We might as well face facts. There are a way too many obscure, underappreciated science fiction films.
The first science fiction film (inasmuch as there can be “firsts” in the world of sci-fi) was 1902’s Le Voyage dans la Lune, a delightful silent romp to the ugly mug of the moon and back, inspired by the works of Jules Verne. In the 116 years since, cinema has treated us to a smorgasbord of sci-fi delicacies—dystopias, utopias, lost worlds, time warps, new frontiers, maniacal villains, deadly (and cheesy) monsters, rogue androids, black holes, parallel universes, malevolent aliens, eldritch abominations, space wars, forbidden planets. Even in these sad, latter days when the box office is dominated by fluffy comic book fare, new (albeit obscure) sci-fi classics continue to be made.
Science fiction is one of the most subjective genres of literature and film. One man’s sci-fi is another man’s schlock. One man’s deep social commentary is another man’s dry preachiness. One man’s alien monster is another man’s stuntman in a rubber suit. There have been a lot of great sci-fi films, and a lot of stinky ones. Some people like one category or the other, and some people like both.
I’m not here to tell you which sci-fi films are the best. I’m here to tell you about three science fiction films I really liked, and that I think you’ll like too, if you’re reading this. (I’d have made the list longer, but I tend to get pretty wordy.) So here you are, friend. Enjoy.
1. Outland (1981).
Ever wondered what would happen if they took that glorious old Gary Cooper Western film High Noon and moved it into space? Well, lucky for you, partner, they did. And they did it with Sean Connery, of all people.
Connery isn’t known for starring in successful sci-fi outings (let’s not talk about the awful red mankini he wore in 1974’s Zardoz). So I wasn’t expecting much when I popped the DVD of 1981’s Outland into my PS4 and started watching. And indeed, the film isn’t much to write home about from a technical standpoint. The special effects are nothing special. The cinematography didn’t exactly blow me away (but it didn’t bore me, either). The plot, though, is what kept me interested right from the beginning. This film, as I mentioned before, is High Noon in space. Connery plays William O’Neil, a weary old federal marshal in charge of security on a titanium mining outpost called Con-Am 27 on Jupiter’s moon Io. O’Neil lives in a cramped little apartment with his wife and young son. The miners work brutally long shifts in bulky spacesuits on Io’s bitterly cold and airless surface. The director of the mining facility, Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle) is proud of the fact that the facility has smashed all productivity records since he took over. Right at the beginning of the film, O’Neil’s wife decides Io is no place to raise a young son and leaves, taking her child with her. O’Neil is left alone with an empty apartment and an annoying mystery: a smattering of miners have begun having psychotic episodes and committing extremely gory and public suicides. O’Neil gradually finds out that the miners, unofficially sanctioned by Sheppard, have been using a potent stimulant drug (similar to amphetamine) that allows them to work longer shifts. After about ten months, though, they “burn out” and go crazy. O’Neil confronts Sheppard, who then contacts his superiors, who send a couple of hitmen to kill O’Neil. O’Neil, who has been cannily monitoring Sheppard’s communications, prepares for the three hitmen’s arrival and takes them out in spectacular sci-fi fashion in a game of cat-and-mouse across Con-Am 27.
Something I appreciated about the film was realistic it was. There are no skin-tight suits or fancy-shmancy guns here. O’Neil, as you can see in the photo I included, wears a fairly normal-looking uniform with a badge and a name tag and everything, and carries a Browning 2000 shotgun throughout the film. (As do the hitmen, even though they have silly infrared scopes on them.) There are live sex shows in the recreation bar that the miners use after-hours, which (although pretty raunchy for 1981) seems perfectly natural for a futuristic mining station to have in this day and age. O’Neil doesn’t defeat his opponents by throwing them into laser grids, giant garbage compactors, or any other sci-fi deus ex machina. He either shoots them or pulls their air hoses in vacuum, suffocating them. To pass the time, Sheppard, the mining facility manager, plays screen golf, something that would have been unimaginable in 1981, but which is commonplace today.
