Favorite Science Fiction Films [Snob Seven]

Explorations of other worlds and our own.
  |   Comments

With the San Diego Comic-Con about to commence, it seems a good time as any for the Sentries to focus on science fiction.  At this moment in time, these are our favorites.

Forbidden Planet (1956) selected by Brandie Ashe

forbidden planetIn the distant future, the crew of the United Planets Cruiser C57D has traveled to the faraway planet of Altair IV to search for survivors of an earlier mission that had arrived on--and seemingly disappeared from--the planet twenty years before. Though the crew receives a radio message from the sole remaining survivor of the original mission, Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), who warns them not to approach, Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) decides to land anyway. Once they arrive on the planet, they are greeted by Morbius' creation, an intelligent robot named Robby, who leads the crew to his master. Morbius and his daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis) live on Altair IV alone, as Morbius conducts experiments based on the extinct Krell civilization that had previously populated the planet. Altaira, who has never seen another human man besides her father, is fascinated by the crew (and soon falls in love with Adams), but Morbius warns them that there are hidden dangers on the planet and urges them to leave. Soon after, the ship is sabotaged and a mysterious, invisible creature begins attacking and killing members of Adams' crew.

Forbidden Planet is not "just" a science-fiction movie, and this is what makes it wonderfully accessible for viewers who are not particular fans of the genre. It's an exercise in Freudian dynamics, raising questions of the id and the subconscious desires harbored by all men, embodied by the destructive radioactive monster that threatens the crew. Planet is also largely a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Fitting, considering the film was loosely based on the Bard's play The Tempest: Morbius (a stand-in for Shakespeare's Prospero) is a modern-day tragic hero, done in by his desire for knowledge and all-encompassing misanthropy. The depth of the plot and its underlying themes, and the care given to developing the story and the characters, make this film stand out amid other entries in the '50s sci-fi canon. Even its film score--the first to be completely electronic-based--was influential. Vestiges of Forbidden Planet's influence can be seen in science fiction today (perhaps most notably in the multiple incarnations of the Star Trek universe). It is arguably the best science fiction film to come out of the classic Hollywood period, and remains one of the most entertaining science fiction films of all time.

Planet of the Vampires (1965) selected by Luigi Bastardo

First of all, allow me to point out that it is extremely hard to pick just one favorite of any kind of film. I have to sub-categorize everything to the point that I usually throw my hands into the air and say "To Hell with it!" Therefore, I shall craftily re-title my selection to read "Favorite (Italian) Science Fiction Movie (from 1965)." However, I should also inform you that, even if were I asked to choose several all-time favorites from various sub-genres, I would still pick this movie without any hesitation. So there.

From influential Italian filmmaker Mario Bava comes Terrore Nello Spazio (Terror in Space), released in the United States by American International Pictures (who also co-produced the film) as Planet of the Vampires, or its original television title, Demon Planet. Interestingly enough, the TV title is a more appropriate one: there's nary a bloodsucker to be found in the whole film! Instead, the villains of this atmospheric masterpiece are of the imperceptible to the human eye variety -- assuming control of the living when they are unconscious. They also take possession of the dead, which results in several truly grisly encounters -- as well as an impressive "resurrection" scene.

Taking the lead here is none other than Barry Sullivan, who plays the captain of a gigantic exploratory spaceship named the Argos. Traveling through the vastness of deep space, the Argos and its sister ship the Galliott receive a distress call from the unexplored planet of Aura. Attempting to land isn't an easy task: the atmosphere of the satellite is so powerful, that most of the crew are knocked out by the tremendous g-forces at work -- only to become murderous maniacs when they awaken. Bava sets the mood admirably for this cult classic, lacing what are very obviously sets with a thick layer of dry ice fog as well as employing all kinds of camera trickery the late maestro has become so well known for.

Miniatures. Forced perspectives. Multiple and mirrored exposures in order to make the two plastic rocks Bava was allotted by the film's low budget seem like an endless sea of stone. All this and trippy '60s colors, too; plus some of the greatest leather spacesuits ever invented -- particularly those worn by the female crewmembers, like second-billed Brazilian sexpot Norma Bengell.

The film also stars Ángel Aranda, Evi Marandi, and Ivan Rassimov. The American version of the film (with dialogue written by Ib Melchior and Louis M. Heyward) is slightly different when compared to the original Italian version, though I must confess the voice work on the U.S. edit is a guilty pleasure of mine (I'm even more fond of the funky synthesizer score used on the Thorn EMI/HBO/Orion home video releases issued in the '80s and '90s). Subsequent DVD releases (available in the U.S., Germany, and Italy) only contain the original orchestral and electronic score by Gino Marinuzzi, Jr.

