In a recent blog post author David Brin lists his favorite science fiction movies. Being a huge fan of the genre I was inspired to do the same.
SF in movies is all too often about blazing laser guns and explosions and not so much about the exploration of the human condition and our possible futures. For that, oftentimes you have to turn to written Science Fiction. But every now and then something good pops up. Here are some of my favorites and disappointments.
May contain spoilers!
The good ones:
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The idea that humanity needed a push to overcome the hump to sentience was a prevalent idea at the time, especially in the works of Clarke. The monolith provides that when it interferes with human evolution on a number of occasions, most notably when it teaches the apes to use tools. The film leans heavily on symbolism and metaphors that are open to interpretation but for me it was always a lot about the loneliness we feel as a species, not knowing if we’re alone or not, or who created us.
Blade Runner (1982)
If one had to pick a single movie as the best, this one would probably be my choice. Action, slow building suspense, a man wrestling with his own ethics, a bleak but not dystopian future, the rights of artificial life forms. This movie has it all. It bombed at the time, but has built up a cult following and is now more or less the favorite of everyone who is in the know.
Is Alien really SF, or just horror cliché. Well, it’s mostly the latter. Switch out The Nostromo for a haunted house and the Alien for an axe murderer and not much changes, but it was all done so well it still easily makes the list. Everything from the ultra-realistic acting, the sexual undertones (especially the attacks on male sexuality which was unprecedented at the time and still creepy today), the order of which the characters are killed off, to the set design, was and still is, brilliant. Scott was smart not to show the Alien too much. Nothing kills the mood in a horror flick like seeing the strings holding up the giant spider’s jaw, or crappy CGI.
Alien was not horror based on surprise, but rather anticipation. You have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen all along, and Scott counted on it. Then he dragged it out, and dragged it out, until you were at the edge of your seat. I’ve heard younger audiences accuse Alien of being a movie where “nothing happens”. It’s the slow mood building part of the first hour they are referring to. That’s how movies were made once upon a time, before we were taught that something had to explode every two seconds to be exciting.
Cameron’s sequel is almost as good as the original. A different kind of movie, with guns and marines, but it has all the trademark Cameron ingredients. Strong female characters, tough-but-vulnerable males and the two maternal instincts squaring it off at the end. Also, Michael Biehn.
The Terminator (1984)
Everyone knows The Terminator is about a cyborg from the future wreaking havoc in 1984 Los Angeles. But there’s another way to look at this film. A boy and girl from disparate worlds meet, they fall in love while trying to escape an inescapable threat. Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like another movie Cameron made, about say, 13 years later? (hint, the inescapable threat in that movie is the boat we all know is going to sink). Anyway, The Terminator was groundbreaking and, like Alien, spawned many carbon copies, some of which are now more well known that this brilliant low-budget sci-fi tale. A dystopian future, but from a time when the idea was still reasonably fresh. The best part is the build up, where two men arrive in flashes of light, one brute, one more vulnerable. They both seem to be looking for a woman. Why? Are they working together, are they not? Good stuff. Schwarzenegger is fun, but it is Michael Biehn that carries the movie.
The Abyss (1989)
The Abyss has the best character development of any science fiction movie I’ve seen. Every character not only plays a pivotal role in some fashion, they are fleshed out and given depth in a way that I’ve haven’t seen before or after. The preachy slap on the wrist ending I can live with, but the movie is at its best from the destruction of the Crane to the time when Bud dives for the bomb. Here, it’s a grueling close quarters thriller, a real nail biter, with outstanding acting from the entire cast. The special edition ending is possibly even more preachy, but at least it explains the otherwise puzzling turn of events. It also adds several scenes that makes you care more about the characters, which is always a good thing. This is probably Cameron’s best film. Also, Michael Biehn.
Not as complex as the book, but still a good movie. Real(ish!) science, aliens - but plausible ones we never really get to see. The religion versus science theme is hammered in a bit too hard but still good enough to make the list.
Features a portrayal of the future you almost always only find in written SF. In Gattaca we see a society with problems, but some things actually seem to work. We seemed to have solved some issues, but gained new ones as technology has developed. Just like in real life. Blade Runner is an example of this as well, but they are few and far between.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Aliens come to earth, they abduct and communicate with music. My favorite part of this is movie is Dreyfuss’s character. He’s not a super hero, just a regular guy. A family man, who rises to occasion. Spielberg always knew how to write characters. Another slow build up before the action begins. It was the way you made movies in the 70s.
Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
The best of the Star Trek movies. Unlike the predecessor, it had a distinct antagonist in the form of Khan. Faster pace, more action, but also emotion and things to ponder, like man playing God and creating life with devices that can be dangerous in the wrong hands. There are other Trek movies that are decent, but if you’re only seeing one, then Wrath of Khan has to be the one.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The best of the Star Wars movies. The heroes are on the run, it features a lot of Han Solo and then there’s the big surprise at the end, setting up for wonderful things to come. And nothing gets blow up from the inside.
