This last month saw us take a look at many science fiction classics but there are so many I’d previously reviewed and wanted to highlight them here. Below are excerpts from my reviews with links the full write-up. Much like the Horror Masterworks series, I have more films on the list for Science Fiction in a future second series.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, dir. Stanley Kubrick)
From my review: It’s an understatement to point out what a technical achievement 2001 represents. Even today, almost every special effect and model stands up. This is a gorgeous piece of cinema that makes sure to communicate the scale and scope of man, his constructions, and the celestial bodies. Kubrick also understands the connection between outer space and our perception of the divine. The planets and moons are presented in a quasi-religious fashion with a soundtrack of meticulously chosen classical pieces that convey that awe. My particular favorite is Gayane’s Adagio by Aram Khachaturian used when the audience first sees Discovery One. I absolutely love the lonely lamenting tone of the piece, matching the distance Bowman & Poole are from their homeworld, adrift in the quiet darkness of space.
A Clockwork Orange (1970, dir. Stanley Kubrick)
From my review: There is no answer within the film A Clockwork Orange, merely the complicating of a question asked in an earlier film. Kubrick personally seemed to be a pessimist about humanity. I am not sure these days where I lie. I think humanity is capable of great good and creating non-coercive or manipulative rehabilitation systems that could help someone like Alex become productive without compromising his fundamental nature. It wouldn’t be something that could be accomplished quickly, but I think it is doable.
Invasion of the Body Snatcher (1978, dir. Phillip Kaufman)
From my review: Invasion manages to create a palpable sense of paranoia minutes into the film. It brushes up against becoming cheesy early on but then goes so deep into the gritty bleakness of this event that it becomes chilling. As it is building horror in the literal background of the picture we are being introduced to our two leads and getting a strong sense of character. Elizabeth’s first scene establishes significant external traits (botanist, in a relationship) but also personality traits that help us connect with the character (curious, affectionate, intelligent). With Matthew’s first scene we have him on a surprise health inspection of a high-end French restaurant, and we know exactly who this character is. He’s very dedicated to his job, unwavering in following regulations, but also playful and wry. Neither of these characters feels one-dimensional in any way and, much like I felt about Gene Wilder and Jill Clayburgh in Silver Streak, they have natural chemistry.
Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott)
From my review: Alien is, first and foremost, a significant benchmark in production design. It owes a lot to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it’s those extra touches that make Alien its own thing. Ron Cobb was responsible for designing the human environments, and it’s a beautifully layered mess of tech cobbled together, stacked on top of each other. The only space in the Nostromo that remains “pure” is the sterile interior of Mother, the ship’s artificial intelligence, womb-like and covered with shiny lights, a complete contrast from the rest of the vessel. The exterior of the Nostromo looks like an oil rig mixed with Gothic cathedral-like architecture. From the opening scene, you feel like you are watching a haunted manor floating through space. So before we encounter the alien, the audience is in a space that evokes classic horror tropes.
Stalker (1979, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)
From my review: For an apocalyptic movie, there’s a strange sense of optimism near the end. The film’s primary arc is Stalker coming to terms with why he feels drawn to the Zone and how he has neglected his family. His wife has fallen into drug use as a means of numbing herself to the conditions of life. His daughter, Monkey, seems mentally disabled or harmed in some way. It’s in the final scenes as Stalker contemplates how society has lost its way, shown in both his inability to traverse the Zone any longer and how he has allowed his family to crumble that the themes genuinely come together. The very final moment hints that this is not the end of humanity, that there is a hopeful promise still out there, though small but powerful.
The Thing (1982, dir. John Carpenter)
From my review: The Thing is indeed a horror masterpiece, capturing the roiling sense of paranoia that is all too easy to agitate in human beings. These characters are confronted with something beyond their personal understanding of the universe that their interpersonal relationships deteriorate quickly. My viewings of The Thing are probably in the double digits by now, but I always discover new things or notice storytelling choices. We never get a backstory on any of these characters, and we don’t need it. There is a sense that everyone has interpersonal connections, both positive and negative, but there’s no unnecessary exposition to explain to the audience what is going on. MacReady and Childs (Keith David) obviously have tension between them, which is exacerbated by the situation with the alien. The sign of good writing is that I can feel those relationships without having them explained to me.
Threads (1984, dir. Mick Jackson)
From my review: Threads was an exhaustively researched film, intended to give the most accurate picture of what a post-nuclear attack British society would resemble. It’s framed in a very neutral documentary fashion with very pointed moments where emotion is allowed to take over. We watch infrastructure quickly decline, which leads to the absence of any sort of formalized education so that the very next generation is born and grows up with a highly degraded sense of language and communication. Existence is centered around the very basic tenets of survival, and so people behave closer to animals than anything considered “civilized.” Any idea of what is happening outside of the region evaporates with the bomb as communication is completely cut off. So these people now live a shrinking society, thrown back a millennia. This is a type of picture we don’t get very often, a sobering honest piece of art that refuses to soften the blow. It’s a dark reminder of how perilously our world floats in the universe and how quickly every comfort and happiness can be taken away.
Back to the Future (1985, dir. Robert Zemeckis)
From my review: As an adult, I can now see the exaggerated nature of reality in the film. In many ways, Back to the Future is a fairy tale where cynicism and the grim nature of reality are softened. Yes, Biff is sexually assaulting Marty’s mom when his dad rescues her, and she seems to recover surprisingly fast. But as I examined the movie closer, thinking about how these events went down without Marty’s presence, you realize his mom was probably sexually assaulted in a way that didn’t end with the assault being stopped in the previous timeline. This explains the bleakness of the opening scenes where we first meet Marty’s family. Back to the Future is like a child who is learning the reality behind his parents’ youth and trying to cover this up, make this ugliness more beautiful by rewriting his dad as a heroic figure who was able to save his mom and stop the bad guy. Back to the Future is the wish fulfillment of a child disappointed in their parents.
