I was thinking about this the other day, and it occurred to me that there were only a very few movies which have reached critical mass in this genre: movies every detail of which is significant not only to scholars but in popular culture as well.
It's hard to rank them in order of importance, given that it's their individuality which constitutes their distinctiveness, in every case. The first few pretty much select themselves, of course. Some of the later ones may inspire a bit more controversy, along with my decision to include two each by Andrei Tarkovsky and Ridley Scott:
- Metropolis, dir. Fritz Lang, writ. Fritz Lang & Thea von Harbou - with Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge & Brigitte Helm - (Germany, 1927)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick, writ. Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke - with Keir Dullea & Gary Lockwood - (USA, 1968)
- Solaris, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, writ. Fridrikh Gorenshtein & Andrei Tarkovsky (Based on the novel by Stanisław Lem) - with Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet, Vladislav Dvorzhetsky, Nikolai Grinko & Anatoly Solonitsyn - (Russia, 1972)
- Star Wars, dir. George Lucas, writ. George Lucas - with Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing & Alec Guinness - (USA, 1977)
- Alien, dir. Ridley Scott, writ. Dan O'Bannon - with Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm & Yaphet Kotto - (UK / USA, 1979)
- Stalker, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, writ. Arkadi & Boris Strugatsky (Based on their novel Roadside Picnic)- with Alexander Kaidanovsky, Anatoli Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko & Alisa Freindlich - (Russia, 1979)
- Blade Runner, dir. Ridley Scott, writ. Hampton Fancher & David Peoples (Based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick) - with Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young & Edward James Olmos - (USA, 1982)
- Dune, dir. David Lynch, writ. David Lynch (Based on the novel by Frank Herbert) - with Francesca Annis, Linda Hunt, Kyle MacLachlan, Everett McGill, Kenneth McMillan, Siân Phillips, Jürgen Prochnow, Patrick Stewart, Sting, Max von Sydow & Sean Young - (USA, 1984)
- Naked Lunch, dir. David Cronenberg, writ. David Cronenberg & Bill Strait (Based on the novel by William S. Burroughs) - with Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands & Roy Scheider - (Canada / UK / USA, 1991)
- Inception, dir. Christopher Nolan, writ. Christopher Nolan - with Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard & Ellen Page - (USA, 2010)
I recently rewatched Metropolis in the new, 2010, version, which includes a lot of original footage from a version found in film archive in Argentina. It was quite a revelation! For the first time the plot really seemed to make sense, and all the subsidiary characters were able to take their proper place in the drama.
Mind you, I don't think I can ever recover the thrill I felt when I first watched Giorgio Moroder's disco version at the Auckland Film Festival in 1984. The completely over-the-top nature of the music seemed to fit perfectly with the exaggerated gestures of the actors, and the clever use of tinted prints didn't hurt, either.
One might argue, in fact, that the mark of a great SF movie is that one has to own it in various different versions. I now have the beautifully restored 2002 version, the 2010 version, and (for nostalgia's sake) the Giorgio Moroder version. I have to say that for me it works on almost every level: visually, emotionally, and ideologically.
I recently rewatched 2001, too. This is possibly only the third time I've seen it. The first time, when I was still a small child, was absolutely awe-inspiring. The sheer realism of the space-stations and spaceships enthralled me, and the philosophical complexity of the action went far beyond anything I'd ever seen on the screen before. It immediately became my benchmark for Science Fiction in general, and I pored eagerly over both Arthur C. Clarke's novel and his short-story collection The Lost Worlds of 2001 till I felt I in some way understood it.
The second time was in the 1980s, in a Kubrick retrospective at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh. It seemed a lot weirder the second time round, and the ape men looked more obviously staged in front of a painted backdrop. It was a bit of a disappointment, actually.
This latest time was, I must say, very enjoyable. Of course it shows its age, but almost fifty years on it has the distinct patina of a classic. It looks far better to me now than it did in the eighties. The fact that it still remains unsurpassed in so many ways allows one to explore its conundrums with more pleasure and less anxiety. It stands, I suppose, as the War and Peace of SF cinema.
