Lists. Every site creates them; why should this one be any different? Well, for one thing, this site was created specifically to provide an outlet for thoughtful writing on science fiction, not click-bait for advertising revenue, but given that I’ve enjoyed reading lists since I came upon my dad’s copy of THE BOOK OF LISTS by Irving Wallace back when I was eight or nine, and the rest of the Internet seemingly does as well (except when they have to keep plowing through one page after another because money-hungry designers couldn’t put them all on one page), I figured, why not? (Is there a “List of Longest Introductory Sentences on the Internet?” No? There should be.) More importantly, as explained further below, some excellent articles from other sources made me want to write on some of my favorite science fiction films, specifically those which are underrated either by audiences in general or fandom in specific. I quickly realized that there were so many genuinely good science fiction films that are either unknown to many or unfairly maligned for one reason or another, that it was necessary to split this article in several parts.
It must first be established that an underrated film is one that is genuinely good at the very least, and underappreciated by most audience members. It doesn’t have to be a great film, but it helps if it reaches a certain standard of excellence. For the purposes of this list, we should be specific about movies that not just the mass audience but the science fiction audience tends to overlook or unfairly downgrade. All too often, a list of “underrated” films is just a “list of movies I like that I think everyone else should,” and lazily consist of films that are already widely known and respected. Such films as GATTACA and PRIMER (two of my favorite science fiction films of recent decades) that have enjoyed widespread critical acclaim and audience appreciation, clearly do not qualify, and it is ludicrous to label them as “underrated”. Nor is a film underrated just because it wasn’t a box office success. DARK CITY might have been a financial failure in its initial theatrical run, but thanks to largely to the late Roger Ebert (a science fiction fan in real life) who first gave it a laudatory review and then later named it the best film of 1998, its reputation grew and it now has a fervent cult following. Additionally, a movie may be underrated for many years but either slowly or suddenly gain the attention it deserves, as with the case of John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS. Difficult to see for many years, it is now properly regarded as a masterpiece, one of Frankenheimer’s best films as well as one of the best science fiction films of the 1960s. Similarly, Roger Corman’s finest contributions to the 50s science fiction cycle (NOT OF THIS EARTH, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS), although long beloved by a select group of fans, are much more appreciated now than they used to be, celebrated even, for being intelligent, entertaining and efficiently-made films that rise above extreme low budgets (think of Corman as the Sam Fuller of science fiction films). I’ve tried to span across space as well as time as much as I could, bringing attention to movies made from the rest of the world; the list includes movies from France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Russia, Canada, the former Czechoslovakia, and New Zealand. Finally, the list reflects a diversity of themes and subjects as well; those who think older science fiction films were all the same will be pleasantly surprised to find out just how wide-ranging and even daring they were in the topics they handled, anticipating many of today’s well-worn premises.
Finally, before we proceed any further, I must thank Brian Saur, whose excellent Underrated Horror Film series on his great blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks helped to inspire this article in the first place! I also recommend, as an alternative list and for more recommendations, this excellent list from Pierre Comtois which was an inspiration as well. Additional thanks need to go to Gerry Carpenter, Dave Sindelar, Tim Lucas and Steve Joyce, from whom I learned about some of these movies in the first place! Thanks to each and every one of you!
BEFORE THE GOLDEN AGE
Before the Fifties, most people can only cite THINGS TO COME and METROPOLIS, sometimes A TRIP TO THE MOON by Melies and KING KONG (which they more often than not don’t realize is science fiction), as important science fiction films made during the first half of the century (excluding serials such as FLASH GORDON) . It is therefore necessary to spotlight some of those feature-length SF movies made from the silent era through the 1940s deserving of greater critical attention and wider viewing from present-day audiences, even if there re less of them to discuss.
My main criteria, beyond personal preference, in the composing of this list to was to select films that tend to be underrated or overlooked by both classic film buffs and science fiction fans alike. Unless one is specifically a fan of older science fiction film, it is unlikely that they will have heard of, much less seen, most of the movies listed below. While it’s discouraging enough to see that many science fiction fans nowadays have no interest in older movies (or books) it’s just as disheartening to find out that many fans of classic cinema continue to turn their noses down on science fiction and horror films, except for a small select handful of exceptional films. Hopefully, lists such as these will encourage a broadening of horizons on the part of both groups of fans. Certainly, I am not alone in my affection or outright love for many of these films, but in general, they have not received sufficient attention, and deserve more, for being well-made and entertaining films, and in many cases, genuinely intelligent and thought provoking ones that have a lot more going underneath the surface than one would normally surmise.
I hope this list encourages you to seek out some of these hidden gems of the science fiction cinema. And I do hope you enjoy them as much as I have.
1. THE CRAZY RAY
Rene Clair was one of France’s great cinema pioneers, and one of my favorite directors. I first encountered him when I caught his delightful musical Le Million late night on Canadian TV and shortly afterwards saw both Sous Les Toits De Paris and his abstract film Entr’acte in film class. It would be many years until I finally saw his masterpiece A Nous La Liberte, but when I finally did, it didn’t disappoint; what a truly wonderful, life-affirming film! It is also borderline science fiction, but his first film, Paris Qui Dort (English title: The Crazy Ray), is a full-fledged entry in the genre, about a scientist who makes time stand still in France’s largest city. Although it combines elements of both Clair’s later experimental shorts and social comedies, it also anticipates the delightful fantasy films he made as an exile in the English-speaking world during the Occupation: The Ghost Goes West, I Married a Witch and It Happened Tomorrow.
