In a comment on Laurie’s review of PROMETHEUS last week, fellow blogger Pippa Jay wondered, “Where are the visually stunning, great story line films?” They do seem to be few and far between in this age of special-effects-for-their-own-sake.
Science fiction films, especially, may be visually stunning but fail epically in the story department (eg. JOHN CARTER, BATTLESHIP, PROMETHEUS, etc., etc.). It’s enough to make old-timers like me long for the good old days of Hollywood, when heroes were heroes, monsters were monsters and the spaceships were beautiful works of art.
Need a reminder? Here’s my top ten list of the most visually stunning and dramatically engaging science fiction films of all time. The list is in no particular order, and I’ve probably left off quite a few great films. But these are the ones I love and/or the ones that caused a sensation when they came out. They changed the way we see the world, which is the definition of art. These are films you can watch over and over and see something new every time. And they’re the ones you can’t wait to introduce to your kids and grandkids, so they can see it, too.
METROPOLIS (1927) This silent classic direct by Fritz Lang is a gorgeous Art Deco vision of the future, all long lines and sleek curves. You can’t imagine this film in anything but the stark black and white in which it was made. The storyline is a classic, too, with the conflict reflecting the class and industrial battles of the time.
FRANKENSTEIN (1931/1994) Whether you choose James Whale’s haunting original starring Boris Karloff, or Kenneth Branaugh’s amazing remake with Robert DeNiro in the monster’s role, you can’t miss with Mary Shelley’s tale of science gone wrong. Branaugh’s creation scene is a hellish mix of blood, steam, grease and insanity that both invokes and condemns the Industrial Revolution as a symbol of humanity’s hubris.
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) Director Robert Wise (WEST SIDE STORY;THE SOUND OF MUSIC; STAR TREK, THE MOTION PICTURE) took a story written by SF editor/writer Harry Bates, added stock footage of Washington D.C. and carefully crafted images of a robot and a flying saucer plus a wonderful cast (the ethereal Michael Rennie, the stalwart Patricia Neal, a host of recognizable character actors) and made an unforgettable UFO-watchers’ dream. Klaatu barada nikto!
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) Talk about visually stunning! Some of the effects of this film by Stanley Kubrick were ground-breaking, and they all hold up now, even 36 years later. The storyline is endlessly arguable, thus either fascinating or puzzling, depending on your point of view.
STAR WARS IV: A NEW HOPE (1977) George Lucas created a whole new universe when he made this film and set a coming-of-age story in the far reaches of space. No one had seen anything like what he did before. The characters, the setting, the effects, all of it seemed so new. Only the story owed anything to what had come before, being an homage to space operas from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Gene Roddenberry. No one seemed to mind, though. They were too busy being dazzled.
ALIEN (1979) As dark as STAR WARS was bright, this film proved forever that women can play the tough hero every bit as well as the next guy. Sigourney Weaver stalked (or was stalked, if you prefer) through Ridley Scott’s dripping-chain-draped holds and infested passageways with resourceful courage, fighting the grisliest monster anyone had seen onscreen ever. I shudder just thinking about it. Gives “visually stunning” a whole new meaning.
BLADE RUNNER (1982) Ridley Scott continued his SF masterpiece run with this film based on a Phillip K. Dick story (“Do Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?”). Harrison Ford navigates the dark alleys and doubtful morality of a future Los Angeles in search of four vengeful “replicants” and his own identity. It’s a love story, too, sorta. Quirky, but once seen, never forgotten.
JURASSIC PARK (1993) When Stephen Spielberg directs, the story is always solid. Spielberg is someone who understands what moves an audience. But when he directs a movie with state-of-the-art effects? Dynamite! Audiences flocked to this movie, saw it two or three or four times—in the theater! Granted, that was before most folks had theater-quality audio and video in their homes, but still—T-Rex come to life? And ready to rip your head off? Oh, yeah, that was something to see!
THE MATRIX (1999) The Wachowski brothers got to the heart of millennial paranoia with this film about a computer hacker who discovers “what’s behind the curtain”. Effects that were copied in virtually every action film that came after and a storyline that featured the heroes of the time—computer nerds—guaranteed a winner.
AVATAR (2009) James Cameron is another director with a huge talent for stunning visuals. He also has a romantic streak a mile wide. He’d already made a fortune combining the two in TITANIC. He did it again here with a tale that is pure science fiction romance and possibly the most beautiful film on my list. One of the few films that makes full use of 3-D technology, its soaring dragons and alien flora fascinate the eye while the characters of Jake and Neytiri engage the heart. Gorgeous!
So that’s my list. And though it was hard to leave some off the list, what was not difficult was culling anything recent. There are few to sort through. Sad, that. Remember the criteria: visual PLUS story. Too many lack that second element, in my opinion. What do YOU think? What would you add to the list—old films or new ones?
In a recent discussion with a sales person from GoDaddy, the server which handles my domain name and website, I learned that many authors take out domain names on their titles. That was a new one for me! UnchainedMemory.com? He said he’d heard from one of his clients that her editor had suggested she do it. Huh! I suppose that’s a good idea, once you’ve agreed on a title with your editor and publisher. After all, those titles can change all the way up to galley proofs, I guess.
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