50 essential sci-fi films â part five
With JJ Abrams's 'Star Trek' already making waves and McG's 'Terminator Salvation' peeking up over the horizon, Time Out thought it would be a perfect time to select 50 essential sci-fi films, some of them classics, some not so classic, but all need to be seen...
41. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)Directed by Irvin KershnerLove the innocence of the first movie all you want, appreciate ‘Jedi’ for its epic qualities, or those (shudder) prequels for their universe-expanding inventiveness. But the consensus is pretty much fixed: ‘Empire’ is the ‘Star Wars’ movie to beat ’em all. And not just for its ‘dark’ tone and downbeat ending: ‘Revenge of the Sith’ had those. No, ‘Empire’ succeeds because of two people: Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Their script – initially drafted by noir legend Brackett, but completed by Kasdan following her untimely death – is note perfect: from the Bogart-and-Bacall banter between Han Solo and Princess Leia, through the quasi-mystical (but never embarrassing) Jedi training sequences, to that infamous last-act revelation, it’s a masterpiece of steel-trap three-act Hollywood mythmaking. It also doesn’t hurt that the cast are game, the effects unbeatable and Irvin Kershner’s direction keeps up an unflagging pace from first frame to last. TH
42. Starship Troopers (1997)Directed by Paul VerhoevenThe best Hollywood sci-fi of the past two decades has to be this uproarious blend of savage political satire and exploding green goop. Made between the two Gulf Wars, Verhoeven’s more-arch-than-Spock’s-eyebrows pastiche adaptation of right-wing nutjob Robert A Heinlein’s epic of proto-fascist wish-fulfilment managed to eerily predict the foreign-policy events of recent years, with its depiction of a drastic desert war waged by pure-blooded, upstanding, square-jawed American kids against a faceless, sadistic enemy. A child of the Nazi occupation himself, Verhoeven doesn’t miss a chance to chuck a few Third Reich references into the mix, from the digi-Riefenstahl propaganda inserts to the haunting climactic shot of a group of pre-teens in SS garb, ready to leap into battle. But none of this sadistic satirical posturing would matter a jot if the film didn’t deliver magnificently on the guts, gore and glory front. THClick here for the trailer to 'Starship Troopers'
43. Supernova (2000)Directed by Alan Smithee (Walter Hill)Nobody actually asked for a mega-budget retread of Paul ‘What’s Shakin’?’ Anderson’s 1997 schlocker ‘Event Horizon’ but ‘Supernova’ fails to live up to even those feeble aspirations. Boneheaded, slipshod and hopelessly incoherent, it wholly relies on the smattering of unfortunates that have watched it in its entirety having seen enough sci-fi to stitch together their own story from the derivative clutch of stand-alone clichés that passes for a plot. The film enjoys some breathtaking visuals, but instead of making up for the general awfulness that cruds up every other department of this monumental folly, they simply generate dismay bordering on clinical depression that undeniably stellar effects work was wasted on such a squawking cosmic turkey. ALDClick here for the trailer to 'Supernova'
44. The Thing (1982)Directed by John Carpenter‘Man is the warmest place to hide’ ran the tagline of this claustrophobic update of Howard Hawks’s ‘The Thing From Another World’. According to Carpenter, they’re the most malleable too, as a murderous, shape-shifting monster takes refuge inside the inhabitants of a polar research lab and, one by one, turns them into a gelatinous slurry. Interestingly, Carpenter’s film bombed at the box office due to another, very different work which harboured a more optimistic view of alien visitation – ‘ET’ (which had been released in cinemas just two week earlier). That, or maybe the scene where a fellow’s head snaps off and turns into an arachnid had audiences choking on their Twinkies. It’s hard to tell. DJClick here for the trailer to 'The Thing'
45.Things To Come (1936)Directed by William Cameron MenziesThe end of civilisation arrives in 1940 via a thirty-year war that leaves cities bombed back to the Stone Age and vast swathes of the earth languishing under clouds of poison gas. Fortunately, mankind’s reduced circumstances don’t affect its desire to enunciate properly as Received Pronunciation rules in the post-apocalyptic order, giving the impression that only debutantes and Old Etonians will survive the final conflagration. There is much that’s amusing to the modern eye but the epic scale, Futurist design and European-influenced photography was hugely ambitious for a British film of the time, and for the most part this is a fascinating, if rambling, insight into the utopian dreams of ’30s cinema. PFCiick here for a clip of 'Things To Come'
