When it comes to recommending good science fiction films it’s just too easy to pull up “The Matrix”, “Star Wars”, “The Terminator”, or “Star Trek”. Yes, they’re good science fiction movies, all in all, and they’re definitely worth taking a look at (though I can’t say the same for some of their sequels!). But every now and then, a really good science fiction gem would pass by and never make a big enough splash into the mainstream to be noticed. Over time, these gems end up getting buried, only to be recognized by the deeper echelons of the science fiction community. This happens quite often and a lot of people end up missing out. So it’s about time that some attention is given, where attention is due, especially for these exquisite pieces. Please note, that some of the works that I’ll mention will belong to the anime category and, though there are plenty of quality sci-fi anime out there, I will only mention a few significant ones to save time and space. So without further delay, here’s the run down in no particular rank or order.
1.) Dark City
Long before “The Matrix” graced the silver screen, “Dark City”, starring Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, and Kiefer Sutherland, vividly brought to life the concept of a fabricated world ruled by a manipulative force that held complete sway over the lives of the masses. Unfortunately, after only a moderate presence in the theatres, “Dark City” faded out and eventually became forgotten, while “The Matrix”, which arrived a few years later, smashed the box office and was declared a revolution in the sci-fi genre as a whole. Is this me being bitter? Maybe, but not quite. “The Matrix” (the first one) was a revolution on several aspects and it was definitely a blockbuster masterpiece. However, “Dark City” was still a jewel that shared quite a few similar elements with “The Matrix” and it was a movie that captivated me from the beginning all the way to the very climactic end. The movie, itself, centers around a man, named John Murdoch, who finds himself completely naked after suddenly waking up in a bathroom. He has absolutely no memory of who he is or who he was and, as he struggles to figure out what’s happened to him, he finds himself trapped in a dystopian world of continuous night (though hardly anyone else in the city realizes it). During his search he runs into a group of mysterious telekinetic beings known only as the Strangers, who have taken quite a unique interest in him. Overall, this film is an excellent exploration of the “nature versus nurture” debate and it puts a very gripping plot of suspense and mystery to good use in order to keep the viewer both absorbed and aware of this exploration at the same time. If you happen to be a fan of basic sci-fi or one who’s simply enticed by elements of darkness and enigma, “Dark City” is a perfect film for you.
2.) Robot Stories
Once in a while, a movie passes through the independent circuit and makes a tremendous splash with the critics, garnering countless applause, while still totally escaping the awareness of the mainstream. “Robot Stories” happens to be one of these movies. Little known and hardly heard of, “Robot Stories”, which was released in 2002, is a movie that is actually a collection of four shorter movies focused on Robot themes, some of which harking back to the works of Isaac Asimov. Overall, though one of the vignettes was a little controversial, “Robot Stories” is an excellent movie, sporting enormous talent in both storytelling and acting. Each story presented in this film is touching and philosophical all at once, causing it to be a movie that’s more about people, rather than about robots themselves. The overall themes in this movie encompass such issues as family, romance, and, ultimately, human existence. So despite being mainly sci-fi in nature, this movie, as a whole, smoothly accommodates the needs of both sci-fi fans and non sci-fi fans alike. An additional thing that I might like to add to this is that, unlike many other films out there, this work is uniquely an “Asian American” film, with nearly the entire cast being Asian American actors, along with the producer and director himself, Greg Pak, who is part Asian. The extra features that come with the DVD of this film are excellent and include such wonderful bonuses like an additional short movie by Mr. Pak and some alternate endings for some of the short works presented in the film proper. Being a definite masterpiece by itself, this movie is certainly a true sci-fi gem!
3.) The Lost Room
A motel room that exists outside of time and space, a hair comb that freezes time for a few seconds, and a bus ticket that teleports anyone it touches to Route 66–yes, these are all things interesting enough to catch anyone’s attention. And it definitely caught mine. This 3 part sci-fi miniseries was first aired around December 2006 by the Sci-Fi network. Starring an eccentric cast of stars such as Julianna Margulies, Kevin Pollak, and Margaret Cho (yeah, kinda strange, isn’t it?), this mini-series had it all–impressive acting, engaging plot, intriguing characters, and an original premise. But why hasn’t this mini-series spun-off into a full-fledged TV series? But why hasn’t this sci-fi work ever penetrated the consciousness of the mainstream? One word–advertising. Or more appropriately, the horrendous lack of it. Advertising itself only on the sci-fi channel and other sci-fi specific media, “The Lost Room” simply didn’t bother to go any further, thus sabotaging its own hopes for good ratings. In fact, if I hadn’t been lucky enough to see an ad for it in a sci-fi magazine, I honestly would have never heard of it. After its short run of 3 parts, “The Lost Room” idly slipped off the air and straight to DVD release (which I ended up buying). Personally, it infuriates me that such things happen, but unfortunately, in this imperfect world that we live in, they just do. All in all, if you happen to have some free time or a Saturday to burn, watch this miniseries. It’s really worth it.
