What is it about sci-fi movies that always make us give them the benefit of the doubt? Case in point - this week's pathetic-looking Vin Diesel vehicle, Babylon A.D., which (surprise, surprise) isn't screening for critics. (Never a good sign.) Diesel plays Toorop, a futuristic mercenary charged with protecting a young woman who might be the host for an organism... yawn... oh sorry, nodded off from boredom for a minute. But, meanness aside, even though Babylon A.D. is a Vin Diesel movie, directed by the auteur who brought us Gothika (who, BTW, is already publicly decrying the film), there's still this strange something about the trailer that makes us think, "I'd totally spent a Saturday afternoon watching that on HBO." Why is that?
Are we so shallow that it only takes a few laser pistols, flying cars, and matching jumpsuits to get our creative juices flowing? Are we so in love with the ideas behind the futuristic concepts of sci-fi movies that we're willing to overlook massive flaws in storytelling? (That's the crutch that most Trekkies have been leaning on for years.) Or are sci-fi movies just vastly, vastly underrated by critics and audiences who can't get past the androids and nanobots? To be frank, while there's been a ton of bad sci-fi product coming out of Hollywood over the years (looking at you, Wing Commander), there's been just as much that hasn't nearly received the credit it deserves. Sure, there are the hallowed sci-fi classics - Star Wars, Star Trek, 2001, Terminator 2, Forbidden Planet - but there's a whole subset of underappreciated sci-fi gems that have gone sadly unheralded without any geeky conventions to call their own. As a public service to the new generation of sci-fi geeks who've only grown up with Star Wars prequels and Scott Bakula as their Starfleet captain, here are MovieRetriever's picks for ten sci-fi movies that don't nearly get the credit they deserve:
1. Primer (2004)
This is the cheapest movie on our list (it was filmed for just $7,000), but here's some big budget praise - Primer is, without a doubt, the best time-travel movie since Back to the Future. (Sorry Bill & Ted.) This Sundance favorite revels in presenting a very smart, very complex view of time travel to its audience and never, ever resorts to short-cuts or dumbing itself down. Sure, it can be dark, obtuse, and confusing, but it's one of the most intellectually stimulating movies of the past decade and the only movie in a long, long time that makes it seem like time travel might actually happen one day. We can't believe that writer/director/star Shane Carruth hasn't been handed his own SciFi Channel series yet (or at least $14,000 to make another movie) because this is one of the smartest works of speculative fiction that Hollywood (well, Park City, Utah) has produced in a LONG time.
2. Aeon Flux (2005)
We knew, going into this, that this was going to be the most controversial pick on our list (Hell, that's why we left off the strangely watchable Chronicles of Riddick), but let's get this out of the way - Charlize Theron's Aeon Flux is a really halfway good sci-fi movie. Now stop screaming at your screens and breaking your Dalek models in disgust and listen to us for a minute. Yes, the movie isn't nearly as good as Peter Chung's visionary original cartoon that first appeared on MTV's Liquid Television, but really, what could be? Chung's Aeon Flux is a bat-s*** crazy, Red Bull-infused threeway of sci-fi, sex, and violence, a style that could never, ever work in a completely straight 2-hour movie version. (It would burn itself out in the first five minutes.) Theron's Aeon Flux takes the cartoon as inspiration and creates a surprisingly strong sci-fi narrative with moments of gorgeously-inspired design work. (Sophie Okonedo's feet-hands stand - pun intended - as the most underrated sci-fi design element of the new millennium.) Yes, it's not as cool as the cartoon and it's not a perfect movie (not by a longshot), but it's strangely smart, very watchable, and wrongly maligned. Give it a chance.
3. Body Snatchers (1993)
No, we're not talking about the Kevin McCarthy-starring, uber-classic, original Invasion of the Body Snatchers nor the amazing, widely lauded Donald Sutherland 1978 remake. And we're DEFINITELY not talking about the craptastic Nicole Kidman vehicle The Invasion, which is forever going to be a dark mark on producer Joel Silver's permanent record. (And he produced The Adventures of Ford Fairlane!) What we're talking about is the best, creepiest pod-people movie that you've never seen - director Abel Ferrara's 1993 Body Snatchers. This low-budget Body Snatchers riff is low on FX and high on psychological terror, using the familiar body-snatching premise to offer some nicely cutting commentary on modern militarism, conformity, and ecological peril. Plus the whole affair is directed by Ferrara - one of the craziest directors out there, who helmed Bad Lieutenant and one of the few halfway worthwhile William Gibson adaptations, New Rose Hotel - and was scripted by the guys who wrote Re-Animator. It's hard to get more cult sci-fi street cred than that. Perhaps people were tired of the pod-people concept or put off by the lack of star power (biggest name in the movie is Gabrielle Anwar), but this under-seen version of Body Snatchers is definitely worth a second (or first) look.
