Underrated SF Movies

Art, famously, is a matter of taste, and as a general rule of thumb, you have it while others often don’t. Just goes to say. Because you know what you like, even if you don’t know anything about art. Simply put: taste is personal.

With commodity art like most films, many people weigh in, and opinions are often split, but sometimes, even with, or perhaps because of, so many, a consensus grows — thumbs up, thumbs down. Everyone, or nearly so, seems to agree one way or the other. In particular for today, there are the films everyone hated.

I’ve found some of those despised films are underrated gems — or at least are not as bad as popular vote makes them out to be.

Something I’ve found telling over the years are the replies I get from asking people why a film they just slammed was bad. Often they don’t have much of a reason beyond, “Well, it was just bad.”

But why was it bad? I’m asking seriously, because I’ve seen the film, and I don’t get it.

They sometimes change the subject at that point.

Some offer a bit of goal-post moving hand-waving: “The acting was bad.” Or: “The writing was bad.” Or: “I don’t like that director.”

All of those are valid criticisms… If you can back them up with exactly what was bad about the acting, writing, or director. (For example, I don’t care for Steven Spielberg, and I have gone on at great length about exactly why.)

But many people don’t really know what bad acting, bad writing, or bad directing, looks like. It’s hard to know unless you know something about acting, writing, or directing. (Obviously, right?)

A example that struck me: people slamming Jonathan Frakes in his role as Commander Riker on Star Trek because he was “wooden.” Or was Frakes skillfully playing a wooden man? It certainly worked in the role.

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What people definitely know is what they like. What they have a taste for.

It’s a shame when taste gets confused with quality. Subjectively liking something, finding it really tasty, is not the same as finding it to be of objectively high quality.

Likewise, something of high quality may not be to your taste.

I once watched an onscreen reporter (for ET, maybe?) go on and on about the new Oscar category: Most Popular Film. I think it’s a good idea. It acknowledges the divide between popular taste and quality film.

The reporter didn’t get it, and was going on at length about a film she really liked not winning best picture. She thought the film was “great,” but she confused great for me with objectively great.

This is a common error.

But I digress.

The point is, here are some films I’ve found worthy but which popular and critical opinion seems united in finding unworthy. I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer to exactly why they are so deemed.

And the winners are…

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Zardoz (1974): Sean Connery as a dupe of immortals in a post-apocalypse world.

This is one of my all-time favorite movies, let alone SF movies. It’s in my Top Five!

It’s written and directed by John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance), and has Charlotte Rampling as a co-star (she’s one of the immortals).

I think it’s a brilliant example of British low-tech high-tech (such as seen in Doctor Who). The idea being that low-tech objects are actually very high technology.

In Zardoz, for instance, a palm-sized crystal is a supercomputer that uses light beams refracted inside the crystal.

It also has a bit of psionic power, some mysticism (Connery goes inside the computer), a good SF mystery behind it all, and a really cute twist when you find out what “Zardoz” means.

It’s a very unique science fiction movie, especially for the time. Or maybe because of the time. In the 1970s, science fiction writing and movies went through a period of wild experimentation that explored and expanded the boundaries of storytelling. Not always successfully.

Worth seeing just for Connery’s red underpants getup, a costume the actor loathed. And I think this one is more mocked or ignored than disdained. It has a 45% (53%) rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

I think people don’t loath it so much as just not get it.

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Waterworld (1995): Kevin Costner as a gill-equipped post-apocalypse mariner sailing a flooded Earth.

The movie is widely hated by critics and fans, both giving it 43% at Rotten Tomatoes, and I’ve never understood why (nor gotten a truly cogent answer).

Is it because Costner presumed to direct himself? Is it because of the cost?

From what I can tell, this is one of those films everyone decided they hated before it even came out. It was plagued with production problems, which resulted in a lot of bad press.

(But so what? What has that to do with the story?)

A world covered in water? Dennis Hopper reigning over the Exxon Valdez? Costner with gills? Jeanne Tripplehorn? Even a little Michael Jeter! What’s not to love?

It was written by David Twohy, the guy behind the Riddick movies and a writer of others (like The Fugitive and Terminal Velocity).

This is another one I love, own, and have watched many times. I just don’t get the hate. (Admittedly, I do like Costner a lot because baseball.)

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Demolition Man (1993): One of my very favorite Sylvester Stallone movies!

Possibly also my favorite Sandra Bullock movie, although I really like Speed, and I have a soft spot for The Net.

Lots of action, and lots of funny. Wesley Snipes as an over-top-top villain, and Bullock as Stallone’s partner. It’s a romp you can’t not like.