This movie is probably a little better known than most of the movies on this list. What started off as a very simple low-budget independent film became a major breakout piece for director and writer Darren Aronofsky (“The Fountain” and “Requiem for a Dream”). Starring Sean Gullette and Mark Margolis, this film revolves around a brilliant young mathematician who’s in a search of the mystery behind the mathematical constant “pi”. This search, which initially begins with the aim to develop a model to predict the stock market, becomes a discovery that spans far beyond what he could ever imagine. But with such a discovery comes a heavy price that could end up costing him not only his life, but also his sanity as well. Being both simple and effective in its execution, this highly cerebral film is a testament to both originality and to the fact that you don’t need a big budget to hit hard! Filmed completely in black and white, the story draws you in immediately as you are, likewise, drawn into the world of the central character–experiencing all of his obsessions, while agonizing with all of his frustrations as well. “Pi” is a remarkable piece and to avoid this film would be a mistake.
5.) The Lathe of Heaven
Based on a novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, of the same name, this movie was produced for public television in 1979 and stars Bruce Davidson (of “X-men” fame) and Kevin Conway. Without giving away too much, this movie centers around an unfortunate man, by the name of George Orr, who has the gift/curse of changing reality with his dreams. After being forced into psychiatric care, due to his abuse of sleep deprivation drugs, he forms an interesting relationship with a psychiatrist, who not only discovers his power, but also chooses to harness it for the “greater good”. Though the movie begins at a slow pace, the viewer becomes instantly attached to these two characters from the get go. And, as their relationship builds to an interesting dynamic of antagonism, the movie itself drives to a much higher level as it explores such philosophical issues as reality, altruism, and existence. Many good twists and turns occur throughout this film, with some of these begging such questions as, “What would happen if we could dream anything or anyone out of or into reality?” or “Can ultimate good always come from ultimate power coupled with good intentions?” Overall this is a very thoughtful film, which is also successful at being entertaining at the same time. The ending, however, is slightly confusing, and almost reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. But the journey to that end is definitely well worth the undertaking. In addition to the 1979 version of this film, a 2002 remake, produced for A E;, was made starring James Caan and Lukas Haas. Though this adaptation has several major changes from the original and lightens up a lot on the philosophical exploration, it does leave a much clearer ending than the original, which is probably easier for most people to chew on. Many sci-fi purist will most likely prefer the original to the 2002 remake, but I personally enjoyed both and do recommend them for a good late night watch.
6.) Ghost in the Shell
Though never exactly mainstream, this anime has been one of the more popular animes to reach the U.S. Taking place in the future, this work introduces a world where the merging of man and machine has become so advanced that the division between the two can be nothing less than a blur. In fact, depending on the individual, blurring is actually an understatement. The main character, who’s a special agent by the name of Motoko Kusanagi, is a cyborg who finds herself struggling with her own identity and even whether or not she has a soul, given that her entire body, with the exception of her brain, is fully synthetic. At same time Motoko also belongs to a covert organization that specializes in investigating cyber crimes. Within the film, a major cyber criminal known only as the Puppet Master has appeared throughout the net forcing Motoko to investigate. But in her search she discovers that there’s much more to this Puppet Master than meets the eye. This anime movie, which perfectly blends philosophical sci-fi with police drama, is unique in how it explores the issues that arise in consequence to joining man with machine. In addition to this film, “Ghost in the Shell” has also expanded into an anime series (“Stand Alone Complex”), which, though belongs to a separate continuity from the movie, is equally entertaining as it is thought provoking.
