50 essential sci-fi films – part four
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...
31. Quatermass and the Pit (1967)Directed by Roy Ward BakerHammer’s outstanding contribution to British sci-fi produced some of the spookiest and most intelligent supernatural/science fiction crossovers in cinema. Hawked by the studio as a date-movie screamer, it's actually a slow burning, atmospheric chiller turning on the discovery in a London Underground station of an ancient spaceship that exerts a diabolical power over those who come into contact with it. As luck would have it, the first person to be brain-fried by the mysterious craft is an Ealing-style Cockernee workman, giving the pipe-puffing Professor Quatermass an expendable subject to work on, but it's not long before the scientist and his team are rolling up their tweeds and heading underground. Though nowhere near as psyched-out as the 1979 ITV series ‘Quatermass’, the influence of Sixties obsessions with expanded consciousness is clear. PF
Click here for the trailer to 'Quatermass and the Pit'
32. Red Planet (2000)Directed by Antony Hoffman
+ Mission to Mars (2000)Directed by Brian De PalmaThe suspicion lingers that the aeronautics industry gave Hollywood a bit of a nudge to produce these two effects-heavy, credibility-lite bloaters in a bid to increase public support for the costly series of Mars missions upon which Nasa was busy frittering away billions of American tax dollars. ‘Red Planet’ witnesses crash-hot commercials director Antony Hoffman finding the demands of a feature-length CGI blockbuster a little beyond him and falling back on a closing reel of sub-Hitchcock schlock involving a psychotic robot dog. ‘Mission to Mars’ loses the plot in an entirely different direction: August, adult and basking in some glorious special effects it promises much but eventually descends into the kind of bonecrushing sentimentality and New Age mumbo jumbo that makes a ludicrously overextended robot dog attack look, by comparison, like a day at the beach. Along with ‘Supernova’ (also 2000 – see on page five) this pair of eggy guffers put studios off spaceflight for the lion’s share of a decade. ALD
Click here for the trailer to 'Mission to Mars'
33. Repo Man (1984)Directed by Alex Cox
+ Brother From Another Planet (1984)Directed by John SaylesPerhaps it was the whiff of Orwellian panic in the air, but ’84 was a great year for politically motivated DIY sci-fi like this pair, the wayward brainchildren of two equally committed maverick auteurs. Cox’s ‘Repo Man’ is the better film, perhaps because his targets are wider (and therefore easier to hit): consumerism, government interference, televangelism, disaffected youth and the pervasive influence of junk food. Sayles, on the other hand, takes a narrower path, as Joe Morton’s confused black alien finds himself in early ’80s Harlem, and comes up against diverse forms of cultural oppression. THClick here for clip from 'Repo Man'
34. Serenity (2005)Directed by Joss WhedonProof positive that no one wants originality in sci-fi any more, the failure of Whedon’s witty conflation of hoary old sci-fi and Western clichés on both TV, as ‘Firefly’, and as a movie spinoff was a crushing disappointment to those hungry for a new space-operatic franchise. Or perhaps its just that Whedon’s idiosyncratic, old fashioned writing style – wry, insightful, disarmingly emotive – no longer appeals to a mass audience weaned on the cold-steel thrills of ‘The Matrix’. But as the only decent spaceship movie of the decade (at least before ‘Star Trek’), ‘Serenity’ deserves to be treasured. THClick here for the trailer to 'Serenity'
35. Silent Running (1972)Directed by Douglas TrumbullOne of the few occasions a visual effects jockey managed to come up with the goods direction-wise, Trumbull blends cute robots, bloody murder and environmentalist cosmic wonder in this heart-rending eco-fable. Bruce Dern is the gardener in space, caretaking a vast floating dome that houses the last of Earth’s trees and plants, and taking exception to orders to ditch his precious cargo. The readiness of his fellow crewmembers to get with the programme forces Dern to choose between saving the last of nature’s wonder and killing his colleagues with a shovel. Ten minutes later, he’s smoking a cigar under a lush green canopy and playing cards with said cute robots. You do the maths. PFClick here for the trailer to 'Silent Running'
36. Solaris (1972)Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, Steven SoderberghStanislaw Lem’s psychoanalytical space novella has been endowed with a big screen treatment not once, but twice. Russian cine poet Andrei Tarkovsky took the first swing in 1972 with his tiptoeing modernist think piece chronicling the face-off between lonesome space widower Kris Kelvin, played by Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis, and the eponymous liquid planet. Flash forward to 2002 and US eclecticist Steven Soderbergh has given Lem’s material a modern refit (much, it transpired, to the chagrin of the author), this time with his preferred leading man George Clooney taking centre stage. Solaris itself is a strange, indeterminate glowing entity that Kelvin has been sent to examine, and after spending some time in its proximity, soon discovers that it plucks startling secrets from your inner consciousness and places them in front of you in the form of an ultra-realistic apparition. Time Out is quoted on the Wikipedia page of the latter film as saying that it is actually better than the Tarkovsky original (c/o longtime TO Film Editor Geoff Andrew’s original review of the film). No disrespect to Russia’s second greatest director (after Eisenstein) but we’d still be inclined to agree. And anyway, Tarkovsky himself stated that he wasn’t particularly pleased with the end product as he originally intended for it to defy easy genre categorisation, a feat he achieved seven years later with his greatest film, ‘Stalker’. DJClick here for the trailer to 'Solaris' (2002)
