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

10. 2001: A Space Odyssey

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.

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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.

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8. World on a Wire

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.

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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.

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And here's Tavernier discussing the film.

6. Tetsuo The Iron Man

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...

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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.

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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.

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3. Alphaville

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.

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2. The Man Who Fell To Earth

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.

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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.

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Film Listing

2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick, 1968

"Hello, HAL do you read me, HAL?" "Affirmative, Dave, I read you." Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's's celebrated sci-fi treatise in which astronaut... More

£8.99 DVD

The Man Who Fell to Earth (Restored)

Nicolas Roeg, 1976

In Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, an alien (David Bowie) arrives on Earth in search of water to save his own dying planet. Assuming the name Thoma... More

£11.99 Blu-ray

Recommended Star

World on a Wire

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's TV production, World on a Wire, is a science-fiction classic that explores the notion of a computer-generated other world, pre-dat... More

£11.99 DVD

Recommended Star

The Damned (Losey, 1963)

Joseph Losey, 1963

'Come At Your Own Risk ... If You Come Alone!' A Hammer production directed by Joseph Losey, in which a story of adolescent thugs, led by Oliver Reed, com... More

£6.99 DVD

Recommended Star

Death Watch

Bertrand Tavernier, 1980

A dystopian sci-fi drama based on David Compton's novel, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, or The Unsleeping Eye, Death Watch stars Romy Schneider as a ter... More

£14.99 Blu-ray

Must Watch Star

Ikarie XB-1

Jindrich Polák, 1963

Jindrich Polák's pioneering and much-imitated feature is one of the cornerstones of contemporary sci-fi cinema. Adapted from Stanislaw Lem's 1955 novel The M... More

£11.99 DVD


Jean-Luc Godard, 1965

Compelling viewing for students of science fiction and film noir. Imagine a gallic Sam Spade, call him Lemmy Caution, place him on the rim of the known unive... More

£9.99 DVD