By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 17, 2023)
I thought I’d paw through the “sci-fi” section of my collection and share 25 of my favorites. Keep in mind that these are personal favorites; I was careful not to title the post “Top 25 Sci-fi Movies of All Time” (there is no more surefire way to spark a virtual bare-knuckled fracas). Anyway, here are 25 off-world adventures awaiting you now…
Alien – Ridley Scott’s first (and best) entry in what has become a never-ending (albeit lucrative) franchise is the least bombastic and most character-driven of the series. This 1979 sci-fi thriller concerns the workaday crew of a space merchant vessel who are forced to deal with the, erm, complications that ensue after the discovery of an otherworldly stowaway on board. It’s a taut, nail-biting affair from start to finish, with outstanding production design. A top-notch cast helps: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerrit, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, and Harry Dean Stanton.
Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution -The first time I saw this uniquely atmospheric (if coldly detached) 1965 Jean-Luc Godard film I said to myself “WTF did I just watch?” I shrugged it off and forgot about it for about a decade. Then, several years ago I picked up a newly restored Blu-ray reissue and watched it a second time. This time, I said to myself, “Oh. I think I got it.” Then, after pausing a beat “No. I don’t got it.” Now bound and determined, I watched it AGAIN several days later.
This time, by George…I think I got it: Godard’s film, with its mashup of science fiction, film noir, dystopian nightmare and existential despair is a pre-cursor to Blade Runner, Dark City and Death and the Compass (sometimes it takes me a while…but I eventually get there). The film stars American actor Eddie Constantine and Godard’s muse Anna Karina. Sans special effects or any specially constructed sets, Godard used contemporaneous Parisian locations (beautifully shot by Raoul Coutard, mostly at night) to great effect.
The Andromeda Strain – What’s the scariest monster? The one you cannot see. Robert Wise directs this 1971 sci-fi thriller, adapted from Michael Crichton’s best-seller by Nelson Gidding. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that replicates with alarming efficiency. The team is restricted to a hermetically sealed environment until they can figure a way to destroy the microbial intruder, making this a nail-biter from start to finish. With Arthur Hill, James Olson, Kate Reid, and David Wayne.
Another Earth – Writer-director Mike Cahill’s auspicious 2011 narrative feature debut concerns an M.I.T.-bound young woman (co-scripter Brit Marling) who makes a fateful decision to get behind the wheel after a few belts. The resultant tragedy kills two people, and leaves the life of the survivor, a music composer (William Mapother) in shambles. After serving prison time, the guilt-wracked young woman, determined to do penance, ingratiates herself into the widower’s life (he doesn’t realize who she is). Complications ensue.
Another Earth is a “sci-fi” film mostly in the academic sense; don’t expect to see CGI aliens in 3-D. Orbiting somewhere in proximity of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its concerns are more metaphysical than astrophysical. And not unlike a Tarkovsky film, it demands your full and undivided attention.
Blade Runner – What truly defines “being human”? Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that “existence precedes and rules essence”. One must assume that he was talking about human beings, because after all, he was one, offering his (“its”?) definition as to what “being human” is. Which begs this question: what sparks “existence”? To which people usually answer some “thing” or some “one”. Such questions and suppositions form the core of Blade Runner, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi noir is set a dystopian near-future where the presence of commercially manufactured “replicants” (near-humans with specialized functions and a built-in 4-year life span) has become routine. The “blade runner” of note is Deckard (Harrison Ford), whose job is to hunt down and “retire” aberrant replicants.
Also in the cast: Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, M. Emmet Walsh, Edward James Olmos, Brion James and Daryl Hannah. The film’s amazing production design makes it one of cinema’s most immersive “speculative futures” this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Computer Chess – In his off-kilter 2013 “80s retro” mockumentary, Andrew Bujalski achieves verisimilitude via a vintage B&W video camera (which makes it appear you’re watching events unfold on closed-circuit TV), and “documents” a weekend-long tournament where nerdy computer chess programmers from all over North America assemble once a year to match algorithmic prowess.
