Gary Wilkinson’s list of the ten best Science Fiction Films did what all good best of lists do – provoke a response. Whilst there is no denying the place of any of the films on Gary’s list (with the possible exception of Mad Max 2) in a top ten such a limited number inevitably leaves omissions, more-so in a list that has two Ridley Scott films and two Stanley Kubrick’s but no John Carpenter’s. So rather than say yay or nay to each entry here is an alternative top ten, just as valid and presumably just as wrong to everyone else’s!
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Great effects. Great script. Laugh at Leslie Nielson. Shiver at the genuinely terrifying monsters from the id (still one of Disney’s finest hours). Gawk at Alta’s costumes. Wish you had a whiskey manufacturing cool robot. Marvel at the finest matte and model work of all time. Theramins. Triangular doors. Shakespeare. Big, bright, wide, classic.
They Live (1988)
What Carpenter could you choose? The hilarious Dark Star? The awesome The Thing? The exhilarating Escape From New York? The classics keep rolling but They Lives combination of left field idealism, ugly aliens, shades, cheesy dialogue and wrestling superstar Rowdy Roddy Piper go a long way to choosing this as the unfairly overlooked film of his impressive oeuvre. And he’s all out of gum.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1992)
Not to be confused with the equally excellent The Iron Giant (1999 – take your kids, pack some hankies, it’s a tear jerker alright) Shinya Tsukamoto’s gattling gun paced black and white underground cult film is an often unfathomable fusion of manga, Svankmayer-style animation, metal fetishism, sex and violence set to one of the most pounding scores imaginable. Shocking, audacious, breathtaking.
Flash Gordon (1980)
Forget Get Carter, this is Hodges masterpiece. A gloriously camp Day-Glo comicbook of a film splashed across a wide canvas. Fabulous script, impeccable design perfectly mirroring Raymond’s drawings, top-notch casting. It’s a deconstruction of American male. It’s an S&M classic. It’s got Peter Duncan getting bitten by a tree beast. Sex, drugs, whippings, chainings, flying creatures, bore worms, floating cities, Max Von Sydow in his finest role since The Seventh Seal, Brian Blessed chewing the scenery. Add that over-the-top Queen score and it’s as near as damn-it a musical as well (compare with the dreadfully inappropriate score for Highlander). Unbeatable.
Fantastic Planet (Rene Laloux 1973)
Every frame screams European science fiction comics. Bizarre settings, strange creatures, truly alien in its outlook. Nothing like this could have come out of Hollywood and certainly not out of Disney. At times moving, at times surreal, at times mystifying and proof that Japan aren’t the only country that can make decent animated sf.
Things To Come (William Cameron Menz 1936)
Producer Alexander Korda proving that Britain could, at one time, more than compete in scale with other countries productions. Huge sets that still impress, great ideas, props etc. Science fiction with a brain but also great for the eye, a sort of British Metropolis.
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
Robert Wise proves he is the Jack-of-all-genres this elegantly designed pacifist film. Proof that aliens don’t always mean bad things, that Mars doesn’t need women and that quality special effects can be used as an intrinsic part of the story rather than as the be all and end all of a film.
Mars Attacks! (1996)
The anti-thesis of such patriotic drivel as Independence Day, Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! is so gleefully tasteless, dangerously bright and merciless in it’s rejection of Hollywood blockbuster rules (other than its unashamed delight in spectacle) you can’t help but like it. Brimming with ideas but virtually plotless and quite possibly the most enjoyable way to throw $85,000,000 of Warner Brothers money on a huge pyre and watch the glazed expressions of studio exec’s and audiences who just didn’t get it. Ack-ack ack!
Often billed as the Russian 2001 (i.e. it’s science fiction, it’s bum numbingly long and most people found it dull and/or overly intellectual) Tarkovsky takes the metaphysical approach to life in space. Long shots of empty rooms (pre-dating Alien). Multi-minute takes around Russian motorways. Rain indoors. Pontification about life and humanity. Long, long periods of almost total silence (do not bring in any popcorn!). Lots of different length cuts to compare and contrast. Two hundred minutes of head nodding worthiness that is essential viewing for anyone – even if you do hate it.
Laputa: The Flying Island (198*)
Anything by Miyazaki is cause for celebration but this is a beautiful combination of cell animation and picture perfect characterisation. Half futuristic, half Victoriana this is far more profound then anything from the Mouse-house, more inventive and more satisfying. Suitable for children and adults alike but be warned, some scenes are really scary!
Le Derniere Combat (198*)
Before Luc Besson crippled the wallets of French studios with epic fare such as The Fifth Element or Joan of Arc he made this ultra-low budget black and white post-apocalyptic film with Jean Reno. The conceit of everyone unable to speak makes for a film that is universal in market and economic in its lack of synch-sound requirements. When a word (no clues!) is finally muttered it is mercifully unsubtitled. A triumph of imagination over budget.
Some films that would have been in this list had they been more obviously science fiction: Nowhere (Gregg Araki 199), City of Lost Children (Jeunet and Caro 199), Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton 1991), Fight Club (David Fincher 1999).