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MIND MELD: Science Fiction Films That Surprised Us — In Good Ways and Bad Ways (With Video)

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It’s nice when a film surprises you in a good way. And it’s not so nice when it doesn’t. We asked this week’s panelists the following question:

Q: What was the last science fiction film that surprised you in a good way? What about in a bad way? Explain why.

Here’s what they said…

Tobias S. Buckell
Tobias S. Buckell is a Caribbean-born speculative fiction writer who grew up in Grenada, the British Virgin Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He has published stories in various magazines and anthologies. His novels include Crystal Rain, Sly Mongoose, Ragamuffin, Halo: The Cole Protocol, and The Alchemist & The Executioness (with Paolo Bacigalupi). He also has a short story collection titled Tides from the New Worlds.

Predators, the latest one, surprised me in a good way. The previous Predators vs. Aliens were not so hot, and Predators 2 was also middling. I went to see Predators as part of an all-afternoon theater binge, and I wasn’t expecting it to be any good. But lo, it was. What surprised me was that each character worked hard to understand what their situation was, and acted competently and accordingly.

The last film I remember where pretty much everyone worked hard to survive and understand their situation was Aliens, where even the little kid has a survival instinct and works hard to use it. In so many movies non-main-characters act according to plot needs, and are fundamentally stupid human beings. But in Predators they actually figure out they’re on an alien world before the big reveal of two moons.

Matt Forbeck
Matt Forbeck has been a full-time creator of award-winning games and fiction since 1989. His latest novel — Amortals — is on sale now, and his next — Vegas Knights — is due out in March. For more about him and his work, visit

The last SF film that really surprised me was District 9. Although the faux documentary part of the film fell off early on, the team behind the film did a fantastic job with making every bit of the high-tech and alien stuff seem gritty and real all the way through to the end. It broke down, it got filthy, and it seemed just as dirty, repurposed, and desperate as the more standard elements in the film.

Lucius Shepard
Lucius Shepard is a writer who lives in Vancouver. In 2008, Subterranean Press published The Best of Lucius Shepard, a career retrospective. Shepard’s latest novels include Vacancy & Ariel, Viator Plus, and The Taborin Scale.

Gareth Edwards’ Monsters surprised me by taking a pulp idea—spores brought back to earth on a crashed NASA probe grow into monsters the size of apartment blocks–and turning it into a character-driven drama/science fiction flick…and all for a reputed 15K.

Edwards’ story is simple. A photojournalist seeking to take pictures of the monsters is enjoined to escort the daughter of his wealthy employer (she has been slightly injured in a monster attack) to a port where she can catch a ferry from northern Mexico back to the States. The ferry, however, is closed to them and they are forced to make their way overland to the Mexican-American border. As they travel north they are befriended by various people living in the “infected zone” and form an emotional attachment with one another.

For all its simplicity Edwards’ narrative is wonderfully nuanced. By not focusing on the monsters as a problem to be solved, pushing that portion of the story into the background and focusing instead on the people living in and passing through the zone, he angles the plot away from a traditional resolution and manages to draw a sub-textual parallel between the monsters and his two main characters: All have been dropped into a hostile alien environment and are bungling their way along, uncertain of their every action. This parallel resonates throughout the movie so that during the climax, a close encounter that takes place in an abandoned truck stop on the US side of the border, monsters and humans come together in a scene that creates a Sturgeonesque sense of wonder and demonstrates both the sweetness and the incomprehensibility of all life.

Most science fiction films are exercises in the formulaic, so it’s always surprising when a movie comes along that exceeds that expectation. With its micro-budget, its three-person crew, and persuasive special effects, Monsters is not only good science fiction, but a remarkable technical achievement as well.

Nancy Kress
Nancy Kress is the author of 26 books of SF, fantasy, and writing advice. Her most recent novel is Steal Across the Sky (Tor, 2009), an SF novel about a crime committed by aliens against humanity 10,000 years ago – for which they would now like to atone. Her fiction has won multiple Nebula and Hugo awards, a Sturgeon, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

Moon surprised me by wasting millions of dollars of special effects and a terrific lead actor on a dumb plot. The “corporation” (evil, naturally) could have simply hired three guys at hazard pay levels to supervise the mining equipment on the moon. Instead, they create a secret cellar full of (expensive) clones, jamming equipment to block signals from Earth, fake videotapes of the poor worker’s family growing no older to fool him about time lapses, and a junkload of other unnecessary complications — when all the time, as we learn near the end, a shuttle to and from Earth isn’t even that complicated. And what’s with that girl who appears mostly unclad on the moon’s surface, and then disappears from the picture entirely?

