Science Fiction is such a malleable genre that it works anywhere in the world. Ideas like alien invasions, time travel, robots, dystopias, cloning, genetic mutations, and space battles are not locked into a certain country or time. For this piece I have chosen five sci-fi movies from five different countries that stand out as some of the best. They are sometimes violent, always thought-provoking, and never boring.
Battle Royale (Batoru rowaiaru) – Japan 2000
Students on a field trip are gassed and wake up on an island where they are told to fight and die. The last one standing gets to go home. So far, so Hunger Games, right? Where Battle Royale differs from The Hunger Games is that the teenagers on the island aren’t from post-apocalyptic dystopias. No, they are from Japan in the not-too-distant future, and they are school children. The best thing about this movie (and the book it is based on) is that the teenagers act like teenagers. They are still embroiled in their high school rivalries and unrequited crushes, only now they are armed to the teeth and given carte blanche to murder each other. It is a tragic, bloody, violent, actually pretty funny, and exhilarating movie. It has become popular again in recent years because people like to cite it as the movie that rips off The Hunger Games. But then, Battle Royale is itself influenced by The Running Man, which is influenced by The Most Dangerous Game, and so on and so on until the next film/book about people hunting each other for sport becomes popular, and we can all say it’s a rip off of The Hunger Games.
La Jetee (The Jetty) – France 1962
La Jetee is the inspiration behind one of my favourite time travel movies, Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. It tells the story of a man who is experimented on in the hopes that he can travel in time to find a way to save the ailing population of Earth following the third world war. The movie is presented in beautiful, stark, black and white still images, with sparse, poetic narration. It is only thirty minutes long and tells a very simple, romantic story, within the framework of a dystopian time travel tale. It’s easy to see how the makers of 12 Monkeys could see this movie and think that it needed expanding, as there are some excellent concepts and imagery on display that even in thirty minutes manage to create the feeling of a bigger world that needs exploring. Though at no point does the movie make me think that it’s missing a manic Brad Pitt performance. But maybe I just wasn’t paying close enough attention.
Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes) – Spain 2007
Timecrimes begins like a horror movie. A man in his new home sees something in the woods at the end of his garden and goes to investigate. He finds a naked girl and a man wrapped in bandages who stabs him in the arm with a pair of scissors. He escapes and finds himself in a laboratory where a scientist tells him to hide in a chamber. There is a flash of light, and the man, Hector, has gone back in time by an hour. And then his problems really begin. Timecrimes is a great, intimate time travel movie that focuses on fate, predestination, and the things Hector has to do to make sure the past version of himself survives to end up in the time machine. It is an immensely satisfying and well-structured movie, as we begin to see each event of the movie unfold from a different point of view as Hector tries to keep the timeline together. A fantastic element is Hector’s complete dispassion and quick understanding concerning some of the awful things he has to do to make sure his trip through time occurs and to fix the problems that ensue from his interference. It is always nice to see a movie about time travel that tries to get clever with the idea and presents something new and interesting in a genre that has been over harvested over the years.
Transfer – Germany 2010
An elderly couple, fearing the wife’s imminent death, decide to approach a new company that offers something amazing. The company will take your consciousness and memories and transplant them into young, healthy bodies. The only catch is that for four hours every night the bodies you inhabit will wake up with the original owner of the body in full control. So what happens if the two bodies you inhabit fall in love? And what happens if they begin to plot against you?
Transfer is an excellent Sci-Fi movie that offers commentary upon mortality, love, and racism, as the two new bodies are those of two stunningly perfect black people. The fact that the rich whites are now rich blacks is a sticking point in the movie as the movie’s elderly characters are pretty racist. There are also, in broad strokes, interesting ideas about slavery as the surrogate bodies are bought from Africa to be worn like clothes by these dying white Germans. It can be uncomfortable to watch, but the whole thing is worth it for a very good ending.
Attack the Block – England 2011
A fantastic British film about an alien invasion in a council estate and the rag tag bunch of hooligans who have to save the day. Made during the height of the fear of Hoodies in the UK, this movie is brave to reposition the cultural villains (youngsters on estates mugging people) as the heroes of the story. They are presented as kids playing at gangsters who stumble into an invasion and see no other option than to get armed and fight back. After all, the tower block they live in is all they have, so they have no choice but to protect it. The young actors playing the gang are excellent and act as though they were plucked straight from the streets and put on camera. Director and writer, Joe Cornish (of the awesome Adam and Joe Show) manages to keep the scare count up, the comedy funny, and the social commentary incisive in this well-made, tight little movie. Also Nick Frost is in it. Actually, I should have opened with that line and saved you the trouble of reading an article about a movie you now desperately want to see.
Blade Runner – USA 1982
A troubled production, disgruntled crew, and studio tampering plagued this movie and, yet, the finished product sings on the screen. Blade Runner is like a noir version of The Thing, as Harrison Ford’s character scours the streets of a future Los Angeles searching for machines that look exactly like us. The movie is gorgeous to look at and the world Ridley Scott has created is encompassing. It is alive with sight and smells and sounds.
Find a copy of the Final Cut released in 2007. Get the biggest TV you can with the best sound system. Put on the movie, turn off the lights, and crank up the sound so loud that your neighbours move houses.
Finally I’ll leave you with this, one of the great lines in Sci Fi cinema or just cinema in general:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time…like tears in rain…Time to die.
Yeah, that’s the good stuff.