I have a thing for science fiction, well, okay, a thing for what I consider good science fiction. Much of what is considered science fiction for the last 40 years or so could easily converted to a different genre by just changing a few minor details. One of the most successful science fiction franchises is Star Wars, but I've always found the series very light on the science. The films could just as easily be changed to westerns or sword and sorcery fantasies. I was about 14 when I saw the first Star Wars film in 1977. While I enjoyed the brilliant special effects and felt it was a fun fantasy, but I found the story lacking. When I compared Star Wars to other great films I had seen at that point in my life, such as The Sting, Jaws, Planet of the Apes, and Cool Hand Luke, the story just didn't seem to stand up.
For me, a science fiction story must contain some futuristic/scientific concept that if removed would cause the story to cease to be a story. For this post, I decided to look at seven films from the last seven decades that all do that to varying degrees.
Spoiler Alert: I don't know how I can do this post without doing spoilers to some degree, so if you haven't seen any of the films in question and don't want to chance having them ruined, you might want to skip over them.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is the story of a small town doctor Kevin McCarthy who finds himself in the middle of some sort of epidemic. At first, it seems some sort of mass hysteria. Soon, the doctor, his girlfriend played by Dana Wynter, and two friends soon discover that outer space aliens are taking over peoples bodies with some sort of giant seed pods.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a wonderful film, mostly because it is so much different than other science fiction movies of the era. Most 1950s sci-fi films involved one of two basic scenarios. Ordinary creatures almost always insects being affected by radiation from the testing of nuclear weapons and mutating into gigantic killers. The other scenario involved aliens coming to Earth in spaceships and attacking. While Invasion of the Body Snatchers does follow the basics of second scenario, it is different in the alien invaders do not come in ships or attack us with ray guns. In fact, it makes no attempt is made to explain how they got here. They are just oversized organic seed pods that replace us in our sleep. And the alien pod people look exactly like the people they replace, except completely devoid of emotions, a very creepy premise. Also unlike many of the sci-fi films of the era, instead of dwelling on cheesy props. The bodies growing out of the pods are shown only briefly, so you never really know what you're looking at. It works very well.
######In Planet of the Apes (1968), Charleton Heston leads a small crew of space explorers. Traveling in hibernation at nearly the speed of light, they have aged only 18 months, while back on earth nearly 2,000 years have passed. Thrown off course, they crash in an inland sea on an unknown planet, a topsy-turvy world where talking intelligent apes have evolved from primitive humans. Separated from his colleagues, Charleton Heston must fight to survive only to find a disturbing truth about the planet.
One of the things that makes Planet of the Apes work as well as it does is the revolutionary makeup effects by John Chambers. The prosthetic appliances on the actors playing the apes allowed them to have natural looking facial movements, something that had never been done before. Also the film covers the social and religious aspects of the ape society in a way that is interesting and compelling. As a talking human, the apes don't believe Heston's claim that he came from another planet, yet they can't explain him either and feel threatened by him. The film has a twist ending that I won't go into for the benefit of the one or two people reading this who might have never seen the film. The ending blew my mind as a kid when I first saw it, and I think it still holds up today.
######Set in the not too distant future 2018, go figure, Rollerball (1975) tells the story of an athlete, Jonathan E., James Caan, in the brutally violent sport of Rollerball. Huge corporations, not countries, now rule the world. Jonathan is the top star for the Houston team, representing the Energy city. Despite having a great season and the Houston team favored to win the championship, Jonathan is being pressured to retire mid-season by the corporate masters, controlling the game. Plus, something else is going on. The rules for the already brutal game are being changed to make it even more violent. Since Jonathan is a celebrity, he is allowed much more freedom than the average citizen, but his efforts to find information on the how corporate decisions are made and why he is being pressured to retire bring him nothing.
Rollerball is easily the most dated looking of the films I cover here, and it appeared that way only a few years after it was released, largely because of the equipment used in the game. Jonathan E. and the other rollerballers wear what look like football helmets, but not helmets from the mid-1970s, they look more like ones from the late-1960s. I assume they did this because there were fewer crossbars on the face masks, which allowed better viewing of the actor's faces. Likewise the roller skates and motorcycles that some players ride to tow around the other players look similarly outdated. For me, this is just a minor issue, that I can easily overlook.