What’s with Hollywood, that assumes if it has a “science fiction” label, a movie doesn’t have to make sense?

Kevin Maher
Kevin Maher is an Emmy-nominated comedy writer and the host of Kevin Geeks Out. For more Kevin, visit

An optimist might say that we’re experiencing a zombie renaissance, with zombie-themed TV shows, literature, flash mobs and conventions.

A pessimist would point to the cliché novelties, comic books, poetry, etc., as though the undead-merchandise is a zombie plague in itself, with mindless products walking (or running) across the multi-media landscape.

Having suffered from “zombie fatigue”, I was surprised and delighted by the movie Shock Waves. (1977).

We’ve seen adaptations of Tales from the Crypt (anthology movies, feature films and the HBO series) but Shock Waves is like a Weird War Tales movie! (The film’s faux-documentary opening sets the tone nicely.)

The premise is simple: a small group of tourists abandon their stranded tour boat and seek shelter on a creepy island. One-by-one the tourists are killed off by a platoon of un-dead Nazi-monsters. But what makes this film so special is the haunting synthesizer score, the winning lead performance by Brooke Adams, and the abundance of big ideas in a B-movie.

Not to ruin it with academia, but the subtext is fantastic. There’s a literary trope of using water to represent memory: the deep ocean is home to various subconscious creatures (“monsters of the Id” was the phrase used in Forbidden Planet.) In 1977 this low-budget horror show was addressing the collective memory of our shameful past: the horrors of World War II. Nazi-Zombies come out at night, like so many repressed nightmares that torture a man’s guilty mind when his guard is down. On the tour boat, a crewmember remarks, “The sea spits up what it can’t hold down.” Likewise, repressed memories bubble up and torment Peter Cushing, playing a self-exiled Nazi scientist, wracked with guilt for creating this super-elite platoon. Like a character from a Dickens novel, the gaunt, haunted, literally scarred scientist wanders the decaying mansion, waiting for his past to catch up with him (and it does!) I’m used to seeing Cushing in stuffy, 19th century garb, but it was a powerful choice to display his wiry frame and bony chest draped in tattered clothes.

Brooke Adams is elegant and grounded, playing the role like a high-class Karen Allen. Despite appearing in a cheapy-creepy genre movie, she never phones it in, making “Rose” a real person instead of just another generic “final girl.”

The supporting cast gives us all the character types you want in a zombie movie: a cowardly jerk, a handsome hero, and a half-mad boat captain. Yet, the film succeeds because it never feels like a typical zombie movie. At various times the imagery or the scares reminded me of Carnival of Souls, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Night of the Living Dead, and a few different JAWS knock-offs. That said, Shock Waves is its own one-of-a-kind little film, combining rich intellectual concepts with a bare bones, low-budget gracefulness.

Lastly, I was also surprised that director Ken Wiederhorn didn’t make anything else of note, aside from disappointing sequels like Return of the Living Dead 2 and Meatballs 2.

Chris Nakashima-Brown
Chris Nakashima-Brown writes fiction and criticism from his home in Austin. Recent stories include “Windsor Executive Solutions,” with Bruce Sterling (Futurismic, 2010) and “The Sun Also Explodes” in Lou Anders’ Fast Forward 2.


Good surprise: To sit through this heavily marketed Hollywood extravaganza and see cyberpunk has finally become so ingrained in the cultural mainstream that, when anyone sets out to make a contemporary action caper, it always ends up jacked in. Here, one finds not just a story about archetypal mercenary hackers taking their espionage vitamins and chasing the MacGuffin through technologically mediated realms – but a story drunk (if perhaps coincidentally) on contemporary postcyberpunk thematic overlays like atemporality and design fiction.

Bad surprise: That the gnomic Japanese male archetype needs to be retired.