Not unlike a Christopher Guest satire, Bujalski throws a bevy of idiosyncratic characters together, shakes the jar, and then steps back to watch what happens. However, just when you think you’ve got the film sussed as a gentle satirical jab at computer geek culture, things start to get weird…then weirder. The most original sci-fi movie I’ve seen in a while. (Full review)
The Day the Earth Caught Fire – This cerebral mix of conspiracy a-go-go and sci-fi (from 1961) was written and directed by Val Guest. Simultaneous nuclear testing by the U.S. and Soviets triggers an alarmingly rapid shift in the Earth’s climate. As London’s weather turns more tropical by the hour, a Daily Express reporter (Peter Stenning) begins to suspect that the British government is not being 100% forthcoming on the possible fate of the world. Along the way, Stenning has some steamy scenes with his love interest (sexy Janet Munro). The film is more noteworthy for its smart, snappy patter than its run-of-the-mill f/x, but has a compelling narrative. Co-starring veteran scene-stealer Leo McKern.
Escape From New York – John Carpenter directed this 1981 action-thriller set in the dystopian near-future of 1997 (ah, those were the days). N.Y.C. has been converted into a penal colony. Air Force One has been downed by terrorists, but not before the POTUS (Donald Pleasence) bails in his escape pod, which lands in Manhattan, where he is kidnapped by “inmates”. The police commissioner (ever squint-eyed Lee van Cleef) enlists the help of Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a fellow war vet who is now one of America’s most notorious criminals.
Imaginative, darkly funny and entertaining, despite an obviously limited budget. Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle even slip in a little subtext of Nixonian paranoia. Also with Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes (the Duke of N.Y.!), and Harry Dean Stanton (stealing all his scenes as “Brain”). Carpenter also composed (and played) the memorable theme song.
Fantastic Planet – Director Rene Laloux’s imaginative 1973 animated fantasy (originally La planete sauvage) is about a race of mini-humans called Oms, who live on a distant planet and have been enslaved (or viewed and treated as dangerous pests) for generations by big, brainy, blue aliens called the Draags. We follow the saga of Terr, an Om who has been adopted as a house pet by a Draag youngster. Equal parts Spartacus, Planet of the Apes, and that night in the dorm you took too many mushrooms, it’s at once unnerving and mind-blowing. Mushrooms not included.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – The belated 2005 adaptation of satirist Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi radio-to-book-to TV series made a few old school fans (like me) a little twitchy at first, but director Garth Jennings does an admirable job of condensing the story down to an entertaining feature length film. It’s the only “end of the world” scenario I know of where the human race buys it as the result of bureaucratic oversight (the Earth is to be “demolished” for construction of a hyperspace highway bypass; unfortunately, the requisite public notice is posted in an obscure basement-on a different planet).
Adams (who died in 2001) was credited as co-screenwriter (with Karey Kirkpatrick); but I wonder if he had final approval, as the wry “Britishness” of some of the key one liners from the original series have been dumbed down. Still, it’s a quite watchable affair, thanks to the enthusiastic cast, the imaginative special effects and (mostly) faithful adherence to the original ethos. I heartily recommend the original BBC series as well.
The Incredible Shrinking Man – Always remember, never mix your drinks. And, as we learn from Jack Arnold’s 1957 sci-fi classic, you should never mix radiation exposure with insecticide…because that will make you shrink, little by little, day by day. That’s what happens to Scott Carey (Grant Williams), much to the horror of his wife (Randy Stuart) and his stymied doctors.
Unique for its time in that it deals primarily with the emotional, rather than fantastical aspects of the hapless protagonist’s transformation. To be sure, the film has memorable set-pieces (particularly Scott’s chilling encounters with a spider and his own house cat), but there is more emphasis on how the dynamics of the couple’s relationship changes as Scott becomes more diminutive. The denouement presages the existential finale of The Quiet Earth.
In the fullness of time, some have gleaned sociopolitical subtext in Richard Matheson’s screenplay; or at least a subtle thumb in the eye of 1950s conformity. Matheson adapted from his novel. He also wrote the seminal zombie apocalypse thriller I Am Legend (adapted for the screen as The Last Man on Earth , The Omega Man and the eponymous 2007 film).
Last Night– A profoundly moving low-budget wonder from writer/director/star Don McKellar. The story intimately focuses on several Toronto residents and how they choose to spend (what they know to be) their final 6 hours. You may recognize McKellar from his work with director Atom Egoyan. He must have been taking notes, because McKellar employs a similar quiet, deliberate manner of drawing you straight into the emotional core of his characters.
