Ten Neglected Science Fiction Movies

Published by DVD Beaver in August 2006. — J.R.


Even though I don’t have much of a head for science, and even though I agree with the field’s chief literary critic, Damon Knight, that “we have no negative knowledge” (meaning that we aren’t yet in a position to identify time travel as either science or non-science), I’d still maintain that the differences between science fiction and fantasy are important. (For Damon Knight’s criticism, see his superb though sadly long out-of-print collection In Search of Wonder.) Important enough, in any case, to make a list of favorite neglected SF movies distinct and separate from a list of neglected fantasy movies. So consider the following selection the first half of a two-part series.

French people tend to conflate SF and fantasy a little more readily than others do into a looser category known as fantastique which also manages to encompass Surrealism, some forms of satire and horror, comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels, among other things. But for the purposes of this particular exercise, credible extrapolations or fictions that at least pretend to have some relation to science —- by which I mean Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (admittedly a borderline case), The Nutty Professor, and The Incredible Shrinking Man, but not Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, The Tiger of Eschnapur, or Eyes Wide Shut —- qualify as science fiction. I’m also including social satires like Privilege (or Alphaville — the supreme example, though not exactly neglected) that toss various pop references into the mix, but not outright political cartoons like Dr. Strangelove and William Klein’s Mr. Freedom. I’ve also opted for relegating horror in most of its guises to fantasy, with the sole exception of The Nutty Professor. I realize there’s something highly idiosyncratic and arbitrary about all this, but I should stress that I’m proposing offbeat selections here, not necessarily nominations for official classics.

Two more areas of exclusion: I have a somewhat unfashionable preference for good movies over bad ones, despite the fact that more fan magazines nowadays seem devoted to the latter than to the former. This doesn’t mean I’m immune to the charms of camp; if I had to choose between any Flash Gordon serial and any Star Wars movie, the serial would win hands down. But since I also tend to regard Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible as the greatest Flash Gordon serial ever made, I’m happier when it’s the good stuff that’s going over the top. And for similar reasons, I’ve also avoided movies with awesome individual shots or sets or sequences, such as Just Imagine (1930) and This Island Earth (1954), if the rest of what one sees doesn’t live up to them. (If practically all the shots are awesome, as is the case with Zardoz, I’m more prone to put up with campy content.) One final point: the first two and last two selections on my list are all films I regard as major, and the same goes for The Nutty Professor; the remaining five are exciting, but not on the same level.


1) Paris qui dort/The Crazy Ray (René Clair, 1925). Clair’s second film after his 1924 Entr’acte (a dada effort designed as part of a ballet) is far from being the first SF movie. (At the very least, it’s preceded by Abel Gance’s six-minute 1915 La Folie de Docteur Tube and Yakov Protazanov’s far more elaborate 1924 Soviet production Aelita, with futurist sets and a few scenes set on Mars.) But this poetic comedy is special in the way it ties its SF premise to what movies can do, such as freeze or speed up the action. The Eiffel Tower’s night watchman awakes one morning to discover that all of Paris has frozen in its tracks, and an airplane’s pilot and passengers land and make the same discovery —- that everything came to a standstill at 3:25 am, including the clocks. The hero and the others then go on a drunken spree that lasts four days, enjoying their freedom to break into houses and go into nightclubs without paying. Eventually, after becoming bored, they discover that a professor, the uncle of one of the passengers, immobilized the city with a crazy ray, at which point they get him to start things up again.

A certain amount of restopping, restarting, and speeding up the life of Paris follows. Originally about an hour long, this was re-edited by Clair into a brisk 35 minutes in the 1950s, and this is the version available as an extra on the Criterion DVD of Clair’s first sound feature, the engaging Under the Roofs of Paris (1930), which features the same lead actor, Albert Préjean.
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2) Metropolis (1927). Ever since H.G. Wells called Fritz Lang’s gigantic UFA superproduction silly, others have tended to follow suit, including Lang himself. The movie’s final scene unquestionably qualifies as over the top, and the same could undoubtedly be said of certain other parts of the film as well. But however hokey this pseudo-Marxist vision of a future city might be, the Freudian subtexts of the original version —- before Paramount Pictures, the American distributor, started editing out entire subplots and obscuring some portions that remained — are surprisingly dense and sophisticated. Not all of the original film survives today, but the superb restoration overseen by Martin Koerber, using stills and intertitles to represent the missing pieces, finally makes the full design of Lang and his wife and cowriter Thea von Harbou clear,  and it’s a revelation. (See Tom Gunning’s 2000 book The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity for an intricate unpacking of the film as an allegory and how this aspect has tended to taint most critical appraisals of it;

