Peter Bradshaw on sci-fi
Science fiction has produced some of cinema’s boldest and most glorious flights – in every sense. Sometimes patronised as kids’ stuff, the genre seeks to look beyond the parochialism of most realist drama: to see other worlds and other existences, and therefore to look with a new, radically alienated eye at our own. Maybe something in the limitless possibilities of cinema itself spawned sci-fi.
George Meliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902) was one of early cinema’s biggest hits. In the middle of the 20th century, sci-fi inhabited the B-picture world of monsters and rockets and intuited a “red scare” anxiety about aliens. At the end of the 60s, Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A SpaceOdyssey broke through into a new level of poetry and wonder. Films like Dark Star and Alien worked a satirical, pessimistic darkness into sci-fi, but George Lucas and Steven Spielberg together expressed its lighter, more hopeful strain.
In the 21st century, the Wachowskis’ The Matrix sequels and Christopher Nolan’s Inception have explored new, interior landscapes: the inner world of the mind may be the genre’s new frontier.
The Matrix is a teenage boy’s dream. There’s action, fighting, cutting-edge special effects, murderous robots, evil authority figures, an overriding pseudo-conspiracy theory and, most wonderful of all, an ineloquent social outcast who eventually becomes a flying kung fu Jesus. What’s missing? Girls in skin-tight PVC catsuits? Nope: The Matrix has those, too.
By cherrypicking as many key ingredients from action films as they could (the us-against-the-machines mentality from The Terminator, the wire work from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the star from Johnny Mnemonic), and shooting it through with a timely dose of pre-millennial unease, the directors single-handedly managed to reinvigorate an entire genre. The sight of Arnold Schwarzenegger lunkheadedly charging through armies of ineffectual goons started to look embarrassingly tired. The Matrix marks the point where fans demanded more – they wanted to see themselves on screen. And that’s why the casting of Keanu Reeveswas a masterstroke. He might be pretty, but he’s no one-man army. Plus: Neo is totally an anagram of “One”. Woah. Stuart Heritage
A $7m outlay brought spectacular returns of over $70m for James Cameron‘s first great sci-fi action thriller, which spawned a three-sequel franchise, a powerhouse directorial career, and made robotic, former iron-pumping Teuton Arnold Schwarzenegger an unlikely 80s superstar. A time-travel thriller, whose closed-circuit-in-time mechanism is a straight lift from Chris Marker’s La Jetée, its more cerebral notions – man versus machine, grey matter versus computer, past versus present versus future – are cleverly pondered alongside some of the most visceral and exciting action sequences ever filmed. And the monster, unstoppable and remorselessly murderous, can take on the voices of others, and later (in the sequel), even adopt their outward fleshly appearance, allowing it to take on the form of LAPD cops, step-moms, pet dogs, and who knows what else.
The follow-up, made for zillions more dollars, was a smash on a far larger scale, offering a metal-based morphing psycho robot (Robert Patrick) and a more sympathetic Schwarzenegger cyborg, this time assigned to protect, not destroy future rebel leader John Connor (Edward Furlong). One of the most likable aspects of this and several other Cameron features is his eagerness to put a tough, resourceful and sexy woman at the head of the cast – look at the muscle tone on that Sarah Connor in Judgment Day! – and never permit anyone to rescue her. State-of-the-art in their day, they still pack a knockout punch. John Patterson
Steven Spielberg revived and revitalised the alien-invasion genre after the 50s rush of raygun-wielding creature features. In his luminous 1977 special-effects extravaganza, he saw alien contact as a gateway to new knowledge, new experiences and a higher consciousness.
Its suburban hero Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is both an everyman and a prophet, a family guy who is haunted by sounds – the film’s signature five-note whale call – and images of a rock formation in Wyoming, to the horror of his wife and their children. Spielberg flirts with thriller conventions, though this is ultimately a cosy ride, lightened by a spirit of evangelical zeal concerning Neary’s obsession, while the encounter itself plays out like an intellectual version of the rapture, in which only true believers are taken by the sylph-like visitors.