Planet of the Vampires has also been cited as one of two major influences of Ridley Scott's Alien (the other being the 1958 American sci-fi b-movie fave, It! The Terror from Beyond Space), as evident in an eerie scene wherein Sullivan and Bengell discover a long-forgotten alien spaceship littered with enormous skeletons. Bava even goes an extra mile further with this colorful gothic-esque comic book come to life, as his crew of co-writers (all of whom drew their inspiration from Renato Pestriniero's story, One Night of 21 Hours) toss in one of the greatest twists ever imagined for the film's unforgettable finale.

Alien (1979) selected by Ben Platko

Alien is, far and away, the best science fiction movie on this list, and I dare say - ever. Indeed, it is one of the only movies to capture the essence of space - its vastness, its emptiness. For those of you who haven't watched it (shame on you), here's the rundown: a space tugboat crew investigate a distress call, and brings an alien onto their ship; the alien messes some people up, and Sigourney Weaver saves the day. It's a fairly simple plot, but its complexity and intensity are derived from its incredibly developed characters. What makes Alien truly special, though, is Ridley Scott's direction.

Thrillers today create a superficial tension by keeping the camera close to the action, and generally disorienting the audience (quick cuts also add to the effect). Scott created a very real, deep tension by doing the exact opposite - the camera is pulled back and the shots are long. The distant camera work adds to Alien's aesthetic appeal by creating very large spaces. If we fast forward 30 years to Scott's latest film, Prometheus (the prequel to Alien), we can see that a lot of Alien's iconic styling is gone. The shots are tighter and shorter, and a lot of potential tension is lost because of it. Keep in mind, though, that the two films are 30 years removed from each other. As a director, if you don't change in 30 years, something has gone horribly wrong.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) selected by El Bicho

If asked this question circa 1982-83, I would have responded with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan considering the number of times I watched it on HBO, but around that same time in high school I was introduced to Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 by my Intro to Physical Science teacher Mr. Pachelli, who ran the film over the course of a few days.  If memory serves, I don't remember many of the kids being into the movie, but they were content they not having any work to do.  I, on the other hand, was captivated.  When I had Mr. Pachelli for Chemistry my junior year, I got to watch it again and remained enthralled.  I've watched it countless times since at home and even on the big screen in 70mm and never tire of it.

The film is very ambitious as it tells the story of mankind.  Broken into chapters, it opens with "The Dawn of Man" where the viewer witnesses a key evolutionary step, which coincides shortly after the appearance of the mysterious monolith, as early man discovers tools by using an animal bone as a weapon.  In what has become an iconic edit, a man hurls a bone into the sky and the scene cuts to a satellite in space millions of years into the future.

After discovering another monolith buried on the moon, Jupiter is man's next destination.  On the Discovery One, crewmembers Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) grow concered when it appears their shipboard computer, HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain), has made an error.  When they consider deactivating it, HAL comes up with a plan for his survival.  The film concludes with "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite." Kubrick and his crew use the medium to traverse time and space as mankind makes one more evolutionary leap, thanks again to the monolith. 

2001 does what science fiction and art do best.  It explores questions, offers possibilities, but requires the viewer to come up with answers.  The film is filled with memorable scenes and is a classic, not just of the genre but that medium as well.

Blade Runner (1982): Tech-Noir At Its Very Best selected by Mule

blade_runnerFor me the best science fiction is not that which focuses on the shiny abstract technology of a possible bright future. Blade Runner hinges on one of the most fundamental quandaries of mankind, namely "what is it that makes us human?" There is no real touting of any particular agenda in reply to that, no easy answers.

This is set in what was then a far distant 2019 Los Angeles. At least there is some solace in thinking we're not quite there yet. As blade runner Deckard (Harrison Ford) makes his way through the retrofitted architectural urban landscape of a decaying world the question that haunts him is that particular ghost in the machine, humanity. The idea of the Replicants is that they are "more human than human" as the Tyrell corporation so elegantly puts it. Deckard's job is to find the replicants that go rogue and refuse to accept their inevitable end and put them out of commission. Note that they are not "killed", they are "retired".

The atmosphere created by Ridley Scott is spectacular. The huge monolithic skyscrapers that seem to have found their inspiration in Ancient Mayan and Egyptian pyramids and the hypermodern flying cars are set in contrast with a street level that looks like a third-world bazaar where it always seems to rain miserably. It all serves to create a unique and strangely compelling vision of a future that is so obviously not a part of the tradition that states that things can only get better, no matter what your personal feelings about technological determinism might suggest. This future is already old and worn.

The actual storyline is more reminiscent of a typical 1940s Noir, something that is supported by the costumes and the overall feel of the first version with the infamous, much-discussed voice-over. There are several editions of this now cult classic, and I actually prefer the one without the narration and with the more ambiguous ending.

