Top 20 Sci-Fi Movies: Cassander’s List
When we first started talking seriously about this project, I knew that my colleagues Rotting Corpse and Nacho Sasha, slaves to the genre that they are, would be approaching their lists as if trying to whittle a toothpick out of a sequoia. Their depth and breadth of knowledge of not only the movies themselves but of all the stories of the Brave Men Who Made Them is shared only by even older genre enthusiasts, those kind of disheveled, hairy-in-the-wrong-places men who used to sort through pulpy VHS catalogs and wait six to eight weeks for an alien invasion flick produced in Slovenia by Italians simply based on a one sentence description. Faraway worlds were theirs for $29.95 plus S&H. Not to say that RC and Nacho won’t one day become hairy-in-the-wrong places men themselves, but for now in the Pseudo-New Golden Age of Sci-Fi they are fearless samplers with a home forum, and this makes them, in the grand scheme of internet cultivators, not so lonesome or odd.
But me, I come from a small town and grew up with a small TV. We had a small four-screen theater, and even when Blockbuster finally arrived, they took up the space left vacant by a small fish-fry joint. Selection was limited. So while I had a huge craving for sci-fi in my formative years, most of my consumption was of the literary variety, and I had to settle for the odd afternoon matinee or hope Blockbuster would run one of their “5 rentals for 5 days!” promotions before I got to chip away at the Canon. It’s from this background, my days of checking out eight irregularly shaped books printed on musty pre-acid paper, covers tainted with the horrible color schemes of the seventies and early eighties, that my true enthusiasm for sci-fi comes, because, let’s face it, even today the Dream gets dingy once all the producers and studio heads stick their fingers in it.
So. Harry Harrison, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Orson Scott Card all added texture to my afternoons. I read everything Crichton wrote in the space of 18 months. And don’t forget the comics like the Superman omnibus, a thousand pages of Superman in black and white from when he was less man of steel hunk and more the all-powerful, stern babysitter of a million mad scientists and inter-dimensional kooks. And don’t forget Dune. Tell me about the waters of your homeworld, Usul! I didn’t know these were the best of the best when I was a kid. I didn’t have anyone to share in discussions with. I just formed my own judgment, and as a result, most sci-fi cinema falls under the harsh light of my critical eye before it even gets out of the gate (same with horror, but let’s save that for another date).
What is the Dream? What is the ideal? First off, a basis in science. Science fiction as a genre separated itself from general horror or adventure stories early on because of its constant, inquisitive nature. What if…? Granted, most early authors had a horrible grasp on even basic science and a lot of the hypotheses are mal-formed mutant ideas, old fears spied through a refracting beaker, but the good stuff starts tugging the thread at its base, the barely exposed slub of What We Know Now. Gattaca, which I’ll be focusing on more in-depth later, is a great example. We knew that one day, inevitably, science could describe to us all the meanings and methods of those little protein codes that make up our DNA, but what we couldn’t guess immediately is how deep the obsession would go. How will it order (or disorder) our lives down the road?
Another must is a high attention to detail and cohesive nature when it comes to the setting, atmosphere, and designs, what pretentious geeks call world-building and what absolute dicks call mise-en-scene. Alien isn’t just an example, it’s still holding the bar high. Contrasting the wifebeaters, WWII Navy ballcaps, and soiled Tupperware dining sets of our less-than-intrepid union grunts with the slick, black, and gooey alien that was Born to Kill works on a lot of levels. As Ripley watches more and more of her familiar surroundings get ripped apart, quarantined, or burned away in a chemical fire the more we get painted into that corner with her; what we don’t notice at first is that the more holes get torn in the scenery, the more layers there are behind it. The Nostromo, as weird as it looks on the outside, just looks like everything is where it is supposed to be and kind of necessary. Cross-reference this against the maddening maze of unused great-rooms, video game platform chambers, and endless hallways of the Elysium from Pandorum that are there just to invoke a heartless atmosphere (on a…one-of-a-kind human ark to a new homeworld?) without any substance, and you’ll see where I’m coming from. There is a lot of visual shorthand in sci-fi movies, and hardly any other genre is as openly vulture-like when it comes to taking ideas from predecessors, but that doesn’t mean you should ever be lazy. It doesn’t always have to look good, but it does have to make sense *coughChroniclesofRiddickcough*.
Finally, as with any movie, the story and its characters have to be the priority. Before the effects, before the score, before the creature design, before the franchise, before even the titties. I don’t care how long it took you to build a fake stretch of LA highway and film two semi-trucks colliding head-on beneath a prophet holding a katana. If you’re relying on a hugely expensive crash sequence to distract me from the fact that you’ve taken a promising franchise that dealt with human mind-slavery and predetermination while tossing in a little kung-fu and turned it into an ill-explained series about computer programs that have families, own nightclubs, want to cheat on their husbands, and don’t stray from racial typecasting, then you’re SOL.
Sci-fi always has the potential to show us in brighter colors and in more extraordinary circumstances what is special about human beings. Whether we are pitted against an alien culture or struggling to cohabitate with them, the story is about our communal, social nature. Whether we are rising against an oppressive regime or standing up to a group of marauding, fuel-hoarding thugs, the story is about our instinctive urge towards freedom. And whether we are part of a federation united against an elemental destructive force bearing down on us or part of a last-ditch effort to keep the sun alive the story is about our validity, our belief that we are the best thing the universe has to offer so far. Sci-fi stories constantly find unique ways to satiate our need for grand, humanistic themes, and without memorable characters to identify with or a structure that we can cling to, the whole mess is just floating like space debris, cold and subject to a mindless orbit.
So the movies on my list may seem a little populist, a little overly sentimental, or even a little too classic and safe, but my list isn’t about breaking new ground or rewarding the obscure (not to say RC’s or Nacho’s lists are either…they’re just coming from different angles). It’s about movies I can revisit and still find satisfaction and wonder there, movies that aimed high and covered all the bases, and, most of all, movies that put a new wrinkle in my brain and kept me up just a little bit later at night out of fear, or out of inspiration, or just out of hope for the unwritten future.
T2: Judgment Day
The Fifth Element
Back to the Future
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Planet of the Apes