The film is also as close as Spielberg gets to social comment, and the ending – expanded for the 1980 “special edition” – sees Neary, after an unpleasant grilling by the government and the military, turning his back on a US where Watergate and Vietnam were still recent and painful memories. Damon Wise
The original Star Wars (let’s not bother with this Episode IV: A New Hope subheading nonsense) lays its cards on the table with its opening shot: a gigantic, evil-looking spaceship chasing down a far smaller craft. Like the rest of the movie, you could watch it with the sound off and completely follow what was going on. It’s the purity of the story that has made this film endure, the classic themes handed down through the ages. It may be dressed up with robots, spaceships and trash compactors, but it’s the old-as-time hero journey – George Lucas has said he consciously modelled his screenplay on Joseph Campbell’s study of comparative mythology The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
In the cynical 70s, the notion of making a movie that mixed Kurosawa and Flash Gordon must have sounded as ludicrous as it does today. The film industry wasn’t ready for such an ambitious technical feat (at such a modest budget) as Star Wars, so Lucas changed it by bringing in untested youngsters from experimental and indie movies, or from fields like industrial design. Lucas had a talent for mixing disparate influences and making them fit perfectly. He shepherded together acting stalwarts like Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing, experimental film-makers like Adam Beckett (who supervised the effects), and military uniform historian John Mollo; it would otherwise be inconceivable that these people would have all worked on the same project.
Much has been made of Lucas’s repeated direction to his cast (“Faster and more intense”) or that the dialogue was easier to type than say. Guinness, Cushing and James Earl Jones give it all the gravitas it needs, with the younger members fitting their roles perfectly: Mark Hamill’s wide-eyed earnestness, Carrie Fisher‘s dignity and, perhaps best of all, Harrison Ford looking so mortified and embarrassed to be there. For audiences it resulted in a film unlike any before or since. Phelim O’Neill
After 1977’s Close Encounters (see no 8), director Steven Spielberg reversed the alien encounter formula to wonder not what we would make of them but what they would make of us. The result was this 1982 blockbuster, which eclipsed even the original Star Wars and received nine Oscar nominations (winning four) – a feat unheard of for a film with such overt sci-fi content.
Despite its genre trappings, ET balanced its fantasy content with an Academy-pleasing dose of sentiment, played out in the home life of Elliott (Henry Thomas), a lonely 10-year-old whose parents are separating. Little time is spent revealing where the film’s ET has come from, or how he came to be left behind. Instead, Spielberg focuses on the film’s unlikely-buddy story; the middle child of three (Drew Barrymore is the sweet but clingy younger sister, Robert MacNaughton the cynical teenage big brother), Elliott takes in the ET as the friend and confidant he doesn’t have.
Largely filmed from an adult-waist-height perspective, the film prioritises this world of children and indulges them in their harmless naivety. So when the mean-minded authorities find out about the presence of ET, the effects are doubly shocking. The faceless hordes of uniformed, flashlight-toting militia make an intimidating and brutal sight. After a light-hearted first half, the film takes a plunge into darker drama in the second, when ET is captured and quarantined. Pale and half‑dead, the creature draws uncanny performances from its child cast, and the religious parallels in ET’s subsequent “resurrection” have never gone unnoticed. However, they are likely accidental; Spielberg has said he sees his film more as a “minority story” about two outsiders who join forces in isolation.
There is also more than a hint of fairytale about ET, notably in the film’s final, famous chase sequence, in which Elliott takes to his bicycle with ET on the handlebars and soars, Peter Pan-like, up into the sky. As in Close Encounters, there is a healthy scepticism about authority on show, but ET: The Extra Terrestrial is a less worldly film. Like much of Spielberg’s work, it was heavily influenced by his parents’ divorce and based on an imaginary friend he created at the same age as Elliott. “A friend,” he said, “who could be the brother I never had, and a father that I didn’t feel I had any more.” DW
Andrei Tarkovsky started work on an adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s philosophical science-fiction novel in 1968 in an attempt to find a popular cinematic subject. After the usual labyrinthine negotations with the Soviet authorities over the script, what emerged was a space film unlike anything before or since. Lem’s novel posited the existence of solaristics; the study of an outlying star system that had bizarre effects on human psychology. Tarkovsky took this idea, and turned it into a dreamlike interrogation of faith, memory and the transfiguring power of love.
Tarkovsky begins his version of the story with some of the most magically earthbound images ever filmed, as his protagonist, a psychologist called Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), contemplates his garden. He then embarks on a voyage to the space station circling Solaris, there to investigate the reports of eccentric behaviour of previous visitors. Kelvin undergoes an ordeal by memory, as Solaris’ psychoactive properties trigger the reappearance of his dead wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). The space station becomes a place of mysterious hauntings and apparitions. His colleagues hardly inspire trust, and Kelvin attempts to make sense of what is happening to him as he retreats further into an internal world.
Tarkovsky was barely interested in Lem’s main preoccupation: to theorise about what might constitute alien life. Solaris, and its apparently animate “oceans”, are simply a conduit to, and externalisation of, deeper spiritual matters. It’s fair to say that no other director can have got anywhere near the mystic uplift of this film – and that includes the Steven Soderbergh remake with George Clooney. Lem didn’t like the way his novel had been adapted; Tarkovsky himself considered it a less than successful film. But the clarity and beauty of Solaris ensures its majesty lives on. Andrew Pulver