, as opposed to fantasy or horror? Often movies blur the line between these genres. Are the Alien movies SF, horror or both? And even when you settle on a workable definition of SF, where do you draw the line? I've included a few movies which certainly stress the definition to its breaking point, but I hope you'll give them a try anyway. The penultimate difficulty is in the inclusion of cult movies like THX-1138. Such movies might not make standard "10 Best" lists, and yet many SF fans have seen and enjoyed them. Finally, how do you choose the best thirteen movies out there?
I decided on a few criteria. First and foremost I wanted to find films that are currently available for video rental (Chris Marker's superb La Jetee, the short film that inspired 12 Monkeys, lost out here--while it can be seen at conventions and in university film courses, it's not easily found for rental). I've gone ahead and included a cult film or two because I think they're particularly worth mentioning. Lastly, I've made judgment calls about drawing the line between science fiction, horror, fantasy and even mainstream.
So here they are, in no particular order: thirteen SF films that will amuse, delight and challenge. They should all be seen more often than they are.
Quatermass 2 (1957, British, 84 minutes, black-and-white), also known as Enemy From Space is the second of four Hammer Studios movies about the heroic scientist Bernard Quatermass. The third entry in the series, 1968's Quatermass and the Pit (a.k.a. Five Million Years to Earth) is perhaps the best known in the U.S., and is very much worth seeing for its stunning finale. You may have to look a bit harder to find a copy of Quatermass 2, but your efforts will be well rewarded. This film has strong echoes of both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Village of the Damned, as the indefatigable Dr. Quatermass (Brian Donlevy in a no-nonsense performance) discovers that aliens are not only taking over human bodies, but have actually established an industrial/military colony in what was once a small British hamlet. Tension and paranoia escalate as Quatermass' attempts to expose the alien threat are thwarted again and again. Director and co-screenwriter (with Nigel Kneale) Val Guest keeps the plot (and the monsters) bubbling until the creepy, spectacular climax.
Seconds (1966, 106 minutes, black-and-white) is director John Frankenheimer's most blatantly science fictional film (check out Seven Days in May and The Manchurian Candidate, as well), and yet it still passes as a mainstream examination of identity and the cult of youth. John Randolph plays an aging, unhappy New York banker who signs up with a secretive organization to have a series of surgical procedures, emerging as a younger man (Rock Hudson, in one of his best performances). After feigning death, he travels to California to become an artist. Troubles arise when he has difficulty adjusting to his new life, and asks the organization for yet another identity, leading to the genuinely disturbing finale. Watch for Will Geer's unsettling supporting performance and James Wong Howe's striking, surrealistic cinematography.
Fahrenheit 451 (1967, 111 minutes, color), director Francois Truffaut's only English language film, is an adaptation of Ray Bradbury's well-known novel. Oskar Werner plays the futuristic fireman who starts fires in order to burn books. He also succumbs to the lure of the forbidden, and becomes an avid reader. Ironically, the anti-censorship message of the movie is marred by a scathing attack on television, but the story of the film will hold your interest, thanks to Werner's sympathetic performance. An in-joke features an issue of Cahiers du Cinema (the film criticism journal Truffaut wrote for before becoming a director) in a pile of burning books. The movie also features one of Bernard Herrmann's more memorable scores.
12:01 (1993, made for television, 92 minutes, color) is based on an Academy Award-nominated short film by the same name. Jonathan Silverman plays a mild-mannered clerk at a research facility who unwittingly becomes trapped in a time-loop, where he is destined to relive the same 24 hours over and over again. As he seeks to solve the dilemma, he falls in love with a researcher (Helen Slater) who may hold the key to the time loop. While Groundhog Day, which came out the same year, treats the exact same idea as a fantasy, 12:01 (which, it should be noted, was released first) takes a more science fictional approach. Silverman and Slater are both appealing, and the movie generates considerable tension in its second half. Look for Martin Landau in a supporting role. Well worth checking out. Directed by Jack Sholder.
Alphaville (1965, French, 95 minutes, black-and-white) was written and directed by French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. Essentially a collision between film noir thriller and science fiction dystopia story, Alphaville follows the private eye Lemmy Caution (played by popular French actor Eddie Constantine) as he travels to the futuristic city of of the title, seeking Dr. Von Braun (Howard Vernon), a scientist who created the computer, Alpha 60, which controls both the city and its dronelike inhabitants. Godard uses the story as a springboard for examinations of semiotics and the dehumanizing effect of technology, and the results won't appeal to every taste. Godard chose a French Algerian actor with a throat disorder to perform the distorted, gravelly voice of the sinister Alpha 60, with memorable results.
1984 (1984, British, 115 minutes, color) has got to be one of the most depressing movies ever made, which is a testament to director Michael Radford's determination to capture the grim oppression at the heart of George Orwell's classic novel. And capture it, he does. The always reliable John Hurt is excellent as Winston Smith, and Richard Burton delivers a disturbingly sinister performance (his last one) as O'Brien, Smith's interrogator at the Ministry of Love. Appropriately gritty production design. A must-see, even if you can only make it through once.
