It looks like this film challenge thing I’m doing with Shaun Duke is becoming a regular, er, thing. After he met my last challenge of five films which complement my Apollo Quartet – see here – he tasked me with coming up with a list of “5 science fiction films which are basically fantasies in space, but which are not Star Wars“. Ugh. That are “in your opinion and by your own criteria, good movies“. I suspect this is not possible – in fact, I know it’s not – so I’m going to cheat a little and pick films that are either good within the confines of their genre, or enjoyable irrespective of their quality. Because you’re not going to get some cheesy space fantasy that stands up there with anything by Tarkovsky or Bergman or Haneke or Kaurismäki or Sokurov or… Well, you get the, er, picture.
As for “fantasies in space”… yes, well, if not Star Wars is part of the definition then it must mean dumb space operas. And I can think of many examples, but they are almost universally pretty bad. There are no doubt lots of Japanese anime examples, and some of them may even be very good, but I’m not that familiar with anime.
Anyway, after much scratching of head and rootling through my DVD collection, I came up with following five. A couple may be obvious, one or two may invoke cries of shocked disbelief, and for a few I had to take “space fantasy” to mean “complete science fiction bollocks”.
John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012). The obvious choice, and one that will no doubt have a few of you choking on your doughnuts. I loved this film from the moment I saw it in IMAX 3D, and I’ve watched it several times since on DVD. The production design is gorgeous, the CGI is seamless (the Tharks actually look almost real!), and the script is polished, with a structure which is far more sophisticated than the material deserved. It’s a crying shame Disney decided to sink it because it could have been the start of a bloody good franchise. But instead we’re going to get endless shit superhero movies, a vast cinematic retconning of the Star Wars universe, and increasingly dumber Star Trek sequels. Yay for tentpole sci-fi blockbuster movies…
Flash Gordon, Mike Hodges (1980). There’s much that cringe-worthy in this film, from the Queen soundtrack (there, I said it) to the cheesy dialogue to half the cast clearly belonging in a much superior film to completely non-entity Sam Jones in the title role. Having said that, you won’t find more sci-fic pomp and silliness in any other movie. Von Sydow, Wyngarde and Dalton plainly belong in a much better film; Topol, Muti and Blessed seem to have found their level. Melody Anderson actually makes a good Dale Arden. It is, in fact, hard to fault Flash Gordon as a piece of cheesy sf camp, but it’s a mistake to consider it anything more than that (and unlike some people, I ask more of my movies and books than they be mere entertainment).
La planète sauvage, René Laloux (1973). No film list put together by myself would be complete without at least one non-Hollywood film. While this is not usually difficult to achieve, for “fantasies in space” it’s proven something of a hurdle. I mean, only the US makes cheesy space operas. But I believe La planète sauvage qualifies because, while it initially describes an alien world in which primitive humans exist only in the wild, it soon turns weird and philosophical and all sort of wishy-washy and bonkers. The animation and production design throughout is distinctive and strange – it’s by Roland Topor – but it suits the story. Laloux’s later animated films were a bit Métal Hurlant, but La planète sauvage displays a unique vision. Definitely worth getting hold of a copy.
Dune, David Lynch (1985). Heresy! Dune as a “fantasy in space”? I mean, I’ve always considered Dune science fiction, in space or otherwise, and I see no good reason to change that since it meets my definition of the genre. But since I also consider Star Wars science fiction, I feel this makes Dune allowable under Shaun’s somewhat baggy definition. And yes, Dune is a good film, and only fails at being a great film because the director couldn’t match his vision. But there are clues there if you watch the “television version” (which includes around an additional 45 minutes). It’s not so much the additional story that’s on the screen, and it’s certainly not the horrible prologue with its awful artwork. But the extended scenes set in the Imperial Court display an overly mannered presentation that works at the lengths shown in the television version much better than it does in the theatrical release. Plus, of course, the production design is superb. In fact, I’ll even forgive Lynch the “weirding module” and the rain at the end because everything looks so much like Dune should look. I currently own five DVD editions of Dune, so it’s probably about time I got it on Blu-ray. But which is the best Blu-ray version…?
Battle Beyond the Stars, Jimmy T Murakami (1980). Space operas – sorry, “fantasies in space” – don’t come cheesier than this rip-off of Star Wars. But it does possess a certain charm all its own, whether it’s because its plot is a beat-by-beat copy of The Magnificent Seven, or that the hero’s spaceship looks like a pair of breasts, or Sybil Danning’s double entendres, or the fact George Peppard was clearly pissed throughout the film, or that the entire thing looks like a series of episodes from a bad sf television series. But as low budget space operas go, it’s an enjoyable example. And Richard Thomas actually displays some impressive acting chops. The fact the script is by John Sayles also helps.
There are a number of other films I could have chosen, but it would have been stretching a point beyond breaking to describe them as “good” – such as… The Humanoid, Aldo Lado (1979), in which Richard Kiel plays the title role in an Italian Star Wars rip-off with production design that’s a weird mashup of 1970s near-future science fiction, Star Wars and Flash Gordon… Or Starcrash, Luigi Cozzi (1978), which manages to make zero sense but does include the immortal line, “Imperial battleship, halt the flow of time!”… Or Barbarella, Roger Vadim (1968), which has not aged well despite being based on a French bande dessinée… Or even Andrzej’s Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe)… Or spaghetti sci-fi Star Pilot, Pietro Francisci (1966), which apparently inspired some elements of Star Trek…
ETA: After much thought, I’ve decided on Shaun’s challenge. Five non-English language films featuring space travel, not including Solaris. Oh, and no more than two of them from Japan.
May 18, 2015 at 11:25 am
I saw that Dune partook of epic fantasy ever since I first read it, back in the 1980’s. Feudal structures, intrigue, lots of travel and even a map.
How do you feel about the Sci-Fi Channel version, Ian?
May 18, 2015 at 11:40 am
I liked that the Sci-Fi Channel version was faithful to the book, but I thought the production design a bit dull, the acting poor, and the director’s attempt to turn it all into Shakespeare a mistake. I thought the sequel was better, though.
May 18, 2015 at 4:05 pm
I’m a big fan of John Carter too: I thought it succeeded splendidly in putting on Burroughs on screen. The hostile critics were, I think, basically saying that they didn’t like ERB. Disliking ERB’s work is in itself a perfectly respectable stance. Slamming the movie because it did what it set out to do is not.
May 18, 2015 at 7:28 pm
ERB has been ripped off so many times since A Princess of Mars was published, it’s easy enough to understand why some people might have felt John Carter offered little that was new. But I think also it was a cleverer film than its audience expected or deserved, and that also worked against it. Then there was the piss-poor marketing – I mean, the title is meaningless unless you know the story – and the fact Disney deliberately sank the film.
May 18, 2015 at 11:23 pm
I seriously question your taste when you include Battle Beyond the Stars. Then again, I suppose I asked for this 😛
May 19, 2015 at 5:34 pm
No, you didn’t leave me much choice 🙂
May 19, 2015 at 5:39 pm
I left you many choices. You chose to ignore the good ones 😛
May 19, 2015 at 5:56 pm
Did I miss some obvious ones? What like?
May 19, 2015 at 6:10 pm
Nah, I’m just messing with you…I think.
May 19, 2015 at 5:14 pm
your comment got me thinking on the “space anime” that i’ve seen and… there’s too much of it, even though i skipped all the giant robot stuff. i can’t think of anything that constitutes a proper space opera (there are a few things that fit the bill but don’t interest me). however, if you’ve never seen cowboy bebop i would recommend that you put it in the interminable rental queue sometime. it’s gorgeous.
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