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5 Almost-Great Sci-Fi Films Worth a Second Look
The following films might be celebrated for helping define the genre.
By Joey Campbell
May 15, 2008
Ask your friend to tell you his favorite science fiction movie and you’ll probably get some combination of Star Trek-Terminator-E.T. We all know the classics, and even the most elitist contrarians among us are hard pressed to downplay the creative vision of the Spielberg canon. I’d like to believe that my taste is as avant-garde as the next guy, but I dumped my sophomore year girlfriend because she’d never heard of Empire Strikes Back. Blockbuster bandwagon fan? Guilty as charged.
Of course, sci-fi is more than the popular mainstream suggests, as scores of well-conceived ideas failed to win the hearts and dollars required to establish a legend. In a world where no one’s ever heard of light sabers, acid spewing aliens or computer-simulated realities, perhaps the following films might be celebrated for helping define the genre.
5. Enemy Mine
Why it’s on the list: Transcending the space epic tradition of good against evil, the film instead opts for racial allegory and asks the question: on a galactic scale, cant we all just get along?
Where it went wrong: Despite positive critical reception, the movie grossed a disappointing $12 million. Maybe it’s the ambiguous title.
Why it’s still cool: Dennis Quaid plays an arrogant human pilot (go figure) stranded on a desolate planet with a Drac—humanity’s greatest alien nemesis—played by Lou Gossett Jr. The hated rivals must learn to work together to overcome primordial terrain, ferocious meteor showers and bizarre native predators.
Defining statement: In addition to the overt black vs. white symbolism, Enemy Mine offers a moderately disturbing gender bending message when Gossett Jr.’s character spontaneously gives birth to a son. Yes, male Dracs can asexually reproduce! The ensuing storyline makes us wonder whether Quaid is the mother or father.
Still from RUNAWAY (1984).
© TriStar Pictures
Why it’s on the list: Before the Matrix, Maximum Overdrive and Robocop became sci-fi staples, the concept of rampaging robots was still fairly new to the movie-going public. Runaway was the first in a long line of big-budget attempts to explore this speculative dilemma.
Where it went wrong: Its release date came six weeks after James Cameron unleashed upon the world a little known movie called The Terminator.
Why it’s still cool: Magnum P.I. (Tom Selleck) plays the good guy, and Gene Simmons, wild eyed and 80s coiffed, offers a turn as an evil genius who employs a high-tech arsenal of heat seeking bullets, guided freeway bombs and mechanical spider assassins to maim and murder lots of people.
Defining statement: Runaway attempts to bring the future to your 1980-something doorstep, juxtaposing contemporary—grossly out of style today—cars and clothes with over-the-top robots. When the robots go awry, you can’t help but be reminded of the helplessness you feel when your PC crashes.
Still from TIME BANDITS (1981).
3. Time Bandits
Why it’s on the list: Director Terry Gilliam is better known for his comic efforts (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and his later more widely lauded sci-fi efforts (Brazil, Twelve Monkeys). But it was 1981’s Time Bandits—with its bizarre characters and wonky, dream-like adventure sequences—that first revealed the staggering depth of Gilliam’s vivid imagination.
Where it went wrong: While the film was both a critical and financial success, it plays second fiddle in the larger scope of the Gilliam-Monty Python body of work.
Why it’s still cool: Raucous dwarves, mazes, time travel, the Titanic, ogres, giants, Napoleon, magic, minotaurs and Sean Connery. What’s not to like?
Defining statement: The story has a nearly perfect creative formula. Place a children’s fairy tale in both historical and fantastical settings. Mix in dark humor and a science meets magic subplot. Add the best dwarf-led cast of characters since the Wizard of Oz and—Zing!—you have a sci-fi fantasy classic.
Still from NIGHT OF THE CREEPS (1986).
2. Night of the Creeps
Why it’s on the list: Low-budget special effects, cheesy dialogue and sub-par acting—this one has all the hallmarks of a bad B-movie. But Night of the Creeps makes up for it with a creative plot that mixes genres and offers homage to classic Ed Wood-style cinema.
Where it went wrong: Technically, the movie was a success, given its pseudo-cult following. But like others of its ilk, Creeps easily gets lost in the video store shuffle.
Why it’s still cool: Aliens, zombies, brain eating slugs, oh my! The doo-wap ‘50s soundtrack and frat sex romp overtones give the movie an extra slice of camp. For good measure, in one scene a clearly visible “Stryper Rules” is scrawled on a bathroom stall.
Defining statement: Night of the Creeps is infused with nods to classic horror and sci-fi, including a cameo shot of Plan 9 From Outer Space and characters named after legendary directors—Chris Romero and Cynthia Cronenberg are the protagonists.
Still from LIFEFORCE (1985).
© The Cannon Group
Why it’s on the list: What good is a list of underappreciated sci-fi flicks without any movies involving space vampires? Lifeforce is kind of like Night of the Living Dead meets 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ok, so that is being generous. Still, it has more than its share of moments.
Where it went wrong: Never living up to expectation, popularly or in box office receipts, Lifeforce was reportedly unsatisfying even to its own production team (and director Tobe Hooper). Maybe they didn’t like the chaotic zombie gore-fest that the movie haphazardly morphs into.
Why it’s still cool: For many sci-fi fans, the notion of an undead race of interstellar soul-suckers attacking London qualifies as pretty cool. Count me among that group.
Defining statement: According to Wikipedia, the movie’s premise (adapted from the novel Space Vampires by Colin Wilson) was absorbed into the dogma of the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult that committed mass suicide at the 1997 appearance of the Hale-Bopp Comet. How many movies can make a claim like that?