The art of showing, not telling?
August 31, 2008 12:25 AM   Subscribe

What science fiction films are there, iyho, that really measure up to the best of written work in that genre?

The past couple of days I've rewatched The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions. Enjoyed them as much as I had done the first time I saw them - I think they're good films, especially when watched back to back (ish) and especially if you're a bit 'keyed in' to SF, esp. cyberpunk, and its generic models / conventions (and this, I think explains why a lot of people I know who aren't into SF slated them as convoluted, confusing, with too much acronym laden babble for their liking).

What struck me, however, was that:

1. There's quite a lot of Hollywood "action/war-film-norm" filler (the Kid in Revolutions running ammo to the sergeant's APU then saving the day when sergeant gets wasted, for eg.)

2. There's really quite a lot of dropping down from SF convention driven plot babble to explain things in as simple terms as possible to the audience without breaking the 4th wall.

3. Actually, the AI vs. human, virtual world, what is the nature of reality (SF babble!) plot, even at its most convoluted, doesn't break any substantial new ground in SF ideas.

Now I can understand completely why this had to be, particularly in these films no. 2 and 3 of a surprise hit mega-franchise, but what I'd like to know is the following:

1. What films are there which truly sustain the sense of wonder, conceptual imagination and depth of possibility that the best written SF does, even if that means complete disregard for the audience knowing what's going on?

2. What films, if any, are there that have truly done a great written work of SF justice, from start to finish?

3. What films, if any, are there that have pushed the boundaries of ideas within the genre of SF before these being (extensively) explored in written form?

I'm approaching this as someone who reads and knows a huge amount more about written SF than they watch films (of any sort!), so please let me know the obvious as well as the obscure. And a handful of names to partially illustrate my idea of good written SF would be Ian M. Banks, Dan Simmons, Vernor Vinge, Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Frank Herbert . . .
posted by protorp to Media & Arts (51 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
2001: A Space Odyssey
posted by rjt at 12:40 AM on August 31, 2008

and Primer
posted by rjt at 12:41 AM on August 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

The original Solaris
posted by zippy at 12:54 AM on August 31, 2008

Blade Runner, Gattaca, and Twelve Monkeys come to mind, as well as those mentioned above.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 1:11 AM on August 31, 2008

Going to second primer as one of the best time travel films I've seen and amazingly well done on a tight budget.

For sci-fi of intrigue, you're probably going to have to go classic. Things like The Lathe of Heaven (1980, not 2002), possibly Silent Running. Also, while not really presenting any new concepts, Gattaca was just a pretty damn solid work in general.
posted by Teira at 1:15 AM on August 31, 2008

Children of Men
posted by Bigfoot Mandala at 1:25 AM on August 31, 2008

Definitely Blade Runner and Twelve Monkeys; I haven't seen Gattaca.
posted by rodgerd at 1:31 AM on August 31, 2008

and Primer

It's funny to see this tiny film mentioned twice already, as I was coming here to recommend it myself. One of the best films I've seen in the last few years, and definitely the best independent/low budget film I've ever seen.
posted by fishfucker at 1:36 AM on August 31, 2008

Children of Men. I love its casual science-fiction atmosphere and way it places the characters first and foremost.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 1:37 AM on August 31, 2008

Children of Man, even. Stupid alcohol.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 1:38 AM on August 31, 2008

Wow. I clicked "More Inside" to list Gattaca, Blade Runner and Twelve Monkeys...

Maybe I should just move into ten pounds of inedita's house.
posted by rokusan at 1:40 AM on August 31, 2008

posted by rhizome at 2:41 AM on August 31, 2008 [3 favorites]

Not all of these movies are masterpieces, but then not all written fiction is a masterpiece either. What they all do, however, is integrate the science fictional aspects with the rest of the movie (unlike, to take one recent example, Wanted, where the science fictional aspects are really only there to make the fights look cooler). Or at least there are analogues to written science fiction for the films below.

Galaxy Quest: It's not really good science (although it's generally internally consistent), but, besides being hilarious, not only does a good job of both respecting and satirizing television and movie science fiction like Star Trek, but also harkens back to written science fiction when humans were the pluckiest species around and solves most of the problems the characters encounter with intelligence and creativity rather than physical strength.

Gattaca: One of the best genuine science fiction films ever. It does what some of the best science fiction does--extrapolate a current issue to the future and explore the possible outcomes. And it does it in a way that doesn't insult your intelligence. For example, a single scene where a female gets the results of DNA testing on her date last a couple of minutes at most, but it's enough for the viewer to understand how pervasive judging people by their genetic makeup has become.

