Critical Drinking SF

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.

Topping the list is Dark City (1998), directed by Alex Proyas. It’s a film that Roger Ebert raved about (which is what drew my attention to it when it first came out). His review starts off:

“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.)

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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.

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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.

As a final note, it’s written by Gary Oldman. No, not that one, the first-time screenwriter who went on to write Total Recall (1990).

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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.

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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.

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

9 responses to “Critical Drinking SF

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Cinema Sins has a pretty good “Everything Wrong With” video about The Fifth Element (because no film is without sin, and certainly not this one):

  • Wyrd Smythe

    The Honest Trailers channel also has a fun video about The Fifth Element:

  • Wyrd Smythe

    And here’s the rat burger scene from Demolition Man:

  • Anonymole

    I watched a few of CD’s after your recommend. My take is that it seems he wants way more from a film than I’d ever want or expect. I could see his point(s), but, like who cares.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, he and I do, to name two. It might be that we’re old-fashioned, but we both remember when movies delivered much better stories than they do now. Japanese anime still seems to deliver that kind of storytelling, but most modern movies in the last 20 years or so are just commodity hamburgers that, as you say, no cares about (let alone remembers).

      A good example is Red Notice, a Netflix film with Ryan Reynolds being Ryan Reynolds, Dwayne Johnson being Dwayne Johnson, and Gal Godot for eye-candy. It was such a string of tired cliches and sheer emptiness that I bailed around the 20-minute mark. I’ve had frozen pizzas that impressed me more.

      It’s the same deal as with tech companies. If people don’t give a shit and keep bellying up to the bar for more, nothing will ever change. Demand better, I say!

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I recall enjoying Dark City, but only remember the broadest points about it, including its ending. I actually liked I, Robot, but I think I’m definitely in the minority.

    Gods of Egypt was an interesting film, but not in a good way. It could have been a good concept, but it needed a lot more work. I think they went to production with it way too soon.

    Both The Fifth Element and Big Trouble in Little China are excellent anytime I’m sick and need comfort entertainment.

    Demolition Man was definitely a fun movie. Tonight we’ll be eating at Taco Bell!

    That said, it’s worth remembering that these are movies that stood the test of time. Much of what came out at the same time they did is unwatchable today. Something I think we have to remember when comparing them to run of the mill contemporary stuff.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      One of my favorite lines from Demolition Man is about how Taco Bell won the “franchise wars”. 😀 There are so many great bits in that movie. (I only wish I knew what the three seashells were for.)

      It’s a good point about the test of time. Sturgeon’s Law applies always. I think there are two questions we can ask; you touched on one of them. Firstly, what movies are appealing enough to be re-watchable? Or have that “comfort blanket” effect you mentioned? Secondly, what movies will even be remembered? Sturgeon’s 90% are quickly forgotten, but how many modern movies, even in the 10%, are memorable?

      I’ve always found it interesting that, while I find Star Trek:TOS re-watchable, as much as I loved the show and saw it as higher in quality all around, I don’t find Star Trek:TNG re-watchable. In fact, I’ve never been moved to re-watch any of those episodes that I can recall. Some of that surely is nostalgia, but there is something about the originality and innocence of TOS that appeals to me.

      Part of the problem is the glut of content. Even the good ones get washed away by the constant flood of new ones. The river today is wide, deep, and fast. What movies from even the last five years stand out? I keep comparing modern content to fast food burgers — billions sold, and who remembers their last McBurger? Trying to, as news journalists used to say about producing daily news, “feed the beast” usually involves taking less effort cranking out the burgers.

      I noticed this a while back with regard to musical bands — the very notion of which seems to be passé among the young. Will there ever be monster bands like Fleetwood Mac again (let alone definitional bands like the Beatles or Rolling Stones)? Is such even possible in the modern era?

      We’ve gained a lot, but I think we’ve lost a lot, too.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        When I was young, I rewatched ST:TOS any chance I got. But yeah, I never had the same connection with ST:TNG. And by the time it was all available for streaming, I had reached the phase of rarely rewatching anything, especially TV shows. Although BBCA reruns TNG constantly, and sometimes DS9, so I’ve ended up rewatching a lot of episodes in recent years due to that, although mostly as background noise.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Heh, streaming has me so spoiled that I won’t put on anything, even as background, that has commercial breaks! I mentioned in the post I’ve started watching Farscape because a friend of mine recommended it. When I told him I’d found it on Amazon Prime, he lamented (because he’s stuck watching it over the air on Comet TV) that parts were cut out and, of course, there are commercials. Both of those are now deal-breakers for me. (Hence why I canceled Apple News.)

        It’ll be interesting to see what movies or shows endure from this era. If any.

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