It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


1 Comment

Top five science fiction films

I saw someone recently tweet for requests for people’s top five science fiction films and I thought, I can do that. Then it occurred to me I’ve watched around 3000 movies in the past few years, and many of them were science fiction. So those films I think of as my favourites… well, surely I’d seen something that might lead to a new top five? Even if nothing sprung immediately to mind… True, I’m not that big a fan of science fiction cinema, and most of my favourite movies are dramas. And most of the sf films I have seen were commercial tentpole US movies, a genre I like even less…

I went back over my records, and pulled together a rough list of about fifteen films – it seems most of the sf films I’ve seen didn’t impress me very much – and then whittled that down to five. And they were pretty much old favourites. Which sort of rendered the whole exercise a bit pointless.

Or was it?

Top of my list is Alien, directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1979. Although distributed by 20th Century Fox, I’ve always counted it as a British film, as it was an entirely UK-based production, and in fact used many of the UK-based talent that had been working on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune movie. I’ve always loved Alien, pretty much since its theatrical release. Which is a bit weird as it was given an X-certificate, and I would have just turned thirteen when it was released. But I read the novelisation by Alan Dean Foster; I had the collectable magazines and books, even Giger’s Alien (published by Big O according to my copy, but by Morpheus International according to the internet). I fell in love with the world of Alien, with the grimy lived-in appearance of the Nostromo, with the weirdness of the boomerang spaceship, with the look of the alien creature itself. Which doubtless explains why I’ve never really rated any of the sequels. Alien did it first, Alien kept it simple, Alien did it best. The less said about the prequels, the better…

But if we’re talking science fiction cinema worldbuilding, there are plenty of other movies which might qualify. I love the production design of David Lynch’s Dune: the uniforms, the spaceships, the sets… It’s just a shame Lynch’s vision was so badly mangled by the studio, and that Lynch himself made quite a few questionable choices when adapting the novel. Other prime examples include Metropolis, Forbidden Planet, Blade Runner, Starship Troopers, Brazil, The Fifth Element, the various Star Trek films, the Star Wars movies… Or perhaps something more recent, such as Mortal Engines, anything from the MCU, Jupiter Ascending, Prospect, Science Fiction Volume 1: The Osiris Child, The Lure… Except the only film out of that lot I especially rate is The Lure, and I’d classify it as horror rather than science fiction. (Oh, Metropolis is good too, of course.)

Of course, those are films that required new worlds built out of whole cloth – there’s even a book about it: Building Sci-Fi Moviescapes (my copy, of course, is in storage). There are those that made do with the real world, making clever, or innovative use, of existing buildings and landscape. Examples include Alphaville, Crimes of the Future, Rollerball, even Interstellar (mostly). One of the most imaginative uses of location for a sf film I’ve seen is Footprints on the Moon, which manages to create a plausible invented country out of a pair of Turkish seaside resorts. Sadly, though I like the film a great deal, it’s not quite good enough to make my top five.

A film which also creates a new world out of clever location shooting makes the second slot on my list: François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. I’m not a fan of the book, but I’m a big fan of Brutalist architecture and there’s plenty of that in the Fahrenheit 451 film. Plus a monorail. And Montag’s A-frame house in its leafy suburb with the silver birches and G-Plan furniture. It doesn’t look in the slightest bit futuristic – especially not now – but I love the film’s look and feel. (Except maybe the fire engine; not so keen on that.) But it’s not just the visuals, you also have Julie Christie playing two roles, the story’s focus on censorship (not television), the fact it ditched the stupid robot dog from the book, and Truffaut’s elegiac ending.

Science fiction films are not all set in the future or invented worlds. Some are set at the time the film was made. Girls Lost, set in early twenty-first century Sweden, might well have made my top five, but its central premise is just too fantastical. And Thelma, set in early twenty-first century Norway… well, telekinetic powers are a science fiction staple. At least they are in written science fiction. They’re more of a horror trope in cinema, and Thelma would also have made my list but it’s clearly a horror film.

An older film, one which depicts a 1980s Sweden, albeit far from any centre of civilisation, is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Offret, AKA The Sacrifice. Like Girls Lost and Thelma, its genre credentials are somewhat wobbly, but the fact it’s about a nuclear apocalypse, a very real concern during the Cold War and one much used by science fiction, pretty much since the genre’s early twentieth century origins, just about clinches it as science fiction for me. Okay, so Erland Josephson makes a deal with a higher power to put everything back and that’s hardly science-fictional, but never mind. Watching Offret is a harrowing experience, and science fiction cinema rarely manages that.

