I could be wrong, but I think the first proper SF film I ever saw – certainly the first one I remember seeing, on tv – was the original version of The Fly. I don’t remember much of it now, because it was a long time ago, but the one scene that has stuck with me through the years was the very end, SPOILER ALERT HERE, AVERT YOUR EYES IF YOU NEED TO! with the teeny tiny part man, part fly, stuck in the spider web screaming Help me! Help me! in his teeny tiny voice as the giant hairy spider creeps closer and closer …
After that, my most vivid SF movie memory is turning on the tv and catching the end of the original (because in my world Tim Burton’s remake never happened) Planet of the Apes, with Charlton Heston SPOILER ALERT HERE, AVERT YOUR EYES IF YOU NEED TO! stumbling across the half-buried Statue of Liberty.
My love affair with speculative fiction began when I was in fourth class primary school and the librarian handed me The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Once I fell through the wardrobe in Narnia I never looked back.
So in this post I’m going to share with you ten SF films that I love a lot, that I rewatch at least once a year, that cheer me up and help me recapture that feeling of being gloriously entertained … which is enormously helpful when the words are flowing like cold molasses.
Ready? Then go below the cut to be amused, annoyed, surprised or forced to abandon any respect you ever had for me …
One of the great mysteries of the world is why this film still hasn’t been released to Blu Ray. If someone can answer that question, please do so in the comments!
The Abyss is a James Cameron film. Cameron is many things, but a boring film-maker isn’t one of them. It’s a first contact story, about a team of deepwater oil rig workers who stumble across aliens living far, far below the surface of the ocean. Starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Michael Biehn, with a fabulous score by Alan Silvestri, The Abyss is the best kind of character-and-ideas driven SF film-making. It has humour, drama, science fiction what-ifs, a touch of grown-up romance and a terrific sense of wonder. If you’ve never seen it and want to grab a copy, it’s worth getting the Special Edition because then you get the theatrical release and the director’s cut plus a heap of nifty extras.
Two stories about The Abyss that I continue to love. The first one is about the film’s tie-in novel, a project tackled by Orson Scott Card (author of the classic SF novel Ender’s Game). While movie tie-in books are usually exercises in authorial masochism, Card’s experience was a dream. He was given unprecedented access to Cameron and film dailies, which allowed him to write a novel that was a true narrative version of the filmed story. Even more amazing, the preliminary work he did on the characters, to help him capture them on the page, was in turn used by the actors to inform their performances. It’s a great book, and probably the only truly collaborative movie tie-in novel ever written.
The other story I love is more technical. Because there’s a heap of underwater work in this film, the actors involved had to wear all the deep sea diving gear. But that proved a problem for Cameron, because the dive helmet design meant nobody could see the actors’ faces. So Cameron designed a new helmet for filming – and the technical experts on the film said, Hey! Those helmets are cool! And so the industry adopted Cameron’s design for regular deep sea diving work. Talk about life imitating art …
Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back
There are some movie memories you know you’ll never forget. For me, the most deeply etched has to be the very first time I saw the original Star Wars. I was in high school, a mere slip of a girl, and I was taken to see it by family friends who’d already seen it while they were on holiday in the US. The music … the crawl … the rebel cruiser and then the Imperial cruiser. My life was never the same after that. An amazing, world-changing film, this one. Few films have had the cultural impact of Star Wars. I think they might come along once in a lifetime.
Star Wars came as a bolt from the blue. The Empire Strikes Back, though, has to be one of the most breathlessly anticipated films of my life. These were the days before the internet, before spoilers, before the demand for instant gratification that is the norm today. No leaked copies or advance reviews spoiling the moment for fans. I really miss those days.
For me, Empire is this amazing collision of great writing and great direction, with really savvy input from the actors. I know that by today’s standards the SFX seem a bit ordinary, but the story itself transcends them. I still think it’s the best of all the Star Wars films. As character introductions go, Yoda’s debut is wonderful. The Han/Leia romance is handled with humour and sensitivity. And Luke’s Jedi journey is always interesting and character-driven.
And for the record? Han shot first!
Men in Black
Few films score a rating of ‘flawless’ in my book, but Men in Black is one of them. What a fabulously funny and heart-warming film. Seriously, has there been a better pairing than Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith? For my money they make the best odd couple ever. The script is tight and funny, and yet all the silliness is anchored by this heartbreaking performance by Jones, who never makes fun of his character or the journey he’s on. Sure, this is anything but a deep and meaningful cinematic experience. 2001 A Space Odyssey it ain’t. But I don’t care. I love it.
Another one that for me sits in the ‘flawless’ column. The only drawback, and it’s nothing to do with the film as such, is the fact that it was filmed in Sydney – so every now and then I get kicked out of the story bubble because I recognise a local landmark. But like I say, not the film-makers’ fault, that. Does make me wonder how other fans round the world feel when they see local landmarks in places they shouldn’t be, story-wise.
Anyhow, The Matrix. I happen to really enjoy a lot of Keanu Reeves’ work. He’s an actor with a particular skill set, and when he’s in his zone he’s great. I think he’s brilliant in this film. I think they all are. I think this film is an astonishing stroke of serendipity – all the pieces came together in a zeitgeist of unrepeatable excellence. It’s enthralling, mesmerising, riveting – all the good stuff. Amazing SF concepts, amazing design, music, effects. It’s the whole enchilada.
And for the record? The other films never happened. Not in my world.
