5 Underrated SF Movies

The Arts

Looking through the SF racks in Barcelona’s FNAC today I saw lots of science fiction films I’d never heard of, which made me want to see some of the rarer items on my shelf again…

Gattacca
Too cold, too talky, said some critics, but the emotional power of the story grows stronger the nearer we move toward a totalitarian CCTV society. Healthy Ethan Hawke and crippled Jude Law trade places the reach the stars in a world where genetic profiling has given the perfect a career edge over the flawed. Standing between them is suspicious colleague Uma Thurman, never more icily wary. Complicating matters in the personality-swap is a murder which will implicate one of them. With a surprising cast (including Ernest Borgnine and Gore Vidal) and a stunning score from Michael Nyman, this is thinking SF, and a terrific paranoid love story. A scene was cut from the end that featured a role-call of geniuses who would not have made it through the ‘perfect genetics’ programme.

In Time
From the same director, Andrew Niccols, came a likeable, smart SF drama that also got a peculiarly rough ride from the critics, for no good reason, and once again it contains a killer idea. We’re all time-poor, but Justin Timberlake really is; in his world people stop aging at 25, but are engineered to live only one more year. Having the means to buy your way out of the situation is a shot at immortal youth. Timberlake finds himself accused of murder and on the run with a hostage, while his mother runs out of time…perhaps the point it’s making is a little on the nose, but it’s still a good idea well executed.

Mr Nobody
I’ve written about this utterly unseen SF film before, but it’s still awaiting a release in the UK. Jaco Van Dormeil returns to the idea of choices changes the world as One of the most visually arresting films ever made, ‘Mr Nobody’ has glimpses of Kubrick and Vonnegut. It’s two and a half hours and a tad confusing, but all is eventually explained in its own way, and every visual tic has a special meaning. Any tale that features youth, romance, infatuation, death, string theory, eternal life, the reversal of the universe and a thousand bicycles floating in space deserves to be seen, and not given snitty reviews by a handful of critics who prefer ‘Transformers’ movies. The film is in English and has mostly British and Belgian actors. I love it for being brave and different and quite, quite mad.

The Two Worlds
Benoit Poelvoorde stars as a tradesman who makes himself a cup of coffee, falls out of a window and into another world, where he has to save an oppressed tribe by becoming their leader and fighting a war. It’s all very silly, and yet there’s a bedrock of good SF under it and the poster, with Poelvoorde fleeing a hundred angry tribesmen across an alien plain with cafetiere still in hand made me laugh.

Idiocracy
The second half is a disappointment, but for a while this futuristic satire from Mike ‘Office Space’ Judge is a gem. Private Joe Bauers, the very definition of an average-to-dim American everyman, is selected by the Pentagon to be the guinea pig for a top-secret hibernation program. Forgotten, he awakes 500 years in the future. He discovers a society so incredibly dumbed-down that he’s easily the most intelligent person alive. Best moment; the film explains how the stupid gene pool got so bad, and it feels horribly likely.

12 comments on “5 Underrated SF Movies”

  1. snowy says:

    Gattacca was quite a good film, I’ve not seen it for a while, I have a vague recollection that it was the production design, mainly blue and grey, that caused it to seem ‘cold’.

    [I have been guilty of mixing that up with 'Payback' in the past, which uses a similar plot device to 'The Bourne Identity' with a pinch of 'Memento'].

    [Bonus nerd fact, the title Gattacca is composed from the four bases named by Crick and Watson, discoverers of the structure of DNA].

    If this is the place to bandy about little known, but thought provoking SciFi titles, I’ll offer a few, Dante 01, Eden Log and Immortal.

    And while they are not obsure, Sunshine and Event Horizon are worth revisiting.

    Two of the other four are on my [forever bloody expanding] list.

  2. Fi says:

    Yes Gattacca’s in my top five.

  3. ChrisE says:

    I must agree 100% with snowy on Event Horizon.