Most people, if they had to pick a Tarkovsky movie – and why wouldn’t they pick one? – would probably plump for either Solaris or Stalker. But the latter’s urban wasteland setting might suit its story but can hardly be called worldbuilding. And I’ve seen too many Soviet bloc sf films from the 1960s and 1970s to find anything special in Solaris‘s production design. They’re both great sf films, but I much prefer the look and feel of Herrmann Zschoche’s Eolomea to Solaris, although the latter is the better movie.

It’s not just actual Soviet and East German films, however. There are also the US ones from the 1960s which New World Pictures cobbled together from Soviet special effects footage, the best of which is Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood (containing footage from Небо зовет).

Offret takes slot number three.

When I wrote about building whole new worlds for science fiction movies, I very carefully didn’t mention one particular film, which takes place on another planet ruled by an entirely invented civilisation… but is actually a very old genre property. 2012’s John Carter. My number four choice. It did badly at the box office and its cast is hardly top-drawer. But it’s a gorgeous-looking piece of cinema, and its script makes some very adventurous decisions about its story-telling which, to my mind, totally paid off (longeurs notwithstanding). I’m not a fan of the books – they’re very much historical documents, and the tropes they introduced have been so extensively used and reworked in the decades since it would be impossible to make them fresh. But the basic story possesses a primal appeal, and although John Carter does complicate its plot with its nested endings, I think it gives the film a contemporary narrative sensibility. John Carter is a seriously under-rated movie, and it’s a pity corporate politics pretty much killed it.

That’s four movies, and the final slot was, as is usually the case, the hardest to fill. I could think of a number of films which almost made the grade. There’s Dredd from 2012, a bona fide, and ultra-violent, science fiction art-house movie, but it’s too thin on plot. Or Cargo, a Schweitzer-Deutsch film from 2009, which is a bit of a hodge-podge of genre tropes, some of which border on cliché, but looks pretty good and is about as science-fictional as you can get. Going a bit further back, there’s Peter Watkins’s Privilege from 1967, which is a clever, and quite funny, dystopian satire. Or Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, in which an alien in the person of Scarlet Johansson drives around Glasgow in 2013 picking up men to provide meat for her home world.

However… I decided to go for a completely left-field choice for movie number five: The Untamed, a Mexican film directed by Amat Escalante, released in 2016. It’s a good example of a type of cinema I especially like, slow cinema. It is enigmatic. It has a documentary feel. And yet you have no idea where it’s going for pretty much its entire length. It also shows that science fiction can be used to illuminate the lives of people in the real world, it doesn’t always need fancy worldbuilding, expensive CGI or imaginative location shooting. Sometimes it just needs the introduction of something strange into the mundane.

So that’s my top five science fiction films. As of 2019. Ask me again in a year or two and it will probably be different.

I’ve no doubt missed out a huge number of eligible movies: I  either because I’ve not watched them, don’t think they’re any good, or just simply didn’t remember (despite trawling back through my film-watching records). I’ve also not mentioned any anime films, although many of them might well qualify. I’ve watched some excellent ones – anything by Makoto Shinkai, for example; or the Neon Evangelion movies – but I don’t love anime as much as I do live-action, and besides they probably deserve a list of their own. Another day, perhaps.

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Moving pictures 2019, #6

I need to get this backlog out of the way before I start my new life. It’s not that I’ve watched loads of films over the past two months, more that I’ve not been writing blog posts as often as before. Busy packing up the DVD collection, you see…

Parineeta, Bimal Roy (1953, India). In recent years, I’ve watched quite a few Bollywood films, but I admit I do prefer the historical ones – although they’re generally poor transfers and good condition copies are almost impossible to find. Parineeta wasn’t too bad, possibly because black-and-white seems to survive better than colour. Who knows. It’s the usual boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again story, this time complicated by the fact the two leads are from closely-knit neighbouring families, but his family are the rich ones and hers the impoverished tenants. She’s much put-upon, especially by her own family, and her relationship with the male lead grows over time, despite both their families trying to arrange marriages for them with others. The film is based on a novella by a popular Bengali novelist, which likely explains the almost Austen-esque feel to the plot (ie, its origin as written fiction, rather than a straight-up commercial Bollywood movie). The acting was a cut above usual, but the music was entirely forgettable. Say what you like about 1990s and twenty-first century Bollywood films, but they generally have memorable dance numbers (even if, most of the time, that’s all you remember of the film). Parineeta was good, a mix between parallel cinema and commercial Bollywood. Worth seeing.

