MIND MELD: The Most Intelligent Films of Science Fiction
Much of the general populace believes that SciFi films are nothing more than dumb fun, but genre fans know better. Science fiction offers filmmakers a unique opportunity to be thought-provoking and meaningful, or at least something more cerebral than, say, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
We asked this week’s panelists the following:
Read on to see the responses…
Some fairly obvious choices come to mind – 2001, Blade Runner, Contact, Gattaca, Children of Men – and while I wholeheartedly agree that they should make the list, I’d like to offer up five not so obvious candidates:
- Ghost in the Shell (and its sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence): An existential high-tech espionage-laden trip-and-a-half that follows a cyborg assassin and her team as they attempt to track down a mind-hacking terrorist dubbed The Puppet Master. Complex yet emotionally resonant. A cyber masterpiece.
- Donnie Darko: I recently listed this one as one of my top 20 films of the past 17 years. Many don’t classify it as SF – but it most certainly is. And incredibly smart SF at that. Young Donnie Dark sleepwalks one night and encounters a creepy guy in a bunny suit who informs him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. Donnie returns to waking life to discover a jet engine has mysteriously crashed through the roof of his house. What the hell is going on? An intriguing mystery unfolds.
- The Wings of Honneamise: Back to Japan for another thoughtful and thought-provoking feature-length anime entry. This one is set on a parallel Earth where, against the backdrop of heightened tensions between two nations on the brink of war, one side prepares to launch the planet’s first manned space flight. Shirotsugh Lhadatt is our disillusioned hero, haunted by the death of a fellow astronaut, who sacrifices all for the sake of the space program and, ultimately, humanity itself.
- Dark City: It’s taken a while, but fans of intelligent scifi are finally giving this movie it’s due. John Murdoch awakens in a hotel bathtub with no memories of who he is, how he got there, or any of the details surrounding the dead woman in the apartment with him. Suddenly, he’s on the run in a city of perpetual night whose inhabitants fall into a deep slumber at the stroke of midnight, John must piece together his past if he’s to uncover the secret of Dark City. Noir, nihilistic, and visually stunning.
- Voices of a Distant Star: A true labor of love, Voices of a Distant Star was written, directed, and produced by Makoto Shinkai on his home computer and, despite its modest 25 minute run time, proves a profound and incredibly heartfelt film – certainly more accomplished on an emotional and intellectual level than 99% of the big screen features out there. In 2046, young high school sweethearts Mikako and Noboru are separated when Mikako is chosen for an upcoming space mission. As she journeys off to deal with a distant alien threat, she communicates with Noboru via text messages. The further away she travels, the longer it takes for the messages to arrive and, while faster than light travel preserves her youth, Noboru ages back on Earth. Beautiful.
I don’t watch a ton of movies. I’m a writer with a day job and a family. But I do love them, and I have some favorite science fiction movies that I think are quite intelligent. Most are classics, so I doubt I’ll be showing many of you the way to new and cool movies. But maybe they’ll pick up an old favorite and give it another go. But first I need to mention that my criteria for whether or not a movie is “intelligent” isn’t about the science once it gets over a certain bar. Heck, the communicators on Star Trek were impossibly bad science and yet we have them. Hopefully we won’t get any red matter, but that’s a different discussion. I want my science fiction movies to make me think, and to shed light on who I am or who we’re becoming as a species. I also want a good story.
- I love Blade Runner. I love the look and feel of the movie, the grittiness of it, and the way it talks the kinds of prejudices we may have to deal with in the future. I love the way it has stood up to the test of time, and the way I can watch it over and over and still get new details.
- Next in line, a movie I learned every word of dialogue to. When my son was at the age that they like to repeat movies, we had Star Wars Episode IV. It’s the best Star Wars. Why is it smart? Well, it’s got values. I know that probably sounds fairly lame, but I really kind of liked my young boy watching Luke Skywalker walk through peril to success, an eventually learning to trust himself to do the impossible. I liked the humor when C3PO sounded like an idiot and the way R2D2 could hack into anything.