    But hey… I like Time Cop with Jean-Claude Van Damme. :)

  4. Bob Low says:

    Defitinitely agree with Gattaca, and Event Horizon-the latter was a clever, and effective combination of hard science fiction and all-out horror. Oddly enough, the three under-rated science fiction films that immediately occurred to me were all directed by the same man-Vincenzo Natali-and are ”Cube, ”Cypher” and ”Splice”.All three of these films were genuinely driven by ideas, rather than action-although there is also plenty of action in them as well.

  5. snowy says:

    I was tempted to mention ‘Cube’, [and its sequels].

    Two more recent films, come to mind that suffered because of shockingly bad trailers.

    ‘Gamer’ with “!GERARD BUTLER!” which behind the surface is a dystopian satire on Internet culture, and the power of huge tech companies. [It possibly has the most perfunctory romantic interlude in film history].

    ‘Repomen’ about a man who is unwillingly forced to sell his ‘soul’ , and his struggle to escape. [The Forest Whitaker character is a bit problematic, but it does shake out in the end].

    And given that too much thinking, risks dulling the spirit. One that is just a glorious romp.

    ‘Doomsday’ a film that appears to have ransacked the ‘dressing up boxes’ of some of the best known films, stealing all their finery and running away cackling to itself. But despite that it does hang together very well.
    [Among the cast is the ever reliable Sean Pertwee, who meets a particularly sticky end, as usual].

  6. ChrisE says:

    I liked Cube up to a point. I dislked the end, and on the DVD, the director also stated he was unhappy with it and why… which was the same reason I didn’t like it. Up to then though it was a cracking film.

    I actually like ‘Moon’ by Duncan Jones. Sam Rockwell is superb, basically being the only person in the movie. It’s about a statio on the Moon that has to be manned and the shifts for one reason or another, last 10 years with no human contact. Rockwell is coming to the end of his shift when he makes an alarming discovery.

    It’s very slow, very atmospheric. It reminds me of ‘Silent Running’ and ‘Demon Seed’.

    I also loved the score by Clint Mansell.

    I don’t know if it’s underrated. It hasn’t really been seen by that many people, despite getting good reviews by those who have.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Okay, I’ll see about trying Gattacca. I do listen to all these unfamiliar titles most of the time.

  8. Bob Low says:

    The ending of ”Cube” is quite bizaare, and the only moment where it deviates from science fiction, and seems to veer towards the almost mystical or religious. It’s a film I saw at the cinema when it came out, and many times since on DVD over the years, and I love it, ending and all.I’ve never watched any of the sequels, in case they detract from the sheer strangeness and originality of the original. I completely agree with ChrisE about ”Moon”. It might the best science fiction film of the last few years.

  9. J F Norris says:

    I’m one of the few who liked Gattaca, too. Moon is brilliantly done and is very much inspired by Silent Running as Jones has often said in interviews. I’ll have to track down some of the others mentioned in this post, especially Two Worlds which sounds exactly like the quirky kind of movie I love. I must thank you, Chris, for leading me to Trollhunter and Rare Exports — two of the best oddball genre films I’ve seen in years.

  10. snowy says:

    The ‘Cube’ sequels are quite good. ‘HyperCube’ is similar to the original, but reveals more about who is behind the Cube and how it was created.

    CubeZero is a prequel that revolves around the people who run the Cube on a day to day basis. Not the high ups, but the worker drones. It has a different story arc, and deals with the moral dilemma, of blindly following orders.

    ‘Moon’ was great, but a lot of people seem to have been put off by the slow build in the first act. Establishing ‘normalcy’, before the reveal seems to have gone out of fashion in some genres. Alien did it superbly, but a lot of recent films seem to have a big ‘splashy’ opening, ‘Doomsday’ being an example as it starts with an armed raid on a boat that goes badly wrong.

  11. Bob Low says:

    Thanks for the information on the Cube sequels, Snowy. I think I might give them a go. They sound more interesting than I’d feared!

  12. glasgow1975 says:

    Gattaca is one of my favourite films
    Moon was great
    Silent Running actually has me in tears every time I watch it

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