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By Keaton Ziem · March 29, 2012
No other genre in the spectrum of cinema is as dependent upon the imagination than Science Fiction. In a Universe as vast and awe inspiring as the one we happen – by chance or by design – to occupy, it is difficult sometimes to render all that splendor, horror, and infinite potential into 90 minutes, and manage also to appeal to as wide an array of different audience members as possible. This is why Science Fiction has, time and time again, tirelessly been broadening concepts, challenging audiences, and reaching deeper and deeper into space, time, and the unknown.
There is certainly much to gain from such a film experience, just as there is much at stake.
The following is a list of a few of my personal favorite Science Fiction films. I was hard pressed to put any of them ahead of the other (except for #1, but we'll get to that), but finally the order you find here is the one that felt right to me.
These ten films call into question the nature of human existence, both here on this planet, in and among the stars, and to one another. Some are terrifying. Some are hilarious. Some are awe-inspiring.
I hope you agree.
10. King Kong (1933)
In 1933, the world saw the New York City-based Postal Telegraph Company introduce the first singing telegram, Guiseppe Zangara atempted to assassinate President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the first Nazi Concentration camp—Dachau, was built. The world, now more than ever, was in flux. The nation was growing, technology was improving, the economy was unsteady. Seeking adventure and thrills, despite this worldly climate, Carl Denham amasses around him a small but dedicated film crew, boards a ship and sets sail into the Pacific Ocean.
It was thus how Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack introduced the world to one of the most instantly recognizable cinema icons ever.
From the foreboding aura “Skull Island” the filmmakers and crewmembers are sailing to, to the impenetrable forests that yield the likes of living dinosaurs, crazed natives, and of course—Kong himself. The film was an exercise in pushing the limits of a young film industry's imagination in a time when ancient wonders—spectacular as they had been—were becoming eclipsed by the industry of a modern world.
But who was Kong? The antagonist? The misunderstood hero? A God taken from his paradise and brought before the upturned eyes of New York City? For a monster movie, Kong himself is fascinatingly developed and nuanced, layered with complexities, flaws and bravery. Who did Hollywood imagine would identify with Kong, as he protected Fay Wray from a truly mindless reptilian-brained dinosaur, which sought only a fresh appetizer. Kong didn't need a meal; he sought compassion—a human pursuit. If not the first time Hollywood aspired to humanize a movie monster, then certainly it was it's first true success in doing so.
Because of Kong, all other monsters of cinema are allowed to be terrible, and loveable, simultaneously.
9. Godzilla (1954)
If King Kong was a metaphor for pre-war America, Godzilla was a statement about post-bomb Japan.
Off the cost of Japan, hydrogen bomb testing has set lose the wrath of a titanic super-lizard capable of unthinkable destruction and atrocities (an analogy for nuclear warfare? It's hard to ignore). Yet, from then on afterward, Godzilla became a colossal success, starring as the hero/villain of nearly 30 films produced over a wide dichotomy of locations, though predominantly Japan, and ironically, America.
It changed the course of not just filmmaking, but actually altered the nature of Japanese culture. Anime, video games, comic books, television and most every form of entertainment in Japan would owe something to Godzilla, one way or another. Likewise, as influenced as America is by Japanese entertainment and lifestyle, Godzilla has had an effect on culture here, as well. Don't believe me? Compare the Godzilla (franchise) Wikipedia page with James Bond's. Though the content has little in common, the length at which their respective franchises mythology has evolved puts Godzilla on a pedestal of fame most movie characters will never even approach.
8. Star Wars (1977)
Have to include George Lucas' life's work, and not just because Star Wars was actually an amazing analogy to the collective sum of all human mythology from ancient times to modern ones, and not simply because it has made a lot of people a lot of money in its time, and not because it was the first totally original idea turned into the most unoriginal science fiction film franchise ever developed, but because the very fact that Star Wars exists means that technology and special effects in movies are what they are today.
Lucasfilm. Industrial Light & Magic. Skywalker Sound. LucasArts. Lucas Licensing, Lucas Learning, Lucas Books. Lucasfilm Animation. THX ltd. Pixar Animation Studios. Kerner Optical.
You probably have something within 30 feet of you right now that came as a direct result of George Lucas, and the success Star Wars brought him.
And even though Star Wars is overdone now, it's actually a good story. The story every culture, for all time, has been telling. It's a saga of space opera, but it's a saga of human heroism, the delicate balance of good & evil, the nature of what it means to be a father, to be a son, and to sacrifice one's self for one's friends. Sound familiar?