Orwell’s classic, together with Huxley’s Brave New World are the best entries in the dystopia genre, one that Hollywood has rehashed hundreds of times. This British film is fairly close to the book and features nice performances from John Hurt, Suzanna Hamilton and Richard Burton. It was Burton’s last film.
Silent Running, Brazil, E.T., Moon, District 9, Forbidden Planet, Star Trek: First Contact, War of the Worlds, Solaris, Children of the Lost City, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Inception, Altered States, The Dead Zone, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, many others.
The disappointments - movies that promised so much, but ultimately didn't deliver
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
I disagree with Brin that T2 was better than the first one. It was clear to me when I saw this one that it was nothing more than a standard Hollywood production, without the edge and originality of the first one. Arnie was a big star by the time T2 came out and clearly everything had been streamlined to fit his needs rather than the movie’s. But it was all done with panache and flair so maybe this belongs in the fun and so-so category and not the disappointments.
Alien 3 and 4 (1992, 1997)
Alien 3 killed off Hicks and Newt off-screen(yes, it’s been 20+ years and I’m still pissed off about it!) and otherwise was nothing more than a poor rehash of the first one, with bald English actors you couldn’t tell apart from each other, and whose death you couldn’t give a rat’s ass about. Alien 4 was just more of the same, but with American accents and hair.
It was visually stunning, but otherwise nothing special. I’ve seen comparisons made to Dances with Wolves, and Aliens (the marines copy lines from Apone, the exosuit fight at the end etc), but these are all superficial. On a more fundamental level it is a copy of Cameron’s earlier, much better film, The Abyss. Humans engage in an endeavor that endangers morally superior, but vulnerable alien species (extraction of unobtainium in Avatar endangers the Na’vi vs. nuclear war in the Abyss endangers the water dwelling creatures). Good forces in humanity rise up and save the day and the aliens. Only with Avatar, Cameron’s view of humanity has darkened considerably. In The Abyss there was still hope for humanity, as represented by the reconciliation of Bud and Lindsey’s marriage, but in Avatar there is no redemption for humanity. Jake even has to literally abandon his humanity to stay good at the end of the movie. Or maybe he just did it for love, or to get his legs back, what do I know?
Star Wars, all of them except Empire (1976 - )
I was never a big fantasy fan, and Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction. I’ve always found that Fantasy glorifies the past, not the future. It glorifies feudalism and elitism. Switch out the space ships for horses, the light sabers for regular swords, and start calling The Force for what it really is - magic - then what you got is fantasy. Not a very good one, at that. See Lord of the Rings instead.
I understand why the science fiction community went all apeshit about this movie. Finally, there was an SF movie again with real space hardware, without lasers, massive machines blown up from the inside, flesh eating aliens or lame dystopian plot rehashes. But Gravity was in my view just a never ending engineering obstacle course without any plot or character development. I found myself not caring whether the characters lived or died. The little piece about Bullock losing her daughter they could just as well have left out. It was so little and felt so contrived it made things worse, not better. The bad science pointed out by Neil Tyson and others doesn’t matter. I can give a movie a lot of leeway if the story is good. Bad writing I cannot.
Other bad ones:
Event Horizon, All of Michael Bay’s movies, Riddick, Time Cop, Hollow man, anything based on Michael Crichton (science is bad and will morally corrupt and doom us!Always) the list goes on…
The so-so, but fun. Turn off your inner critic and just try to enjoy and these movies aren't too bad.
Total Recall (1990)
It's a Schwarzenegger movie and that of course gives it a certain character. A movie based on Philip K. Dick, the grand master of SF, and it's not so bad if you can get past Arnie.
The Fifth Element (1995)
Fairly stupid plot, but gorgeous to look at and quite fun.
Mad Max Trilogy (1979 -1985)
Another cold war era dystopia proceeding from the notion that humanity will eventually destroy itself. Still quite fun and the dystopia plot was fresher back in the early Eighties so I will include these instead of any of the newer ones.
Fun. Too much martial arts for my taste and the dime store philosophy doesn't hold if you dig a bit deeper, but the idea that we live in a simulation is true SF.
Seksmisja (Eng. title: Sex Mission) (1984)
Polish SF comedy about a future where a genetic bomb has exterminated all males. I suppose it doesn't fall into the realm of serious SF, but fun nontheless.
Based on the book by the above mentioned David Brin. The Postman was sawed to bits when relased but isn't nearly as bad as it was made out to be. It suffered, in my opionion from the then reputation of Costner for being a camera hogging narcissist. With any other actor it would've probably been much better recieved. Not as good or clever as the book, but still quite enjoyable and absolutely gorgeous to look at. The Postman (book as well as movie) is rare (even unique) in the post-apocalyptic genre in that it actually portrays civilization as something we would miss if it was gone, something that was fundamentally good and didn't deserve to be destroyed.
A dystopia, but perhaps one with a twist. Again, the idea wasn't done to death at the time so it gets to be on this list.
Alien in the jungle. Arnold again, but one of his better ones.
Some good old fashion space opera. Based on the short lived cult TV-series Firefly.