Friday, January 29, 2010

Top 25: Sci-Fi Films You Should Know

Science fiction is the most agile form of story telling because it allows you to present controversial and complex philosophical, ethical and political issues in ways that people can easily understand without feeling like they are sitting through a class on ethics, and without bringing their preconceived expectations and prejudices. It is also tailor-made for films. And since everybody loves lists. . .

Below you will find a list of the top 25 science fiction movies you should know to be well versed in science fiction. These are not necessarily the best or most entertaining films, but they are the important ones. . . the ones that had the greatest impact on science fiction and on our culture. And don’t worry, unlike some people who toss together horrible lists and then try to claim that they were only hoping to “spark debate,” I stand by this list.

Oh, and if you’re one of those people who frets about the completely irrelevant distinction between “science fiction” and “sci-fi,” or who cries when people classify Star Wars as science fiction because “it’s fantasy set in space wah wah” then I have bad news for you. First, no one likes you. Secondly, sci-fi, science fiction, or whatever you want to call it, isn’t a real genre. . . it’s a setting. It needs to piggyback on some other genre -- drama, horror, romance, etc. So get over it.

Here we go:

1. Star Wars (1977): Star Wars is the greatest science fiction movie of all times by many measures. Star Wars made it acceptable for adults to admit publicly they enjoy science fiction, and it single-handedly created the merchandizing industry (plus it created Industrial Light and Magic, which dominates the special effects world). It was also the first film to introduce the public to the idea of “outer space” religions -- interestingly, “Jedi” was one of the top “religions” listed by respondents to the recent UK census. It also spawned numerous sequels and rip offs (including Battlestar Galactica). It’s impact on world culture cannot be over-stated. “Use the force Luke.”

2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): This movie tapped into the alien abduction mania of the 1970s and gave us the little gray men motif that has since become a staple for UFO believers. Prior to this movie, aliens were described differently in different parts of the world. Afterwards. . . nuthin' but gray butts and big eyes. Basically, this movie single-handedly homogenized the alien conspiracy theory world, and stoked the abduction mania that continues today. “You can’t fool us by agreeing with us.”

3. Blade Runner (1982): Discussing the question of “what makes us human,” this combination sci-fi and film noir single-handedly set the tone that science fiction would follow thereafter. Hard-boiled gun toting heroes hunting bad guys in dark, depressing and nihilistic landscapes has become the default for science fiction because of this film. The influence of Blade Runner on the science fiction world cannot be overstated. “I want more life f*cker.”

4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Ok, truthfully, 2001 stinks, especially the twenty minutes at the beginning and the end. BUT, 2001 redefined science fiction. Prior to 2001, science fiction had become the playground of children’s movies, with guys in rubber suits chasing teenagers. 2001 elevated science fiction by treating the subject matter seriously and introducing adult concepts like human evolution, artificial intelligence and the nature of extraterrestrial life, all done in a relatively scientifically-accurate setting. This movie spawned the realism phase of science fiction. “What do you think you’re doing Dave?”

5. Metropolis (1927): Science fiction films got their start in Georges Melis’ 1902 A Trip To The Moon, but Friz Lang’s Metropolis became the real influence. It’s dystopian view of workers toiling away in a glittering city controlled by sentient machines set the foundations for almost every science fiction movie that followed.

6. Forbidden Planet (1956): Forbidden Planet was one of the first serious science fiction movies to speculate on how man would roam the stars in the future. This film specifically inspired Star Trek, the most significant science fiction television franchise of all time, and it established several motifs that dominate science fiction today, e.g. that spaceships would be military vessels, that scientists and military do not get along, the good scientist who goes too far, and the uneasy relationship between humans and their robot servants. “Monsters from the subconscious.”

7. Planet of the Apes (1968): The late 1960s saw science fiction begin to talk about social issues. From Soylent Green’s worry about over population to Westworld’s worry about our ability to control our mechanical creations. And the greatest of these was Planet of the Apes, which addressed a future in which mankind had blown themselves up and were reduced to serving as pets for intelligent apes. “You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

8. Jurassic Park (1993): Jurassic Park spawned a special effects revolution that changed the movie industry as well as the way we watch documentaries. In place of hand drawings or claymation, Jurassic Park unleashed computer generated graphics into the world, allowing documentaries like Walking With Dinosaurs and leading to films like Lord of the Rings which Peter Jackson undertook after realizing from Jurassic Park what computers would let him do. “An Adventure 65 Million Years In The Making.”

9. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951): In the 1950s, science fiction was relegated to children’s cinema. But among the fake robots and rubber-suited monsters, a few science fiction films tried their hand at adult drama. In the process, they opened the door to adding limited social commentary to science fiction. Of these, The Day The Earth Stood Still is the one that truly stands out. Warning us about man’s propensity to use violence to settle disagreements, this film reminded us that we might not be the most powerful creatures in the universe. “Klaatu barada nikto.” (Avoid the remake.)

10. The Time Machine (1960): Based on the book by H.G. Well, this film is the grandfather of all time travel films, which would become the most loved science fiction theme. “Which three books would you have taken?”

11. Alien (1979): Besides launching a thousand careers, Alien opened the door for mixing science fiction with modern (i.e. realistic) horror, and for women heroes. It also gave us a gritty realism that had been lacking in prior views of the human future, which were all jumpsuit and sterile soundstage. “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

12. The Matrix (1999): The Matrix is a theological/philosophical treatise disguised as a science fiction movie. Nothing you see in the film is there by accident, and everything has double and triple meanings. In many ways, The Matrix is the zenith of several key science fiction themes -- man v. machines, reality v. apparent reality, and the question of what makes us human. In terms of influence, The Matrix has become a code word for altered reality. It also introduced several new visual styles, such as “bullet time.” “What is the Matrix?”

13. Fahrenheit 451 (1966): Based on Ray Bradbury’s book, Fahrenheit 451 fits into the 1960s trend of social, political commentary. But unlike other films of the time, this one didn’t involve catastrophe, it involved people who thought they were perfectly happy. . . except for one man who wonders why books need to be burned. These would become common elements of science fiction: people who voluntarily submit to oppression, the gilded cage, mind control, group think, an oppressive regime, and a lone hero who wonders why. “Fahrenheit four-five-one is the temperature at which book paper catches fire and starts to burn.”

14. War of the Worlds (1953): Based on H.G. Wells’ story, this cross between the adult science fiction of the 1950s and the kiddy stuff, gave us the idea that maybe aliens won’t wear jumpsuits and look like teenagers, and maybe they won’t think twice about exterminating us -- a point repeated recently by Stephen Hawking, who states that the interaction between two civilization of different technical prowess almost always ends poorly for the less advanced group. It also was the first film to posit that, just as ancient people were struck down by diseases from travelers to which they had no immunity, maybe the same would hold true with space creatures. Both themes have become common. “After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in his wisdom, had put upon this Earth.”

15. The Andromeda Strain (1971): From Michael Crichton’s book, this is one of a myriad of pandemic movies from the late 1960s and early 1970s. But whereas the others were typically more melodramatic, this film approached the idea with genuine interest in how science would stop a pandemic. Movies like Outbreak and The Stand trace their roots through this film. It is also likely that films like this contributed to the eventual banning of chemical and biological weapons. “Enemy? We did it to ourselves!”

16. Dune (1984): Dune is one of the most influential science fiction books of all time. The movie didn’t take with the public, and that actually hurt the industry for some time, but it has since become a cult hit. (I actually prefer the Alan Smithee version.) Dune introduces the idea of folding space, something scientists now consider possible. “Usul, we have worm sign the likes of which even God has never seen.”

17. Fifth Element (1987): Fifth Element stands as the only anti-Blade Runner which has found an audience. It presents a future that is actually quite positive, if a little odd. It’s also one of the few films to let its aliens develop personality and be anything other than wise or menacing. This is another cult movie that you must know. “Time is not important. Only life is important.”

18. Stargate (1994): This movie introduces the idea of traveling throughout space without a spaceship, and it provides an alternative history of our planet. It also spawned a massive industry of merchandise, television spin offs, games, and online fan fiction. “Give my regards to King Tut, asshole.”

19. Capricorn One (1978): I want to rank this higher because I really like this film, but it just isn’t influential enough. As my review noted, this film is a cultural marker to the beginning of the “vast government conspiracy” movement of today. . . but it isn’t a driver of that movement, it just notes it. Still, you should know this movie. “There are people out there, ‘forces’ out there, who have a lot to lose.”

20. THX-1138 (1971): I debated putting Logan’s Run into this slot, but I decided THX 1138 is just more influential. This Lucas film depicts a world in which the population is controlled by faceless, android police officers and the mandatory use of drugs to suppress emotion and sexual desire -- with a stellar cast to boot. This movie is one of those that all science fiction fanatics have seen and can discuss, and references to it find their way into everything science fiction. “Blessings of the state, blessings of the masses.”

