August 10, 2013

My Top Ten Sci-Fi Films

I'm not the biggest fan of sci-fi. Spaceships, robots, laser guns, little bleeping machines, and aliens with funny-shaped heads have never done it for me. I don't actively collect sci-fi movies, and I've tended to avoid the SyFy channel like the plague even when it actually used to show sci-fi movies instead of wrestling and "Ghost Hunters" episodes. Sci-fi is just not my thing.

When I think of sci-fi, it makes me remember the times when I've had to compromise on my choice of rental movies. Sometimes I was forced to hire sci-fi movies because I'd already seen all the horror available, but on other occasions, when girlfriends have wanted some lame romantic-comedy and I wanted the grisliest horror known to man, middle ground was only reached by choosing something that neither of us really wanted to see. That kind of sums up the only reason I can think for the existence of the genre; sci-fi is only something to watch when you can't have what you want.

Having said that, and pissed off all the basement-dwelling neckbeards and nerd-girls who read my blog, there have been a few sci-fi movies which I've found entertaining over the years.

1. RoboCop (1987)

"In a dystopic and crime-ridden Detroit, a terminally wounded cop returns to the force as a powerful cyborg haunted by submerged memories."

"RoboCop" is the only movie from any genre which I've watched twice in a cinema. I went to see it on my own, but I was so blown away by it that I went straight to the pub afterwards and dragged a bunch of my mates back for the next showing. None of us had seen anything like it before, and it's obviously still my favourite sci-fi/action film of all time.

If I had to isolate the reasons why "RoboCop" gave me the "post-movie buzz", I probably couldn't come up with anything other than it being more spectacular and exciting than anything I'd seen theatrically before. I went in expecting it to be a ripoff of "The Vindicator" (1986)—which it is—but I was gobsmacked by the effects and gloriously gory violence.

I didn't like "RoboCop 2", but "RoboCop 3" and the crappy TV series killed the magic so much that I ended up burning my RoboCop action figures from Woolworth's on a bonfire.

2. Equilibrium (2002)

"In a Fascist future where all forms of feeling are illegal, a man in charge of enforcing the law rises to overthrow the system."

I can't believe that "Equilibrium" is 11 years old now! I think this was the first Christian Bale film that I ever saw. I may be wrong about that though because "American Psycho" and "Reign of Fire" had started showing up on Sky TV channels around the same time.

With a modest budget of only $20,000,000 (yes, I know!), the world represented by only a few sets and clever camerawork feels a lot bigger than it actually is, and the now overused washed-out blue and grey hues add even more of a coolness factor to the cinematography. The only valid criticism I can think of is that the plot liberally borrows from dozens of other famous sci-fi stories and merely adds some very nicely choreographed fight scenes. But as I'm quite ignorant about most sci-fi, none of that matters.

Not only was I totally into the gun-kata action scenes, but I even bought an Android Alien watch like the one Christian Bale's character wears. Just to be different, I have a blue-dialled one rather than a black-dialled one. Unlike the movie version, it doesn't have an alarm on it, it's very uncomfortable, it's too hard to see the time, and it kind of sucks in real life.

3. Village of the Damned (1960)

"In the English village of Midwich, the blond-haired, glowing-eyed children of uncertain paternity prove to have frightening powers."

"Village of the Damned" is one of those movies which used to show up on BBC2 on rainy Saturday afternoons, although I have a feeling that I first saw it on Channel Four sometime in the '90s instead. They probably showed it to coincide with the release of John Carpenter's remake which I've never seen in its entirety.

There's probably a word for people who loathe children as much as I do, and I'd guess that it isn't a very nice one, but I really got a lot of sadistic pleasure from the ending of this movie.

Considering that it's such a classic, I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I'd never even heard of it before. If I hadn't seen John Wyndham's name credited for writing "Village of the Damned", I would have been none the wiser about that either. "The Midwych Cuckoos" isn't the most enticing book title for someone like me, and I only knew of John Wyndham from the BBC TV adaptation of "Day of the Triffids". Let's face it, I'm not a sci-fi book reader.

4. The Time Machine (1960)

"A Victorian Englishman travels to the far future and finds that humanity has divided into two hostile species."

Another BBC2 regular from when they used to show classic sci-fi movies at 6pm in the early '80s. I also saw it at some point when I was too young to understand what was going on, and it was only by accident that I ended up watching it again and realising what it was all about.

Apart from Alan Young's weird Scottish accent, I can't find anything to complain about in this movie. Rod Taylor makes a good hero, and Yvette Mimieux is absolutely gorgeous as Weena. Okay, she has a very silly name, but I'm not going to make any obvious jokes involving "Rod" and "Weena" because I'm no longer 12 years old. I'll just snigger about the double entendres in my own mind.

When you look at the state of today's younger generation, and note how they aren't far off being food for the Morlocks, there's also a prophetic warning here for sure.

5. Planet of the Apes (1968)

"An astronaut crew crash lands on a planet in the distant future where intelligent talking apes are the dominant species, and humans are the oppressed and enslaved."

Having seen the TV series first, I didn't realise that the film predated it or that there were originally books and comics too. In my infant mind, all I knew was that Galen wasn't being called Galen but Cornelius! Where were Alan and Pete? And who was this Charlton Heston guy? Well, of course I know now, but I didn't then.

It took me many years to accept that this movie was better than the TV series, but I still prefer Roddy McDowell as Galen rather than as Cornelius or Caesar. Whatever the case though, Roddy McDowell was born to play a talking chimpanzee!

