And now, we complete our list! There are two reasons why I’ve decided to include the Eighties and Nineties together with the 21st century in this compilation of overlooked science fiction films. First of all, it takes time to decide whether or not a film is truly underrated, and the older they are, the greater the danger they have of sinking into completely undeserving obscurity. On the other hand, not only are more recent films still fresh in the memory and more readily available, they also get discussed more, and as a result, it becomes much more difficult to judge whether a film is truly underrated or not; if anything, a recent movie is more likely to be overpraised by audiences. It annoys me when current movies that get plenty of on-line buzz and widespread critical praise are called underrated simply because they were box office disappointments (as with Edge of Tomorrow, a movie I genuinely enjoyed) or the label is applied to under-the-radar releases that primarily played the festival and independent theater circuit to great acclaim and relative financial success (such as Snowpiercer, which I haven’t seen yet). The films I’ve chosen to spotlight may have cult followings or have been critically lauded, but not to a large or excessive degree. I prefer to label such films as Attack the Block, Upstream Color and Europa Report as “sleepers,” as I expect they will gain sizable cult followings in the future, at the very least. The two youngest films on my list seems unlikely to do so any time soon, which is why I decided to include them; both are well-made and intelligent enough, however, that they deserve better than obscurity, and there are probably plenty of other movies like them out there.
Secondly, despite all the improvements in effects technology, the science fiction film has not changed much fundamentally since the 1980s. Action films still make up the bulk of the science fiction movies made, and most contemporary major releases do little more than retread old ground. However, one notable change is that over the past two decades, more science fiction films are being made with the intention of being shown to art-house audiences, and ironically, these films which are not made for or marketed to what is now viewed as “typical” science fiction fans bear more resemblance to “real” literary science fiction in terms of basic concepts and ideas. There are also more “independent” science fiction films being made overall, thanks to the new affordability of digital film techniques, and although Sturgeon’s law still applies (many of them lamentably seem to draw their main inspiration from video games), one can find many thoughtful and intelligent science fiction features and shorts legally on YouTube and elsewhere. When it comes to modern SF film, I prefer that which approaches written science fiction in its ideas, themes and treatment of science (I’m particularly fond of the emerging subgenre of “lab-lit” science fiction epitomized by Shane Carruth’s PRIMER and Mike Cahill’s I ORIGINS), and that’s certainly true of most of the films I’ve selected for this list. If you think science fiction movies are synonymous with action scenes or special effects, you’ll likely be disappointed. But if you’re on the lookout for intelligent and thoughtful as well entertaining cinema, you’ll probably enjoy these titles as much as I have.
24. ELECTRIC DREAMS
Thirty years before Spike Jonez made HER, another director best known for his innovative rock videos made a thoroughly beguiling story of the possibilities of love between personal computers and their human users. Directed by Steve Barron, best known at the time for such videos as Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and a-ha’s “Take On Me,” ELECTRIC DREAMS works well enough as a sharp romantic comedy, but it’s equally interesting for its seemingly inadvertent predictions about how home computers would later affect our lives and relationships. Lenny Van Dohlen (later a part of the TWIN PEAKS ensemble cast) is a shy and lonely architect who pines for his lovely new neighbor, professional cellist Virginia Madsen (who wouldn’t get a part nearly this good until SIDEWAYS twenty years later) who lives upstairs from him. At first, Van Dohlen simply uses his computer to play the role of Cyrano de Bergerac to Madsen’s Roxanne, but when the computer gains sentience, an unlikely and very strange love triangle emerges. Beyond the film’s obvious charms (I’m particularly impressed that Barron is able to maintain a light touch even when the story takes dark turns), there’s also some pointed commentary about how we are becoming over-reliant on technology as a means of developing and maintaining our interpersonal relationships, and although I hate the term “even more relevant now” to describe how a story of years past speaks to later audiences (does that mean it wasn’t relevant before?), it has an even greater impact in an era of Internet dating and chatting where texting has replaced casual conversation. Indeed, the film appears to be addressing how the Emerging Computer Age will soon integrate itself into our entire culture and everyday lives, something that’s evident from the opening airport montage of people speaking into headsets, fiddling with wristwatch calculators, playing with remote-control toys, etc. Van Dohlen at first purchases his computer to help him with his conceptual design for a living space, an earthquake-proof building based on the work of M.C. Escher, but it soon connects itself to every appliance in the house in order to exert control over his life. Even the fine arts are not immune to technological change, as demonstrated when the computer courts Madsen through music (a duet between Madsen and the computer is wonderfully photographed and edited, as well as beautifully performed by Madsen). Plus, I have to love any movie that features a clip from THE GIANT CLAW.