If the Rollerball was just about the totally made up sport of Rollerball, the film wouldn't work. Sure, the action and violence of game is entertaining, but it wouldn't be enough to carry the movie. Fortunately, there's enough background on the corporate society to keep it from being just a mindless action movie. As the world's most famous rollerballer, Jonathan E. is a major celebrity and has privileges that normal people do not in this near totalitarian society. He wants to learn about the corporate wars and how corporate decisions are made. Still, he is not at the level of the executives who run the corporations and who really control the society and every aspect of Jonathan's life, so he gets nowhere. John Houseman plays Mr. Bartholomew, the head of Houston Energy corporation. He's sinister in the way he uses subtle coercion to try bring Jonathan in line. Jonathan turns to his live-in trainer Moses Gunn for information about the corporate wars. Though probably thirty years older than Jonathan, Gunn is not quite old enough to remember much about them. In reality, Jonathan isn't concerned with the corporate wars or decisions, he just wants to know why the woman he loved was taken from him and given to an executive. The executives can't take direct action against Jonathan, so they change rules of Rollerball to make game so violent that it is unlikely that Jonathan will survive the season.
######In They Live (1988), Roddy Piper plays a drifter who comes to town and gets work at a construction site. A co-worker played by David Kieth brings him to the shanty town, where he lives. Piper soon discovers that there is something weird going on at a church near the shanty town. When he investigates, he finds a cache of what seem to be ordinary sunglasses. When he puts on the sunglasses, he suddenly can see a world that he wasn't aware of. Every bit of printed material, contains subliminal messages, such as Obey, Consume, and Reproduce, that can only be read when he dons the glasses. Further, certain people are actually humanoid aliens with grotesque skull-like faces. Piper eventually convinces David Keith to put the glasses. Actually convinces is totally the wrong word. Piper and David have one of the most epic fist fights ever recorded on film, and Piper puts the glasses on his near unconscious companion to get him to see the truth. The pair end up joining a secret human underground fighting the aliens.
They Live is low-budget film-making at its finest. Normally, the alien masks would look hokey and fake, but because you only see them through the monochrome of the sunglasses and later on in the film through contact lenses, you don't notice nor question what by 1988 would have been considered really schlocky alien effects. In some respects, it is very similar to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The aliens look just like everyone else until you learn to recognize them for what they are, and then they are everywhere. More disturbing than the aliens themselves are the subliminal messages used to placate the unwitting humans. It's a very creepy concept.
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned Star Wars. I did this, mostly so I could tell this story. My wife and I live in San Diego and have been attending/working at the San Diego Comic-Con/Comic-Con International since the mid-1980s. Our kids grew up at Comic-Con, more or less. One year when our daughter was almost the same age as I was when I saw Star Wars, she told us that she wanted to bone up on geek movies before Comic-Con. She felt that she wasn't getting the jokes that people were making at Comic-Con, because she'd never seen the films they were referring to. My wife and I being dutiful, and geeky, parents, gave her a list of films we thought she should watch. In one 24 hour period, my daughter watched three films, Star Wars (the same film I had watched when I was 14, now, known as Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope), Hell Boy (the first one), and They Live. When she was done, I asked her which of the three she liked the best. My daughter didn't think, didn't blink an eye. "The Live," she said. I was so proud.
######Twelve Monkeys (1995) is a time travel story set roughly 40 years after bio-terrorist have released a virus that killed most of the human race. The human survivors live underground while the surface is now ruled by animals unaffected by the virus. Future scientist know very little of the virus, only that it was released by a group called the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Bruce Willis plays a prisoner forced to volunteer to time travel back to when the virus was first released to find and bring back a sample of the virus before it mutated. The future scientists believe that with a sample of the original virus, they can create a serum to cure the virus and retake the surface.