The Lost City of Z, James Gray (2016, USA). I really did not like this film. It felt like Embrace of the Serpent made for fox-hunting inbred Tory morons. It’s apparently a real story, about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, but based on a book about Fawcett written by an American. Which might explain some aspects of the film… Fawcett is a promising young Army officer in the first decade of the twentieth century, but he’s not from the right sort of family. So instead of a prestigious posting, he gets seconded to the Royal Geographical Society as cartographer. This results in him being part of an expedition in Brazil, where he hears rumours of a fabled city of gold. This leads him back to Brazil a number of times in an effort to find it. So this is a film with a lot of tramping through jungle, or travelling up jungle rivers. And it’s all done from the perspective of Edwardians. The end result is a film which repels while covering similar to material that of far superior films. I’m only glad I found this free on Amazon Prime.

Force of Evil*, Abraham Polonsky (1948, USA). There are many US noir films considered cinema classics, and this is one of them. I’m not so enamoured of the genre as other seem to be, and can take its so-called classics more or less as I see them. Because Force of Evil, which appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, is a good film, but not really a great film – and I’d expect the list to comprise great films. I have to wonder if Force of Evil made the list because of its subject: the numbers racket. As a study of how the numbers racket worked, and how established it was in everyday life, the film does an excellent job. But it does it in the guise of a noir film, with a successful lawyer to a mobster trying to save his principled older brother, who runs a small independent numbers game, from eventual mob take-over. Everything about the film is pure 1940s Hollywood noir – from the cast to the sets to the lighting to the story beats. One for fans.

A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg (2011, Germany). I’m not exactly sure what the title refers to, given this film is about the friendship between Feud and Jung, and Jung’s patient-turned-disciple Sabina Speilrein. She is brought to Jung and he attempts to cure her of her psychosis using his theories, and so discovers her intelligence and aptitude and eventually uses her as an assistant in his work. He refers her to Freud – to be fair, I had not known the two had worked together, but this film is based on real events – and she eventually qualifies as a psychoanalyst herself and returns to Russia to practice. Since Cronenberg went mainstream, there seems to be less distinguishing his movies from those made by his contemporaries. There was a definitely a singular vision to the work he did up until the turn of the century – especially in his early work, like Crimes of the Future – but A Dangerous Method could have been made by more or less anyone. Which is not to say it’s not well-made, nor that its story is uninteresting. But it’s not something that lingers, and Cronenberg fans won’t find much here to admire.

A Man Called Ove, Hannes Holm (2015, Sweden). The title of this movie, however, is plain from the first frame. Ove is a cantankerous old Swedish man who has never quite got over the death of his his wife. He is forced into retirement, even though his job is all he has, especially since his wife died six months previously. He tries to commit suicide, but is interrupted each time by his new neighbours, a woman of Iranian extraction married to a Swede. And through his friendship with that family, he reconnects with his community and discovers a new lease of life. It’s completely a feel-good movie, but it works because Ove is such a miserable bastard you actually start to feel sorry for him when he finds himself forced to go on living when his plans to end it all are repeatedly foiled. I had, to be honest, expected something humorous like The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared (see here), but this was far from absurd. It was a gentle comedy about age and friendship, and it did it all without being overbearing or simplistic. Plus, it’s Swedish. Worth seeing.

The Untamed, Amat Escalante (2016, Mexico). Sometimes you stumble across a film – this one was on the Cinema Paradiso website – and when the disc arrive you, you sit down to watch it with little or nothing in the way of expectations… And if you’re lucky the film blows you away, but more often it’s entirely forgettable. The Untamed did not precisely blow me away, but it was far from forgettable. It opens with a woman tied down in a barn, who then – willingly – has sex with a tentacled alien, which has been hiding out in the barn since it crashlanded. Meanwhile, another woman is at odds with her homophobic husband, who happens to be having an affair with one of her gay work colleagues. When the first woman introduces the second to the alien, things start to go wrong. This film reminded me a great deal of Carlos Reygadas’s work, and not just because it’s Mexican. But it had the same sort of distant documentary feel I appreciate so much in movies, albeit with perhaps Yorgos Lanthimos’s oblique approach to storytelling (not that Reygadas is exactly direct). The end result is a film which starts out weird, then turns prosaic before circling back to weird and making that opening all of a piece with the whole. It also looks gorgeous, with some excellent cinematography. Escalante is name to watch. This is the fourth film he’s directed; I think I’ll try and track down the earlier ones.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 935