I'm Morgan McGuire (@CasualEffects). I've been working on computer graphics and games for 20 years at great places including NVIDIA, Williams College, Brown University, and Activision.

See my home page for a full index of my blog posts, books, research, and projects.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Obscure and Intelligent Science Fiction Films and Television

History and drama fetishize only slight variations of the one possible world that we already know. There are infinite worlds that could be. I want to explore those and enjoy doing so through science fiction.

Entertainment is its own justification, and I'm the first in line for many films that are "merely" entertaining. But as for any genre or setting, a sliver of science fiction goes far beyond popular art. The works that do this are worth simultaneous contemplation for their themes, admiration of their production techniques, and satisfaction of the emotional ride.



Science fiction can move us outside our biases through analogy. For example, the Star Trek family of television shows dissected contemporary politics and ethics through corresponding alien civilizations. The Alien films explored gender and power inside horror and action frameworks.

Science fiction can explore the implications of technological advances by following a thread forward to its logical conclusion. A single discovery in the right environment is the flapping of a butterfly's wings that changes everythinggunpowder, antibiotics, relativity, the transistorscience fiction posits the impact of the next flap, perhaps anti-gravity, efficient fusion, faster-than light travel, or artificial intelligence.

Science fiction can also explore complex interactions in real science or technology by disrupting them. It can make us feel fragile or invincible by revealing possibilities.

There are many lists of great science fiction films and many debates about them. Instead of contributing another comprehensive list, this article summarizes some gems that stand out for their respect for the material and audience, but are less well known than the big hits due to twists of fate and marketing.

Tastes vary. I focus on those works that I personally enjoyed and expect my students to as well, at the expense of some other critically-recognized films like Alphaville and Forbidden Planet that may be less exciting for a modern viewer. Of course, there are some films that others consider science fiction masterpieces that I don't see the objective value of, such as Stalker and Primer. That's the nature of art and criticism. Moreover, you've probably seen some obscure films that I've missed, so I welcome suggestions of what is missing from this list. My definition of "obscure" is of course local. These are films and television shows that weren't well-known in my circle of friends and colleagues, but you may travel in different circles.


Things to Come

(1936 film, director: William Cameron Menzies, writer: H. G. Wells)

Wells wrote "The Story of the Days to Come" in 1897, extended it in 1933 as "The Shape of Things to Come", and then wrote the definitive version Things to Come as a film. He accurately predicts the outbreak of WWII due to megalomaniac dictators, the rise and significance of air power and chemical weapons, and then shows a preview of a quasi-utopian future society arising from the ashes.

This is a sprawling epic that moves through several genres, settings, and themes. It would have felt fresh and of its time if produced in 1960that it was actually made in 1936 is mind-blowing.

District 9

(2009, director: Niell Blomkamp, written by Niell Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell)

This movie careens between generic ideas like political-media satire and apartheid analogy in a structure that is dangerously close to that of the offensive white savior epics such as Dances with Wolves, Avatar, Last of the Mohicans, Tarzan, Mississippi Burning, The Last Samurai. It seems like a recipe for low-budget, derivative disaster.

However, District 9 is simultaneously funny, uncomfortable, and satisfying as an action film. The humor and criticism are sharp. The plot and characters often contradict expectations, and the mixture of well-executed special effects beside laughably bad ones is clearly intentional: Blomkamp knows when to mock his own production and when to awe the audience.

Blomkamp's films since have unfortunately failed to live up to this spectacular debut.


Ghost in the Shell

(1995, director: Mamoru Oshii, written by Kazunori Ito)

The original cut of Ghost in the Shell revolutionized computer animation by combining 2D and 3D techniques in a cool, cyber-noir setting with big ideas about identity, bodies, and minds...all working as an analogy for Japan grappling with its new technology-heavy identity on the international stage. Admittedly, it is only obscure outside of Japan.

The 2.0 version remasters the 3D shots and some special effects. Yet the original remains the best version of a film that set the tone and look for much of the early 2000's science fiction including The Matrix. It presents a heady mix of detective fiction, action scenes, and deeper themes of sex, gender, identity, and the body. If you're new to the art style, consider that Ghost in the Shell and Akira are often considered the two front-runners for the best anime ever produced and start with both of them.


Torchwood: Children of Earth

(2009 television series, directed by  Euros Lyn, written by Russell T Davies, John Fay, and James Moran, originally broadcast on BBC One)

Torchwood began as a campy, smutty spinoff of Doctor Who with a monster-of-the-week setup. It was X-files meets Barbarella and not something one publicly admitted watching.

In season 3, Torchwood transcended its fun-but-lightweight roots. Children of Earth comprised five 60-minute episodes telling a single story. In it, extra terrestrials give the British government assistance with an epidemic in exchange for 10% of the world's children at a future date; now they've come to collect. The show explores human potential and legacy, parenthood, mortality, notions of greater good, government overreach, and notably lets a bisexual lead character be simply a character, and an unapologetic one at that.


