Thursday, March 13, 2014

13 Underrated Science Fiction Movies

by Patrick Bromley
Yes, it's time for another list not everyone will agree with.

Any kind of underrated list is a challenge to generate, because it requires trying to gauge the general consensus on a given movie. If you're a movie fan -- and especially a science fiction fan -- you've already seen (and hopefully love) Sunshine or Dark City or Repo Man or Gattaca, so I don't need to put them on here. The genre is even more challenging because the good movies generally have a reputation for being good, while the ones widely considered "bad" are generally choices with which I agree. I'd love to defend Equilibrium or Ultraviolet or Screamers, but I don't find them to be "underrated" so much as "accurately rated." So there might not be a movie you love on here, but that's probably because I don't love it as much as you, or I haven't seen it, or I had to cut the list off somewhere. There are more than 13 underrated sci-fi movies.

And before you say "But what about...?," I still haven't seen Primer. I'm sorry, guys.

1. A Scanner Darkly (2006, dir. Richard Linklater) A truly underrated mindfuck of a movie, Richard Linklater's animated (via rotoscope) adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel casts a very good Keanu Reeves as a government agent who goes undercover with some drug addicts and rapidly starts to lose his grip on reality. The strong ensemble (including Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr., Rory Cochrane and Winona Ryder) helps sell material that might otherwise be inaccessible, and the use of animation allows Linklater to visualize aspects of the story (like a suit Reeves wears that changes its appearance on an endless loop so as to better keep cover) that might have been impossible had it been shot live action. It's one of the few "drug movies" that doesn't end up being irritating. This was one of my favorite movies the year it came out and one that's stuck with me ever since.
2. Solaris (2002, dir. Steven Soderbergh) Know how I know this one's underrated? It's one of only eight movies to ever receive an "F" rating from that stupid, terrible CinemaScore organization. Steven Soderbergh's remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris is a sci-fi movie that's both cerebral and emotional -- it thinks a lot about its feelings. George Clooney plays an astronaut who travels to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris to bring back the crew, none of whom want to leave. Rather than the thrilling adventure audiences were hoping for from their "Clooney in space!" vehicle, the movie is a meditation on grief and lost love. It is slow and talky and at times unbearably sad. It's also beautiful and thoughtful and much, much better than its reception would suggest.

3. Trancers (1985, dir. Charles Band) Having just seen this one for the first time, I can't understand why it's not more beloved in the sci-fi community. It has its cult of fans (like almost any sci-fi movie, even those directed by Paul W.S. Anderson), but feels like a movie that deserves more attention than it gets. Tim Thomerson plays the excellently-named Jack Deth, a future cop who spends his days hunting "trancers," which are like zombies that are activated via hypnosis. He travels back in time to catch the bad guy, but rather than sending their bodies back they just send their consciousnesses and inhabit the bodies of people in 1985 Los Angeles. The movie has a great sense of humor about itself (any movie in which the main character's name is Jack Deth would have to) and director Charles Band -- future head honcho of Full Moon Features -- does a good job creating futuristic sci-fi on a budget. Some science fiction movies (like Solaris) go for headier concepts; some embrace the pulp side of the genre. Trancers is great at doing the latter.
4. Gamer (2009, dir. Neveldine/Taylor) This one is hard to defend. As a fan of the movies made by the rollerblading/directing team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (except for you, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance), I know I'm mostly alone on a pretty thin ledge. Ridiculous, violent action and some very LOUD AND BROAD social commentary mix in a movie that feels like being hit in the balls with a can of Mountain Dew. The wildly overqualified cast -- which includes Gerard Butler, Michael C. Hall, Logan Lerman, Kyra Sedgwick, Alison Lohman, John Leguizamo, Terry Crews, Amber Valletta, Ludacris and a brief appearance by my girlfriend Zoe Bëll -- help elevate it above total schlock, but the schlocky stuff is what makes the movie fun. Also, Mike will hate me and make fun of me for putting this on the list.

9. Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964, dir. Byron Haskin) Though it suffers from pacing problems and can be very draggy at times, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is the rare science fiction film that attempts to be as much about the science as the fiction. Though it's not as interested in Big Ideas and allegory as a lot of science fiction, it's unusually invested in the science of discovery: a lot of the movie's running time is devoted to astronaut Kit Draper's (Paul Mantee) trial and error as he learns the Red Planet's terrain and teaches himself how to survive in a (literally) alien environment. Being 1964, there's a good deal that screenwriter Ib Melchoir has to make up about life on Mars (we didn't yet know as much about planet as we do now), but many of his guesses and inventions don't actually feel that far off—until, that is, a last act that shifts gears into Star Trek territory. When the film is focusing on the day-to-day survival of Draper and his monkey, the movie is mesmerizing.
5. Splice (2009, dir. Vincenzo Natali) Canadian filmmaker Vincenzo Natali's studio debut about a team of punk rock scientists (Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley) who create and care for a mutant baby polarized (and mostly alienated) the small audiences that came out to see it in 2009. That's because it goes to crazy uncomfortable, fucked up places, but does so with such glee that it's impossible not to be won over -- so few movies are willing to go as far as Splice. Like a couple other contemporary sci-fi movies I love, this one falls apart a little when it turns into more of a standard monster movie, but everything that comes before that is so wild and interesting that I still love it. This one seems to have put Natali in Movie Jail; his adaptation of William Gibson's Neuromancer still hasn't gotten off the ground and there was a full five years between this movie and his follow-up, 2014's Haunter, which I still haven't seen (though it's currently available on Netflix Instant).

6. Robot Jox (1990, dir. Stuart Gordon) Having just rewatched this one for the first time in over 20 years, I had forgotten how much fun it is. Sure, Gary Graham makes for one of the least likable heroes in movie history, but the plot -- about a future in which international disputes are settled via battles between giant robots -- is the stuff of 11-year old dreams. Gordon shoots the film as a brightly-lit live action cartoon, with cool stop motion and model work that feels more like a kid playing with toys than even what Guillermo del Toro pulled off in Pacific Rim. The thing about science fiction movies is that the majority of them are shot on a lower budget (compare the number of Hollywood productions with the insane amount of smaller efforts), meaning genre fans have to be able to look past the limitations and embrace what filmmakers are able to pull off with lesser resources. Robot Jox is a perfect example; though it lacks the scale and slickness of its exponentially more expensive Hollywood counterpart, it has even more heart. It's such a good time.
7. Source Code (2011, dir. Duncan Jones) This one might not even be underrated; it's only on the list because it's so often overshadowed by Duncan Jones' earlier Moon, still one of the best science fiction films of the 2000s. It's essentially a take on Groundhog Day in which Jake Gyllenhaal has to keep repeating the same eight minutes over and over until he's able to stop a Chicago train from exploding. Aside from its nifty sci-fi premise (which gets more problematic as more and more things are explained, as is so often the case), Source Code works because of how much it makes us invest in every character, from Gyllenhaal and love interest Michelle Monaghan to the random passengers on the morning train. Jones finds a way to make his high concept surprisingly human, resulting in the rare science fiction movie that's not dour or dystopian. It's beautifully optimistic.