2. Dark Star (1974).
I generally hate sci-fi comedies. They almost never come off right. But I also happen to love, love, love John Carpenter and (almost) anything he’s done. And this is one of Carpenter’s first films, one he also produced and wrote the score for.
Dark Star follows the crew of the eponymous ship, which is equipped with an arsenal of “nova bombs.” The ship and her five-man crew fly around destroying “unstable planets” which might threaten human colonization.
After 20 years in space, the Dark Star is in sorry shape and her crew isn’t quite all there. Literally. The ship’s captain, Commander Doolittle, was killed during a hyperspace jump when an electrical panel short-circuited behind his seat, but thanks to some quick thinking by his crew, he’s been preserved in a state of cryogenic suspension, and his crew wakes him up whenever they need to ask him a tough question. (That’s him in the movie poster up there.) Lieutenant Doolittle is now in charge of the mission, assisted by the other three crewmen, Boiler, Pinback, and Talby. Talby, a reclusive loner obsessed with “the Phoenix Asteroids,” which circle the universe once every untold billions of years, spends almost all of his time up in the Dark Star‘s observation dome, watching the stars. Pinback likes to do target practice with the ship’s laser rifle. Boiler sunbathes under UV lamps and chases after his alien pet, a mischievous red “beach ball with claws.”
(Fun fact: Dan O’Bannon, who was a student at the University of Southern California at the same time John Carpenter was, co-wrote Dark Star, was the editor, production designer, and visual effects supervisor for it, and appeared in it as Sergeant Pinback. O’Bannon noticed that the scenes where Boiler chases his pet alien around the ship and tries to catch it failed to elicit laughs from theater audiences. So he reworked those un-funny parts into a script for a new film: Alien. “If I can’t make them laugh, maybe I can make them scream,” he said.)
Long story short, Dark Star doesn’t end well. A ball of electromagnetic energy strikes the ship as it jumps between planets, and Bomb #20 receives an erroneous signal to launch and detonate. Doolittle, for reasons that make complete sense in the context of the film, must don a spacesuit, go outside the ship, and talk the bomb down. After consulting Commander Powell, Doolittle attempts to teach the bomb Cartesian doubt in order to make it doubt itself enough to stop launching. This backfires when the bomb, puzzling its way through the rhetorical nets in which Doolittle has entangled it, ultimately decides it can only trust itself and not external input…
I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s hilarious. And explosive.
3. First Man into Space (1959).
So we’ve had a legit sci-fi drama, a screwball sci-fi comedy, and now we’ll delve into some seriously schlocky, campy 1950s sci-fi horror: First Man into Space. I’m going to spoil the heck out of this one, so be warned.
Released just two years before Yuri Gagarin became the actual first man to completely leave Earth’s atmosphere, First Man into Space was made at the height of the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union. It’s based on a story by Wyott Ordung, and stars Marshall Thompson, Marla Landi, Bill Edwards and Robert Ayres. The plot goes like this: US Navy Commander Chuck Prescott (Thompson) has serious doubts whether his brother, Lieutenant Dan Prescott (Edwards) is the right man to fly the experimental rocket-powered Y-13 airplane to 600,000 feet, the edge of the ionosphere. After the last test flight, Dan broke every rule in the book by visiting his girlfriend (Landi) instead of being debriefed. (Little does the Air Force Space Command realize that Dan’s girlfriend debriefed him herself, wink wink.) Captain Ben Richards (Ayres) of the Air Force Space Command insists that Dan Prescott is the best pilot, and so the flight of the Y-13 proceeds as planned.
…except that it doesn’t, because the hotshot Dan breaks protocol. Instead of flying to 600,000 feet and descending, he flies all the way up to 1,320,000,000 feet (250 miles). He passes through a strange cloud of mysterious material. His canopy bursts, and Dan ejects from his craft.
Let’s stop right here. Where exactly do you think this story is going?
If you said, “Lieutenant Dan Prescott turns into a wheezy, sparkly space vampire,” congratulations! You are correct.
