Discovery and imagination is as inherent in human beings as breathing, and our anticipation to experience what lies ahead has been a part of our creative endeavors as long as people have been documenting work, with elements of science fiction dating as far back as ancient Mesopotamia, ancient India, and ancient Greece.
In 1818, Mary Shelley changed the literary world with Frankenstein, a novel about a mad scientist creating a human being from the body parts of the dead. In 1826, Shelley would follow Frankenstein with a more overtly sci-fi, but lesser known novel, The Last Man, about an apocalyptic world in the aftermath of a deadly plague.
Years later Jules Verne would take us 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and bring us on a Journey to the Center of the Earth. H. G. Wells would introduce us to The Invisible Man as well as Dr. Moreau.
With the prominence of the motion picture camera in the early 1900’s, the world would get to see short and silent adaptations of their favorite science fiction stories, as well as original ideas from filmmakers with a desire to explore beyond the realm of reality.
In 1902, George Melies took us on A Trip to the Moon, and in 1925 the world saw dinosaurs walk for the first time in Harry Hoyt’s The Lost World. In 1924, Yakov Protazanov would take us to Mars in Aelita, and in 1927 Fritz Lang would show us a dystopian future in Metropolis.
Although the mainstream public’s enthusiasm for science fiction in film has varied from decade to decade, the genre has remained a constant force. With the Criterion Collection’s passion for all things cinema, and with a no-genre-left-behind mentality, they have shown us some of the greatest science fiction films in the history of movies. Below is a list of 15 essential Criterion Collection movies worth your time.
1. The Blob (1958)
Independently produced in 1958 by a filmmaker whose prior credits consisted mainly of educational and religious films, The Blob was a science-fiction hit grossing around $4 million on a mere $110,000 budget – a staggering profit even by today’s standards.
The films follows a young Steve McQueen as he and his main squeeze attempt to save their town from utter annihilation after a country bumpkin, who should really know better, pokes a meteorite with a stick, releasing a jelly-like killer amoeba that must feed on the bodies of man!
The Blob is culturally significant due to the fact that it was made completely outside of the Hollywood system long before giant corporations with no ties to art and filmmaking were sponsoring entire festivals dedicated to independent films (i.e JPMorgan Chase and Hewlett Packard at Sundance this past year).
Not only that, but it paved the way for a sequel released in 1972, a surprisingly credible remake starring Kevin Dillon in 1988, and inspired a slew of other films such as The Stuff (1985), Street Trash (1987), and Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), as well as a rumored second remake to be released sometime in the near future.
The Blob doesn’t operate with the same sense of urgency that most contemporary sci-fi/horror films do, and there’s no reason it should. It was a product of a different time, when people were in a lot less of a hurry, and a glob of killer strawberry jam was understandably scary.
It’s okay to laugh with this film, because the spirit of which it was made probably lead to plenty of laughs behind the camera. There’s no way these guys were taking themselves too seriously when they open their movie with a tongue-in-cheek credit sequence to the tune of a Burt Bacharach pop song about a killer blob of goo.
2. Videodrome (1983)
In 1983, coming off the success of the thematically similar Scanners and The Brood, director David Cronenberg released Videodrome, the magnum opus of his science-fiction-body-horror films. An exceptionally bleak, grotesque, and ultra-weird commentary on the power of sex and violence in the media, Andy Warhol once described Videodrome as “the Clockwork Orange of the 1980’s.”
The film stars James Woods as Max Renn, the sleaze ball president of a lowbrow television station in Toronto, specializing in exploitative and sensationalistic content.
After developing a relationship with a sexy psychiatrist radio host with sadomasochistic tendencies (portrayed by Debbie Harry of Blondie in a truly enigmatic performance), and discovering a snuff television program depicting scenes of torture and murder entitled Videodrome, Renn finds himself in the middle of a socio-political revolution as the line between reality and fantasy begin to blur. What follows is a series of mutations, hallucinations, government conspiracies, and a human torso that functions as a Betamax player. No kidding.
