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July 20, 2012

Best Science Fiction Films (Movie Reviews)

Science fiction films don't need an introduction, let alone definition, as the genre has existed for as long as there are feature films: in 1902 already, Georges Melies' A Trip to the Moon amazed audiences with its trick photography effects. The next major example came from Germany in 1927: Metropolis by Fritz Lang. While during the 1930s, 40s and 50s the genre consisted mainly of low-budget B-movies aimed at children (although there are a couple of good noir films as well), a  landmark came in 1968 with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. In France, too, some good and serious films were made in the 60s. From the late 1970s on, following in the wake of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, big-budget science fiction films packed with special effects became popular. The 1980s and 1990s were a golden time for SF films. In the present century, the genre has gradually become lost in "computer game" films only after visual effects.

I discuss ten of my favorite films from the late 1950s on, leaving out subgenres as monster films and disaster films, which can better stand on their own.
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) by Don Siegel and with Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter and Larry Gates. A small-town doctor discovers that due to an extra-terrestrial invasion the population of his local community is being replaced by alien clones devoid of any emotion or individuality. The film has been interpreted as an indictment of both Communism and McCarthyism, but the director said he meant it more broadly: "I think that the world is populated by pods and I wanted to show them. I think so many people have no feeling about cultural things, no feeling of pain, of sorrow..." (quoted from Wikipedia). How scary it is to loose one's personality and humanity, is made vividly clear by Don Siegel. This is not only a great and concise scifi film, but also one of the best noir films ever made. Criterion essay. (9)
  • The Blob (1958) by Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. and with Steve Mcqueen and Naeta Corsaut. Independent production. An alien resembling a giant amoeba-like blob of jelly lands on earth from outer space and terrorizes a small community. The locals refuse to listen to a group of teenagers who have witnessed the blob's destructive power. In the meantime, the Thing just keeps growing, by ingesting more and more inhabitants, turning red by their blood. The lethal lump can't be killed, but finally a solution is found. Campy fun (with a tongue-in-cheek opening song by Burt Bacharach), typical of 1950s schlock sci-fi. Or is there something deeper as well - is the blob's hungry mass perhaps symbolic of the fast growth of consumerism in the 50s? Criterion essay one and two.  (7) 
  • Alphaville (1965) by Jean-Luc Godard and with Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina and Akim Tamiroff. A trenchcoat-wearing secret agent with a characteristic weathered visage has been sent to the space city of Alphaville, the capital of a technocratic dictatorship, to find a missing person and free the city from its tyrannical ruler, an evil scientist who has outlawed love and self-expression and rules with the help of a supercomputer, Alpha 60 (the terribly croaking speech synthesizer with which this computer "speaks" is the only defect in the film).. In this weird world women are bar-coded (many of them work as "Seductress Third Class"), and dictionaries are bibles but words as "conscience" or "tenderness" are banned and crossed out. People who don't fit in are executed via a pool-side ceremony - female swimmers pull the bodies out of the water. A combination of dystopian science fiction with film noir that foregoes special effects or elaborate sets, but has been shot at night in the Parisian suburbs. “What transforms darkness into light?” “La poèsie.” Criterion essay. (8.5)
  • Fahrenheit 451 (1966) by Francois Truffaut and with Oskar Werner, Julie Christie and Cyril Cusack. After the novel by Ray Bradbury. In an oppressive future, books have been banned by a government fearing an independent-thinking public. People are drugged into compliance and get their (dis-) information from wall-length television screens. Books are destroyed by groups of firemen with flamethrowers. The film tells the story of one such fireman, who begins to question his task when he falls in love with an unconventional neighboring girl who secretly reads books. In the end, both escape to the countryside where they find groups of Book People trying to keep the cultural tradition alive. In the beautiful climax we see the Book People walk through a snowy countryside reciting the poetry and prose they've memorized. An indictment of all forms of tyranny over the human mind. (8.5)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Stanley Kubrick and with Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood and William Sylvester. Iconic "cult film," in which traditional narrative has been replaced by a purely cinematic audiovisual spectacle. The Dawn of Man opening sequence is very impressive: a group of early humans learns how to use a bone as a weapon and so take the next evolutionary step; when hurled into the air, the bone changes into an earth orbiting satellite. The film tells about the appearance of a mysterious black monolith on the moon that has apparently been influencing human evolution (it is perhaps a token sent by a more advanced civilization). The monolith emits a signal that points at Jupiter so a group of astronauts, led by the "infallible," intelligent computer H.A.L. 9000, is sent on a secret mission to the giant planet. The psychedelic light-show at the end of the film is perhaps a curio from the bygone 1960s, but the "star child" idea - the astronaut regressing into a fetus staring from afar at the earth - is very beautiful - it signifies a new beginning for mankind. The pioneering special effects found throughout remain impressive and 2001 has been called a "creative Big Bang" by other film makers. This is a film of pure, nonverbal beauty. (9)