It takes place in a fully bowdlerized future, where anything bad for you, like salt, is illegal (and you get a fine for cursing).

We learn that Taco Bell won the Restaurant Wars, so now all restaurants are Taco Bell. We never do learn what the three seashells are for.

For all its fun and over-the-top silly, it’s got some biting social commentary buried within. I love the bit with the burger Stallone is so happy to get.

The thing about this movie is that it’s actually pretty deep and thoughtful. There’s a lot going on, and you have to pay attention to pick up on it all.

As future depictions go, this is one of my all-time favorites. The idea of a radio station that just plays favorites — commercial jingles of the past — is hysterical. So is Stallone knitting. Or the “sex” scene.

Truly an unappreciated gem! (It does have a 61% rating at RT.)

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Judge Dredd (1995): Based on the comic.

This is a contender for runner-up favorite Stallone movie. (I really like Assassins and a few other fun ones, though, so it’s a tough choice.)

It’s full-on to-the-hilt camp, and it’s clearly not for everyone. It has a 17% (30%) rating at RT, so it might be better to say it’s hardly for anyone.

But it’s got Diane Lane (as his partner), Armand Assante (as a totally off the chain villain), Rob Schneider (sidekick, of course), and Max von Sydow.

It’s certainly not serious SF, but if you take it for what it is, it’s a pretty good specimen of the species. I just don’t understand the disdain.

It was rebooted in 2012, as Dredd, with Karl Urban in the title role. It was received well, having a 78% rating at RT.

Which surprises me. I have a memory people didn’t care for it, and I’ve never seen it playing anywhere. I thought that was because it bombed.

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Johnny Mnemonic (1995): Keanu Reeves as a data (“mnemonic”) courier in a cyberpunk 2021.

Good casting for Keanu Reeves. I think he does well in roles that need someone who seems alien or just not quite human.

I thought he was perfect as Klaatu in the reboot of The Day the Earth Stood Still. (In the original, they cast largely unknown British actor Michael Rennie in the role for the same reason.)

The film is based on a short story with the same name, by William Gibson. The cast includes Dina Meyer, Ice-T, and Dolph Lundgren.

As with Judge Dredd, pretty much everyone hates this movie. It has a 13% (31%) rating at RT, critically worse that Judge Dredd, but ever so slightly liked more by audiences.

I think it’s a really fine movie that I’ve enjoyed several times!

No one has ever given me a good reason why this is a bad movie. It’s been suggested there is some sort of curse on movies with the name “Johnny” in the title…

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Johnny Dangerously (1984): Not science fiction, but speaking of movies with “Johnny” in the title, here’s another everyone seems to hate.

Which is weird, because, seriously, it’s a major gem, really funny, and incredibly clever and smart.

Consider the cast: Michael Keaton, Joe Piscopo, Marilu Henner, Maureen Stapleton, Peter Boyle, Dom DeLuise, and Danny Devito. And they’re all hysterical.

It was directed by Amy Heckerling, her third film, who did Fast Times at Ridgemont High before this, and all three Look Who’s Talking movies and Clueless after.

Also a cute vampire movie, Vamps, with Alicia Silverstone.

Given how many people I’ve heard trash this movie, I’m surprised it has a 44% (63%) RT rating. Audiences have more sense on this one.

There are many scenes worth the price of admission, but I especially love the chanting priest.

Dominus nabiscum, Nabisco. Esperitu sanctum. Dey gas da bus. Me gas da bus. You gas da bus. We missed the bus. They missed the bus. When’s the next bus? Summa cum laude. Magna cum laude. The radio’s too loudy. Adeste fidelis. Semper fidelis. Hi fidelis. Post meridian. Ante-meridian. Uncle Meridian. All the little meridians. The Magna Carta. Master charga. Dum procellas. Lotsa Vitalis.

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Sunshine (2007): A mission in 2056 to restart the Sun (which has gone dim).

A guy I knew dismissed this because he doesn’t like Danny Boyle movies. That’s fair, I guess, but there should be a reason for not liking his movies. I never did hear a reason.

FWIW, Boyle directed Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, and Steve Jobs (the movie, not the guy).

This is actually a well-regarded film, with a 76% (73%) RT rating. It’s on this list more for not being popular or well-known.

I’m not sure why I’ve heard so many people actually trash it. Some complain that the central plot point (restarting the Sun with a bomb) is ridiculous.

Fair enough, but compared to what? FTL drive? Transporters? Dragons?

Science fiction always has “gimmies” — things you just have to accept for the story to be told.

Some object to the mystic aspects (but I really like them). The film is definitely a tiny bit on the metaphorical side, but I think it’s marvelous.