8. Critters 2: The Main Course (1988, dir. Mick Garris) I grew up watching Critters 2 on cable and thought I had a handle on what it was -- a fine if forgettable genre sequel from a time where that kind of thing was easy to come by. But I was fortunate enough to see a theatrical screening with a full audience a year or two ago and was able to see it as a totally new movie. It's a blast. This was Mick Garris's first theatrical feature and he directs the shit out of it, taking it out of the realm of being another Gremlins knock-off and upping both the B-movie humor and sci-fi weirdness. Despite not making its budget back on its initial theatrical run (it grossed just over $3 million but cost $4 million to make), there were two more sequels produced -- probably because this one caught on when it hid video and cable, where it showed ALL THE TIME. This is the best entry in the series.
10. eXistenZ (1999, dir. David Cronenberg) Unfairly maligned because of its similarity to Cronenberg's own Videodrome, this late '90s genre efforts casts Jennifer Jason Leigh as a cutting edge video game designer who comes under attack by fringe groups while testing her latest virtual reality game eXistenZ, with Jude Law as the marketing exec who has to protect her. Turning his attention away from television to video games, Cronenberg once again combines technology with the organic (Leigh's game pods are pulsating, partly organic blobs of flesh and players connect directly into them via umbilical cords they plug into "ports" they have opened in their bodies) and bleeds fantasy and reality together in such a way that neither we (nor the characters) know which is which. Cronenberg is aware of the similarities to Videodrome -- he even quotes the earlier movie directly -- but eXistenZ updates a lot of his ideas while introducing new cool new visuals and set pieces. People ignore the movie on the claim that Cronenberg is cannibalizing himself, but it's something special.

11. Starcrash (1979, dir. Luigi Cozzi) There were so many Star Wars knockoffs released in the wake of that movie's unparalleled success, but this one is both the most obvious and the most entertaining. The first sign that Italian exploitation director Luigi Cozzi knows what he's doing is that he makes the Han Solo proxy the lead of the movie, then casts it with a leather bikini-clad Caroline Munro. The rest of the movie is totally insane: Christopher Plummer plays the Emperor of the Galxy, David Hasselhoff plays his son, Maniac's Joe Spinell fills the Darth Vader role as Count Zarth Arn. The movie is goofy and often dismissed as camp, but that attitude ignores the fact that despite being a slightly mercenary imitation, Starcrash is still a labor of love. Cozzi means it, and the movie has a dreamy energy and handmade aesthetic that's undeniably charming.
12. Fortress (1992, dir. Stuart Gordon) Despite being best known as a horror director, this is Stuart Gordon's second movie on this list. Like Gamer, 1992's Fortress doesn't work at all as hard sci-fi; it's not really a movie of ideas, but rather a movie of visceral entertainment. Christopher Lambert plays a man who is locked away in a high tech prison because he and his wife are expecting a second child and the law permits only one. The stuff in the prison (which makes up the majority of the movie) is insane and incredibly bloody -- the prisoners are all implanted with devices that make their stomachs explode if they disobey -- but filled with a cast of Gordon regulars and familiar genre faces, including Vernon Wells, Jeffrey Combs, Kurtwood Smith, Clifton Collins Jr. and Tom Towles. The movie is pretty dopey, but in a broad, violent, often cartoonish way. It's very much of the early '90s when genre movies were in a pretty bad place, but there's a lot to enjoy for fans of this kind of thing.

13. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971, dir. Don Taylor) The original Planet of the Apes is rightfully considered a classic, but its four subsequent sequels aren't afforded the same respect. As a big fan of the series, I like them all but 1971's Escape is something special. After destroying the planet in the previous installment, we're told that main ape characters Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter) -- along with monkey Sal Mineo -- escaped and traveled back in time to present-day New York. This bit of clever storytelling solves two problems: it allows the series to continue after Earth explodes AND it makes it so that only three actors need to be made up as apes. With the budget cut way down for the third installment, such a change was necessary. For a lot of its running time, Escape plays as a much lighter, goofier counterpart to the previous film; in its last act, though, it turns into a dark and terribly sad civil rights allegory that feels just as apocalyptic as the endings of the last two movies. Maybe more, because we've come to care so deeply about the characters involved.

38 comments:

  1. Awesome list! I haven't seen a lot of these, but one I have seen that I especially enjoy is Source Code. I've seen both Moon and Source Code, and I'll make the bold statement that I personally like Source Code more. I don't really have much to add, other than I agree with everything you said about it. The Hitchcockian sci-fi premise is really interesting and great, and Gyllenhaal is very good in the movie.