Torchwood: Miracle Day

(2011 television series, various directors and writers, head writer Russell T Davies, originally broadcast on BBC One and Starz)

Many great science fiction novels, such as those of Ursula K. LeGuin, make one small change from reality and then use how that changes the universe that to look back at ourselves with new eyes in diverse topics. Miracle Day is in this tradition. It asks, "What if no-one died anymore?" but until the last episode, wisely ignores addressing the MacGuffin of what caused this change.

Instead, it makes a hard science-fiction exploration of what we mean by "death" and all of the issues around population, politics, health care, and death. The biology and medicine facts are carefully researched, reminiscent of Michael Crichton's work. Even the computer science elements of hacking and tracing hold up. This realism sets the stage for an authentic exploration of state abuse of authority, dehumanization, public health, healthcare economics, ethics, medicine, death, grief, and triage. It also addresses major issues such as accountability and response to whistleblowers.

Except for the strangely terrible fifth episode, this "season" of the series is consistently good, although it is obvious that there are different directors and writers for each episode. The fifth episode makes a tone-deaf analogy to the Nazi holocaust and jerks the characters around in illogical and out-of-character ways. Fortunately, it is skippable; the plot points are re-covered later. A properly nuanced version of the same theme is presented in the ninth episode. There, we see the "good guys" struggling with ethics in the face of pragmatism and state-sanctioned murder.

Many of the characters are dynamic and change their ethos and actions over the course of the series. One of the most complex is Oswald Danes, who is played by Bill Pullman. Danes is a confessed pedophile, rapist, and murderer who is first presented as completely reprehensible. Throughout the series, we're constantly forced to face that he is intelligent and capable of compassion and ethical action, and asked whether he is ever deserving of compassion as well.


Edge of Tomorrow / Die Another Day

(2014, directed by Doug Liman, written by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, and John-Henry Butterworth)

You may be surprised to find a Tom Cruise vehicle labeled "obscure and intelligent." Yet, this movie is a clever Starship Troopers meets Groundhog Day mashup in setting and plot that also brings new ideas to the mix.

There is some great acting all around and really clever direction. The ending is weak, but the opening is brilliant. A completely botched marketing campaign, which included renaming the film half-way through its release, means that a surprising number of people are unaware of this film despite its brand-name star.

I suspect that marketers simply don't know how to handle Cruise in science fiction: Oblivion and Vanilla Sky were marketed as space opera and romantic drama respectively, but are also (relatively) intelligent science fiction.


New Rose Hotel

(1998, director: Abel Ferrara, based on a story by William Gibson)

Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, and a script by William Gibson: of course the movie is sexy, violent, and plays like a perpetual hallucination. Although the cinematography is very much of its time (the 1990's) and the script is inscrutable, the acting and atmosphere are sharp.

New Rose Hotel invokes both the good and the bad of 1990's film aesthetics: reverberating synthesizers on soundtrack; minute-long shots; mid-range, moving cameras; lots of black vs. red, green, or blue composition; and low-fidelity video intercuts. Imagine The Conversation meets To Live and Die in LA. You can decide which of those elements are worth keeping indefinitely in movies and which have become a joke.

Although she lacks the name recognition of the male leads, Asia Argento carries the film's most intense physical scenes (often, half naked but still empowered). She's cast as a sexual attractant for Dafoe's character, but the real sexual chemistry is between nominally-straight characters played by Walken and Dafoe. Their half-improvised conversations are more tensely erotic than the numerous heterosexual soft-core sex scenes.

One caveat on this recommendation is that you could either stop or start watching at the one-hour mark without missing anything. The entire film repeats in flashbacks after that point, with a few tiny new scenes interjected. I'd be satisfied with either treatment but find both together unnecessary.


Total Recall 2070

(1999 television series, various directors and writers for twenty-one 44-minute episodes, plus a pilot which doesn't have plot continuity.)

This is effectively an extension of the Blade Runner film, with little relation to the 1990 or 2012 Total Recall films or the Philip K. Dick stories behind all of these. That's for the best, because Total Recall 2070 sets a consistent tone from Blade Runner using themes and plots from Asimov's Robot novels (especially Caves of Steel)...and then runs with it at top speed for its one glorious season.

The series is brooding, dark, and philosophical. The leads are strong. The cinematography is dutiful to its noir inspirations, if not particularly inspired itself. The series completes its story arc with a satisfying ending. I wish there had been more seasons, but am grateful this was self-contained instead of left unfinished in the manner of Firefly. 