21. 12 Monkeys (1995): Terry Gilliam, Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt at their best remake the French short film La Jetée, a story about a man who makes his own future by interfering with his own past. With a plot that is heavily interlaced with multiple timelines and a rare moment of Gilliam-coherence, this is one of those films you need to know. “I'm looking for the Army of the Twelve Monkeys.”

22. E.T. (1982): Unfairly dismissed as a kids movie, E.T. presents a different view of aliens than we’d seen before. While they are not human, they also aren’t out to hurt us. Yet, while this movie was huge at the time, it ultimately was not very influential. Still, you should see it. “Phone home.”

23. The Terminator (1984): The Terminator’s influence was more cultural than in science fiction. Indeed, the movie was exceedingly popular, became a franchise, and got everyone mimicking its star for some time, but it had little new to offer the world of science fiction. Still, if you want to know science fiction, you must see this movie. “Sarah Connor?”

24. Tron (1982): Yes, Tron. This was the first film from a major studio (Disney) that used extensive computer graphics. And while this movie lacks the philosophical questions raised by its sibling The Black Hole, this film provides the first glimpse into how science fiction interprets the inner universe of a computer. “That’s Tron, he fights for the users.”

25. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982): This is another film that added little to the science fiction world, but struck it big in the cultural reference department. I almost hesitate to mention it, and probably wouldn’t if it wasn’t part of the Star Trek franchise, but you should know it. “Khaaaaaan!”

There are many other science fiction films that I would suggest you watch: Cube, Robocop, The Satan Bug, Pitch Black, eXistenz, Dark City, Outland, The Abyss, The Black Hole, and Contact, just to name a few. But none of these are as important as the 25 listed above.

I take it you agree?

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Film Friday: Strictly Ballroom (1992)

Written by Ayn Rand, Strictly Ballroom is one of my favorite romantic movie. Ok, I’m kidding, it wasn’t written by Ayn Rand, though it could have been. I’ll bet no one has ever told you that before!

** spoiler alert **

Strictly Ballroom began life as a play written by Baz Luhrmann and Andrew Bovell. In 1992, Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) made it into a movie. . . his first. With a wry sense of humor, a sharp wit, and a flare for the ridiculous, Luhrmann turned what would have been just an another low-budget ugly duckling tale into a worldwide sensation that continues to appear on "best of" lists today. And in the process, he gave us one of the better romantic movies of the last couple decades.

Strictly Ballroom is the story of Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio), and his struggle against the powers that be. Scott has been dreaming of winning the Pan Pacific Grand Prix ballroom dancing championship since he was six years old. Under the guidance of his über stage-mother Shirley (who never managed to win the Grand Prix herself), Scott has become the champion dancer of Kendall’s Dance Academy. Les Kendall is Shirley’s ex-dance partner. Scott's father, we're told, doesn't dance and is withdrawn into his own world.

As the story opens, we learn that all is not well with Scott. Scott is a talented dancer, but feels trapped by the regimented rules of ballroom dancing. He wishes to dance his own moves (steps). But this doesn’t suit the powers that be, specifically Australian Dancing Federal Chairman Barry Fife. Fife warns Scott that he cannot use his own steps: “there will be no new steps!” But Scott ignores him and thereby sets into motion a chain of events that will shake the Grand Prix world to its very foundations.

When Scott first displays his new steps, the powers that be instantly turn on Scott. He's disqualified from the event and threatened with further disqualification. His dance partner Liz, unable to stand the strain of living on the edge of propriety, leaves Scott so she can dance with his biggest competitor, Ken Railings. Scott’s mother lays a heavy guilt trip on him, as she very visibly suffers a near nervous breakdown trying to reign Scott in and find him a new partner. But Scott will not be bowed. He wants to dance his own steps. All he needs is a partner.

Enter Fran. Fran (Tara Morice) is a shy Spanish girl with bad skin, glasses and a horrible fashion sense. She’s only a beginner dancer, but when Scott loses Liz, Fran asks to dance with him. Scott at first scoffs at the notion he would dance with a mere beginner, but he soon becomes intrigued when he learns she too has invented her own moves. Soon Scott sets about teaching her to dance, so she can become his partner.

