While I’ve certainly watched a lot of movies with my children, last weekend I cracked out one of the best sci-fi films ever made and enjoyed it again with my 17 year old daughter who was a bit unsure at the beginning of ‘Alien’, but was completely caught up by the time the creature bursts out of Kane (John Hurt)’s chest cavity. “This is really good for such an old movie!” she exclaimed and even had some trouble falling asleep after it ended. The mark of a good film.
Watching ‘Alien’ with her started me thinking about what other films I’d like to share with her — films that form the foundation of a good science fiction genre knowledge. It’s easy to come up with 15, 20 or more, but what if it’s just limited to five movies? What are the best foundational films in the genre that would set a younger viewer up to appreciate the best of science fiction?
Here’s my list:
1. ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’
It’s hard to remember that prior to the 1968 Stanley Kubrick masterpiece ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ space and the future was more in the realm of the potboiler or daft bug movies wrestling with fears of communism or nuclear power. Kubrick came along and, with great source material from Arthur C. Clarke, created the first film that offered up the future as something wonderful, a wondrous vision of our current moment in human evolution as just a stepping stone to us becoming galactic citizens. What I most remember from the first time I saw this film was how clean and scientific everything was on the Discovery One, the spaceship upon which most of the action transpires.
And who can forget the duel of wits between astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and the malevolent HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain)? Technology wasn’t cute and benign as suggested by the cartoony Robby the Robot in the classic 1956 ‘Forbidden Planet’, but could have goals of its own that don’t include protecting us humans. In fact, HAL 9000 resonates so strongly that it’s still commonly referenced when people talk about evil, malevolent computers.
To be fair, there are some problems with ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ too, not the least of which is that it runs long in sections, particularly near the end when Bowman travels through the monolith. Still, for a film that’s almost 50 years old, the effects and vision of the future holds up remarkably well. And I can only thank God (Cthulhu?) that there are no rumors of a remake buzzing around Hollywood.
Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is the ultimate badass, one of the best, strongest female characters in all of cinema, and never more so than when she’s facing the creature in what she had believed was a safe, empty rescue craft. She must overcome her fear so she can create a plan of attack against the “unkillable” alien creature. Not only is she trapped in a small space with it, but just moments before, she took off all her clothes and is just in her underwear preparing to go into stasis. Perhaps the most vulnerable hero in cinematic history.
There’s so much right about ‘Alien’, so much that shook up the cinematic tropes of the time. The future’s not antiseptic like in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘ but dirty and with dangerous edges, populated by the same mix of losers, scroungers and other people we interact with every day in the current era. It’s more NASCAR than NASA and yet, when the going gets tough, the crew rallies and works together to try and cleanse the ship of the alien creature’s presence (albeit with little success and a lot of complaining). I love the ship too! The Nostramo is a model for all future interstellar vessels, a long-haul truck, not a gleaming white surgical theater.
And then there’s the alien herself. Herself. The feminist layers of the film ‘Alien’ are surprisingly deep for viewers who can contrast the role Ripley plays in the crew, and how the men on board react to her, versus the role that the creature plays. Ripley ultimately isn’t fighting the patriarchy, she’s defending the patriarchy against an even more aggressive female who herself is just reacting in biologically programmed ways to defend her young. (the fact that she might be a genetically constructed creature doesn’t really show up until later in the series and rather dilutes this feminist message, in my opinion).
A lot of people prefer the sequel, ‘Aliens’, directed by king-of-the-world John Cameron, but almost always I prefer the first movie in a series because it’s the original hero’s journey myth writ large, and in the case of Ripley versus 9-foot terrifying alien monster, there’s no film that gets it better than ‘Alien’.
3. ‘Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope’
I can still remember. I was in high school and went to the local cineplex with my pal Nancy and her family to go see this new science fiction fairy tale called “Star Wars”. The theater darkened and suddenly a spaceship shot overhead into the distance, with rumbling audio effects shaking the theater. Then a much bigger one chased after it, lasers flashing. HOLY $#@#@$. That opening blew me away, I’d never seen anything like the George Lucas space opera, the visuals were breathtaking and the story was easily digested with great themes of good vs evil but without much depth or complexity to confuse viewers.
‘Star Wars IV: A New Hope’ is in many ways the perfect hero’s journey. Luke (Mark Hamill) is being raised by his kindly relatives after his parents died mysteriously. But he’s destined for greater things if he can just get over his whiney teen ways and get off the intergalactic backwater of Tatooine. When evil shows up on his doorstep, circumstances propel him forward with the humorous droids as his sidekicks and the alluring Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) as princess who needs to be rescued. But she’s tougher than anyone expects and even when faced with the smart-ass Solo (Harrison Ford in one of his many great roles) more than holds her own.
The film propels forward with scene after imaginative scene and just as watching ‘Casablanca’ strikes modern viewers as cliché precisely because all the clichés in question originate with that movie, ‘Star Wars IV: A New Hope’ is a must-watch science fiction film even as you enjoy the trite dialog, the now-banal cinematic tropes and the weird alien creatures who are more muppet than ‘Alien‘. I’d be tempted to skip this one on my must-watch list of science fiction films for kids except, well, it’s one of the most important science fiction films ever made. The sequels were great too, but the prequels? Man, if I have to listen to Jar-Jar Binks (voice of Ahmed Best) explain military tactics or young Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) whine about not being a full Jedi, I think I’ll switch to a different cinematic genre entirely.