Gunning’s treatment of the clashes between Gothic and modern imagery and the way they tend to displace the conflict between classes in the film is especially insightful.) In fact, I’d argue that Metropolis, set in the 21st century, looks less dated and seems more relevant to 2006 than 2001: A Space Odyssey —- an irrefutable classic in other respects that I’ve omitted from this list only because, like such 50s classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Incredible Shrinking Man, it qualifies today as neither neglected nor underrated. (I suppose it could be argued that Metropolis isn’t neglected either, but I would counter that the Koerber restoration is.) No less tellingly, the robot Maria in Lang’s masterpiece anticipates Gigolo Joe in A.I. (see below) in many significant aspects.


3) The Nutty Professor (1963). Yes, I know, this is almost never classified as SF. (Neither, for that matter, is the no less deserving 1935 James Whale masterpiece, Bride of Frankenstein, whose own literary source, by Mary Shelley, all but invented SF as a literary genre.) But part of the point of this list is to stretch the categories a little, and Jerry Lewis’s best feature, a highly personal take on the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” story, is surely no further removed from science than the space operas of George Lucas. (Furthermore, the brightly color-coded test tubes of Professor Julius Kelp are surely just as speculative as the Star Wars costumes.) It’s been argued that Lewis’s Mr. Hyde, Buddy Love, is a reincarnation of his former partner Dean Martin, but this is a misconception that takes some of the edge off Lewis’s achievement. While Kelp was based on his observation of a real-life model (according to Lewis, someone he met on a train), Buddy Love is nothing more or less than a caustic self-portrait of everything Lewis finds most odious about himself.

And, as with Orson Welles, it can be argued that his auto-critiques are far more devastating than anything that could be said by his detractors. Even more striking is this film’s pessimistic and sorrowful conclusion —- that everyone, including Stella Stevens’ character and us, prefers the greasy and aggressive braggadocio of Love to the gentle and klutzy fumblings of Kelp.



4) The Damned (1963). Released the same year as Lewis’s masterpiece but made two years earlier —- and retitled These Are the Damned by its U.S. distributor —- Joseph Losey’s only SF film, strikingly shot in black and white ‘Scope, is no less bleak in its estimation of mankind, either in the present or the foreseeable future. Unavailable today on DVD apart from an ugly and pirated pan-and-scan version [2015: This is no longer the case: go here], this enduring and topical curiosity deserves much wider circulation. Adapted by Jamaican writer Evan Jones from H.L. Lawrence’s novel The Children of Light, it was the first of four kinky features that Jones wrote for Losey (to be swiftly followed by Eva, King & Country, and Modesty Blaise), and its strangely twisted action-thriller plot gradually registers as a ringing indictment of nothing less than western civilization. Starting off with a hectoring rock song called “Black Leather,” it follows the adventures of an American tourist (Macdonald Carey) in an English coastal town who gets beaten by Teddy Boys after the gang leader (Oliver Reed) uses his own sexy sister (Sally Ann Field) as bait. She subsequently flees from her incestuously hung-up sibling, hiding out with the American on his boat and in the seaside studio of a local sculptor (Viveca Lindfors). As the brother continues his pursuit, they stumble into an underground bunker housing radioactive children who are raised and monitored via closed-circuit TV–the victims of a military experiment conducted by the sculptor’s lover (Alexander Knox) that’s designed to enable the kids to survive a nuclear holocaust. Apart from the bland American, everyone’s a wild card in this bitter parable. (Lindfors’ sympathetic character is especially interesting.)




