We don’t usually think of foreign films and science fiction in the same context. The former belong to the bohemian art house, pondered over by scholars with patches on their elbows and the odd emo-poseur hoping to score with that chick in his Italian Neo-Realism class. The latter are cacophonous event pictures intended for thirteen-year-old boys, featuring a lot of loud noises and pretty pictures covering a center as hollow as gourd.
Those are the clichés, of course. The truth is far more complex, and just as domestic studios have produced their share of thoughtful and interesting science fiction pictures, so too do foreign filmmakers create sci-fi movies with compelling stories and astonishing visuals. Some are indisputable classics of the genre; others are hidden gems in need of rediscovery. But all of them expand and enhance the genre in ways that no American studio film can, providing an alternate look at the future, the cosmos and our own humanity. We’ve laid out ten of the best below, arranged alphabetically for your perusal.
(Note: for brevity’s sake, we’re taking a fairly strict approach to the term “sci-fi” here. We loves us the Pan’s Labyrinth, but it’s technically fantasy rather than sci-fi. Ditto most of Hayao Miyazaki’s work, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.)
Director Wong-Kar Wai produces a strange and wondrous story ostensibly about a modern man and his lost loves. The present-day sections are interwoven with the main character’s visions of a future in which robots interact alongside people and a giant train system connects the world. At once haunting, baffling and unbound by standard narrative, it demonstrates that future dystopias will never go out of style.
No self-respecting sci-fi fan can go through life without taking a look at this, a raw bolt of energy that announced anime’s status as a genuine art form to American audiences. Two parts cyberpunk gang war, one part mad scientist nightmare, one part genetic apocalypse, it set trends which both animated and live action films have struggled to match ever since. You know a film is great when the idea of a remake sounds like a recipe for disaster. How on Earth can the proposed live-action version ever compete with this?
8. Battle Royale
American teenagers aren’t the only ones with issues. Though borrowing a page from Stephen King’s The Long Walk (as well as American teen angst movies like Heathers) Battle Royale finds a uniquely Japanese way of rendering those themes, as a busload of students find themselves on a deserted island locked in a battle to the death. Eli Roth could learn a thing or two about the way the film deploys its violence, while any high school survivor will immediately recognize various social dynamics exacerbated by the brutal circumstances.
7. Fantastic Planet
For the truly weird, nobody beats the French. Director René Laloux conjures an acid trip of a world where humans live as pets to giant blue aliens. Fantastic Planet scores points for its potent themes of mutual respect and dignity, but in truth it works best as a wildly creative mindfuck equal to anything Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam ever produced.
6. The Host
When you’ve got a good monster, you’re halfway home. Director Bong Joon-ho defies convention by showing us the creature in the first twenty minutes of The Host, then uses its on-again off-again rampage through Seoul to explore the dynamics of a dysfunctional family trying to stop it. As a monster movie, it’s second to none, but the film’s unexpected heart and sense of tragedy elevate it to the ranks of the truly great.
5. La Jetee
Fans of Twelve Monkeys will recognize the same story here (it served as inspiration for the Gilliam film). Its slight running time covers the same ground, as a man travels back in time in an effort to aid the future, only to seal his own doom in the process. Director Chris Marker renders it almost entirely in still shots, save for one extraordinary moment when the screen flutters briefly to life. Gilliam did honor to it with Monkeys, but Marker’s remains the seed from which it all sprang.
The great-granddaddy of sci-fi epics had its origins in Germany rather than Hollywood, but not a single genre film since has escaped its shadow. If you haven’t seen it, go. Go now!
Not the Steven Soderbergh film with George Clooney, but the 1972 Soviet original on which it is based. Director Andrei Tarkovsky constructs an intellectual fog bank of a plot: slow-moving, excruciatingly quiet, but possessing a hypnotic fascination which no Hollywood production can match. At its heart is an alien being the size of a planet, a creature which dwarfs our every concept of what such beings are supposed to be, and which ultimately holds a mirror up to our own failings and perceived powerlessness.
From the same director as Solaris, Stalker applies an equally obtuse--and equally compelling--approach to its tale. A region called the Zone supposedly holds the key to eternal happiness, surrounded by invisible threats and physical principles run utterly amok. Its stark landscape proved eerily prescient--Chernobyl happened just a few years after it came out, and survivors used terms from the film when describing the disaster--and it served as inspiration for the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video game.
If developed properly, time travel movies rank among the most potent in the genres, and they don’t need a single special effect to do it. Timecrimes is a superior exercise in low-budget elegance, as a hapless everyman stumbles into the wrong lab and has to deal with multiple selves in an effort to extricate himself from his own mistakes. The story is simple, yet compelling and contains corkscrew depths that keep turning over in your mind as you replay what you saw on screen.