Not long after Dan ejects from the Y-13, the New Mexico State Police get a phone call from a bemused farmer. A futuristic jet with a parachute has just landed near his farm. Commander Chuck Prescott shows up and the US military takes charge of the investigation. They find that most of the wreck is encased in a strange, super-hard, sparkly stone-like material. Tests show that this material is completely impenetrable to infrared and ultraviolet radiation, as well as X-rays. Dan, however, is nowhere to be found.
That very same night, a strange lumpy creature, wheezing for breath, breaks into the New Mexico State Blood Blank, violently murders the night nurse, and chugs down blood pack after blood pack. The story is all over the papers the next morning, as well as stories of cattle being slaughtered on farms near the crash site. Both the cattle and the murdered nurse show the same type of jagged wounds on their bodies. Chuck Prescott also sees sparkly residue around the nurse’s wound during the forensic examination.
Even though the audience has known it the whole time, Chuck finally realizes that the killings, the Y-13 crash, and Dan’s disappearance are all somehow related. He sends some of the particles to a handy-dandy space scientist or something named Dr. Von Essen. Von Essen, after running a few tests, says that the strange particles are “meteor dust” and show absolutely no sign of damage, even though they passed through the atmosphere and should be all scorched and charred. Chuck and Von Essen reexamine the hull of the Y-13 and discover that, underneath the strange rocky coating, the hull of the vehicle is perfectly preserved. Wherever the rocky coating didn’t take, the hull has been carbonized and crumbles to powder at the touch of a finger.
Ready for the stupid part?
Chuck then theorizes that the rocky coating is some form of “cosmic protection.” Much like the first creatures that crawled out of the oceans “grew skin to protect themselves from the sun’s rays,” Dan, as the FIRST MAN INTO SPACE (roll credits!) and the Y-13 “grew skin” to protect themselves from unfiltered cosmic radiation. He then realizes that the lumpy creature that’s been killing people and cattle all over New Mexico must be Dan, his brother. Chuck guesses that Dan’s blood absorbed a bunch of nitrogen when the sparkling encrustation enveloped him, which permitted him to survive even in the vacuum of space and at high altitudes. But now that Dan is back on Earth, his brain and blood have become deprived of oxygen, and since the sparkling encrustation has obstructed his breathing, the only way Dan can get oxygen is consuming oxygenated blood. Preferably right from the source. Ick.
This batshit-crazy theory is proven correct when the police find Dan’s crusty helmet at the next crime scene. Stuff happens and then Dan and Chuck and Von Essen are in the same room. They direct Dan to a pressure chamber and set the controls for 38,000 feet, to where Dan has evolved to be comfortable. They give him supplemental oxygen, too. With his humanity now restored, Dan claims to have no memory of what happened after ejecting from the Y-13, and laments that all he wanted to do was be the FIRST MAN INTO SPACE (roll credits!). He then dies.
What I appreciate about this film isn’t the special effects (although those are pretty cool), the weak-ass plot (though it’s good for a laugh), or the wooden acting (pretty standard for a 50s horror film). What I appreciate is the thought process behind it. Horror—classical horror, the horror of H.P. Lovecraft and Bram Stoker and Ambrose Bierce—doesn’t stem from blood or gore or monsters. What it stems from is the unknown. When First Man into Space was made, nobody had ever sent a man into space before. We didn’t know exactly what would happen. Nobody knew whether space would prove to be a calm ocean of luminous aether, or an empty black void, or a killing field where any astronaut foolish enough to venture would be fried by ludicrous amounts of cosmic radiation. The not knowing was real, and it was powerful fodder for a sci-fi horror film. As we prepared to cross that great threshold and step into outer space, we couldn’t help but look back and see where we’d come from: the oceans. Millions upon millions of years ago, slimy fish-amphibian things had crawled out of the primordial soup and staked their claim to the land, and now here we were, with cars and computers and space planes (but still fundamentally apes), doing the same thing. We had no clue what was coming, but damn if we weren’t going to venture out anyway, come what may. And First Man into Space theorizes (however shortsightedly) about “what may.”
There you go. Add these to your Netflix queue, pour yourself a stiff drink, and enjoy. Andy out.