8. 1984 (Michael Radford, 1984)
George Orwell’s 1948 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is probably the most famous dystopian novel ever. Michael Radford’s adaptation, utilising inspired de-saturated cinematography, and (according to conditions set by Orwell’s widow) special effects and production design that do not look overly futuristic, is a powerful and frightening depiction of the extremes of a totalitarian government where public and private surveillance is constant and omnipresent.
It was the final cinema performance of Richard Burton, who plays the villainous high-ranking politician O’Brien. John Hurt plays protagonist Winston Smith, and Suzanna Hamilton plays Julia, Winston’s romantic interest (I use the word “romantic” in the most tenuous context). Winston and Julia become victims of doublethink, raided by the Thought Police, interrogated in the Ministry of Love, and subjected to Room 101.
Shouldn’t the title be How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Big Brother?
Two versions of the movie were released: one with a Eurythmics’ soundtrack of songs commissioned by Virgin, and one that replaced all of the Eurythmics’ music with an orchestral score by Dominic Muldowney whom Radford had originally commissioned. Apparently the original DVD release “corrected” Roger Deakins’ purposefully de-saturated colour palette!
7. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
In a dystopian Britain, in the year 2027, an ethnic pregnant woman is discovered, and must be shepherded to safety, since almost the entire female population of earth has somehow become infertile, with no children born for nearly twenty years. Racial violence and chaos threaten the woman’s journey to sanctuary.
Adapted from the novel by P.D. James by several screenwriters, including Mexican director Cuaron, this bleak and uncompromising tale, whilst concept heavy, manages to straddle the rare task of being action-driven (featuring a couple of extraordinary single-shot sequences), but philosophically-fueled. While angst is prevalent there is an undertone of hope that reigns in the disorder. Peace and tranquility is the carrot dangling in the winds of war.
In the grim face of war and famine how much hope should we invest in the future when it all seems so futile?
Curiously, the movie changes the infertility of men, from the novel, to women, yet retains the original book’s title, perhaps because of the suggested incongruity, which could be interpreted as strangely utopian.
6. Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004)
Whilst fiddling around in the garage on electronic error-checking devices two IT entrepreneurs accidentally invent a rudimentary time machine and find themselves faced with all manner of possibilities and dangers. But rather than jumping into the far future, or even a decade or two, the two intrepid explorers simply push themselves only a few days ahead. Of course, as we know, causality only brings headaches.
Made on the smell of an arcing transformer Shane Carruth single-handedly (he wrote, directed, starred, edited, scored, designed, cast, and produced) brought time travel up to a whole new level of smart and cool. Carruth eschews dumbing down the tech-speak for the sake of the audience, and his narrative structure is equally complex (keeping in mind the whole to-and-fro-ing in time), but the challenge is part of the movie’s charm.
If we had the power to change the future from the past, wouldn’t the wisest move be to not change anything at all?
5. La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962)
At only 28-minutes long The Jetty is a short film, but it’s one of the most famous. Told through a series of black and white photographs (with the exception of one very brief moment of movement), it’s the story – told exclusively in voice-over narration – of a group of survivors in an underground Paris refuge, the aftermath of WWIII, and the man (Davos Hanich) used as a guinea pig, wired up to a makeshift device, traveling back and forth in time to try and find a solution, a last ditch effort to save humankind from themselves.
Just as in The Time Machine, love rears its beautiful head, and desire proves just as dangerous as it has always been. Experimental French filmmaker Chris Marker uses an elliptical narrative structure to portray the fragility of memory, the fragments of which not always represent the truth.
Should we obsessively chase the haunting memories of our childhood, at the risk of causing damage to our present selves?
La Jetée was re-envisioned in 1995 by Terry Gilliam as Twelve Monkeys, and, apart from looking utterly different with a significant departure in narrative, is a compelling and curious integration of Marker’s original concepts.
4. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
Taking more than a few pages from George Orwell’s Dystopia 101 class, Monty Python surrealist Gilliam delivered one of the classic cult movies from the 1980s. Brazil is a labyrinthine satire about one man’s nightmarish descent into paranoia and dehumanisation. This is one kind of bureaucratic nightmare we’ve all shared.