Here’s where I lay my cards on the table. I will never understand the foaming, frothing, unhinged internet hatred for Ben Affleck. I always thought he was a talented actor, he’s now proven himself a talented director, and even if he were merely mediocre in these roles nothing he’s ever done has earned him the vicious vitriol to which he’s been subjected over the years. By all means say you don’t enjoy his work. You’re entitled. There are actors whose work leaves me cold, too. But it’s not personal. And I just don’t get how so many folk over the years have done their best to destroy him and his career.
I think he’s great in Armageddon. I think this is a really fun film. For me it walks all over Deep Impact (which came out at the same time, in one of those bizarre film duplicate events that can happen). For me this film has drama, humour, great action and genuine heart. I absolutely adore Billy Bob Thornton’s turn as the NASA flight controller. I love Bruce Willis being Bruce Willis. Armageddon might not be the most scientifically plausible film ever made but it’s a rollicking ride, the perfect popcorn movie. It always puts a big smile on my face and can even, when the moon is in the right quarter, bring a tear to my eye.
One thing – of the many, many things I admire about Ridley Scott – is his bloody-minded dedication to the vision he’s bringing to life in his films. Blade Runner is one of his earlier films. It’s a visual masterpiece, with a production design that has had profound influences on the look of film ever since. It’s confronting, thought-provoking and seamlessly stylish. And if Harrison Ford wasn’t enough, it also has the amazing Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty. What a performance.
In a lot of ways I think this film was ahead of its time. It didn’t do great box office when released. Only in retrospect did people come to understand what an astonishing achievement it is. I have the final director’s cut version on Blu Ray. Amazing film, amazing special features, worth every penny. Cinematic history.
So here’s a confession. I saw the first film in this series, Ridley Scott’s Alien, at the movies once. When it released. And I have never watched it again. I can’t. I just can’t bring myself to watch the chest-burster sequence again. Sometimes having a vivid imagination is a curse, not a blessing.
But Cameron’s follow-up, Aliens, is one of my favourites. It has a different sensibility, a different energy, to Alien – of course, given the unique styles of those two directors – but even so I think it fits really well. What I love is how Ripley remains front and centre in both films. I love how this dark and dangerous and dirty saga is at heart about a woman – when women have been historically so poorly served by the SF genre. Sigourney Weaver earned iconic genre film status because of her performances as Ellen Ripley, and that’s as it should be. She’s magnificent. The final battle at the end between Ripley and the alien queen? One for the ages.
So, here’s what I believe to the marrow of my bones. There is no film so silly, so lightweight, so implausible, that it cannot be elevated to the status of wonderful by the inclusion of Stanley Tucci.
I love Stanley Tucci. I have loved him ever since Wiseguy. I’ll be dealing with Wiseguy in an upcoming Spotlight blog post. Suffice it say he was wonderful in it. He is always wonderful. He is Stanley Tucci.
Lest anyone fear I have lost my marbles, let me say that I’m perfectly aware The Core is not in any way a scientifically serious film. It’s one of those Oh noes! The world is going to end! disaster flicks that you can’t really take seriously, even while you’re suspending your disbelief and taking it very, very seriously. And really, when it comes to the plot, that’s all you need to know.
However, it does have a great cast. As well as Stanley Tucci we have Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Delroy Lindo and Bruce Greenwood. These are all fine actors and they do a great job in this film. It truly is one of my favourites. Once you get past the scientific silliness (assuming you can, and I know not everyone can) then it’s got drama and humour and heart and tragedy and genuine tension. It also has Stanley Tucci.
So, really, what’s not to love?
The Chronicles of Riddick
No-one, be they ever so drunk, could ever swear on a stack of holy books that Vin Diesel is in danger of winning an Oscar any time soon. Which means that you don’t put this film on the disc player for the pleasure of seeing Academy Award level performances – even if it does boast a turn by the wonderful, Academy Award winning Judi Dench.
No. As much as I enjoy Colm Feore, Karl Urban and Linus Roach as actors, I love this film because it has the most fabulous, the most truly wonderful, production design. For me, the look and visual imagination of this film is right up there with the Hell Boy movies. Truly outstanding costume and set design. It also has some really interesting world building stuff going on.
That’s pretty much it, for this one. I find it really is a great tune up for me, as a writer, who must create powerful visual imagery without the benefit of visuals. It’s visually inspiring.
So I guess anyone reading this post who was thinking they’d see a long list of erudite, intellectual and deeply world-changing films is by now pretty damn disappointed, huh?
Yes. My guilty secret is revealed. I love rollicking, action adventure, soap-opera style SF films. I mean, I have some of the other ones and I do appreciate them, but they just don’t entertain me the way these films do. And I make no excuses for that. When it comes to movies sometimes, as a good friend of mine is wont to say, you just want to watch shit blow up.
Which brings us to Independence Day. Really, there’s nothing you can say about it that I don’t know already. But hey, it’s Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum and Judd Hirsch and Bill Pullman and Mary McDonnell and Harvey Fierstein and so much shit blowing up it’s hard to know where to look. Independence Day is the ultimate popcorn movie. You kick back, switch your brain off and go on the ride. And every so often, that’s all you want!
And there you have it. Ten of my favourite SF films. Not all of my favourite SF films, not by a long shot, but ten films that never fail to entertain me. And I don’t think it’s possible to over-estimate the sheer crazy joy of being entertained.
Now it’s over to you. What are some of your favourite SF films? Do our tastes coincide here and there? If you like the same films I do, why? If you don’t, why not? There’s no right or wrong answer. But I’m curious, so share!