With stellar cinematography by Mark Irwin, makeup effects by seven-time Academy Award winning makeup artist Rick Baker, and a superbly crafted script by Cronenberg himself, Videodrome is a disgustingly surreal sci-fi trip into the dark corners of mankind’s psyche. Long live the new flesh!
3. La Jetee (1962)
Constructed almost entirely out of still photographs, and clocking in just under 30 minutes, La Jetee is easily the most experimental science fiction film on this list. Made in 1962 by French multimedia artist, Chris Marker, La Jetee has, over time, become one of the most well respected and influential sci-fi films in cinematic history, despite its short running time.
Dialogue free, an omniscient narrator tells the story of a prisoner living underground in a post-apocalyptic society in the aftermath of a nuclear war, who is chosen to participate in an experiment in time travel in the hope of rescuing the present. The prisoner is specifically chosen because of an obsessive memory he has of a beautiful woman he saw as a child and the death of a man immediately after.
If this premise rings a bell for you, it should. La Jetee was used as the basis for the critically acclaimed and commercially successful 12 Monkey’s, directed by Monty Python alum, Terry Gilliam, and starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt (for which he received his first Oscar nomination), as well as the recently released spin-off television program.
Currently, La Jetee can be viewed as a standalone piece on Hulu’s Criterion collection as well as a companion piece to Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray release of Marker’s, Sans Soleil.
4. Island of Lost Souls (1932)
The Island of Lost Souls is Paramount Picture’s first-rate 1932 adaptation of one of H.G. Wells’ most famous novels, The Island of Dr. Moreau. While there have been several adaptations and inspirations of Wells’ novel, The Island of Lost Souls was the first and easily the best to date.
When a shipwrecked Edward Parker inadvertently finds himself on an island owned by the elusive Dr. Moreau, he quickly learns that the location serves as grounds for Moreau’s scientific experiments in turning wild animals into human beings through vivisection.
With the island populated by Moreau’s experimentations at varying levels, all under the control of his laws, he makes Parker an unwilling prisoner of his island in the hope that his most perfect creation, Lota, a near complete woman derived from a panther, will take the next step in her human evolution by falling in love with Parker. With his life and the love of his fiancée at stake, Parker must find a way to escape the island.
While at it’s core, The Island of Lost Souls is a science fiction film, but it also incorporates a heavy influence of horror, and on its initial release was met with a large amount of controversy in the United Kingdom, who has a history of censorship in horror cinema (see 20 Great Video Nasty Movies Worth Your Time). Because of the scenes of anesthetic-free vivisection, the film didn’t pass censorship until 1958, and even then it was given an X rating. The Island of Lost Souls really pushed the limits of taste in 1932.
In 1996, John Frankenheimer made another adaptation of the story, taking its title from the book. It’s watchable in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way, and it’s a trip to see Marlon Brando’s lethargic and uninspired performance. Rumor has it his lines were fed to him through an earpiece because by that time he had given up on pretty much everything.
5. Robocop (1987)
While the Criterion release of RoboCop has been discontinued for some time now, there are plenty of used copies out there you can obtain for cheap, and the hunt is well worth the kill. Criterion’s release far surpasses any other release of the film with the rarely seen X rated cut and enough special features to make even the lightest of fanboys weep.
Released in 1987, RoboCop marked Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven’s second American produced film. An ultra-violent satire on American capitalism, RoboCop was cut, recut, and submitted to the MPAA a staggering 11 times before the X rating was lifted for a more marketable R. But underneath scenes of rapists getting their penises shot off, henchmen being melted with toxic sludge, and cops losing limbs to shotgun blasts lies an existentialist film about the human condition.
