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Future Perfect: a Top 10 Science Fiction Films
by Richard Bowden
Having occupied directors from Georges Méliès to Steven Spielberg, science fiction cinema's history is perhaps most conveniently divided into before and after Star Wars. For it was George Lucas' groundbreaking epic which kicked the genre into the ionosphere, coincidentally at the same time as the last gasp of the Western. In retrospect, the market Lucas' films
found (that of an adolescent audience starved of such product), is so obvious that the coming of the
'Force' seems inevitable. Before 1977 there were plenty of SF films of course: the high art product
epitomised by Fritz Lang, James Whale's gothic extravaganza Bride Of Frankenstein (1935); the
notable H.G. Wells adaption Things To Come (1936), the invasion cycle of the 1950s, and the
1960s' colour kitsch of Barbarella (1968) amongst them. But the universe changed when Luke
Skywalker discovered his father was a raspy voiced villain in black, and today science fiction and
fantasy are as familiar to us thorough the large and small screens as, well, Captain Kirk's famous
Whether or not much of the product is worthwhile is another matter, and serious speculation remains as rare as it ever was. The following ten films, given in no particular order, are personal choices, although there is a greater degree of consensus in this area than one might expect.
Utilising a cast of thousands, and setting a standard for futuristic vision which is still a benchmark, Lang's masterpiece is an astonishing achievement. While to modern viewers the romantic elements can seem dated, and the workers and thinkers confrontation laboured, such elements as the city-concept, Maria the robot, and the manipulation of the masses still seem astonishingly modern.
Rock composer Giorgio Moroder colourised and cut the original version (210 minutes when premiered, now usually 140) to a much tauter 80 minutes for his 1984 release, but although it reached a new audience, a lot of the original's majesty was lost. With the benefit of complete artistic control and large resources Lang was drawn to the science fiction genre a couple of times before his forced emigration to the USA. He also made the less successful Frau im Mond (aka: Woman In The Moon, 1929) which included the first on-screen countdown. Metropolis is also notable for its prescience in anticipating the Nazi super-state.
Blade Runner (1982) [magazine]
Ridley Scott's dark film of replicants and noir influenced an entire generation of SF filmmakers. Harrison Ford reputedly disliked the director, but ironically gave one his best performances as Rick Deckard, android-hunter, his world-weariness a shock in his first genre film after Star Wars. After initial commercial indifference, Blade Runner's reputation grew through revivals until its continuing revival prompted a director's cut a decade after the original release. Author Philip K. Dick lived just long enough to see an early version of the film and, after initial scepticism, gave Scott's vision his full approval. Dick's work, in which he characteristically examines what makes a human, has been used several times to great effect on screen, notably in Total Recall (1990) the low-budget Screamers (1995) and Spielberg's forthcoming Minority Report. The issue of whether Deckard is human or machine exercised fans after the initial release, partly due to ambiguities of the studio cut. Scott has subsequently confirmed this suggestion.
Star Wars (1977)
The film which announced the existence of a massive teen market to Hollywood, and set in motion an equally large franchise that still rolls on today with the impending release of Attack Of The Clones. Although The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is praised more highly by fans, this was the one which really set the world alight. By combining heroic stereotypes, religious archetypes and a gentle homage to the serials of the 1930s, Lucas created a vision which was both startlingly fresh and reassuringly familiar. The recent reissue of this classic, complete with state of the art special effects, only served to emphasise how youthful Lucas' vision was. It was also apparent that, in the best sense, much of its original charm was through a naivete which the director has found harder to recreate.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, this was one of the first films to step away from traditional B-movie presentation, showing that science fiction can be a success when produced in colour and to a large budget. Walter Pidgeon is Morbius/Prospero, his 'Ariel' Robby the Robot, stranded together with his daughter on the mysterious Altair-4, once inhabited by the Krell 200,000 years before, now menaced by the unstoppable 'Id'. Robby appeared in a little known sequel The Invisible Boy (1957) and created a big enough impression to influence the creators of the TV series Lost In Space. Somewhat pompous as an actor, Pidgeon is less of a stuffed shirt here than in another genre outing of his, Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, made five years later. His notable tour of the Krell workings, huge installations waiting to be brought fully to life probably inspired similar scenes under Mars in Verhoeven's enjoyable Total Recall.
The Id monster is a unique creation, both subtle and intellectually intriguing at the same time. Forbidden Planet, as some have observed, is one of those films to which earlier works evolved, while at the same time it is pointing the way ahead.
