Saturday, November 26, 2011

Diamonds in the garbage heap - Part I: Science Fiction

Given the astounding amount of bad films produced each year it is a shame that so many well-made movies have not received the attention they deserve. In the next couple of weeks we here at Light Within Light would like to recommend a few films from specific genres that most assuredly rise above the status quo yet have, for one reason or another, fallen by the wayside for many viewers. Not all of these films are great yet they all do something exciting, innovate and different from many of the mediocre films that fill cinemaplexes each week (which nonetheless make hundreds of millions of dollars in box office revenue).

Our first segment covers some of the more interesting science fiction films that many viewers have perhaps not heard about or had the pleasure of seeing.

1. It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)

First up is this minor classic from 1958 directed by Edward L. Cahn and written by Jerome Bixby (who was a regular contributor to the original Star Trek TV series - he also contributed uncredited work to the set design of It! The Terror from Beyond Space). This well crafted thriller is primarily famous for its influence on Ridley Scott's Alien yet it is definitely something more than just a curiosity piece for fans of Scott's masterpiece. A manned spaceship to Mars loses contact with earth. A rescue mission is sent to find out what happened and they find only one survivor, the captain of the previous mission. They suspect him of having murdered his crew-mates and keep him under lock and key but the captain (a suitably rugged Marshall Thompson) claims that he and his crew were attacked by a deadly alien life-force. Soon the rescue mission itself is under attack by an unseen enemy and as the crew disappear one by one they are forced to give credence to the captain's story.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space was made on a shoestring budget and it shows. The set design of the cylindrical spaceship is both very economic and extremely effective. As they crew must ascend higher and higher the same space is reused several times with different props. Yet the small set simply adds to the claustrophobic setting. The acting is far from great yet very serviceable, the monster is goofy fun but quite scary in a number of scenes due to very effective lightning techniques. The film is an excellent example of fifties American science-fiction and monster movies and is most definitely worth a viewing.

2. La Jetée (1962)

Beautiful and poetic, Chris Marker's short film (running at 28m) was later remade by Terry Gilliam as the impressive Twelve Monkeys. Yet the original handles the same questions of time, memory and loss with even more reflectiveness and meditation, telling its story primarily through still images and the interplay of words and music. A lovely example of non-linear and artful filmmaking that is neither trying too hard to be avant-garde but which is also not bound to a linear story or traditional characterizations. The film also manages to create space for philosophical reflection instead of simply portraying philosophical theories in an attempt to appear "deep," an artistic misstep committed by countless science-fiction films these days.

3. Dark Star (1974) 

A student film made by John Carpenter and some chemically inspired cohorts was later developed into this feature length piece which prefigures a great deal of the humor and visual pizzazz of the later Carpenter entries. Dark Star is a completely and utterly stoned affair so you need to be in the right (or skewed) frame of mind to see it but it is a hilarious and groovy film, an exciting cinematic experiment by a bunch of guys who don't know what the rules are so they have no problem breaking them. The film is also replete with interesting connections to science-fiction in both film and literature. Co-writer Dan O'Bannon would later use several elements of this film for his script for Ridley Scott's Alien and there are sequences directly based on the works of Phillip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury. An underrated science fiction film that is most definitely worth watching, especially with a bud.

4. Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)

Martin Scorcese pays homage to the great Georges Melies in his latest film Hugo. Melies was one of the primary players who moved film from the status of a technical curiosity and cheap entertainment into the realm of art. Unlike the Lumiere brothers Melies gave his imagination free reign and used the inherent magic of the cinema to transport viewers to realms both fantastical and poetic. The most famous image of the film is when a rocket ship filled with scientists crash lands on the moon, hitting the Man in the Moon in the eye, releasing a fat tear from the poor fellow. The film stands among the most important in not only the history of science fiction but film in general and it has lost none of its magic and charm for the lovers of beauty.

5. The Man Who Fell to Earth

A highly bizarre and lovely affair by director Nicolas Roeg with its fair share of pretentiousness and infuriating excesses. Yet on the whole the film is visually wonderful with a powerful performance by David Bowie as the lonely spaceman who comes to earth searching for water for his dying planet, a stranger in a strange land of sexual exploitation, greed and corruption. The cinematography by Anthony B. Richmond and the music by 'Papa' John Phillips and Stomy Yamashta help create a beautiful dance between sight and sound. Roeg's vision wavers from experimental to absurd, from assured to confused, yet the film is an exciting work of art even in the most trying stretches, a demanding work that leaves one wanting a second viewing as soon as the credits stop rolling.    

Join us soon for recommendations for underrated comedies. Perhaps to some readers (and definitely Reid's) dismay I can promise that there will be nary a Farelly offering in sight.


Jeremy said...

I believe that the character Pinback from the film Dark Star is what inspired the naming of the band Pinback. You can hear a few audio excerpts from the movie on their first album.

agust symeon said...

Having never heard of the band and having a whiskey in hand I am more than excited for this latest event of artistic discovery. Hopefully the music is as strange and groovy as the film.