Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Sci-Fi Movies Episode 5: The Top 10

My inherent laziness almost got the better of me there, but as promised here are my personal top 10 Science Fiction movies of all time.

2001: A Space Odyssey, (1968)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick, Written by Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C Clarke
"Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going."

Was there ever any doubt that Stanley Kubricks and Arthur C Clarkes collaborative masterpiece wouldn't make my top 10? No. This is seminal science fiction. 2001, loved and hated probably in equal measure is still the bar by which others are measured by. I think that when I look at my own favourites in this genre they often tend to be big on exploring the human condition. 2001 is entirely about the human condition and it leaves the viewer often with more questions than answers, thus sparking endless debates - yet another thing I love about movies.

For Stanley Kubrick it was a risky venture. A 140 minute movie that had only about 25 minutes of dialogue and little incidental music, it is easy to see why some label it boring. However, that old adage about pictures being worth a thousand words is alive and well in this film. From the opening scenes with apes evolving to the climactic journey into the very soul of Dave Bowman, 2001 is one of the finest pieces of cinema in history.

Akira, (1988)
Written and Directed by Katsuhiro Ôtomo
"He's not your friend, he's ours! If somebody's gonna kill him, it should be us!"

The only animation to make it into the top 10, and not a single employee of Disney, Pixar or Dreamworks had anything to do with it. That's because Akira is not run-of-the-mill family entertainment. It's gritty Science Fiction in which you feel totally immersed.

For many westerners, myself included, Akira represented a first view of what could really be done with animation. The haunting images of Testuo descending into despair and violence where shocking for me as a young boy, and still are now. The tortured minds of the inhabitants of Neo-Tokyo serve to remind us all of the real dangers inside us.

I'm don't really know anything about Anime or Manga, I love this film because for me, it illustrated for the first time how animation could be used to deal with adult themes. It's offers a scary illustration of how close we all are to the abyss.

Blade Runner, (1982)
Directed by Ridley Scott, Written by Philip K Dick
"All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die."

The darker, more brutal visions of the future offered up by many of the great Sci-Fi films only serve to heighten the human traits we smother in our current democratic societies. The film is an example of how we all fail the basic moral tests laid in front of us. Like all the best Sci-Fis, Blade Runner asks all the right questions about humanity and our society in general. The thing I love most is that the characters are no different from you or I. Human or Replicant, the characters represent our own hopes, fears, desires and aspirations.

The futuristic vision of LA is an expert piece of craftsmanship. With many films it is all too apparent that these are actors on a finite number of constructed sets, but that's not the case with Blade Runner. The parts of the city we don't see, feel like they exist. Ridley Scotts vision allows us to venture around the corner to sets that haven't been built and imagine them for ourselves.

Add to all of this another fine story from Philip K Dick, some of the grandest cinematography in a generation and a masterpiece soundtrack from a man at the peak of his career (Vangelis) and you've got one hell of a movie.

Dark City, (1998)
Written and Directed by Alex Proyas
"I have become the monster you were intended to be."

A year before Neo learned all was not as it seemed in his world, Rufus Sewell slowly unraveled the mystery of his eerie city; a city that no one ever leaves; a city where people and places seemingly change overnight; a city in perpetual darkness.

When I re-watched Dark City I was struck at just how similar in concept it is to the Matrix. Both involve the concept of humans and their environment under some form of control. Both deal with a loners struggle to free the masses. The Matrix may have had the coolness factor and big budget, but Dark City is the one with real depth. The Strangers are far more sinister than the Agents; the heroes far more flawed and real. If you like Sci Fi, watch this film.

The Day the Earth Stood Still, (1951)
Directed by Robert Wise, Written by Harry Bates & Edmund H North
"Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!"

I was on the IMDB message boards the other day and was amazed at just how much debate this 50 year old movie had generated. No one could seem to agree about whether the messages coming out of this film were of hope or impending doom. The fact that people will debate it to death so long after it's release is a testament to it's greatness.

The concept was always simple. An alien and his robot land on Earth to warn the people that they must give up their violent ways. The humans, with their fledgling dreams of space travel and their abundance of Nuclear weapons are now a serious threat and as such must not be allowed to grow further. The warning was blunt. Give up these ways or be destroyed.

The Day The Earth Stood Still is a perfect example of 1950s America. The fears and prejudices of an entire people are on trial and in the film, many of them appear guilty. It raises so many questions about humanity and I often argue that if such an event was to happen we would never give up our violent ways. We wouldn't drop our petty squabbles in favour of a new enlightened way of life. Why? Because to do so would require an intrinsic change in what drives the people of Earth. A change from selfishness to selflessness.

But I digress. And in doing so I think I've found my own argument as to why this movie makes it into my top 10. The Day The Earth Stood Still is the movie that, for me, raises the consciousness to a level were the viewer truly understands how fragile life is and how futile the quest for peace has become.