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  2. So glad to see eXistenZ on this list, I never understood why it doesn't have a better reputation. I never thought Cronenberg was "cannibalizing" himself any more than I thought the Zuckers were cannibalizing themselves by making Top Secret and The Naked Gun after Airplane...sure there are similarities but the movies themselves are different animals.

    This may be frowned upon, but I actually prefer eXistenZ to Videodrome. Don't get me wrong, Videodrome is innovative, scary, and compelling, but I find myself going back to the world of eXistenZ more often. I harbor a dream that someday Criterion will give it its due, even if only as sort of a companion to Videodrome.

    Also, I've never seen A Scanner Darkly. I'll get on that!

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  3. Perfect summary of Escape from the Planet of the Apes. It's probably my favorite of the series, depending on my mood.

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    1. It's definitely my favorite of the sequels.

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  4. Great list! One movie I always find to be an underrated scifi film would be Danny Boyles Sunshine. I think it is a great character study with that nicely shot science fiction backdrop. I feel like most people wrote it off but I think it deserves everyone's 2 hours.

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    1. Thanks, Dan! I mentioned Sunshine at the top of the article because it's great (really great), but I felt like most of us who like these kinds of movies have already seen it and know it's great. Have I mentioned it's great?

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    2. I liked Sunshine but the third act fell flat for me. It had such a great build up but the "monster movie" finale seemed like a cop out or the writers losing steam.

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    3. Agreed. If it wasn't for the last act that turned into Event Horizon/Supernova, I would be screaming to everyone that the movie is masterpiece.

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    4. The last act is what keeps me from loving Sunshine, too. It's a shame, because, while I haven't gone back to watch it in a while, I remember the rest of the movie being awesome up until that point.

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  5. Yeah Splice! Thanks for the nudge to rewatch it. I love that movie.

    Also, this column will finally get me over the hump to watch Solaris.

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    1. Solaris is soooooo good. Bring tissues. Not for the usual reasons (but also for those, because George Clooney is dreamy).

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    2. Does Viola Davis cry in it? If so, then I will cry. It's happened in Doubt and The Help. I am helpless against Viola Davis cry-face.

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    3. Do you have an opinion on Tarkovsky's Solaris vs Soderberg's Solaris, JP?

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    4. Oh, nvm. I see there's a discussion about Solaris below. Want to see splice, but it's not streaming anymore :(

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  6. Great list! You've definitely inspired my weekend viewing.

    I remember seeing Escape from the Planet of the Apes when I was a kid. It was one of the films our local theatre showed in a summer program for the elementary school kids (we got handed a fistful of tickets at the end of the school year). I was so upset by the ending that I refused to revisit it for years. Now I always watch Conquest right after, to reassure myself that the apes get some justice.

    Just out of curiosity, have you seen the original Solaris? What did you think of it?

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    1. I saw the original Solaris at an age where I couldn't appreciate it. That's not to say I'll love it if I watch it tomorrow, but I need to give it another chance. Are you fan?

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    2. I like the movie a lot, but it makes 2001 seem like a big, fuzzy, warm embrace by a giant Totoro. The final shot of Solaris stays with me to this day.

      On an unrelated note, I finally saw Cloud Atlas, and was completely, totally, and thoroughly blown away.

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    3. Nice! Another believer added to our small band of ragtag misfits. Now we just have to win the big game and EVERYONE will love Cloud Atlas.

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    4. I haven't seen the Soderbergh Solaris yet, but I think the original is pretty solid. I keep meaning to watch the Clooney version because I have high hopes that it cuts out the meandering ten minute shots of travelling that Tarkovsky's movie some-crazy-how thinks it needs. But Steve's right, the last shot sticks with you.

      Every Criterion sale I pass over Robinson Crusoe on Mars and swear I'll watch before next time. Thanks for the endorsement to get my rear in gear and finally get around to it.

