50 essential sci-fi films – part two
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 the them classics, some not-so-classic, but all need to be seen...
11. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)Directed by Robert WiseLatterly, he bored us to tears with the first ‘Star Trek’ movie, but you can see why director Robert Wise was given the gig. His 1951 film, ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ remains one of the richest and most thrilling keystones of the sci-fi genre, a fact that audiences were recently reacquainted with following a remake starring Keanu Reeves that would make any self-respecting cinephile want to French kiss the barrel of a Winchester. Michael Rennie’s Klaatu sets the paranoia ball rolling by landing on Earth with a stark message: shape-up, or die. Knee deep in the atomic age, brusque US army officials think the best course of action is a drastic show of power, so he's shot by a nervous soldier and carted away to be questioned (with, curiously, the customary car battery and nipple-clamps replaced by a cup of earl grey and a pack of Winston Slims). Unbeknownst to the puny Earthlings, Klaatu had brought an indestructible robotic protector with him called Gort (read: God), and at the flick of a switch he’ll turn the entire planet into Pot Pourri. The angular production sheen and Bernard Hermann’s disturbing theremin-heavy score help ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ retain its place as a stone cold cautionary classic that no ex-music video director could ever manage to duplicate with a hunky star in his clutches. DJ
12. Dune (1984)Directed by David LynchOkay, so it’s far from perfect. But David Lynch’s sprawling, studio-hacked take on Frank Herbert’s key sci-fi study text offers sights, sounds and sensations no other space opera can hope to deliver. The design is flawless; from the bloated, fleshy Guild Navigators to the magnificently rendered old-world interiors, Freddie Francis’ sparkling cinematography casting this genuinely alien universe in a haze of sand and spice-dust. Lynch’s screenplay, bolting Herbert’s unwieldy Messianic-Jihadist narrative concerns to his own idiosyncratic, experimental prepossessions, is a bizarrely fascinating piece of work: impenetrable but eerily poetic, his ‘inner voice’ technique genuinely challenging, for a Hollywood blockbuster. The acting is patchy, but what a cast: Max von Sydow, Brad Dourif, Dean Stockwell, Patrick Stewart, Francesca Annis, Freddie Jones, Jose Ferrer, and the inimitable Kenneth McMillan as the most loathsome villain in film history. We could have done without Sting in ‘that’ nappy, or Kyle MacLachlan and ‘that’ enormous bumchin; the special effects could’ve been better, the story more explicable and the action sequences more exciting. But it’s impossible to imagine a ‘Dune’ which looks better than this. THClick here to see the making of 'Dune'
13. Earth vs The Flying Saucers (1956)Directed by Fred F. SearsOften unfairly included among no-budget ironic favourites like ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’, this slice of Cold War paranoia has a fearful, cataclysmic edge that belies its modest production values. Ray Harryhausen’s visual effects outstrip the staid performances by some way, piling up what would later become genre clichés; the destruction of great national monuments, awe-struck national guardsmen, Russians gawking at a single TV through a shop window and newspaper-hawking cockneys are all present and correct. The film was endlessly referenced in Tim Burton’s ‘Mars Attacks’. PFClick here for a clip from 'Earth vs The Flying Saucers'
14. Enemy Mine (1985)Directed by Wolfgang PetersenRoger Ipswich was bang on the money in Time Out’s original review of ’Enemy Mine’ when he called it ‘‘Hell in the Pacific’ for the Atari mindset’. The cod-liberalism of ‘Star Trek’ meets tail-end Cold War tit-for-tat in a soulful slab of deep space xenophobia that witnesses astronaut Dennis Quaid run the gamut of emotions from hatred to grudging respect to courtly man-love for Lou Gossett’s asexual alien warrior. One for the ages. ALD Click here for the trailer to 'Enemy Mine'
15. Event Horizon (1997)Directed by Paul WS AndersonBy a long, long, long shot, this is Paul W.S. Anderson’s finest hour (and yes, we’re including ‘Mortal Kombat’). It’s that old AWOL spaceship chestnut again, as a crew of cynical space rescuers (captained by Laurence ‘The Fish’ Fishburne’) are saddled with an assignment they soon wish they hadn’t accepted. A ship, the Event Horizon, has returned seven years after being sucked into a black hole, and the crew have to board it – with designer Sam Neill in tow – and find out where the 'hell' it’s been. Like ‘Alien’, it’s a slowly wrought and stately film which transcends its roots as a chilling space adventure by flipping into quite a nasty stalk-and-slash horror film for its final third. DJClick here for the trailer to 'Event Horizon'
