Guides | August 23, 2007 | Comments ()
Good science-fiction, be it in film or literature, is as much about where we are as where we could go, where time and technology can or should take us. Maybe sci-fi is better known today in films for its use as pulp, but the most watched and revered science-fiction movies — the best that Scott, Spielberg, Lucas, Kubrick, and Cameron could produce — have been able to marry their techno-futuro fascinations with commentary on the human condition.
With this Guide, I’ve tried to bring attention to 10 science-fiction films that largely flew under the radar — underrated or unknown gems that make use of the imaginative bombast of sci-fi through big ideas or unlikely images. They may not all be as visually stimulating as the well-known classics, e.g. Blade Runner or Close Encounters, but they’re just as challenging, and maybe even more rewarding for their ability to connect with the imagination using thought as much as sight.
La Jetée (1962), Chris Marker — Chris Marker’s short cinematic essay grows in complexity with each reflection, a film that deceives you with its simplicity. Composed as a series of stills broken only once with moving frames, La Jetée (elaborated for better and worse by Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys) posits a post-apocalyptic scenario wherein a man travels back in time to discover the cause of and prevent a cataclysmic war. During his forays to the past he becomes obsessed with images he saw as a child: A beautiful woman and a dying man. As his journey grows more lucid, the narrator forges past and future, fate and history in a mind-bending, tragic climax. Marker’s use of still images forces the viewer to focus on sheer narrative push, aided by excellent sound design and a sparse, affecting narration. Few films are so successful using so little; La Jetée makes maximum use of its imaginative trappings for endless metaphorical potential.
Alphaville (1965), Jean-Luc Godard — Godard, the sardonic jester of the Nouvelle Vague, made Alphaville as a thought-provoking send-up to several genres — pulp sci-fi and hardboiled detective yarns being the foremost. For one thing, the sci-fi elements are completely irrelevant: secret agent Lemmy Caution arrives in Alphaville (What the hell is it — city? Planet? Neighborhood?) piloting a weird Ford Galaxie and looking to find a mysterious professor, but he ends up on a mission to destroy an evil supercomputer that rules Alphaville, outlawing human emotion and ritually killing much of the populace. On the way he woos an emotionless maiden. Godard’s farce hardly makes for subtle commentary, but Alphaville’s vision is still compelling — he finds a totalitarian future not in broad, Orwellian gestures, but simple Parisian landscapes (hotel lobbies, neon-lit streets) and the simple insight that technology is easily manipulated into a means of social control.
Solaris (1972), Andrei Tarkovsky — Soviet master Andrei Tarkovsky’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he felt was cold and alienating, is a dark, mystical exploration of memory and the limits of androcentric reasoning. Solaris, reworked from Stanislaw Lem’s novel, was a complete inversion of the Western scientific positivism that almost always pervades science-fiction — a daring, ethical critique of modern society’s lack of spirituality. The story follows psychologist Kris Kelvin, who is sent to a troubled space station orbiting a living, ocean planet that, he discovers, communicates with the cosmonauts by creating living versions of their past hopes, fears, and overall, guilty consciences. Tarkovsky’s film, infamously slow and talky, is spare and hypnotic, relying almost solely on images and ideas that couldn’t be replicated with a budget (which it certainly didn’t have anyway). Though watching this movie can be a commitment (this is Tarkovsky, after all), the mesmerizing shots and beautiful photography can be reward enough.
Stalker (1979), Andrei Tarkovsky — Another Tarkovsky epic: Stalker is unbelievably slow — so slow it’s hypnotic, obtuse to the point of being a dream — but a necessity for science-fiction that deals with the biggest philosophical ruminations. In a dilapidated, ruined city ruled by authoritarian force, the eponymous Stalker acts as a guide, leading a cynical writer and a troubled professor (both of whom are vague representations of competing modes of thought) into the “Zone” — a literal and philosophical landscape that represents their own spiritual quests. Describing Stalker with words is pointless — there just isn’t anything else like it: Unending takes, spare dialogue, amorphous landscapes, and water everywhere — all unabashed metaphors for the perils of spiritual conflict. If you can make it to the end (Stalker is so artful and thick that even the most avowed cineaste will be tested), I guarantee these images will stay with you forever.
