Jordan Hoffman June 7, 2012
By now your Netflix queue is bursting from all the recommendations in Film.com’s Top 50 Sci-Fi list. Yet there may be some of you looking for something from a more distant galaxy.
Those of us who truly love sci-fi understand that there are an infinite amount of universes with an infinite amount of combinations. These are the underground titles, the oddball titles, the midnight titles. For every “Metropolis,” there is an “Aelita, Queen of Mars.” For every “Avatar,” there’s a “Battle For Terra.” I like to consider this a top ten list seen through a cracked lens, with picks that service different aspects of those most inscrutable words: the cult film.
1. ‘Alphaville’ (1965)
Sometimes the greatest science fiction set is in the world around us. Director Jean-Luc Godard made virtually no alterations to mid-century Paris, but by shooting in modern buildings and at night he transformed it into dystopian future run by a totalitarian computer named Alpha-60.
Armed with an Instamatic camera, Secret Agent Lemmy Caution must infiltrate the city (posing as a reporter for “Figaro-Pravda”) to rescue the daughter of Professor von Braun. Along the way, he teaches her about that outlawed activity: love.
“Alphaville” is oozing cool and style (Anna Karina’s haircut has never not been fashion-forward) and is the closest thing to a jazz science fiction film you are likely to see. Preview “Alphaville”
2. ‘Cosmos: War of the Planets’ (1966)
Every collection of great science fiction films needs one that is absolutely terrible. I chose this no-budget space opera over, say, “This Island Earth,” “Robot Monster” or “Plan 9 From Outer Space” because, despite its horrid story and risible acting, it actually looks kinda cool.
Some of its visual appeal may be unintentional – this one slipped into the public domain rather quickly, so the worn VHS-duped copies that are out there have the fuzz of an old sweater. Chewy blocks of color exude from the screen, like an interstellar Mark Rothko. It’s a wonderful blend of “2001: A Space Odyssey”-ish heaviness mixed with pure “Buck Rogers” stupidity. Preview “Cosmos: War of the Planets”
3. ‘Demon Seed’ (1977)
There’s nothing like late 1970s futurism. It is still just a hair more tactile than the digital sci-fi look that’s about to explode in the 1980s, and, indeed, it is the tactile nature that’s at the heart of “Demon Seed.”
This is the movie where Julie Christie gets raped and impregnated by a computer. Yeah, just go with it. It’s oddly unsettling, and features a powerhouse performance from Christie, who has to be terrorized by a bunch of coaxial cables and, basically, a mean Intranet. It’s a miracle that you aren’t laughing the whole time, but this is partially due to the slightly tongue-in-cheek script. We imagine Data would run this holodeck program plenty of times if he was sure no one would catch him. Preview “Demon Seed”
4. ‘Ikarie XB-1′ (1963)
There was an old gag on “Star Trek” – someone would mention a creation and Chekov would chime in, “Ah, yes, an old Russian invention.” But, in the case of a show like “Star Trek”” one could point to this old Eastern Bloc (Czech) film as an absolute antecedent.
A large crew must deal with a lengthy space voyage. Along the way they must deal with a radioactive star, a derelict 20th Century ship laden with old nuclear weapons (interpretations about who won the Cold War may vary) and a crew member who loses his mind. “Ikarie XB-1″ has tremendous production design, nifty sound effects and a scientific approach about boldly going where few films had so seriously gone before. Preview “Ikarie XB-1″
5. ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ (1982)
“Hey, man, this isn’t a sci-fi film?”
“Isn’t it, though? Isn’t it?”
An assemblage of images set with ethereal music in counterpoint, “Koyaanisqatsi” tells the story of a strange planet and its inhabitants that have thrown it out of balance. Nature and progress duke it out in a gorgeous ballet of striking images that – and I’m not being hyperbolic here – have radically affected the way we see the world. “Koyaanisqatsi” has been so aped by other artists – much of which for the purposes of advertising – that it is hard to remember a time that preceded it. It is the greatest “head film” ever made and the fact that it isn’t about one thing means that it is very much about everything, man. Preview “Koyaanisqatsi”
6. ‘La Planete Sauvage’ (1972)
Imagine you are a little kid and you see a cartoon about another planet in the video store. You take it home, pop it in and WHAAAAAAA?
Giant blue naked fish people keep humans as pets, when they aren’t left in caves to live like savages. The film details the social development of a bizarre culture through a series of bizarre vignettes that include education-through-osmosis, ethnic cleansing, dancing statues and enough governmental debate to keep George Lucas happy. This is some weird, weird stuff. Preview “La Planete Sauvage”
7. ‘The Quiet Earth’ (1985)
A New Zealand spin on “I Am Legend,” this tells the tale of a geo-physical experiment gone wrong that zapped people at the moment of their death to an alternate reality. The few survivors find one another and, after some playful sequences, realize that the fabric of their universe is about to shatter unless they can stop the experiment from re-occurring.
It’s some heavy stuff, and the fact that none of the actors or locations are familiar to American audiences only adds to the “from a parallel universe” aspect. Preview “The Quiet Earth”
8. ‘Stalker’ (1972)
Turn the lights waaaaaay down and lean back – Andrei Tarkovsky is taking you for a ride.
The Writer and The Professor hire The Stalker to guide them through The Zone to get to The Room to see The Artifact. In The Zone the usual rules of physics do not apply, in The Room your emotions do not do what you want them to do, and The Artifact comes from an alien culture and it will … affect you.
It’s heavy stuff filled with dreary Russian landscapes, moody, evocative music and sequences that flow to unexpected places. Best to watch this when you are really sleepy, because if you doze off for a moment you won’t be able to recall what was the movie and what was your dream. And that’s how it was intended. Preview “Stalker”
9. ‘Stereo’ (1969) & ‘Crimes of the Future’ (1970)
You didn’t think David Cronenberg was going to be left off the list, did you?
These sixty-minute, non-synchronous sound film experiments are usually bundled together and make for one whacked-out evening of mind-expanding science fiction. “Stereo” is the more interesting story, a film posing as an internal document from the Canadian Institute of Erotic Inquiry, detailing the breakdown of a small group of telepaths under a controlled study.
The more beautiful film, shot in primary color amid modernist architecture, “Crimes of the Future,” details the quest to find a mad dermatologist whose cosmetics have killed off the entire population of nubile women. Both films are played completely straight but are, indeed, evidence of a quite sophisticated sense of humor.
10. ‘Zardoz’ (1974)
Can you handle “Zardoz?” Can you handle this much Sean Connery in tight red underwear? Can you handle “The Gun is Good! The Penis is Evil!”?
A giant floating head that distributes guns takes sneaky interloper Connery to The Vortex where he discovers a group of immortals living on … like, a farm, kinda. Their power comes from The Tabernacle and, oh, Lord, I can’t go on explaining “Zardoz.” Just go see “Zardoz.” And super film buffs may recognize the ending nearly shot for shot from Buster Keaton’s “College.” Preview “Zardoz”
Categories: No CategoriesTags: Alphaville, Andrei Tarkovsky, Cosmos: War of the Planets, Crimes of the Future, David cronenberg, Demon Seed, Ikarie XB-1, Jean-luc godard, Koyaanisqatsi, La Planete Sauvage, Obscure Sci-Fi, Stalker, Stereo, The Quiet Earth, Zardoz