Ten serious sci-fi films for the sentient fan
In space, no one can hear you ponder the eternal verities
Feature Zap guns, robots, lightspeed-smashing spaceships and bikini-busting princesses do not real science fiction make. Just ask George Lucas.
Star Wars defined movie SF in the mind of many a mainstream viewer. But while the film and its sequels and, er, prequels certainly provide the sci-fi enthusiast with thrills a-plenty - guilty or otherwise - they're not true science fiction. Or at least not good sci-fi. Cowboys and Indians in space - yes; SF - no.
Good science fiction, you see, is about big ideas. It's about exploring the human condition of the times in which it's written or filmed. Sorry, but a reducing good and evil to a force generated by intelligent bacteria in the blood of all living things is no meditation on the eternal verities.
Serious sci-fi can excite and delight, but it should also make you think. Star Wars pretty much lopped the legs off serious sci-fi movie-making with a scientifically implausible laser sword, but it didn't kill it off entirely. There have been some gems made since then.
Not that there were too many beforehand. The 1950s was dominated by alien invasion horror, while the 1960s saw sci-fi fall in popularity as it became clear human beings would soon be exploring space for real. Fortunately, the decade's troubles - the Cuban missile crisis, drug culture, Vietnam, a increasing emphasis on young consumers - provided fertile ground for a brief resurrection of good sci-fi flicks in the early 1970s.
The decade saw the release of the likes of The Andromeda Strain, Demon Seed, The Final Programme, The Illustrated Man, Logan's Run, The Omega Man, Slaughterhouse-Five, Westworld and more. Even Lucas' own THX 1138. But these are not among our top 10, presented below in release order.
As ever, feel free to disagree and tell us in the comments why we really, really should have had Amazon Women on the Moon in the list.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
You don't have to be of a religious bent to appreciate this 1951 second-coming parable. Angular-faced Michael Rennie's Klaatu doesn't have to be nailed to a tree to save us from our sins, but he does get shot by a GI with an itchy trigger finger, allowing him to sneak off and walk among us mortals for a brief time as the seemingly ordinary Mr Carpenter (Geddit?!?!)
War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing
Source: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Turns out we're not as bad a bunch as the militaristic response to the arrival of Klaatu's saucer in central Washington might suggest. If we can just get over our desire to blowing the seven shades out of each other, "Grow up or else" is Klaatu's dire warning at the end of the picture. A mere 11 years later, in 1962, we came awfully close to realising what he meant, and you have to wonder if we'll ever figure it out. Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do...
Writer Edmund H North
Notes Famous for the eerily silent robot, Gort, he of the tank-melting laser vision and smooth, jointless chassis. Klaatu barada nikto!
Yes, it's hard to take the baggy trousers, the cook who seems to have wandered straight off the set of South Pacific and Anne Francis' shockingly pointy chest seriously, but this was the 1950s, for Asimov's sake. If written SF had yet to break The Fuck Barrier, movie sci-fi was even more virginal, yet Forbidden Planet, in reworking the Immortal Bard's Tempest, presents an adventure that requires a brain to enjoy, not just a pair of eyes and a box of popcorn.
Bloody hell, it's the Krell
Source: Warner Home Video
You can't fault the special effects, courtesy of Disney's animators, especially the jaw-dropping cyclopean interiors of the Krell city. It's appropriate that their domain lies deep inside their world - Forbidden Planet is concerned with the interior, home of dangerous human emotions like lust, jealousy and monsters, monsters of the id...
Writer Cyril Hume
Notes Forever Jung, Forbidden Planet remains notable for its splendid, long pre-CGI effects, and for featuring Leslie "Police Squad" Nielsen in a serious role. Shamelessly ripped off in the Doctor Who story Planet of Evil.
Next page: 2001: A Space Odyssey
You put Zardoz in there but missed Silent Running?
Zardoz is terrible. Watched it a few months back and aside from some neat ideas and imagery its actually one of the worst films I have ever seen. A film so bad it actually hurts.
It's essentially takes what would make a good Doctor Who or Blakes 7 story and turns it into the longest 100 or so minutes of your life.
I wanted to like it, there of bits of it that I think are really quite good, but it's just a confused po-faced mess that gets worse as the movie progresses.
That said, you can pick Zardoz up for pennies on Amazon so if you are interested in such things (as I am) at least you don't have to pay through the nose to get a copy. Think mine literally cost me a few pence + the postage!
Oh, and one other thing: Dark Star
Dark Star was the first movie to show the non-utopian(*) version of the Sci-Fi space travel future: bored, lonely people in a cramped uncomfortable dirty spaceship with everything breaking down and going wrong and a disinterested planet Earth back home cutting off their funding.
(*) - Yes, I mean non-utopian as opposed to dystopian. I'm treating topianity as (at least) three-valued, and I don't think it's really about a dystopia
Bit of an underappreciated classic methinks. Directed by Katherine Bigelow who got the rights as part of her divorce settlement with James Cameron who wrote the script. It has dated a bit because they chose to set it in 2000 and the technology seems to involve MiniDiscs; but the idea of people recording their experiences seems somewhat prescient in the era of Google Glass.
The opening POV robbery is a work of genius and it has the amazing Angela Bassett as one of Cameron's strong female roles. There are a couple of incredibly violent scenes, including a rape, which some people might find too much.
Re: Wot, no Avatar?
I remember seeing Leslie Neilsen interviewed about his career. One of the things touched on was Forbidden Planet. He said that he thought he had it made when he did that. He was the hero, he got the girl, the reviews were good and it sold well. Pretty much everything an actor could ask for to endorse their credentials as a box office draw in a lead role.
He said he sat back and waited for the phone to ring. It never did and to this day he still wonders why it didn't.
I'm with him. I thought he was bloody brilliant in it.
Have to agree with most of these, though Zardoz does look very daft.
I've never watched it all in one sitting.
Have to agree about Star Trek, it's my favourite Trek film (providing you fast forward through the 'look at the cool spaceship' scenes).
What about 'Moon'? That's a corking modern science fiction film.