- On the subject of first in a series, The Matrix was watchable and re-watchable and re-watchable. Burn the sequels. But the thing itself is a piece of beauty. Enough said.
- Contact with Jodie Foster. I mean what’s to complain about when Carl Sagan write the movie? While a bit slow (it’s not as easy re-watch, and so I haven’t done it over and over and over like the others), it’s the very best shot I’ve seen at alien contact. And it – rather smartly – leaves the aliens unknown. This is better than the odd habit we have of making them all bit like Cthulhu.
- 2001. Like Contact, another smart alien movie with a shred of hope in it. Add in the lovely character of HAL 9000, and you have the seeds for a lot of thought about the paths we’re going down. Not all in a bad way. But Hal 9000 may be the spiritual father of the whole friendly AI movement.
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
- Blade Runner
- Minority Report
- A Clockwork Orange
- The Abyss
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn
I could spend a lot of words justifying the strengths and downplaying the weaknesses of each of these, but there’s plenty of meat in them to think about after the credits roll (and before!). None are prerfect, but they’re all intelligent.
Think about these, and enjoy them.
Everybody knows Blade Runner and 2010, but I love using examples that people don’t immediately think of as SF – like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which is a brilliant film, and also absolutely SF. There is actually a rather large body of smart-SF film already – going back to The Day the Earth Stood Still (the original). Personal favorites of mine are Gattaca, Dark City, 12 Monkeys, Delicatessen (another people don’t realize is SF) and The City of Lost Children (sadly, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien film isn’t as good as his other work), The Prestige, Primer, A Clockwork Orange, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Enemy Mine (first time I believed the guy in latex was really an alien), Silent Running, 2010, Equilibrium, Outland…and many many more. A recent favorite is Through a Scanner Darkly, perhaps the best PKD adaptation to date. And I’d include the first (and only the first) Matrix as smart SF. And I have a strong suspicion that James Cameron’s next one will create a new wave of smart SF – though with Moon and District 9, the wave is already starting.
An intelligent science fiction film must be defined as a cinematic story in which the laws of science are not violated, at least in a silly way.
Well, no. Not necessarily.
Jean Luc Goddard’s Alphaville, a dystopian noir-ish tale, set in an imaginary city (Paris in the mid-Sixties), spoofs the genre and plays fast and loose with science yet contains several unforgettable scenes that are purely genre. Though the film would likely be a chore for many genre fans to watch, it remains the seminal film in the sub-genre of Intelligent Science Fiction Films (ISFF), heavily influencing Blade Runner, as well as directors like Kubrick, Wong Kar Wai, etc.
Of course Kubrick’s 2001 is the gold standard, and his A Clockwork Orange presents a compelling portrait of a futuristic Britain in decline. Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 is an elegy to lost love in which future, past and present blend together and his Fallen Angels, though a non-genre movie, is in my view the film that best captures the cyberpunk ethos. Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 paints a completely believable near-future against which he sets his story of doomed lovers. Alain Resnais’ little-seen Je T’aime, Je T’aime is a time travel tale that traps its protagonist inside a time machine and torments him with thoughts and memories from his past. Delicatessen by Mark Caro and Jean-Pierre Juenet is a surreal post-apocalyptic black comedy set in the house belonging to a butcher who provides suspicious meats to his tenants and overlies a world populated by troglydytes who eat only grain. Slava Tsuckerman’s Liquid Sky, which played non-stop for three years in Boston, New York and Washington DC, offers a modern fairy tale of aliens and supermodels. Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth and George Roy Hill’s Slaughterhouse 5 are both good translations of novels by Walter Tevis and Kurt Vonnegut. Alex Cox’s Repo Man tells the story of Otto, a young guy who enters the repossession business and becomes involved with a mysterious 1964 Chevy Malibu driven by a mad scientist and hunted by government agents. Alex Proyas Dark City is a story about a city controlled by strange alien masters who each night reshape its reality. In Bernard Tavernier’s La Mort en Direct, Harvey Kietel plays a man with a camera implanted in his brain who is filming a documentary about a beautiful terminally ill woman. Lar’s Von Trier’s The Element of the Crime reimagines the detective story in a near future environment and is notable for its gorgeous visuals. Duncan Jones’ Moon, a film about the costs of utopia and what it means to be human. Brazil, Alien (essentially a horror story), Tsarkovsky’s Stalker, Alex Nicol’s Gattaca…the list goes on. There are more, but these are a few of my favorites.