Galaxy Quest

(1999, director: Dean Parisot, writers: David Howard and Robert Gordon)

This parody is actually the best Star Trek movie--and I say that as a convention-attending fan of Star Trek. Galaxy Quest embraces and excels at the Roddenberry's utopianism and fantastic, relatively hard-science future. It also satirizes Roddenberry's bizarre and often sexist designs, the mixed quality of Star Trek writing, and the now-classic tales of how Star Trek has affected its actors. 

Since the series and movies never allowed themselves this self-reflection (in the way that, say, Doctor Who has), the parody excels: as enjoyable film criticism and as an enjoyable film in its own right. Guardians of the Galaxy nearly (and I think, accidentally) pulls off the same for Star Wars, but the writing isn't as sharp and it lacks the explicit jabs at its implicit source material. 

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

(2008-2009 television series, various directors and writers for 31 episodes, including James Cameron credited on all episodes)


Like Alien and Aliens, Terminator and Terminator 2 were both great films in different genres that were followed by a series of hit-or-miss lesser films. The Sarah Connor Chronicles follows Terminator 2 in the chronology and canon, and wisely ignores all of the other films in the series. Given more space to work than a single film, this series explores the core themes of the films with considered depth.

Most robot and cyborg films are thematically about being human. The Sarah Connor Chronicles evaluates ethics, love, responsibility, and identity. It is my favorite entry in the series, sitting somewhere between T1 and T2 in terms of tone. Most episodes are 30 minutes of philosophy and character development...cumulating with ten minutes of Summer Glau throwing killer robots through walls so that Lena Heady can machine gun them down.

It was so good that it obviously had to be cancelled...regrettably, before Amazon and Netflix were picking up intense shows that didn't work well on broadcast TV.

Metropolis

(1927, director: Fritz Lang, writer: Thea von Harbou)

Long before the cold war, this film predicts increased disparity under capitalism, communist revolution by workers, and violent turn of artificial intelligence. Reflects on the ultimate outcome of the past century that opened with the Industrial Revolution and French Revolution and embraces the ideas of Karl Marx, which were then rising.

The film was cut severely by the publisher to bring down the running time and satisfy Weimar censors in 1927. The most complete version available today was released in 2010 and based on a recently discovered print.

Lang is one of the earliest directors with a strong visual language and this film influenced nearly every science fiction film that followed. Yet even without that, it stands on its own today as a relevant and effective film.


Brazil

(1985, directed by Terry Gilliam, written by Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown, and Tom Stoppard)

I think this is the best science fiction film ever made, and it is sadly unknown to most science fiction fans. Gilliam (with his frequent collaborator McKeown) and Stoppard can't help but produce sharp, dark comedy. The strength of the movie is in its contrasts: absurdist humor vs. deadly series themes, bright colors vs. horrifying sequences, overacting vs. Price's subtlety.
Part of what makes the movie powerful is its resonance with reality. While the sets and performances are over the top, the oppressive and dehumanizing future it depicts is unquestionably our present. 


La Jetée

(1962, written and directed by Chris Marker)

You need to watch the movie. Any description sounds so pretentious that it is hard to believe that this works, but it does. Plus, La Jetée it is short, so if even you disagree with me, then you haven't lost much time.

This is a photo essay plus poem as a film, consisting almost entirely of individual black and white shots coupled with indecipherable dialog and a voiceover. It was hugely influential on the genre, to the extent that nearly any time travel plot references La Jetée (sometimes unknowingly). Twelve Monkeys, The Time Traveller's Wife, several Doctor Who story arcs, and Primer are examples of ideas first presented so powerfully by Marker.

It helps a lot that Marker's style is not affectation but due to budget limitations. It also helps that the voiceover prose poem is really good, as are the individual photographs.

Twelve Monkeys

(1995, directed by Terry Gilliam, written by David and Janet Peoples)

Gilliam's take on the sci-fi classic La Jetée. He aims to reinterpret the ideas rather than directly adapt it, although the nature of the reinterpretation is inspired. Marker's natural history museum becomes safari animals wandering through the streets of New York, and these visuals in turn clearly inspired later Crysis and Last of Us video games.

Marker, Gilliam, Brad Pitt, and Bruce Willis is a very odd group, and for me at least, it works. The movie is dark, although less so than Brazil, and has something of the sense of the writers, director, and actors all competing to see who can act more insane. Gilliam keeps the whole together and the time paradoxes and questions of sanity make this a thinking-person's sci-fi romp.

Now that there is a television series, this movie may be less obscure than it once was.

eXistenZ

(1999, written and directed by David Cronenberg)

eXistenZ and The Matrix are both films heavily featuring virtual reality that were released in 1999. The Matrix deserves its success and famenot since Star Wars (1977) has a film elevated visual effects and integrated cultural and genre cues so masterfully (and frankly, the plot and characters of The Matrix hew pretty close to those of Star Wars). The Matrix invented the modern science fiction and action blockbuster. 

