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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Intelligent Science Fiction Films, Part 1 (originally published 9/97)

For a flat-out, popcorn-chomping good time at the movies, it's hard to beat a good science fiction thriller. Ray guns, bug-eyed monsters, and cool spaceships are ideal subjects for the kind of spectacle movies thrive on. As a long-time fan of science fiction in all its aspects, I've certainly enjoyed the run of space operas and monster pictures that have followed in the wake of "Star Wars" and "Alien" over the last twenty years or so.

At the same time, we should be mindful of the fact that there is more to science fiction than its Saturday matinee aspect. It is also a literature of ideas, extrapolation and philosophy. When you read the work of a master of the form, like Philip K. Dick or Theodore Sturgeon, you can almost feel your mind expanding. Movies can do that kind of science fiction too, although it requires a more skillful hand on the tiller.

Of course, both kinds of science fiction movies can, and do, exist under the broad umbrella of cinema. My only concern is that the recent dominance of the lighter forms of science fiction on the screen may have caused us to overlook the genre pedigree of more cerebral speculative fiction films. I wonder, for example, how many of the people who saw "Contact" even thought of it as science fiction. It includes a wild ride to a far star, to be sure, but there's not a single cute robot or predatory alien monster to be seen. Even so, it belongs squarely in the finest tradition of the science fiction genre. If you enjoyed "Contact" and would like to see more science fiction movies that don't require you to check your brain at the door, look for these titles on video.

"The Man in the White Suit" (1952). Here's a perfect example of what I'm talking about. In this British comedy, Alec Guinness plays a fellow who invents an amazing new kind of fabric. His cloth makes good on every fabric manufacturer's hyperbolic claims and then some by being totally impervious to soiling and wear. It sounds great, but soon the fabric industry barons realize that their business depends on soiling and wear. Where would they be if every suit sold were the last suit the customer need ever buy? This is classic science fiction, exploring the human dimension of technological change. And yet, most citations of this film neglect to classify it as anything but plain vanilla comedy.

"La Jetee" (1962). French filmmaker Chris Marker's fascinating short film has finally been released on video, thanks to its association with Terry Gilliam's "Twelve Monkeys" (1995). Gilliam's film is, in essence, an expanded remake of the French classic. Marker weaves a time paradox around a tale of a man sent back into the past on a mission to retrieve vital information, just as Gilliam's remake does. Marker's film, however, uses only still images, music, and narration. That may sound dull, but I promise you it isn't. Marker has a powerful story to tell and he knows how to tell it. As much as I admire Gilliam's work, I don't think his enhancements did anything to improve on Marker's crisp, clean short subject.

"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). What do you get when you combine the speculative imagination of Arthur C. Clarke, the man who first conceived of the geostationary communications satellite, with the visual imagination of director Stanley Kubrick? You get a cryptic, fascinating first contact tale that stretches from the dawn of man to beyond the infinite. If this is one of those movies you've been meaning to see but haven't, don't put it off any longer. It makes Jody Foster's interstellar jaunt in "Contact" look like a walk around the block.

"The Man Who Fell to Earth" (1976). An alien from a dying world comes to Earth. Sounds like the basis for a typical alien invasion movie, but this alien never quite gets around to planning an invasion. Instead, screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, adapting the novel by Walter Tevis, uses the hoary old premise to satirize the seductive debauchery of human nature. In short order, the purposeful alien scout has succumbed to a garden of earthly delights, his mission only a rueful memory.

There's more where these came from. Next week we'll look for even more signs of intelligent life in the cinema universe.

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