Ten Sci-Fi Flicks for the Thinking Man

...or woman.

by | January 7, 2009 | Comments

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last four years, you know that the cheesy old sci-fi TV series known as Battlestar Galactica got picked up, dusted off, and given the all-time, grand champion, mother of all reboots. Solidly led by a couple of veteran movie actors (Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell), BSG has garnered a reputation as one of the best shows on TV. But don’t just call it a sci-fi show; its so much more than that. It’s about love and loss. It’s about what it means to be a soldier, and what it’s like to be a refugee. It’s about religion and fanaticism. It’s about government and corruption. But mostly it’s about our own humanity, and what it really means to be human. Since some of us here are at RT are huge BSG fans (and we’re betting some of you are too), in honor of the beginning of the end (starting next week), we thought we’d share a list of “thinking man’s” sci-fi films; sci-fi stories that aren’t about laser battles or rampaging mutants, but more thoughtful pieces on what it really means to be human.

By the way, if you’re wondering who we think is the final Cylon, as you can imagine, we’re still arguing about that; when pressed, most of us that watch the show suspect President Laura Roslin (even if she doesn’t know it). But Editor in Chief Matt Atchity is going with an extreme longshot and betting that the final Cylon will be revealed as Zack Adama.

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Planet of the Apes

We like to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution — or the divinely appointed head of the food chain, whichever you prefer — but what if our inability to transcend our biggest flaws (like, say, our thirst for war) resulted in humans losing their top-dog status? These were the questions asked by Pierre Boulle’s novel, La planète des singes, adapted for the big screen by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling for this 1968 classic. Planet of the Apes took some liberties with Boulle’s book, but that’s par for the course with adaptations — and the changes worked, most notably Serling’s addition of the film’s classic twist ending, which Boulle said he wished he’d come up with himself. Blending thought-provoking commentary and popcorn action at a level few science fiction films had achieved, Planet struck such a chord that it spun off multiple sequels, a television show, and Tim Burton’s 2001 remake (not to mention the reboot that’s reportedly in the works). As Variety noted on the film’s release, “Planet of the Apes is an amazing film.”

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Dark City

Philosophers and scientists have been trying to locate the seat of the human soul for as long as there have been philosophers and scientists, and we’re arguably no closer now than we were when we started — so it would be unreasonable to expect a 100-minute science fiction film to solve the riddle, or even shed any new light on the subject. Dark City probably doesn’t do either of those things, but it does provide plenty of nifty special effects, and blends sci-fi and noir more enthusiastically than any major entry in the genre since Blade Runner. For some critics, this wasn’t enough to forgive City‘s occasionally incomprehensible plot (eFilmcritic’s Rob Gonsalves called it “one of the most ludicrous movies in years”), but most scribes responded to director/co-writer Alex Proyas’ stylish visuals, and some fell completely in love with it; the Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter, for one, declared that “if you don’t fall in love with it, you’ve probably never fallen in love with a movie, and never will.”.

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Science fiction is often accused of taking itself too seriously, but leave it to Woody Allen to provide the exception to the rule with 1973’s Sleeper, a hilarious twist on H.G. Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes. As health food store owner Miles Monroe, Allen goes to the hospital to have his ulcer looked at, is accidentally cryogenically frozen for 200 years, and wakes up as the unwitting leader of a pack of revolutionaries who need him to assassinate a nose. (Don’t ask, just laugh.) Although Sleeper certainly isn’t the only sci-fi film to tackle the ethical questions of cloning — heck, it isn’t even the only one on this list — it’s definitely the funniest; as Christopher Null of Filmcritic wrote, “pound for pound and minute for minute, Sleeper may just have more laughs in it than any other Woody Allen movie.”

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Though quite a few sci-fi movies offer commentary on political debates, very few of them do so as explicitly as Gattaca, which offers a potential end point to the advances in genetic engineering — and the public’s concern regarding said advances — that dominated headlines for a time in the ’90s. Helping to erase memories of his years spent playing angsty twentysomethings who were prone to saying things like “there’s a planet of regret on my shoulders,” Ethan Hawke plays Vincent, a man born through natural means (an “in-valid”) rather than with the aid of genetic pre-selection. The flaws in Vincent’s DNA keep him from his dream of becoming an astronaut, but he manages to secure the aid of a “valid” named Jerome (Jude Law) who’s willing to loan him his genetic profile. Some critics yawned and poked at the holes in the plot, but most were charmed by Gattaca‘s thoughtfulness and complexity, both of which were in rather short supply during the Men in Black era. As Jeffrey Overstreet of Looking Closer wrote, “there’s a window on a possible future, a warning about the wages of sin, and enough beauty to make this a lasting classic of modern science fiction.”.