25. THE QUIET EARTH
In compiling this list, I’ve tried to avoid movies that pop up repeatedly on other “underrated” lists; can a film really be considered as such if it gets continually held up for praise and attention? However, I’ve made an exception for this movie which seems to be everyone’s favorite “overlooked” science fiction movie, since my reasons for liking it are different from others. The consensus viewpoint seems to be that the film’s first half, in which physicist Bruno Lawrence suddenly wakes up to find himself seemingly the last person left on Earth, is stronger than the second act when he discovers he isn’t as alone as he thought it was. However, I am of the opposite opinion: I found the film’s first act, where Lawrence engages in a series of “one-man shows” in an attempt to hold on to his sanity, to be too obvious and self-conscious but that the movie gets much more interesting when more characters show up and it tries to explain their situation. I find those scenes where Lawrence’s character puts his scientific knowledge and training towards investigating how the world changed particularly engrossing; watching him go through his former workplace and record a monograph on how his research team’s experiments may have altered the constants and parameters of the universe is much more thought-provoking and satisfying than his heavy-handed political theater near the beginning.
26. BIG MEAT EATER
What would happen if you hired They Might Be Giants to make a PG-rated remake of LIQUID SKY? It might look something like this thoroughly charming low-budget Canadian release, which has much of the same sensibility as other homegrown Canadian comedies as THE RED GREEN SHOW and CORNER GAS. Trying to describe the “plot” is pointless, but involves a cheerful butcher store owner who has invented a new universal language; his new employee, a murderous 300-pound jazz vocalist; his friend, a genius amateur scientist who has invented a new rocket fuel and flying car; and wind-up toy aliens who take up residence in the shop. Oh yeah, it’s also a musical with some weird but fun songs that perfectly compliment the overall quirkiness of the project. My favorite is a tribute to chemistry that would make Tom Lehrer proud. One of the cast members, Andrew Gillies, has continued to be visible in Canadian TV and movies, many of them genre-related; most recently, he has been a semi-regular on both ORPHAN BLACK and the TV adaptation of TWELVE MONKEYS.
27. NIGHT OF THE COMET
After the Earth passes through the tail of Hailey’s Comet, mass apocalypse ensues, and the survivors try their best to patch things together. Sure Abel Gance did the same sort of thing in the silent era, but this being the Eighties, the focus is almost entirely on two suburban California girls, and it’s done with tongue somewhat in cheek. This charming movie has a small and affectionate cult, but I’m surprised it isn’t much bigger and fervent. After all, it’s post-apocalyptic science fiction, it has zombies, it positively drips Eighties all over itself (its getting made was dependent on the “Comet Craze” of the period, lots of scenes are set in an arcade where the characters carry on their conversations while continuously playing video games, and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” plays during a key scene where the heroines take advantage of an abandoned mall), and it has a strong, Uzi-toting female lead played by Catherine Mary Stewart, in an absolutely terrific performance. You actually wind up caring a lot for the film’s two heroines. I can’t really say I’m part of the film’s cult, as it runs out of gas two-thirds of the way through when it becomes much more conventional, with a routine and rather dull government conspiracy subplot. Until then, it’s a very enjoyable, nostalgic product of its time that is both a homage to earlier films and an ahead-of-its time foreshadowing of the directions the genre would take.
28. UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD
Wim Wenders’ “science fiction road movie” disappointed most critics and audiences at the time of its release, as apparently they were expecting another WINGS OF DESIRE (the following year, Wenders gave them exactly that with FAR AWAY…SO CLOSE!…and no one liked that movie much either). Although they admired the ambition of a nearly three-hour long movie filmed on four continents, many found that its extreme length and range of locales worked against it, as it required viewers to try to sort out the story at the same time they were trying to figure out what Wenders was trying to say, and they weren’t willing to watch such a long movie multiple times to do so (similar criticisms have been leveled against Andrei Tarkovsky’s science fiction classics SOLARIS and STALKER). Worse yet, they found it difficult to penetrate the motivations of the main characters, even though they were played by such first-rate talents as William Hurt, Max von Sydow, and the late Solveig Dommartin. Since then, we’ve had our fill of so many “globetrotting” movies that try to span so many different locales and periods while juggling multiple themes and storylines (including science fiction films such as CLOUD ATLAS and THE FOUNTAIN), that Wenders’ film no longer comes off as difficult as it once seemed to be. Instead, rewatching the film reveals that it is quite coherent both thematically and storywise; I’m particularly impressed by how the two major science fiction plot devices, that of a nuclear satellite that has fallen out of orbit and threatens environmental disaster and the von Sydow character’s experiments in trying to restore vision and record dreams electronically, both wind up being relevant to each other and eventually come together by the end. The worldwide nature of Wenders’ film also no longer seems like a gimmick, but essential to film’s major themes of how to facilitate human communication and understanding in an era of global social and technological change. The often-controversial but always-thoughtful Kyle Smith has recently written an excellent appraisal and appreciation of the film. It should finally be noted that this has one of the best soundtracks ever for a science fiction film and U2, then at their creative peak, provided a great theme song.
29. THE ARRIVAL
The feature directorial debut of screenwriter David Twohy received highly variable reviews and was a box-office washout upon its initial release in 1996. I saw it in theaters in its first week, loved it, and fully expected it to at least become a cult classic, but that hasn’t happened, at least not yet. Although there is is the usual awkward moment here and there that usually accompanies a sophomore directorial venture (Twohy had already directed a TV movie, DISASTER IN TIME, adapted from C.L. Moore’s classic novella “Vintage Season”) and Charlie Sheen does his eye-bugging routine a little too often, it’s still an excellent film, much better than the same year’s more expensive and financially lucrative INDEPENDENCE DAY, and definitely a more intelligent one. Made when the X-FILES was at the peak of its popularity, Twohy’s film actually owes more to classic alien invasion films of the Fifties and Nigel Kneale’s QUATERMASS series of TV serials and their film remakes (especially QUATERMASS II). What I particularly enjoy about the film is how it juggles a wide variety of science fiction concepts to advance the plot, while maintaining a firm and credible use of actual science to keep the story rooted in reality. One of my favorite moments is when the frustrated Sheen (who to be fair is excellent in much of the film) is on the phone trying to explain the differences between sidereal time and geosynchronous orbit to his boss (the late, great Ron Silver) only to get cut off. It’s just a brief moment that demonstrates that Twohy really knows his science and doesn’t need to go into tiresome exposition to impress us with this fact. Unfortunately, Twohy’s subsequent directorial career has been disappointing (I had high hopes that PITCH BLACK would be a similar hard SF thriller, with its premise reminiscent of Hal Clement’s CYCLE OF FIRE and Poul Anderson’s FIRE TIME, but halfway through, it became just another ALIENS clone), but hopefully, he will fulfill his promise yet someday.
30. THE WILD BLUE YONDER
Werner Herzog came late to making a science fiction film, long after genre entries by fellow “West German New Wave” directors Wim Wenders and Rainer Fassbinder (the TV serial WORLD ON A WIRE), and when he did, he made one that was uniquely his. An intense, pony-tailed Brad Dourif plays an alien originally from a “blue planet” orbiting Alpha Centurai (or so he says) who tells the story of how his people came to Earth in a failed attempt to make a new home, and then how he had to watch helplessly as the natives of Earth mirrored them in trying to leave their polluted planet for the world he himself abandoned, a mission that according to him will only prove to be as quixotic as those of the protagonists of Herzog’s masterpieces, AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD and FITZCARALDO. As with Herzog’s other films, the lines between fiction and the real (natural) world are blurred. Dourif’s tale is visualized through some brilliant editing of NASA archival footage, some breathtaking original documentary film of the ocean depths beneath the Antarctic ice shelf to depict the alien planet that Dourif supposedly comes from, and even some interviews with scientists on the subject of space exploration. Although some of the footage (especially that aboard the space shuttle) goes on for too long, it remains involving throughout, thanks both to Herzog’s direction and the captivating performance by Dourif. The main message of the film is one that some science fiction fans will nonetheless object to, that this planet must be taken care of and understood before we can be called responsible enough to venture further into space (there is the implication that Herzog is also calling out non-manned missions as well), but there is a less questionable underlying secondary theme, which is that The Alien is Where You Find It. It’s a theme that recurs in much of the best science fiction as well as throughout Herzog’s oeuvre.