Contact: The reason I think this movie is good science fiction is because of the way it both compares and contrasts religion and science. Regardless of your beliefs, it manages to avoid the simplistic view that the two are always in conflict or have nothing in common.

Sunshine: Even though the actual movie turns out to be relatively simple plot-wise, the movies just feels like great science fiction, with the details that have been included in this movie about a journey to the sun. And there's a strong tradition in science fiction for the type of story in this movie (which I won't spoil for you).

Blade Runner: Beautiful to look at and one of the most faithful adaptions of Philip K. Dick's ideas (but not the book, which is totally different) regarding what it means to be human and what it means to be real.

Children of Men: Another great what-if movie. The details make the difference. The future, outlandish as the setup is, feels authentic.

Brazil: 1984 if it were a comedy.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Yes, I know. But not only is the macguffin a genuinely science fictional device, but the final battle could only take place in space. Probably the best example of military sf on film.

The Last Man on Earth: Probably the most faithful of the adaptions of Richard Matheson's novel, despite his apparent disavowal of it. Certainly more true to the book than The Omega Man or I Am Legend.

2001: A Space Odyssey: The first two-thirds are as hard a science fictional movie as you'll find--the last third, while less comprehensible, still manages to enhance the ideas set forth earlier in the picture.

A Clockwork Orange: Another extrapolation of what society will become and a reflection on society back when the movie was made as well as today, which a lot of good science fiction is.

Alien: While the xenomorph seems implausible at best, it definitely harkens to the science fiction that reminds us that not all that is alien is friendly. Plus, one of the few movies that obeys the speed of light (sorta).

Planet of the Apes (the original): Holds up surprisingly well. Yes, it's a bit cheesy, but less so than you'd think, and its yet another example of a subgenre in written science fiction--the not-so-sly reflection of contemporary society in a science fictional setting.

Wings of Desire: While technically a fantasy, replace angels with aliens and it becomes a first contact film, but from the perspective of the alien.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Another first contact film.

Soylent Green: Another extrapolate the future film.

The Terminator/Terminator 2: Both excellent examples of time travel stories, as well as another tradition in science fiction--machine vs. human.

The Iron Giant: This film explores the classic concept of how to react when faced with the unknown.

OK, getting tired of describing, so I'll just list a bunch more.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Butterfly Effect (with the original intended ending), Enemy Mine, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Serenity, Twelve Monkeys, Primer, The Final Countdown, Dark City and the list goes on.

Haven't seen Solaris, but I've heard good things. Other movies I haven't seen but have heard good things about are Metropolis, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, Alphaville, etc.

I think my list probably has looser standards than you intended and I intentionally listed some movies that people would not think of as great or as a true science fiction film. On the other hand I don't think any of these movies would insult your intelligence if you watched them, and they all have, at a minimum, nuggets of ideas in them similar to a decent science fiction story or novel. The way I think of it is, if someone novelized the movie and did a decent job of it, prose-wise, would I accept it as science fiction? Alternatively, is it impossible to rewrite the movie in such a way to keep the story but set it in a non-science fictional setting? For all of these movies, I would say yes.

While there are definitely movies out there that pretend to be science fiction when they're not, I think one can find something genuinely science fictional in almost every movie that makes a serious effort.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 3:27 AM on August 31, 2008 [22 favorites]

ditto: Stalker, (original) Solaris, 2001, & Blade Runner.
posted by juv3nal at 3:48 AM on August 31, 2008

For 1 and 2: A Boy and his Dog.
posted by flabdablet at 4:42 AM on August 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

I really thought A Scanner Darkly hit the nail on the head. Although really in the end, it seems barely scifi.
posted by ian1977 at 5:37 AM on August 31, 2008

I feel good science fiction films are very difficult to do.

I haven't seen the 2nd and 3rd Matrix films but I thought the first Matrix film was dreadful. Ditto for any Star Wars film, and without having seen any, ditto for any Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica film. This last set anyway, don't really qualify as science fiction, rather they are space opera.

The only three I would nominate are Stalker, Blade Runner and Brazil, all already nominated above. I would count the original Solaris an interesting failure. I have not had the opportunity to see The Lathe of Heaven but from what I have heard, count that another possible contender.
posted by Sitegeist at 5:43 AM on August 31, 2008

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is my favorite science fiction movie, and one of my favorite movies. It doesn't get billed as a science fiction movie, mainly because it's a movie that takes a science fiction concept (a doctor can erase your memories) and uses it to tell the story of a relationship.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 5:50 AM on August 31, 2008

I'd love to get a copy of A Boy and his Dog. Don Johnson's first feature length film.