I've seen all the "Planet of the Apes" movies (even Tim Burton's shitty remake) on TV dozens of times, so I'll probably never buy them on DVD.

6. Timecop (1994)

"An officer for a security agency that regulates time travel, must fend for his life against a shady politician who has a tie to his past."

Back in the day, you were either a Stallone fan or an Arnie fan, but then "The Muscles from Brussels" came along to keep girlfriends who hated action movies quiet for a few minutes. Thus, "Timecop" became the first Jean-Claude Van Damme movie that I ever saw.

"Timecop" is full of plot holes, but it's really just an action movie in disguise anyway. The failures in the mechanics of its time travel elements don't bear thinking about, so it's best not to. None of the flaws are that noticeable unless you are a pedantic nerd, in which case you'd be better off watching "Doctor Who" anyway.

Ron Silver's McComb character is easily his best performance in anything, but Jean-Claude iconically standing on one leg to kick a baddie in the face is the most memorable part for me.

7. Cube (1997)

"7 complete strangers of widely varying personality characteristics are involuntarily placed in an endless kafkaesque maze containing deadly traps."

In many ways a precursor to the "Saw" movies, this Canadian sci-fi has a few horror elements which my girlfriend at the time didn't appreciate. She whinged so much that I didn't get to finish watching "Cube" until three years later! Neither of us realised that it had so many gory horror set pieces, but I still got the blame for choosing it instead of "Men in Black". To this day, I still haven't seen "Men in Black", and I never will.

Clever use of only one set and coloured lights, combined with a cast of relatively unknown British and Canadian TV actors, apparently created a big splash among the "low-budget" fanboys. I was unaware of any of that nonsense because "Cube" was just something I picked off the "New Releases" shelf after scanning the back of the VHS artwork for the usual guff and a synopsis. The fact that it wasn't a kiddified American comedy was all I needed to know.

"Cube" has become a bit dated in places (although it's still miles better than its sequels), but I might revisit it and write a full review eventually. I've said that about a lot of movies though and never have.

8. Starship Troopers (1997)

"Humans in a fascistic, militaristic future do battle with giant alien bugs in a fight for survival."

Although "Starship Troopers" was described by some wags at the time as "90210 in Space" due its plethora of popular young TV actors in leading roles, I'd never heard of any of them before. The names of Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, and Denise Richards meant nothing to me as a Brit who was more into watching "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys", but I knew who Michael Ironside was and just wanted to see the giant bugs. I wasn't disappointed by either.

Thus, Paul Verhoeven struck gold with another action film about a dystopian future which I almost went back to see again theatrically. I didn't ever go back because the cinema closed down soon afterwards (leaving my hometown without one until a couple of years ago), but I did buy "Starship Troopers" on VHS. I also bought the first sequel which sucks balls.

9. Blade Runner (1982)

"Deckard, a blade runner, has to track down and terminate 4 replicants who hijacked a ship in space and have returned to Earth seeking their maker."

I'm not sure how many variations there are of "Blade Runner", but I've only got the director's cut on DVD. I'm not sure if it's better or worse than any other because I only saw the theatrical version once and can barely remember the differences. I do know that the "happy ending" from the original has Deckard and Rachael driving off into the countryside, but I'm sure that everything else is much the same. If it isn't, feel free to let me know.

I must admit that it took a while for "Blade Runner" to grow on me. I used to think it was boring apart from Rutger Hauer—and Harrison Ford's monotone voice could put me to sleep on a good day—but I now appreciate the film noir elements and melancholy atmosphere. Things change as you get older, and "Blade Runner" never struck me as being a young person's film. It's too depressing and preoccupied with death for one thing.

Visually, there isn't much to beat "Blade Runner" other than Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1927). If you're wondering why I haven't included "Metropolis" on this list, it's because I've only seen the tinted version with Georgio Moroder's soundtrack. I don't think I could make it through the most recent restoration with its original orchestral score. "Metropolis" has more to say about 1920s Berlin than being a proper sci-fi movie anyway.

10. Trancers (1985)

"Jack Deth is a kind of cop/bounty hunter in the bleak Los Angeles of the future. He's become obssessed with chasing Whistler - an evil criminal who uses powerful hypnotic powers to convert people into zombie like creatures known as trancers."

Since "The Terminator" (1984) was just a ripoff of two episodes of "The Outer Limits" written by Harlan Ellison, I don't see anything wrong with this lower-budget clone of the same subject matter. Most time travel movies share the same plot anyway, even last year's "Looper". If you've seen one, you've seen them all, but as this is the third one on my list, I must kind of like them.

In this case, it's Tim Thomerson's performance as Jack Deth which makes "Trancers" worth watching. He has some very memorable lines and great chemistry with Helen Hunt in her first film role.

Essentially a very entertaining "B movie" with plot holes and goofs aplenty, the cult following which "Trancers" has gathered over the years is well deserved. I like all the "Trancers" movies (even the 6th one!), and I'm looking forward to seeing the unfinished "Trancers 1.5: City of Lost Angels" when Full Moon release it later this year.

I've obviously seen a lot more sci-fi movies, but most of them are sci-fi/horror fusions which deserve their own top ten list. Just off the top of my head, "Alien", "The Last Man on Earth", "The Fly", "Event Horizon", and "The Thing" would be more highly placed than any of the titles above if I had included them here.

If you're into sci-fi, let me know which movies you like. Or, if there's something you think I should watch, leave me a comment below.

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