8. Brazil (1985)
Directed by Monty Python alumni, Terry Gilliam, Brazil is one of the most original science fiction films of the 1980’s.
When a daydreaming, low-level government employee in a dystopian future meets the woman of his dreams after her neighbor is mistakenly killed by a government task force due to a clerical error, he finds himself an unlikely participant in a social revolution all while attempting to convince the woman he loves that they are meant to be together.
Gilliam nabbed an Oscar nomination for his writing of Brazil along with production designers Norman Garwood and Maggie Gray for their art direction and set decoration. The entire production – from the cast performances, to Gilliam’s direction, to its editing, cinematography, and music – is flawless.
While Brazil’s cinematography and art design was heavily influenced by the German Expressionist movement, Brazil itself went on to inspire other films including Tim Burton’s Batman, Darren Aranofsky’s Pi, and Alex Poray’s Dark City.
The issues Gilliam had with the studio heads behind Brazil are extensive and well documented (read The Battle of Brazil by Jack Matthews). The problems were largely due to its original cut’s two-and-a-half hour run time as well as its depressingly bleak ending. As a result its one of those films like Blade Runner with about a million different versions a viewer can see at any given time. Lucky for us, Criterion has released the 142 minute cut from director Terry Gilliam.
9. Repo Man (1984)
Released in 1984, Repo Man was debut feature length film of writer/director Alex Cox. Starring a relatively unknown Emilio Estevez as an angry punk rocker turned repo man and Harry Dean Stanton (who is good in every movie he has ever made, ever) as his repo mentor, Repo Man is a hilarious sci-fi/sorta-action film set in underground 1980’s Los Angeles.
After a young punk rocker named Otto is dumped by his girlfriend, fired from his dead end job, and learns that his parents gave away all his graduation money to a television evangelist, he reluctantly takes a job with a team of cocaine sniffing, beer drinking repossession agents. But things get strange when Otto is assigned repo detail for a Chevy Malibu whose trunk allegedly contains of the remains of radioactive aliens.
While Repo Man fell completely under the radar of almost everyone upon its initial release, Cox would see recognition a few years later for the equally bizarre acid-western, Walker, starring Ed Harris, and the unrelentingly depressing love story, Sid and Nancy, starring Gary Oldman.
The saving grace for Repo Man’s legacy was film’s killer punk rock soundtrack, which initially found more success than the film itself. Once released on VHS, Repo Man quickly became a staple of cult cinema and is now revered as one of the greatest films of the 1980’s. Years later, Cox, for some ungodly reason, decided it would be wise to make a sequel of sorts and released the cringe-worthy Repo Chick. You can skip it and pretend it never happened.
10. Alphaville (1965)
In 1965, French New Wave pioneer, Jean-Luc Godard, released a one of a kind film combining the genres of dystopian science fiction with film noir. That film was Alphaville. Alphaville is a futuristic world run by an evil computer, Alpha 60, who has outlawed all free thought and emotion for its human residents, punishable by death. Enter secret agent, Lemmy Caution, an anti-hero who makes it his mission to bring down Alpha 60 and its creator with the help of its creator’s daughter, Natacha.
What’s most interesting about Alphaville was it’s development and production. The story’s hero, Lemmy Caution, was a pulp fiction character created by British writer Peter Cheyney for a series of novels written in the 1930’s and 40’s.
Alphaville itself was not based on any of these novels, but rather an original story created by Godard simply incorporating the character into a futuristic world. True to French New Wave form, Alphaville was shot on a limited budget on location in Paris, with no special sets created despite its futuristic aesthetic.
It surprising how little the influence Alphaville has had on contemporary science fiction film is discussed. The combination of science fiction in a film noir setting had been dabbled with in prior films like Kiss Me Deadly, but not as outright as in Alphaville. Without Alphaville we wouldn’t have a Blade Runner, Minority Report, or Dark City, and while the two former are both based on stories written by Philip K. Dick, their cinematic adaptations owe a nod to Godard’s artistry.
11. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Based on the 1963 novel of the same name, Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth is a visually stunning, methodical and existential science fiction drama featuring rock star, David Bowie as the titular “Man” in his first leading role.
The Man Who Fell to Earth spans decades in the life of an alien being who travels to Earth on a mission to retrieve water for his dying planet. He takes the name of Thomas Newton, disguises himself as a human being and uses his superior intelligence to build a technological empire and amasses a fortune by patenting inventions that literally change the world. Overtime, the human condition Newton faces on Earth becomes inescapable as he succumbs to the vices of mankind.
While the plot of The Man Who Fell to Earth roots itself in science fiction, thematically the film is about addiction, most specifically alcoholism, and the flawed nature of man. Newton’s initial reason for coming to Earth slowly takes a back seat as he is exposed to sex, alcohol, television, bureaucracy and betrayal.
Despite being alien, he cannot avoid becoming human, our flaws and all. Bowie’s performance is layered, complex, and surprisingly brilliant considering the fact that he was reportedly out of his mind on cocaine for entire production.
12. Godzilla (1954)
At 164 feet, Godzilla stands pretty tall, but his cultural impact is larger than life. Before spawning an astounding 30 sequels, 3 reboots, two Saturday morning cartoon series, countless spoofs, comic book series, video games, and long before he allied with the Japanese government to deal with their ongoing monster problem, Godzilla was simply a badass Jurassic creature hell bent on destroying absolutely everything he could.
