100) Escape From New York
It’s the year 1997 and the crime rate has no ceiling. The morally bankrupt President of the United States has turned New York City into a dumping ground for anyone and everyone who has ever broken a law. A powerful gang led by a brutal warlord who has styled himself “The Duke of New York” rules the streets. The cannibalistic crazies rule the sewers and subways. A band of horribly off-key singers rules a dilapidated theater. One of the US’s great cities has become hell on earth. And the same President who created that hell is stuck inside with information that could end the endless world war. His only hope? A soft-talking, one-eyed war hero turned bank robber named Snake Plissken.
John Carpenter and Kurt Russell created one of cinema’s great anti-heroes in Snake. He’s a brutal, borderline sociopath who’s only goal is to get out of the rescue he’s been coerced into alive. But despite his cruelty and apathy, there are hints of a better man to him that pop up often enough to suggest that Snake’s current state is something he was driven to, not something he became by choice. There’s one moment in particular during the climax where Russell drops almost all of Snake’s reserve and lets naked, overwhelming emotion play on his face for a brief moment. It’s a great, character-redefining moment from Russell, who has called Snake one of his best roles.
But beyond the man, Escape from New York has a nightmare of a world to offer. Carpenter builds a New York whose transformation into a prison hasn’t caused it to collapse so much as transform. Central park has become a field, where prisoners grow food. Broadway is still filled with performers of a sort – they just mount heads on stakes instead of singing “Seasons of Love.” Gladiatorial death combat has become the only sport, but it’s still attended by rowdy, adoring crowds. Escape from New York’s New York may now be 16 years in the past, but it remains a twisted, potent vision of what things may come if the world falls apart.
99) Mars Attacks!
Tim Burton’s insane Mars Attacks! is not for the person who wants rousing speeches and patriotic heroics in their sci-fi. In fact, the film goes out of its way to puncture all the tropes of films from Independence Day to ET and The Day The Earth Stood Still.
The plot jumps right out of Independence Day via the films of Ed Wood. Little green monsters are coming to Earth and we don’t know if they’re friendly or not. President Jack Nicholson and wife Glenn Close are on hand to welcome the little bastards, along with first daughter Natalie Portman, important scientist Pierce Brosnan and blonde bimbo Sarah Jessica Parker. The invasion gets off to a rollicking start, as the Martians start vaporizing everything in sight. Then they run amok, murdering, pillaging, blowing up and redesigning national monuments across the world with their frisbee-style spaceships. Earth’s only chance is young Lukas Haas, his grandmother, Pam Grier and Tom Jones, who together discover a very interesting way of defeating the aliens.
Mars Attacks! is perhaps Burton’s tour de force, gleefully anarchic and full of celebrity cameos; watch for Jack Black, Nicholson in a dual role, Rod Steiger, Martin Short, and Danny DeVito, among many others. While the plot is a little weak, it’s more than moved along by a combination of iconoclasm and real heart. The conclusion just pulls at your heartstrings. It’s the antidote to ID4, which we all need once in awhile.
Recently re-released on Blu-Ray, there’s never been a better time to catch Pi. You can bask in the acidic early work of the now-legendary Darren Aronofsky in crisp HD, an update that only serves to highlight the grain and high contrast monochrome of his debut feature. It’s a manic telling of a story involving obsession, loneliness, and mathematics in New York City – a surreal portrait of Max Cohen, a man so consumed with searching for the mathematical key to fame, fortune and immortality through manipulations of the value of pi that his mind begins to fall apart.
If you were wondering how Aronofsky’s key themes of obsession combined with prodigious talent came to the fore, as in his later works The Wrestler and Black Swan, then Pi is where it all began. It also has echoes of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and the early works of David Cronenberg (particularly Scanners and Videodrome).
What Darren Aronofsky does is make movies about characters. This might sound obvious, but it’s true – all of Aronofsky’s work is extremely character focussed. They’re extremely subjective works, told from the perspective of the main character. To see the beginnings of this trait, taken to its very extreme, you should really watch Pi. It’s visually gripping, visceral, and should be way, way higher on this list.
Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 follow-up, Elysium, took on a much more epic scope and thus a much bigger budget than its predecessor. While the result didn’t quite reach the sci-fi splendor of Blomkamp’s debut, Elysium is still a remarkable work in its own right.
Matt Damon is great as Max, the guy who has dreamed of nothing more than reaching Elysium, but has never done it due to poor life choices and lack of necessity. He gets that necessity thrust on him when he’s slammed with a lethal dose of radiation and will die in five days if he’s unable to reach the big wheel in the sky. After an exoskeleton is drilled onto his body, he’s ready to make a break for Elysium, but not before having an epic duel with one of the fortress’ guardians: Kruger (Sharlto Copley).
Both the futuristic Earth and Elysium itself are visual masterpieces. It’s stunning to see the world Blomkamp has created, and the effects here are superb. He also defines villains as well as anyone, and both Copley’s Kruger and Jodie Foster’s Senator Delacourt are instantly shown to be ruthless and fearsome foes.
Blomkamp has become known for being very blatant about the political agendas to his films. Some have a problem with that, purely on principle. However, his writing is so sharp and his films so entertaining, that it really doesn’t matter if the entire movie was a Coke ad. It’s just that good.
96) Soylent Green
The first of many films on this list starring Charlton Heston, Soylent Green is set in the not so distant future of 2022. It’s a world where there’s a shortage of food due to an abundance of people. Life isn’t about succeeding or thriving anymore, it’s simply about existing.
Heston plays Thorn, a crooked cop who does what he needs to in order to get by and not lose his job. When a former board member of the all-powerful Soylent Corporation is assassinated, Thorn discovers that things aren’t all that they seem. As he starts to get close to the root of the mystery, the higher-ups of New York want him stopped, leading to a chase for the ages and a great agent gone rouge film.
A lot of films have been set in an over-populated world, but none have done it quite like Soylent Green. It’s a truly haunting image to see so many people in every nook of the city, and that in itself is remarkable enough, especially for the days before CGI.
The fact its set in 2022 almost makes the film more powerful today than when it first released. While something drastic would have to result in the next decade to see that sort of over-population, the rest of Soylent Green really doesn’t seem all that farfetched. Areas of the world are far too overpopulated, some believe corporations have the power to control governments, and worst of all, who knows what’s really in our food?
No one’s arguing that James Cameron’s cultural landmark of a movie deserves inclusion on this list for its Pocahontas-in-space storyline. Avatar’s technical contributions to the science-fiction genre, however, are staggering. With this special-effects extravaganza, Cameron created an entire planet, complete with distinctive alien species, a complex ecological religion and an actual language with grammatical rules and over 1,500 words. The film is escapism on an epic scale; when watching Avatar, viewers are utterly immersed in Cameron’s lush, enchanting alien landscape. Pandora’s beauty captivates as much as its totality astonishes.
As protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) explores Pandora and falls for the fierce Na’vi warrior Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), Avatar also surprises on a dramatic level. Though the film’s story beats are reminiscent of Dances with Wolves and FernGully, its lead performances are fresh and fascinating, especially when one considers the tricky motion-capture aspects of Avatar’s filming. Stephen Lang also makes for a terrific villain as the ruthless Colonel Miles Quatrich.
Cameron deserves to be commended for pursuing his grand cinematic dream, even when no one else saw what he saw. With Avatar, he created the most ambitious special effect of all time, communicated a powerful ecological message to millions and gave his audience the opportunity to escape into cinema more completely than ever before. He’s not just the King of the World (or, more aptly, Worlds) – he’s the architect of Hollywood’s promising visual future. And with several Avatar sequels on the way, it doesn’t look like he’ll give up that title any time soon.
94) Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 might seem like an odd choice for a film adaptation. After all, the novel is, in part, about the importance of the written word over televised media culture. But leave it to director Francois Truffaut to turn Bradbury’s words into beautiful images, without ever losing the central conceit of the story.