The initial reception of the movie was lukewarm, and that's being generous, but it has since slowly worked its way into canon. There is such a fretwork of integral details that stay with you, like the Voight-Kampff test that helps determine a subjects humanity, or the image enhancer used by Deckard to move around in a photograph, or the cityscape with its bricolage of cultures, umbrellas with their own built-in light sources and the "cityspeak" patois. Grubby humanity is set against the polished sheen of the replicants and it remains fascinating both visually and from a narrative perspective, but that's pretty much a given considering that it's based on one of Phillip K. Dick's novels. It has stood the test of time unlike so much other Sci-Fi and that's quite a feat.

E.T. (1982) selected by Mary K. Williams

There are films that make you think and question what you believe, and even better, question what could be. Is it possible that humanity could be enslaved by machines in a fashion that appears to be real life but is really a total sham? Could crime be prevented by precognition? Could someone find a way to breed extinct creatures and then turn this discovery into an amusement park? Will there be a way to enter someone's dream, or create their dream altogether?

And of course, the biggie, is there life ... out there? In his 1982 movie ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg answers the question with a simple "yes."

ET is the story of a strange little creature that was accidentally left behind in the Californian woods while his alien group -- spooked by government agents -- flies away without him. He makes his way to nearby suburbia and hides in a shed.

He's discovered by 10-year-old Elliott (Henry Thomas), the middle child of the family that owns the home where he's been hiding. ET bonds with the children of the family, learns to speak and exhibits other strange but benign powers.

The story moves along without pretension, yet it is infused with incredible moments that not only explore the growing connection between ET and Elliott, but also engage the viewer effortlessly.

In an inventive scene, Spielberg shows ET alone in Elliott's house, searching through the fridge and getting drunk on Coors beer. He intercuts these images with those of Elliott acting strangely at school and burping.

While ET is still feeling boozy, he watches TV, settling on a John Wayne classic, The Quiet Man. He is entranced with the vision of Wayne pulling Maureen O'Hara into a passionate embrace, and at the same time, Elliott is shown in his classroom, replicating Wayne's movements, as he too, grabs a pretty girl classmate, and in a moment of (drunken?) bravado, kisses her intently. What started as bumbling slapstick in both locations turned into a touching vignette of desperate love and longing.

Another compelling scene occurs in the last third of the film. ET's health has been failing, and shockingly, so has Elliott's. "Keys" and his fellow agents have taken over Elliott's home, initially appearing very menacing, but eventually showing themselves as concerned scientists and doctors. Medical teams are working on both ET and Elliott. As both their vital signs start to bottom out, the various personnel are gradually seen as more humane, more compassionate. When ET's demise seems imminent, they react as if he were human. Perhaps by then, they considered ET less of an oddity.

To watch ET with the jaded eye of someone who has been exposed to lots of recent tech wizardry overload, the special effects are obviously going to look dated. When Elliott, Michael, ET, and their friends are being chased, their flying bicycles are a bit ... lacking. We've seen such amazing definition and precision in current film work, especially sci-fi, that the 1982 movie does just not compare in the FX department. But ET stands out among its peers. The cinematography, the score, the writing, directing, acting -- these facets together create a jewel in the genre.

The Fifth Element (1997) selected by Mark Buckingham

There are so many great sci-fi classics out there -- The Day the Earth Stood Still, Aliens, The Twilight Zone: The Movie -- but for sheer visual panache, humor, thrills, and things going boom, you don't get much better than Luc Besson's The Fifth Element.  The concept stewed in the writer/director's brain since childhood, and when finally brought to life in massive sets, sharp CGI, ridiculous costumes, and elaborate prosthetics, it hit all the right notes.

The film's cast 15 years ago would still make for a smashing roster today: Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Milla Jovovich, Chris Tucker, Luke Perry, Brion James, Tommy 'Tiny' Lister, Charlie Creed-Miles, Tricky, and John Neville.  Each has at least a couple of memorable moments or one-liners in the movie, and many have dozens.

Ok, if you by some strange chance haven't managed to see this gem, a down-and-out cabbie (Willis) stumbles upon a beautiful-but-clumsy fare (Jovovich) whose attire is as limited as her grasp on English, and just so happens to be the key to stopping an age-old evil that seeks to destroy all life in the universe.  The unlikely pair has to deceive and outwit or outrun the military (Brion James), government (Tommy 'Tiny' Lister), a corporate parasite (Gary Oldman), a race of belligerent aliens, and an order of zealots (Ian Holm, Charlie Creed-Miles) determined to "protect" the girl all while placating and repeatedly rescuing a flamboyant radio show host (Chris Tucker).  The script is smart, the pacing is dynamite, the effects are still solid a decade and a half later, the humor is spot on, and the concept just works from start to finish.

If you've seen The Fifth Element, you need no explanation.  If you haven't, I only have one thing to say to you -- Mul-ti-pass.

Follow Us