The top 2 on this list are constantly locked in mortal combat to decide which is the better sci-fi film. Netflix makes things no easier since you can stream both of them. The only reason I ordered them as I did is because the streamable version of Blade Runner is the original theatrical cut as opposed to the later Director’s and Final Cut which I believe to be superior. Also included are two little indie gems, one which generated some serious buzz in movieland, the other not so much (but was still very very good) and a failed Darren Aronofsky film which I believe to be vastly underrated.
Good Sci-Fi uses the magic of cinema to deliver a fun tale and some surface-level social commentary, but great Sci-Fi is the stuff that uses fantasy to tell us something about ourselves, to allow us to see beyond the familiar into our own hearts and souls, apart from the common ruts of existence that have somehow become normal. They bid us experience humanity as if it is an alien life-form or a robot. It’s often better and more compelling insight than what’s on display at the Oscars. Suspend disbelief and get lost in the otherworldly.
“Do you like our owl?”
“Must be expensive.”
It says a lot to me about a director’s talent when a film makes me cry, especially when it’s a movie with a plot like Ink. Ink is on the surface, the last film you’d ever want to watch, a cheaply made amatuer film shot on digital video that should inhabit a place on the shelf beside ‘Sharktopus’ or something. But as they say, never judge a micro budget sci-fi/fantasy film by its cover. This is a surprisingly emotional tale about a little girl whose soul is kidnapped by a mysterious goblin and transported through the world between sleeping and waking to offer her as tribute to the evil Incubi, a dark race of inter-dimensional beings who are responsible for peoples’ nightmares. Out to stop him are the Storytellers, who bring good dreams and hope and watch over the sleeping “muggles.” Meanwhile, the girl’s estranged, workaholic father reflects on his life as he decides what to do about his daughter who, as far as he can tell, has slipped into a deep coma. Looking at the plot, then over at the budget might make one think that this is a setup for unintentional hilarity, but Director Jamin Winans (no, I’ve never heard of him either, but he has a name) is too good to let this film be anything less than a hearty, earnest fantasy adventure with affecting setpieces, clever editing, and a rare understanding of special effects that even Hollywood has neglected in recent years. He blends elements of Neil Gaiman-esque fantasy, horror and Lynchian nightmare to great effect. The closest premise I’d compare it to is Timur Bekmambetov’s Night Watch series, (except with a logical plot). Oh yeah, the audio editing and brooding soundtrack is fantastic as well. The film is a little rough around the edges, to be sure but it’s got real heart. There’s some sub-par acting (but only some). Really, the only thing the film is ever guilty of is pursuing themes and ideas beyond what other low-budget pictures (casting amateur actors) have the heart to explore. This is a good problem to have, on my read. The themes of light versus dark, hope versus fear, the varied cast of characters that spans all ages and even a Grade A, good ol’ fashioned American “holy &#@*” plot twist keeps this film interesting, fun and even re-watchable.
Gareth Edwards’ feature film debut is one that flew under the radar for most, but not Hollywood execs who saw in Monsters a bright directorial talent. The film is a paragon example of low-budget ingenuity. Not since Dawn of the Dead has there been such a convincing world created on such a shoestring budget. The film is equal parts District 9, Super 8 and Cloverfield, though for my money it’s better than all of them. Edwards isn’t as wild as Blomkampp, not as gleefully flashy as Abrams or Reeves, but he doesn’t need to be. His story of a guerilla photographer going deep into Mexico’s alien-infested ‘quarantine zone’ to safely extract the daughter of a billionaire media mogul is dramatic, scary and dreamy with rich thematic overtones of abstracted American vagabonds lost in the insecurity of the fragmented third-world. Though the dialogue tends to be a little blunt on that point, the atmosphere carries it through. The main attraction of this film is its seamless CGI effects. You know it’s there (since you know or are pretty sure that central Mexico isn’t a bombed-out wilderness) but unless you’ve got a really sharp eye for post-production, you’re never quite sure exactly where it is or if what you’re looking at is real or digitally altered. Edwards is so deft with his camerawork, you’re never quite sure where the enhancements are. The two leads carry the film competently enough. You can see through their docu-drama act, though no more glaringly than much of Hollywood. As for the title characters themselves, Edwards makes good use of light and shadow to keep their forms shrouded in suggestion (even writing such lighting effects into their physiology), and then springs for a couple of expertly done ‘money shots’ for some much deserved payoff. They’re wicked cool. H.P. and H.G. would be proud. Fortunately, the film has an emotional center that justifies its conceptual conceits making it a rare blend of romance and high concept creature feature unseen since the glory days of Spielberg.