7. The Matrix (1999)
The best worst movie series of all time. Such a great, fascinating, fun and insightful premise. Such gimmicky plot devices, and insultingly transparent (and blatant) excuses to justify even more kung-fu. But the story, and the journey Neo undertakes, is no less profound.
Who doesn't feel enslaved by things that are out of our control? Who wants to be everything anyone ever needs to save the world? Who would not want to instantly know how to fly a helicopter? I don't know anyone who wouldn't.
What would it be like if anyone, troubled or weak as they might be, was told that you were the one to save humanity? And what if, while doubting and disbelieving that this could ever be true, actually become a savior?
The sequels, also insightful and profound, became burdened with extra characters, who weren't necessary and battles that literally had no consequences, or need. But the most intriguing battle was the one with the fewest punches; Neo's fight within himself, trying to reconcile his new personae as 'Neo', and his old existential understanding of himself as 'Mr. Anderson'. And for a while in the turn of the 21st century, everyone was into The Matrix.
6. Children of Men (2006)
Not a typical science fiction selection. The movie is dark, dreary, depressing, and an unforgiving look not at individual characters, but the general characteristics of mankind at large. But for all of that—for as much of a bummer as this movie is from start-to-finish—nearly every end of every scene has an aspiration, not a promise or a guarantee, but an aspiration for hope. Which, cathartically, is what makes it such a sad film. Hope? How? Why? Nearly everything that happens in the movie shows a world doomed and hopeless.
It's a film that deals not with what we presently have (the futuristic world is alarmingly prophetic—all the wonders of technology and no one seems to care, at all, that they have it), but with what we potentially could have. What would be possible, if we were just a little bit better—as a species. Hope comes from tomorrow, even if today was difficult.
Children of Men is a spectacularly filmed movie, seamlessly performed by a fully talented cast, that tells a heartbreaking story of mankind. The final twenty minutes might, for my money, be my favorite stretch of twenty minutes of pure cinema, period—Science fiction or not.
And in the end? Theo, the most tragically sad and hopeless character in the whole film, smiles—despite every reason not to. What brought him to that smile? It wasn't because he sat bleeding in a boat on a dark, murky day. It was because someone would be around tomorrow.
Grey clouds. Silver linings.
5. Metropolis (1927)
Why, in all Science Fiction films, are the characters within them still dealing with the same problems we experience today? Does no one believe that these problems will ever be solved, even as far into the distant future as we dare to imagine?
Take Metropolis. Made in 1927 Germany; a silent film that told a revamped tale of the Tower of Babel, and examined it by raising the issue of social class systems. The film aspires to bridge the gap between the two casts: workers and intellectuals. Obviously, for most of human history, the sometimes-narrow, oftentimes-wide separation between the elite and the slaves in a society has been the stuff that history books are made of. It is not a new problem, and arguably has always existed.
In the imaginations of science fiction filmmakers, it exists forever into the future as well. Utopia is forever sought, never attained.
Metropolis does a surprisingly good job articulating this and other points, despite the controversy and mixed-reviews it received upon the initial release. Even today, it's obscure to the point of anonymity, but if the audience is patient, they will be rewarded. A film rife with about as heavy a philosophical statement as a film can get, and even as incomplete as it is, is impressive.
Maybe someday, in the future, Fritz Lang's masterpiece will be fully restored.
4. Solaris (2002)
To be fair, I haven't seen either of the other two Solaris films—from 1968 or 1972—and I understand they're regarded as 'better' films; or if not 'better', than certainly vastly different from Stephen Soderberg's 2002 introspective psychological love tale, set in space, with George Clooney.
Clooney, in particular, makes this piece all the more interesting. The Clark Gable of his time, Clooney is either a loveable snake-charmer (Ocean's 11) or a loveable goof (O Brother Where Art Thou?), but here, he is neither. Here, Clooney is quiet, introspective, and distant. Certainly, an odd combination of emotions from a psychologist—an emotionally numb professional empathizer.
What has made him so quiet? We are shown, in one of the most effective and unobtrusive uses of 'flashbacks', of a love affair he had with a woman that, as love can sometimes do, fades. Not all at once, not because of any one thing, not because of anything that might even have been avoidable. Their love affair ends because humans are complicated. Tragically, it's what makes love affairs so beautiful as well.
