Top 10 great Science Fiction Films
The ten Science Fiction titles listed below are all available in the UK on DVD. These are just a few personal favourites; there are many, many more.
1. BLADE RUNNER (Ridley Scott, 1982)
Science fiction is frustratingly difficult, if not impossible, to define. Not constrained by period costume, set design or formula ”â as are other genres such as Westerns, musicals or even film noir – Science fiction pictures can range from the deep-space fantasy/ action adventure template (the risible Star Wars, for example) to future-shock (Planet Of The Apes) or body horror (The Fly). Though many science fiction films are set in the future, they are invariably most revealing about the time in which they are produced.
For this reason, I have limited my interpretation of science fiction to the dictionary definition ”â a genre that “makes use of scientific knowledge or conjecture.”Â Consequently, the likes of Barbarella, Sleeper and Santa Claus Conquers The Martians don’t make the list, and Ridley Scott’s free adaptation of Phillip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? is the first choice.
A critical and commercial flop upon its initial release, Blade Runner’s stunning and bleak hi-tec film-noir vision of Los Angeles in 2019 ”â where the gulf between the rich and poor is vast, it constantly rains because of damage to the environment and commercialism is rampant ”â has influenced virtually every science fiction film produced since.
Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford, a career best performance) is a ”Ëblade runner’, a term taken from the short screenplay treatment by the late William S Burroughs and a clear indication that the anti-hero, Deckard, is in the control of others. Deckard’s job is to hunt and ”Ëretire’ genetically engineered humans used as slave labour in the Off-World Colonies. These ”Ëreplicants’, led by Roy Batty (a superb Rutger Hauer), are outlawed on Earth because of a past rebellion that caused mass destruction. But Deckard’s task is not easy: the only way to determine if someone is a replicant is to conduct the Voigt-Kompf test, which monitors blush response and pupil dilation. Questions trigger emotional responses, which are than evaluated. The replicants’ lack of empathy is the one weakness that gives them away.
With this narrative, Scott seeks to uncover the essence of human nature. The ”Ëreal’ characters in Blade Runner believe it lies in their ability to feel for other people. But this assumption is challenged: the replicants grieve when their android friends are killed, they collect photos of their ”Ëfamilies’, even if their treasured memories have been fabricated by their creator Tyrell (Joseph Turkel), and they bond as a unit against their pursuer. The humans by contrast are cold, remote and unsympathetic ”â the film’s central conflict is between men and women who act like androids, and replicants who act like men and women. Deckard’s uncertain love affair with Tyrell’s replicant assistant Rachael (Sean Young) was given further spin in the 1992 so-called director’s cut, which included footage that strongly suggested that Deckard himself might be an android.
It’s a moot point whether Blade Runner is a post-modern film or a film about postmodernism, but along with William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer it created the term ”Ëcyberpunk’ ”â describing a world dominated by post-humanism and techno-fetishism, featuring punk anti-heroes struggling against multinational corporations. At its heart, Blade Runner is a very moral film; the opening shot of the city ”â with its forbidding skyscrapers, flaming waste gases and massive neon adverts for Coca-Cola and TDK ”â is an unforgettable image of spiritual loss and damnation. Though the plot is muddled (which Scott has never managed to rectify, despite having tinkered with the film at least twice since its first release), this is a brilliantly nightmarish vision of late-capitalist ideology on the verge of total collapse.
2. METROPOLIS (Fritz Lang, 1926)
Set in the 21st century, Lang’s silent, grand production blends science with German gothic to produce a politically ambiguous vision of the future. Metropolis the city appears to be a utopian paradise, with the wealthy living in vast glass and concrete apartments. But slaves are toiling underground to keep their masters in the lap of luxury. After crazed scientist Rothwang (Rudolph Klein Rogge) builds a robot version of political activist Maria (the amazing Brigitte Helm) to keep the workers in line, the robot starts a revolution and brings chaos to Metropolis. Lang’s vision contains prophetic images of totalitarianism that were later co-opted by the Nazis and expressionist design that has influenced every futuristic cityscape since it was made.
3. ROBOCOP (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)
The manic Dutch director’s portrait of future capitalism gone mad offers conclusive proof that the science fiction genre and a sense of humour are not mutually exclusive. In the future city Old Detroit, Omni-Consumer Products have taken Reaganism one-step further ”â they have privatised the police force. After Officer Murphy (Peter Weller) is literally shot to pieces, he is turned into a law-enforcement cyborg built by the ruthless OCP to protect their city’s rebuilding programme. But this new ”ËRobocop’ cannot cope with the corruption and double-dealing within the multi-national that created him. Using all the available special effects, Verhoeven created a masterwork about a funny, twisted, none-too-distant future world ”â a vicious parody of the venal 1980s.