American playwright Tom Stoppard collaborated with Gilliam and Charles McKeown on the tale of Sam Lowry (Jonathan Price), a mild-mannered everyman in a retro-styled future caught up in a buffoonish, administrative error that could very well cost him his life, or at the least, his sanity.
What adverse effects will the extreme automation, elaborate consumer-driven lifestyles, and Government duplicity of the future have on our own increasingly fragile human minds?
There are two radically different versions available: Gilliam’s original 142-min cut and Universal’s “Love Conquers All” 94-min edited version (disowned by Gilliam, but included on the Criterion Collection release).
3. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
In the very near future Deckard (Harrison Ford), a jaded detective, is coerced into taking on one last job; to find and “retire” several rogue Off-World replicants (flesh and blood androids) who have returned to Earth to find their maker. One of these artificial humans proves to be Deckard’s nemesis. In the process of hunting down Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) an increasingly battered Deckard begins to question his own identity and mortality.
Based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick – one of the most insightful science fiction authors of the 20th Century – Blade Runner is a movie soaked in atmosphere, rich in detail, and satisfyingly elusive in its final, crucial suggestion: is Deckard a replicant himself, an advanced prototype like the Nexus-6 model Rachael (Sean Young) he falls in love with?
As the emotionally complex creatures we are, do we have the right to deny those with limited capacity?
Of the numerous versions that have been released over the years the Final Cut (2007) is widely accepted as the definitive version, re-instating the graphic violence from the International Cut (1982), keeping Scott’s open ending from the Director’s Cut (1991), leaving off the original theatrical voice-over narration and “upbeat” epilogue, and enhancing the sound and image, including numerous visual corrections.
2. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)
A psychologist, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), joins a tiny crew of scientists orbiting a remote oceanic planet called Solyaris. It has been decades and very little has been learned. Kelvin discovers the remaining crew acting strangely. Kelvin’s wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who committed suicide several years earlier, makes an appearance. Hari she has no knowledge of how she got there. Understandably, Kelvin is disturbed.
A famous Russian director adapts a famous Polish novel about a sentient planet and the plight of the humans directly affected by it. A profoundly meditative drama – like much of Tarkovsky’s work – with most of the drama happening within the interiors of the space station (a metaphor for the human mind, perhaps, with Solyaris symbolising an outer-conscious state). It is ultimately about the inevitable difficulty of communication between two vastly different species and the fragility of the human condition.
If love is blind, how relative is intelligence?
Solaris was remade by Steven Soderbergh in 2002, and is remarkably faithful to the original in terms of mood, tone, and structure, an American tribute, if you will.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Probably the most famous sf movie ever made, with the exception of Star Wars. It’s a deeply ponderous take on existence – both terrestrial and extraterrestrial – that has frequently been cited by audiences and critics as the greatest science fiction movie ever made. Kubrick’s epic adaption of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story The Sentinel is certainly a technical marvel featuring the most astonishing special effects of its time.
At the dawn of humankind apes encounter a large black slab of existential weirdness. Confrontation and violence ensues. Astronauts discover another mysterious, artificial monolith beneath the surface of the moon and a quest is undertaken to discover its origin and true meaning. After venturing to Jupiter and “Beyond the Infinite” humanity abandons the artificial intelligence that has been guiding the trip and experiences a kind of re-birth.
As technologically-advanced and astrologically-savvy as we like to think we are, could it be that we are simply cosmic raisins in a giant intergalactic fruit salad?
A sequel, 2010, directed by Peter Hyams, based on Clarke’s sequel novel, was released in 1984, but ultimately became cosmic dust in the shadow of Kubrick’s stellar, uncompromising vision.
Author Bio: Bryn Tilly is a seasoned film critic and cinephile based in Sydney, Australia. With a geek love of genre movies, especially horror, science fiction, and all things with a noir edge, he is the editor of http://cultprojections.com. Please feel free to subscribe, or simply Like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/CultProjections).