4. Tron (1982)
This is where we get into the politics of calling a movie "underrated." Tron, Disney's 1982 foray into sci-fi and one of the godfathers of computer-generated imagery, has a fairly robust cult fan base and has inspired a slew of viral videos, fan sites, and lightcycle video games. So can we really call it underrated? We think we can, and here's why - a movie like Joss Whedon's Serenity (which we love), while it underperformed at the box office, like Tron, also developed a HUGE cult following after its release. However, while Serenity has already found its way onto countless "best sci-fi movies of all time" lists even though it's barely 3 years old, Tron is still fighting for respectability even 26 years later. That's why we don't consider Serenity to be technically "underrated" - "under-funded" more like it - and that's why we feel Tron definitely is. Serenity has never been mocked on The Simpsons or had to contend with that fat guy on YouTube in the form-fitting Tron suit. However, at the end of the day, Tron, for all its faults (most of which revolve around its occasionally plodding narrative), is one of the most visually visionary films of the past 30 years and a darn fun adventure to boot, and it never gets enough credit for that. The long-awaited sequel, Tron 2.0, was announced at the San Diego Comic-Con this year, and we can't wait.
5. Sleeper (1973)
This might piss off some Dr. Zoidberg fans, but the producers of Futurama should send Woody Allen a fruit basket every week to thank him for coming up with their concept 26 years before the show premiered. Sleeper is not only one of Woody Allen's most underrated movies, but it's also one of the greatest sci-fi comedies ever filmed. The concept revolves around Miles Monroe (Allen) who goes into the hospital for a peptic ulcer and, thanks to complications and a quick cryonic freeze, wakes up 200 years later in 2173. The resulting future-shock chaos skewers both the strange excesses of the 1970s and almost every sci-fi cliché in history. (The subplot about Allen getting caught up in a conspiracy to assassinate Big Brother's nose is hysterical.) This is a movie that should be playing annually at every sci-fi convention across the globe with legions of devoted fans dressing up like Luna Schlosser and robot butlers, and yet Allen's good-natured spoof of the future goes unheralded by fanboys, while sci-fi "laughers" like Men in Black 2 make billions of dollars and get theme-park rides. It ain't right.
6. eXistenZ (1999)
As you can see, some movies made this list because we think they're unheralded gems (Primer, Sleeper), and others have made the list simply because they're brimming with too many inventive ideas and too much imagination to ignore (Tron, Aeon Flux). Guess which category David Cronenberg's eXistenZ falls into? Just the mention of the name "David Cronenberg" should let you know that eXistenZ is probably one of those love-it-or-hate-it movies, but, regardless of your opinions on Cronenberg, it's hard to deny that eXistenZ acts as a really interesting counterpoint to the other big "trapped in a virtual world" movie released in 1999, i.e. The Matrix. (We're choosing to ignore the existence of the terrible Craig Bierko vehicle The Thirteenth Floor.) While everything about The Matrix is cold, clinical, and mechanical, eXistenZ is the exact opposite, constructing a world where virtual reality is created by pulsing organic bio-pods and assassins attack their targets with guns made of flesh shooting bullets made of human teeth. Yes, eXistenZ is a million times weirder than The Matrix and we couldn't give you an accurate plot summary if we tried, but this is a movie where you just have to see it, sit back, and (even if it doesn't work for you) applaud the filmmaker's ambition.
7. A Boy and His Dog (1974)
Out of any of the movies on this list, we're willing to bet our lunch money that THIS is the one you haven't seen and that's a shame. Based on a short story by sci-fi godfather Harlan Ellison, A Boy and His Dog is one of the most originally oddball post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies ever set to film. Almost every aspect of the movie, described individually, sounds completely ridiculous, but when put together, it's strangely riveting, coming across like a hybrid between A Clockwork Orange and Mad Max. Set in a post-nuclear wasteland, A Boy and His Dog follows Vic (a teenaged Don Johnson) as he travels the ruins of America with his dog Blood, who, oddly enough, speaks to the boy telepathically. Blood helps Vic track down the most precious commodity in the post-war world - sex. That's right, we said "sex." In this vision of the future, men travel the wastelands searching for sexual release and women pursue men to be breeding stock. It's strange how weird it is to see a sci-fi movie deal with sex so blatantly, and there have been endless debates over whether or not the entire premise is inherently misogynistic. (It's difficult to counter most of those arguments.) The movie, overall, is original, well-made, and thought-provoking, but prepare yourself for an experience not unlike watching Kubrick's Clockwork Orange where you'll constantly find yourself debating whether the film glorifies or vilifies the behavior of its characters. This might be the strangest movie on this list - which is saying something following eXistenZ - but, at the very least, it's a much better talking-dog movie than Look Who's Talking Now.