In 1954, Japan was still recovering in many ways from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki just nine years prior. And like any civilization in healing, its pain, frustration, and concerns are depicted through art. Godzilla is a direct reflection of the terror of the atom bomb.
When a series of inexplicable disasters strike Odo Island and giant radioactive footprints are found on its beach, Japan finds itself under attack by Godzilla, a prehistoric monster brought back to life by ongoing nuclear testing. But how does one stop a 164 foot creature with radioactive breath?
The Godzilla of 1954 is far different than the cute and cuddly green guy many of us remember watching while growing up. He’s not protecting Tokyo from some evil robot version of himself. 1954 Godzilla is dark, ominous, and dangerous. It was a time when the lasting effects of atomic bombs were a reality for Japan and part of daily life for its residents.
Director Ishiro Honda’s efforts were not to make a global franchise, but rather express the grim reality of nuclear holocaust through a camera lens. From a historical context alone, viewing this film is a necessity.
13. Solaris (1972)
Solaris very well may be the best, and most challenging science fiction film to be released on the Criterion Collection to date. A slow, meditative, and existential sci-fi arthouse film, Solaris is loosely based on the novel of the same name by Polish author, Stainslaw Lem, and co-written for the screen and directed by legendary Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky.
When the scientists of a space station on an oceanic planet named Solaris make reports of hallucinogenic experiences and their scientific progress is jeopardized, a psychologist on Earth, Kris Kelvin, mourning the suicide of his wife, is chosen to travel to the planet to assess the mental health of its space station residents.
Finding the station in neglect, Kelvin begins to experience strange occurrences and discovers more about the planet than he bargained for when his wife inexplicably returns from the dead having no memory of her suicide.
In all honesty, Solaris is as slow as molasses and clocks in just under three hours of running time. It takes a commitment to complete, but pays off with unlimited discussion and thematic theory. At its core, Solaris is a film about grief, love and desire to be loved. What it exactly says about it is up to the viewer. Seven years later, Tarkovsky would expand on these themes in his film, Stalker.
14. World on a Wire (1973)
Originally released in 1973 on German television as a two-part miniseries, World on a Wire is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s three-and-a-half hour adaptation of American science fiction author Daniel F. Galouye’s novel, Simulacron-3.
In the near future, a simulator has been developed that hosts a world of artificial lives living day to day as if they were humans without the knowledge of their true existence.
While on the verge of a secret discovery, the director of this simulator dies under mysterious circumstances and his security adviser, with whom he shared the secret, inexplicably vanishes. The director’s successor, Dr. Fred Stiller, takes over and finds that not everything about the simulated world, and his very own world, is what he has been lead to believe.
The films of Fassbinder, including World on a Wire, were part of the New German Cinema movement that spanned from the mid 1960’s to the early 1980’s. Like French New Wave, these films were made on limited budgets with very little production time.
Fassbinder himself was a maniac, quite literally, pumping out multiple films a year fueled by a cocktail of alcohol, cocaine, barbiturates and the inability to keep his personal and professional life independent of each other.
Despite the erratic and sadistic behavior he inevitably inflicted on his cast and crew during its production, World on a Wire is a well paced, well organized, and effective film. It was shot on grainy 16mm film with a color palette copied by countless filmmakers decades later, and utilized sound design as a method to subconsciously unnerve its viewers.
If the plot of World on a Wire seems vaguely familiar you’re probably remembering a film from the late 1990’s titled, The Thirteenth Floor, which is a very loose adaptation of Galouye’s novel, and exceptionally boring. Skip it. World on a Wire is the only adaptation you should see. Streaming the film on Criterion’s Hulu channel presents the film in two parts, as originally aired, and helps ease the extensive run time for those who are intimidated by it.
15. The Face of Another (1966)
Made in the same year as John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (reviewed above), The Face of Another can act as a companion piece to the former. It too is a film about a paranoid identity crisis, only this time from a Japanese perspective.
When a successful engineer’s face is horribly disfigured in a chemical accident, he copes by wearing bandages over his face while taking out his frustration and insecurities on his accommodating wife.
After seeing a psychiatrist, he and his doctor decide to create a lifelike mask from the face of another man for the engineer to wear as a therapeutic exercise to ease the social disassociation he feels. But after time, his true identity and his alter persona begin to blur as his moral compass goes astray, culminating with an attempt to seduce his wife as another man.
Director Hiroshi Teshigahara is no stranger to the dark side of the human condition. The Face of Another is thematically similar to his earlier films, Woman in the Dunes and Pitfall, and appear together as a film collection from Criterion. The three films are often considered an unofficial trilogy linked together by the subject matter of identity, duality, and social dissociation.
While all are dramatic pieces, The Face of Another is the only one with a science fiction influence. Teshigahara continues to be a major influence on contemporary filmmakers, but the distinction of his craft is rarely replicated. Fans of David Lynch, David Cronenberg, and Lars von Trier would find his films, especially The Face of Another, quite intriguing.
Author Bio: Mark Anzelc holds a BA in Film/Video from Columbia College Chicago and an MBA from Concordia University Chicago. He is an award winning screenwriter who has worked on numerous television shows, including How I Met Your Mother. He currently resides in Chicago.