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    5. Steve and Myke I am with you, the original Solaris is a pretty powerful film. I prefer it to the Clooney remake though it is a decent film in its own right.

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  7. I also want to add SCREAMERS, which might be more of my own preference, rather than it being any good.

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    1. I'm starting to think no one read the beginning of this column.

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    2. Shoot. Good thing I also wanted to bring up OMEGA DOOM.

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    3. Did you guys ever see The Brother From Another Planet? I'd say that's underrated.

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    4. Jesus, Brother From Another Planet. Now THAT'S a good choice as well. Joe Morton is just wonderful in that.

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  8. Where is Oblivion on this list?

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    1. So you don't like the 2 hour Chemical Brothers music video that is Tron: Legacy either?

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  9. As the sole sci-fi entrant in the Bond franchise, Moonraker is rated quite low. I'm not going to suggest that it is actually good, and its weak sci-fi parts probably disqualify it from this list, but for it's goofy action (raven double take at boat car) and ludicrous villain plot, it's worth a poke.

    Time cop is also a fun watch, but maybe this is fun-bad too, as opposed to good. The one liners are quite terrible (I'm still kicking. I must be on Broadway.) but Jean Claude is fun to watch on screen.

    Any love for Event Horizon? Too well known for this list? The movie falls apart in the 3rd act, but the ride up to that point makes it worth it.

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    1. 1. I like Moonraker better than a couple of other Bond movies, only because it's sillier and more watchable.

      2. I didn't include Timecop only because I assumed EVERYONE likes Timecop.

      3. Event Horizon is probably still my favorite Paul W.S. Anderson movie, but I'm still not as big a fan as a lot of people (including some on this site).

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    2. That dubious honor for me belongs to "Soldier".

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  10. Nice list Patrick, there are a few I have not seen and will have to check them out.

    Just to throw a couple more into the ring; Silent Running (1972) with Bruce Dern, and Outland (1981). Both interesting sc-fi films that seem to fit the lesser known or under-appreciated criteria.

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  11. I was hoping for a spot for The 6th Day, which manages to not only have TWO AHNULDS, with all the entertainment value that suggests, but also be a legitimately intelligent and thought-provoking consideration of what the next stage of genetic manipulation might hold. It's breezy, intelligently plotted, has a fine supporting turn by Duvall, and a quite frankly beautiful precision f-strike. It deserves another look!

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  12. But what about Primer?
    Worst list ever. This isn't a bit like exactly how I'm thinking.

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  13. Great list! I really didn’t like SPLICE when I first saw it. I left the theater furious at how dumb I thought it was. Everyone still swears by it as brilliant, though, so maybe I should re-visit it. FORTRESS takes a while to get going, but once it does, it gets insane in the best way.

    My picks:

    RETURN OF CHANDU: Bela Lugosi plays Chandu, a powerful psychic who travels the globe having adventures. Lugosi’s clearly having a lot of fun as the action hero instead of the villain. Sometimes I think it’d be cool if they made a modern-day Chandu film with today’s tech, etc., but only if it’s not suck-crap.

    BRAND UPON THE BRAIN: I know this one is not for all tastes, and it’s often too “artsy” for its own good, but I love the setting with the island full of crazy machines and the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew riff. Every time I watch it, I want to explore more of this crazy world.

    THE RELIC: Often dismissed a lesser movie, it’s got a lot going for it, like a great gloomy setting, a wonky sci-fi origin for its monster, and a truly awesome Stan Winstron creature design.

    ATTACK THE BLOCK: Surprisingly great. It takes the “Goonies” vibe but goes inner-city with it, and then adds another seriously cool monster design.

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  14. Have you even seen a movie before 1979? What a sad, uneducated list.

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    1. 15% of the list is before 1979. Also "underrated" is pretty specific - you might be thinking of movies that are already rated highly or perhaps not really rated at all. What examples do you think were missing from this subjective (as admitted by the author) list?

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