Last weekend Deprava and I had a little heart-to-heart about really focusing on putting regular content up on the site. I promised him I would write a column this week. I gave myself a deadline of Friday, which seemed easy enough at the time. Except now it’s Friday Japan time, and I haven’t written a word…so, I could have just not posted anything, but that would have made me an oathbreaker. And if this were a fantasy novel, people would start calling me Sagramore Oathbreaker and aiming for my throne. Not cool. Luckily, I spied Deprava’s column about his other favorite sci-fi movies 6-10, which was an addendum to our last podcast. Three things were clear: I had a column to write, I didn’t have a subject, and Deprava had just posted a template I could easily copy. A light bulb turned on in my head. Without further ado, here are my top 5 sci-fi films that didn’t make the cut (i.e top 6-10). I’m going to countdown, so the last one one the list will be my favorite of these. Actually, one more ado: I really like dream movies e.g-Vanilla Sky, Paprika, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to some extent, but it’s hard to categorize those as “sci-fi,” since the future science stuff is just a plot device to explore themes unrelated to conquering space and banging green women. For the sake of simplicity I’m sticking to more “classically” sci-fi movies.
10. Neon Genesis Evangelion 1.11: You Are [Not] Alone & 2.22: You Can [Not] Advance
I know I know. The list just started, and I already cheated by listing two movies at once. However, the recent NGE redux films are one project, so I’m going to go ahead and clump them together. For those not in the know, these two films are part of a planned sequence of movies retelling the story of the cult-hit 1990’s anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. The story follows a young boy named Shinji Ikari, and several other children, who pilot giant robots, and battle against angels to protect future Tokyo.
It’s actually a rather strange phenomenon. I watched the original series as part of an anime film studies class in college, and really wasn’t too hot on the show. I’m not sure whether the fact the series was homework clouded my judgment. The 2 films (more are planned and on the way), however, are amazing. I could not believe what a catastrophic improvement over the original series the motion pictures were. The TV version had horrible pacing, and didn’t seem to exhibit the basic understanding a story needs climax and resolution. Whole episodes were spent “examining” Shinji’s psyche by recycling old footage and listening to voice over about his feelings.
In contrast, the films are fast-paced, and somehow also delve deeper into the world and themes the show only hinted at, despite its advantage in running time. Learning the world consists of more than just urban Tokyo was a pleasant surprise. The audience is exposed to more history; and the damage incurred from the Second Impact event is tangible and comprehensible, not just vague allusions in dialogue. Shinji’s emo struggles are introduced, and are still a central aspect of the story, but they are pushed to the background as actual plot and progression take center stage. Some of the original scenes not featured in the show, like Shinji’s hissy fit inside the EVA unit that sends him attacking his father at HQ, are great additions.
The film features some of the most beautiful animation I have ever seen. The action is great, the story is compelling, and the characters are actually interesting. If you’re a fan of the series, watch the movies. If you haven’t seen either one, don’t bother with the show and jump right in.
9. Starship Troopers (1997)
I really like Robocop and Total Recall, too, but I’m not putting multiple Paul Verhoeven films in any Best-of list. Well, I guess unless it’s a best-films-of-Paul-Verhoeven list… I flipped a coin a few times, and Starship Troopers won.
The movie is loosely based on the Robert A. Heinlein novel, and I mean loosely. It highlights the exploits of Argentinian Johnny Rico, from high school QB to space marine platoon leader, all while only speaking English and never exhibiting a Spanish accent. Giant bug monsters from a far away planet launch a meteor into the Earth, and humans have no choice but to mobilize and fight back in a space war. Johnny and his friends all join the army in various capacities and fight the good fight.
One of the film’s major strengths is its unexpected depth. Starship Troopers is satire. It takes a very subtle and understated approach to lampooning the mechanism behind an interstellar war machine. Late in the movie the audience may wonder how marginally intelligent space bugs from across the cosmos, who seem to have no spaceships or high tech of their own, managed to attack Earth. This is intentional. In the theater, the audience laughed uproariously at the military propaganda commercials featured in the film. Again, this is not camp; it is all intentional.
The special effects, though a little dated now, were top notch back in the day. The movie was even nominated for an Oscar for its extremely well-rendered CGI. The aliens didn’t look like computer graphics floating on a green screen; they had realistic textures and weight.
Starship Troopers is a deceptively deep film. It’s got great action, cool effects, and likeable characters. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you do so immediately, and find out who wins the battle between space bugs and space marines! Speaking of…
8. Aliens (1986)
SPACE MARINES. Do you realize that term wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for James Cameron’s mid-80’s sci-fi action masterpiece? Ridley Scott’s original Alien is, of course, a wonderful movie in its own right, a sci-fi classic. Unfortunately, it’s also dated and boring. Cameron’s version takes the creatures and corporatetely-cold futurescape of its predecessor, multiplies it by 100, and then raises it to the power of shotguns and automatic rifles.