Though science fiction films have more popularly become a subgenre of the action movie, many directors, both in the U.S. and abroad, are still making intelligent and thought-provoking SF. Most recently was Duncan Jones’ Moon, a moody, atmospheric film starring Sam Rockwell as a lonely miner on the surface of our satellite, who has left behind his family to harvest essential resources for Earth. The film unfolds with several satisfying reveals that I won’t give away here, but it incorporates many classic tropes of the genre and yet each one consistently avoids the pitfalls of cliché, refusing to take the path of least resistance. It’s a slow and deliberate film, but it gracefully explores fundamental questions of identity: Are two men with the same pasts doomed to share the same future? Do our memories define us, or can we choose to surpass our own programming? And if our world were a lie-if everything we believed about ourselves was wrong-could we trust even ourselves? I look forward to anything Duncan Jones is willing to throw at us in the years to come.
A favorite of mine is Dark City, which touches on many of the same themes. Our hero wakes up with no memory of who he is, or where he is, or why there is a dead prostitute in his room. (Common problem, really.) Is he a murderer? Unsure of himself but determined to learn the truth even if it’s ugly, he sets out to find himself. He soon discovers that his world-which looks part Norman Rockwell 1950s, and part gritty 1990s-is actually an elaborate experiment in which people are shuffled around on a great stage, injected with different memories to be recast as different people. Do the memories and experiences of a killer make one a murderer? Or is there some innate you-ness down there, something that cannot be erased or manipulated? It’s a smart, thoughtful look at what makes us who we are.
I would also encourage those seeking thought-provoking science fiction to look beyond English-speaking films and consider both 2046 and Metropolis. 2046 is from Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, and if nothing else the film is gorgeous-sleek, dark, and oppressively beautiful. Several different storylines crisscross in time, place, and even language (the film is in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese), to show one man who desperately tries to recapture a lost love. He imagines a science-fictional story in which his stand-in and an android woman fulfill the romance he was never able to fulfill himself. Obsessed with a room (apartment 2046) he can never return to, and constantly failing in relationships with women who embody part, but not all, of the woman he once loved, he becomes trapped in his own life, unwilling and unable to escape the past. The film uses visual and musical repetition to show the ruts that we can create for ourselves, and the way that science fiction can be a way to fulfill the desires we never will. I don’t unreservedly recommend it as it can be slow and oft-times deadly ponderous, but it’s worth a look for at least the visuals.
Metropolis is an anime from Japan, based on the 1940s manga that was in turn based on the Fritz Lang film (which was based on a novel-got all that?). It’s a visual masterpiece, stunning in scope and a joy to watch. In Metropolis, humans and robots coexist, but not altogether peacefully-robots who attempt to break free of their orders are terminated on sight. Our hero, a young man named Kenichi, stumbles upon a young girl with no language and no memories. Ultimately he discovers that the girl, Tima, is actually a robot built by the dictator in the image of his dead daughter. They uncover a conspiracy by the dictator that involves Tima as the key to world domination. Robots, despite their clearly individual personalities, are treated as property and not as people, so Tima must soon confront the notion that her objective, her sole purpose for existing, conflicts with the values she has grown to adopt in her brief life as a human girl. It’s a challenging, bittersweet film, and borrows heavily from Western science fiction (especially Blade Runner).
While our theaters are more likely to screen Transformers 2 than Moon, I believe that thoughtful, intelligent science fiction is still out there, if you know where to look.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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