What makes Twelve Monkeys interesting is that the scientists don't know what they're doing when it comes to time travel. Often the "volunteers" are sent not only to the wrong time but the wrong location as well. As one of the minor characters says, "Science ain't an exact science with these clowns but, they're getting better. You're lucky you didn't end up in ancient Egypt!" On his first mission, Bruce Willis is sent to 1990, not 1996, gets arrested and ends up in a mental institution. There he is treated by a psychiatrist, Madeleine Stowe, who naturally thinks he is insane since he is talking about being from the future and how everyone on the planet is doomed to die of a virus in 1996. Still, she is unable to explain how Bruce Willis escaped confinement when he was transported back by the scientists.
Much of the story involves perspective. From Madeleine Stowe's perspective, Bruce Willis is clearly insane, but when she finds evidence of other time travelers, she begins to believe that maybe Bruce Willis is telling the truth. From Bruce Willis' perspective, he knows is from the future, but when he falls in love with Madeleine Stowe, he convinces himself that her version is the truth, and his reality of coming from the future is a delusion. So far, I haven't mentioned what might be the best thing about Twelve Monkeys, Brad Pitt's plays the son of a research biochemist. Pitt is associated with the Army of the 12 Monkeys and is also one of the patients in the mental institution where Bruce Willis was sent. Pitt won a Golden Globe Best Supporting Actor Award and got an Oscar nomination in the same category for the role. His performance of batshit crazy is brilliant and goes from funny to intense to chilling.
Finally, the soundtrack contains a theme, "Suite Punta Del Este (12 Monkeys Theme)", played on a bandoneon, a type of accordion, and strings that is just creepy as hell. I probably shouldn't tell this story, but since I was bragging about my parenting skills with my daughter and They Live, I feel obligated to share the story of the flip side of my parenting skills with regard to my son and Twelve Monkeys. My son is now 24, and he only told me about this three or four years ago. Apparently one time when he was about 6, I was watching Twelve Monkeys on DVD and I fell asleep on the couch. The movie ended and went to the menu screen and started playing that creepy-ass song over and over and over and over again. My poor son who was only 6 sat in his room hearing that creepy-ass play song over and over and over and over again, being totally traumatized by it. I felt like the world's shittiest dad, retroactively of course.
######In Moon (2009), Lunar Industries has solved the energy crisis by harvesting helium from the Moon. Sam Rockwell plays a maintenance worker serving out the tail end of his three-year contract on the mostly automated station. His only companion is GERTY, a robot with artificial intelligence, voiced by Kevin Spacey. There is a problem with the station's communications array, and his only contact with the earth is recorded messages from his wife. While attempting to recover a canister of helium, Sam Rockwell has an accident. He wakes with no memory of the accident but senses that GERTY is hiding something. He convinces GERTY to let him go outside. When he investigates, he finds an injured man in the support vehicle who appears to be a copy of himself.
I love this movie. It shows that you can make a truly great science fiction film without an army of digital effects artists. While there are some special effects in the film, they are relatively simple. The story is compelling. I probably should have part of it coming better than I did, which is a good thing. I felt like there were a number of possibilities as to what was going on, but the one that should have been the most obvious was not the one that jumped out at me. The interactions between Sam Rockwell and his dopelganger are good, as Rockwell tries to unravel the inconsistencies of what his twin as well as GERTY are saying.
Actually, GERTY is a very good character as well. Robot is something of a misnomer. GERTY is more accurately an electronic box suspended from a track in the ceiling that follows Rockwell around and keeps him company. GERTY has no face, but rather a small screen that displays a series of happy face emoticons that go along with what he is saying and what is being said to him. As a being of artificial intelligence, GERTY interacts the way a person would and is often conflicted by the needs of the company that installed him and the needs of Sam Rockwell, whom he is charged with providing support and comfort to. Again all done, with virtually no special effects. It just tells a good story about the future and the needs of individuals and how they are ultimately exploited by the corporations that employ them
######The 2010s have had a number of very good science fiction films, Safety Not Guaranteed, Looper, and The Arrival, among others. I selected The Shape of Water (2017) because it is the one film that brings me full circle back to the 1950s where I started. Director Guillermo del Toro was inspired by Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and his desire to see the creature succeed in the romance that was hinted at in the 1954 Universal film. For me, it was like an unauthorized sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon, admittedly a very good monster movie and one of the better science fiction films of the 1950s. Instead of making making monster movie, del Toro treated it as a love story, set against the backdrop of the Cold War in 1962 with an in-depth examination of how mainstream society mistreated those on the fringes.