Gattica was going to be on my list as well.

THX1138 - George Lucas' feature-length extension of his film school project. Dystopian storyline.

Between Time and Timbuktu - Also somehow dystopian, it's plot was derived from a series of Kurt Vonnegut short stories.

Fantastic Planet - People as pets, enough said.
posted by michswiss at 5:51 AM on August 31, 2008

A couple of golden oldies:

Brainstorm Christopher Walken explores the consequences of recording and sharing experiences (far better than Strange Days)).

Altered States William Hurt takes hallucinogens and gets into a sensory deprivation tank, reversion to primal lifeforce, brilliant.
posted by leibniz at 6:20 AM on August 31, 2008

One movie that does a good job of wading into SF themes, and that doesn't give the viewer a lot of handholds is Code 46.
posted by adamrice at 6:34 AM on August 31, 2008

The Quiet Earth. Not many people have seen this New Zealand film, but most people who have rave about it.
posted by hydrophonic at 7:08 AM on August 31, 2008 [3 favorites]

Solaris has been mentioned already but it bears repeating. Fahrenheit 451 is a Godard masterpiece. Another Russian film which is very obscure is Aelita. I don't believe it has been ever been translated but is pretty impressive nonetheless and as a silent works well without understanding the subtitles.
posted by JJ86 at 8:15 AM on August 31, 2008

I was going to recommend Sunshine but eatenbyagrue got it already, along with a bunch of other great recommendations.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 8:24 AM on August 31, 2008

posted by bru at 8:24 AM on August 31, 2008

Second Brainstorm and I'm also going to throw The Fountain in there also.
posted by crios at 8:34 AM on August 31, 2008

Response by poster: The way I think of it is, if someone novelized the movie and did a decent job of it, prose-wise, would I accept it as science fiction?
posted by EatenByAGrue at 12:27 PM on August 31

That's a great standard to go by.

Thanks everyone for your recommendations, I've seen only a handful of these (2001, Blade Runner, Children of Men, Gattaca, Alien) so look forward to some AV firing of the imagination over the next few months as I tick these off.
posted by protorp at 8:38 AM on August 31, 2008

The original Solaris

The Soderbergh one too. It's obviously a very different film, and probably less true to Lem because of the differences, but it does an amazing job of capturing the emotional core of running up against the unknown, unknowable, and overwhelmingly powerful.

Also Contact. The fact that there some reasonable people are annoyed that the alien turned out to be her father is evidence that they weren't spoon-feeding the audience.

It's not nearly as good a movie, but I think you can build a case that the film of 2010 is better SF than 2001.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:46 AM on August 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Since you said you liked Phillip Dick, I'll go ahead and recommend Imposter, which felt to me like a much more honest adaptation of his work than say Minority Report or most of the others (although A Scanner Darkly was good, too).
posted by Gorgik at 9:32 AM on August 31, 2008

The Incredible Shrinking Man is one of the best films of the 50s era. Not just of SF films, but of films in general. Richard Matheson (also the author of I Am Legend) wrote both the novel and the screenplay, so the adaptation is very faithful.

Oddly, Asimov's novelization of Fantastic Voyage is better than the film, because Dr. A took the opportunity to correct many of the plot and scientific errors of the movie.
posted by SPrintF at 9:37 AM on August 31, 2008

Seconding The Quiet Earth, probably the best "last man on earth" movie there is.
Not really films per say but there's a lot of cryptic sf in anime as well. The two Ghost in The Shell movies (which were a huge inspiration for the Matrix films) as well as the two first Patlabor movies, excellent s-f. If you're into the virtual reality angle in the Matrix, check also Avalon. All those movies were directed by Mamoru Oshii, and i think he's one of the best director of sf movies working today.
You should also check Serial Experiment Lain, it's an anime serie. It's about virtual reality and much more. This wins the cake in completely disregarding the audience comprehension.
posted by SageLeVoid at 9:40 AM on August 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Minority Report, for all of its actiony trappings, is actually pretty good Dickian scifi, and the setting is really great. Nthing Eternal Sunshine, Soylent Green, Contact, Gattaca, Clockwork Orange, Star Trek II, Children of Men and Dark City. Some of these, of course, are very different from their source material--Clockwork Orange and Contact both contain different endings, but in the case of Contact, I'd say that the story is improved by it.

