by Patrick Bromley
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.