16. Explorers (1985)Directed by Joe DanteIn his mid-’80s heyday, the manic, toon-inspired wackiness of director Dante transformed potentially predictable material like ‘The Howling’ and ‘Gremlins’ into madcap multiplex masterworks loaded with crazed invention. But with ‘Explorers’, this technique proves ultimately self-defeating: what begins as a sweet, thoughtful pre-teen drama builds beautifully into a compelling, wide-eyed interstellar fantasy, and then explodes, in the final act, into a noisy rubber-faced gagfest of monumental crassness. Still, that first hour-and-a-bit is marvelous. THClick here for the trailer to 'Explorers'
17. The Fifth Element (1997)Directed by Luc Besson
+ Sunshine (2007)Directed by Danny BoyleSome directors should stay the hell away from sci-fi: flowery French fantasist Luc Besson and punchy Hollywood wannabe Danny Boyle both came a cropper with their initial adventures in outer space. With ‘The Fifth Element’, Besson attempted to translate the intricate universes of graphic artists like Moebius onto the screen, figuring that a series of mindblowing interplanetary vistas would be enough to distract audiences from the fact that the script was puerile and incomprehensible, the characters were paper-thin and, almost without exception, spectacularly irritating, and the Jean Paul Gaultier costumes looked like fetish Buck Rodgers, and not in a good way. ‘Sunshine’ was marginally better: at least this universe looked remotely believable, and the characters were too busy staying alive to start pontificating on the unknowable nature of existence. Though perhaps ‘characters’ is too generous a term: Alex Garland’s script, a grab-bag of sci-fi concepts with no overriding intelligence to bind them, feels like it was written in roughly the time it takes to watch the film, and as for that third-act twist… The infuriating fact is that the failure of ‘Sunshine’ (and more recently ‘Franklyn’) has set British sci-fi back a good ten years – it’ll be a long time before any UK-based movie execs look to the stars for inspiration. THClick here for an egregious clip from 'The Fifth Element'
18. Flash Gordon (1980)Directed by Mike Hodges
+ Flesh Gordon (1974)Directed by Michael BenvenisteAryan pro-footballer with rippling muscles: check. Max von Sydow sporting the fruitiest beard in film history: check. Original soundtrack by Queen: check. Peter Duncan getting killed by a haunted tree: check. Hand-to-hand combat on a revolving disc: check. Topol: check. In terms of bang for your buck, Mike Hodges’ kitsch comic book adventure has it all, including Brian Blessed intoning the immortal line: ‘Gordon’s alive!!!’. Tonally, there’s actually some overlap with ill-advised put-the-kids-to-bed special ‘Flesh Gordon’ in which our hero has to foil the evil plans of Emperor Wang on the planet Porno and prevent a sex ray from being trained on the people of earth. It appears to have been written by a group of 14-year-olds who all dreamt of being headline writers on The Sun. DJ
Click here for the trailer of 'Flesh Gordon'
19. Flight of the Navigator (1986)Directed by Randel Kleiser
+ Wall.e (2008)
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Kids’ sci-fi has a patchy provenance: for every ‘ET’ there’s a ‘Mac and Me’, for every ‘Titan AE’ there’s a ‘Treasure Planet’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Disney can lay claim to two of the more enjoyable entries in the canon: mid-’80s wish-fulfilment fantasy ‘Flight of the Navigator’, in which a small boy gets a bump on the head, wakes up ten years later and ends up circumnavigating the globe in the company of an artificially intelligent spacecraft voiced by Paul ‘Pee Wee’ Reubens and last year’s Pixar masterpiece, ‘Wall.e’, a film so staggeringly beautiful it had film critics weeping salt tears for their lost innocence. TH
Click here for the trailer to 'Flight of the Navigator'
20. Forbidden Planet (1956)Directed by Fred M Wilcox
Famously inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’, the admirable philosophical seriousness of this early attempt at ‘intelligent’ sci-fi is somewhat undercut by the tinpot spaceships, soundstage lunar landscapes and Robbie the Robot’s arm-flailing antics, not to mention the fact that the square-jawed hero is actually a young Leslie Nielsen. But somehow Cyril Hume’s screenplay makes it work, wittily acknowledging the camper aspects of the material while still managing to deliver a starkly effective message about the corruptive nature of infinite power. TH
Click here for the trailer to 'Forbidden Planet' 1-10 | 11-20 | 21-30 | 31-40 | 41-50
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