Speaking of Star Trek, I've long been a Trekkie, but only recently got into DS9--it's not a film so it doesn't really fit the bill of what you're looking for, but I've found that it's incredibly good science fiction, and introduces a lot of interesting ethical and military questions that other Treks avoid, so I'd recommend taking a look.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:41 AM on August 31, 2008

Thirding Sunshine. Man, alone in the harshest of environments, clinging to survival. Throw in the insanity brought about by the loneliness of deep space travel, an evolving mystery that seems impossible to believe, and some fantastic visuals as the ship approaches ever nearer to the sun. I just don't understand why this film didn't do better, it was easily one of the best movies of 2007. Highly reminiscent of 2001, which is of course at the top of every list of great sci fi films.

Can't believe no one's mentioned the original Alien yet. Or 28 Days Later.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:09 AM on August 31, 2008

Also, I don't know if it counts as a film, but the 4 hour premiere of the new Battlestar Galactica series stands well on its own and certainly ranks amongst the best science fiction on screen ever.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:12 AM on August 31, 2008

Videodrome by David Cronenberg. Definitely.

And while you're at it: Shivers, The Brood, Scanners, The Fly, Naked Lunch, even Crash.
posted by philip-random at 10:47 AM on August 31, 2008

Everybody beat me to everything else. I've seen most of the films mentioned and agree. Anime, the original "nausicaa of the valley of the wind", and then "castle in the sky" and "last exile" (a 7 CD's worth of watching). Oh and "Akira". Maybe not quite book to movie but just ovie, but SciFi fan worthy.
posted by zengargoyle at 10:53 AM on August 31, 2008

Blade Runner and Brazil are the top ones for me. 2001 is in there. Clockwork Orange too.

I'll have to check out Primer, I hadn't even heard of it yet. I really liked Alien & Aliens, but they just didn't have an effect on me like Blade Runner & Brazil did. I remember watching Blade Runner for the first time... about half an hour into it I had this entirely consistent picture of the movie in my mind as some cheesy future action movie, and was writing it off as I was watching it. And then a little over half way through I suddenly realized I was completely, completely wrong.
posted by devilsbrigade at 10:55 AM on August 31, 2008

Most of these have been covered already, but here's my (incomplete) list, in alphabetical order: Akira, Bladerunner, Brazil, Children Of Men, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Gattaca, Serenity, Starship Troopers, The Iron Giant, Twelve Monkeys.
(Forgive that starship troopers entry, its just a personal favourite). I would recommend Brazil and Gattaca the most. Not mentioned in the list above is all of Stanley Kubrick's work: clockwork, 2001, strangelove, etc.
posted by arungoodboy at 12:03 PM on August 31, 2008

I thought I'd give a shoutout (with reservations) to New Rose Hotel which is the way a Bill Gibson adaptation should be done. It has a huge problem (namely that it feels like they only have 45 minutes of footage that they just replay for you in flashback to fill out its 90 minute running time), but I think it's still marginally worth seeing if you're a Gibson fan just to remind you that it doesn't have to be as bad as Johnny Mnemonic. New Rose Hotel doesn't really "do it right," but at least it shows it's possible.
posted by juv3nal at 12:30 PM on August 31, 2008

I Am Legend, with Will Smith, does justice to the book, but only with the alternate ending.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:56 PM on August 31, 2008

I'd like to add Blade Runner the director's cut. When I saw the theatrical release I thought it was a good film but it didn't have much of an impact on me. Adding the the one scene back in tied the move together.
posted by Mag Plug at 2:09 PM on August 31, 2008

I'm more familiar with the old, mostly black and white sort of science fiction films, but I would recommend The Day The Earth Stood Still. I consider that one of the best sci fi films of all time, but someone who is more of a fan of the more action/blockbuster types might not consider it so highly.
posted by Mael Oui at 8:23 PM on August 31, 2008

1. What films are there which truly sustain the sense of wonder, conceptual imagination and depth of possibility that the best written SF does, even if that means complete disregard for the audience knowing what's going on?

