Well, it’s the holiday season…again. Time to buy presents…again. Time to figure out what to get people…again. This is the age-old struggle of “What the hell do they like?” and “Should I get the Kung Fu singing hamster, or the gift card to Barnes and Noble for 12 dollars for my blind and deaf Grandma?” Worst yet, you may even have to get the fabled “This is a part of me” present. You need to get a present for someone to let them know something about you and/or what you like. This can include everything from giving them a bottle of wine you really enjoy, to a full written out description of when you were 7 and had that weird dream with Kermit the Frog and the 9-Iron. I don’t think you’re going to do that last one, but I don’t know your life. Might I suggest, instead, you do what I do…show them a glimpse into the world of Sci-Fi by showing them the films that all fans of the genre should see, love, worship, and maybe even cuddle.
Let’s narrow a few things down first. One, “Classic” is a broad term. For the sake of these suggestions, I’m listing films before 2000. B, there are thousands of fucking science fiction films, so don’t bitch that I didn’t use your favorite one. It’s my list, go make your own. And four, I ain’t using Star Wars. I’m a fan, you’re a fan, hermit crabs are fans, and I get it. It’s too easy to put down, so I’m straight up avoiding it. This is a list of five films to give someone and say “This is Science Fiction gold. These will make you a fan. Watch these, then go to cons with me.” In order of when they came out, let’s begin…
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Directed by: Fred M. Wilcox
Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen
What: Set in the 23rd century, it tells the story of a starship crew sent to a distant planet to re-establish contact with a science expedition, who have been gone for over 20 years. After landing on the planet, against the wishes of scientist Dr. Morbius, they discover all the other members of the expedition have been killed by an unknown alien force, save for Morbius and his daughter. Unknown to the crew, one of the survivors has a deadly secret (cue dramatic music).
Why: I know that you’re thinking. “I want tacos.” I also know what you’re also thinking. “Why this one above all the others at or around the same time like ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ or ‘War of the Worlds’?” I’ll tell you why, because Forbidden Planet is the freaking granddaddy of practically all sci-fi as we know it. The amount of films, TV shows, novels, games, hell even porn, that have been influenced by this movie is huge. It was the first for so many things, including faster than light travel by starship, robots not looking like freaking trash cans, and a female character wearing a mini-skirt for the very first time in film. (Which actually got it banned in Spain. Spain…the country that basically invented the thong.) If all of that isn’t enough for you, it stars freaking Leslie Nielsen of “Naked Gun” fame, back he was all serious and didn’t realize he had comedy gold in his butt.
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm
What: The crew of a starship touch down on an unchartered planet after receiving a mysterious transmission, which may be a distress signal. After a bit of exploration, a member of their crew (played by the ever fantastic John Hurt) is attacked by an unknown creature that has latched onto his face. After the creature detaches and dies, the rest of the crew discover that the creature had impregnated their comrade with an alien embryo, discovered at dinner after the little scamp grew to arm-size and burst out of Hurt’s ribcage like the world’s worst food baby. Having grown to enormous size quickly, the crew must survive long enough to rid their ship of their uninvited guest in order to safely make it back home.
Why: I was going to actually avoid any movie that could be regarded as “horror”, but this is too good to pass by. Setting the bar for sci-fi thrillers that have come after it, this movie is pulse pounding. (Fun trick: if you’ve seen this movie, watch it with someone who is skittish who hasn’t seen it and yell/grab them at the scary parts. I’ve only done it once…twice…six times). Basically paving the way to stardom for the then relatively unknown Sigourney Weaver, this movie makes you feel every ounce of her terror and hopelessness. What really does it for me though is the music, written by Jerry Goldsmith, who is pretty much the God of Sci-fi Soundtracks. It’s dark, light, jeering, scary, practically an alien itself and makes you not want to go to space like…like ever. Spawning three sequels (one good one), two prequels (a bad one and a yet to be determined), two Predator cross overs (meh, they have their moments), and a plethora of other media outlets, Alien is a gift that seems to keep on giving. I mean…the gifts became more like socks and embroidered pillows after Aliens, but whatever.
Blade Runner (1982)
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young
What: In the future, a huge corporation has perfected bioengineering artificial humanoids called “Replicants”. Their main purpose is to make human lives better, easier, and safer. Soldiers, workers, pleasure models, doing your kids homework instead of you helping, the works. Harrison Ford plays nihilistic retired cop Rick Deckard. An ex Blade Runner, Deckard served in a form of law enforcement charged with hunting down and eliminating rogue replicant units. He’s forced back onto the force after a group of advanced replicants have come to earth with devious intentions, including expanding their four-year lifespan and making Darryl Hannah look creepy as fuck. As the film progresses, Deckard questions what is real, what is just, what it means to be human, and why the fuck is it always nighttime in the future.
