Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: This past weekend saw the release of “Mute” and “Annihilation,” two original science-fiction movies that were made on studio budgets (an increasingly rare breed). With that in mind, what is the best sci-fi movie that most people haven’t seen?
Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Freelance for Vice, /Film, Thrillist, and more
“Advantageous.” Jennifer Phang directed this amazing sci-fi drama that centers Gwen, an Asian-American mother (Jacqueline Kim, who’s also the co-writer of the film) who has to come to terms with her “advanced” age in a youth-obsessed society. She has to resort to drastic and untraditional measures in order to ensure that her young daughter Jules will be taken care of after she becomes obsolete. It’s so fascinating and utterly relevant. And it’s streaming on Netflix!
Stephen Whitty (@StephenWhitty), Freelance
“Best”? No. But certainly one of the most gloriously strange is “The Creation of the Humanoids,” a no-budget wonder that was made in 1960, sat on the shelf for two years, and didn’t play much of anywhere until it showed up on local TV in 1965 (and promptly unhinged my 6-year-old brain — thanks!). A sort of proto-proto “Blade Runner,” it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world where androids (“clickers”) are agitating for equal rights. It stars Dudley Manlove of “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” the cinematographer is Hal Mohr (who shot everything from “The Jazz Singer” to “Rancho Notorious”) and the set design makes “Dogville” look like a Wes Anderson flick. You’re not sold yet? :Jeeze. OK, let’s just say Leonard Maltin hated it, Andy Warhol, Susan Sontag and “The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film” all dug it, and I think you will, too. Or, at least, be glad and somewhat amazed it even exists. It’s on DVD.
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
There’s an enticing Michel Piccoli retrospective coming up at Film Forum, but even that one doesn’t include one of the rarest among the strangest and most wondrous science-fiction films I know, Agnès Varda’s “Les Créatures,” from 1966, the story of a science-fiction writer whose creative arrogance proves disastrous for him and, especially, for his wife (Catherine Deneuve), and who may be inside a novel that he’s writing (or may be hallucinating the novel that he’s going to write). Or rather, it’s among the most wondrous science-fiction films that I don’t know but have anticipated ardently from gleaned clips and descriptions—I’ve never even been aware of a screening of it, but even its barest synopses suggest details of pieced-together phantasmagorical style and its cinematic parodies (she does those deftly—for evidence, see her previous films, “Le Bonheur” and “Cléo from 5 to 7”), as well as its symbolic and practical romantic drama, that make it better than most of the science-fiction films (or, for that matter, films of any sort) that I’ve seen. Another reminder that the canon is largely a matter of availability.
Jordan Hoffman (@JHoffman), Freelance for The Guardian, Vanity Fair
Jindřich Polák’s 1963 Czech masterpiece “Ikarie XB-1.” It is based on a Stanisław Lem novel called “The Magellanic Cloud” that, last I checked, has yet to be translated into English. AIP chopped it up and dubbed it into oblivion, renaming it “Voyage to the End of the Universe,” but around 15 years ago original prints of Polák’s version started making the rounds at rep cinemas in the US. Facets has the DVD rights.
It anticipated “Star Trek.” It anticipated “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It’s the coolest thing you’ll ever see, if you don’t mind a little Soviet propaganda. (It is not part of the Czech New Wave.) I wrote about “Ikarie XB-1” at length in 2013 for Birth.Movies.Death., so rather than get into it here, you can read more by clicking this link.
Siddhant Adlakha (@SidizenKane), Freelance for The Village Voice
We tend to associate sci-fi with clear details and tangible speculation – rightly so, given its purpose as reflection – but a film that tends to blur this line while still getting to the root of fundamental truths, albeit as obliquely as possible, is Shane Carruth’s “Upstream Color.” It’s a far cry even from Carruth’s previous work, the micro-budget, minutiae-obsessed time travel tale “Primer” (this is, admittedly, a double answer now), but “Upstream Color” is perhaps the closest a western auteur has come in recent years to redefining the language of science fiction.
