Science-fiction is a broad genre. It gives filmmakers the room to think and work with unique concepts and ideas, because the idea of the future opens up almost all possibilities. It also creates opportunities to explore the human condition, and leaves room for questions about such profound topics as the meaning of life, consciousness, what it means to be human living in this specific place and time, or how one could open a portal to another dimension to fulfil sadomasochistic pleasures (see ‘From Beyond’).
Because of the above sci-fi mixes well with almost every other genre, and it has offered some of the most unique experiences in cinema. The goal with this list was to get a spread of films differing in scope, story and objective; do the filmmakers want to entertain you? Scare you? Make you think? Or all of the above? Furthermore it was important to find films that offered something different because sci-fi is uniquely well suited for pushing the boundaries.
Many sci-fi films have gone on to become huge classics, loved by critics and audiences alike (Metropolis, 2001, Blade Runner, Total Recall, Interstellar), and some have lingered behind these monumental achievements. It does, however, not make these films less interesting, enjoyable and profound. Here are the greatest science-fiction films you’ve probably never seen.
10. Dark Star
John Carpenter’s directorial debut is an idiosyncratic sci-fi comedy filled with ideas and energy. The crew of a small spaceship is send on a nonsensical mission to destroy ‘unstable planets’, and are now 20 years in space isolated with only each other.
That the effects of ‘Dark Star’ are all cheaply put together should not detract from the viewing pleasure, because there is a lot going on in this 83 minute film. From aliens to philosophical bombs to cryogenically frozen captains. There are moments where Carpenter’s future career as a master of horror shines through (tension building with the lift scenes, the captains scattered thoughts). Writer Dan O’Bannon would later go on to write ‘Alien’ and be involved in some of its sequels, and indeed here are certain scenes that seem to have inspired that classic series and even ‘Star Wars’.
Directorial debut of Brandon Cronenberg (son of). ‘Antiviral’ is a hard to classify film, taking elements from sci-fi, body-horror and noir. Set in the near future it tells the story of Syd March who sells celebrity diseases, as in literally the exact strain of a disease that struck a celebrity, and partakes in his own supply. The film paints a picture of a world where celebrity worship has gotten so out of hand that besides diseases people buy artificially grown celebrity flesh to eat.
The film is in no small part successful because of Caleb Landry Jones smouldering physical performance as Syd. His neo-noir quest takes the viewer through this demented world where celebrity worship has changed into cannibalism. Along the way the journey becomes increasingly strange, and his mental state keeps deteriorating. A debut that gives hope for an interesting film career to come!
8. Altered States
The story of ‘Altered States’ is based on experiments done by John C. Lily where humans were put in sensory deprivation tanks. Psychopathologist Edward (played by William Hurt) believes that non-waking states of consciousness are equally as real as our waking state. He experiments on himself in a sensory deprivation tank, and after a ritual with a Mexican tribe the experiments have increasingly strange outcomes.
‘Altered States’ is directed by Ken Russell based on a book by Paddy Chayefsky and the two did not get along during production. Maybe that’s what inspired some of the scenes of scientists arguing over each other, which add to the increasingly hectic nature of the film. Even if Chayefsky felt his vision was not sufficiently realised, ‘Altered States’ is still an interesting film with many things to say about consciousness and where we come from as humans (evolutionarily speaking).
7. From Beyond
Outrageous, disgusting and strangely humorous sci-fi horror by the hands of Stuart Gordon. This is a horror film, based on a story by Lovecraft, for the people that like such over the top films as ‘Evil Dead 2’ or ‘Slither’. The story follows a scientist and his assistant trying to stimulate the pineal gland (underdeveloped part of the human brain) and more or less creating a portal to a dimension of the world humans normally can’t see. The stimulation of the pineal gland does not only seem to make the affected extremely horny, but is also a way for the filmmakers to show increasingly bizarre and grotesque scenes.
‘From Beyond’ is a shameless b-film, revelling in how gross it is and how far it goes. In contrast to most b-movies it is, however, deliberately crafted. ‘From Beyond’ is not as tightly written as Gordon’s previous film ‘Re-Animator’, but makes up for it with shear weirdness, and the story has a few twists to keep you surprised. Maybe not for your standard sci-fi lovers, but for those that like the gross and weird look no further.
6. The City of Lost Children
The second film of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro is a unique mix between fantasy and sci-fi and is perhaps best seen as a sci-fi fairy-tale. ‘The City of Lost Children’ follows a cast of colourful characters through an absolutely breath-taking visual journey. A scientist is kidnapping children to steal their dreams because he can’t dream anymore himself. But because the kids are scared all their dreams turn to nightmares.
Like the directors previous film, the dystopian ‘Delicatessen’, ‘City of Lost Children’ defies normal categorisation. It mixes genres and styles in a story that is, well, quite hard to follow. Then again the visuals and filming are so different and beautiful, that alone is worth it.