Good surprise: Michael Caine makes a great postcyberpunk Dumbeldore.

The Social Network

Good surprise: That we live in a world in which you can make a movie about the construction of an imaginary realm inhabited by 500 million humans, and it’s a true-to-life biopic.

Bad Surprise: Realizing the extent to which our contemporary network culture – the largest community in real-life cyberspace -replicates the worst aspects of American adolescent culture: actual community replaced with a virtual high school yearbook updated every few minutes!

Good surprise: The amazing ambient electronic soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which subtextually illuminates the technologically induced alienation of all of the characters, giving this social/business docudrama the science fictional frisson it so wants to have.

Book of Eli

Good surprise: That the post-apocalyptic spaghetti Western (cum pilgrimage) plot never runs out of juice, even when the expected sources of actual apocalypse have retired from the Zeitgeist-proving as well as a Cormac McCarthy zombie cannibal story that post-apocalyptic stories persist because they are works of emotional realism, accurately depicting what it feels like to live in the alienated now.

Bad surprise: Dumbeldore is now a degenerate disco-loving cannibal holed up in a house from an Andrew Wyeth painting with an arsenal that would make The Punisher jealous. And he attracts Gary Oldman, an actual zombie.

Good surprise: Alcatraz as a post-apocalyptic utopia, trying to be the Library of Babel. In the remake, Alcatraz will be replaced with Guantanamo Bay.

Iron Man 2

Good surprise: The revelation that Iron Man is the comic book hero that is the most real to people because it is the most like how we all feel, as cyborgs. More specifically, like cyborgs crossed with Mickey Rourke.

Bad surprise: The surprise that Iron Man, by so perfectly creating a “live-action” version of a Marvel comic book, achieves a totally gripping sensory spectacle that, upon leaving the theater, leaves a strange hollow feeling. By obliterating the narrative negative space of the comic book form, which leaves so much to be completed by the imagination, objectively “well-made” comic book movies rob the viewer of her sense of wonder.

Good surprise: Mickey Rourke is the only contemporary actor whose actual flesh appears on the screen to have been grown through a collaboration between Jack Kirby and David Cronenberg.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson‘s criticism has appeared in SF Site, RevolutionSF, Nova Express and Her Majesty’s Secret Servant. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.

Maybe I’ve become cynical, but few modern science fiction and fantasy movies surprise me anymore. Most look stunning – hardly difficult in the days when Kerry Conran can create the visual effects necessary to bring Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to life – but remain bereft of any of the things that make print science fiction so worthwhile. It’s not just scientific inaccuracies that make something unwatchable; I can forgive those if I see something visionary and interesting. Unfortunately, most genre movies are so predictable that I can set my watch by them. Granted, things like Event Horizon, The Book of Eli, and The Island are fun in their low way, but I wasn’t at all surprised by their utter lack of intelligence or plodding execution.

So given that, I probably was more than a little surprised at how ambivalent I was when I left an IMAX showing of James Cameron’s Avatar last year. It had all of the elements for me to like it: it’s a true quill science fiction movie, as opposed to a science fiction/horror hybrid like, say, The Crazies or a superhero movie like Iron Man; its politics are in the right place; and Cameron took the time to work out the world building that makes Pandora so fascinating. Moreover, Cameron proves that he still can film an action sequence better than almost anybody in the world. And yet, for all of the things that went into making the movie so breathtakingly beautiful, it didn’t involve me on any level. Forget its liberal borrowing from Poul Anderson’s “Call Me Joe” or Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Word for World Is Forest, Cameron simply didn’t make me care. Oddly enough, for all of its faults, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, which I saw a couple of days later, engaged me in exactly the way Avatar should have.

I was also surprised at how bad Tron: Legacy was. I’ve heard a couple of people, including a few friends, rate it very highly, but I thought it was a failure on every possible level, especially visually. What was on screen should have wowed me in the same way that the original Tron wowed me in 1982, but everything looked so muddy and dark that I found the glowing dials of my watch far more interesting.