Tarkovsky films can be a bit demanding on an audience's patience, which is one reason why watching them at home on your own TV can be an advantage. Taken in instalments, even experiencing Andrei Rublev seems far less of an ordeal.
Solaris has always been one of my favourites among his movies - and not just because I've read Stanislaw Lem's novel so many times. The two are so profoundly different that it's easier to think of them as entirely separate works. Lem's novel is more obviously satirical of Academic thinking in general, but with a zest and inventiveness which make it probably his most humane and approachable fiction. Tarkovsky's film, by contrast, is all about spirituality and soulfulness.
Suffice it to say, if you don't like long scenes of water moving over waterweed, and cameras tracking over paintings with the music of Bach's St. Matthew Passion in the background, then Solaris is not for you. You'll be missing a lot, though. This is possibly the single greatest exploration of the (so-called) "Android theme" in the history of SF cinema - its only possible rival in that respect is Blade Runner.
This one really caused me some soul-searching. I just didn't like it when it first appeared - it seemed such a cheesy piece of space opera in comparison with the genuine awe produced by 2001. Over time I have, however, learned to admire certain aspects of it: the scenes on the desert planet are particularly effective, I feel.
One can't deny the influence it's had (though I'm not sure I'd see that as an unmixed blessing). Its successor, The Empire Strikes Back, was probably the most interesting and dramatic in the series to date, but since then it's mostly been downhill: the embarrassing Ewoks were succeeded by the nonsensical foolishness of the prequel trilogy, and it's hard to see the latest film in the franchise as much more than a clone of the first.
I felt that it would be unreasonable to exclude it altogether, though: even with the silly tinkering George Lucas has done to it since its first release, it remains a very watchable and entertaining movie, as long as you don't expect too much (and don't get caught up in poor Joseph Campbell's senile maunderings about how perfectly it embodies the Hero's Journey).
No doubts about this one, though. It's still bloody frightening after all these years: more to the point, though, it has that air of existential menace, of a hostile and incomprehensible universe intruding on our little lives which is one of the marks of a genuine SF masterpiece.
Stephen King was very critical of the fact that, after scoring by choosing a gung-ho female protagonist for an action movie, this act of feminist empowerment is let down at the last minute by having her go back to save her cat, dressed only in skimpy underwear. I can see his point, but as a rabid cat-lover myself, I can't see anything unreasonable in her desire to save some other living creature from their wreck.
And as for the underwear, lighten up, dude! Who the hell cares? Maybe no-one wants to see you (or me) in our underwear, but that hardly applies to the young Sigourney Weaver. I suspect that Tabby might have been breathing down Big Steve's neck when he wrote that review, anyway. it sounds a little forced. The H. R. Giger sets are fantastic.
Again, you do need a bit of patience to watch this one. It actually runs for only 161 minutes (2 and a half hours), but it seems like a lot more.
It's a profoundly beautiful and atmospheric work, however - for me, unquestionably Tarkovsky's masterpiece. Much as I love Solaris, there's a certain tinniness to those few special effects he had to put in here and there to persuade us - however tepidly - that the action was actually happening in space, and that can be a little distracting at times.
The advantage of Stalker is that Tarkovsky can use his favourite pieces of Russian countryside, but with the subtle alien dread of the unexpected. Anything can mean anything in this film, and the fastest way between two points is never a straight line.
So how many versions of this film are there? Well, there's the first-release version, with the voice-over which I liked at the time, but which I'm now prepared to accept is not really necessary to sustain Scott's final vision of the film. Then there's the (so-called) Director's Cut, without the voice-over, and with the strange little scene of the unicorn which leads us to question whether Deckard himself might not be a replicant. Then there's the real, restored Director's cut, with complex corrections of various perceived "flaws" in the original footage (such as the blue sky breaking through at the end of Roy Batty's final monologue). Then there's the pre-release version, without the happy ending or the voice-over, the one which was shown at a film festival in teh late eighties and thus inspired the re-release of the movie in the early nineties.