Although generally somber in tone, there are plenty of wry touches (you know you’re watching a Canadian version of the Apocalypse when the #4 song on the “Top 500 of All Time” is by… Burton Cummings). The powerful denouement packs quite a wallop.
Fantastic ensemble work from Sandra Oh, Genevieve Bujold, Callum Keith Rennie and Tracy Wright. McKellar tosses fellow Canadian director David Cronenberg into the mix in a small role.
The Lathe of Heaven – Adapted from Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel by Roger Swaybill and Diane English, this film was produced by Thirteen/WNET-TV in New York and originally aired on PBS stations in 1979.
The story takes place in “near future” Portland, at a time when the Earth is suffering profound effects from global warming and pandemics are rampant (rather prescient, eh?) The film stars Bruce Davison as George Orr, a chronic insomniac who has become convinced that his nightly dreams are affecting reality. Depressed and sleep-deprived, he overdoses on medication and is forced by legal authorities to seek psychiatric help from Dr. William Haber (Kevin Conway), who specializes in experimental dream research.
When Dr. Haber realizes to his amazement that George is not delusional, and does in fact have the ability to literally change the world with his “affective dreams”, he begins to suggest reality-altering scenarios to his hypnotized patient. The good doctor’s motives are initially altruistic; but as George catches on that he is being used like a guinea pig, he rebels. A cat and mouse game of the subconscious ensues; every time Dr. Haber attempts to make his Utopian visions a reality, George finds a way to subvert the results.
The temptation to play God begins to consume Dr. Haber, and he feverishly begins to develop a technology that would make George’s participation superfluous. So begins a battle of wills between the two that could potentially rearrange the very fabric of reality. An intelligent and compelling story; one of the best “made-for-TV” sci-fi films ever produced.
Liquid Sky – Downtown 81 meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers in this deeply weird 1982 art-house sci-fi film. A diminutive, parasitic alien with a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, you know…reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (the alien is a dopamine junkie?). Just don’t think about the science too hard.
The main attraction here is the inventive photography and the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who tackles two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a male model. Writer-director Slava Zsukerman also co-wrote the electronic music score.
Man Facing Southeast – Writer-director Eliseo Subiela’s drama is a deceptively simple tale of a mysterious mental patient (Hugo Soto) who no one on staff at the facility he is housed in can remember admitting. Yet, there he is; a soft-spoken yet oddly charismatic young man who claims to be an extra-terrestrial, sent to Earth to save humanity from themselves. He develops a complex relationship with the head psychiatrist (Lorenzo Quinteros) who becomes fascinated with his case.
While sold as a “sci-fi” tale, it’s hard to pigeonhole; the film is equal parts fable, family drama, and Christ allegory (think King of Hearts meets The Day the Earth Stood Still). Powerful and touching.
The Man Who Fell to Earth – If there was ever a film and a star that were made for each other, it was director Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 adaptation of Walter Tevis’ novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the late great David Bowie.
Several years after retiring his “Ziggy Stardust” persona, Bowie was coaxed back to the outer limits of the galaxy to play Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from a drought-stricken planet who crash-lands on Earth. Gleaning Earth as a water source, Newton formulates a long-range plan for transporting the precious resource back to his home world. In the interim, he becomes an enigmatic hi-tech magnate. A one-of-a-kind film, with excellent supporting performances from Candy Clark, Rip Torn and Buck Henry.
The Omega Man – This 1971 Boris Sagal film was the second screen adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend (the 1964 film The Last Man on Earth was the first, book-ended by I Am Legend in 2007). While all three adaptations have their strengths and weaknesses, I have a soft spot for this one (adapted by John William Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington), with ever-hammy Charlton Heston as a military scientist battling mutated albino plague victims in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (the locale was switched to New York City for the 2007 Will Smith vehicle).
In the wake of a deadly pandemic attributed to biological warfare fallout from a Sino-Soviet war, Heston injects himself with an experimental vaccine that appears to work. However, the main threat to his health is not so much the virus, but the rabid lynch mob of pissed-off albino freaks who storm his heavily fortified apartment building every night, led by a messianic ex-TV news anchor (Anthony Zerbe, chewing scenery like a zombie Howard Beale). Rosalind Cash is a hoot as a ass-kicking babe in the Pam Grier mold.