This leads to the usual ugly duckling scenes, as Fran is made more attractive, as misunderstandings and insecurities interfere in their relationship, and as Scott learns he doesn’t know everything. Indeed, some of the best scenes in the movie come after Scott meets Fran’s father and grandmother and discovers they too are dancers: “Show me your Paso Doble!”

All the while, Scott’s mother and the rest of the powers that be try to shut him down, to separate him from Fran and to make him dance with Tina Sparkle -- a former Grand Prix winner. They even try to drive Fran away. But Scott will not listen, as he is falling for Fran. As an aside, the scene where Scott’s mother finally realizes what Scott is up to -- when she and everyone else catch Scott and Fran dancing behind a stage curtain, is probably my favorite dance in any film.

With Scott slipping out of their grasp, the powers that be turn up the heat on Scott. A decision is made to tell Scott his father was destroyed by his own selfish desires to dance his own steps. . . a decision that remains a powerful wedge between Scott’s father and Scott’s mother to this very day. But this is all a dirty lie, meant to cover up a shocking betrayal. At the same time, plans are put into place to guarantee Scott cannot win, no matter what he does. But why would this group of glitterati go to such lengths to stop Scott from dancing new moves? Why is he such a risk to them? Because they can’t do these steps, and that means they can’t teach these steps. And that means they lose their power and their jobs. In the words of Chairman Barry Fife: “If you can’t dance a step, you can’t teach it, and if you can’t teach it, we might as well all pack up and go home.”

Now there’s one more thing you need to know. This whole movie is satire. That's right. The Pan Pacific Grand Prix, the event that tears these people apart, is nothing more than a local, amateur dancing competition. That’s it. This makes lines like the following from Barry Fife wonderfully absurd: “Let's not forget, that a Pan Pacific Champion becomes a hero, a guiding light to all dancers, someone who'll set the right example.” Moreover, the characters are wonderfully drawn. Les Kendell sprouts malapropisms every time he speaks. Shirley is so tan she's become orange. Fife plays the heavy from behind a shockingly bad toupee. Ken Railings, the evil competitor, is an alcoholic hot tub salesman. Even Doug Hastings, the henpecked father, has a terrible secret (and a great dance scene). And the cast of dancers are painted and feathered to the absurd.

Many compare this move to Dirty Dancing, but the two really are very different. Whereas Dirty Dancing was entirely serious, Strictly Ballroom is thoroughly tongue in cheek. I also must say the choreography in Strictly Ballroom is superior. Dirty Dancing was very typical Hollywood. It was designed to be flashy and, where it was meant to be sexy, it was obvious and oversexed. The dancing in Strictly Ballroom, by comparison, showed tremendous technical skill. You felt like you were peeking in on dancers testing their limits in private, as compared to Dirty Dancing which felt staged. And unlike the over-sexed Dirty Dancing, I would describe the dances between Fran and Scott as intimate and sensual. Dirty Dancing strikes me as the kind of dancing that would be fun to watch, but Strictly Ballroom strikes me as the kind of dancing you wished you could do.

So how does Ayn Rand fit into this? I doubt Luhrmann had Rand in mind when he wrote this, but he’s absolutely picked up every element of The Fountainhead. Scott, like Roark, is a true talent, a savant. He's also unorthodox, seeing a better way. But the powers that be, a group of certified professionals who lack talent but who are the gatekeepers to Scott’s dream by virtue of their being deigned to be the best by their fellows, are desperate to stop him despite his talent (or because of it). They see him as a threat to their way of life. His talent exposes the lack of theirs, and they would rather society be deprived of what he can achieve than have their own deficiencies laid bare. Thus, they try to sway him, they try to threaten him, they even co-opt those closest to him. Yet, in the end, Scott, like Roark, decides he would rather see his dream destroyed and lose the Gran Prix than sacrifice his principles. In this way, Strictly Ballroom is The Fountainhead only with the 14 hour ending speech by Roark replaced succinctly by Scott with: “Fran, I wanna dance with you!” (and with fewer explosions).

Maybe this is why Strictly Ballroom resonates so well? Maybe this is why Strictly Ballroom is so much more than your typical ugly duckling movie? Perhaps, it's the Randian message of defeating the oppression of the mediocre, of letting the savants set their own standards, that drives this movie home? After all, we can all relate to having been frustrated by people who lacked our vision. Or maybe, we just liked the music?

And while you’re pondering that. . . show me your Paso Doble!

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