When I heard the news of Ray Bradbury's death, I went online to revisit his life and work, and was struck once again by the enduring imprint he left on popular culture.
Reading up on him, I was surprised to learn that he disliked being labeled a science fiction writer. He made an important distinction in explaining why, stating that "science fiction is a depiction of the real, fantasy a depiction of the unreal."
In other words, with science fiction, anything that occurs could conceivably happen, while in fantasy, you know it never could.
Thus it seems Mr. Bradbury felt he was more a writer of fantasies... Of course, since most writers and artists understandably prefer not to be categorized, likely he would have preferred simply being remembered as a good writer, full-stop.
There's no doubt he achieved that goal.
As to that fundamental difference between science fiction and fantasy, it makes perfect sense. It also makes me realize that in categorizing movies, there are more than a few titles I loosely call "science fiction" that are in fact "fantasy."
Sometimes it's not all that easy to decide just what could happen, and what couldn't.
Though Ray Bradbury's best-known works never translated particularly well to the screen (specifically, 1966's Fahrenheit 451 and 1969's The Illustrated Man), without a doubt his writing helped fuel the renaissance of fantasy/science fiction movies in the fifties.
I felt that now would be a fitting moment to compile my own top-ten list of science fiction movies. Though you'll note my picks include some older films, this should not suggest that sci-fi pictures are somehow in decline. They have never really left us -- and never will.
At the very least, as long as the movies remain big business, franchises like Star Wars, Planet Of The Apes, Terminator and Jurassic Park -- not to mention box-office bonanzas like this year's Hunger Games -- ensure a bright future for the genre.
But it goes beyond money. As Ray Bradbury well understood, we humans are innately fascinated by the unknown, and by what may lie in the future, even if it's on the fantastic side.
With contemporary society in the state it's in, the idea of aliens, time warps and alternate realities can seem downright appealing -- a welcome escape. These ten features provide all that, and more.
Metropolis (1927)- A visionary depiction of 21st-century society, this film presents a world in which the fabulously wealthy live in opulence above ground while an oppressed underclass toils far below in a heavily routinized, mechanistic dystopia. Appalled by the workers' underground lives, and in love with subterranean beauty Maria (Brigitte Helm), idealistic Freder (Gustav Froehlich) flouts the powers that be -- including his industrialist father Fredersen (Alfred Abel) -- and begins campaigning for reforms. One of the most influential films ever made, Fritz Lang's Metropolis was reportedly inspired by the director's awestruck first glimpse of the 1920s Manhattan skyline. Visually astonishing and darkly surreal, Metropolis is a flawless example of German Expressionism on film, with its heavily stylized, futuristic production design, odd camera angles, and bleak, shadowy evocation of the not-so-harmonious techno-industrial future. Rudolf Klein-Rogge is especially captivating playing sadistic capitalist Rotwang, who engineers a slave revolt against the reformers. A hypnotic, enthralling silent masterwork by the legendary director of M and The Big Heat.
The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935)- Having somehow managed to survive a deadly windmill fire, the sad, confused Monster (Boris Karloff) bolts off into the European countryside. Meanwhile, his disillusioned creator, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) reluctantly assists his demanding, demented mentor, the booze-guzzling Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), in a mad plan to create a female companion for the rampaging creature. But Monster and Bride, they will eventually learn, just weren't meant to be. James Whale's brilliant, wonderfully cheeky sequel to 1931's Frankenstein managed to equal its predecessor in terms of tone and originality, while adding sly barbs of humor. Apart from Whale's clever, offbeat direction, the film's success is due to the marvelous cast of eccentrics: Thesiger's weird, malevolent turn as Dr. Pretorius, Dwight Frye's nutty hunchback, and the mesmerizing Elsa Lanchester-playing Mary Shelley in the film's prologue, and then the shrieking Bride in a now-iconic , white-streaked fright wig- couldn't be better. Then, of course, there's Karloff, whose sad, tragic attempts to speak and connect with others simply underscore his tortured pathos. Wed yourself to the morbidly endearing "Bride."
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)- One eventful day, an alien spaceship lands in Washington, and from it emerges an emissary from another world (Michael Rennie) who has assumed human form. He has a message for the inhabitants of Earth, but won't reveal it unless all nations of the world are present to hear it. The being chooses a mother and son (Patricia Neal and Billy Gray) to convey this directive; unfortunately, it's not one a divided world can readily accept. Will humanity's inability to unite spell its destruction? Admittedly short on action and effects, Robert Wise's groundbreaking classic may seem quaint on the surface, but this subtly paranoiac tale of a world in crisis is still unnerving. "Day" in fact transcends its genre, taking aim at the pervasive distrust and intolerance of the time, as characterized by the Communist witch hunt and the Cold War. Director Wise, who had previously edited Citizen Kane (1941) and would go on to direct both The Haunting (1963) and The Sound Of Music (1965), coaxes solid performances from his cast, with a measured Rennie and a fetching Neal carrying the picture. A must for fans of '50s cinema, and all sc-fi junkies.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)- In Everytown, USA, your neighbors are acting strangely. They may look the same, but something has gone dead inside them. Soon, strange pods are discovered, and it appears they serve to replicate aliens as these same neighbors, thus beginning an insidious takeover of the earth itself. Dr. Milles Binnell (Kevin McCarthy) and Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) are the first to stumble upon this horrible and incredible phenomenon, and it falls to them to warn everyone else. But just whom can they trust? My personal sci-fi favorite from the fifties, this enduring cult favorite is an ingenious nightmare vision that reflects the paranoia of the time created by McCarthyism. Absent of the effects that characterize more recent entries in this genre, the film remains genuinely creepy strictly on the basis of story, direction and performances. Stars McCarthy and Wynter carry the film beautifully, and director Don Siegel brings the same flair to this that he would to movies like Dirty Harry a full decade later. One of those rare "B" movies that earns a solid "A".