46.This Island Earth (1955)Directed by Joseph M. NewmanB-pic production-liner Joseph M. Newman had his 1955 sci-fi spectacular used as the butt of numerous snarky quips for the film version of the cult American TV show, ‘Mystery Science Theatre 3000’. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, it is deemed one of the less successful episodes of the show, due mainly to the fact that ‘This Island Earth’ doesn’t quite plumb the awful depths of such previous stinky subjects as ‘Manos: The Hands of Fate’, ‘Santa Claus Vs The Martians’ and ‘The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?’. Indeed, it’s actually rather a charming example of the much-mocked (recently by Tim Burton with his ‘Mars Attacks!’) ray-guns-‘n’-flying-saucers genre knock-offs that came ten-a-penny at the time. German-born TV serial mainstay Rex Reason plays rakish scientist Cal Meacham alongside his svelte colleague, Ruth Adams, played by Faith Domergue. They are visited by a white-haired man with an oversized forehead (think ‘Eraserhead: the Rest Home Years) who is, rather amusingly, called Exeter (Jeff Morrow), and he whisks the pair away to assist in rebuilding his home planet, Metaluna. Of course, it’s a trap, and googly-eyed monsters spring up out of abandoned fuel silos while cardboard sets and plastic rockets are blown up with rain-damaged fireworks. Great fun. DJClick here for trailer to 'This Island Earth'
47.Total RecallDirected by Paul VerhoevenInspired by Phillip K Dick’s ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, Paul Verhoeven’s second futurama (after 1987 cyberpunk smash ‘Robocop’) is a labyrinthine identity-switch bloodbath in which Arnold Schwarzenegger finds himself at the centre of an interplanetary conspiracy to hide the discovery of alien artefacts that could potentially topple the megalomaniacal chief administrator of Mars, Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox, natch). As with that previous film, Verhoeven had the gore quotient switched to 11, with revolting stop-motion shots of Arnie pulling a tracking device the size of a walnut out of his brain, and ridiculously OTT gunshot wounds where the human body appears to explode on impact. With great re-watch factor (is it just an X-rated dream?) and some rather salient political subtext (world leader suppressing alternative energy source so he can stay stinking rich, eh?), this one to chalk up to the director’s unmitigated successes. Interesting fact #1: In Singapore, the film was bafflingly released as ‘Ice Cold Desire’. Interesting fact # 2: ‘Total Recall’ was so successful that a sequel was written in which Doug Quaid was a cop on Mars and was based on another Dick short. It was never made, but the script was amended and Steven Spielberg eventually directed it as ‘Minority Report’. In short: ‘Get your ass to Mars’. DJClick here for the trailer to 'Total Recall'
48. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)Directed by Stanley KubrickKubrick’s colossal critical darling is something of a sci-fi Trojan horse, sneaking as it does wildly speculative but oh-so convincing evolutionary theories, a claustrophobic stand-off between a lone space man and a self-aware computer system and one of the greatest uses of classical music in cinema (Strauss's 'Blue Danube Waltz' set to spinning space ships) into what many viewers will merely appreciate as something to stick on while they blaze through a doobie. As a piece of directorial craft, it’s nigh-on faultless, but it’s a film whose heart pumps ice-cold blood around its undeniably beautiful body. DJClick here for trailer to '2001: A Space Odyssey'
49. War of the Worlds (1953)Directed by Byron Haskin, Steven Spielberg
+ Independence Day (1996)Directed by Roland EmmerichThe original ’50s version may possess a certain rusty, ships-on-strings charm, but the Spielberg remake batters it in terms of believability and sheer armrest-gripping terror, at least until the entire cast retire to a remote farmhouse and Tom Cruise starts singing. Better than either, however, is Roland Emmerich’s semi-ironic star-spangled blockbuster behemoth, retooling HG Wells’s men-from-Mars outline for the pop-culture age. Witty, recklessly paced and fully aware of its own rampant absurdity, ‘Independence Day’ remains the alien invasion movie to beat. THClick here for a clip from 'Independence Day'
50. Zardoz (1974)Directed by John BoormanSean Connery stars as an underdressed religious fundamentalist preaching the joy of killing and the evils of sex in this bonkers foray into New Age futurism. Piloting a vast talking stone head around a future world purloined from HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’, Connery’s Zed is a dim-witted emissary of a nihilistic faith who accidentally enters the confusingly genteel world of the Eternals. The shock of seeing a ponytailed James Bond sporting red leather underpants and hunting cheesecloth hippies across Grouse moors demands repeat viewing. The enormous flying stone head that Connery’s character, Zed, uses to traverse his world was modelled on the bearded bonce of Charlton Heston in ‘The Ten Commandments’. That it spews forth both moralising cod-philosophy and tons of guns and ammo is merely serendipitous. PFClick here for the trailer to 'Zardoz'
Author: David Jenkins, Adam Lee Davies, Paul Fairclough and Tom Huddleston
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