The film stars Oskar Werner as Guy Montag, a passionate member of the Firemen, tasked with burning any and all literature. Guy enjoys his job, righ up until runs into his lovely neighbor Clarisse (Julie Christie,who also plays Guy’s wife Linda). She inquires if he’s ever actually read the books he burns. Discovering a wealth of beauty in the works of Charles Dickens, Guy soon runs afoul of the society he has hitherto loved without question.
Fahrenheit 451 suffers from the same pains that any adaptation of a brilliant novel must, but Truffaut keeps remarkably true to the book’s plot (with a few changes that Bradbury himself thought improved on the novel). It draws out what is lost in the destruction of literature via some fascinating and all too prescient images of a society wrapped up in fleeting media. It’s far far better dystopian tale than 1984 as far as I’m concerned, focused more on the heights the human spirit can reach than the depths to which it can sink. It’s the best of what science-fiction can be: an uplifting, morally complex story that, in our times of electronic media and obsessive TV shows, we can certainly still learn from.
David Cronenberg is now, rightly, a legend. Back in 1983 he was still a young, hungry filmmaker, looking to shock unsuspecting audiences wherever possible. He’d already made Shivers, The Brood, Scanners, and Rabid, but, seeing the influence of home video on audiences of the time, he figured he’d incorporate the fad for videotapes into his next work.
The result, Videodrome, catapulted Cronenberg to a fame that he hadn’t experienced up to that point. It didn’t do well commercially, but it won plenty of awards on release and still stands as an important example of the early Cronenberg canon – has any other director ever had such a phenomenal unbroken run of great films? Not likely.
The film concerns the CEO of a small TV station in Toronto, who discovers bizarre transmissions featuring extreme violence and torture, being broadcast from Malaysia. Those transmission form a TV show, the titular “Videodrome.”
From this premise, the film goes into ever more bizarre areas, using horrifying images to parody our relationship with the consumption of media, and how TV and video has come to totally infect our lives. With recent changes in mobile phone technology, the film just wouldn’t be the same nowadays – there’s something gleefully retro about those big, thick televisions, about old-fashioned video cassettes. It’s an aesthetic that has become alien, which ironically only helps the film’s sci-fi aspects further. A true classic.
93) The Brother From Another Planet
Sci-fi films focused on aliens coming to Earth usually fall into two categories: either the aliens are trying to do harm to humankind or the aliens are simply trying to find a way back to where they came from. While the first category is typically more-action packed, the human elements of the second category almost always make for interesting films (even though, when you think about it, those human aspects are really more of alien aspects). One of the best examples of the way that kind of film can be captivating is John Sayles’ The Brother From Another Planet.
Joe Morton plays the titular brother, an alien who crawled out of his space ship and into Harlem. He can understand English, but he can’t speak at all, so he wanders around simply lending a kind ear to anyone who wants to talk to him. His ultimate goal is to find a way back to his home planet, but in the meantime he attempts to make some money, find love, and avoid getting captured by a couple supernatural bounty hunters on his tail.
The Brother From Another Planet may have come after both The Man Who Fell To Earth and ET, a pair of films which have similar goals for their protagonists, but it shows a fresh take on the genre through a set of compelling characters. It takes many popular sci-fi elements and places them in a setting that few films of the genre explore. The result is an excellent balance between an entertaining film and a socially relevant one.
92) The Iron Giant
Rockwell, Maine is a town that could background one of its namesake’s small town paintings. Especially with the giant, sentient, childlike robot running around town. The Iron Giant is a meditation on the fear of the unknown and the power of selflessness. It’s also the story of a friendship between a boy beginning to come of age and his efforts to be friend, big brother and protector to someone who is still learning about the world. It just so happens that this someone is voiced by Vin Diesel, eats metal and could potentially wipe out all life on Earth.
The Giant and Hogarth, his human friend and protector, are marvelously realized characters. The Giant is childlike and naive without being drawn too broadly. His behavior grows more complex as he comes to know the world around him, from learning to interact with others besides Hogarth to acquiring taste in popular culture. His terrifying rage and awe-inspiring compassion both read as genuine, and he reaches both through a natural, character-faithful arc. Hogarth is a boy on the precipice of moving into the next stage in life, and if anything even more carefully balanced than the Giant. He tests his Mom’s boundaries for his behavior, but never in a way that renders him pointlessly cruel or malicious, and the love between he and his mother is warmly drawn and loving. He’s finding what he loves and what he doesn’t, who he wants to be and who he never wants to become and it all plays excellently. His relationship with the Giant changes as he and the Giant themselves change – from boy and pet to boy and little brother to boy and friend to boy and guardian. And as with Hogarth’s coming of age and the Giant’s realization of self, their relationship is fully realized and immensely satisfying to watch.
