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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Intelligent Science Fiction Films, Part 2 (originally published 9/97)

I mentioned last week that not all science fiction movies are of the galaxy-hopping, ray gun, bug-eyed monster variety that has been so prevalent in recent years. Just as science fiction literature has a more cerebral side along with the traditional space operas, the translation of the genre to the screen also has its more reflective, philosophical aspect. The only difference is that you have to look a little harder for intellectually stimulating science fiction at the video store than at the book store. Over the last forty years or so, straight action-adventure stories have actually dwindled into the minority on the printed page. On the other hand, the screen, with its inherent affinity for action and spectacle, has continued to favor the lighter, faster moving fare. That's not to say, however, that there aren't plenty of intelligent science fiction movies to choose from at the corner video store. I recommended a few of them last time. Here are some additional titles.

"Seconds" (1966). John Randolph plays a middle aged businessman who's tired of his life and ready for a change. One day he hears about a mysterious underground operation that promises, for a hefty fee, to give people a brand new start. They will fake your death, give you a new face via plastic surgery, and set you up in a completely new life. He takes the plunge - his new self is played by Rock Hudson - but soon learns that a new start doesn't necessarily equate to a new life. And, of course, there's no going back.

"Fahrenheit 451" (1966). Ray Bradbury's chilling cautionary tale finally reached the screen courtesy of renowned French filmmaker Francois Truffaut. In the world Bradbury postulates, all books have been banned on the grounds that it is virtually impossible to write anything without offending someone. All structures, by this time, have been made fireproof, so the function of firemen has evolved to meet the new societal need. Instead of putting out fires, fire trucks are dispatched for the purpose of burning books. Occasionally a die-hard book lover will have a cache of books squirreled away in defiance of the law. When their names are turned in, as they always are sooner or later, the fire engine rolls up to their house, uses the fire hose to douse the books with kerosene, and torches them.

"Charly" (1968). Cliff Robertson stars as Charly Gordon, a mentally retarded janitor who becomes the subject of an experiment in the artificial enhancement of intelligence. At first, the treatments work beyond all expectations, transforming Charly into a transcendant genius. Unfortunately, the effect is not permanent. Charly must endure a gradual return to his original mental capacity. This moving film is based on a novel by Daniel Keyes called "Flowers For Algernon," which was in turn based on Keyes's original short story of the same title.

"Silent Running" (1971). In the not so distant future, the Earth has been entirely paved over. The last remaining terrestrial vegetation has been loaded into a space-going Noah's Ark and launched into the solar system for safekeeping. Finally, the population of Earth decides that they can no longer support the expense of such a "frill" just to keep the tree-hugging ecologists happy, so the order comes to destroy the biosphere. One of the botanists in charge of the craft, played by Bruce Dern, refuses to obey the order. Instead, he hijacks the whole works and hides in the rings of Saturn, hoping to preserve the vegetation until the people of Earth come to their senses. This is a strange little ecological parable, meditative and deliberately paced. It isn't for all tastes, but if you take it on its own terms and don't ask too many questions, like how the people of Earth are surviving without plant life to take in carbon dioxide and make oxygen, it's a fascinating piece of work. One of the screenwriters, by the way, was Steven Bochco, who went on to create such successful television series as "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue."

Speaking of television, I should acknowledge that both "Star Trek" and "The X-Files" have done their share of thoughtful science fiction. Wouldn't it be ironic if the tube, which was itself the stuff of science fiction not so long ago, ultimately became the audio-visual venue of choice for the thinking person's fantasy fiction?

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