Thursday, June 4, 2009

Stonekettle Station’s List of Underrated Scifi Movies


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?


  1. My takes:

    1. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

    This was a deliriously entertaining film. Loved it.

    2. Battle Beyond the Stars.

    The level of talent behind the camera on this, James Cameron, James Horner, Roger Corman was incredible. Not to mention all the great genre actors. I ate this up as a kid even though I recognized it as a cheesy ripoff of The Magnificent Seven through a Star Wars lens. Then I discovered Seven Samurai as I grew older and loved it even more, on a more ironic appreciation.

    3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

    The best science fiction film in the modern era. Period.

    4. Dark City

    Incredible, beautiful and haunting. Roger Ebert rightfully recognized its genius.

    5. Logan's Run

    Does this count? I don't know if it was a hit or not. All I know is that it creeped me the way out as a kid and haunted my dreams. Great flick.

    6. Brazil.

    Terry Gilliam at his best...and his worst.

    I'm sure I'll think of others but those are the ones I can pull off the top of my head.


  2. Sky Captain... One-Eyed Angelina Jolie. Excellent flick.

    I say Starman should be on that list.

  3. Yup - seen all of them except Dark City and Outlander. All of them good popcorn-munchin', 'Hah!' yellin', dragon fire and quick BS action, with some high-speed blurriness thrown in so you don't stare at the babes for too long... Rocketeer is also one of my favorites - Jen's in that one ;)

  4. I'll second Anonymous on both The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and Battle Beyond the Stars - I own both and love them.

    I also agree with you on The Rocketeer and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I couldn't finish Waterworld, but I admit that, for the most part, I find Kevin Costner unwatchable (the biggest exception being Bull Durham.)

  5. I loves me some Flash Gordan.

    Flash - Ah-ah - Savior of...the Universe!

  6. i'm not a HUGE sci fi fan but i do enjoy a good sci-fi film unfortunatley i don't have one to recomend however i will say that Sky Captian was based of the table top areial combat game crimson skies or vis versa so if you enjoy games and have about 20-30 extra dollars to throw around with your friends it's a great game

  7. Brings to mind a long-lost memory - my brother and I walking to the community center with our quarters to see another episode (rerun) of Commando Cody... The quarter paid for our admission and a small bag of popcorn...

    Totally forgot Flash Gordon - thanks, Janiece! :)

  8. Not sci-fi, but my favorite underrated fantasy movie is "Lost Boys"

    I think I can recite most of it still.

  9. Yeah, Flash Gordon was both terrible and wonderful -- it had a soundtrack by QUEEN! Loved it. By comparison, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century tried to take itself seriously.

    Dark Star. Saw that in a double-feature with Battle Beyond the Stars in a little theatre in Chicago. OMG, great times. Best thing about BBTS, is that Napoleon Solo's dialogue is just about the same as in The Magnificent Seven! And I always love watching Michael Ironside chew up the scenery in sci-fi movies.

    Fond of Outland with Sean Connery. Every other special effect or mining station design engineering was cleverly done. The other? Snark!

    Dr. Phil

  10. Let's see now - You've already got Outlander, Sky Captain & Logan's Run.

    I'll add Quintet. Surreal Robert Altman film starring Paul Newman. Set in an future ice age, humans are trying to survive as the earth gets colder. The favorite game is called Quintet and everybody plays it. Originally a random game of chance, and still played that way by most of the population, other people in this city play for keeps. Last one left standing is the the last one left alive in any given round. Pretty brutal, as in the "live" version you don't even know who your opponents are. Newman's character joins the live game for revenge after his wife is unintentionally killed on a hit aimed at someone else.

    My brother and I saw it in Chicago when I visited him in college. It was kind of cool, simply because it was filmed in and around Montreal and the St. Lawrence River area where Expo 67 was held and we'd attended as kids.

    Never got much play, don't think it got much past limited release. The game of Quintet came off in the movie as cultish, and it was right after Jonestown. But it was a great move.


  11. Speaking of Altman, anyone ever see Countdown? I was stunned to discover it just a couple of years ago. Who knew there was a well made big budget NASA Gemini lunar landing film from 1968 starring James Caan and Robert Duval? I mean, 1968 we were watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. And yes, you space geeks, I did say Gemini.


    Dr. Phil

  12. Then in 1969 there was Marooned, big at the time. Great Martin Caidin book. But the movie got chopped short into Space Travelers to fit into afternoon TV movie slots -- it was given, deservedly so, the MST:3K treatment.

    Gregory Peck. Gene Hackman. David Jannsen.

    Dr. Phil

  13. Funny, when you mentioned Countdown the first thing I thought of was Marooned.

  14. Final Countdown, lets face it, F-14 vs. A6M was a hell of a lot of fun, plus it is absolutely amazing to watch deck ops on CVN.

    The Abyss, both versions can keep me glued to the screen, and Ed Harris is awesome.

    Blade, (only the first one) Snipes at his best plus Kristofferson.

    Brainstorm, Natalie Woods last movie, and Walken plays a good guy.

    The Prophecy, (fantasy?) Walken again plus people perched on the backs of chairs, and Viggo Mortensen as Lucifer.

    Demolition Man, you can watch it sober, drunk, and stoned or whatever, it still keeps you entertained.

    A resounding second to Logan’s Run, there is supposed to be a remake in the works that is more true to the books.