4. ‘Blade Runner’
Still absolutely one of my favorite films ever in any genre, there’s something about the dystopian future, the grime, the sheer believability of Ridley Scott’s amazing vision of the dark, paranoid Philip K. Dick novella that justifies this as being a must-watch for any student of cinema, whether they like science fiction or not. So many modern movies borrow from ‘Blade Runner‘ for the noir mood, notably the recent (and under-appreciated) ‘Total Recall’ remake from 2012, whose exteriors could have been ripped wholesale from the ‘Blade Runner’ set.
Harrison Ford (again!) plays the troubled, moody retired detective Rick Deckard. His expertise: hunting down and terminating “skin jobs”, replicants who are manufactured humans with specialized skills to work in hazardous environments. As Tyrell Corporation advertises, the replicants are so well designed and manufactured that they’re “more human than human”, and when a group of them escape from an off-planet mining colony and, under the leadership of the droll and amoral Roy Batty (a superb Rutger Hauer), they decide to return to Earth and confront their maker, Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), to ask him why they have to die.
There are so many levels to this film, so much profound going on with the quest to meet God, the ethical dilemma of Deckard falling in love with the gorgeous replicant Rachael (Sean Young), and the entire underlying question of what really makes us human after all, that it stands up very well to repeated viewings in a way that few films manage. There are also lots of memorable characters in the film, including the wacked-out pleasure replicant Pris (Daryl Hannah) and the creepy toymaker J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), but I think it’s really the futuristic world of ‘Blade Runner’ that makes this movie so profound cinematically.
The future isn’t sterile, we won’t have eliminated crime, people haven’t all become polite and friendly and we haven’t all settled on a single spoken language (sorry, Esperanto, you lost this race). The future’s a mess with the haves and the have nots. We don’t need shades for this future, it’s not bright. We need guns. Because, well, you never really know if the person standing next to you is a person at all.
5. ‘The Matrix’
Let’s get this out of the way: Keanu Reeves is not a good actor and the Wachowskis are not good directors. Somehow, though, all the elements came together to produce the über-cool existential ‘The Matrix‘, a film that spawned a thousand subsequent movie visuals and storyline tropes that pervade science fiction as a genre now. From “bullet time” to the solipsistic question of whether we exist in reality or are just brains floating in ether, being fed a non-ending simulation to keep us entertained, there’s lots to love in the original film.
Again, I can also remember when I first saw it, at a theater in Sunnyvale, California that was slated for demolition the following day. The theater owner had a no-holds-barred screening and I, unwittingly, attended. The audio was so loud that my eyeballs jumped every time there was a gunshot (and there are a lot of gunshots!). But it was a completely immersive experience in an era before IMAX 3D and DTS sound, and I was hooked in the first ten minutes with the wild, amazing special effects and the dilemma of “red pill or blue pill”.
As if in a zen meditation practice, there’s also a certain satisfaction in this particular hero’s journey for the viewer when Neo (Reeves) learns to master the Matrix, the sentient machine-produced simulation within which he lives so that he can control the very fabric of reality. Don’t we all secretly wish we can do that? Isn’t that one of the core attractions to superheroes in the first place, whether Superman, Wonder Woman or even one of the X-Men, not to mention the much more obvious orphan-with-secret-powers Harry Potter series where magical children can alter the fabric of reality around them? (Harry Potter is very much a science fiction series and steals from a lot of earlier sci-fi work, but that’s another story)
Of all the films that tapped into the 80s “hacker” zeitgeist as culture wrestled with the looming danger of technology (other great films in this genre include ‘War Games‘, ‘Hackers’ and ‘Johnny Mnemonic’, the latter also with Keanu Reeves) none are as masterful as ‘The Matrix’. And yes, it has its daft dialog and banal character interactions. But I don’t care. It’s still the definition of cinematic cool.
And All The Rest
It’s hard to choose just five. It’s hard to choose just 20, really. Films I really want my daughter to watch also include ‘Gattaca’ (a remarkably thoughtful exploration of the consequences of genetic destiny as a cultural touchstone), ‘Inception‘ (one of the very best – and most complicated – films of the last decade), ‘The Terminator’ (again the theme of us vs. the machines), and ‘Back to the Future‘ (for sheer entertainment value). And then there are classics too, like the delightful and wry ‘Dr. Strangelove or ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’, the intense and profound ‘A Clockwork Orange’, the prescient ‘Metropolis’, the disturbing apocalyptic ‘Soylent Green‘ and the stylish ‘V for Vendetta’.
It’s hard to stop. I mean, shouldn’t I also expose my daughter to the whimsical idiocy that is ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’? The stupid, but likely prescient ‘Idiocracy’? Any film from the original Toho Studios ‘Godzilla‘ series? The mind-boggling ‘Santa Claus Conquers the Martians’? God (Cthulhu) help me, ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space’??
Ah, then again, maybe I want her to still be talking to me when we’re done with all these screenings, so let’s just leave good enough alone.
That’s my five. I know you don’t agree with me. What are your five essential sci-fi films to share with your children?