5) The 10th Victim (1965). Elio Petri’s cynical, glitzy, violent and poker-faced pop Italian comedy, set in the 21st century, squares off Marcello Mastroianni in a blond wig with Ursula Andress in a protracted erotic skirmish. The Robert Sheckley story it derives from, “The Seventh Victim” —- which I presume was renamed to avoid confusion with Val Lewton’s 1943 masterpiece chiller —- is similarly set in a future in which war has been abolished, and international government-sponsored “hunts” with extensive media coverage are designed to work off human aggression. Each participant signs up for ten hunts —- half as hunter, half as potential victim —- and whoever succeeds and survives all ten becomes the member of a prestigious club. A male hunter on his seventh hunt falls in love with his female prey on her tenth outing, and he winds up doomed by his infatuation. The movie reverses this setup —- Andress is the hunter on her tenth round; Mastroianni is the hunted on his seventh —- and the tone’s far too facetious to allow for love.

After a prologue in which Andress performs her ninth kill by spraying bullets from her brassiere in a joint called the Masoch Club, the scene shifts from New York (where the original story was set) to Rome, where she and a seemingly bored Mastroianni stage their seductive confrontations in settings charged with satiric, high-tech details. According to critic Manny Farber, “in certain nonplot scene” the movie “comes close to the perfumed eroticism that is always promised in painting by Rothko or Jasper Johns but never delivered.” In other words, you might say it’s too stylish for words.



6) Privilege (1967). Peter Watkins is the supreme master and very nearly the inventor of the pseudo-documentary, which he uses as an unorthodox way of recounting history or projecting contemporary trends into the near-future. This dystopian Universal release is about the fascist takeover of Great Britain, with a duped and manipulated messianic rock singer (Paul Jones, lead singer of Manfred Mann in his first film role) used as a political as well as marketing tool. This comes from Watkins’ greatest period to date, which also produced Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965). The latter two films have recently been issued on DVD, and so have the subsequently made The Gladiators (1969) and Punishment Park (1971) —- both of which, along with The War Game, also qualify as SF, so a long-overdue rediscovery of early Watkins is already in progress. I therefore assume that the only thing preventing us so far from having this ferocious satire on DVD is the fact that, unlike the others, it was released by a major Hollywood studio —- and didn’t fare well at the boxoffice in 1967, when the public wasn’t ready for it Let’s hope that some enlightened Universal executive realizes that it’s hour has finally come and does something about it. 




7) Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968). Alain Resnais’ time-travel feature —- a major influence and inspiration on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but unfortunately the only Resnais feature apart from the exquisite Providence that’s still unavailable on DVD —- confounds the most common American criticism of him, virtually copyrighted by Pauline Kael, that his films are cold, cerebral technical exercises. In fact, Kael had it backwards. This poignant story about a failed suicide who’s sent into his past as a scientific experiment that goes awry —- so that he’s hurtled through an achronological mosaic of fragments from his life, sometimes getting stuck in repetitive, arbitrary moments, while taking us along with him on the bumpy ride —- is full of intensely passionate and melancholy feelings, as the film’s very title (“I Love You, I Love You”) suggests. But when it comes to the film dealing with the scientific and technical side of time travel, it’s awkward and unconvincing.

One reason for this discrepancy can be traced back to this film’s relation to fantastique. The screenwriter, Jacques Sternberg, is a Surrealist, and Resnais got him to write hundreds of pages of “automatic writing” that the director then spent years editing into a script, depending on his own unconscious mind and instincts as well as Sternberg’s to furnish the story’s strong emotional content, and meanwhile treated the scientific basis for time travel as a kind of whimsical joke.



