Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman
Best quote: ‘Let’s kick the tires and light the fires, big daddy!’
The Big Idea: A reboot of the old ‘War of the Worlds’ plot as a soaring sci-fi spectacular, with tongue firmly in cheek.
Boom! Shake, shake, shake the room
Yes, it’s cheesy. Yes, it’s noisy. Yes, it’s about as subtle as a starship in the face. But good God, it’s so much fun. Emmerich may not be as bold or as crafty a sci-fi satirist as his fellow Euro-export Paul Verhoeven, and on first release there were many who took all the flag-waving and Presidential speechifying in ‘Independence Day’ at face value. But look again, and this is a sly little slice of myth-busting entertainment. Who else had the balls to blow up the White House, full frame, just for kicks? Who else depicted an American administration all too willing to use nuclear weapons – only to find they have no effect whatsoever?
Lest we forget, this is the first major summer blockbuster to feature a central black character who’s neither a sidekick, a comic aside or simply dead meat. Oh, and Jeff Goldblum’s final walk across the flaming desert might actually be the coolest thing ever. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski
Cast: Irène Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jean-Pierre Lorit
Best quote: ‘It’s your destiny’
The Big Idea: A film which – without getting all religious – evokes the mysterious, invisible forces that may shape individual lives.
If only we could live our lives a second time…
This was the final installment in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, a decidedly apolitical exploration of the relevance – or not – of the French Revolution’s ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity to everyday life in contemporary Europe. Set in Geneva, it tells of a fateful encounter between a sensitive young woman and a reclusive, misanthropic elderly judge. After initial disagreement, even hostility, they become friends – though had he been younger…
It’s difficult to regard the film as properly sci-fi, notwithstanding some minor ‘double’ characters (notably a young law student whose life is echoing the judge’s past) which introduce the notion of slips in time, and the judge’s almost godlike interventions into other people’s lives. Rather, it’s a form of speculative fiction, insistently muttering to us ‘what if…?’.
In this meticulously structured study of the relationship between chance, destiny and free will, the judge appears to have some mysterious influence over the fate of his new friend – as of course does the director himself, whose remarkable final scene also extends a miraculous generosity to the lead characters from this film’s predecessors, ‘Blue’ and ‘White’. Geoff AndrewRead more
Director: Peter Hyams
Cast: Roy Scheider, Helen Mirren, John Lithgow
Best quote: ‘My God, it’s full of stars!’
The Big Idea: That there’s not just undiscovered life elsewhere in the universe, but right here in our solar system.
Down to earth
Take one look at the original reviews, and it’s clear that pedantic literalists were deeply annoyed by Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. What’s with that monolith? Why’s the computer going nuts? What are all these flashy lights for? And what’s up with the big space baby? Luckily, their prayers were answered by author Arthur C Clarke and writer-director Peter Hyams in the form of ‘2010’, a film that sets out to remove any trace of ambiguity from Kubrick’s universe and replace it with plain, unadorned facts. Which isn’t to imply that ‘2010’ is a bad movie – it’s just a very traditional one, with proper actors, creaky special effects, an ordinary score, a beginning, a middle and an end – all that square stuff the first movie managed without. Kubrick purists are going to hate it with a passion, and that’s fair enough. But this is rock-solid old-school sci-fi: thoughtful, intelligent and unfussy. Tom Huddleston
Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman
Best quote: ‘It’s too good to be true! He’s 6-4, has black hair, blue eyes, doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and tells the truth!’
The Big Idea: The Nietzschean übermensch ideal meets the all-American boy – and the superhero movie gets a whole new lease on life.
Look, up there in the sky…
If it seems like you can’t walk into a cinema these days without encountering the adventures of a keen young man in tights, blame Richard Donner. Fresh from the massive success of ‘The Omen’, the director turned his attentions to a script by ‘Godfather’ scribe Mario Puzo, inspired by an old comic strip most moviegoers had forgotten… and the rest is history. And present. And, seemingly, future.
If ‘Superman’ is low on this list, that has to be because most of our voters don’t really view it as science fiction: sure, it kicks off with the destruction of an alien planet, but the superhero movie has now become its own genre, largely divorced from those that bore it. But ‘Superman’ remains an absolute blast, at once celebrating and lampooning its patriotic roots and delivering one of the all-time great sass-talking heroines in Margot Kidder’s screwball Lois Lane. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Director: David Twohy
Cast: Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser
Best quote: ‘I absolutely believe in God. And I absolutely hate the fucker.’
The Big Idea: A planet where three suns light the sky – and a rare eclipse unleashes hordes of nocturnal flesh-eaters.
Movies like ‘Pitch Black’ are the bedrock of sci-fi: it may not have the vaulting ambition of a ‘2001’ or even an ‘Alien’, with which it shares DNA, but this is an efficient and highly entertaining intergalactic monster mash. The setup – a group of mismatched travellers must battle the elements, each other and an army of toothy beasts to survive on a hostile world – is far from original, a fact of which co-writer and first-time director David Twohy was doubtless aware. But it’s all in the execution: the effects are bare-bones but effective, the performances rock solid and it all moves along at a pleasing clip.
Best of all is the way Twohy toys with traditional sci-fi archetypes: the square-jawed cop turns out to be a drug-addict mercenary while the skinhead criminal – Vin Diesel’s growling Riddick – ends up the hero. A word of warning though: avoid the woeful sequels. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Gina Torres
Best quote: ‘We’re gonna explode? I don’t wanna explode!’