2. THE WOMAN IN THE MOON
Fritz Lang’s other major contribution to the science fiction film isn’t usually viewed as highly as Metropolis, even though Lang himself thought otherwise; he considered the introduction of the rocket countdown in this movie as one of his greatest accomplishments. Granted, it’s slow-going at the beginning, and the depiction of a Moon with a breathable atmosphere (Irish physicist G.J. Stoney had already demonstrated that the Moon couldn’t possibly have any sort of atmosphere in 1870) and diamond-studded surface may be risible today, but it’s nonetheless well worth one’s time. Although the aforementioned lapses in scientific accuracy can be attributed to artistic license along the lines of The Martian Chronicles, the film does offer a credible depiction of rocketry engineering, thanks to technical advisers Werner von Braun and Hermann Oberth. It’s well worth a look, and I recommend the Kino DVD
3. THE ROBOTS OF RIPLEY
This 1935 Soviet film (originally titled Gibel Sensatsii, literally, Loss of Feeling) has only recently received a good, subtitled release in North America thanks to Sinister Cinema, the most indispensable of companies in preserving public domain science fiction and horror cinema. Often incorrectly referred to as an adaptation of Karel Capek’s classic play R.U.R, it’s an original story set in a fictional “capitalist land” where an attempt to replace the proletariat with massive automatons leads to unintended consequences for the bourgeoisie. As you may have already surmised,it’s burdened with the same regrettable propaganda that infected the entire cinema of the Stalinist era…but it’s so well made and visually brilliant that this is easily forgiven. A scene of the robots’ inventor controlling his massive creations with the use of a discordant saxophone number is not easily forgotten, and neither is the rest of the film.
4. THE WALKING DEAD
I had considered including one of Boris Karloff’s “Mad Doctor” films that he made for Columbia in the 1940s for this list, but I decided to include this Warner Brothers film, as it contains one of his finest yet least appreciated performances. It’s also both one of the most underrated movies directed by the legendary Michael Curtiz. Karloff is a man unjustly convicted of murder and executed, only to be brought back from the dead by scientist Edmund Gwenn. As always, Karloff is superb, providing a performance that is both sympathetic and frightening, cerebral as well as physical. This is the only time I found that an actor was able to successfully convey to me what it would feel like to have actually died and then come back to life, and Karloff managed to do it through the most subtle use of facial expression and body language. Curtiz’s legendarily masterful use of shadows works particularly well here, better even than in Mystery of the Wax Museum or Doctor X since it was filmed in black-and-white, making them all the more effective. Part of the reason for it being underrated is that it was unavailable in any home video format for a long time; it was finally released to DVD a few years ago.
5. NON-STOP NEW YORK
Imagine a cross between one of Hitchcock’s British thrillers of the 1930s and an issue of AIR WONDER STORIES from the same era, and you get this delightful and engaging movie, the best of a number of Thirties science fiction films that dealt with extravagant feats of engineering. The massive luxury aircraft that serves as the film’s science fiction element is relatively modest compared to technological artifacts of Transatlantic Tunnel or FP.1. Doesn’t Answer, and for that matter, it’s not introduced until midway through the film. It’s really a 39 Steps-style chase film about an English actress who is the only witness that can save an innocent American man from being executed (and this time, Edmund Gwenn won’t be able to revive him), and the aircraft exists mainly to provide an appropriate setting where the bad guys are able to chase her while en route to States. But that scarcely matters when you have a script as witty as this one, with performances that find the right balance between seriousness and humor and the smooth, well-paced direction of Robert Stevenson, later to become the Disney Company’s best live-action director. It’s in the public domain, so you can find it easily on-line or on DVD, sometimes in boxed sets.
6. DR. RENAULT’S SECRET
Science fiction film was largely a dormant genre in the 1940s, if one excludes movie serials from the list of feature films. When it did turn up, it was usually under the guise of horror films, as in the aforementioned cycle of mad scientist films Boris Karloff made for Columbia Studios, with the SF devices ranging from bionic organ transplants (in The Man They Could Not Hang) to cryogenics (in The Man With Nine Lives). During this period, 20th Century Fox produced its own short-lived but memorable series of horror films to compete with the innovative horror and suspense films being made by Val Lewton at RKO. Although the most popular of them are those fine films directed by John Brahm (Hangover Square, The Lodger and to a lesser degree, The Undying Monster), my personal favorite among them is Dr. Renault’s Secret, directed by Claude Lachmann, better known as a painter. George Zucco is Dr. Renault and his secret is his servant played by J. Carroll Naish, who it turns out…well, I’m not going to spoil it for you, but if you’ve seen Island of Lost Souls, you’ll probably figure it out, and it would make a good companion to two other science fiction-horror films Fox would make much later on, The Fly and The Alligator People. It’s like a much classier version of the sort of horror film Zucco and Naish were making for “Poverty Row” studios Monogram and PRC at the time, and is really more of a mystery film with a science fiction twist. It’s available as part of a “Fox Horror Classics” box set along with the Gothic melodrama Dragonwyck and the fantasy adventure (also with science fiction trappings) Chandu the Magician. Although neither of its companion films really qualify as horror films either, all three are nonetheless highly recommended!
Next week, we look at the underrated gems of the first Golden Age of Science Fiction Film, the 1950s…