While Hogarth, the Giant and their relationship is The Iron Giant’s core, Brad Bird builds the rest of the film into what would be a great sketch of a time and place even without the fantastic key character work. Bird takes the time to let the audience hear what the townspeople think of their lives and the world around them, and grounds Rockwell as a definite place with a definite character, rather than simply render it a collection of 1950s stereotypes. The supporting cast are well-drawn, and all give off the sense of having lives of their own outside of Hogarth and the Giant’s story. Kent Mansley, the picture’s villain, deserves to go down as one of cinema’s slimiest, most effective embodiments of self-serving cowardice that masquerades behind patriotism.
And lastly, it would be a mistake to talk about The Iron Giant without mentioning how flat-out gorgeous looking a film it is. The Giant is rendered in subtle CG that adds to his scale and alienness without being gratuitous. The human cast members are slightly stylized in a way that invokes Norman Rockwell, and move with the distinct patterns that individual people move. It’s a marvelous piece of animation.
The Iron Giant is both a throwback to the pulp science fiction of the 1950s and a universal story of friendship and compassion’s ability to triumph over fear and paranoia. It’s one of Brad Bird’s best works, and more than earns its spot on this list.
The film starts with one of the best opening shots ever. The camera pulls away from Earth orbit and heads out into the universe, as the soundtrack highlights audio clips of songs, TV themes, news clips and jingles in reverse chronological order till there’s nothing to hear but just static. We go deeper and deeper into the universe, and eventually the camera zooms out of the iris of young Ellie Arroway (Jena Malone), as she scans frequencies on a CB radio.
Flash-forward to years later, and a very driven adult Ellie (Jodie Foster) scanning the night sky for extra-terrestrial signals. Of course, Ellie ends up hearing that “voice from the heavens” – it would be a pretty boring movie, after all, if it was two hours of Jodie Foster listening to static – but what happens after, and how it affects the scientists studying the signal and greater society at large, drives one of the most emotionally compelling sci-fi films of the last 20 years.
The story was originally developed as a novel by accomplished astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who asked the question what would first contact with an alien species really look like? Contact doesn’t come in the form of giant alien ships hovering over the major cities of the Earth, but it’s a powerful radio signal from Vega, a star from 25 light years away. Word leaks out, and society goes bananas. Everyone from religious zealots, to alien abduction nuts, to the just plain curious descend on the New Mexico radio array that hears the signal. Not helping things is that the signal the “Vegans” send back to Earth is a replay of the first TV signal powerful enough to leave Earth’s atmosphere, Hitler’s opening ceremony speech for the 1936 Munich Olympics. The matter gets more complicated when it’s revealed that there’s a second signal with directions to build some kind of machine.
Contact plays with a lot of big ideas over the course of its two and a half hour running time, not the least of which is the spirit of exploration and the daring of those willing to go where no one’s gone before. Contact is also a play on science versus faith, the former personified by the clinical Ellie, and the latter represented by Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a preacher who’s gained fame by talking about the loss of spiritualism through technology.
In a weird way, Palmer is not just Ellie’s antithesis, but he also becomes her strongest ally. There’s also a role for politics, and not just the technical chicanery of splicing in a CG Bill Clinton, but in the way White House scientific advisor David Drumlin (Tom Skerrit) tries to undermine Ellie’s E.T. search till he can steal a place at the top of all the decision-making concerning the alien contact. It’s also a meditation on patience, and a reminder that the big questions are both the simplest and most difficult to answer. At the end, the human race isn’t ushered into a brand new era of alien interaction and a united federation of planets, but rather an overture, a first step. In the end, it’s all about small movies.