Let me first start this Cinematical Seven list with a disclaimer -- I love genre movies and sci-fi movies in particular. It's probably because, like many of you, I watched the original Star Wars as a kid and fell in love with the idea of speeding through space, fighting the evil galactic empire, saving the day in the nick of time and getting to kiss the Princess. Of course, in my version of the story, the Princess was not my sister. ...
Sci-fi films are great because they serve to entertain us, thrill us and help us see what the future could be like if we live that long. Plus, you get the fun of all that wrapped up in an attractive and exciting package filled with great special effects, memorable performances and stories that while they entertain us, also manage to teach us a little something about life, ourselves and what it means to be human.
When making my list I tried to think of films that inspired me and helped fuel my love for this genre. Some of these films may be obvious to you and some may be new but I feel they all represent what is best about sci-fi films. I also realize that two of these films feature Charlton Heston. What can I tell you -- the man knows good sci-fi material when he reads it. Plus, I also included two films starring the lovely Catherine Mary Stewart, who I had a serious crush on during my formative years. She sure was cute. And spunky. Much like a certain Princess we all know and love.
Here, then, is my list of the seven sci-fi films you should be watching.
Gattaca (1997) -- Writer/Director Andrew Niccol's dystopian vision of a future where you're bred and selected for your genetic superiority is a compelling indictment of the dangers of technology and social responsibility. Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law star along with the great Alan Arkin as a detective assigned to investigate a murder at the giant corp where Hawke works. In the film, Hawke's character, a supposedly inferior and non-genetically enhanced "in-valid" takes the place of Jude Law's character, an enhanced "valid", in order to pursue his dreams of space travel.
This film is a compelling mix of sci-fi film, detective thriller, murder mystery and romance with many twists and turns. Plus, the Production Design, Cinematography and even Ethan Hawke's performance are first-rate and help you imagine a future where all of these things could exist. Gattaca entertains and makes you think at the same time. Not a bad mix.
Soylent Green (1973) -- Based on the novel Make Room, Make Room by famed sci-fi author Harry Harrison, director Richard Fleisher's film is, like Gattaca, many things wrapped together -- detective thriller, murder mystery, sociological experiment and more. The surprise ending that shocked audiences when the film was first released is not a surprise anymore, but the film's vision of an overcrowded New York, circa 2022, is still an effective warning about the dangers of overpopulation and global warming. And still just as relevant today as it was in 1973. Maybe even moreso. I wonder if this is one of former Vice-president Al Gore's favorite films? Probably. Plus, there are some really excellent performances in this film, including a scenery-chewing Chuck Heston, the lovely Leigh Taylor-Young, Joseph Cotton and the final performance of screen legend Edward G. Robinson.
Night of the Comet (1984) -- When a giant comet passes close to the earth and vaporizes most of the people on the planet leaving only a truck driver, a spunky valley girl and a cheerleader left to fight evil mutants and corrupt scientists, you know you're in for a good time. This film is funny, scary and smart and is also a favorite of mine because it features Catherine Mary Stewart and reunites two of the three stars of one of the greatest 80's cult films Eating Raoul -- Robert Beltran and Mary Woronov. Sadly, Paul Bartel is nowhere to be found. This film is a great ride that, if you don't take it too seriously, winds up being a fantastic way to spend ninety-five minutes. It might not be rocket science, but it sure is entertaining. Sometimes, entertaining is all you really need.
The Last Starfighter (1984) -- Great effects, thrilling space adventure, romance and video games. How could a movie with all those great things be bad? The answer is, it can't. Not only is this movie a really good time, it's also one of the first films ever to feature CGI special effects, so watching it gives you a glimpse into the history of filmmaking. The effects in this film are put to good use and even though they seem pretty ancient by today's standards, they still do what CGI is supposed to do, support the story and not become it. Plus, another appearance by Catherine Mary Stewart along with Lance Guest as the hero, Alex, and Robert Preston as the kindly Centauri, help elevate this film far above similar popcorn fare of the mid-eighties.
Donnie Darko (2001) -- Jake Gyllenhaal's performance, writing and direction by auteur Richard Kelly and a six-foot rabbit named Frank all serve to make this existential time travel thriller not only a great movie but something you'll watch over and over again and each time see something new. Other standout performances in the film include Mary McDonnell (now on the greatest sci-fi show on TV, Battlestar Galactica) as Donnie's mother, Jena Malone as Gretchen and Patrick Swayze (yes, Patrick Swayze) as Jim. Plus, music by Echo and the Bunnymen. Watch this dark and complex film once and I guarantee you'll watch it again. It's that smart and that interesting. Hopefully, we'll get to see more from Richard Kelly in the near future. I can't wait.
Planet of the Apes (1968) -- Try to forget that Tim Burton's useless "re-imagining" of the fantastic Pierre Boulle novel ever happened and instead focus your attention on this original version. Co-adapted by Rod Serling, the super-genius creator of The Twilight Zone, and ably directed by Fanklin J. Schaffner, who went on to direct the equally impressive Patton and The Boys from Brazil, this film is a fantastic cautionary tale that reminds us to be careful as we advance technology in the modern world.
As we get smarter and as technology moves forward, the need for intelligent and thoughtful controls of these potential threats to humanity cannot be ignored. Plus Heston is great, especially for uttering famous lines like "Get your stinkin' paws off me you damn dirty apes ..." and the most famous one at the end of the film when he realizes that he's not on some distant hellish planet but has actually been on the destroyed Earth all along: "Damn you! Damn you all to hell!" Great stuff. This movie does what good sci-fi is supposed to do: Entertain but still slip in a little knowledge at the same time.
Plus, Roddy McDowall as the kindly but skeptical Cornelius and Kim Hunter as the caring Zira who tries to save Heston's Taylor, make this film come alive. At first, it might seem like those are just people in prosthetic make-up but after a few minutes you believe the illusion and just go with it. The creator of those innovative prosthetic make-up effects, John Chambers, won an honorary Academy Award for them before the Academy Award for make-up was even invented. His work was that good then and still holds up almost forty years later.
Alien (1979) -- Turning the haunted house premise on its ear, Director Ridley Scott isolated the crew of the spaceship Nostromo, threw in a seriously deadly creature with a bad temper, mixed it with able direction, innovative and fantastic special effects and superb art direction and what came out was a sci-fi horror near-masterpiece. This film scared the crap out of me when I first saw it as a kid and I was looking under my bed for eggs with aliens in them for weeks afterword.
Plus, compelling performances by Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, Tom Skerrit as Dallas, Yaphett Kotto as Parker and creepy Ian Holm as the evil "artificial person" Ash served to make you truly believe you were trapped in space where "no one can hear you scream." This film also spawned several sequels, the best of which was the first one -- Aliens, directed by James Cameron. The rest of the sequels? Well, let's just pretend the series ended after Aliens and leave it at that.
Ok, that's my list. What's yours?