The film trades in logistics and exposition for vivid imagery, telling, or rather showing (or rather projecting in the form of a fever dream) the story of a couple infected by an evolving parasite that, among other bizarre behavioral influences, affords them the strange ability to recall each other’s experiences and personal histories while also… sharing their emotional states with specific pigs that were part of the parasitic experiment. Like I said, it doesn’t make logistical sense when laid out in words, but the film – which is end-to-end a Carruth creation, along with some editing input from David Lowery – cuts through the conventions of the genre and gets to the emotional root of why it is we watch sci-fi films in the first place: to experience thoughts and feelings ever so slightly outside the realm of our reality, in order to gain some sort of insight about all that we experience within that reality. Experience is the key word here. “Upstream Color” is the kind of film that works best when you let it wash over you, as it brings down not only the line between conventions, but between consciousnesses and living beings.
Tasha Robinson (@TashaRobinson), The Verge
I’m guessing at this point that an awful lot of people haven’t seen science fiction classics like “Silent Running” and “Forbidden Planet,” just because our culture is so focused on promoting, and then instantly forgetting, whatever the new thing of the moment is. It can be harder to find older films, and hard to make time for something that’s so far out of the cultural spotlight. But they’re both fascinating, beautiful, weird movies, and I recommend them to anyone interested in filling in their understanding of classic science fiction. But for people just looking for a surprising, down-and-dirty, fun little indie, I never get tired of telling people about “Alien Raiders,” a shoestring-budget film that focuses on the bystanders’ understanding of an alien invasion, rather than the heroes’. It’s a little like “Species,” a little like “The Hidden,” and a little like “The Mist,” as a bunch of frantic, stressed alien-hunters burst into a grocery store, take everyone present hostage, and start demanding crazy things out of them. They’re just trying to save humanity by doing the kinds of things protagonists in action movies do all the time, but their behavior is baffling and terrifying to the grocery-store staff, who see them as the real threat. What strikes me most about this film (apart from the tight plotting and memorably grimy cinematography) is the way it invites the audience to re-envision every science fiction, horror, or action film from the victims’ point of view, and imagine just how much most heroes look like psychopaths to people who aren’t in on the whole story.
Edward Douglas (@EDouglasWW), The Tracking Board
Slava Tsukerman’s “Liquid Sky” which came out in 1982 was a movie that I probably didn’t see until I moved to New York and regularly frequented Tower Video and rented videos there because it’s one of the movies I found there and picked up quite randomly but it became a favorite pretty quickly. It’s probably been 20 years since I’ve seen it but I remember it completely blowing my mind because it was so typical of New York movies made in the ’80s and it created a low-budget alien invasion movie that involved sex and drugs and all the things that bring people to New York in the first place. (Apparently, someone even made a doc about the making of the movie, which came out last year, but I have yet to find it or see it.)
Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York
For years, I’ve been stumping for “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” a brutal (and unwittingly hilarious) piece of 1970 Cold War fear-mongering. The plot is almost quaint given our current swarm of fake-news bots: America places its nuclear arsenal in the hands of Colossus, a punch-card-churning supercomputer buried under a mountain. Shortly after full control is transferred, Colossus discovers that it has a Russian counterpart, Guardian; the two computers fall in love and take over the world, imposing a reign of fearsome logic on a cowering human race. That’s how it ends! Will Smith tied up the rights for a potential remake which never happened (thank God). But your timing is exquisite, Indiewire: Tomorrow, Shout! Factory will be releasing a new Blu-ray transfer in proper 2.35:1 widescreen.
Kristen Yoonsoo Kim (@kristenyoonsoo), Freelance for Village Voice, Vice, GQ
Hongmei Zhang’s “Death Ray on Coral Island” (1980): This movie should be a much bigger deal, as it was China’s first sci-fi film, but it remains virtually unseen (I happened to catch it during MoMA’s “Future Imperfect” series, but I don’t know how one can watch it otherwise). “Death Ray” is a colorful and campy feature that involves evil Americans (Chinese actors in whiteface) using technology developed by Chinese scientists for evil. There are some comically cheesy effects, but the set design is quite gorgeous. And it’s a whole lot of fun even when you have no idea what’s going on.
Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail/Film Festival Today
This is an easy one for me, since: a) I really like the film, and b) I know that very few people have seen it. My choice is Hilary Brougher’s “The Sticky Fingers of Time,” which premiered at the 1997 Toronto International Film Festival and then began a slow roll-out in select markets over the next few years. I was lucky to catch it in New York, where I was in film school at the time. It felt vital and special because it seemed so accessible and possible, production value-wise, compared to what we, as grad-film students, were trying to do. Shot on Super 16 – in b&w and color – and benefitting from a really tight, smart script (also by Brougher), the movie remains, to this day, a model of near-perfect low-budget sci-fi.
Starring Terumi Matthews, Nicole Zaray, Belinda Becker and the incomparable James Urbaniak, “The Sticky Fingers of Time” toggles between the present-day of the late 1990s and the past of the 1950s, following the misadventures of writer Tucker Harding, whose genes are affected by the 1952 hydrogen-bomb tests in Nevada, sending her spiraling through time, racing to prevent her own death. There is not one, but two Sapphic romances within, making it, I believe, one of a very small number of gay-themed sci-fi films, as well. Terrific fun, it deserves a wider following than it has.
Tomris Laffly (@TomiLaffly), Freelance
One very recent example: Daniel Espinosa’s sci-fi/horror “Life”, which, as I recall, didn’t survive at the box office against “Alien: Covenant”, (even though it is by far the better “Alien” movie.) Sure, its beats are pretty familiar, but it does a stellar job in telling a sophisticated, stand-alone survival story with economy and consistently high stakes. It terrified me (it’s legitimately frightening, especially if you’re a claustrophobe) and also excited me with its old-school visual and narrative efficiency. This lean and mean chamber piece about a group of smart scientists challenged both by hostile conditions and their own human weaknesses needs to be seen and appreciated more. It’s available for digital rental on Amazon.
Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic) Nonfics, Film School Rejects
Many of the best sci-fi movies in recent years are those that also unfortunately had the lowest turnout in theaters. These include “Midnight Special,” “A Ghost Story,” “Under the Skin,” “Hard to Be a God,” “The Double” and “Mr. Nobody.” Maybe some of those have found some fans on home video but still not enough. But even more under-recognized are the rare sci-fi documentaries that should have a wider appeal than they do given the genre hybridization. Two great recent examples, both by Michael Madsen, are “The Visit” and “Into Eternity.”
Going back further, though, I wish more people were familiar with the classic, Oscar-winning nonfiction films “The War Game,” in which Peter Watkins depicts the hypothetical nuclear annihilation of the UK, and “The Hellstrom Chronicle,” which is mostly a nature film focused on the insect world, but it features a fictional host and also deals in a lot of speculation about the future of the world after man has causes his own extinction and bugs will rule. I realize these picks are the same I gave when IW polled for the best movies about the end of the world, but I’ll use any excuse to push them. Definitely give “The Hellstrom Chronicle” a chance. The thing has one of the best opening lines of any movie: “The Earth was created not with the gentle caress of love, but with the brutal violence of rape.”
Max Weiss (@maxthegirl), Baltimore Magazine
I adore “Gattaca,” a film of gleaming surfaces and omnipresent dread, featuring peak-beauty Jude Law, Uma Thurman, and Ethan Hawke, and a nightmarish world of genetic engineering that still feels depressingly resonant today. It’s sneakily one of the most influential science fiction films of recent years. I’ve seen echoes of it in “In Time,” “Oblivion,” and, of course, the “Divergent” series.
David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
Long before there was “The Matrix,” there was Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s mind-blowing “World on a Wire,” a two-part miniseries about a man who assumes control of a massive alternate reality simulation after his predecessor dies in a mysterious accident. What our hero discovers — after wending his way through a series of endlessly incredible zoom shots and futurist chic set designs — is one of the most satisfying twists in all of science fiction, echoes from which can be felt in movies as recent as “Blade Runner 2049.” The Criterion Collection Blu-ray is well worth your time.