If you haven't seen this film and call yourself a Sci-Fi fan, then shame on you.

Donnie Darko, (2001)
Written and Directed by Richard Kelly
"Oh, please, tell me Elizabeth, how exactly does one suck a fuck?"

Yet another film to suffer the 9/11 blues, Donnie Darko still amassed a cult following. The hip paradoxical time-travel story about a delusional school kid who believes the world is about end is the newest of all my top 10 films.

The "suck a fuck" quote pretty much summed up this entire movie for me. A nice white upper-middle class American family sit around the breakfast table while Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his sister (real life sister Maggie Gyllenhaal) have the kind of argument that makes parent cry. By supplanting the increasingly disturbing dreams of a tortured mind within scenes of seemingly normal family life we get a film that is both haunting and touching in equal measure.

What is most astounding is that this is a debut full-length movie for writer/director Richard Kelly. At the young age of 26 he's created what can only be described as a legend. Donnies visions of a life size bunny make for a superb mystery and as the film approaches it's climax the many threads unravel at a frantic pace. And in the end we are left with that chilling cover of Mad World by Gary Jules.

It has had critics up in arms about how confusing it is, but I've always held the belief that a movie that leaves you with more questions is far more fulfilling than one with all the dots joined.

Gattaca, (1997)
Written and Directed by Andrew Niccol
"We now have discrimination down to a science."

This, for me, is a landmark Science Fiction movie. It deals with the moral implications of genetic manipulation and the depth of humanity in a way that is both refreshing and frightening. It launched Jude Laws career and even made Ethan Hawke look good!

Gattaca arrived at the perfect time. With genetic manipulation the subject of daily news reports the movies opening subtitle - The not too distant future - seems strategically aimed at this generation. The totalitarian style of society, coupled with the emotionless 'valids' is exaggerated to brilliant effect. While the final conclusion and fate of one of the central characters is haunting.

It may not have entirely original themes, but Gattaca delivers a message that can so often become lost in a directors push for pretentiousness.

A brilliant score from Michael Nyman completes one of the finest sleeper hits to come out of Hollywood in recent years.

Metropolis, (1927)
Written and Directed by Fritz Lang
"There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator."

Do I really have to explain this one?! Metropolis is THE science fiction movie. From emancipation to totalitarianism, it captures so many great themes that have been done to death over the last 77 years. Star Wars, Blade Runner and Dark City are just 3 of the films in my original shortlist that were heavily influenced by this masterpiece.

The acting is particularly hammy in places, but still offers a poignant look at how fragile human society is. Even the religious overtones are palatable in the modern day, while it's political messages on socialism and capitalism are still relevant so many years later.

Like Blade Runner, the city itself is a living, breathing entity. You feel like you could become lost in this endless maze of cold structures, only to find that there is still humanity in it's darkest corners.

Sadly there are now too many cuts of this movie to count, and you have to be careful to see the right one. The 2001 restored version is probably the most comprehensive version now available.

Planet of the Apes, (1968)
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, Written by Pierre Boulle, Michael Wilson and Rod Serling
"You maniacs! You blew it all up. Damn you. God damn you all to hell!"

When I first saw George Taylor (Charlton Heston) drop to his knees in desperation on that quiet beach I cried my eyes out. I was about 10 years old and I just couldn't believe it. It raised in me so many questions about humanity that as a child I was simply unable to comprehend, and as an adult I still can't answer.

However, Planet of the Apes is more than just its ending. It's a story about our place in the world. The humans of that futuristic setting are dumb primitives, while the apes are an intelligent dominant species. The roles are reversed and the evil we see in the apes is nothing more than the evil within humans of our day.

Again, its message is still as relevant today as it was in the dark days of the 1960s when the world seemed always on the brink of its own extinction. Which is why a small nod to Tim Burton must be made. There is one rule in Hollywood, that MUST be adhered to. Never remake a movie, when the original still has a powerful message to convey.

Quatermass & the Pit, (1967)
Directed by Roy Ward Baker, Written by Nigel Kneale
"We are the Martians now."

Fittingly, the last film in my list is probably the one I debated over the most. with such powerhouses as 1984, Westworld and Close Encounters it would have been easy to discount this relic of the British Film Industry. In the end though it came down to the reasons why I like Science Fiction enough to write about 5000 words over 5 blogs.

I enjoy stories that delve into the human mind. With Quatermass the familiar theme of striving to overcome our worst fears and prejudices are again apparent. The idea that human evolution was down to the interference of aliens has always fascinated me. The reaction of so many people to such news would result in a loss of faith, which is clearly apparent in the views of some of the central characters.

The characterisation is typical for the period and rather than having a set of action hero scientists we are treated to actors who appear more realistic in their roles.

Naturally, 45 years have taken their toll. However, the visions we see through the eyes of Barbara Judd are truly terrifying while the final confrontation, with its religious undertones, is spectacular and reminded me of why I think building cranes are scary!

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