Solaris then becomes a science fiction of the mind compounded with the science fiction of love, set before a backdrop of eerie/peaceful malicious/kind space—and the ever-present planet Solaris itself. What's Solaris' agenda? Is it curious, or hateful? Does it even make a difference to Clooney, who's only care in the world is not what Solaris has done once he arrives, but with the memories of the woman it conjures.
The score is beautifully ambiguous, suggesting and accenting without saying. It's also a testament to Clooney's performance—it's easy to act when a big musical score is helping communicate ambiguous emotions, much harder when the music is minimal.
Everyone is likely to come away with a different interpretation of the film—what exactly happened, what it was about, and where it left us at the end. Precisely. We must go to Solaris ourselves, and live out our own confrontations with our own ghosts. Did we bring the ghosts with us on our journey, or were they waiting for us at the destination? Solaris won't say.
3. Back to the Future (1985)
Such a cool movie.
It always makes me appreciate how precious the times we live in really are. Even though we have our own prejudices about which generations we've lived through are better than others (everyone, for a long time, hated the 80's, then it became insanely popular—to the point that the 80's started to happen all over again, before becoming hated again almost overnight), and it also demonstrates how swayed our interpretations of the times are based off of nostalgia. Growing up, I learned about modern American history by watching Forest Gump. Back to the Future, likewise, embodies the aesthetic feeling of the times. It does this by being detail-specific, if not entirely factually accurate.
Which, actually, is (one reason) why it's such a cool movie.
The other reasons are everything else in the movie: The Delorean, the Nike's, Skateboards, the clock tower scene, the theme song, Johnny B. Goode, and that “in the future, we won't need roads.”
2. Akira (1988)
Simply put, science-fiction list set aside, the greatest hand-animated film of all time.
Disturbing? Yes. Alarming? Quite. But not without it's own unique humor, profound commentary on the evolution of life, and the results of science, military, government and greed getting in the way of truly talented people who come into existence.
There is a schism about anime, or Japanese animation, and that's only because there's so much of it. It's as polarizing a form of entertainment as British comedies and rap music are—mediums that have difficulty being made accessible to a mass audience so that they can appreciate the good things these art forms have to offer, and disregarding the bad as a matter of course.
You may not like anime, which (for the most part) I do not. You may not like science fiction, which (for the most part) I do.
But… this film is epic.
Please, Leonardo DiCaprio, do not remake this movie.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Anyone who knows me must have known that this was coming. It's not only my favorite science fiction film of-all-time, but it's my favorite movie of-all-time.
It was the first time I had ever watched a movie, start-to-finish, rewound the tape (that's right—the video tape) and watched it again, start-to-finish. For a young boy, I was just absolutely blown away. And it was the first time I realized that someone actually made this movie—that it wasn't just there solely for my own enjoyment—that a movie was a piece of art and that it could touch places of the human soul that a painting alone cannot show—that a song alone cannot reach—that a book by itself cannot reveal. Yet, that movies were an art form unique in the history of human art, that compounded visual beauty, musical beauty, and the written word into the most advanced form of storytelling the world had ever known.
And where did 2001 take us?
Brian Aldiss, science fiction writer and author of SUPOERTOYS LAST ALL SUMMER LONG (aka Stephen Spileberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence), said that 2001 wasn't science fiction. It was science eventuality.
2001 is a film about humans. Where we came from. Who we are. Where we're going. It's a film that illustrates what we have become, and what we are becoming, and how fundamentally little we have changed. Sure, the conceit of the film is to assume that somewhere else, beyond ourselves, is another form of life. What does it want? What is it's intent? The movie never suggests; only that it is beckoning us. Giving us a trail of breadcrumbs to follow. Will it lead us into the forest, or out?
Many people feel that 2001 is a long, tedious, boring movie. It is. No argument there. But only because outer space has been the most sensationalized 'final frontier' ever explored. Star Wars has John Williams, the Force, lightsaber battles and Darth Vader. 2001 has space. Empty, lifeless, quiet. It's the space that actually exists, as far as humans know. 2001 stares into the emptiness, meditates upon it's blackness, and our reward for searching gives us the stargate sequence, which then yields the star child. What does it mean?
I have my ideas. But they are very personal to me, and I suspect you wouldn't be too interested to hear. Which is fine. But the point is they were my ideas that in no way shape or form would have been reached if I had never seen 2001. That's a testament to the art of filmmaking.
And the truth, as always, will be far stranger.