But even when the epic blockbusters fall far too often into epic fail territory, some movies still catch me completely off guard at how good they are. I went to Gareth Edwards’s independent flick Monsters knowing very little about it, other than hearing some very positive feedback from Lawrence Person and Howard Waldrop, and hearing from others that it was 2010’s District 9. What I saw instead was a thoughtful, character driven story about how people cope with an alien invasion, more along the lines of Robert Silverberg’s “A Pardoner’s Tale,” or the works of Lucius Shepard and J.G. Ballard, than any science fiction movie made in the last couple of years. Even more amazing was that the movie looks like a Hollywood blockbuster but was filmed for only $15,000. It’s far more visually arresting than the $100 million plus Disney spent on Tron: Legacy.

I also recently managed to see These Are the Damned, one of Hammer Films’s few forays into science fiction. It’s an odd and oddly subtle mix of rock-and-roll movie, film noir, Ingmar Bergman pastiche, and science fiction, specifically Village of the Damned, that still resonates despite its nuclear war obsessions. What surprised me most was its complete lack of camp. Its air of melancholy and despair works well with Joseph Losey’s black-and-white direction and Elisabeth Frink’s sculptures, and stands completely at odds with the garish colors and overt sexuality that you associate with Hammer. However, despite wearing its message on its sleeve, it never drowns the viewer in propaganda, which is far more than I can say for Avatar. And, in its depiction of rogue Teddy Boys led by Oliver Reed, it seems to prefigure Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange by a decade. (Keep in mind that These Are the Damned was made a year before the publication of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.) It may be fifty years old, but it stands as one of the most remarkable science fiction movies I’ve seen in the past year.

Mary Robinette Kowal
Mary Robinette Kowal‘s short fiction appears in Strange Horizons, Cosmos and CICADA. She is the art director of Shimmer and a graduate of Orson Scott Card’s Literary BootCamp. She is the 2008 winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her latest novel is Shades of Milk and Honey.

Q: What was the last science fiction film that surprised you in a good way?

Primer took me complete by surprise on almost every level. That an independent film could look so polished was impressive on the technical front, but more impressive was how tight the script was. Even if you know the premise: Man invents time machine by accident the directions that film goes will have your head spinning. Or at least, it did mine. A lot of time machine stories come apart if you look at them too closely but this one… the plot is intricate and holds up to repeated viewing.

What about in a bad way? Explain why.

Avatar. I knew going in what sort of film it was going to be. I was expecting a Big Hollywood Picture with a fairly trite plot. In this I was neither disappointed nor surprised. What did surprise me though was the world design. On every level, it was carefully considered and appeared consistent until one arrives at the Na’vi which appear to come from a different eco-system. Why, on a world where everything else has three nostrils on either side of their neck, would the Na’vi have noses? Why would everything else have four eyes and the Na’vi have two? The answer is, according to Mr. Cameron, for the same reason that the female Na’vi have breasts. Why is that, you ask? Because the driving design question was, “Would you want to do her?” I have rarely been this angry at a design decision. Mark you, I was irritated by it while watching the film but when I found out why?

Not only does it undermine the reality of the world that was so painstakingly created but it also cheapens the stakes of the film. The whole point was about falling in love with someone who is “other” because of who they are instead of what they look like. Rather than taking a risk and going after the challenge of making the audience understand how to see beauty in someone different, the design decision was based on fuckability.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

9 Comments on MIND MELD: Science Fiction Films That Surprised Us — In Good Ways and Bad Ways (With Video)

  1. I enjoyed _The Book of Eli_.  I noted that in the movie’s opening scene, the director telegraphed the entirety to me.  “This is what we will do.  Pay attention.  We will give you long moments of excruiating tension and relieve them with short seconds of brutal violence.”  And they did.

  2. I like Nancy Kress calling out Moon for its stupid plot. I did like the acting and enjoyed the movie to a certain extend, but I get annoyed when people act like it’s a great SF movie, which it really isn’t with this kind of harebrained scheme.

  3. “I like Nancy Kress calling out Moon for its stupid plot.”

    Ditto. I actually REALLY like the movie and recommend it to people. It was emotionally engaging in a way that touched me in a happy place, but the setup was absurd and it doesn’t deserve as much “look the other way” as it’s gotten.

    I have to disagree with Mary Robinette Kowal about Primer looking polished, though. I thought it looked like it was thrown together for a few bucks.