Produced in Japan around 1988 and released in the US in the year 2001, this anime takes place in a future Tokyo overrun with biker gangs, seedy politicians, and radical anti-government activists. In this future, the city of Tokyo (or Neo-Tokyo) has become a very bleak place and on top of all this chaos broods a secret government project hidden from the masses for decades–one involving a mystery known only as ‘Akira’. For years, this project has been kept under wraps, until one night, Kaneda, a leader of a biker gang, suddenly finds his close friend being abducted by the government after a major gang fight. Through a variety of twists and turns and the involvement of other parties, the mystery of “Akira” begins to violently unravel along with the rest of the city itself. With both visceral and graphic detail, “Akira” clearly demonstrates that just because a work is a “cartoon” doesn’t mean that it can’t be gritty, raw, and dark all at the same time. Though some parts of it can be a little extreme for some viewers, all the rest of the necessary elements of a good sci-fi film are present, including an intriguing concept, an engaging plot, and an absorbing setting.
8.) Donnie Darko
This independent movie, directed and written by Richard Kelly, stars a younger Jake Gyllenhaal, along with such heavy hitters as Mary McDonnell (from “Dances with Wolves”) and Patrick Swayze. Basic story–a disturbed teen sleep walks one night and receives a vision from a demonic looking bunny, named “Frank”, who tells him that the world will end in 28 days. From there the movie takes off. Overall, “Donnie Darko” is a very interesting film, filled with moments of sarcastic humor and trippy scenes that can easily make anyone go, “Huh?” Though it’s not exactly a walk through the park to understand (I still have some problems understanding it), this movie does present a very interesting take on the subject of time travel. Because of its eccentric ness and the fact that it easily crosses the boundaries of sci-fi into other genres (dark comedy, drama, and social-commentary), it’s definitely one of those oddities worth scoping out for sci-fi fans.
“Cube” is a suspense driven Canadian independent film that features a group of strangers trapped in a cubic labyrinth filled with high-tech death traps. They have no idea why they’re there or where “there” exactly is, even though each has their own theories and means of coping with the situation. With no other choice but to band together, these strangers must struggle to find a way out of this surreal maze, while they struggle to survive the conflicts that inevitably spawn between each other. Though this is a surprisingly simple concept for a sci-fi premise, this movie packs a huge punch and gets the mind thinking about the intricacies of human interaction and relationship.
10.) A Scanner Darkly
Based on a 1977 novel, of the same name, by Phillip K. Dick (who also did “Blade Runner”), this movie had a limited release in 2006 and it was one of the few movies in history to use cell-animation technology. In this movie, set somewhere in the near future, drug addiction has become a major epidemic and a new drug, by the name of Substance D, has swept across the nation. To counter this, the government has set up a vast surveillance network and has planted undercover operatives in numerous locations. The movie’s main character, Bob Arctor (played by Keanu Reaves) happens to be one of these undercover operatives and he’s planted in a household occupied by Substance D addicts to spy on them. But the main catch is, he’s also become an addict. Over time, his ability to distinguish between his identity as an undercover officer and a drug addict becomes blurred due to the costly effects of Substance D on his mind. Overall, this movie has a lot of good eye-candy. It’s visually engrossing and the use of cell-animation throughout the film becomes quite hypnotic at times. The plotline, however, is confusing and following the story can sometimes be like trying to put together a huge jigsaw puzzle with only half the box-top picture. The acting of various actors, namely Robert Downey Junior’s and Woody Harrelson’s, is quite appealing in this film. For those expecting a heavy focus on sci-fi, don’t. Though this movie has various sci-fi elements in it, the main focus of this film is centered almost entirely on the sadness and repercussions of drug addiction and its high cost to both the user and those around him. This film is a very interesting concept, but for those of you who may not know much about the movie beforehand (I was lucky enough to read a little blurb on it before watching), you can easily get lost, so it would be a good idea to first read up on it before renting. Please note, this work may not be everyone’s cup-of-tea, but because of its uniqueness and stylish execution of cell-animation, it’s still something worth checking out.
It’s really rare nowadays to find a good sci-fi work that actually causes you to think deeply. Unfortunately, many (but not all) sci-fi productions that grace the movie or TV screen, fall along the lines of “McSci-fi’s”, where audiences are force-fed flashy effects, massive action sequences, and scenes of raunchy sex while being deprived of meaningful plots and stimulating philosophical exploration. It’s sad, but true and it’s really sad that a lot of the works that should be seen don’t get seen simply because of the overwhelming presence of McSci-fi’s and many other unfortunate factors that get in the way. So, the next time you’re caught up loathing the same old, same old, take a peek at one of these gems. You never know–you might enjoy them so much that you’ll end up kicking yourself for not seeing them earlier!