25 May 2008

Science Fiction Cinema

The expansive spectacle that the science fiction genre provides audiences with makes it a point of repeated interest for film-maker’s when exploring contemporary social and political anxieties and concerns. The difficulty with approaching science fiction and attempting to provide alternative interpretations of a film that appears from the outset closed and limited lies with the problems of foregrounding special effects so that they make the film appear more superficial than it really is.

Like the horror genre, science fiction rests in the domain of fantasy and is distantly removed from notions of realism that usually make a film worthy of analysis. It took science fiction a long time to be taken seriously by film culture and even though it is still largely associated with a male oriented audience, the genre has diversified and reinvented itself over the decades in a number of innovative ways – the most recent example is the development of the popular sub genre referred to as ‘cyberpunk’ which was influenced directly by science fiction literary writers like Philip K Dick and William Gibson. The Cyberpunk movement in terms of science fiction cinema seemed to find it’s culmination in The Matrix films that presented a bleak dystopian vision of the future in which mankind is a slave to the machines and the only hope for humanity comes from an alienated computer hacker.

Unlike other genres, it is still expensive to finance science fiction films as budgets are dominated by special effects that can be costly for those involved, and this continues to be one of the main reasons why Hollywood prefers to back romantic comedies or horror films as they have always represented the cost effective alternative. Hollywood has never paid much attention to the appropriation of language in order to sell films, and the divide between science fiction and sci fi underlines a distinct way of looking at the genre as a whole. A sci fi film is one that is escapist in nature and purely fantasy based with an emphasis on comic book movies like Superman and Spiderman – a sci fi fan is one who does not search for subtext in a film like The Fantastic Four. On the other hand, science fiction cinema is grounded in contemporary reality, and usually the social or political issues being represented are an identifiable part of society.

If we were to use such discriminate categories then it would be much more problematic to classify films like ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Alien’. However, such a divide exists within the genre and therefore this list of ten greatest science fiction films tries not to make a distinction between sci fi and science fiction, even if the majority of films I have selected would come within the parameters of science fiction cinema. In addition to Hollywood, the science fiction genre has also interested and challenged film maker’s in countries like France and the UK, and so I have compiled an alternative list of non Hollywood science fiction films that represent somewhat of a distinctly personal and perhaps even avante garde approach to science fiction cinema.

TOP 10 HOLLYWOOD SCIENCE FICTION FILMS (in no particular order)

1. BLADE RUNNER (Dir. Ridley Scott, 1982)

On it's release Ridley Scott's dystopian masterpiece was dismissed but however over the years it has attracted a considerable cult following and the recent release of the final cut has cemented the critical position of this film as probably the greatest science fiction film made by a Hollywood film studio.

2. ALIEN (Dir. Ridley Scott, 1982)

Though everybody has a favourite 'Alien' film and many consider 'Aliens' to be a far superior film, the original slasher in space is not only more frightening in it's depiction of the Alien creature but even today it's ideological examination of corporate power and feminism means it still holds a great deal of contemporary significance.

3. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (Dir. Robert Wise, 1951)

Most of the science fiction produced in the 1950s were vehicles for anti communist sentiments. Robert Wise's 1951 masterpiece was a leftist science fiction film that advocated a message of peace in an age of nuclear stand off between East and West. Much of 50s science fiction had dated but this film has stood the test of time. A classic.

4. THE MATRIX (Dir. The Wachowski Brothers, 1999)

A breakthrough in special effects with the innovative use of bullet time somewhat damned the release of Lucas' eagerly awaited Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, and helped to make the Matrix into one of the finest science fiction films in a long time. Inspired use of Keanu Reeves, Rage against the Machine and beautifully choreographed action sequences made this a special cinematic experience.

5. SOLARIS (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2003)

A remake that does justice to the original Russian version by Tarkovsky. Directed by Soderbergh on the back of the international success of Traffic, this was another collaboration with George Clooney and is a devastating emotional study of the metaphysical nature of the universe. Memories are such a potent thematic motif that appears in many of the best science fiction films and the use of special effects and a beautiful score by Cliff Martinez transforms this into an extraordinary piece of cinema.

6. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (Dir. Don Siegel, 1956)

A devastating anti communist allegory that also can be interpreted as a critique of post war conformity and the loss of individuality. Don Siegel's low budget adaptation of Jack Finney's novel has been adapted several times, but this is still the best adaptation, precisely because the studio imposed ending sums up the hysteria this film may have caused if they had allowed it to end at the highway with Miles Bennet screaming, 'They're here, your next!'.