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)- Drs. Dave Bowman and Frank Poole (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) are traveling towards Jupiter on-board space vessel "Discovery," equipped with the new HAL 9000 computer. Though it's presumed that whatever man creates he can control, HAL will put that theory to the test, bringing significant danger to the astronauts from a most unexpected source. This synopsis only begins to describe this most cosmic, dense and challenging of science fiction films, which director Stanley Kubrick co-wrote with sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke. Notably, 2001 relies on images more than words to convey its multi-layered tale, which starts with the dawn of man. Profound and cerebral, the film may feel slow and ponderous to those accustomed to Star Wars, and its vision of the near future at times betrays its 1968 origins. That said, it's still an impressive and absorbing mind-blower, a work of genius from Kubrick, working at the top of his game.
Solaris (1972)- Sent to evaluate the mental state of three cosmonauts at a Russian space station orbiting the mysterious ocean-planet Solaris, psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donata Banionis) learns upon arriving that lead scientist Dr. Gibrarius (Sos Sarkisyan) is dead, apparently a suicide. As he puzzles over the psychic torments afflicting the remaining two men, who are behaving oddly, Kelvin is visited by the flesh-and-blood apparition of his dead wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). A cerebral, eerily gorgeous elaboration of Stanislaw Lem's ruminative sci-fi novel, Andrei Tarkovsky's atmospheric Solaris is the furthest thing from outer-space action flicks like "Aliens," much closer in spirit to Kubrick's 2001. As always, Tarkovsky carefully modulates the action to a hypnotic crawl, creating an effect that is both sublime and chilling, especially once the "Guests" -- the materialization of repressed memories-begin to arrive. Exploring the nature of love and memory, past trauma and the enigma of consciousness, Solaris is a breathtaking film with a powerful undercurrent of spiritual longing. (Not to be confused with George Clooney re-make.)
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)- Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) appears like your average husband and father, until a "close encounter" with an alien force begins to induce ongoing erratic behavior. Roy feels compelled to mold clay into the same weird shape, and soon is moved to travel cross-country in search of a structure that resembles that shape. Once he reaches his destination, he learns he's not alone -- that a whole cross-section of humanity has been touched similarly and now find themselves all in one place, awaiting an alien visitor who's summoned them there. This top science fiction entry, nominated for nine Oscars, benefits from Steven Spielberg's trademark epic sweep and sense of wonder. It also boasts one of Dreyfuss's finest performances as the afflicted Neary, yet the supporting cast is equally strong: Director Francois Truffaut appears in a rare acting turn as French scientist Claude Lacombe, Teri Garr shines as Roy's long-suffering spouse, and Melinda Dillon is affecting as bewildered Mom Jillian, whose young son Barry (in a petrifying scene) has already gone up in the aliens' space ship. Don't miss this classic Spielberg spellbinder, truly one for the ages.
Alien (1979)- First (and in our view, best) of a long series, Ridley Scott's film succeeds admirably at mixing genuine chills with solid ensemble playing and more than a semblance of character development. We first get acquainted with the diverse team manning spaceship "Nostromo" before all hell breaks loose. It seems a nasty alien creature has been ingested inside one of the crew, and when it gets out, the group is trapped in their vessel like those proverbial sardines in a can. This trim little classic has a skin-crawling immediacy, as director Scott builds a sense of impending danger, followed by moments of heightened suspense and terror once this nightmarish genie escapes from its bottle. In a star-making turn, the young Weaver makes a tough, independent feminist hero, ably supported by pros Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt and Ian Holm. If you love sci-fi that favors mood and substance over dazzle, here's your movie.
28 Days Later (2002)- Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from an accident in a London hospital and confronts a living nightmare: it seems a monkey-borne virus has spread that turns human beings into flesh-eating zombies. With the city virtually deserted, Jim meets up with a handful of people who have escaped infection thus far, including Selena (Naomie Harris), Mark (Noah Huntley), and Frank (Brendan Gleeson). This small group's only chance for survival lies in eluding these rampaging beasts, finding other survivors and somehow getting to safety. But is there anywhere that's truly safe anymore? Though the premise sounds frighteningly close to George Romero's zombie movies, this entry comes off fresh and fierce, thanks to Danny Boyle's tight, gritty direction, an English setting and two solid Irish actors, the boyish Murphy and the always appealing and reliable Gleeson. Recommended only for hardcore horror fans, this graphic, nerve-jangling film will keep softies up at night.
District 9 (2009)- Extraterrestrials come to earth and land in Johannesburg. The city's human residents swiftly marginalize these creatures, relegating them to slums. Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a state security agent, is tasked with moving the aliens from their current dwellings in District 9 to an even less hospitable location. Wikus eventually gets exposed to a rare alien substance which begins transforming him into one of them. As a result, his bosses want to make a guinea pig out of him, and hunter becomes hunted. Will Wikus become fully human again, and will the aliens finally escape this planet? Even with state-of-the-art effects creating a most convincing race of aliens, Neil Blomkamp's disarming feature succeeds mostly on the basis of story and script. (Incredibly, the film, which netted four Oscar nods, including Best Picture for producer Peter Jackson, cost only $30 million). Brisk pacing and rousing action scenes are complemented by a tongue-in-cheek tone, and a fun performance from Copley, who's far from the usual action hero type. All these ingredients give District 9 a quirky, original quality sorely missing in most Hollywood fare of this type.
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