Are You Not Entertained? Are You Not ENTERTAINED?!
This week’s Science Fiction post is about underrated movies.
Now I’m not talking about those big budget disasters – the massively overrated and overhyped catastrophes that became the butt of jokes and failed miserably at the box office, but in reality were actually fairly decent flicks and did a respectable, if not spectacular, bit of business, say like Waterworld, which is actually an entertaining picture and asked the important question: What if Mad Max and The Little Mermaid got together and had a Peter Fonda biker movie?
And I’m not talking about those shoestring-budget movies from the 70’s that are so bad they’re not even worth ridiculing on Mystery Science Theater but had decent actors and a serviceable plot and you watch them anyway when there’s nothing else on at 2AM, say, oh, like Where Have All the People Gone?
And I’m sure as hell not talking about obscure foreign art films that are supposed to be highbrow, and are really just incomprehensible pieces of moldy shit, but still do respectable business because pseudo intellectuals will see them anyway just so they can pretend superiority over others by saying “Well, if you don’t get it, sniff, I can’t explain it,” like Eden Log (seriously, I hate art pictures to begin with, but if you’re going to do it to scifi, at least do something like The Fountain).
No, I’m talking about those science fiction movies that were made for respectable if not spectacular budgets, lasted only a week or so in the theater (if that) and were panned by critics (who, now, usually claim that in retrospect they really like the picture) and yet are actually pretty damned good movies. Reasonable special effects, reasonably decent acting, reasonably interesting ideas, reasonably entertaining. In other words, movies you enjoy watching and are willing to suspend your disbelief for.
I’m talking about movies like these:
- Outlander: It’s highly likely that you’ve never heard of this movie, I sure hadn’t until we found it floating in the bargain bin. The concept is simple, a castaway from a highly advanced star-spanning civilization crashes on earth – in 709 B.C. and ends up leading Vikings against terrifying monsters that he, the Outlander, accidently brought with him. It doesn’t take you long to realize that the movie is telling the story of Beowulf and the Grendel – the greatest of the heroic Scandinavian sagas – and doing a pretty decent job of it too. Starring James Caviezel, it’s the story of a warrior hero and a terrible monster who might just be a mother defending her child and avenging her people. If you are familiar with the heroic tale of Beowulf and the Herot Hall, then the movie is quite predictable, and that’s a good thing – I heard the story of Beowulf told by an authentic Icelandic Skeld (storyteller) in the Reykjavik city library and I was glad the director of Outlander stuck faithfully to the storyline. Despite several glaring plot holes, I really enjoyed this picture and thought about it for several days. I love the concept, the script is pretty good and so is the acting, the special effects weren’t quite up to the concept but not terribly bad either, and the monster is freakin’ awesome.
- Next: Frank Cadillac, A second rate Vegas magician, performs a nightclub act pretending to be able to see the future. Just one thing, it’s not an act, he really can see into the future – two minutes into the future to be precise. Far enough to change things. He mostly pisses his gift away, deliberately making people think his talent is only an act, and not a particularly good one either. Then he meets an extraordinary girl. A girl he’s dreamed about his whole life, and the only thing he’s ever been able to see at more than two minute into his future. But the government wants his talent to track down terrorists, trying to evade the FBI rapidly becomes a complex web of rapidly changing futures even Frank Cadillac can’t see his way out of. Nick Cage makes either giant block busters or obscure little movies nobody ever hears of. This is something in the middle. I think the ending is a bit of a cheat, but not completely, and it’s definitely worth watching. And, oh yeah, it’s got Jessica Biel in it too, so it would be worth watching even with the sound turned off.
- Jumper: A young outcast discovers that he can teleport - literally move instantaneously through space to any place he can visualize. He leaves an abusive life he hates behind, and travels the world, stealing what he needs (he can pop into and out of any bank vault), carefree - alone. Then one day he discovers three things: there are others like him, there are those who know his secret and would kill him for it, and there are those who care about him. I thought it suffered a bit from a lack of humor and Hayden Christensen, it’s a little predictable in places, and it’s full of plot holes, but Jumper is certainly entertaining.
- Reign of Fire: Seriously, dragons of legend fighting modern attack helicopters. What’s not to like? It’s an utterly ridiculous story, which the director knows and for which he does not apologize, and a complete blast (literally). And the dragons were friggin’ cool.
- Dark City: This move is often compared to The Matrix. I don’t see it, other than a passing similarity in concept, i.e. Reality isn’t necessarily what you think it is. This is a dark, strange story, with an almost noir feeling to it. The people are damaged, the aliens are alien, and we ourselves may be nothing but an illusion created from our own memories. And there isn’t a happy ending waiting. I loved this flick.
- The Thirteenth Floor: The Wachowski brothers owe a tip of the hat to this one too. Like Dark City, and the Matrix, this is a movie about people who live in an illusionary reality without knowing it. It’s a cool story with excellent acting, and pretty decent effects. The end is predictable, if you’ve been paying attention, but that doesn’t detract from enjoyment of the film.
- Babylon A.D: I’ve said it elsewhere, I’ll say it here, Babylon A.D. is everything Children of Men should have been and wasn’t. For starters, it’s entertaining. It moves along at high speed, it’s got interesting characters and interesting scenery and Vin Diesel. Go see Dr. Phil’s review of this movie, he and I are on the same sheet of music with this one.
- The Rocketeer: This is one of my favorite movies of all time. I love this flick, I love everything about it, and I wish they’d make more like it. It’s a pure Saturday morning matinee movie and it’s got everything: Great looking guys, beautiful girls, music, rockets packs, damsels in distress, Nazis, zeppelins, GB racers, car chases, shootouts and Howard Hughes. This is a friggin’ great movie, and one of Timothy Dalton’s best roles ever.
- Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: I used to love black and white science fiction comics, what are nowadays called graphic novels, especially the ones from the 40’s and 50’s where everybody smoked and wore fedoras. Sky Captain reminds me of those. I enjoyed the hell out of it, I enjoyed the characters, I enjoyed the 1930’s art deco designs, and I especially enjoyed the feel of the movie. You’ve got to see it on the big screen, or at least on a big screen plasma, or you lose something. It’s not for everybody, but it sure worked for the kid in me who wishes he still had those old black and white comics.
- Eagle Eye: A movie that tried to be a cautionary tale about pervasive surveillance, but mostly ended up being 90 minutes of Shia LaBeouf being Shia LaBeouf. If you haven’t figured who’s pulling the strings in about the first twenty minutes, well, maybe Transformers is more your speed. Still, it’ll keep you entertained and it has certainly got its moments.
Personally, I think we need more movies like these. Middling budget flicks that explore the strange worlds of science fiction without breaking the bank. Not every movie needs to be a block buster to be entertaining, or interesting, or good.
How about you, what Scifi or Fantasy movies do you think got short shrift from critics and audiences?