Paprika – It’s no secret among fans of intelligent, adult sci-fi that some of the best genre films these days aren’t originating from Hollywood, but rather from the masters of Japanese anime. Films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell display a quality of writing and visual imagination that few live action productions can touch (well, post-Blade Runner).
One of the more adventurous anime directors was the late Satoshi Kon. In films like Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers, Kon displayed a unique flair for coupling complex characterization with photo-realistic visual style; making me forget that I’m watching an anime.
In this 2007 entry, a team of scientists develops an interface device called the “DC mini” that facilitates the transference of dreams from one person to another. This dream machine is designed primarily for use by psychotherapists; it allows them to literally experience a patient’s dreams and take a closer look under the hood. In the wrong hands, however, this could become a very dangerous tool.
As you have likely guessed, “someone” has hacked into a DC mini and begun to wreak havoc with people’s minds. One by one, members of the research team are driven to suicidal behavior after the dreams of patients are fed into their subconscious without their knowledge (akin to someone slipping acid into the punch).
Things get more complicated when these waking dreams take sentient form and spread like a virus, forming a pervasive matrix that threatens to supplant “reality”. A homicide detective joins forces with one of the researchers, whose alter-ego, Paprika, is literally a “dream girl”, a sort of super-heroine of the subconscious. It’s a Disney-on-acid/ sci-fi murder mystery, featuring Kon’s most stunning use of color and imagery. A must-see for anime and sci-fi fans.
Planet of the Apes – The original 1968 version of The Planet of the Apes had a lot going for it. It was based on an acclaimed sci-fi novel by Pierre Boulle (whose semi-autobiographical debut, The Bridge on the River Kwai, had been adapted into a blockbuster film). It was helmed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Papillon, The Boys from Brazil). It had an intelligent script by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. And, of course, it had Charlton Heston, at his hammy apex (“God DAMN you ALL to HELL!!”).
Most notably, it opened the same month as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both Kubrick’s and Schaffner’s films not only blew minds but raised the bar on film-goers’ expectations for science-fiction movies; each was groundbreaking in its own way.
The Quiet Earth – In this 1985 New Zealand import, Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace) delivers a mesmerizing performance, playing a scientist who may (or may not) have had a hand in a government research project mishap that has apparently wiped out everyone on Earth except him.
The plot thickens when he discovers that there are at least two other survivors-a man and a woman. The three-character dynamic is reminiscent of a 1959 nuclear holocaust tale called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, but it’s safe to say that the similarities end there. The haunting finale will give you something to mull over long after credits role.
Director Geoff Murphy (who adapted the screenplay from Craig Harrison’s eponymous novel) never topped this effort; although his 1992 film Freejack, with Mick Jagger as a time-traveling bounty hunter (yes…that happened)), is worth a peek on a slow night.
Repo Man – This 1984 punk-rock/sci-fi black comedy version of Rebel without a Cause is actually one of the more coherent efforts from mercurial U.K. filmmaker Alex Cox. Emilio Estevez is suitably sullen as disenfranchised L.A. punk Otto, who stumbles into a gig as a “repo man” after losing his job, getting dumped by his girlfriend and deciding to disown his parents. As he is indoctrinated into the samurai-like “code” of the repo man by sage veteran Bud (Harry Dean Stanton, in another masterful deadpan performance) Otto begins to realize that he’s found his true calling.
A subplot involving a mentally fried government scientist on the run, driving around with a mysterious, glowing “whatsit” in the trunk is an obvious homage to Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir, Kiss Me Deadly. Cox tosses a UFO conspiracy into the mix, and makes excellent use of L.A. locations (thanks in no small part to master cinematographer Robby Muller’s lens work). The fabulous soundtrack includes Iggy Pop, Black Flag, and The Circle Jerks.
Silent Running – In space, no one can hear you trimming the verge! Bruce Dern is an agrarian antihero in this 1972 sci-fi adventure, directed by legendary special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull. Produced around the time “ecology” was a buzzword, its message may seem a little heavy-handed today, but the film remains a cult favorite.