  • Alien (1979) by Ridley Scott and with Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt and John Hurt. Scifi horror with impressive images based upon the work of Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger, who also cooperated on the film and won an Academy award for his design. A highly aggressive extraterrestrial creature stalks and one by one kills the crew of a spaceship. The bio-mechanical monster with its elongated head and mouth full of steel teeth (and second mouth inside the first one) is the most frightening thing to appear in the history of film. Initially, just out of its egg, it hugs the face of one of the crew members, and then hides inside his body, suddenly bursting forth from his chest. A complicating factor is that one of the crew members is a crypto-robot, working against the others to save the monster and bring it back to earth. A film that will have you on the edge of your seat! (9)
  • Blade Runner (1982) by Ridley Scott and with Harrison Ford, Sean Young and Rutger Hauer. After a story by Philip K. Dick. Beautifully filmed images of a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles overpopulated by Asians, in a retro-fitted style, but the story, a clichéd detective yarn, is a bit of a letdown. A "Blade Runner" (a futuristic, burnt out Philip Marlowe) has to track down and kill ("retire") a small group of rebel android "replicants." These are organic robots meant to do hard work in space and forbidden to visit the earth. As a safety measure, they only have a lifespan of four years - now four of them have come down to earth and are looking for the corporate head that created them in order to force him to let them live longer. That makes them very human, for what is after all the difference of a few score years? The leader of the replicants also saves the life of the detective, but his kindness only serves to offset the cruelty of the blade runner who coldly exterminates them - including two women. The film rightly puts in doubt whether he is really human. An excellent neo-noir (at a nicely slow pace) with a well-deserved cult status. (8)
  • The Fly (1986) by David Cronenberg and with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. A remake of the 1958 film The Fly, of which it retains only the basic premise of a scientist accidentally merging with a housefly during a teleportation experiment. The first half of the film lets us get acquainted with the scientist and a female journalist he has picked up at a party - when asked for something personal to be used in a demonstration of teleportation, she removes one of her stockings. They agree that she will document his experiments and write a book about it, and become lovers on the side. The accident with the fly happens when the scientist is in a jealous rage because his reporter-cum-girlfriend has left to straighten things out with a former partner. After that the film zooms in on the slow transformation and progressive decomposition of the human body and what it does to the owner. This has been interpreted as a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic that started in the 1980s, but it can also be seen as symbolic for illness and old age in general.  On top of everything, the girlfriend discovers she is pregnant and thinks with dread about the monster that may be gestating in her womb... Great special effects, with Academy Award-winning makeup. (9)
  • Total Recall (1990) by Paul Verhoeven and with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Tricotin, Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside. Based on a story by Philip K. Dick. In 2084, a construction worker visits a memory-implant travel service to transport him to Mars for an adventure trip. After arriving at Mars, he realizes that his life on earth was in fact a set of artificial memories, implanted by his enemies to take him out of action. In reality, he is a secret agent fighting against the evil Mars administrator Cohaagen. What follows is series of breath-taking, tense action sequences. As Cohaagen controls the Mars population by manipulating the supply of oxygen, his power can be neutralized by restarting an oxygen generator, that will create a normal atmosphere on Mars. Complex and visually mesmerizing, with wonderful make-up effects - and Schwarzenegger for once is not a macho type, but just a confused guy, allowing him the opportunity to really act. There are also some interesting mutants in Venusville, the red light district on Mars. (8)
  • The Cell (2000) by Tarsem Singh and with Penelope Lopez, Vince Vaughn and Vincent D'Onofrio. A mixture of science fiction with a psychological thriller about a serial murderer a la Hannibal Lecter. A psychotherapist is adept at an experimental treatment which allows her mind to literally enter the mind of her patients. She is persuaded by an FBI agent to enter the mind of a comatose serial killer in order to learn where he has hidden his latest kidnap victim - who over a 40 hour period is slowly being drowned in a glass tank ("the cell"). In a race against time, the psychotherapist has to explore the twisted mind of the killer to get the information she needs, but his damaged personality poses a threat to her own life and sanity. Great visuals, and beautiful costumes by Eiko Ishioka of "Dracula" fame. Despite the pyrotechnics, this is a film that cares about its characters, and that poses important questions, as: how can an ordinary child become such an inhuman monster? (8)
  • Solaris (2002) by Steven Soderbergh and with George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. Based on the novel by Stanislav Lem and the 1972 legendary movie by Tarkovsky. A psychological drama in the guise of a scifi film. A troubled psychologist is sent to investigate the crew of an isolated research station orbiting a bizarre planet, whose ocean functions as a huge, fluid-like brain.This "brain" may be responsible for the mental disruptions the crew members experience - it apparently gives life to the contents of the unconscious mind. In the station, the psychologist meets his deceased wife, with whom he had a passionate relationship before she committed suicide. It is of course not really his wife - she is an amalgam of his memories of her that have taken physical shape. But our memories of even those closest to us are never the complete, other person - we always know others only partially, and on top of that, through our own prejudices. The wife is suicidal, she complains, because that is how her husband views her. While we see his previous life with his wife on earth via flashbacks, the psychologist struggles with his memories and his feelings of regret and tries to find an opportunity for a second chance. Not a special effects extravaganza, but rather a sharp and incisive exploration of the unreliability of reality and the power of the human unconscious. (9)