Recently I posted about one of my new favorite YouTube channels, The Critical Drinker, which features reviews of movies and TV shows. The Drinker is the alias of thriller novelist (and YouTuber) Will Jordan, and one reason I like his channel so much is that our tastes seem well aligned. (I confess that I also love his extremely blunt presentation style.)
Another reason I enjoy his channel involves how he reviews and highlights unregarded movie gems. He and I share an appreciation for some fairly obscure, but very worthwhile, movies many have never heard of (let alone seen).
For Sci-Fi Saturday I thought I’d present some of his SF recommendations.
“Dark City” by Alex Proyas is a great visionary achievement, a film so original and exciting, it stirred my imagination like “Metropolis” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”. If it is true, as the German director Werner Herzog believes, that we live in an age starved of new images, then “Dark City” is a film to nourish us. Not a story so much as an experience, it is a triumph of art direction, set design, cinematography, special effects — and imagination.
Which is a good an opening description of the film as I can imagine. (I really miss Ebert. He was one of the few film reviewers I trusted, and he went out of his way to educate his readers about how to view and understand film.)
Without further ado, here is the Drinker’s review of it:
The film stars Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, Richard O’Brien, Ian Richardson, and William Hurt. It’s one part film noir detective story, one part surreal experience, and one part science fiction, all wrapped up in what can only be called a true cinematic work of art. For many years I considered it one of the best science fiction films ever.
Director Alex Proyas, who also wrote the story and co-wrote the script, had until then mostly directed short films and music videos. The latter including some well-known names: INXS, Yes, Mike Oldfield, and Joe Jackson.
Wikipedia describes his first film, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1989), as an “Australian independent post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure” and says it received mixed reviews. It sounds somewhat interesting, especially in light of what came next.
Which was The Crow (1994), a film that became a cult and critical favorite. It also became notorious because of the on-set death of lead actor Brandon Lee (son of Bruce Lee) during a scene in which a .44 Magnum revolver loaded with blank charges caused a bullet that was stuck in the barrel (and not noticed) to be fired into Lee’s abdomen. His tragic death cut short what looked to be a great film career. I remember how much I enjoyed Lee’s work in Rapid Fire (1992), which was his last movie before The Crow. He had the same charisma and on-screen presence as his father (along with a bit more charm).
After Dark City, Proyas went on to direct I, Robot (2004), starring Will Smith, and Knowing (2009), starring Nicolas Cage. I can’t say either of those really grabbed me as being great movies (but Knowing stood out a bit for what seemed to me a very realistic depiction of an airliner crash).
Both of those were box office successes. Dark City was not. It barely earned what it cost, which is a very good an example of audience tastes versus artistic quality. The last major film Proyas directed was Gods of Egypt (2016), which was a box office, critical, and audience flop. As with Dark City, it just barely earned back its budget, but unlike that earlier film, no one liked it.
But if you have never seen Dark City, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s on my list of must-see films, especially for science fiction fans. Some think it had an influence on The Matrix (1999), which came out a year later. They do share some elements in terms of visual style and story. (The Crow is worth seeing, too, if you never have.)
Next up, The Fifth Element (1997), one of my favorite films ever, science fiction or not. It’s unique, funny, exciting, well-acted, action-packed, visual, musical, and delightful fun. It even manages to have tenderness and heart.
Here’s the Drinker’s take on it:
It was directed and written by French director Luc Besson, who started working on the story when he was 16 years old. He was 38 when it opened, so there are 20-some years of thought and polishing behind it.
[Which is similar to another all-time favorite film of mine, L.A. Story (1991), starring and written by Steve Martin. I’ve heard he spent seven years working on the script, and I consider it an almost letter-perfect story. There is much to be said about spending time on your art.]
Besson has directed, or written, or produced, many thrillers, well-known and obscure. Two notable favorites he wrote and directed are La Femme Nikita (1990) and Léon: The Professional (1994). He wrote Taken (2008) as well as the first three Transporter movies (the ones with Jason Statham in the lead role; 2002, 2005, 2008).
The Fifth Element stars Bruce Willis (when he was great), Gary Oldman (who is always great), Ian Holm (for added class), and Milla Jovovich (in what’s considered her breakout role after her return to acting).
[One of the few places the Drinker and I don’t agree is about the Resident Evil movies. He hates them; I love them. Not that I consider them great movies (or even particularly good ones), but I think his opinion may be informed by loving the game series and seeing the films as doing them very poor service.]