Dern plays the gardener on a commercial space freighter that houses several bio-domes, each dedicated to preserving a species of vegetation (in this bleak future, the Earth is barren of organic growth).
While it’s a 9 to 5 drudge gig to his blue-collar shipmates, Dern sees his cultivating duties as a sacred mission. When the interests of commerce demand the crew jettison the domes to make room for more lucrative cargo, Dern goes off his nut, eventually ending up alone with two salvaged bio-domes and a trio of droids (Huey, Dewey and Louie) who play Man Friday to his Robinson Crusoe. Joan Baez contributes two songs on the soundtrack.
Slaughterhouse-Five – Film adaptations of Kurt Vonnegut stories have a checkered history; from downright awful (Slapstick of Another Kind) or campy misfires (Breakfast of Champions) to passable time killers (Happy Birthday, Wanda June and Mother Night). For my money, your best bets are Jonathan Demme’s 1982 PBS American Playhouse short Who Am I This Time? and this 1974 feature film by director George Roy Hill.
Michael Sacks stars as milquetoast daydreamer Billy Pilgrim, a WW2 vet who weathers the devastating Allied firebombing of Dresden as a POW. After the war, he marries his sweetheart, fathers a son and daughter and settles into a comfortable middle-class life, making a living as an optometrist.
A standard all-American postwar scenario…except for the part where a UFO lands on his nice, manicured lawn and spirits him off to the planet Tralfamadore, after which he becomes permanently “unstuck” in time, i.e., begins living (and re-living) his life in random order. Great performances from Valerie Perrine and Ron Leibman. Stephen Geller adapted the script.
2001: A Space Odyssey – The mathematician/cryptologist I.J. Good (an Alan Turing associate) once famously postulated:
Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.
Good raised this warning in 1965, about the same time director Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke were formulating the narrative that would evolve into both the novel and film versions of 2001: a Space Odyssey. And it’s no coincidence that the “heavy” in 2001 was an ultra-intelligent machine that wreaks havoc once its human overseers lose “control” …Good was a consultant on the film.
Good was but one of the experts that Kubrick consulted, before and during production of this meticulously constructed masterpiece. Not only did he pick the brains of top futurists and NASA engineers, but enlisted some of the best primatologists, anthropologists, and uh, mimes of his day, to ensure that every detail, from the physicality of prehistoric humans living on the plains of Africa to the design of a moon base, passed with veracity. A true classic.
Zardoz – I suspect my inclusion of John Boorman’s 1974 spaced-out oddity will raise an eyebrow or two, but as I’ve admitted on more than one occasion-there’s no accounting for some people’s taste. Once you get past sniggering over star Sean Connery’s costume (a red loincloth/diaper accessorized by a double bandolier and thigh-high go-go boots), this is an imaginative fantasy-adventure for adults.
Set in the year 2293 (why not?), Boorman’s story centers on thuggish but natively intelligent Zed (Connery) who roams the wastelands of a post-apocalyptic Earth with his fellow “Brutals” killing and pillaging with impunity. This all-male club worships a “god” named Zardoz, who speaks to them via a large flying stone head, which occasionally touches down so they can fill it with stolen grain. In exchange, Zardoz spews out rifles like a giant Pez dispenser, while intoning his #1 tenet “The gun is good, the penis is evil.”
One day Zed manages to stow away in the head just before takeoff, and when it lands he finds himself in the invisible force-field protected “Vortex”, where the elite “Eternals” live a seemingly idyllic and Utopian life that is purely of the mind. Bemused and fascinated by this “specimen” from the outside world, one of the Eternals “adopts” Zed is as his Man Friday while his fate is being debated. But who is really studying who?
Boorman’s story takes some inspiration from HG Wells’ The Time Machine, as well as another classic fantasy that becomes apparent in the fullness of the narrative, but it still stands out from the pack for sheer weirdness. There are also parallels to A Boy and His Dog (another film I’ve seen an unhealthy number of times).
In a way the “Eternals”-what with their crystals, pyramids, and hippy-dippy philosophical musings, presage the New Age Movement. Also, they pass judgement on anyone in their collective suspected of having “negative thoughts” with a telepathic vote; if found guilty the accused is “aged” to drooling dotage and banished from the community (that’s social media in a nutshell).