Last week, the American Film Institute released several new lists of top 10 films, including one for science fiction. And on his blog on AMC, the always entertaining John Scalzi commented on the list, pointing out that the most recent film on it was released in 1991. So he decided to create a list of Top Ten SF Films Released since 1991, and asked people for suggestions. Here’s my list (in order of year of release)…
1. Delicatessen, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro (1991) – it’s hard to imagine how a post-apocalyptic black comedy featuring cannibalism could be, well, funny. But this film certainly manages it. The inhabitants of an apartment block in a Paris after some unspecified disaster regularly invite new tenants to take empty flats… so they can kill and eat them. Ex-circus performer Dominique Pinon is the latest such victim… but he manages to evade his fate.
2. Until the End of the World, dir. Wim Wenders (1991) – when I first saw this back in 1992, I thought the 1999 it depicted was the most plausible I’d seen on film. Having watched it recently, I can see why I thought so and why it wasn’t so prophetic after all. Wenders has said he intended Until the End of the World to be the “ultimate road movie”, and that it is for much of its length. I blogged about it here. I still want to see the 4 hour 40 minute version, though.
3. Abre los Ojos, dir. Alejandro Amenábar (1997) – César, a wealthy playboy, is hideously disfigured in a car crash caused by a jealous ex-girlfriend. But doctors use a new surgical technique on his face, and he regains his former good looks. And the love of his life. Except everything seems a little different and not quite right… An unsettling film. It was remade by Cameron Crowe as Vanilla Sky, starring Tom Cruise. Beware of expensive Hollywood imitations; go for the original.
4. The Fifth Element, dir. Luc Besson (1997) – okay, this is a supremely silly film. Which is where much of its charm lies. A vividly technicolour space opera, it owes more to French sf comics such as Métal Hurlant than it does to Star Wars. This, of course, is actually a good thing. On the other hand, thinking too hard about The Fifth Element is probably not a good thing – although, to be fair, it holds up better in that department than Star Wars does.
5. Starship Troopers, dir. Paul Verhoeven (1997) – the book is a thinly-disguised fascist political tract, so the only way to make a film of it would be as a satire. And that’s just what Verhoeven did. Perhaps it turns into a bit of a mindless bug hunt towards the end, but it skewers its satirical targets entertainingly – the adverts exhorting young people to sign up for the Mobile Infantry to kill bugs are a hoot.
6. Dark City, dir. Alex Proyas (1998) – a man wakes up in a bathtub, with no memory, and there’s a dead body in the other room. And the city outside is a dark and claustrophobic place which, bizarrely, changes each and every night. Despite initially appearing to be noir, Proyas piles on sufficient strangeness until the film can only be science fiction. It ends entirely appropriately.
7. Donnie Darko, dir. Richard Kelly (2001) – a troubled teenager survives a jet engine crashing onto his bedroom when a giant rabbit calls him outside and tells him the world will end in 28 days 6 hours 42 minutes and 12 seconds. The rabbit subsequently urges him to commit various acts of violence and vandalism. This is one of those films whose plot only becomes clear as the film progresses. But it all makes a clever kind of sense in the end.
8. Avalon, dir. Mamoru Oshii (2003) – better known for animé, Oshii made this live-action film in, of all places, Poland. In Polish. With a Polish cast. It opens in a VR war game, and the special effects are jaw-dropping. The plot – a hunt for a “hidden level” in the game – is not as eye-opening as the visuals, but neither is it some dumb First Person Shooter.
9. Primer, dir. Shane Carruthers (2004) – this starts off relatively straightforward: a pair of geeks inadvertently invent a time machine. But each time they go back in time, they’re co-existing with their earlier selves… and if they go back from that point… Two-thirds of the way into the film and there are several pairs wandering around, and several narrative threads following their exploits. A very clever film, and not a little mind-bending.
10. Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow, dir. Kerry Conran (2004) – this was one of the first films released with entirely CGI-generated sets and backgrounds, but that’s not what makes it so remarkable. Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow is an homage to old pulp science fiction and Saturday morning serials – not just the H Rider Haggard / Edward Bulmer Lytton plot, or the fantastic future of the past production design, but also all those shots so familiar from noir films: the policeman blowing his whistle, the heroine in the telephone booth, the running shadows thrown across buildings…