Throughout the years, the science fiction genre has paved the way for enormous blockbusters. This year, for example, we’ve gotten big-budget juggernauts like Moonfall, Nope, and Prey. On top of that, some of the most memorable cinematic classics fall into the category. Over the past century, people continue to talk about Alien, Back to the Future, and Brazil. Without question, this can be attributed to the sci-fi genre’s ability to bring awe-inspiring spectacle to the big screen.
The baffling box office hauls make it abundantly clear that these are movies that people are willing to see. That being said, there will always be films that fly under the radar. It’s hard to compete with Robocop, Spaceballs, and Predator. That probably explains why The Hidden, Jack Sholder’s campy body snatching caper, rarely comes up in conversation.
While there are countless unrecognized gems to speak of, this list in particular will focus on underseen classics. In other words, modern releases will not be included. The entries range from heady arthouse dramas to adrenaline-pumping B movies, but they all fit into the broad category of science fiction. Note that the entries are ranked alphabetically, so there is no definitive ranking by quality. Given the varying styles and subgenres, the goal is to allow readers to determine their next watch based on the descriptions alone. In theory, readers should find something to scratch their various itches.
1. 964 Pinocchio (1991)
Folks looking for a conventional sci-fi film should stay far away from 964 Pinocchio. Shozin Fukui’s bizarre cyberpunk flick does everything it can to evade normality. Instead, viewers will get a bloodsoaked thrill ride that bombards viewers with violent, abstract imagery. Some viewers will find it bewildering; others will find it
Your mileage really depends on how much you value storytelling because, frankly, there isn’t much of a traditional story here. You could probably fill out a plot diagram if you thought hard enough, but this is a movie that’s clearly more focused on the visuals and action. It’s nonstop insanity for 97 minutes, and that insanity is a sight to behold. Just don’t overthink it.
2. August in the Water (1995)
Gakuryū Ishii isn’t a household name or anything, but if he’s known for anything, it’s his punk films. Crazy Thunder Road and Burst City, two of his earlier releases, perfectly encapsulate the counterculture of the era. They’re messy, gritty, and raw. In other words, they’re the polar opposite of August in the Water, a poetic headtrip that came after the director’s punk era.
Basically, Ishii shifts away from the in-your-face style of his previous works and eases into something calmer. August in the Water is a slow-paced, female-centered story that’s far more concerned with character development than it is with rapid, methodical action. This results in his most mature, and arguably most acclaimed, feature. Though it represents a shift in style, it doesn’t represent a shift in skill.
3. Born in Flames (1983)
Lizzie Borden’s documentary-style dystopian drama is positively punk rock, but more importantly, it’s as relevant now as it was in 1983. Honestly, you’ll probably see that statement a lot if you look up user reviews, so excuse the repetition, but it’s hard to talk about Born in Flames without bringing up its timelessness. Given the recent political unrest, it’s fascinating to take in a film that echoes so many modern sentiments.
Borden’s film is less concerned with entertainment and more concerned with making a bold political statement, but that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. The pseudo-documentary presentation ultimately allows viewers to enter a parallel America. The citizens of this alternative socialist democracy recognize that even a political revolution can’t squash racism, sexism, and homophobia. The more politically charged scenes brought about by these themes force viewers to question human nature. Such big questions will challenge viewers, and the messy structure further pushes things in new directions.
The spontaneity of its storytelling can initially throw viewers off, but the messy presentation practically acts as a parallel to this messy version of society. Morality and equality aren’t black-and-white, and Born in Flames makes that abundantly clear. It’s a sloppy, confounding experiment that defies genre. It’s also brilliant.
4. Destination Moon (1950)
Your ability to appreciate Destination Moon depends entirely on how willing you are to accept it for what it is. Some films are timeless; Destination Moon is not. Compared to the sci-fi movies of today, this hard sci-fi flick feels slow and even occasionally underdeveloped. This probably isn’t the best way to start a recommendation, but it serves as a preface to what will be said next.
In spite of its age, Destination Moon remains fascinating today. It’s one of the earliest examples of a “smart” sci-fi movie. Before 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Day the Earth Stood Still, this came in and tried to present more grandiose ideas to viewers who were likely used to simple afternoon entertainment. The film’s willingness to think big really makes it worth watching even if, at times, it feels like a relic from another era.
5. The Hidden (1987)
The Hidden opens with a seemingly mild-mannered citizen calmly robbing a Los Angeles Wells Fargo bank. His expressionless face immediately tells the audience that something isn’t quite right, and as the film unfolds, everything becomes clearer. It becomes evident that the stone-faced robber has had his identity stolen, or to use a more genre-appropriate term, he has had his body snatched.
The body snatching trope is nearly as old as the science fiction genre itself. Countless works of fiction have attempted to tell exciting stories about mind-stealing extraterrestrial beings, but not all of them have been successful. While The Hidden isn’t exactly successful in terms of its mainstream success, it is a delightfully pulpy slice of science fiction escapism.
Director Jack Sholder, who is perhaps best known for his work on A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, has so much fun with the premise. Action scenes play out frantically, plot twists are thrown at viewers with reckless abandon, and the cast hams it up throughout all of this. The Hidden initially appears to be too cheesy for its own good, but deep down, there’s something surprisingly engaging about the whole thing. Sholder and company know how to cast a spell, and it works.