This weekend, after you’ve come back from seeing Christopher Nolan’s new space travel opus ‘Interstellar’ at the theater, perhaps you might be interested in checking out some underrated sci-fi gems you’ve overlooked? From movies that have been unfairly disparaged to those that simply never got the exposure they deserved, we’ll call out our picks in this week’s Roundtable.
If you’re into deep space sci-fi movies and you haven’t seen ‘Europa Report‘, you really should. I think it’s one of the best outer space isolation movies out there. It’s shot like a documentary, as a group of astronauts travel to Jupiter’s moon Europa to search for extraterrestrial life. What makes the film so compelling is that you don’t realize how tense it’s becoming until the climax, which is every bit as exciting and suspenseful as any big-budget space epic.
M. Enois Duarte
Geez Louise! Where to even start with this topic? From ‘Dark City’ and ‘The City of Lost Children’ to ‘Outland’ and ‘Hardware’, which movie should I suggest more people watch? I’m going with Kurt Wimmer’s dystopic martial-arts nightmare of the future, ‘Equilibrium‘. Taking inspiration from Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’, Wimmer’s film envisions a time when all emotions and artistic expression have been outlawed and follows a top-ranking law enforcer, played by Christian Bale, as he doubts his role in the destruction of history. The plot is a fantastic idea that Wimmer brings to life with incredible action choreography, but the photography by Dione Beebe and the production design are arguably the movie’s most impressive aspects, like a dark, twisted dream of our future that sadly feels plausible.
I’m going to raise the ire of quite a few sci-fi cans, and possibly a number of Trekkies, but I think it’s time we all took another look at ‘Star Trek V: The Final Frontier‘.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: the special effects are horrible for a movie released in 1989. Many stories have gone around about why ILM wasn’t used. While William Shatner has always claimed that the company wasn’t available, I’ve heard from a number of solid sources that a team was available but the producers thought that because other ILM teams were already working on other films at the time that they’d get shoddy work – even though ILM actually divides up its talent equally when working on multiple movies. Whatever the real truth is, I think we can all agree that the FX are dreadful.
What bothers me, however, is that most viewers see the shoddy effects work in the movie and immediately make the jump to saying that William Shatner is a horrible director. He’s not. Take a look at the movie again and try not to pay attention to the FX. Shatner’s direction is quite competent. He gets some good performances from his actors. DeForest Kelley’s flashback to his father’s death might be the best work he’s done as a ‘Star Trek’ actor. Shatner also frames some very interesting shots throughout the movie.
The actual story isn’t as bad as you remember, either. It’s just a story that is almost impossible to find a satisfying conclusion to. The Enterprise crew goes in search of God? Great idea, but how do you resolve that? You can’t REALLY show God on screen, but you can’t deny His existence either, so you’re forced into the rather lame conclusion that you have to make the “God” of your movie just a really powerful alien. But for a while, just as the Enterprise enters the Great Barrier, wasn’t there a moment of wonder about what the crew would find? THAT’S what ‘Star Trek’ is supposed to be about, and while I have no problem with people who call ‘Star Trek V’ a disappointment, I reject those who say it’s a terrible movie, because it’s not.
Many sci-fi movies are polarizing to audiences. Just look at ‘Sunshine’ or ‘Soylent Green’. But still, most decent sci-fi flicks can hang around and maintain at least a cult audience. In contrast, others just seem completely unloved. It may just be my soft spot for 1980s era Michael Crichton (‘Looker’, cough), but I’m continually surprised that 1984’s ‘Runaway‘ wasn’t more of a sci-fi hit.
The plot isn’t grandiose, but the domesticity of programmable electronics (and the correlating danger) portrayed in the film is really impressive, especially for a Hollywood movie. Tom Selleck and Kirstie Alley do very well, while Gene Simmons steals the show. Try watching ‘Runaway’, and then the recent ‘Total Recall’ and ‘Robocop’ remakes, and the relative quality of ‘Runaway’, which should be imitated more readily, becomes clear.
Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)
A few sci-fi movies have made an impression on me even though they never got much love by critics or audiences. ‘Gattaca‘ is one. Ethan Hawke plays Vincent Freeman, a natural-born, unmodified man in a world dominated by genetically tailored uber-humans. Although genetic discrimination is technically illegal, the genetically tweaked “Valids” generally hold the best jobs and have the most opportunities in life, based solely on their DNA. Meanwhile, the natural-born “In-valids” only qualify for menial jobs. Freeman aspires to travel to the stars and assumes the identity of a Valid (Jerome Morrow, played by Jude Law) who was paralyzed in an accident. Freeman keeps samples of Morrow’s hair and urine with him at all times, in order to pass random genetic testing. Freeman uses this identity to get a job at Gattaca Aerospace Corporation where he trains for an upcoming mission to space. Meanwhile, someone is murdered at Gattaca, and Freeman’s actual DNA is found on the scene thanks to a wayward eyelash. Can Freeman avoid detection long enough to escape to the moons of Jupiter?
‘Gattaca’ is interesting in the questions it poses. Do our genetics determine our destiny? What place does free will have in making our own success? What would the world be like if genetic engineering became commonplace? The film presents a sterile and dystopic “perfect” future that is at once technologically advanced but socially draconian. I don’t think I’d want to live there.
Another underrated gem – OK, maybe more of a guilty pleasure – is ‘The Last Starfighter‘. In this one, a popular videogame is actually a training simulation for a real interstellar war. When someone gets good enough at the game, a beacon is sent out to space for the player to be drafted into the Rylan Star League for battle against an evil alien horde. The game’s inventor Centauri (Robert Preston in his final role) comes to collect Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) to recruit him as a true Starfighter. But Alex, a teenager living in a trailer park, can’t accept the responsibility and asks to go home. Centauri obliges the request but gives him a transmitter to call him back if he changes his mind.
Meanwhile, hijinks ensues back home where Centauri had left an android copy of Alex named “Beta” behind so that no one would notice that Alex was gone. Some of the scenes where Beta tries to fit in, particularly with Alex’s girlfriend, are pretty funny.
I guess why the 17-year-old me liked this movie so much was that I was a huge video arcade freak back in the ’80s. I once played ‘Galaga’ for two hours on one quarter. And to think that all this wasted time might have prepared me for something important in life was a compelling idea. Turns out all it did was allow me to get high scores on ‘Galaga’ (and maybe serve as a minor navigation officer in S.H.I.E.L.D.). “That man is playing Galaga.” – Tony Stark
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
One of my all-time favorite creature features is ‘It! The Terror from Beyond Space‘. This underseen, underappreciated 1958 film is a lean, efficient and unnerving collision of sci-fi and horror. Quite a bit of carnage had already unfolded before ‘It!’ even opens. A rescue ship soars over Mars in search of the crew of an earlier mission but finds just one, sole survivor. They suspect Col. Carruthers of having slaughtered those under his command, dead certain that he murdered the rest of his crew to have as much of the mission’s dwindling food and water for himself. Carruthers makes the impossible claim that some monstrous creature native to the Red Planet sucked the life out of them.
Wholly unconvinced, the crew of the rescue ship take Carruthers in shackles back home to Earth to face justice for his crimes. You probably don’t need to me to tell you that Carruthers isn’t all that the rescue ship picks up on Mars, though. The murderous creature manages to slink onboard, and one by one, the desiccated corpses of the crew are discovered, most every trace of moisture drained from their lifeless bodies. Having finally accepted Carruthers’ grisly tale as the truth, the surviving crew band together, but everything from traditional sidearms to grenades to nuclear radiation fail to stop this walking nightmare.
