The 9 Most Underappreciated Sci-Fi Flicks Of All Time
This summer saw the much anticipated release of Spielberg and J.J. Abrams’ film Super 8, a readymade sci-fi blockbuster that harkened back to the nostalgic classics Spielberg (and others) produced during the sci-fi run of the late 70s and 80s. Films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Batteries Not Included, and Cocoon—generally family-friendly fare that explored the wonder and beauty of meeting aliens from outer space who weren’t going to rip your face off. We remember these films fondly and most likely, so do you, unless of course you have a heart made from moon rock.
They, along with the established classics you can probably guess at, are part of the popular canon of sci-fi. Most of us have seen them, they crop up intertextually in TV shows and Pixar movies, and they’re as familiar to us as our own reflections. We all know Star Wars, Aliens, Blade Runner, Metropolis, the Matrix, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, etc—but what about the unsung masterpieces of sci-fi? Like the three and a half hour German art house epic or the post-apocalyptic comedy featuring country and western assassins? Films that are typically too cult even for the cult classic lists. Their fate is a journey into the heart of obscurity, as void of viewers as space is void of oxygen. So to pay homage, we thought we’d champion a few of the less familiar, but still fantastic, flicks of the sci-fi genre.
World on a Wire (1973) (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
This gem centres on a cybernetic institute that’s setting up Simulacron, a replica city that houses “identity units”, which the pesky corporations want to use for their own dastardly ends. It unleashes an enigma wrapped in a maze caught inside a B-movie of a plot at you, where a dystopian realm is explored with all the philosophical musings, satirical intent and uber-stylized settings you might expect from this pivotal figure of New German Cinema. It also features a lot of video monitors, because the future loves monitors. Forerunner to Blade Runner and its ilk.
THX 1138 (1971) (dir. George Lucas)
It’s the other George Lucas sci-fi movie, starring Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence. A far cry from the Western-style space-adventuring of Star Wars, it’s a dystopian tale of repression and baldness where droids aren’t camp sidekicks but peons in a police-state who harass us with their brutal sticks and emotionless silver faces. And of course we’re all drugged up to the eyeballs to keep us from realizing what a crappy existence the future turned out to be.
Fahrenheit 451 (1966) (dir. François Truffaut)
Based on the novel by Ray Bradbury, it was Truffaut’s only English-language movie. Unlike that other sci-fi film of the Novelle Vague, Godard’s Alphaville, Fahrenheit was shot in color and sees a tyrannical future where firefighters no longer come to put out fire, but start it. Books are banned, society is drugged and TV is state-sponsored and corrupt. Book burning is common and firemen are the people who come to set fire to your treasured library (they hadn’t planned on e-books, obviously). The film follows a fireman, played by Oskar Werner, and Julie Christie, who plays two characters, Oskar’s wife, and a woman who Oskar’s character falls in love with. They both question the society they live in and run away to read books in the woods.
A Boy and His Dog (1975) (dir. L.Q. Jones)
If there’s going to be one 80s white-suited icon to survive World War IV, that man has got to be Sonny Crockett (aka Don Johnson). Or Vic, as he’s known in this movie, accompanied by his smart-ass dog Blood, who he communicates with telepathically. Together they forage for food and sex—Vic helps the dog get food, Blood helps Vic get the ladies. There’s no dinner and dancing though. It’s a weird, deranged and bizarre movie which in one scene sees Vic leaving his reproductive cells in a test tube in quite an upsetting way. Pure 1975 freakdom. Based on a novella by Harlan Ellison, it has become a cult classic, and is a quite exceptional flick.
Primer (2004) (dir. Shane Carruth)
Mind equals blown time. Primer‘s plot centres around time-travel, and that’s about all you need to know because once the protagonists discover they can go back in time, all manner of complicated narratives take flight. Doubles emerge and plots eat themselves as characters try to avoid bumping into their previous forms. It’s such a brain strainer you’ll be watching Mulholland Drive afterward just to straighten your head out.
Planet of the Vampires (1965) (dir. Mario Bava)
So far ahead of its time, it wouldn’t be surprising if it was a time-traveling film. This is an Italian sci-fi/horror flick that sees some space-travelers crash land on an unknown planet that happens to be home to some abominable creatures bent on inhabiting the dead crew members’ bodies and hunting down and slaughtering the survivors. Shows a great mastery of eerie visuals and a fine line of kinky black spacesuits. You can tell it was influential in the genre, especially with Ridley Scott’s Alien.
Six-String Samurai (1998) (dir. Lance Mungia)
A post-apocalyptic sci-fi that screams “cult movie”. As beloved of the genre, it’s set in an alternate universe that saw Mother Russia nuke the US in 1957 and turned the once great land into a post-apocalyptic desert (which is, thankfully, home to the Kingdom of Elvis). Sadly, Elvis has recently died and that means a new king is sought. Step up our hero Buddy, heading to Lost Vegas to win the crown. But his journey is beset by Death, embodied by a Guns N’ Roses’ Slash look-a-like who dispatches a mariachi band to get our hero.
The Quiet Earth (1985) (dir. Geoff Murphy)
In this strange, haunting New Zealand movie a man awakes in his bedroom abruptly, he turns the radio on to the sound of dead air. Is he the sole human survivor of experiments that he’s been carrying out? The film touches upon how insane you’d go if you awoke to find you were the only human left, and also features a love triangle and the jealousies that go along with it, as well as an ending that hints at being the beginning, plus some great end credit music. The powerful use of the sun all the way through is probably an overwrought metaphor for hope and/or the oppression that limitless freedom grants you, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying it.
Zardoz (1974) (dir. John Boorman)
I seem to remember the ending to this being based around the revelation that Zardoz (a god worshipped by the film’s warrior class) was taken from the book The Wizard of Oz. It’s set on 23rd century Earth where Sean Connery has to show off his hairy body in a strange costume that features thigh-length pirate boots and orange cloth panties with matching braces (suspenders)—which is worth the admission price alone. It also has Charlotte Rampling in a situation that sees the haves (Eternals) fighting to control the have-nots (Brutals) in what amounts to a trippy 70s guilty pleasure. The incredible daftness of this film makes it so, so great.
Think there’s something missing from our list? Let’s hear your own forgotten classics in the comments below.