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 the 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 slow 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 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.