    Galaxy of Terror, kind of like watching evil dead, but without the humor, oh, and Taaffe O’Connell is in it.

    Jumper, would have been better if Keanu Reeves wannabe Hayden Christensen hadn’t been in it.

    Last Starfighter, a rocking good sci-fi, supposedly a sequel is in the works.

    Paycheck, a lot of fun, check your brain at the door, it’s a John Woo film.

    Pitch Black, where Vin Diesel was appropriately cast.

    Dante’s Peak, ok, I’m probably biased here as I’m a geologist, but I really liked it.

    Weird Science, showering with Kelly Lebrock? Come on, that is every 80’s teen’s fantasy.

  15. Jessica Biel with the sound off. Mmmm. Oh, wait, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, films.

    Besides "some of the above" I'm going to put a vote in for "What Dreams May Come," another Richard Matheson story made into a film, and a good one with Robin Williams and Cuba Gooding. Excellent eye candy and a good story to boot.

  16. "Blade, (only the first one) Snipes at his best plus Kristofferson."

    Actually had a Wesley Snipes sighting in our building earlier this week. Seems to be a new group of attorneys catering to high-end celeb clientele on the penthouse top floor now, so celebs in the elevators may get to be a regular thing around here.

  17. I was fascinated by the visuals of What Dreams May Come. The squishy paint filled flowers -- whoa!

    The Final Countdown came out during the Iranian Hostage Crisis -- and my NROTC buddies wanted to mail the Ayatollah a copy of the film. As a suggestion.

    Dr. Phil

  18. I've always loved an obscure little movie from the early 80s with Dennis Quaid called Dreamscape. The idea that a psychic could enter your dreams, kill you there, and have you die in real life just scared the crap out of me. Plus, Dennis is hotter than the sun, so, bounus!

    Also, I know this one doesn't qualify, but I loooooved Total Recall. Cheesy and starring The Governator, but still awesome in every way. Heh.

  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. One of my favorites was a little movie that's pretty obscure. It was called Brain Dead, and was released in 1990. Script and story by Charles Beaumont (sort of), and perhaps a bit outside the vein of most sf, it was nonetheless pretty cool.

    Haven't seen it since 1990; not certain I'd still feel the same way about it, though....

  21. Oops, double post. Not sure how that happened.


  22. So many good films already listed. My favorite is Outland with Sean Connery. So many people that usually enjoy science fiction didn't care for this one. Its grittiness and technology could hold up today and is alway worth watching again.

  23. I'm a big fan of Outland myself.

    I have it on DVD. It's about the one time Connery gets usurped onscreen, Frances Sternhagen steals the show IMO. Great cast all the way around, though I thought Connery's kid was kind of weird and creepy on the video phone. ;)

    I really liked the exploding people too.

    I really hated What Dreams May Come. Sorry, but I did, and I've never really been a fan of Buckaroo Banzai.

    And Thordr? Dante's Peak? Really? And you're a geologist? And you're good with the whole driving through the flowing lava scene? Uh... (Ok, I liked the movie too, but that scene is just sucktastic).

  24. Oh ya, had lots of trouble with the driving through the lava, and the computer modeling of the about to explode mountain, predicting intensity and direction (we are no where near that accurate, we are lucky if we can just say its going to do something in the next 48 hrs).
    On the other hand, Pierce Brosnan makes an excellent geologist (don’t water my scotch, thank you very much) and I worked with, at one time or another, with each member of his crew in the last 20 years (coffeecoffeecoffeecoffeecoffee). The real beaut was the lahars and pyroclastic flow coming down the mountain, fucking up everything in their paths, that was just awesome. The technobable was actually pretty accurate too. Okay, I’ll stop gushing.

  25. Amyzon the OracleJune 5, 2009 at 9:22 PM

    I personally liked the movie Equilibrium. It's an interesting plot. Society has become too violent, so the powers that be have drugged the whole population to make them less emotional. Music, movies, art, books, poetry, video games are all banned as a "sense offense" and get burned if found. And anyone that goes off the drugs called "Prozium" are burned as well. Christian Bale plays a "Cleric" sent to stop all sense offense. Through accident he goes off his meds, and all hell breaks loose.

    The movie has some great fight scenes and could count as gun porn. Plus, did I mention Christian Bale? Without a shirt? I'm still not quite sure why this didn't end up in theaters. It's one of the better dystopic movies I've seen.

  26. Ha! Amyzon, you know, I specifically intended to include Equilibrium in my list and somehow forgot. Thanks for reminding me.

    You're right, a great dystopian film. And some serious kung fu.

    Christian Bale plus Sean Bean and Sean Pertwee, can't go wrong.

  27. I just found your site today and I can't stop reading and laughing and nodding my head in agreement. You are great. Even your commenters are great, and how often does that happen? Mash notes aren't usually my style, but I can't help myself. Thanks!

  28. sjelly,

    welcome aboard. Feel free to join in, the commenters here are pretty damned fine bunch indeed. Most of them have their own blogs, all of them are interesting and funny people in a variety of professions and strange walks of life (well, except for Eric, he's a stinkin' one armed lawyer but we sort of like him anyway). Follow the links and enjoy yourself.

    Again, welcome to Stonekettle Station.

  29. Love the list. I've seen all but two of these movies. Quite often I like a movie that got panned simply because all I want is to be entertained.

    loved these movies, and some of the ones listed in the comments


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