You think the original movie empowers women? Please. All Ripley (Sigourney Weaver: yes. someone named their kid Sigourney) does is press the garbage disposal button to dump out the alien, and survive. In the sequel, she stands off against a Brood Queen monster and calls her a “bitch.” Cat fight! Ripley is a tougher warrior than the male marines, and even the butch Hispanic marine chick (after whom God modeled Michelle Rodriguez the real person), who is supposed to be empowered by her manliness, is less strong that then feminine real woman Ripley. That is a strong, positive message to little girls everywhere. Don’t do pull ups and try to be strong like a man; you’ll fail, and most likely die at the hands of an alien horde. Instead, get inside a giant claw robot and use that to amplify your motherly protective instincts and fight! Betty Friedan would be proud.
Enough about the positive female-empowering message; back to sci-fi basics. Aliens is the best blend of horror and action to have ever been filmed, in any genre. The marines have lots of cool weapons and planes, and plenty of things blow up. But the trapped-inside-the-alien-hive dynamic adds a very palpable sense of dread to the proceedings. The aliens themselves aren’t revealed for quite a while in the film; instead, we have the little girl Newt’s traumatized accounts of the colony’s fate to build unease and fear in the audience. Another of the film’s strength is the world building. The original was basically a haunted house flick, and the whole action took place inside the belly of the space freighter Nostromo. The sequel, however, shows us a few other planets (for like half a minute, I know…), and insight into the corporate machinations of the infamous Weyland-Yutani conglomerate.
Oh! And Aliens features an A.I android who isn’t a cold evil machine and cares about human life, which is revolutionary in the genre. The film has great atmosphere, and interesting world, and tight action. If you haven’t seen it, do it quick, but during the day because they come out at night….mostly.
7. Dark City (1998)
The best sci-fi movie no one has seen. John Murdoch awakens in a bathtub without any memories. There is a dead woman in the adjacent hotel room. What follows is a sci-fi noir that delves into the deepest secrets of the titular city, which has no name. John searches for his identity as he is chased by mysterious men gifted with equally mysterious powers.
Visually, the film is stunning. It takes a noir, art-deco aesthetic and mates it with M.C Escher. It is always night. There is no nature, no sun, only the labyrinthine expanse of the city. The movie also features Jennifer Connely, who in her prime was the most beautiful woman on the planet, in her prime. That adds to the overall visual appeal of the film.
The atmosphere is great, and the mystery is compounded by the eerie presence of “The Strangers,” and their superhuman abilities. The closest analogue I can come up with, is taking the first 30 minutes of the Matrix, and making that a full 2 hour movie. Without going into spoilers, the final act does have some flaws, and as is the case with most of these types of films, the payoff doesn’t quote live up to the mystery that led us there. However, Dark City is still a great overall movie, and one that I strongly recommend.
6. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)
Deprava beat me to this one, but I just can’t leave it out of the list. First of all, it’s too damn good a film to ignore for foolish reasons like blog redundancy. Second, I totally saw this first and recommended it to him, and he even took forever to finally watch it, so I get that moral victory.
The film is just damn charming; look at the picture up there. Doesn’t it make you just want to go outside and play? I guarantee you’ll fall in love with Makoto, the eponymous girl who jumps around time. The overall productions is top notch. The animation is beautiful; Production I.G., the studio behind the Ghost in the Shell series, always impresses. The music is great, too.
At base, the film is a love story. However, it sidesteps most of the usual genre tropes, and offers what seems to be a genuine look at a young girl’s first love. I say “seems” because I have no idea how real high school girls react to nascent feelings of budding romance, but Makoto seems truly conflicted and confused by the onset of feelings for and from boys. The film does a great job of showing us how the innocent trinity of friends is reshaped by adolescence and the beginnings of sexual maturity. I really don’t have much more to add; Deprava did a good job of talking up the movie in his post. I just can’t recommend it enough; it is really a beautiful, charming film.
And that’s it! I made it! The post is written. Of course, there’s lots of other great sci-fi movies out there. Predator, Moon, the list goes on forever. And we’re not even talking about TV shows. Star Trek TNG, Battlestar Galactica (not the one from the stone age), and Gurren Lagann are just a few examples of awesomely great sci-fi television. So go out there, everyone! See and read more sci-fi!
P.S- I love The 5th Element almost as much as life itself, but that movie is fantasy, not sc-fi.