8. Enemy Mine (1985)
Enemy Mine hasn't received much love from modern sci-fi fans, and we think we can understand why. It's hard to argue that Wolfgang Petersen's film isn't overly sentimental, a little simplistic, and as morally black-and-white as an ABC After-School Special, all of which is particularly galling since the movie has such a potentially great premise - two fighter pilots in an intergalactic war, a human (Dennis Quaid) and an alien (Louis Gosset Jr.) with decades of nationalistic and racist hate between them, crash-land on an unforgiving planet and are forced to work together to survive. And while, yes, the human and alien become friends way too fast and Petersen isn't afraid to pull on your heartstrings, the movie deserves credit where credit is due. It's a gorgeous sci-fi epic, with inspired design work and amazing performances from its leads, particularly the unrecognizable Gosset Jr. Fine, the movie is unapologetically heartwarming, but why is that always such a bad thing? Not every sci-fi flick needs to be dystopian, ironic, and bleak. Enemy Mine is a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve, and there's enough good, hard sci-fi wrapped around its warm gooey center to make it definitely worth watching.
9. Gattaca (1997)
Andrew Niccol's Gattaca got a lot of things right, but perhaps its biggest accomplishment was proving to Hollywood and sci-fi fanboys alike that you could make a serious, intelligent science fiction film that dealt with really relevant issues in speculative science WITHOUT resorting to the clichéd trappings of modern sci-fi which have overwhelmed the genre for years. OK, we love robots, laser guns, and flying cars as much as the next guy, but sci-fi filmmakers have spent way, WAY too much time lately focusing on their designs for the jet-packs of tomorrow and not nearly enough time on the moral and social themes at the heart of their works. Gattaca, to its great credit, doesn't have that problem at all. In a world where genetic engineering has become commonplace, children born without genetic codes pre-programmed for success are called "invalids" and are treated like second-class citizens. Vincent (Ethan Hawke) is an invalid who refuses to accept his place in society, going to extreme lengths to pose as a valid to fulfill his life-long dream of being an astronaut. The film is sublime on a design level, creating a future world out of art-deco noir without a flying car in sight, and the performances are strong across the board. However, Niccol's film doesn't get nearly enough credit for resisting the urge to indulge in unnecessary CGI and "futuristic" set pieces and instead choosing to place all of its emphasis on the characters and themes driving its story. As a result, Gattaca is one of the most relevant sci-fi movies in recent memory, a film that actually uses modern science to create a compelling work of fiction and not another crappy action-movie about bio-mercenaries and nanobots.
10. Silent Running (1972)
Ten bucks says that Silent Running is Al Gore's favorite sci-fi film. But just because Douglas Trumbull's spaceship epic has some pretty overt environmentalist themes - the producers of WALL-E definitely must cite this film as a big influence - that isn't the only reason why Silent Running is required viewing for any hardcore sci-fi fan. First of all, as we mentioned, the film was directed by Douglas Trumbull, who designed many of the breathtaking special effects Stanley Kubrick employed in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Second, Bruce Dern's robot-drone sidekicks in Silent Running are unquestionably the stylistic ancestors of C-3PO and R2D2. And, third, the movie uses the big, wide-scale storytelling of sci-fi space travel to highlight the moral questions surrounding environmental conservation, which is what good sci-fi is supposed to do - use the exaggerated canvas of futurism to comment on the world of today. In the future of Silent Running, all plant life on Earth has been destroyed, and massive space-freighters with giant greenhouse domes, housing the last of the planet's foliage, circle the solar system, preserving the plants for future generations. When orders come to destroy the domes and return the freighters to Earth, one of the caretakers of the planet's last forests (Bruce Dern) has to question how far he'll go to protect his beloved ecological preserve. The film is undeniably dated, but, even if you can't acknowledge the charms of the robots Huey, Dewey, and Louie, you HAVE to respect Silent Running as a movie that helped inspired some of the best sci-fi films of the twentieth century.
Those are the MovieRetriever crew's picks for underrated sci-fi movies. Have we made some grave errors in judgment? Are you enraged at how recent our choices are? Can't fathom why we didn't mention This Island Earth or Santa Claus vs. The Martians?