Miracle Mile (1988, 87 minutes, color) is an astonishingly gripping movie, based on an irresistible premise. Anthony Edwards (ER) plays a trombonist in Los Angeles who answers a ringing pay phone in the wee hours of the morning outside an all-night diner. He hears a panicked young man who says he's calling from a nuclear missile silo, that they've just launched their birds, and only 70 minutes remain until the missiles from the Soviet counterstrike hit America. Is the the call an elaborate prank? Or is it real? Writer/director Steve de Jarnatt masterfully, relentlessly cranks up the suspense as waves of hysteria radiate outward from the diner. Excellent performances by Edwards, Mare Winningham, Mykel T. Williams and Denise Crosby, along with a jaw-dropping finale, make Miracle Mile a genuine sleeper. Don't miss it.
Solaris (1972, Russian, 165 minutes, color) is a lush, gorgeously photographed adaptation of the novel by Stanislaw Lem. Solaris is a gargantuan, ocean-like, apparently intelligent organism inhabiting the surface of an alien planet. Earth has built an airborne station above the organism to study it, but the researchers are suffering from hallucinations and severe depression. A psychologist (Donatas Banionis) is sent to the station to investigate and determine whether the project should be shut down. Once there, he finds himself confronted with his ex-wife (Natalya Bondarchuk), who committed suicide several years before. The researchers claim she is a "guest," a Solaris-induced manifestation of the psychologist's subconscious, and possibly evidence that Solaris is attempting to communicate.
At nearly 3 hours, this movie takes its time to set up its central conflict and thematic material, but it's utterly engrossing for most of its length, and the ending is as enigmatic as Solaris itself. Vadim Tusov's cinematography is hypnotically beautiful. A superior achievement by director Andrei Tarkovsky.
A Boy and His Dog (1975, 87 minutes, color) is the cult favorite, based on the award-winning novella by Harlan Ellison. Young punk Don Johnson scavenges the post-apocalypse landscape, accompanied by his intelligent, telepathic dog Blood, until he is lured underground by inhabitants of a bizarre "utopia," (one of whom is played by Jason Robards). There's plenty of black humor, social satire and a great twist ending, in which Johnson finally gets his priorities straight. Written and directed by L.Q. Jones.
The Quiet Earth (1985, New Zealand, 100 minutes, color) is an offbeat take on the "last man on Earth" story. A scientist (Bruno Lawrence) wakes up one morning to find that every human being on the planet has apparently vanished without a trace. He suspects that the project he's been working on is responsible for disrupting the fabric of reality, and there's evidence that the situation is still unstable. Suffering from loneliness, the scientist attempts to see if there's anyone else out there in the world, and finds a woman (Alison Routledge) and another man, a descendant of Maori warriors (Peter Smith), which sets the gears of the Eternal Triangle subplot spinning. Geoff Murphy's direction is thought-provoking, and his eye for mood and detail keeps the movie interesting throughout.
Dark Star (1974, 83 minutes, color) is another cult favorite. Begun as a USC film school project and later expanded for theatrical release, Dark Star is a collaboration between Dan O'Bannon (Alien) and John Carpenter (Escape From New York). They co-wrote the screenplay, Carpenter directed, and O'Bannon starred as Sgt. Pinback (as well as providing the voice for a mutinous thermostellar bomb). Three spaced-out astronauts battle cabin fever and malfunctions aboard their ship on their mission to bomb unstable planets. Nominally a spoof of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dark Star also serves up hints of movies to come with its beach-ball alien escaping into the air-shafts. The movie looks terrific, despite a shoestring budget.
Enemy Mine (1985, 108 minutes, color), is a movie based on a novella by Barry B. Longyear which was inspired, coincidentally enough, by another movie. Longyear borrowed the idea of Hell in the Pacific (with Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune) for his story of two soldiers from opposing sides in an interstellar war. Both are stranded on a hostile alien planet, and must overcome their hatred for each other in order to survive. Dennis Quaid is the Earthling and Louis Gossett, Jr. is the reptilian Drac. The movie boasts excellent production values, good performances and Wolfgang Peterson's fine direction, but it fizzled at the boxoffice, nevertheless. Luckily, it's on video, so check it out.
Brother From Another Planet (1984, 104 minutes, color) is writer/director John Sayles' beguiling story of a mute renegade alien, expressively played by Joe Morton (Aliens), who crashlands in Harlem and is accepted by the locals. Morton's Brother, who can heal wounds and fix video machines with a touch of his hand, serves as a perfect foil for a variety of characters, all affectionately observed, and all spouting Sayles' quirky, thoughtful dialogue. Sayles appears in a comedic role as an alien bounty hunter. Funny, imaginative and bittersweet, Brother From Another Planet shows just how good a movie made on a shoestring budget can be.
Copyright 1996 Sovereign Media Co., Inc. & 1996 by Dan Perez. All rights reserved.