The Big Idea: The wild frontier meets the final frontier in a film which cleverly combines cowboy tropes with sci-fi spectacle.
The good, the bad and the shiny
How in hell did ‘Serenity’ ever get made? Its parent TV show, cowboys-in-space adventure ‘Firefly’, had been cancelled two years previously after a mere 11 episodes. Its creator, Joss Whedon, had never directed a feature film before, and his one small-screen success, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, had itself just been kicked off the air. Yet still, someone at Universal Pictures thought it’d be a good idea to give Whedon a free hand and a parcel of cash to resurrect his baby as a standalone feature.
It was a terrible economic decision, of course, as ‘Serenity’ predictably failed to recoup its budget. But it was a spectacular boon to those of us who adore Whedon’s idiosyncratic art: ‘Serenity’ is whip-smart, action-packed and wildly inventive. Following ‘The Avengers’, our Joss is now one of the most successful filmmakers in the world. We told you so. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Akim Tamiroff
Best quote: ‘No one here knows the meaning of the word conscience anymore.’
The Big Idea: Aphaville itself – a modernist city where free will and individuality have been outlawed.
Town without pity
French New Wave mover and shaker Jean-Luc Godard seems an unlikely filmmaker to turn his hand to sci-fi, yet here he created one of his most accessible offerings by setting an affectionate piss-take of Gallic pulp cinema’s long running Lemmy Caution spy series in a ‘futuristic’ dystopia ruled by supercomputer Alpha 60.
With typical Godardian insouciance it’s all filmed in contrasty black-and-white, in and around contemporary Paris, but its enduring appeal is the combination of don’t-care larkishness, amiable big lug Eddie Constantine doing his tough-guy thing, and a profound underlying seriousness drawing cogent connections between the brutality of fascism and technology’s inhuman reasoning. Moreover, in a city where the illogicality of emotion is punishable by death, there’s no one better than winsome Anna Karina to make us believe that falling in love is well worth the risk. Trevor JohnstonRead more
Director: George Lucas
Cast: Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Maggie McOmie
Best quote: ‘If you feel you are not properly sedated, call 348-844 immediately. Failure to do so may result in prosecution for criminal drug evasion.’
The Big Idea: The logical end point of society’s dangerous dependence on mood-altering pharmaceuticals.
The drugs don’t work
George Lucas and his pal Francis Ford Coppola persuaded Warner Brothers to take a flyer on expanding George’s earlier student short into this Orwell and Huxley-influenced fable about free love and free will versus all-powerful totalitarianism. The studio hated the result and the subsequent box-office debacle almost killed both their careers.
Viewed today – the only version available is Lucas and co-writer Walter Murch’s digitally spruced-up 2004 ‘Director’s Cut’ – its shaven headed-cast, chillingly benign language intoning state propaganda and oppressive widescreen palette of glacial whites make for genuinely unnerving viewing. Young Lucas evidently believed in heroic individualism, fast cars and the possibility of escape, yet it’s the visualisation of an entire society shaped by universal surveillance, government-supplied sedatives and android police carrying very big sticks which rings darker and truer than the director’s subsequent, significantly more populist output. Trevor JohnstonRead more
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies
Best quote: ‘We are in a situation that is beyond morality.’
The Big Idea: That it is possible to deliver a more accessible version of an arthouse sci-fi classic without dumbing down its psychology complexity.
Memories are made of this
It’s hard to imagine a Hollywood exec even sitting through Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ (1972), never mind stumping up for Steven Soderbergh’s US remake, but perhaps the presence of producer James Cameron facilitated this most introspective of space operas. As writer-director-editor and cinematographer, Soderbergh does a remarkable job of echoing the original’s Soviet-era look and solemnity, yet moves the story along without compromising its intriguing musings on the knowability of self and others.
Investigating a stricken space station orbiting the mysterious planet Solaris, shrink Clooney finds he has a ‘visitor’ – a spooky reincarnation of his late wife. Or rather, a reincarnation of his memories of her, which isn’t quite the same thing. Cliff Martinez’s seductive yet unsettling score sets the tone as we ponder the difference in this graceful, thought-provoking affair, where the never-better McElhone is heartbreaking as the woman discovering she’s not truly herself. Trevor JohnstonRead more
Director: Joe Cornish
Cast: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail
Best quote: ‘Allow it.’
The Big Idea: The plot may be a mishmash of alien invasion ideas, but it’s the amazing, untrained cast that make this Britcom soar.
Young guns of Brixton
When Joe Cornish’s scrappy, snappy, happy-slappy debut was first released, several notable British critics took umbrage with what they perceived as a tasteless tendency towards leftist hoodie-hugging. The film’s central characters weren’t heroes, they argued, they were little criminals, plain and simple.
And it’s true, ‘Attack the Block’ does open with a fairly vicious mugging scene, which we’re expected to forgive as the story unfolds. But surely this was Cornish’s point: by writing off our nation’s youth as a bunch of knife-wielding thugs, we not only criminalise an entire generation, we risk our own futures. Because who knows when we’ll need their help fending off an alien invasion?
So whatever you think about the film’s fuzzy, community-organising ethos, there’s no ignoring the technical skill on display here: the oh-so-London script crackles like a fistful of sparklers, and the direction is tight as hell. Tom HuddlestonRead more