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Moon (2009): Sam Rockwell as a man on the moon mining helium-3, but there’s a shocking secret.

This film has so much good stuff in it. The business about mining helium-3 is essentially accurate, and it has one of the better assistant AI robots (voiced by Kevin Spacey).

Plus, it was done on a shoestring budget, which makes it all the more amazing.

It has a 90% (89%) RT rating, so it’s well-recognized as a great film.

As with Sunshine, it’s here more that it wasn’t a popular film, even with (supposed) science fiction fans.

The director, Duncan Jones, went on to direct Source Code (which I liked okay) and Warcraft (oops; maybe not his fault).

But Moon is everything you could ask for in a really good science fiction film. As with several other entries on this list, it shows you don’t need a big budget or splashy effects to tell a really good SF story.

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Fifth Element (1997). Bruce Willis as a 23rd century (flying) cab driver, Milla Jovovich as the titular alien (pun, yes, intended), Gary Oldman (villain) and Chris Tucker (diva) way off the chain, Ian Holm (sidekick), production design by Mœbius (who I’ve always loved), and direction by Luc Besson.

A movie I loved before I ever saw it, and thankfully, a movie that delivered on its promise in every way. I love this movie so much. It’s one of my all-time favorites (in the Top Ten).

This in an interesting entry for the list, because it has a 71% (86%) RT rating and is widely acknowledged by many as a truly great SF film. It is likewise acknowledge by many as a true piece of crap.

It’s a very divisive film. Perhaps because it’s a bold film — a strong taste — people are prone to react strongly to it. I think if you loved the magazine Heavy Metal, you’d love this film.

Put it this way: I love it so much I bought the 4K HDR BluRay version, an honor shared only by 2001: A Space Odyssey and HBO’s Westworld. High praise!

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Vanilla Sky (2001). Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, Kurt Russell, Jason Lee, and Cameron Diaz, in a wild Cameron Crowe story involving virtual reality and romance.

The critics didn’t care for it, although audiences liked it better: 41% (72%) at RT.

I think audiences showed much better taste on this one, although I can’t help but wonder if they’re triggering off the stars and romantic aspects.

The science fiction here is intricate enough there exist myriad interpretations of the story. Movies with a confusing story don’t always do well.

I’ve seen it several times (own it, as I do all the films mentioned here) and give it a definite SF thumbs up.

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Dreamcatcher (2003). Morgan Freeman, Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Timothy Olyphant, and Donnie Wahlberg in a Lawrence Kasdan SF-horror film based on the novel by Stephen King.

This is another one that “everyone hates” given its 29% (35%) RT rating.

But I’m a big fan of Lawrence Kasdan (his Grand Canyon is in my all-time Top Five), and Stephen King is no slouch.

So I don’t understand why the movie is so hated. I think it’s pretty good.

It’s possible it’s too weird a mix of ‘monster in the woods’ horror and ‘alien invasion’ story, or that the characters were too weird, or that there was just too much to the story.

It is, admittedly, a mixed bag with multiple SF devices (aliens and telekinesis), so there is a lot going on, and it’s not always clear. And it’s a little tongue-in-cheek at times.

But I’m fine with all that!

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Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997). The penultimate entry used to be my vote for weirdest SF ever, but over the years I’ve seen and read some pretty weird SF.

(Some of those have also been Scandinavian. Let the Right One In, for instance.)

It’s based on an equally weird book, and the story takes its sweet time getting to the actual science fiction bits at the climax.

It has what are usually called “mixed” reviews, getting a 52% (57%) RT rating.

I think it’s fair to say people don’t know quite how to take it. As with many on this list, it may require a long-time SF fan to really appreciate what sparkles.

(I’ve always thought a hallmark of really good SF is that it requires the reader, or viewer, bring something, some understanding, to the table. Good SF isn’t always easily accessible, but that’s part of its value.)

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Dark City (1998). Last, but certainly not least, an old entry that in my mind defines a list like this.

I owe Roger Ebert for turning me onto this gem; he raved about it (called it the best film of the year).

Rightly so. It’s a wonderful science fiction film from Alex Proyas (he did The Crow before Dark City).

With a 75% (84%) RT rating, it’s now acknowledged as a gem by those who’ve seen it. It was nominated for many awards and won several.

But it didn’t do well when it opened, ranking 105th in box office that year. Ultimately, it only broke even.

Which is the whole point here. There are under-rated gems that never get the recognition they deserve.

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I’ve always thought that was a shame.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

8 responses to “Underrated SF Movies

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    There are a number of these I’ve never seen, and a couple I’ve never watched all the way through. I couldn’t finish Zardoz or Sunlight, although I was a teenager the last time I attempted Zardoz, so maybe it’s due for another shot from an adult perspective. Never seen Johnny Mnemonic, Johnny Dangerously, Vanilla Sky, Dreamcatcher, or Sense of Snow.