Verhoeven, who is known for his religious imagery, paints to story of Robocop as a Christ figure: a cop who is brutally murdered by a drug lord in a futuristic crime-ridden Detroit, and resurrected by a privatized police force as the prototype for a line of crime-fighting cyborgs. But when memories from his previous life begin to interfere with his programmed consciousness, RoboCop finds himself fighting for his life and his humanity.
The critical and commercial success of RoboCop eventually spawned a franchise including two forgettable sequels, an insulting remake, four avoidable television series, and a plethora of toy and comic tie-ins. Verhoeven disassociated himself with the production of all RoboCop entities (understandably so) after making the first film and instead focused his efforts on new projects. He would follow RoboCop with the thematically similar Total Recall and Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct, and the crowning achievement of bad taste that is Showgirls.
6. Fiend without a Face (1958)
Science must have been really scary to common moviegoers in the 1950’s as the majority of science fiction films of the era seem to paint a cautionary tale of scientific experimentation – that the unknown is something to be feared and best left unknown. But then again, maybe that’s simply what makes captivating sci-fi.
Fiend Without a Face, like The Blob, was an independently made sci-fi/horror film from 1958, but with a fraction of the budget and fraction of the success of The Blob. It was a British production about the United States military set in Canada, which pretty much caters to all countries with English as a primary language – a rather advantageous strategy on the part of its producers.
Based on a short science fiction pulp story by Amelia Reynolds Long entitled, The Thought Monster, Fiend Without a Face tells the story of a series of bizarre murders occurring at a United State Air Force base in Canada, in which the victims are killed when their brains and spinal cords are sucked out of their bodies by invisible creatures brought into existence by a combination of radiation and a scientist experimenting in thought projection. Lets catch our breath.
With a miniscule budget equal to the cost of a luxury car by today’s standards, the filmmakers of Fiend Without a Face had to get creative when it came to scares. While invisible monsters sound like the least scary thing possible for a film, Fiend Without a Face is surprisingly effective primarily due to it’s use of sound design.
Just because the audience can’t see the creatures doesn’t mean that they can’t hear them, and in the tradition of horror icon Val Lewton, Fiend Without a Face cashes in on the power of imagination, that nothing on screen can be scarier than what the audience can imagine.
If you’re interested in this film but worried about a lack of payoff, fear not, the ending may be the goriest, most shocking finale at the time of its release. We’re talking something close to the ending of The Evil Dead (1980). For a film with an hour of invisible monsters, the ending gives you more than you bargained for.
7. Seconds (1966)
In 1966, reveling in the success of the three most influential films of his career (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, and Seven Days in May) , director John Frankenheimer released one of the most maverick and bizarre films to hit the silver screen: Seconds.
With the help of the black-and-white, deep focus photography of two-time Academy Award winning and 10 time nominated cinematographer, James Wong Howe, as well as a stellar and layered performance by Rock Hudson, Seconds is a film about a man in the midst of paranoid identity crisis that is as genuinely effective today as it was in 1966.
When Arthur Hamilton, a middle-aged banker, finds his role in the world unfulfilling and his daily life a dreary bore, an old friend, who Arthur believes has long since died, calls to inform him of The Company: a secret organization who can give wealthy men and women new lives after faking the deaths of their old ones.
Arthur visits The Company and agrees to the procedure, but when his new life as a youthful artist fails to provide the happiness he believed he would achieve, Arthur finds that his relationship to The Company is more complex than he initially thought, and the price he has paid is more than monetary.
Despite it’s initial theatrical run being a box office bomb, Seconds has developed a cult following over the decades, largely in part to its fully restored Criterion release in 2013, which includes a sequence deleted from its American theatrical run that depicts an orgy of sorts at a wine festival with plenty of full frontal nudity – a rather bold move on Frankenheimer’s part considering the time it was made.
In addition to an orgy scene, Seconds also features actual footage from a rhinoplasty, and has been reported that Brian Wilson from The Beach Boys watched this film during the midst of his own paranoid breakdown and was so affected by what he saw he didn’t enter a movie theater for 16 years.