Phew! Actually, the only thing for it is to fork out for that collector's box-set, with all of them included. The unfortunate fact is that I still feel torn between the first two versions (I liked that happy ending), even though I gradually came to feel that the Director's cut was better. The new restored cut adds little of substance, I feel. The blue sky did break the frame, in a sense, but in a good way. it was as if, for a moment, there was relief from the oppressive world of the film. That relief is now denied us by a bunch of officious lab technicians.
What's certain is that this film - in any of its versions - is a masterpiece. It's up there with Metropolis and 2001 and may indeed be greater than either. It's the Citizen Kane of SF cinema, in fact.
I loved this film when I first saw it, though it did seem almost embarrassingly over the top in parts. I suppose the problem was that most of us knew that Ridley Scott had been fired from the project, and were resentful that we'd thus been denied another masterpiece like Alien or Blade Runner.
Over time, though, I learned to apologise for it less and celebrate it more. It's an intensely operatic movie, melodramatic and larger than life, with repeated leit-motifs like a Wagnerian score.
It may seem shocking to some to include it in this list, but I do feel that time has vindicated it. It remains just as vivid, strange and deeply - almost sentimentally - emotional as it did when it first appeared. The miniseries is good, too, but in a quite different way. At all costs avoid the extended, three-hour version of Lynch's film, however: most of the new footage would have been better left on the cutting-room floor. Far better to see it as it was first released, complete with the Brian Eno / Toto score!
Again, I imagine this might be a controversial choice for some. Perhaps I am just a child of the 80s, unable to extricate myself stylistically (or ideologically) from that decade. I have mixed feelings about Cronenberg's films: some I like, some not. This one, however, entranced me when I first saw it, and has fascinated me ever since.
It's fair to say that it's in no way a dramatisation of Burroughs' book. Instead, it's a fantasia based on Burroughs' life, with various motifs from the book woven in. What can I say? It's just an incredibly clever film, which makes a low budget and tinny sets into an intrinsic part of the drama. If this doesn't scare you, nothing will.
It's not really a horror film, though. Burroughs' world is almost as bleak as Beckett's, but - like Beckett - a strange zany humour and unquenchable interest in things is still visible at the back of his devastated worlds.
Christopher Nolan is (for me) one of the greatest of contemporary film-makers: up there with Lars von Trier and Hayao Miyazaki.
True, some of his films are better than others, but that's probably a promising sign. Interstellar didn't really work, I felt, but when you start listing films such as Memento, The Prestige, and the Batman trilogy, you begin to realise the sheer scale of his achievement.
Inception is so infernally good that it takes some time to disentangle the fascination of the story from the spectacular nature of the cinematography. In a sense, it looks too good for one to realise at first how good it really is. In any case, it seems a good place to stop the list, though no doubt one could go on and on ad infinitum.
Another couple of favourites I would have loved to have included (and would have on a longer list, less dominated by the obvious classics) were Pitch Black (2000) - a lot more than just another Vin Diesel vehicle - and Serenity (2005), the film of the innovative SF TV series Firefly. They both look great, have fantastic casts, and a real slam-bang energy to them.
I'd have liked to put in The Quiet Earth (1985), too, and not just for patriotic reasons. It's still a great film, brilliantly adapted by Geoff Murphy from Craig Harrison's novel, and with a show-stopping performance by the late great Bruno Lawrence.
I'd also have liked to put in Lars von Trier's wonderfully moving Melancholia (2011), along with Duncan Jones' Moon (2009), Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity (2013), and one of Ridley Scott's most entertaining films to date, The Martian (2015).
You can't include everything, though, and time must have a stop. Which other masterworks do you think I've missed?
Paul Verhoeven, dir. Starship Troopers (1997)