Seven Sci-Fi Films That Are Smarter Than Prometheus

A list of great sci-fi movies would undoubtedly include Ridley Scott’s signature films, Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), but I don’t know if there’s enough room on that list for Scott’s latest  Prometheus, a gorgeous collection of set-pieces smeared onto a messy, hole-filled plot, signifying nothing. I’ve already written at some length about Prometheus’s metaphysical shortcomings, but I’m never especially happy to write negative reviews without providing alternatives. Here are seven movies that demonstrate the best in depth of intellect that the genre has to offer.

 

1. Metropolis, 1927 (Dir. Fritz Lang)

Metropolis foregrounds many of the tropes that will come to dominate serious sci-fi (film and literature alike). The dystopian future of Metropolis imposes a strict division of classes, relegating the poor workers to underground drudgery while the (literal) upper class enjoy privileged leisure. Lang explores this divide via a Romeo & Juliet story of sorts—Freder, son of the city’s Master becomes infatuated with Maria, a girl from the underworld. He follows her into the labyrinth under the city and soon witnesses industrial horrors that harm the subterranean workers. The plot becomes more complicated when a mad scientist unveils an automaton—a robotic Maria—that he will use as part of a nefarious scheme. Metropolis’s expressionistic design and camera work still seem fresh and innovative almost a century after filming, and the film’s take on class disparity is as affecting as ever.

 

2. Alphaville, 1965 (Dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

Godard’s dystopian New Wave crime noir talkie follows the strange exploits of Lemmy Caution, who drives in from the Outlands in his Ford Galaxie to find a missing agent, capture the founder of Alphaville, and destroy Alpha 60, the totalitarian computer that keeps Alphaville’s citizens from indulging in poetry (or other forms of free expression). Godard makes no attempt to design a future: Alphaville is filmed in contemporary Paris. The effect is baffling; Alphaville is an exercise in uncanny realizations. The dialogue is pure New Wave stuff—crammed with literary and art reference—and will just as likely bore as  many audience members as it enthralls. In the end though, Anna Karina as Natacha von Braun is reason enough to watch this film.

 

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey,1968 (Dir. Stanley Kubrick).

Watch it. Then watch it again.

 

 

4. Solaris, 1972 (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)

Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a slow, engrossing meditation on grief. Based on the novel by Polish writer Stanisław Lem, Solaris centers on psychologist Kris Kelvin, who goes to the space station orbiting the planet Solaris in order to investigate the series of emotional collapses that the crew have suffered. Kelvin soon slips into his own existential crisis, as a ghost–or psychological construct—of his dead wife appears to him. Solaris is gorgeous and measured, using its near-three-hour running time to grand effect.

 

 

5. The Thing, 1982 (Dir. John Carpenter)

Antarctic  research station. Shapeshifting parasites. Kurt Russell. Dogs. Flamethrowers. Blood tests. Kurt Russell’s beard. Ennio Morricone’s score. Wilford Fucking Brimley. Paranoia. Paranoia. Paranoia.

 

6. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, 1984 (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

A millennium after apocalyptic war destroys human civilizations, the groups that remain scramble to control the few resources left on the planet. A toxic jungle swarming with mutant insects—and dominated by the giant Ohmus—encroaches on the few bastions of clean soil that remain to humankind. Adventurous Princess Nausicaä though learns the secrets of the jungle—and also knows how to communicate with the Ohmus—only she has to navigate sides in the emerging war between rival kingdoms. Miyazaki’s film, based on his manga, is lush and detailed, a fully-realized world that is simultaneously frightening and beautiful. The film’s take on ecology is not so much preachy as it is prescient.

 

7. Primer, 2004 (Dir. Shane Carruth)

Primer was shot on a $7,000 budget, but it never looks or feels cheap. This story of four engineers who invent a time machine in a garage is decidedly unglamorous and consistently engaging; Carruth (who also wrote and stars in the film) throws the audience into the deep end, offering no exposition, let alone explication for the audience to latch onto. The film explores the bizarre moral implications—and possible side effects (and defects) of time travel.

 

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12 comments

  1. atoasttodragons · June 11, 2012

    I haven’t seen a single one of those films (besides Alien and Blade Runner), yet I’m still going to see Prometheus this week. But thanks for the heads up; I will approach with caution.

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  2. Biblioklept · June 11, 2012

    Also: Children of Men, Wall-E, Moon, The Box, Southland Tales, RoboCop, Starship Troopers, Earth Girls Are Easy, Gattaca, Tetsuo the Iron Man, A.I. (my favorite Spielberg film), Altered States, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Source Code, Forbidden Planet, Fantastic Planet, Repo Man, The Matrix, Revenge of the Sith (the best Star Wars film), They Live, Escape from New York, Total Recall, La Jetee, 12 Monkeys, Brazil, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Delicatessen, Videodrome, Existenz, A Scanner Darkly, E.T., Terminators 1 & 2, Holy Mountain, A Clockwork Orange, The Iron Giant . . . and Avatar.

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  3. Shawn Conner · June 11, 2012

    Agree for the most part, with the exception of The Thing – watched it again recently and it just doesn’t hold up. Can’t recall if it was contrived characters or plotholes that were the main disappointments, though. Interesting that you would say Revenge of the Sith is the best Star Wars film… I don’t even recall which one that is.

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    • Biblioklept · June 11, 2012

      Revenge is the last film of the Star Wars (unfairly maligned) prequels. I think the film is a fantastic exploration of the sacrifices — particularly the sacrifices of first-person perspective and ego — that democracy entails. I can’t believe how roundly it was written off.

      In general, I think the prequels are held to a ridiculous standards by a group of men who watched the originals as boys, if that makes sense, and want the films to be something that they aren’t trying to be (namely, darker or edgier). I mean, if you go back and watch the first film (Star Wars: A New Hope) it is silly, terribly acted, and far “smaller” than it seems when you’re a kid and see it. Return of the Jedi has teddy bears fighting a guerilla war, for Chrissakes! I’ve gone on a rant.
      The Star Wars films, best to worst: Revenge of the Sith, Empire Strikes Back, A New Hope, Return of the Jedi, Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones.

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  4. james · June 11, 2012

    Also: “Stalker” by Andrei Tarkovsky, “Moon” by Duncan Jones, and “Donnie Darko” by Richard Kelly.

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    • Biblioklept · June 11, 2012

      I put Moon on my comment list; I haven’t seen Stalker yet (the shame, I know); I should’ve put Kelly’s film on the list (for what it’s worth, I did include Southland Tales and The Box).

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  5. seymourblogger · June 11, 2012

    Add one more because you forgot J’taime, J’taime. I just thought of Inception. And Momento of course.

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  6. seymourblogger · June 11, 2012

    Shit. Je t’aime Je t’aime.

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    • Biblioklept · June 11, 2012

      I don’t know Je t’aime x2 but will investigate. Not a fan of Chris Nolan’s films, although Inception had some beautiful setpieces.

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  7. josh · June 11, 2012

    Biblioklept: have you seen Upstream Color yet (Carruth’s followup to Primer)?

    Remarkable film.

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  8. MiamiCharlie · June 11

    The Thing definitely belongs on that list. Sci-Fi is exemplified by the characters in that movie. It’s us against them)
    thanx for the recommendation re: Primer

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