And so far only one person's recommended Darren Aronovsky's The Fountain? Wow. Allow me to be the second. It's fascinating and ambitious science fiction, with over-the-edge imagery, open-ended ideas and storytelling and just the right amount of pretentiousness for a bizarre scifi love story. A strong sense of wonder is a primary component. It's pretty much the perfect embodiment of what you're asking for. The AVClub review nails it:

Darren Aronofsky's ambitious New Age science-fiction triptych The Fountain (Warner) was one of last year's more undeserved flops...The Fountain closely resembles one of those brainy, abstract short stories that show up in the better science-fiction anthologies, and it's the kind of genre that cinema rarely attempts—at least not with a visual imagination that finds analogues between metastasizing brain tumors, tree roots, exploding stars, and a map of historical Spain. The Fountain is goofy, but it isn't underthought…

This interview with Aronovsky is worth reading, as is Nathan Rabin's write-up for his Year of Flops roundup.

I'll go to bat for Sunshine as well - it's got great acting, gorgeous special effects, sharp futuristic period detail and what I thought was a perfect humanity vs. outer space/itself story. It's mind-boggling that more people don't know about this one, and that it did so poorly at the box office.

The Soderbergh/Clooney remake of Solaris was wonderful - poignant, intelligent scifi that provokes thought rather than pander. I never got through the Russian original when I attempted it years ago, but it's probably time for another go.

Finally, Cory McAbee's 2001 cult flick The American Astronaut deserves a mention. Allmovie describes it as "Eraserhead meets Buck Rogers by way of an MGM musical," but it's stranger than that. It's a low-budget b&w treat, alternately strange, hilarious, dull and endearing, with images of a gritty outer-space frontier and its creepy inhabitants that'll haunt you for days. There are a bunch of clips of the more bizarre musical numbers on YouTube, but the space punies barnyard scene is probably the best indicator of what you're in for. I liked it a lot, even if it peters out disappointingly towards the end - mainly for showing what you can do on almost no budget.
posted by mediareport at 8:32 PM on August 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

I can't believe only one person has mentioned Silent Running. That film, now over 30 years old, was and remains a masterpiece.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind
is a pretty good movie.

Others that really should be watched if possible include Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, THX-1138 by George Lucas (yes, that George Lucas) and Soylent Green (though it bears only passing similarity to the novella by Harry Harrison. Give Fahrenheit 451 a look too.
posted by Mephisto at 7:54 AM on September 1, 2008

Oh, someone mentioned Alphaville above; it's challenging enough to fit here. The mood is dark and surreal, the future evoked mainly with 1) beautiful shots of modern architecture and strange interiors and 2) character elements like citizens popping pills all the time. It's got just enough of the Godard strangeness to keep it interesting (the swimming pool executions are fun) and make up for the more ponderous philosophical moments, which are pretty rare. I rented it from Netflix a couple of weeks ago and expected it to be clever, but was surprised at how engaging it was.

Also, Cronenberg's Existenz is a really good "what is reality?" scifi film that's definitely not afraid to confound the audience.
posted by mediareport at 5:26 PM on September 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

My favorites:
2001, Brazil, Bladerunner, Solaris (both American and Russian versions), Stalker, A Boy and His Dog, A.I., The Fountain.

Also, Dark City and (I probably will get hell for this)--I've always had a soft spot for Zardoz.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 5:46 PM on September 1, 2008

Chris Marker's original La Jetée is far and away more interesting, I think, and probably closer to what you're asking for, than 12 Monkeys.

People always give me odd looks when I tell them I really, really like Demolition Man. It's basically Futurama with Sylvester Stallone as Fry. It's kind of heavy on the exposition, though, so probably not quite what you're after.

How about Tetsuo: The Iron Man?
posted by Sys Rq at 11:02 PM on September 1, 2008

Oh, and yes, definitely THX-1138, although much like those other George Lucas movies, you'll probably want to avoid the digitally ruined version.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:06 PM on September 1, 2008

Oh, and along the similar lines as Demolition Man: Idiocracy.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:10 PM on September 1, 2008

Inspired by the recent 20 essential science fiction books of the past 20 years meme that has been doing the rounds of the SF blogosphere I was just thinking about my 20/20 SF films this afternoon:

Akira (1998)
The Abyss (1989)
Patlabor 1989
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Strange Days (1995)
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Gattaca (1997)
Dark City (1998)
Pi (1998)
eXistenZ (1999)
The Matrix (1999)
Avalon (2001)
Natural City (2003)
The Butterfly Effect (2004)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Primer (2004)
Serenity (2005)
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Children Of Men (2006)
WALL-E (2008)
posted by ninebelow at 9:22 AM on September 3, 2008

Psst... Akira came out in 1988.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:56 AM on September 3, 2008

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