So, what happened to eXistenZ? Well, Cronenberg doesn't make blockbusters. He makes mind-busters. eXistenZ probes deeply into our relationship with entertainment technology. The obligatory game-within-a-game setup is present, but handled more deftly than Avalon and Inception later would, but the film is about bodies and/vs. minds, seduction by entertainment, acting and roles, and human relationships mediated by technology.

The film is weird, disgusting, and sexy. It pushes emotional buttons but also wears its artifice visibly so that we're prompted to engage the ideas and not believe in the film. The biology-based technology is a refreshing spin, and the reliance on mostly practical effects was a wise choice for keeping the film tactile.


Moon

(2009, dir: Duncan Jones, screenwriter: Nathan Parker)


Moon is a hard-as-rocks sci-fi thriller that can't be described much without spoilers; it is in the vein of Arthur C. Clark or Robert Heinlein, but with the Niven-Pournell dark edge from A Mote in God's Eye.

I like that the cinematography is intentionally three decades out of style. If you enjoyed The Martian and 2001, then put this at the top of your list.


Cloud Atlas

(2012, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Andy Wachowski, 171 minutes)

Cloud Atlas is the Wachowskis' masterwork. It is inspired by a similar, great novel by David Mitchell, but Tykwer and the Watchowski siblings reworked it completely for the film, writing and directing as a collective.

This is every movie. It takes some great actors and great visual effects, and then proceeds to follow an emotional and thematic thread instead of a narrative one through several times, genres, and characters. There's a screwball comedy, a sea going epic, a darkly comic science-fiction film, and action film, a touching drama...all mixed up with characters who are immortal souls instead of people. Some of the cinematography and effects are gorgeous and some are intentionally goofy to break the fourth wall. I'm not a fan of self-consciously "intelligent" narratives and dialogue; this film is intelligent as a film and feels confident to largely throw the narrative and dialogue overboard to unencumber the experience.

Cloud Atlas is a production masterpiece with great performances, set pieces, and post-production work. It combines the literally sublime and profane. This is a film people love or hate, and mostly hate according to reviews. However, I think that if you genuinely love movies and are willing to surrender to one by filmmakers who love them too, then you're in for a terrific experience.


Honorable Mentions

In closing, I'll also mention a few episodes of television series that are well-known but have some individual episodes that are obscure, exceptionally intelligent compared to the series, and stand alone for viewers who are not invested in the whole series.

In the X-Files, some episodes of note are those that are outside of the main arcs and mix humor with dark, violent themes: Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose (1995, dir: Darin Nutter, writer: Darin Morgan), Jose Chung's From Outer Space (1996, dir: Rob Bowman, writer: Darin Morgan), and Small Potatoes (1997, dir: Cliff Bole, writer: Vince Gilligan).

In the new Doctor Who, several episodes in which the Doctor is largely absent lend enough freedom to explore concepts or characters more deeply. These include Blink (2007, Hettie MacDonald, writer: Steven Moffat), The Girl Who Waited (2011, dir: Nick Hurran, writer: Tom MacRae), Vincent and the Doctor (2010, dir: Jonny Campbell, writer: Richard Curtis), and Flatline (2014, dir: Douglas Mackinnon, writer: Jamie Mathieson). The last is a bit strange; what makes that episode intelligent is not the plot but the fact that it is used to critically reflect on the Doctor Who formula.

Various Star Trek series, Babylon 5Battlestar GalacticaStargate, and other long sci-fi series of course have some outstandingly intellectual individual episodes, but those are less accessible to the non-fan because of character continuity.

Orphan Black is an odd show. The plot isn't smart (although it isn't especially stupid, either) and the writing is usually passable but not brilliant. Yet the acting and direction are phenomenal, as Tatiana Maslany convincingly plays five radically different clones as main characters and many supporting clones. She's often portraying one character pretending to be another, and the layering is somehow clear. I recommend at least the first few episodes of this underrated show. It's one of the best science fiction performances ever filmed and earned her the Primetime Emmy in 2016 along with many other awards and nominations.

Finally, while they were well-known at the time, Paul Verhoeven's science fiction films seem to have fallen off the cultural radar and are unknown to younger moviegoers. I think they were ahead of their time and are due for reevaluation (although hopefully not more "reboots" and remakes). These are extremely violent, cynical, and dystopian films that are easy to dismiss as salacious entertainment. However, that cynical dystopian edge is increasingly prophetic. Check out Starship Troopers, RoboCop, and the original 1990 Total Recall.


Morgan McGuire (@morgan3d) is a professor at Williams College, a researcher at NVIDIA, and a professional game developer. He is the author of the Graphics Codex, an essential reference for computer graphics now available in iOS and Web Editions.