I’ve been talking with a local cinema about hosting a series on great underrated sci-fi films, the kind of movies that are worth watching even if they’re often forgotten or only known to fanatics, but also films that would look great projected onto a big screen because they just don’t show up in the theater any more.
If you’re as hardcore a cinephile as I am then you know what I mean!
Sure there are the classics like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ ‘Forbidden Planet,’ ‘Metropolis’ and ‘Blade Runner‘ that are great older films, but they show up sporadically at the cineplex, perhaps in a new digital remaster or similar. I’m talking more about films that most people have never heard of or that people incorrectly remember as being mundane or worse.
As an example, Soylent Green. I watched this 1973 film again a few weeks ago and was struck by how much of it was about rich versus poor, eco-terrorism and other surprisingly contemporary topics, themes that show up even in the very latest films like ‘Elysium.’ ‘Soylent Green’ stars the always over dramatic Charlton Heston, with an interesting minor role played by Edward G. Robinson, but it’s the underlying narrative that makes this well worth another viewing, particularly if you just think about the one-liner “Soylent Green is people!” (as snuck into ‘Cloud Atlas‘ if you were paying attention).
There are probably thousands of great unsung sci-fi films over the last 100 years of cinema, and I’m confident that whatever I add to my list, you’re going to disagree. That’s great. Disagree. Tell me what I got wrong and what I should have included on the list in the comments!
And with that, my list.
1. Gattaca (1997)
This is a film made before its time, a shiny, attractive vision of a future where we have off-planet colonies and the people selected to colonize are chosen based on genetics. Indeed, your DNA determine your entire future in the film and for the lead character Vincent Freeman (a superb Ethan Hawke), it’s grossly unfair. But how to work around a system where you’re constantly being sampled and analyzed biometrically? A leisurely film directed by Andrew Niccol with a dark story, splendid production values. and a haunting score by Michael Nyman.
2. Dark City (1998)
I love this movie. It’s so unrelentingly dark and creepy, with amazing visual effects and a storyline that’ll stick with you for years. This Alex Proyas directed film revolves around John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), who is trapped in a noir universe and can’t quite remember how he got there. It’s never daytime in the city and while he’s always dreaming about Shell Beach, he can never quite figure out how to get there. When Dr. Schreber (a fantastic Kiefer Sutherland) starts to hint that there’s more going on than Murdoch realizes, the film takes an even more bizarre turn, and it’s a ride absolutely worth taking. And seeing this on the big screen? That’d be fantastic.
3. Silent Running (1972)
Perhaps the most political of the films on this list, ‘Silent Running’ is an eco-screed about the last remaining plant life on planet Earth that’s been sent into space because Earth is a wreck. The caretaker of this floating greenhouse is Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), accompanied by his memorable robot companions Huey, Dewey and Louie. When corporate interests back on Earth decide that there might not be sufficient budget to keep the ship floating in space, Lowell doesn’t take the news well and chaos ensues. A film that very much reflects its 1970s concerns about the environment, but still well worth viewing again.
4. Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
This is the only cult movie on the list and I don’t care. I adore Buckaroo Banzai and I know I’m not alone when I do a quick search on eBay or Etsy for film-related memorabilia. This is the role I think brought Peter Weller to prominence in the industry, as the title character, a rockstar, surgeon and scientist. So many other great actors appear in this film too, including a delightful Jeff Goldblum, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin and Christopher Lloyd as John Bigboote.
There’s some sort of nutty storyline about aliens invading Earth from the 8th Dimension, but that doesn’t really matter. This is just a fabulous, wacky film jam packed with quotable lines. Just see it. With friends. And possibly some beers.
5. Westworld (1973)
Another 70s movie, this is one of the most interesting films to wrestle with the problems inherent in creating robots that look and behave more and more like humans. Same topic comes up very differently in the brilliant ‘Blade Runner,’ but ‘Westworld’ is fun because it’s more of a Disneyland approach. I mean, what would it be like and how creepy would it be if the audio-animatronics at Disney actually walked around and interacted with you in a sophisticated manner? Then something went wrong…
‘Westworld’ is also notable for its wonderful performance by Yul Brynner as the Gunslinger. He’s scary as heck as an unstoppable force that looks like John Wayne but behaves more like The Terminator. Also of note is the lead, Richard Benjamin, an actor who was at his career zenith in the 1970s and turns in a similar solid performance as ‘Westworld’ tourist Peter Martin.
It’s impossible to stop with five, I know. And I haven’t even mentioned ‘Soylent Green’ (1973) or ‘The Andromeda Strain’ (1971). Interesting how many of these films are from the 1970s, but I suggest to you that if you can look past the question of whether a film has state-of-the-art special effects, the 70s were a golden decade for deep, thoughtful science fiction films that hold up well to time.
But those are my picks. And I know you’re gritting your teeth right now, frustrated at what I’ve included and what I’ve omitted. Well, bring it on! Tell me what I should have put on the list in the comments!