8) Zardoz (1974). Speaking of Kael, she made a lot of sport out of ridiculing John Boorman’s ambitious SF epic when it came out, overlooking its own traces of irony (such as its references to The Wizard of Oz) to concentrate on its high-flown intellectual pretensions. I suppose she had a point, but considering how beautifully and masterfully Boorman manages to fill all his CinemaScope frames, it’s a point that can be harped on only at the expense of overlooking that this film’s brilliance and its absurdity are really opposite sides of the same coin. Theoretically, one could make the same sort of criticism of the delirious crazy-house mirror shootout at the end of Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai — a sequence Boorman evokes in Zardoz. But one would miss out on all the fun in the process. In the year 2293, most of the world, now polluted and infertile, is ruled by a flying stone godhead with a voice named Zardoz, secretly controlled by a wizard. Zed (Sean Connery), one of the warriors carried around by Zardoz, kills the wizard, lands on earth, and stumbles upon the Vortex, a 300-year-old elite commune of immortals preserving the world’s knowledge, which proceeds to study this primitive for research with the intention of killing him afterwards, until he stages a rebellion.

This is a very simplified synopsis of an extremely complicated plot that also involves Charlotte Rampling as an immortal. Perhaps a better summary would be to compare Zardoz to Boorman’s best film — his 1967 Point Blank — and note that both films could be called Tarzan versus IBM, Godard’s original title for Alphaville (with Lee Marvin taking over the Tarzan role in the earlier film). Both chart the fool’s progress of primitive heroes working their way up mysterious pyramids of power, only to discover an ineffectual clown like the Wizard of Oz at the top. This isn’t the whole of Zardoz, to be sure, but at least it suggests that Boorman spices his own deep-dish musings with an occasional grain of salt.



9) Stalker (1979). There are few such ironies in Andrei Tarkovsky’s free and very great adaptation of Arkady and Boris Sturgatsky’s dystopian novel Roadside Picnic. But one that does crop up unexpectedly figures as one of the only genuine, laugh-out-loud gags in all of Tarkovsky’s work. After a scientist and writer accompany a guide, the title character, through the better part of this slow-moving, 152-minute epic, traipsing endlessly through a poisonous and dangerous wasteland to arrive at the Zone–a mysterious room that is said to hold the power to grant their deepest wishes—-they arrive at this decrepit, abandoned location only to hear a phone ringing inside. As an artist, Tarkovsky himself hated the very notion of science fiction; according to him, his previous and only other foray into the genre, Solaris (1972), failed because it was too much like SF. (On other occasions, he objected even to the notion of movie genres, arguing that film itself was already a genre in its own right.) I don’t believe he objected to Stalker on the same grounds, but it must be admitted that his trancelike and highly spiritual narrative is so adept at creating its own rules of form, narrative, and meaning, that SF serves more as a gateway into its manifold riches than as a final destination.

To ‘fess up, the first time I saw this film, my dashed expectations about SF in general and the Zone in particular made me livid for most of the running time, and I stuck around more out of morbid curiosity than for any other reason. But by the end I started to realize that my dashed expectations were the precise subject of the film, and what Tarkovsky had to teach me about this subject is still reverberating.
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10) A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). Unlike most of my friends and colleagues, I’ve treasured this bittersweet SF remake of Pinocchio —- the tragic yet happy tale of a robot who winds up expressing the final breath of mankind — since the first time I saw it. It held me spellbound from first frame to last, and frankly, through all my subsequent viewings, it continues to move and speak to me more than any feature I’ve seen since. So those who say that it should have ended a few scenes earlier or that the bits with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) are the best parts might as well be speaking to me in a foreign tongue. And those who approach this movie from an auteurist perspective — viewing it simply as either a Stanley Kubrick film (because he spent years developing it) or as a Steven Spielberg film (because he took over the project after Kubrick’s death, at the request of Kubrick’s widow) —-  can’t be viewing it correctly either. As a philosophical meditation on the differences between mechanical and organic life, life and death, and mankind and the artifacts of mankind, we can’t even say with confidence if A.I. is the product of a dead filmmaker or a living one, a piece of celluloid or an experience, a warm tearjerker of Disneylike goo about the goodness of human life or the chilliest and bleakest possible parable about its futility.

It’s sad to reflect that out of my ten selections here, only the first on my list, The Crazy Ray, has much chance of cheering you up as a happy sort of fantasy, which probably reflects my current feelings about the times we’re living in. (I think we can all agree that the happy ending of Metropolis is by far the silliest thing about the movie.) But I also have to admit that, for all its terminal gloom about the human condition and the future of mankind, A.I. can only fill me with hope about the future of art.

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