    All the others I generally agree with. I found the Stallone movies a lot of fun and never understood people’s dislike for them. I somewhat enjoyed Moon, but it was bit too narrow in focus for my tastes. The Fifth Element was actually the first movie I ever bought on DVD. I only saw Dark City a few years ago and was stunned that I had missed it until then.

    I didn’t realize Vanilla Sky was science fiction. All I’d heard about it was that the protagonist gets disfigured. It sounded like one of those human interest films that I generally shun. From the write up I just read, it still sounds pretty dark, but maybe I’ll give it a try if the opportunity comes up.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      ” I couldn’t finish Zardoz or Sunlight, although I was a teenager the last time I attempted Zardoz, so maybe it’s due for another shot from an adult perspective.”

      This is exactly what fascinates me. Something in you reacted negatively to those films. I’m very curious about what that is. From one perspective they’re seen as really good SF films, but from another there’s something that people react to. I want to learn what that is.

      In some cases I think it’s a varying worldview, just that people can value things differently and therefore see the same thing differently. That’s entirely legit, and I am definitely interested in how people view the world differently.

      I’ve found other cases where the negative reaction seems entirely visceral. There seems no reason that can be articulated. Those are the ones that really fascinate me! Not understanding that is why art is such a hard proposition commercially. No one gets taste!

      I’d certainly interested in what you’d think of them now.

      “I didn’t realize Vanilla Sky was science fiction.”

      Plus it’s Tom Cruise before he became notably SF, so I can see why. It was marketed as much as a romance as it was an SF film.

      There’s maybe a “Seinfeld is infunny” element here in that it was pretty innovative for 2001, but might seem a bit old hat now. Of those you haven’t seen, it’d be the one I’d least recommend. Worth seeing if you get a chance.

      It is a little darkish along those same lines we talked about recently that lead from Twilight Zone and Outer Limits up through Black Mirror and shows like that. Vanilla Sky definitely shares a kinship.

      Speaking of which, how did you like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? That one is also sort of along those lines.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “From one perspective they’re seen as really good SF films, but from another there’s something that people react to. I want to learn what that is.”

        In the case of Zardoz, I recall it being very slow and bit new agey. I think I found it boring, although my teenage self was likely missing all kinds of nuance. Sunshine came off to me as something that was going to be dark and took itself very seriously, a seriousness I didn’t find merited in the ten minutes or so I gave it.

        Thanks for the clarification on Vanilla Sky. I probably won’t go out of my way to see it. I should note that I generally found Seinfeld hilarious. The characters were all venal, but that seemed to be part of what made their travails so funny.

        I’ve never seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The premise has never really drawn me in.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Heh, yes, Zardoz definitely has a bit of that 1970s New Age ethic. Lot of neat ideas if you can get past the camp of it all. Sunshine does take itself very seriously — very spiritual or metaphoric. For me a work always gets major points for taking me somewhere new, and, their flaws aside, both of those did that big time. (I thought the spaceship, alone, in Sunshine was worth the ticket price.)

        I’ve probably mentioned this, but Seinfeld was a unique show in my experience. I hated every character on it, some I really loathed (Kramer, for instance). That’s usually a deal-breaker for me, I need to like at least some of the characters, but the writing was so fresh and interesting I had to watch.

        I’m a little iffy on Jim Carey (I do like his recent art efforts 🙂 ). He’s like Will Ferrell in that how much I like him depends on how much he’s not being his usual self. Which is the case in Eternal Sunshine, plus it’s written by Charlie Kaufman, who I find very interesting. Being John Malkovich is a delight I’ve passed on to many!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Sounds like I definitely need to give Zardoz another try, with allowances for its early 70s look.

        I have to say that Being John Malkovich is the strangest movie I ever remember seeing, at least the strangest I found coherent enough to watch all the way through. I wouldn’t so much say I enjoyed it as I was mesmerized by its utterly bizarre nature.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yes! I love the reactions I get from people when I show them the film. If you’re familiar with Kaufman’s other works (like Adaptation), his stories are usually interestingly twisted. A unique take on storytelling, which earns lots of points with me.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I once watched the end of Adaptation and thought it would be good to watch from the beginning, but it never came on and I forgot about it. Just now reading the write up, I didn’t realize Kaufman had made himself the main characters. He seems to like self referential stories.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yes, he definitely does! One thing that was interesting about Adaptation is watching Nicolas Cage play a dual role (twin brothers). You can tell which character it is just from his posture and movement, let along dialog.

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