Top 10 Arthouse Sci-fi Films
By James Oliver
Science Fiction films these days are mostly muscle-bound effects extravaganzas, suspicious of ideas and intelligence. But there's a venerable history of more cerebrally-minded film-makers donning their lab-coats and using the trappings of the genre to explore their own themes.
What follows is a list of best examples of auteur-driven Science Fiction films, movies that show that there's more to futurology than the multiplexes would have you believe. (And, before you ask, Tarkovsky's Stalker and Solaris are out of print.)
NB. We've limited ourselves to choosing from titles currently available in the UK
An inescapable landmark. Stanley Kubrick recruited Arthur C Clarke to help him make 'the proverbial good science fiction movie': had he simply filmed the story Clarke provided (and novelised), it would have been just that. But Kubrick went further into the infinite, stripping away exposition and emphasising awe to create one of the few authentically cosmic movies.
9. Code 46
With his fondness for low, low budgets and improvisatory approach, Michael Winterbottom might not seem like a natural fit for Science Fiction. Perhaps that's what inspired this natural contrarian to give it a shot. Drawing on Alphaville (as well as, less predictably, Brief Encounter), Winterbottom found the future amongst the architectural hubris of Dubai, China and India, making this possibly the most prescient film on our list.
Given he was so productive, it's hard to keep track of all of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's many films – one wonders if even he saw all the work ascribed to him – but around 1973, he directed this two part film for West German television. Adapted from a novel by Daniel F Galouye, it anticipates the whole 'is-everything-real-or-not?' world of The Matrix. This being Fassbinder, of course, he's more interested in ideas than in cool black leather trench coats. And quite rightly so, because while The Matrix already looks a wee bit long in the tooth, World on a Wire holds up splendidly.
7. Death Watch
Glasgow's something of a movie hub these days but Death Watch was filmed there long before the municipal regeneration, when 'the city of the stare' was the perfect backdrop for this bleak film. Harvey Keitel's got a camera in his eye and he's using it to record the last days of Romy Schneider to broadcast to a slavering public. It was directed by Bertrand Tavernier, one of the world's great cinephiles and someone who'd thought a lot about 'watching': its account of media voyeurism seems horribly farsighted.
And here's Tavernier discussing the film.
It's fair to say people were unprepared for Tetsuo The Iron Man. Part Cronenbergian body horror, part Lynchian nightmare, and part entirely uncategorisable, it's the everyday story of a man who, as one does, turns into a machine. It was made for peanuts but the sheer impact of the imagery (which, it must be said, is extremely sexual) transcends any lack of resources. Even twenty years it remains a striking and shocking film: you have been warned...
5. Ikarie XB-1
There's a long and honourable tradition of Czech science fiction, in literature and on film, and this – adapted from a novel Polish sci-fi guru Stanislaw Lem (who also wrote the novel that became Solaris) – is perhaps the pinnacle. It's an altogether more serious take on the genre than most contemporary Western flicks and very likely an influence on 2001. Here's hoping we get director Jindrich Polák's (more light-hearted) time travel romp Zítra vstanu a oparím se cajem soon.
4. La Jetee
Arguably the most famous short film ever made (well, it's in an arm-wrestle with Un Chien Andalou) for the title), La Jetee was documentarian/ essayist Chris Marker's sole foray into fiction. It's a time travel tale, but Marker is as interested in bending the rules of cinematic grammar as the laws of physics: it's composed exclusively of stills with only a single instance of movement. Twelve Monkeys ripped it off wholesale but lacks the concentrated potency of Marker's masterpiece. Here's a short documentary about Marker.
Jean-Luc Godard didn't bother with whizz-bang effects to create the city of the future: he just took his camera around contemporary Paris. And why not, since that's what his film is about: for all it's ostensibly a pulp adventure (private eye Eddie Constantine must free Alphaville from digital dictatorship!), the real subject is the society that spawned it – impersonal modernism, urban atomisation and faceless corporate oppression. How depressing that it remains so topical. Here's an introduction from Colin McCabe.
It was a decision of genius to cast David Bowie as an alien. After all, hadn't he made his name pretending to be an astronaut and stuff? Here, The Thin White Duke is an extra-terrestial who comes to earth only to be corrupted by humanity. It's arguably the last hurrah of large scale, intelligent sci-fi: a year or so later, Star Wars was released and, for good or ill, everything changed.
And here's “The Dame” (© Smash Hits) doing one of his space-based numbers.
1. The Damned
The Damned was just about the oddest film Hammer films ever made, a film about nothing so much as the end of civilisation. Scientists of questionable sanity prepare for a post-atomic future, violent thugs terrorise the future and everyone else sits with their head in their hands rocking with despair at it all. Oh, and I forgot to mention – it's a masterpiece. It was directed by Joseph Losey and Hammer were uncomfortable with the results. But while it's the strangest film they made, it might very well be the best.