3. The Fountain
It’s always a shame when critics unfairly treat a film’s earnestness and willingness to deal directly with eternal themes like love, death and afterlife as ‘pretentious’. The Fountain is not even close. It’s as honest and beautiful as most any film I’ve yet scene. The troubled production of Darren Aronofsky’s epic, historical, existential space opera was one of the saddest shames in the movie biz. While deep into pre-production stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett pulled out of the feature for ‘creative differences’ (probably having something to do with egos and the career stress that comes with making a big-budget sci-fi feature where you have to go bald, play three different characters, do yoga inside a space bubble and *ahem* actually act). Later the project was reborn as a lean, 90 minute feature starring less legendary but no less competent acting duo Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. The special effects traded expense for skill, crafting old-school starfield effects out of hyper-magnified shots of particles in water tanks. The film is a centuries-spanning tale of a man’s quest for eternal life and the preservation of all that he loves. Hugh Jackman gives the best performance of his life as a Spanish conquistador searching for the Tree of Life, a modern-day cancer specialist searching for a cure for his wife’s tumor and a 25th Century astronaut flying lightyears through space toward a supernova in hopes of resurrecting a dying tree that holds the secret to immortality. He’s the primary thing that makes this film work, and Weisz is a nice compliment to his efforts. Though The Fountain is Aronofsky’s ‘black sheep’, it’s quickly apparent from the first frames that his considerable directorial powers are undiluted. This is a film about the meaning of everything and the ages-spanning theme of human love. I’d feel comfortable calling this film a sci-fi version of The Notebook, though Aronofsky’s skill and fearlessness in exploring his themes with affecting imagery add dramatic heft and even a religious significance to the oft-explored theme of romantic love. It’s probably the film’s religious overtones that caused critics to balk so. Dogged exploration of the ‘meaning of it all’ in a sci-fi film is rarely favorable in critics’ eyes, accustomed as they are to metafiction and dramatic irony. This isn’t Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This is freaking Pilgrim’s Progress. The man’s heart and soul and his questioning mind and searching spirit perforate every frame of this picture. It may not be our generation’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it sure came close.
2. Blade Runner: Theatrical Cut
The only, and I mean only reason this isn’t number one on my list is, as I’ve said before, it’s the Theatrical Cut. Of this film’s seven (yes seven) different cuts I’d recommend the Director’s Cut or the most recent remastered Final Cut. Both are Scott approved. When this movie was originally filmed, the producers required the insertion of narration over the film’s dark, futuristic landscapes and it’s, in my mind, one of the most storied examples of producers feeling that an audience needs to be ‘talked down to’. The film isn’t obvious, existential sci-fi epics rarely are, but its superb story, acting, special effects and mood make it able to stand on its own two legs without cheeseball narration and a bum ending tacked onto an otherwise excellent finale. Even so, the meat is still there and this is the version that most adults love and remember and it’s hands-down one of the greatest films ever made. An adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Its Hollywood charms include Harrison Ford in his prime and the birth of Cyberpunk on the silver screen, a style which has infected much of the sci-fi genre for many years, culminating in the Matrix. Scott’s eye for cinematic beauty even amid a world as artificial as Blade Runner’s is at its peak in the steamy alleyways, the Asian-influenced globalized culture and the ever-present hovering spaceships blaring propaganda. At one point the camera drifts over to a school of similarly dressed Japanese schoolchildren who ride by Rutger Hauer’s sinister character on bicycles evoking a netherworld of dreamscape. This isn’t Lynchian urban nightmare, it’s as rich and wondrous as any Spielbergian high concept, though the plot is a serious neo-noir pulp yarn. Blade Runner is as nostalgic as Chinatown and as fantastic as Star Wars. Through Scott’s lens, the dystopian, futuristic Los Angeles is somehow rendered comforting, though in a twisted way, as if the stakes of one’s life and existence in a strange modern world is perfectly expressed here in bright neon and rain-soaked grit. Scott brilliantly uses science fiction to create a familiar world instead of a fantastical one, and its unreality leaves the mind free to consider more enduring themes of humanity and consciousness from the fictional vantage point of an imbalanced society and a dark, disordered world. From this backdrop, hard-to-face philosophical questions stand out in sharp relief. Do not let fanboy enthusiasm fool you, this is Scott’s opus, in my opinion, his Apocalypse Now where he got to dramatically announce what he thought of the nature of the world and the people in it. If Oscar-nominated dramas and scripts are lauded for their being “human,” then Blade Runner is “more human than human.”
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick’s famous journey into deep space has never lost its power. I’ve written before that when Kubrick would set about making a film within a certain genre, he was never content to make an ‘homage’ to that genre, he would erect a freaking monument to it. 2001 still stands tall, silent and grand as the black tablet on the moon, just waiting to be encountered and lift the viewer’s consciousness beyond the infinite. There is so much that can and has been said about this film, but it speaks for itself too well. Plot synopses and apologies for its overlong ending are too crass. If you’ve not yet seen it, put this at the top of your queue, reserve a lonely evening (the whole evening) and experience its generation-spanning power. It’s required viewing for entry into the human race.