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Like any genre, science fiction has its share of clichés — and anything relating to time travel probably belongs on that list. But few films have ever dealt with time travel — or the many personal and ethical questions that could arise from ownership of the technology — with the level of intelligence that Shane Carruth’s ultra low-budget Primer brought to the table. The story of two garage scientists who accidentally build a time machine, Primer eschews whiz-bang special effects for a nuts-and-bolts look at the science behind the device, and a cold, hard look at how quickly and easily a friendship can be torn asunder by unchecked power and bottomless greed. It certainly isn’t for everyone — the reams of technical dialogue prompted critics such as the BBC’s Matthew Leyland to dismiss it as “one of the most willfully obscure sci-fi movies ever made” — but if you can absorb the material, it’s uncommonly gripping. Time Out’s Jessica Winter was appreciative, saying “this film imagines its viewers to be smart, possessed of a decent attention span and game for a challenge. It doesn’t happen all that often.”

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Children of Men

Unlike a number of the movies on this list, Children of Men works even if you don’t like sci-fi — and don’t particularly care for thought-provoking movies, either. Yes, it grapples with some heavy issues — most notably, the idea that human hope is tied inorexably to our ability to reproduce — but it also moves with Bourne-like speed and intensity, bounding from one white-knuckle setpiece to another (and packing some truly incredible cinematography as it goes, courtesy of Emmanuel Luzbecki). Director Alfonso Cuarón wasn’t shy about loading his adaptation of the P.D. James novel with visual statements on man’s cruelty to man and the folly of governing through fear, but he doesn’t linger on them; instead, he trusts his audience to absorb the story’s subtext, and rewards them with one of the most rip-roaring dystopian sci-fi films you’re ever likely to see. It deserved the heaps of praise it received from critics like the St. George Spectrum’s Bruce Bennett, who called it “an apocalyptic thrill ride that is as gritty as it is gripping, with a dark terror outgunned only by its daring humanity.”.

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Most early sci-fi took the urge for space exploration — and the generally humanoid appearance of extraterrestrials — for granted, but with his 1961 novel Solaris author Stansislaw Lem brought another perspective to the genre, opting instead to use outer space as a backdrop for an examination of the human psyche. Solaris also turned the tables on its explorers, gradually revealing that although they believed they were examining the titular watery planet, it was in fact learning all about them — including a terrible array of dark secrets they thought were buried. In bringing Lem’s novel to the big screen, director Andrei Tarkovsky took some liberties (which annoyed Lem, natch), but critics didn’t mind, praising Solaris‘ quiet, beautifully complex medidation on love and communication. Although Tarkovsky later lamented the film’s inability to transcend the sci-fi genre, his movie still resonated with critics like Roger Ebert, who mused “there was so much to think about afterward, and so much that remained in my memory.”

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Is it a sci-fi spin on Moses’ trip up Mount Sinai? A piece of Cold War commentary? A manifestation of writer/director Steven Spielberg’s love for his parents? The motivations behind Close Encounters of the Third Kind have been debated countless times since it landed on screens in 1977, but no matter which angle you view it from, what can’t be argued is the gentle-yet-overwhelming optimism of its message. Shifting the spotlight away from intergalactic battles, Spielberg instead focused on the need for simple communication — and the belief that despite our many problems, human beings are indeed capable of building friendships with beings from other planets. Even the New York Times’ Vincent Canby couldn’t help but crack a smile, pronouncing Close Encounters “a work that borrows its narrative shape and its concerns from those earlier films, but enhances them with what looks like the latest developments in movie and space technology.”

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Blade Runner

Decades before Dolly the sheep grabbed headlines, Philip K. Dick pontificated on the thorny ethical implications — and possible effects — of cloning and genetic tinkering in his 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It took nearly 15 years to reach the screen (and wasn’t all that enthusiastically received by critics once it finally arrived), but Androids eventually inspired Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a sci-fi/noir blend that pits humans against bio-engineered workers called replicants in a grimy future version of L.A. Though it tanked at the box office and was initially shrugged off by many critics (the Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson famously called it “Blade Crawler”), Blade Runner‘s stock rose steadily over the years, eventually attaining classic status. It’s been reissued more times than Elvis Costello’s back catalog — including 2007’s mammoth five-disc “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” — but this is one film that arguably deserves multiple versions. In the words of the Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, Blade Runner is “the most remarkably and densely imagined and visualized SF film since 2001: A Space Odyssey, a hauntingly erotic meditation on the difference between the human and the nonhuman.”

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2001: A Space Odyssey

In making 2001: A Space Odyssey with Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick set out to make what he called “the proverbial good science fiction movie,” and although critics were divided at the time as to whether or not he achieved his goal, 2001 has aged exceptionally well — in fact, it’s hard to imagine any list of smart sci-fi movies without it. As for what it all means, well…part of 2001‘s enduring appeal is how open to interpretation it all is, something surely recognized by Kubrick, who rebuffed all attempts to get him to explain the film’s heavy symbolism. And even if you find yourself shaking your head at some of the more difficult-to-understand moments, it’s hard to argue with the attention to technical detail, the stunning visuals, or the way Clarke and Kubrick presaged decades of computer-related anxiety. It also helped bring sci-fi out of the margins; in the words of the BBC’s Almar Haflidason, “its triumph lies in its scope of cinematic splendour and the attempt to marry some of man’s most beautiful music to the infinite mystery of space.”