Saturday, 29 October 2011

Six Decades of Sci-Fi Films

Nothing dates like the future, as you can see by this trawl through the best of sixty years of science fiction films.

We were going to travel to the stars, be devoured by aliens, replace ourselves with replicants, disappear into cyberspace or be landed with a ship load of space refugees.

Instead the shuttle has been paid off, the aliens are silent, the clones don't work, cyberspace crashes if you move too far from the base station and if we don't do something about Climate Change the refugees will be us.

But lets ignore grim reality and look to back at the future as presented on the silver screen.

The Fifties: The Forbidden Planet(1956)

Well you know you're in the the fifties when you watch Forbidden Planet. Spaceships that look like flying saucers, computers the size of tower blocks, and women relegated to housework.

But what a great film this is. Having grown up int he seventies watching corny CSO special effects on Doctor Who, I couldn't believe a film that looked this good could be made so long ago. As a prediction of the future it is probably pants, but as a vision of how we hoped the future would turn out, it's fantastic. Great style doesn't date, and neither does the look of this film.

As a take on Shakespeare its interesting too, with the Krell's supersized superscience replacing magic and a bit of Freud creeping in for good measure to impress pseudo-intellectuals like me.

And yes, that is a young Leslie Nielson of Police Squad! as the romantic lead.

The Sixties: 2001 A Space Odyssey (1969)

The first time I watched this film I couldn't make head nor tail of it. I then read Arthur C Clark's novelisation and realised it was obvious. I then watched the film again and thought, hang on a minute.

And that's what's fantastic about Kubrick's film. He took Clark's nuts and bolts sci-fi story of heroic space exploration and benevolent aliens and turned it inside out. Now the aliens teach the ape-men to make clubs that turn into orbiting nuclear bombs, and the shiny future is full of charmless, corporate yes-men who lie to the public and miss their daughter's birthday.

And then there's Freud again. I mean, look at the Discovery One, swimming towards the black hole and then giving us the Star Child.

True, you need to be on pot to really want to watch a film this pretentious, this long and this slow, but then this is the sixties and most of the audience apparently were.

The Seventies: Alien (1979)

If you were expecting Star Wars then you're reading the wrong blog. Alien is the genre defining film of this decade.

Now you could argue that the genre concerned is the slasher movie, but it is a sci-fi movie really. Here we have space not as mysterious and exciting, but as the boring, everyday workplace of a bunch of interstellar truck drivers.

Apparently J.G.Ballard was approached to write the novelisation of Alien, but he looked at the monosyllabic dialogue and turned the offer down, only to realise his mistake when he saw the film. You can see where he went wrong though. The script is okay, but it's Ridley Scott's direction and H.R.Giger's designs that make it a classic.

And of course Freud is there in bucket loads too, as this alien doesn't just eat you, it impregnates you and you give birth to its off spring. Yuck.

The Eighties: Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner almost gets my vote as best movie of all time.

Almost, but not quite, and the reason is a rather annoying one.

Everyone knows the debate about whether Decker is a replicant. It seems fairly clear director Scott intended him to be, and every time they retouch the film and release a new version this becomes clearer. But, and its a very big but, no matter how they tweak it they can't get round the fact that Harrison Ford was clearly not trying to play a replicant. It's not a bad performance by Ford, but that' part of the problem. His Blade Runner is too human.

But Ford isn't the star of th show. That is clearly Rutger Hauer. This is Mr Guinness's finest moment. He is handsome, noble and menacing throughout the film, in the way that only Robert Shaw could equal. He murders his father (Freud again, need I say) bumps off the nice J.F. Sebastian, is really mean to Decker, and then ends the film with one of the best soliloquys in cinema.

Ultimately Blade Runner may not amount to a hill of beans, but so well made, well acted and well designed is this dystopian classic that you'll come away thinking it was more profound than Proust.

The Nineties: The Matrix (1999)

In the nineties computerised special effects arrived and the only limit to what could be shown on screen was human imagination. Unfortunately that turned out to be a fairly serious limitation, and mostly we just got superhero stories, but we did get the Matrix.

Okay, so the sequels have reduced the concept to utter silliness, and the idea (and the name) were both nicked from a Tom Baker Dr Who story (1976's The Deadly Assassin), but it was still a jaw dropping film when it came out.

Not that it's an optimistic film, along with the runner up for this decade, Terminator II, it shows a pretty grim future. Alien and Blade Runner may have shown that the future doesn't hold much for those at the bottom of the social ladder, but these films suggest that the only things that can look forward with optimism are our PCs.

The Noughties: District 9 (2009)

The special effects continued to get better, but whilst this has revitalised the fantasy genre and TV sci-fi, in the movies it was largely the same backward looking stuff, as epitomised by that vapid rubbish Avatar, which re fought the Vietnam war with ten foot high smurfs three and half decades after everyone else moved on.

There were a few exceptions though, and chief amongst them was District 9, a stunningly original South African film. The hero who becomes more humane as he becomes less human, and the alien racism analogy had been done before, although possibly not done better. However the invasion by crap aliens was new. Previously First Contact was either a Very Bad Thing or a Very Good Thing. Here it's just a hassle, another problem for the UN, another opportunity for the evil corporations.


So what have we learnt in sixty years of sci-fi films? Well, if this list is anything to go by the optimism has certainly gone.

In the fifties and sixties we looked forward to boldly going in search of adventure and excitement, admittedly in the service of some sort of quasi-fascistic state.

In the seventies and eighties it became apparent that this Brave New World wasn't for everyone, and that there'd be a lower strata of workers either to be used as alien-fodder for the corporations or abandoned on a dying earth whilst the elite moved to Mars.

Then in the nineties the future was given over to the machines, and any aliens we met were in a worse state than.

All said, I think I wish I was back in the fifties.

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