One of the many things I love about The Fifth Element is Besson hired French comic book artists Jean “Mœbius” Giruad and Jean-Claude Mézières to contribute to the production design. I’m not too familiar with the latter, but he’s responsible for the comic character Valérian. I am a long-time fan of Giruad’s work from reading Heavy Metal magazine, and it was wonderful to see his artistic vision brought to life in movie form.
The Fifth Element isn’t a perfect film and probably not even a great film, but it may be one of the most unique and sheer fun science fiction films ever. Whereas Dark City is dark, somber, and dramatic, The Fifth Element is a light-hearted delightful action romp. If you’ve never seen it, I do recommend it, especially for SF fans. It’s one of those films you can re-watch many times.
Speaking of re-watchable light-hearted delightful action, I’ve got two more in that category, the first of which may be unknown to many: Big Trouble in Little China (1986), directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, and James Hong.
Here’s the Drinker’s glowing review:
It was a box office flop when released (not even making back its budget), but it went on to be a critical and fan success. It’s definitely a B-movie, but it knows exactly what it is and what it’s doing. With a run-time of only 99 minutes, it’s incredibly tight for all that it accomplishes.
Director John Carpenter is well-known for his horror movies: The Fog (1980), the many Halloween movies, The Thing (1982), Christine (1983), and many, many others including one I’ve always had a soft spot for, Ghosts of Mars (2001). (I’m not a big fan of horror, but I often do like science fiction horror.)
Carpenter is no stranger to science fiction films. He wrote and directed some of the classic SF cult favorites: Dark Star (1974); Escape from New York (1981); its lesser sequel Escape from L.A. (1996); and They Live (1988). (The Thing, listed above, is also considered an SF cult classic.)
The story is comic book action magical realism fantasy. (That might seem a contradiction, but the film makes it work beautifully.) Kurt Russell, and everyone else involved, seems to be having the time of their lives in this film, and that kind of heat, joy, and heart, always makes a film better.
It’s another one I highly recommend if you’ve never seen it.
Last up, yet another favorite, Demolition Man (1993), starring Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock, Benjamin Bratt, Denis Leary, Nigel Hawthorne, and a number of others you’ll recognize. It’s a sci-fi action thriller with some deepish undertones, lots of humor, lots of imagination, and no small amount of prescience.
Here’s the Drinker’s review:
As the Drinker says, the movie holds a special place in our hearts for being a great example of a 1990s SF action thriller and for its amazing prescience in predicting the rise of the smothering political correctness that’s turned movies to bland, pointless pablum for infants. It comes from an era when movies had imagination and balls and weren’t afraid to offend the easily offended.
It also features an utterly off-the-chain performance by Wesley Snipes, who is obviously having a ball playing the villain. Sandra Bullock, as Lieutenant Lenina Huxley, a cop with a passion for the bygone era of action and grit, is also wonderful in this. As an example of the bits of depth in the film, she’s named after Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World and a central character in that novel, Lenina Crowne. (See my posts Brave New World and Huxley Revisited.)
The film contains one of my favorite trope subversion bits. In the bland inoffensive non-violent boring future, Stallone’s John Spartan finds himself in the underground city that’s a throwback to the past. Desperate for a burger (even salt is illegal in the future; anything bad is), he finds one in the underground city and thoroughly enjoys it.
When he’s told it’s made from rats (Lenina: “Do you see any cows?”), the trope suggests he should be revolted (because the brain overrules taste buds). His response? “Best rat-burger I’ve ever had!”
That bit alone commends the film to me.
As with The Fifth Element, it’s not a perfect film by any means, but it’s among the best SF action films from the 1990s and well worth seeing, especially today when its prescience is on full display. It’s worth seeing just for the cast and their performances and to remember when movies used to take risks and be great because of that.
As a closing note for Sci-Fi Saturday, a friend recently recommended the 1999–2003 Australian-American science fiction TV series, Farscape. I found all four seasons available on Amazon Prime and began watching it two nights ago. So far, I’ve watched only the first four episodes, but I’m hooked.
It has humor and heart. It reminds me somewhat of a cross between early Doctor Who and Babylon 5. Jim Henson Television is associated with the show, so some of the aliens aren’t the usual humanoid-with-bits-pasted-on-their-faces that we got used to in Star Trek.
It’s yet another if-you-haven’t-seen-this-check-it-out recommendation for true science fiction fans.
Stay light-hearted, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.