The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Written by Paul Mayersburg
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
The year before Star Wars was an important one for science fiction. Once George Lucas released his blockbuster science fantasy film, anything set in space or alien worlds would be changed forever. Three major science fiction films were released in 1976: Logan’s Run, Futureworld (the sequel to Westworld), and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Each movie represents a kind of science fiction story that didn’t see much traction in the 1980s, though DNA from the Westworld franchise can be seen in films like The Running Man and Jurassic Park. The Man Who Fell to Earth was made by a very esoteric filmmaker, Nicolas Roeg. For my Horror Masterworks in October 2020, I rewatched and reviewed his Don’t Look Now. This would be his fourth theatrical feature and become a cult classic like the rest of his work.
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Forbidden Planet (1955)
Written by Cyril Hume
Directed by Fred M. Wilcox
I was utterly blown away by Forbidden Planet, which was helped because I went into my first viewing with pretty low expectations. I kept seeing the picture pop up on Best of Science Fiction lists, but from the images I’d seen, it looked like a collection of a lot of sci-fi cliches. I’d seen Robby the Robot in pop culture since I was a child and always associate him with The Robot from Lost in Space. Leslie Neilsen is the protagonist, and his association with comedy probably had me expecting something cheesier. What I was met with was a psychedelic powerhouse of a science fiction movie that certainly pushed the boundaries when it was released.
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Planet of the Apes (1968)
Written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Based on the 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes, the movie goes in a very different direction while holding to some of the same basic themes & ideas. In the book, the story is told through the framing device of a couple vacationing in their space yacht coming across a transmission from a human soul who claims to have landed on a planet of apes. The film’s screenplay was penned by Rod Serling, the mind behind The Twilight Zone; however, he portrayed the apes as advanced in technology beyond modern-day humans. That was going to be cost-prohibitive. The script was rewritten by Michael Wilson, with the apes being framed in a smaller, more rustic society.
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Written by Edward Neumeier & Michael Miner
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
As an adult, I have developed an entirely new appreciation for the work of Paul Verhoeven. He was born in The Netherlands but managed to create a framework for American action movies in the 1980s while simultaneously delivering brutal satire about the United States. Robocop was his second English language film and his first pass at skewering the direction of Reagan’s America. The result is a science fiction classic, a combination of themes from Frankenstein mixed with commentary on the rise in corporatization of the public sphere. It’s not as biting as Starship Troopers, but it is full of brilliant takes on the United States’ ease & comfort with war and violence.
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Written & Directed by James Cameron
It had been a good decade or more since I last watched Aliens and since then I’ve gotten two viewings of Alien under my belt. It is astonishing how different these movies are in almost every regard. It’s a true case of the aesthetics and tone changing to accommodate a different type of story and it doesn’t diminish from staying true to the one character that is a constant in this series. Alien is a claustrophobic, horror story that emphasizes a sense of being alone. Aliens is a more bombastic aggressive film, yet still fills its future with plenty of details. I think I found myself appreciating Aliens more while also understanding why Alien is still my favorite of the two pictures.
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Written & Directed by Andrew Niccol
During my college years, I knew a couple of people that loved Gattaca. My first time watching it was around 2005, and I have to say I wasn’t left highly impressed. There has always been something empty about the film that I don’t think was intentional. That said, it has undoubtedly had a significant influence on science fiction films that have come out since, mainly with aesthetics. I think the themes of the movie don’t get explored in a way that feels satisfying. The ending feels like a bit of a letdown, and I don’t think the characters’ arcs are resolved in ways that make sense.
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They Live (1988)
Written & Directed by John Carpenter
By the end of the 1980s, John Carpenter had grown increasingly furious with how Ronald Reagan had transformed America into a capitalist’s wet dream. Houseless populations were rising while corporate profits skyrocketed. He saw Reaganomics and its acolytes as aliens from another world, harvesting humanity for its labor and resources, leaving a dried, empty husk. Carpenter started to pay closer attention to marketing and saw the embedded consumer propaganda that underlies everything, pushing people to constantly spend money on things they didn’t need. An encounter with a Universal Studios executive who didn’t see a problem with selling out because “everyone does” served as a significant catalyst for Carpenter to make this film. The result is cult classic and science fiction masterwork.
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Written by Jim Thomas & John Thomas
Directed by John McTiernan
After the release of Rocky IV, a joke went around Hollywood that he’d run out of people to fight. His next opponent should be an alien. Brothers Jim & John Thomas decided to bang out a script inspired by this joke. The original script, titled Hunter, featured a band of alien hunters from various species hunting down targets. This was revised and refocused to one alien hunting down a group of human soldiers. It was initially envisioned as a pulpy low budget science fiction picture, but producer Joel Silver saw it as a perfect follow-up to his recent Commando with Arnold Schwarzenegger. John McTiernan was hired to direct, having only made one previous film. Predator would be his studio debut and would lead to one of the career-defining action films of the era.
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Written & Directed by David Cronenberg
Few voices in science fiction and horror are as unique as David Cronenberg. He often makes films that are intentionally complex and reality-bending enough to confound audiences. Videodrome is a masterpiece of body horror touching on the themes Cronenberg found most fascinating during this part of his career: sexuality and the inner development of humanity. We’re thrust into a world like ours but where reality is slightly off from the start. It’s never clear if this is the near future or an imagined present. This lack of detail about when this happens is precisely what the film needs to exist in an uncanny space as it tells its story of humanity’s psychic transformation at the hands of mass media.
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Fantastic Planet (1973)
Written by René Laloux and Roland Topor
Directed by René Laloux
One of the most challenging things in science fiction is appropriately conveying the alien-ness of another world. So often, writers lean into cliches or just create bland, uninteresting worlds. Think of the lifeless creatures from Independence Day or the generic Grays that populate so much of science fiction. It always stands out when a filmmaker makes me feel like I am experiencing a culture, a species, a world entirely unlike my own. I have to find a way in and try to make sense in the context of that species, not necessarily my own. Fantastic Planet definitely presents a world like that but does seem to lean into elements of human behavior to tell its allegory rather than go complete alien civilization.
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