The Quiet Earth (1985, dir. Geoff Murphy)
From my review: I was surprised at the light moments provided despite such a heavy topic. The story is changed drastically from the novel it’s based upon, which is much darker than the film. The picture does a great job of spending moments exploring Hobson’s mindset going through the realization of what life will be like in this new empty world. He does the sort of things we all would likely do in such a situation. No manufactured product is unavailable to him, but these things lose their luster very quickly. Hobson also is forced to grapple with his own role in making this happen as well as pondering if everyone is gone or that it has simply been shunted into another universe.
The Fly (1986, dir. David Cronenberg)
From my review: The Fly’s success hinges on two elements: a script that keeps things structurally simple and the chemistry between Davis & Goldblum. The narrative has only a couple sets, with mostly everything happening at Seth’s warehouse laboratory. There are only three central characters, with everyone else being a background player or a very minor supporting part. This tightly written script allows the story to be centered on the relationship between Seth and Veronica. As a result, when the stakes are ratcheted up to the grand finale where everything collapses into tragedy, we don’t just feel the horror, we experience the heart wrenching emotions. I’ll be honest that The Fly had me tearing up in its final minutes, particularly the last act of Seth accepting his fate and begging Veronica for help.
12 Monkeys (1995, dir. Terry Gilliam)
From my review: The tone of 12 Monkeys is pitch-perfect, which shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Gilliam. The denizens of the future are intense & bizarre, shaped by a nightmarish world. There’s also the trademark junky tech Gilliam loves, devices cobbled together from refuse that performs a task in the most awkward and clunky way. I absolutely love the nature of time travel developed by Chris Marker in the short and carried over to the feature. The technology of how is never explored, which is perfectly fine, instead it is a metaphysical process using the subject’s own psyche. Cole mentions at one point that he was selected for his strong memory.
Children of Men (2006, dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
From my review: There is a concerted effort to show how all factions in this bleak and hopeless world have compromised principles for maintaining or gaining power. Theo visits his wealthy cousin, a high-ranking government official who is hoarding the world’s art under the auspices of creating a protective “ark.” When Theo asks why he gathers all these artifacts knowing that in a hundred years, no one will be around to even see them, his cousin responds with a smile, “I just don’t think about it.” The Fishes quickly succumb to the desire of usurping the U.K. government when they learn about a child being born. They see the child as a potential tool for propaganda against the torture of refugees. While their sentiments are noble, they see no problem in executing anyone that gets in the way of their agenda, even innocent bystanders who are the very refugees they claim to want to liberate.
Contagion (2011, dir. Steven Soderbergh)
From my review: Contagion exists as an almost documentary-like horror film, particularly with its chilling rewind to Day 1 in the movie’s final scene. That moment is like punctuation on the preceding story, showing how human consumption habits are directly linked to our potential extinction. Soderbergh didn’t shy away from showing the darker side of humanity amid this crisis, but he never overplays his hand. Looting occurs, but the criminals are very direct about searching for the things they see as valuable (guns, food, etc.). Internet journalist Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is a disturbingly real character, a man who uses his vast platform to spread misinformation and unfounded conspiracy theories that lead to people dying. Alan claims he cured himself of the illness through homeopathic methods leading to violent runs on the cures he pushes.
Under the Skin (2014, dir. Jonathan Glazer)
From my review: The majority of the film functions without dialogue. It is never explicitly stated that our protagonist is an alien, but it is implied through her actions and a third act reveal. What is conveyed through the screen is a sense of isolation while surrounded by life. It is quite the impressive feat that Glazer is able to orient the audience through the eyes of his near-wordless main character and allow us to view our own world through alien eyes. Pivotal moments are obscured through the overlapping of images until they become a golden haze that the alien’s face emerges from. The atonal score by Mica Levi sets us in the sense of unease until slowly becoming a more melodic theme when our protagonist begins to feel she is achieving some sort of synthesis with humanity, only for the music to return to its broken form when reality sets in.
Arrival (2016, dir. Denis Villenueve)
From my review: Every element of Arrival’s production is at the highest levels. Screenwriter Eric Heisser kept the key pieces of Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life” and added the right level of personal intimacy and changes that a film version of that piece needed. Jóhann Jóhannsson, a collaborator with Villeneuve on Prisoners and Sicario, delivers a score that evokes all the profound sense of otherworldliness the visitors should have. The moment Louise arrives at the ship, and first ventures inside is one of the most flawlessly executed sequences I’ve seen in a film all year. Johanssen’s music, the textured production design of Patrice Vermette, and the cinematography of Bradford Young coalesce into a profoundly visceral and eerie experience.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017, dir. Denis Villenueve)
From my review: There’s no way in words to convey the power of this film, it honestly has to be experienced. However, we are here so I will attempt to put together something that gets across an iota of what it felt like to see this picture. The first thing that feels like the original Blade Runner is the music. Composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch manage to capture the exact essence of Vangelis without ever sounding like pure copycats. There are familiar cues but woven into new themes, all utilizing the vast droning electronic landscape. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is stunning. He has been a regular collaborator of the Coen Brothers as well as Villeneuve, but he has never delivered something so gorgeous and intricate. Deakins masters the use of shadow and light that frankly looks better than the original, and that is saying a lot. There is one moment of sheer beauty where the embers of a fire become the lights of a sprawling cityscape that has to be seen.