Why: Let me explain something to you…if you have not seen this movie, go see this movie. If you have seen this movie, go see this movie. If you’re not sure if you can handle that important board meeting or that intense funeral, got see this movie. What is hailed as possibly the greatest Sci-Fi film of all time, Blade Runner plays out like a beautiful, futuristic noir film that transports you back to the days of James Francis Cagney and Humphrey Bogart? (If you do not know who they are, stop reading this because the language I have used is too strong for you, child.) You watch and question whether Deckard is a man beaten by time and hardship, or if he has lost a sense of what it means to be human in a world of artificial people, animals, food, and even at times, love. Much like Alien before it (no surprise there since they were directed by the same man), Blade Runner is heavily music driven and visually spectacular. It set the tone for many future Sci-Fi films down the road that hoped to emulate the ambiance and style of the film, most of the ones at the time failing. Hell, it was one of the ONLY futuristic films in the 80’s that wasn’t extremely 80’s, in my opinion. (Imagine a world over-run by hair bands and junk style clothing.) I shall give away no spoilers, but the absolute most interesting thing about this film is the mindfuck moment within the last 30 seconds. You will be left curious, confused, and may actually yell out “what the mindfuck?” There is, however, a bit of bad. You see, there are over 7 versions of this film out. Controversy surrounding the artistic direction of the film has been such a hassle that a new version was released every few years. It is a battle that has waged even to now. Instead of going into details, here is my personal advice; if you are watching Blade Runner and you start to hear narration by Harrison Ford, turn it off. It was forced by the corporate execs to have this shitty, quickly put together narration in the film and it completely ruins its tone. It was recorded in an afternoon and not only does it not fit the artistic dynamic, but Harrison Ford gives a totally lackluster performance of something he completely didn’t agree with. He reads with the emotion and energy one might use while reading the phone book out loud. It’s so bad, the studio came back to Scott afterward and said “Hey, sorry, we fucked up. It sucks, do it your way.” Luckily, every version of the film has Rutger Hauers amazing “Tears in Rain” monologue, which I consider one of the greatest of all time. (And, was adlibbed. Right on, Rutger “perpetually scary as fuck” Hauer. Right on.)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Sam Neil, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum
What: InGen, a company founded by the wealthy and eccentric John Hammond (Richard Samuel Attenborough), has successfully cloned dinosaur DNA from mosquitos trapped in fossilized amber because science. Naturally, the best way to show the world what you have done is to create a theme park on an island off the coast of South America so that you can invite kids to watch giant monsters tear apart cows and goats. (InGen does not offer to cover therapy.) After a vicious attack by a Velociraptor and pressured by investors, Hammond allows for observers and experts to go to the park before it is scheduled to open so that they can sign off on it being safe, educational, and fucking expensive. Paleontologist Dr. Allen Grant, Paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler, and Mathematician Ian Malcolm show up on the island at pretty much the exact same time as shit hits the proverbial fan. The power goes haywire, dinos escape their enclosures and deaths ensue, all thanks to the nerdy and underpaid park programmer Dennis Nedry, played by Wayne Knight. (Newman!)
Why: Pretty much the best and most entertaining translation of a novel to film. Don’t get me wrong, there are others that are great too, but as I said, this is my list and this one takes the T-rex shaped cake. Not only was this put on the fast track for film, it was bid and bought as a film before the book was published. Let me say that again…studios fought over and bid for the rights to produce this film before the fucking book was even on shelves. Michael Crichton basically had the Hollywood draw to say “My book will be huge, make a movie out of it, pay me money, then read the book.” When the film was released, what we were given was the visual spectacle that made people remember why we all were obsessed with dinosaurs at one point, and showed us a glimpse at a staple for all future blockbusters and science fiction films to come…CGI. Combining never before seen computer graphic imaging and incredible animatronics, you believed “life found a way” and universal “spared no expense.” With a score created by John Williams of literally-every-movie-ever-made credits, this movie broke the ground with Brachiosaurus sized footprints and slashed the competition like a hungry six-foot turkey. Few movies since have impacted us with not only larger than life senses of wonder, but a shirtless and smoldering Jeff Goldblum.
The Matrix (1999)
Directed by: The Wachowskis
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Lawrence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving
What: Played by Reeves, Mr. Thomas Anderson lives two lives, one as a computer programmer in a nameless corporation, the other as Neo, a hacker who is driven by a near obsessive hunt for a man known as Morpheus. This hunt is fueled by an insatiable need to find the answer to a question; what is the Matrix? (He also wanted to know where to get some sick black threads.) After being picked up by the FBI looking Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) for a seriously fucked up interrogation, Neo is contacted by and then propositioned by Morpheus, who offers to show Neo the truth. Soon, we learn that the Matrix is the world in which we all live in, which acts as a huge computer program in order to keep the human race unaware of the truth. The truth being that not only is time actually a thousand years in the future, but that all humans are basically hooked into the Matrix in order to have their bodies natural energy harvested as a fuel source for evil machines. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) leads a crew of humans who have been “freed” from the Matrix, and together they try to continue to fight the war against the machines and free humanity from enslavement. Using the laws of the Matrix to allow each “freed human” certain levels of superhuman abilities, Neo learns that not only is he thrust into a fight for humanity, but that he is sought after by both sides as being the focus of an ancient prophecy to end the war as “The One.” (Basically, Keanu is Jesus.)
Why: Tapping off the end of the 20th century, The Matrix took its toll on the film world by once again changing the genre. The action was explosive, the sounds were crisp, the visuals were startling, and the leather was tight. The science fiction style of CyberPunk was not new to cinema, what with the internet taking hold in the mid 90’s and computers being near magical in the 80’s, but the Matrix showed us how far the subculture had and would evolve. The Wachowskis knew this and made one of the greatest movie decisions of all time…hire creator and inventor John Gaeta to explore the then new age technology of virtual cinematography with time-slice photography to make a fixed visual environment using single photos in quick simultaneous action. Basically, they gave us “Bullet Time.” Using a combination of live action, photo work, and CGI, we saw characters on screen look like they were shattering the laws of physics like debt shatters dreams. Slow motion action while actually filmed at normal speed with a rotating picture made us feel like the impossible was possible and that humans may actually be made of rubber, let alone also being able to control space and time. Incredible again is the amazing work in wire work and fight choreography, created by a team of choreographers from Kung Fu films and what I can assume were magic monkeys. While the film was aptly acted by all the actors involved, the major crowd pleaser was the expertly performed character of Agent Smith by Hugo Weaving, who at this point I’m pretty sure is made of half “bad guy.” What better film to not only take us into the 21st century, but influence action and effects still to this day.
That’s my list. Fite me.