Some weeks ago I published a top ten pre Star Wars Sci-Fi films now for the top ten post Star Wars films, it was really hard to pick just ten.
Alien (1979): The original and still the best of the franchise. It is so much more than a space film. It’s a haunted house horror, a conspiracy thriller, a slasher movie, an action adventure. The film is set on a cargo freighter showing space travel and the future isn’t shiny and pretty like Star Trek, this is a dystopian vision of a future earth without showing earth. Without the use of modern effects the film relies on dark shadow making what you can’t see more scary than what you can. If Hitchcock had made Sci-fi it would have looked like this. The word masterpiece is overused but Ridley Scott’s film really deserves the tag. The other thing that makes the film so perfect is the cast. Ripley is an icon of the genre and Sigourney Weaver is perfect in the part but every other actor in the film is perfectly for the character they play. Casting is always important but when the film is a small group of people in a confined space it matters even more. Just because its Sci-Fi doesn’t make the casting any less important than 12 Angry Men.
Mad Max 2 (1981): To add fuel to the “is Mad Max 2 better than the original” debate I have included the sequel and not the original in this list. Not because it is a better film but because it fits the Sci-Fi genre better. It isn’t filled with the imaginary technology we associated with Sci-Fi but that wouldn’t be appropriate, this dystopian future was created in the late 70’s as if the world has we know it had ceased to exist at this time. All technology stopped advancing as the survivors scavenged an existence from the carcass of the old world. The reasons for the dystopian future are never really explained, there is a short montage at the start with a voiceover (not used in the original Australian cut of the film) but mostly we are concerned with the survivors, Max in particular. Both a great film and hugely influential.
Blade Runner (1982): Based of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This film goes beyond its source material. The look of the film combines near future neon lit cities with the dark and gloom of Film Noir, the story does the same exploring the wonders of science in contrast with an existential philosophy. The ending provides the perfect amount of closure and ambiguity. I would recommend the “Directors Cut” or even better the “Final Cut” and not the original theatrical version with the monotone voiceover.
Dune (1984): A surprise entry on the list as it was universally slated when it came out but I actually think it is one of the most underrated films of the 80’s. David Lynch turned down Return of the Jedi to make Dune. There are two basic complaints about the film; fans of the book think it deviates too far from the source material. People who haven’t read the book say they can’t understand what is going on. I don’t buy either of these. Point one I have read the book and think it is as close to the book as it needs to be, they are different medium will never be identical, the ideas, themes, characters and most importantly the story arc do follow a lot of the book. Point two, I first saw the film when I was about ten years old (about six years before I read the book) and had no problems understanding it. The production design that started way back in the 70’s is visionary. The universe, politics and religions are intricate believable. The film is dark and brooding and lack the fun of Star Wars but that’s a not a bad thing.
Terminator (1984): This film should have been a forgettable low budget B movie but it turned out to be so much more. The simplicity of the story is brilliant. The ultimate killing machine who will never stop until it achieves its goal; in this case to kill a young woman. Yes there are the complexities of time travel and the paradox it creates but the heart of the story is the fight for survival and the plight underdog of the underdog. After Ripley Sarah Connor is the second great female icon of modern Sci-Fi. Looking back now it would be easy for some people to draw the conclusion the film succeeded because of the star presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger, in fact it works the other way, this is the film that made Schwarzenegger a star. The ending is perfect. We have elements of a happy ending combined with the most bleak outlook imaginable.
Aliens (1986): James Cameron’s sequel is completely different to Ridley Scott’s original and yet strangely similar. It would be easy to dismiss the film as a dumb action film but there is so much more going on. The conspiracy from the first film is expended, the themes of big business being more powerful than government have been explored many times since, we also have a look a study of greed and human nature. Lots of people prefer this to the original. I prefer to look at them on their own merits and love them both. And lets not forget as an action film it really kicks ass!
Terminator 2 (1991): If you asked me who my favourite directors are James Cameron wouldn’t immediately spring to mind but this is the third film directed by him to make it to the list beating Ridley Scott and Terry Gilliam. This film is generally regarded as the best Terminator film. I have never being completely convinced by it. I find Schwarzenegger’s conversion from killer to protector contrived and done more for profit and the stars ego than for artistic merit. This also creates the problem of having to create a more deadly terminator in order for Schwarzenegger and co to remain the underdogs, that is even more contrived and problematic. However if you look beyond this it is a brilliant film that in true sequel style does everything bigger than the first film. There is a satisfying ending although without the bleakness of the first film.
Twelve Monkeys (1995): Inspired by the French film La jetée (a half hour film told in black & white stills with a haunting voiceover) and like La jetée it also references Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The twists in the plot are brilliant but what really stands out about the film is the representation of memory and reality, for example Cole (Bruce Willis) is haunted by visions of his own death but the visions change each time we see them. The design is visionary as always with Terry Gilliam movies, he creates something not too dissimilar to Brazil. All this was archived for less than $30million (or about one sixth of what Waterworld cost)
The Matrix (1999): Let’s get one thing strait to begin with I am talking about the Matrix from 1999 and no it’s two rubbish sequels. We will pretend they don’t exist and look at this film in isolation. After Star Wars it has probably had the largest effect on Sci-Fi movies in recent years, unfortunately not for the better, its many imitators are as bad as its sequels but we can’t condemn a film for that reason. Think back to the summer of 1999, it was like nothing we had ever seen before; it could have survived as a good film on the look and style alone but it is a really good film exploring classic Sci-Fi themes like the use of technology and the perception of freedom. The contrast between the bright vibrant would of “the matrix” emphasised by Carrie-Anne Moss’ shiny PVC catsuit and the grim, faded and threadbare real world the characters live in is a perfect metaphor for the escapism of cinema itself.
Serenity (2005): A phoenix from the ashes of the TV show Firefly and probably the best Sci-Fi movie of the decade. Set in space in the future, the film isn’t filled with imaginatively designed aliens like Star Wars and Star Trek, it is just humans who have settled on other planets. That is why the film (and the show that went before it) works so well it is a believable universe and the narrative is a is basically a western in space It is all about the frontier and settling in the west. One of the great things about the film is the way it steps away from the good and evil ideas of Star Wars. “The Alliance” could easily be compared to the “The Empire” but while the empire is intrinsically evil the alliance is more misguided. It makes the themes of the movie far more relevant to the viewers and like all of Joss Whedon’s work it is both tremendous fun and very funny.
A note on the list. Any Star Wars sequels, prequels or spinoffs are ineligible. Had it been eligible The Empire Strikes Back (1980) would certainly have been on the list. I have not included anything that I consider more Horror or Fantasy although many people combine the genres I chose not to in this instance.
As I said at the start it was really hard to pick just ten that is why some time in the future I will revisit the subject including a blog on the overlooked classics of the genre.
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