What is Science Fiction? It can be argued that this means different things to different people, and with justification. I will deal with those films that take a futuristic view of events, and try to imagine what life might be like, in an alternative reality, or in centuries to come. I will try to avoid ‘monster’ films, but will include robots, and space travel. Some of these are incredibly famous films, and I could not justify omitting them from this short list. If you think you know them well, have another look, and discover something you might have missed.
Things to Come. Written by H.G.Wells, and directed by Alexander Korda, this 1936 film spans a huge time period, from 1940, through to an imagined 2036. It is famous for its predictions; of the destruction of cities by massed aerial bombardment, the use of chemical and biological warfare, and post-apocalyptic wastelands. It goes on, to depict futuristic underground cities, and the eventual quest for a new life, in outer space. It also has much to say about mankind’s frailty, and technology becoming all-powerful. And, may I remind you, this was in 1936. Taking the setting of ‘Everytown’, over a 100 year period, the fascinating concept sees the city destroyed by war, then ruled by a tyrant, before eventually becoming home to technological advances, and the rocket that will take man to the stars; and all in less than a two-hour running time! The gaps are dealt with by a series of explanatory montages, and the cast re-play themselves, as their own descendants. If you have never seen this film, you may well be staggered at the vision, and the accurate predictions of Wells. You may also see some of the foundations of modern Sci-Fi cinema there. Legendary stuff. Here is the whole film, apologies for the poor quality.
Forbidden Planet. If you have ever watched an episode of ‘Star Trek’, or the series ‘Lost in Space’, this 1956 film will show you where all the ideas came from. Starring Walter Pidgeon, and a young Leslie Nielsen, (later famous for the ‘Naked Gun’ and ‘Police Squad’ series of films) alongside the marvellous talking robot, ‘Robbie’. There are flying saucer spaceships, weird planets, strange ideas, and an electronic music soundtrack, this alone highly unusual at that time. Futuristic machines, powered by massive nuclear reactors, and electronic brains, all hinting at today’s super-computers; this film has all the now familiar delights. An unknown and invisible enemy, mind control and thought takeover, force fields, and planetary destruction. If you thought that these were all new concepts, you would be wrong, and out by 57 years. The story is unnecessary to explain here, though yet again, it is strangely familiar. The crew of Nielsen’s space craft are going to see what has happened, on a planet colonised many years before, then never heard from again. There is an old scientist, a beautiful girl, and, well you know the rest. It is never about the story, but the fine effects, accurate predictions, and glossy production. Here we can see Robbie, in the official trailer.
2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick re-wrote the rules for the whole genre, and brought us this amazing feast for the senses. Running almost two and a half hours, few before had even imagined a production of such scope. The story deals with the birth of mankind, from evolution after the apes, through to self-discovery on the most distant planets in our solar system. It is almost impossible to review, or explain, as it means so many different things, to anyone watching it. The effects, all fresh and untried at the time, are never less than stunning. I well remember seeing this as a 16 year old, in a local cinema. I emerged confused, and not having really understood the plot, but well aware that I had just seen something legendary, and truly marvellous. Keir Dullea is excellent in the lead role of Bowman, chief pilot and scientist. But it is the faceless, on-board computer HAL 9000, ( with the voice of Douglas Rain) who steals the film, and remains in your consciousness. Told in four distinct ‘chapters’, the editing, direction, and cinematography have never been bettered. This is a film to last forever. Here is a trailer, but it is impossible to get the full effect in a few minutes.
Blade Runner. OK, it is one of my real favourites, and I have to say, I think it is one of the best and most complete films ever made. Hands up then, whatever you think of it, you know it is going to be a good review. I could write a whole post on this 1982 film, from director Ridley Scott, and based on a short work by Philip. K. Dick, and I probably should have. Some idea of the importance of this film can be gathered from the sheer number of versions that are still available. There are about twelve for sale currently, including Director’s Cut, Anniversary Edition, Premier Edition 5-Disc, and so on. There has even been a film about the making of the film, and fans have discussed it, and argued about it, since the day it was released. If you have never seen it, (really?) the plot is familiar, and similar to many Western films. Deckert (Harrison Ford) is a retired lawman, brought out of self-imposed retirement, to tackle some real baddies that have arrived in town. He has an angry boss, a sidekick he avoids, and there is a love interest, in the form of a beautiful woman, who may or may not be, on his side. There is an all-powerful industrialist, some harmless characters along the way, and a gang of fearsome bad guys (and girls) that he has to deal with. Now stop there. The setting is the near future, the baddies are ‘Replicants’, humanoid robots, with a short life-span; and the industrialist is their manufacturer. They must be found, and stopped, in case the news of their constructional flaws leaks out, and before they can wreak any more havoc. Rutger Hauer, as the Replicant leader, is magnificent; both angelic, and vengeful in equal parts, devoid of emotion, yet aware of his own ‘mortality’. Sean Young is simply beautiful, as the girl Deckert desires, and Daryl Hannah brings a whole new meaning to make-up, and exercise at home. Sets, acting, direction, effects, costume, it is just all fantastic. Just watch it, and learn to love it, please. I will stop going on about it now. Honest. Here is a taste. Marvel at the genius within.
Dark Star. To lighten the mood somewhat, here is a 1974 film from director John Carpenter, talented director of both ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, and ‘Halloween’. This is quirky, and intentionally humourous, yet like its title, has darker moments. The four crew members are looking for unstable planets to blow up. They have a cargo of robotised bombs, and a long mission behind them. They become increasingly unstable, and are also affected by radiation leaks. Each crew member retreats into an unusual hobby, as the boredom takes over their brains, and they become ever more affected, both by the constant malfunctions, and by the apparent pointlessness of their mission. Seen by many as a parody of ‘2001’, and other science fiction films too, it even has a soft-spoken computer, and a robot bomb that just does not want to take orders. Made on a very tight budget, and running under 90 minutes, it is still a special little film, betraying none of its financial shortcomings. An easy watch, and a rewarding one as well. Here is the cinema trailer, feeling decidedly old hat these days.
There you have it. two films that started it all, two blockbuster examples of the genre, and something to give you a chuckle. I hope you manage to watch some of them for the first time, or watch them again, with a fresh outlook.