Most science fiction movies have difficulty fulfilling their promise, but this one fulfills several of them beautifully: it’s the successful adaptation of a classic story in the genre; uses CGI to tell a story and create a new world instead of simply trying to awe its audience; and tries to use the genre as a vehicle for discussing and dealing with ideas in a thoughtful and original way. Hewing quite closely to the original story by Edwin Abbott for the most part, writer-director Ladd Ehlinger manages to create a fully-realized visualization of both the titular two-dimensional world and its three-dimensional counterpart on a budget that wouldn’t buy a spare microchip at Pixar. The film is not only great-looking but fascinating to listen to, as the characters discuss philosophy, epistemology and ontology, and after it’s done, you’ll find yourself actively thinking about subjects you usually wouldn’t expect from watching a movie, such as, say, the role of axiomatic argument in both geometry and legislation. An added plus is that the updates and modifications to the original story by Ehlinger build upon and elaborate upon themes and social commentary in the original Abbott book, while adding a new pro-science twist (reminiscent in some ways of Hal Clement’s MISSION OF GRAVITY, which itself has been called a variation on FLATLAND). In the two-dimensional Flatland, quasi-religious or theological dogma has placed limits on scientific progress, as has historically been the case; on the other hand, the 3-D world exists on a higher plane, where the anti-science movement is the result of government bureaucracy and anti-capitalist hysteria, reflecting modern social movements and trends. A well-known conservative-libertarian activist in real life, Ehlinger provides a trenchant critique of how ignorance and arrogance from all across the political spectrum limits scientific and independent thought, and impedes the conceptual breakthroughs that keep a civilization vibrant and dynamic. Ehlinger’s follow-up film HIVEMIND was even more overtly political, and unfortunately, as a result did not get a proper release (as well as a predictably vicious review in VARIETY that was utterly appalled at the audacity of a right-of-center film maker expressing his views). Once again, I’m hoping that an extremely talented and intelligent director gets his shot at making a movie worthy of his abilities someday.
32. ASTRONAUT: THE LAST PUSH
If you loved INTERSTELLAR, EUROPA REPORT, GRAVITY and other entries in the current trend of “hard science fiction” films about space, then this one is a must-see, even though it was made at only a fraction of their cost. It features top-notch effects work, and not only does it succeed at conveying scientific detail and technical realism, but is also suffused with a genuine Sense of Wonder, despite concentrating on a single character on one set. Made partially in the pseudo-documentary style of EUROPA REPORT by director and screenwriter Eric Hayden, and similarly dealing with the first manned mission to that particular Jovian moon, it focuses on one astronaut’s attempt to both survive and hold on to his sanity in his confined quarters when the mission goes wrong. Lead actor and story co-writer Khary Payton (a voice actor some of you will immediately recognize as Cyborg from the TEEN TITANS animated series) is excellent as the titular astronaut, who starts out already weary from global attention, builds in frustration as he struggles to survive both mentally and physically, and learns to embrace his role not just as a pioneer but as an ambassador for humanity worldwide. Best of all, it gives the great Lance Henriksen one of his best roles in years, as the philanthropist who funds the mission; his character owes more to Fred Kavli than Richard Branson or Elon Musk, and is played totally sympathetically and compassionately. In fact, the film, much like DESTINATION MOON, also raises important questions about private vs. public financing of space travel (“It takes NASA at least a year to pass gas” snorts Henriksen early on). If you’re looking for a film that approaches the best written SF in respecting both the science involved and the audience’s intelligence, then this labor of love is worth watching out for while you’re waiting for THE MARTIAN.