7. ROBOCOP (Dir. Paul Verhoven, 1987)

This is still Verhoven's American masterpiece - a tough and violently expensive exploitation picture that attacks the vacant ideals of the 80s like consumerism, the mass media and the militarisation of society. Borrowing one of the oldest science fiction themes of the Frankenstein myth when the monster turns on the creator, Robocop presents a fatalistic vision of American society that has morally and socially collapsed.

8. STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE (Dir. George Lucas, 1977)

Star wars revolutionised the special effects industry and transformed the reputation of the science fiction genre, and embedded Star Wars into the cultural fabric of Hollywood cinema and American society. Lucas' legacy and probably the only good film that Lucas directed.

9. THE TERMINATOR (Dir. James Cameron, 1984)

Not only one of the best time travel films but perhaps the greatest B movie ever made. Made on a virtual shoe string budget and utilising primitive special effects, The Terminator is a classic night movie that launched the careers of James Cameron and more significantly, Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is an exercise in economy and how storyboarding can salvage the reputation of a film. A gem of a movie.

10. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (Dir. Steven Spielberg, 1977)

1977 also saw the release of Spielberg's first science fiction film, and alongside Jaws and Duel, this is one of Spielberg's finest films. A great score by John Williams combined with a superb performance by Richard Dreyfuss pushes this film into the territory of humanity's interaction with extra terrestrial life forms.

10 GREAT NON HOLLYWOOD SCIENCE FICTION FILMS

1. Metropolis (Dir. Fritz Lang, 1927, Germany)

An inspiration for a thousand science fiction films and the crowning achievement of the German expressionist movement. Bold, daring and highly politicised; this is film making that is pioneering cinema and gave us one of the earliest visions of the future.

2. Alphaville (Dir. Jean Luc Godard, 1965, France)

Made on a low budget, this is the only science fiction film Godard directed and it is the closest he came to Hollywood genre film making. Brilliant use of Parisian locations, elliptical editing and a wonderful noir feel makes this a genre bending experience.

3. Children of Men (Dir. Alfonso Cuaron, 2006, UK)

Famously dumped by Universal Studios, Cuaron's visually inventive and topical vision of a nightmarish totalitarian society uses the conceit of infertility to explore the state of things today. A bold experiment with an amazing 10 min long take sequence makes this one of the best science fiction films in recent times.

4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1986, UK)


Kubrick's groundbreaking science fiction pioneered the use of special effects and introduced the much abused theme of the pathological computer that controls the ship and becomes emotionally intelligent. Marketed at the druggie crowds of the 60s, 2001 became an instant cult classic.

5. La Jetee/The Pier (Dir. Chris Marker, 1962, France)

Marker's beautiful short feature was the inspiration for Gilliam's time travelling 12 Monkeys starring Bruce Willis. Though both experimental and avante garde in its use of still images and sound design, this is one of the great short films that has an ending which is pure genius in its conception and execution.

6. Stalker (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979, Russia)

Tarkovsky would return to the genre on two occasions and produced genuinely startling and original masterpieces. Stalker not only benefits from one of the most imaginative and intelligent sound designs for a science fiction film, it also takes the genre into a radically new direction, one that repositions the genre as an arena for exploring the relationship between individuals and the metaphysical dimensions of the universe.

7. Solaris (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972, Russia)

Another Tarkovsky masterpiece but one of those films that deeply divides critical opinion, mainly because of the deadening pace of the narrative. Some say it is a pretentious three hour philosophical lecture but others would refute such a claim, proclaiming it as provocative and minimalist cinema.

8. Brazil (Dir. Terry Gilliam, 1985, UK)

Gilliam's best film and one of the most chilling representations of Thatcher's Britain. Brilliantly played by Jonathan Pryce and a memorable supporting role by De Niro, this was the film that brought Gilliam's name to an international stage after his run in with Hollywood over the final cut of his fascinating homage to Orwell's 1984.

9. Akira (Dir. Katshuiro Otomo, 1988, Japan)

Still the best Anime avaliable ever made and shortly due for a Hollywood live action remake. Set in a post apocalyptic Tokyo, Akira's power is largely derived from a engrossing and intelligently written screenplay and animation techniques that provided a real advancement towards the end of the 80s.

10. Ghost in the Shell II: Innocence (Dir. Mamoru Oshii, 2004, Japan)

Oshii's follow up to his influential Ghost in the Shell anime film is far superior and a magnificent achievement. This film has more ideas and imagination than the majority of Hollywood science fiction films ever made. It is also creepily effective in it's critique of the symbiotic relationship between machine and man.

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