  4. You can easily see the bias in some of those reviews. Basically, if it’s not independent it’s garbage for many of the reviewers. I love that Nancy Kress called out Moon.

    And, I can’t believe anyone liked the Book of Eli.

  5. I am in agreement with some of the above commentors and Nancy Kress regarding Moon, although my criticisms on seeing the movie weren’t quite so harsh… I could think of reasons why they introduced the clone policy (maybe a rejection of sending people to their deaths on the moon, mixed in with problems caused by differing gravity), I just felt that as the movie went on rather than answering these questions it just disappeared into its own navel as it tried ever harder to be a ‘thinking’ film without any thought being given as to what people were meant to be thinking about…

    Inception also skirted with this problem but for my money it kept itself going nicely, although I do feel it feel into the trap of ‘must have a big complex action scene’ at the end of the movie trap with the 3rd level of the dream, it was like all the thought got shoved aside and Nolan indulged in some Rainbow 6 on the big screen.

    Probably the biggest disappointment for me was Avatar… The movie was just too retarded for words, too many parts of the plot simply exist purely so Cameron can film the action sequences he wants rather than because the characters are behaving in anything like a rational or credible manner. So it looks pretty… The scenery was fantastic and it looked so real…. well here is a suggestion get off your ass, go and visit your nearest wood and wander off the path a bit… and you will more that likely see something that blows pandora away!

    Looking spectacular is something that should be taken as a baseline for a movie not something that is the sole focus of the movie. If you want to make me care about the world, the characters or the predicament then try spending at least 1% of the budget on getting a screen writer who can write, try giving at least 1% of your attention on making sure the plot makes sense, that the characters act and react as if they are real people, that the cast understand their characters and can act enough to allow the audience to empathise with them and care about them!

    Don’t give me shit about wanting to bang a Navi… I didn’t want to bang Wall-E or his love interest, yet I was deeply moved and involved in their relationship… I really wanted the little guy to get his lady and am not ashamed to say that when he did I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye (as I often did throughout the movie).


    Which all brings me to the biggest GOOD surprise in recent years…. Wall-E…. Simply stunning, this is a movie that should be studied (studied not copied) by every movie maker as an example of how to engage the audience in the most unlikely characters, how to bring humour and tension into a film where really we the audience shouldn’t give a damn.

    The other ‘movies’ I would like to nominate as a good surprise is are the redletter dissections of the Starwars Prequels – It amazed me that something so brilliant could be generated out of 3 of the worst movies of the modern era. They are intelligent, insightful, hilarious and thought provoking all at the same time. The on going Plinkert story told in these movies (and other reviews) shows exactly how simple story telling devices used in the original Starwars movies worked and how ‘little’ effort is required to set up scenes and situations that the audience can care about.



  6. I also loved DISTRICT 9.  Granted by the time I saw it, I’d already heard great things, but it really lived-up to the hype.  

    Also, it was amazing to see that a film that was basically an action-packed re-telling of Kafka’s METAMORPHOSIS was a #1 movie. 

  7. Don’t mind admitting that I am an unapologetic fan of both Moon and Book of Eli.  Enjoyed them both very much. 

  8. I’ve read Lucius Shepard’s movie reviews elsewhere and he seems to make a point of gushing over anything slightly obscure. Monsters is commendable for being made on a low budget and having a decent level of tension but the characterisation and premise don’t really hang together on close inspection. The two main characters’ motivations and back stories aren’t clearly thought out and the female character is a wimp. The plot hinges on the fact that the guy she’s travelling with, who she barely even knows, is carrying her passport and then loses it (why the hell wasn’t she carrying her own passport?). The visuals are good and there are some nice moments, especially the scene Shepard describes in the gas station, but I wouldn’t call it “wonderfully nuanced”.

  9. I’m so glad so many people are calling out Avatar for it’s ridiculously poor storytelling.  I felt frustrated that it was such terrible writing and direction yet so popular.  In 8 years or so, people will laugh at the outdated graphics coupled with such poor character development and dialogue.

    I think the general “bias” toward independent films comes out of the contraints smaller budget films have.  When you can’t show some mind blowing visual effect, you need to make up for it with better storytelling or a more creative way of depicting the scene.  In many ways, not having hundreds of millions of dollars forces directors to be MORE creative!

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