I like Creature from the Black Lagoon a lot. It was different from many of the monster films of the era in that it treated the creature at least in some respects as an intelligent being. The two alpha males in Creature fight over what should be done with it. Richard Carlson thinks the creature/gill-man is an important biological discovery and needs to be studied. Richard Denning thinks it has to be captured at any cost, even dead or alive. Denning's motivation is the fame and the money he can make bringing the gill-man back to civilization. The conflict between the two male leads is as important to the plot as the action of the gill-man. Clearly there is also an attraction between the gill-man and the female lead, Julie Adams. Both of these concepts were pretty radical in the 1950s, that the gill-man has value as a biological being, not just a monster to be killed and that it might have a sexual desire for the human woman. Creature from the Black Lagoon pushes these concepts about as far 1950s audiences would accept, and I suspect as far as censors would allow.
What makes The Shape of Water so intriguing is that keeping it in a historically context similar to that of Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Cold War in 1962, it can expand on the strengths of the original film. The gill-man played by Doug Jones has already been captured.and much of the action takes place in a top-secret military research institute. Sally Hawkins plays a mute cleaning woman working at the institute. She is teamed with an African-American woman, Octavia Spencer, who interprets for her via sign language. Certain scientists want to study the gill-man, but the colonel in charge, Micheal Shannon, sees the gill-man not as a source of fame and fortune but as a potential weapon to be used against the Russians. Shannon is a vicious power hungry bastard, but since there is a Russian mole in the institute, you see that the Russian operatives working in the U.S. are no better.
Sally Hawkins' neighbor and mentor is a middle-aged gay man, played by Richard Jenkins, who had lost his job as a commercial artist for being gay and must grovel to his old boss to get freelance work. Likewise, Octavia Spencer and Sally Hawkins are ostracized, Spencer for her race and Hawkins for her inability to speak. When Hawkins has to clean the laboratory where the gill-man is imprisoned, she finds that he is not only intelligent and can communicate via sign language, he is also empathetic and capable of love.
The Shape of Water is a number of things. It is a visually stunning film. Primarily, it is a love story between Sally Hawkins and the gill-man. It's also a Cold War thriller and a story about human rights, as well as non-human rights. It mixes all of these things so well that you forget that it's also science fiction monster movie, the best science fiction monster movie you've ever seen. I mentioned earlier, that The Shape of Water could be considered an unauthorized sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon, and I still believe that's true. What amazes me is that Guillermo del Toro had the vision not to make a monster movie, which I know he was capable of, but had the vision to make a love story and all of the other things I mentioned. It's a wonderful film.
Now, if you've never read my blog before, you might think that I write about films and always try to include some story from my personal life related to the films I cover. The truth is, I don't, even though I've done this twice in this post alone. Well, I have one more story related to The Shape of Water. My wife reads a lot more than I do, novels. Paranormal romance, she says. Vampire porn, I say. Yes, I know that they don't all have vampires. Some of them are werewolf porn. Some are witch porn or demon porn. You get the idea. Even paramilitary psychic porn. She actually got me to read one of the latter. It was actually pretty good, though it would take a lot to get me to admit it in front of her.
We saw The Shape of Water together. We both loved it. I was beaming. It was a visual treat. The love story worked phenomenally well. The Cold War intrigue worked phenomenally well. The social aspects of gay people and minorities in the early 1960s worked phenomenally well. My only serious complaint is that the gay guy should have cussed out the guy who made the crappy pies. My wife let me go on like that for a while. Then she said, "It was like a really good paranormal romance."
"Fuck you," I said. It's shameless the way we flirt. Yes, my husbanding skills are about on par with my parenting skills. Thank you very much.