Science fiction as sociology, rather than technology. Jean-Luc Godard's striking film contains little of the hardware (apart from an asthmatic computer) common to the genre. Instead, this wild adaption of a script by Peter Cheney, focuses on investigator Lemmy Caution (the veteran thriller actor Eddie Constantine, whose noir-type presence anticipates Blade Runner) and his arrival on an alien planet, still recognisably Paris, Earth. As one critic observed, here is a "familiar character transposed from a familiar milieu into a parallel universe, where everything appears to be superficially familiar (?) shown to be a distortion of what we see in our own world - a kind of Humphrey Bogart through the Looking Glass." Comedy, noir, and science fiction - Godard juggles several genres with ease and the fascinating result is one of this directors most audacious films, one which has had influence on such later works as Lars Von Trier's Element Of Crime (1984). Godard's actress of choice, Anna Karina, with whom he made many of his greatest films, co-stars.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) [magazine]
Generally hailed as one of the inspirational movies of all time, 2001 still confounds as a film which implies more than it says. The Arthur C. Clarke story upon which it was based was more explicit; Stanley Kubrick removed some of the expository material to create less of a tale of first contact than a meditation on the progress of the human animal towards the infinite. Viewers in the late 1960s found the psychedelic trip to the 'next stage' very much to their liking, and the director's characteristic coolness found compatibility in a tale featuring an intelligent computer and the vast reaches of space. Kubrick's perfectionism, allied with the ground-breaking special effects, meant that much of this remains stunning, and the introduction of Strauss' music to the cosmic landscape inspired.
Ridley Scott's Alien, a haunted house tale set in outer space, was tremendously successful and a sequel was inevitable. James Cameron's film retained the gothic overtones of the original, but added a muscularity and energy all of his own, creating an excitement in a genre which can too often be portentous or overly cerebral...
The premise of a group of professionals sent to the brink, their comradeship under stress, initially recalls Howard Hawks (who made a notable precursor in The Thing, 1951). The gung-ho mood is soon replaced by panic, mayhem and a feminist subtext, characteristic of Cameron's work, as survivor Ripley's fights against the mother creature. ("Get away from her, you bitch!") A director's cut added context to an already exciting and successful film, the Die Hard of 1980s' science fiction. Cameron, of course, also made the highly influential The Terminator films and is at work on 'Terminator 3'.
Planet Of The Apes (1968)
The uneven remake notwithstanding, Franklin J. Schaffner's version of Pierre Boulle's novel Monkey Planet was effective enough to inspire several sequels - Beneath The Planet Of The Apes being the best - and a TV series. With a standout score by Jerry Goldsmith, great cinematography, a moment of cultural catharsis to treasure ("Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!"), complete with a famous end shot this film was the best of several SF films made by Charlton Heston at the turn of the 1960s. The concept seems to have struck a chord with Schaffner, as his work establishing landscapes, and on the hunting of the humans sequence in particular, is surely his finest. Boulle's original, a somewhat clunky allegory, is turned into something vastly entertaining and extremely memorable and along with 2001 of the same year (which arrived with considerably more fanfare) is a highpoint of the decade.
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
"Gort! Klaatu berada! nikto!" Robert Wise, who also made a clutch of notable noirs, brings a suitable sense of paranoia and threat to this film, arguable the finest of the 1950s' invasion cycle. Much of its success is predicated around the reversal of genre expectations. The 'alien', as played by a perfectly cast Michael Rennie, is not so much threatening as cosmically perturbed and benign. Rather than the overgrown reptile or bug-eyed monster rampage common to science fiction films of the time, the robot Gort is a far more daunting adversary to contemplate: a convincing metal monolith holding unspoken, awesome power. The invasion and threats made to the human race, brought on by the world's selfishness, is 'justified', the strictures involved eerily anticipating America's modern day role as 'world policeman'. Wise's film, complete with strong religious overtones and pacifist message, was brave for its time, and its lack of hysteria has kept its reputation high amongst fans. Bernard Herrmann's score was the most radical and effective for a film of this type until Planet Of The Apes.
Dr Strangelove (1964)
The second Kubrick film in my top ten, and from this accounting he can be regarded as the greatest science fiction director of all time.
Dr Strangelove is contemporary (being grounded in the cold war), and darkly humorous where 2001 is not, the claustrophobia of its black and white interiors contrasting with the astral vistas of the later, colour film. Peter Sellars' multi-role performance is perhaps his finest, while General Jack D. Ripper's speech about "precious bodily fluids" brings the house down. A comparison with Sidney Lumet's glum Fail Safe, made at the same time (1964), brings home just how great Kubrick's baroque achievement is and the result has hardly dated at all.