According to the Times UK, Ridley Scott claims that sci-fi films are dead and that since 2001: A Space Odyssey, there has been nothing new and different. The director said that:
…science fiction films were going the way the Western once had. “There’s nothing original. We’ve seen it all before. Been there. Done it,” he said. Asked to pick out examples, he said: “All of them. Yes, all of them.”
The flashy effects of recent block-busters, such as The Matrix, Independence Day and The War of the Worlds, may sell tickets, but Sir Ridley believes that none can beat Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Hmm, so I guess he doesn’t think his own takes on science fiction, the classics Blade Runner and Alien, measure up as well?
Now, I will probably take a huge credibility hit for saying this, but 2001: A Space Odyssey is not one of the absolute best science fiction movies in my opinion. Yes, it’s certainly groundbreaking and is a very important origin of the science fiction special effects you see today, but is it an enjoyable or even understandable movie experience? No. I’m sure it was revelatory in its day, but I personally think it succeeds more in imagery and theory than as a cohesive film with an actual plot.
That said, I simply can’t agree that there aren’t sci-fi movies out there that don’t have, as Scott claims, “an overreliance on special effects as well as weak storylines.”
To prove my point (hopefully somewhat definitively), I have compiled a list of what I think are great science fiction movies that, shall we say, move to the beat of their own drum and do not rely on or have minimal special effects, and that, of course, have been released after 1968.
science fiction (dictionary.com)
n. A literary or cinematic genre in which fantasy, typically based on speculative scientific discoveries or developments, environmental changes, space travel, or life on other planets, forms part of the plot or background.
Children of Men - A chilling look at a post-apocalyptic world in the not-so-distant future where humans can no longer have children due to mysterious scientific circumstances (in other words, what humans are doing to each other and the world). Essentially no futuristic science fiction effects to speak of.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind – Spielberg’s classic UFO film. True, it’s got alien abductions and spaceships, but much of it centers around the very human drama of its main characters. Certainly almost as if not just as influential in its science fiction imagery as 2001. The depiction of spaceships and aliens (they’re thin!) has never been the same.
Contact – Based on the book by Carl Sagan (if you don’t really like science, stick with the movie) and starring Jodie Foster. Exploring politics, religion and faith, science, and human nature, it’s a powerful and probably realistic portrayal of what would happen if we did make contact with another intelligence. Only at the very end of the film are classic science fiction effects used.
Gattaca – A very personal look at the human cost of technological advancement. Serious and dark, but not in a Blade Runner “film noir” sort of way, it’s a tragic and romantic tale of human hopes and dreams without any of the flashy sci-fi trappings. Opinion may be divided on this one, but I think it’s an intense and captivating story. With Ethan Hawke, Jude Law and Uma Thurman.
The Prestige – A recent film with Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, it’s an almost Memento-style look at the rivalry between two magicians at the turn of the century. Featuring more twists and turns than could ever be explained in a plot summary, this is not a “Harry Potter” magic film, or even just a slight of hand (like the other similarly titled magician movie released around the same time, the great film The Illusionist) but instead a look at the relationship of two men and how science can itself be magical. The real life scientist Nikola Tesla makes an experience, in the form of David Bowie. Yes, David Bowie.
The Fifth Element – A cult classic from Luc Besson, there is no other sci-fi movie quite like it. Sure it uses plenty of special effects, but you cannot deny that it’s different. And the most important thing: it’s a lot of fun. Starring Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich and Gary Oldman.
Galaxy Quest – The perfect spoof of “classic” sci-fi, this is a hilarious take on the fan world of Star Trek. What if the world of Star Trek really did exist? Enjoy this movie and find out. Tony Shalhoub, Alan Rickman and yes, Tim Allen do a great job, and Justin Long of “I’m an Apple computer” and Live Free or Die Hard fame puts in a great appearance as a “Trekkie” whose wildest dreams are finally coming true. Plus, a pre-Dwight Schrute Rainn Wilson as a techie alien!
Serenity – Based on the cult series Firefly from Buffy creator Joss Whedon, this dark (and slightly scary!) sci-fi action flick features Wild West-type dialogue, characters and action alongside spaceships and a slightly Star Wars-like Empire, the Alliance. There’s definitely special effects, but you can’t claim it isn’t creative and passionate.
Ghost in the Shell – An anime classic and crime thriller about artificial intelligence and the relationship between humanity and technology. The film was a huge influence on The Matrix, just check out the poster.
Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind – Hayao Miyazaki‘s animated take on a futuristic world decimated by humanity’s treatment of the environment. Dealing with issues of war and, of course, the environment, this 1984 film from the anime master behind Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke is an elegantly sad addition to the science fiction genre.
28 Days Later and 12 Monkeys - Similar sci-fi idea (world-ending virus), very different approaches (zombie horror vs. Terry Gilliam), both insane and mesmerizing in their own ways.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie – Ever heard of the early sci-fi film This Island Earth? There’s a good reason why not. It’s awful. But watching the characters from this cult TV show take hilarious jabs at it in their only feature film, you’ll think it’s the funniest movie on any earth. Incomprehensibly out of print on DVD, if you can find a worn-out VHS tape or DVD at your local Hollywood Video, rent it immediately. It leaves you with only the “fresh scent of pine.”
Honorable Mentions: Minority Report and V for Vendetta
Go here for Cinematical.com’s thoughts on Scott’s statements.