If the general premise sounds familiar – the crew of a hopelessly remote ship are stalked and slaughtered by one, lone otherworldly creature – you’re probably as great a fan of Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ as I am. ‘It! The Terror from Beyond Space’ has long been cited as one of the key inspirations behind ‘Alien’, and I haven’t even gotten to the part about the explosive decompression yet. Though ‘It!’ doesn’t benefit from anything resembling the spectacular effects work or legendary production design in ‘Alien’, this is still a remarkably effective and intense experience just the same.
Despite the underfunded creature suit and woefully dated spacecraft exteriors, its mood and unnerving atmosphere readily outclass the overwhelming majority of creature features of the era. Every time I sit down to watch ‘It!’, I’m impressed by how swiftly it moves, clocking in just over an hour in length. ‘It!’ has aired in high definition on MGM-HD and Monsters-HD, so maybe everything that Shout! Factory needs for a Blu-ray release is right there waiting. This’d be perfect for a double feature.
Is it too early to cite ‘Edge of Tomorrow‘? I’m not a huge science fiction fan, but this is one of the most fun movie-watching experiences I’ve had in a very long time. Most critics have compared it to ‘Groundhog Day’, but if there are any Ken Grimwood fans out there, this story touches on some of the great ideas in his book ‘Replay‘. I was almost bummed to see Tom Cruise hanging off the side of that plane in the behind-the-scenes footage released for ‘Mission: Impossible 5’, because he was so much fun to watch in ‘Edge of Tomorrow’. Rather than being Mr. High-Intensity Action man, he spends most of this film looking terrified, beaten and exhausted, and he’s the most human he has been in ages.
Technically, my pick qualifies as a science fiction film – although you’re unaware of that until the last 15 minutes. This could count as a major spoiler, but I figure that you’ve had 13 years to see the movie. Negative word of mouth may have told you to avoid it, but it’s not my fault if I spoil this for you. You’ve been warned to stop reading after seeing the title.
I know how hated it is, so bring on the heat. My pick is ‘Vanilla Sky‘. I love Cameron Crowe’s remake of the fantastic Spanish film ‘Abre Los Ojos’. As good as the original is, the Americanized pop culture-infused remake speaks to me.
I love that the first third of the film is a chick flick with spliced-in snippets of puzzling prison interviews. After Cameron Diaz takes a ‘Fatal Attraction’ turn on Tom Cruise, the remainder of the film is a ‘Brazil’-like dream. And just like a dream, for the longest time it’s confusing and unexplained. While the twist may be frustrating for some, due to Crowe’s direction and aesthetic, it’s absolutely riveting. I find myself emotionally connected to ‘Vanilla Sky’ more than 99% of the supposedly emotional movies out there – which is something I don’t typically get with science fiction flicks.
I bet that some of our readers assumed that I’d pick ‘Dune’ for this, didn’t you? No, I’ve defended that film enough. Likewise, when Shannon stood up for ‘Star Trek V’ (a movie I’ll agree has more merit than most viewers will admit, if not quite as much as Shannon sees), I briefly considered writing about ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’. But, again, my Blu-ray review covered that sufficiently.
Instead, I want to highlight a fun little Spanish movie called ‘Extraterrestrial‘ that I caught at the Toronto Film Festival back in 2011. From the director of the cult time travel flick ‘Timecrimes’, the movie is a very bizarre and unconventional take on the alien invasion genre. The story focuses on a man and a woman who’ve woken up from an ill-advised one night stand to discover that they slept through the evacuation of their entire city when giant flying saucers descended from the sky. Almost the entire movie takes place in an apartment, with next to no action scenes or visual effects. It turns into a really funny dark comedy as the two characters jump through bigger and bigger hoops to prevent the girl’s boyfriend from finding out that they slept together.
The film is small in scope, but very clever and frequently hilarious. Unfortunately, it barely got any distribution in the United States and was never released on Blu-ray here, though it may be available on streaming services. (Amazon Instant Streaming has it in HD.) Be warned not to confuse this with a recent American indie horror film of the same title.
What are some of your favorite underrated sci-fi movies? Tell us in the Comments.