37. Soylent Green (1973)Directed by Richard FleischerThe opening of this dystopian slum thriller was most recently quoted in the titles of the infinitely sweeter ‘WALL-e’, showing greed and overpopulation turning the green Earth into a steaming slagheap. Here, in a drab and overcrowded New York, Charlton Heston lays down the law as a maverick cop with a fondness for neckerchief/safari-suit combos and the kind of intellectual pursuits (books) considered useless by a crumbling state. The restless populace survive on a don’t-ask foodstuff called Soylent Green but when curiosity about its provenance leads to corpses piling up, Chuck is faced with an investigation that could lead to some unpalatable truths. What is Soylent Green? Soylent Green is peas. PEAS!!! PFClick here for the trailer to 'Soylent Green'
38. Spaceballs (1987)Directed by Mel BrooksJust to be certain the whole ‘Star Wars’ thing wasn’t a flash in the pan, Brooks waited a decade to squeeze out this Jundland Waste of a spoof that saw John Candy dress as a dog in a boiler suit and Rick Moranis at least as funny as he’s ever been. With gags hinging on repetition of the word ‘asshole’ and characters named Dark Helmet and Pizza The Hut, this is essentially an extended Hale and Pace skit force-fed New York Jewish showbiz one-liners and left to fend for itself. The key to successful spoofery is familiarity with the target; this is like watching your dad trying to get down with your favourite band only to consistently undermine himself by having to ask “Is that the name of the pop group or the song?”. PFClick here for a clip from 'Spaceballs'
39. Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983)Directed by LaMont Johnson
+Ice Pirates (1984)Directed by Stewart Raffill
+ Solarbabies (1986)Directed by Alan JohnsonThe somewhat diminished expectations that were part and parcel of the insatiable demand stimulated by the Eighties video boom saw a slew of low budget space-inflected efforts hitting our screens. The shelves of video stores up and down the country groaned with cheapjack ‘Star Wars’ lookalikes such as ‘Spacehunter’, camp comedies like ‘Ice Pirates’ (which threatened ‘Depravity in zero gravity’!) and the po-faced New Age rollerskating parable ‘Solarbabies’. None can even lay claim to retrospective po-mo trash-classic status, but they were all a good deal of fun, and kept screen sci-fi ticking over until the pixel-magic of CGI came along to save us from the kitsch tyranny of films set entirely in disused warehouses and Californian scrubland. ALDClick here for a clip from 'Solarbabies'
40. Star Trek – The Motion Pictures (1979-2009)Directed by VariousEveryone has their own relationship with the ‘Star Trek’ films. Some see them as the trendy lecturer, translating inclusionist liberal homilies through the clued-up double-talk of a coffee house intellectual; some think of them as that slightly boring uncle that turns up every other Christmas recounting outdated tales of distant travel and mild peril that all sound like they’ve been appropriated from the pages of a ‘2000 AD’ annual; for yet others they represented the terminally annoying school spod; forever eager to please yet unalterably destined to plough a lonely furrow through a dry and distant field. ‘Star Trek: The [Slow] Motion Picture’ resurrected the belatedly beloved original TV show in 1979 when Paramount realized that they were sitting on a franchise with a pre-existing fanbase that might challenge even the arriviste ‘Star Wars’. Unfortunately, the awe-inspiring effects and intriguing ideas couldn’t disguise the fact that 50 minutes worth of plot had been spread over two and a half grueling hours. Considering its antagonist came direct from the original series, we had no right to expect better of ‘The Wrath of Khan’ (1982), but it would prove a real shot in the arm for the franchise and the best ‘ST’ film to date. From there they are best remembered by the average cinemagoer as ‘the one with Christopher Lloyd in a toffee-helmet’ (‘The Search for Spock ) or ‘the whale-hugging one’ (‘The Voyage Home’  – originally conceived as a vehicle for rabid ‘ST’ fan Eddie Murphy!). ‘The Final Frontier’ (1989) might be the best directed of them all (by Shatner) and contain some seminal moments between Kirk, Spock and Bones, but it was wholly scuppered by a ridiculous ending. ‘The Undiscovered Country’ (1991), like ‘Khan’, had the sense to cast an acting heavyweight – this time Christopher Plummer – as an arch, worthy adversary and though a return to cod-Shakespeare posturing and a tight plot turned things around for the ailing franchise, the original crew were getting a little creaky for any more interstellar derring-do and the baton was hesitantly passed to the almost entirely faceless crew of ‘The Next Generation’. Scope, budgets and interest were irreparably slashed and the series has been listing ever since. Over to you, Mr Abrams... ALD1-10 | 11-20 | 21-30 | 31-40 | 41-50
Author: David Jenkins, Adam Lee Davies, Paul Fairclough and Tom Huddleston.
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