4.ALPHAVILLE (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)
Godard blends utopian satire, film noir, science fiction, comic book imagery and Pop Art to create the alienated landscape of a strange planet ”â our own. Secret agent Lemmy Caution (hard-as-nails Eddie Constantine) travels to the city of Alphaville in search of a fellow agent and scheming Professor Von Braun (Howard Vernon). Lemmy meets von Braun’s stunning daughter (Anna Karina) and finds that not only is the dehumanised city run by computer, Alpha 60, but that the professor is planning to declare war. Filmed in black and white within blank corridors and sterile computer laboratories, Godard’s film satirises the conformist mindset of its day, and proved that imagination, rather than a vast budget, is really the only prerequisite for making science fiction.
5. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (Don Siegel, 1956)
Doctor Miles Bennel (Kevin McCarthy) returns to find the townsfolk complaining that their relations and friends aren’t themselves. Investigating these seemingly paranoid claims, Miles discovers that alien seedpods are gradually replacing the human race with soulless analogues. Siegel’s tight direction and Daniel Mainwaring’s subtle script, based upon Jack Finney’s 1955 The Body Snatchers novel, produce a perfect piece of Cold War hysteria that can be both interpreted allegorically as both anti-McCarthyite and ant-Communist. In Philip Kaufman’s fine 1978 remake, the pod people represent apathetic America failing to deal with the post-Watergate fallout. Abel Ferrara’s mediocre 1993 version just represents a second-rate America. Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2007 flaccid box office flop ”Ëreimagining’, entitled Invasion starring Nicole Kidman, simply denotes a United States of America on its knees.
6. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (Nicholas Roeg, 1976)
Director Roeg gave perpetual chameleon rock star David Bowie the perfect feature film role of his career as the ultimate stranger in a strange land, in his and scriptwriter Paul Mayersberg’s innovative adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel. Working under the name Thomas Jerome Newton, a heavily disguised alien arrives in New Mexico and quickly reinvents corporate hegemony, with the advanced technological products produced by his World Enterprises Corporation, in order to construct a spacecraft in which to return to his dying planet with water. But the Howard Hughes-style Newton is a fallen angel, like Icarus, glimpsed in a shot of Brueghel’s painting, soon falling to the all too human vices of lust for power, alcoholism, emotional and sexual dependency and the all pervasive materialistic culture of late 20th century America. A gloriously disorientating satire of modern life and an affecting evocation of isolation and alcoholic desolation, the intense emotional power of The Man Fell To Earth endures.
7. DARK STAR (John Carpenter, 1973)
Carpenter accurately described his first film ”â which he started in 1970 at USC Film School with a budget of $60,000 ”â as “Waiting For Godot in space.”Â Four drugged ”âup astronauts drift endlessly through space. They record their diaries on video, catch some rays under a sun lamp, reminisce about life on Earth and play some stupid games with their bizarre alien ”Ëmascot’. Then the ship’s female talking computer breaks down, leaving them stranded in the middle of the galaxy. With gags about drugs and surfing, coupled with digs at the pretensions of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, Dark Star is a hilarious hippie picture, perhaps offering one of the most realistic depictions of space travel on film. You’ll believe an astronaut can surf back down to Earth.
8. WESTWORLD (Michael Crichton, 1973)
A plausible vision of the future as a role-playing theme park, Crichton’s film focuses on an adult holiday resort that offers erotic robot sex, romance or violence in a choice of locales ”â ancient Rome, a medieval castle or a Wild West frontier town. The business visiting the centre, played by Richard Benjamin and James Brolin, are vacant characters, devoid of life, and simply out to indulge their lowest desires. By contrast, the robot gunslinger (Yul Brynner) ”â programmed to die in every shoot-out but who begins to ”Ërebel’ against his creators ”â is a captivating presence, seemingly indestructible and set on revenge. Crichton reworked the premise of this intriguing fantasy for his inferior 1990 bestseller Jurassic Park.
9. MAD MAX II (George Miller, 1981)
Coming two years after the original, a kind of post-apocalyptic Death Wish in which Mel ”ËMad’ Gibson’s vigilante cop avenged the death of his family, this is the definitive futuristic survivalist road movie. With the arms race accelerating in the 1980s, the end of the world was a common obsession with filmmakers, but George Miller’s vision of a totally anarchic, post-World War III Australia was in a class of its own. Punctuated with wild, kinetic car chases, this is simply the story of a band of deranged road warriors who roam the desert searching for gasoline and the tribal clans who hold them at bay. In this dog-eat-dog world, the morally ambiguous Max becomes an iconic figure of hope ”â a man willing to risk his life for the future of mankind.
10. ALIEN (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Drawing heavily on the plots of 1950s B-movies The Thing and It! Terror From Beyond Space, Scott’s highly suspenseful film finds the crew of an industrial spacecraft being staked and killed by a super-evolved creature. An incredibly strong cast (Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, John hurt, Yaphet Kotto) bring to life the profane dialogue of the script by Dan O’Bannon and Walter Hill, but the true star of the film is the alien itself. Designed by HR Giger, it’s an overtly sexual rather than hi-tech entity, and the excellent Sigourney Weaver’s ongoing battle with this not-at-all subtle image of phallic aggression makes a refreshing change in such a male-dominated genre. Underrated upon release, Alien spawned a lucrative franchise ”â but the original is still the best.