The Lathe of Heaven (1980), Fred Barzyk and David Loxton — A micro-budgeted PBS-affiliate produced television movie based on Ursula Le Guin’s novel of the same name, The Lathe of Heaven makes a mountain out of a molehill, using the story’s excellent ruminations to bolster what are essentially no production values whatsoever. Seriously, most of the movie is cleverly filmed around what looks to be a dentist’s office and a large corporate bank, scored with Casio plinks and augmented with sub-Atari video flourishes. And it works! The film follows George Orr, a man who comes to discover that his dreams become reality; he seeks help from a psychiatrist, who in turn tries to manipulate his dreams to benefit the world for good (at first). Each attempt results in an intolerable version of reality, Le Guin’s refutation of the myth of utopia, while the psychiatrist becomes more deluded and greedy with every problem he tries to solve. The film’s miniscule budget makes it rough around the edges, but the dialogue and intelligent plot engage in a way that visuals could not.
The Last Battle (1983), Luc Besson — Luc Besson’s first film is a wordless, colorless look at a post-apocalyptic future of scavenging and survival. It sounds like the recipe for something as stark and savage as Eraserhead, but Besson loads his premise with the brevity of an action-adventure. An unnamed, unspeaking (no one in this world can speak) protagonist lives in the dilapidated remains of an urban center, finding weapons and food among the detritus. As the story progresses, he comes to contend with a malevolent brute for what the film reveals to be the world’s most precious remaining commodity — a twist I won’t reveal here. Besson spends his limited budget on shots, angles, and edits rather than special effects; that he somehow marries silent, black-and-white art with an engrossing adventure is a pretty remarkable achievement.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds (1984), by Hayao Miyazaki — Whereas many of the other films I’ve listed here have relied on art or the minimalist use of traditional science-fiction visuals to be effective, Nausicaä, the first in a long line of Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli animated masterpieces is nothing but visuals, an entire world fueled by childlike speculation. Miyazaki’s films are often unfairly lumped (and thus, polarized) with the rest of Japanese animation, but they shouldn’t be; his films succeed unlike any other in building worlds from scrap: From the tiniest of details to the minutiae performed by the characters, everything has a purpose and internal logic. Nausicaä concerns a small, self-sufficient community in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by the eponymous princess Nausicaä that comes under threat of foreign invasion. It isn’t necessary to describe much of the plot — it’s a typical sci-fi/fantasy adventure, but one anchored in a stunningly fluid world and beautifully driven by passion and ethics. The overused chestnut “Quality entertainment for all ages” has never been more appropriate.
Brazil (1985), Terry Gilliam — Gilliam’s version of authoritarian dystopia is one serious mind-fuck — Brazil is alternately one of the funniest and most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen. Taking a completely new and savage take on the classic Orwellian/Huxleyian future, Gilliam moves one step further by completely satirizing its victims. Brazil is a story saturated with heavy irony and nightmarish bureaucracy; the protagonist — a limp, ineffectual Everyman in a suit, can only fight against the cruel police state he inhabits by escaping to a ludicrous fantasy world, a habit which derails and then dooms his fight against the system. Gilliam’s cruel parody could make even Stanley Kubrick seem sympathetic by contrast, but his melding of humor and horror creates a glance into the future unlike any other.
The Quiet Earth (1985), Geoff Murphy — This quiet New Zealand film is often marred by Murphy’s mediocre direction and its dated ’80s presentation, but the concept behind it is so fascinating that it counters both. Zac Hobson awakes one morning after an attempted suicide to discover he’s the only man left on Earth; everyone and every thing with a pulse has apparently vanished without a trace. Alternately horrified and giddy, Zac runs amok, doing whatever he wants, taking whatever he likes from the empty stores and buildings, eventually holing himself up in a mansion and suffering delusions of godhood — an all-too-realistic madness induced by the isolation. Eventually his alienation is broken by the arrival of other survivors, though whether they’re real or in Zac’s head comes into question, as does his specific role in the annihilation of all life. As I said, the story is pretty captivating, hampered only by inconsistent direction and tone; this film is begging for a good remake.
Castle in the Sky (1986), Hayao Miyazaki — Yet another Miyazaki masterpiece (which makes, what — eight total?), Castle in the Sky, creates another world that offers the viewer nothing short of total immersion. Miyazaki’s films manage to express the inexpressible, the language of love and compassion; Castle in the Sky is a fairy tale, though describing it as such feels horribly reductive, concerning the heir apparent of an unknown aerial kingdom who slowly becomes aware of her destiny. In the hands of anyone else, Castle in the Sky would’ve been either ridiculous or saccharine to the point of lunacy, but somehow, every cel here makes sense. I can’t praise these movies enough; I discovered them as a jaded 24-year-old and I’ve been galvanized by their youthful spirit in a way I haven’t been since grade school.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.