If you google the definition of science fiction, you’ll find that, unhelpfully, ‘science fiction is difficult to define’. Is it space flight? Robots? Aliens? Technology that gets horribly out of control? I’ve always liked the idea that sci-fi is the new Western: all about moral certainty and boundary issues with a few machines that beep thrown in.
Let’s go with all of the above. Once a movie is labelled as sci-fi, it means that most people will instantly make up their mind about whether it’s their kind of film; genre definitions are powerful things. So, in the hope of confusing the issue, here’s an alphabetical list of ten interesting movies made in a foreign language that might be called science fiction. If you’re that way inclined.
1. Akira (1988)
It’s hard to believe Akira is 25 years old. Everything about it feels fresh and challenging, even though the films it has influenced, From The Matrix to recent superhero movie Chronicle, may not last so well.
This animated story of Japanese teenager Tetsuo, who becomes involved in a secret military project that tries to access the full power of the human brain, gives us a feeling of hyper-reality – time that slows down and speeds up, and an environment that changes and confuses in vast futuristic city Neo-Tokyo. Tetsuo’s friend Kaneda tries to save him, leading to a confrontation that taps into organic body-horror on an apocalyptic scale. Like the best sci-fi, Akira deals with morality and madness. How much power should humans have? And at what point does that power begin to make us less human?
2. Alphaville (1965)
Jean-Luc Godard does a great job of making a movie that looks futuristic and extreme without using a single special effect. Alphaville is a scary city, to which special agent and journalist Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) has travelled to interview the elusive Professor Von Braun. Caution is straight out of classic film noir, and he wanders around the city in black and white with a suspicious expression and plenty of cool-cat attitude. This doesn’t really fit with the repressive sentiment of Alphaville, where free thought and emotions are banned. A lot of the joy of watching Alphaville comes from that juxtaposition of Orwell and Raymond Chandler to make something utterly strange and a bit headache-inducing. In a good way, of course.
3. Cargo (2009)
This Swiss film takes us inside an enormous spacecraft, Kassandra, on the way to drop off its vast cargo at an unmanned space station, and then gives us a very personal and human story that reminds us of the vast coldness of space in a way not achieved since Kubrick’s 2001.
During her long shift out of cryogenic storage, Doctor Laura Portmann (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh) wanders the ship and thinks of joining her sister who lives on idyllic planet Rhea since Earth became uninhabitable due to environmental catastrophe. But she hears strange noises in the cargo bay, and so wakes the other crew members, leading to a chain of murderous events that reveal the truth about the boxes in the hold marked as ‘biohazard’.
Not every idea in Cargo is strikingly new, but the questions it asks are more relevant to us in this age of digital communication and information than ever before; how can individuality be cherished in a time when there are so many of us, and if there are so many of us, how come we are all so lonely?
4. First Spaceship On Venus (1962)
Worth seeing to get an entirely different perspective on the space race, First Spaceship On Venus is an East German/Polish movie that feels initially like a dry documentary, and then slowly turns into a more traditional tale of human peril. Based on a novel by the great sci-fi writer Stanislav Lem (who also wrote Solaris), the story involves the discovery of war plans against Earth made by creatures on the planet Venus; a peacemaking trip to Venus seems to be the only solution.
The acting is really not a reason to watch this. The ideology behind it is the interesting part. The Venusians want to destroy us so we send our greatest scientists there to see if we can talk them round, and those great scientists are from all over the world: India, China, Africa, US, Japan, Germany… it’s a shock to see such a multicultural delegation calmly making their plans to save the world. Watching First Spaceship On Venus challenges your sci-fi preconceptions, and that has to be a good thing.
It’s also the only movie where you will listen to a lot of people say the word ‘spool’ a lot in very serious voices.
5. The Host (2006)
There’s a whole sub-section of science fiction movies along the lines of ‘we’ve created a monster!’ and The Host is a follow-on from the all-time classic monsters such as Godzilla. It shows what happens when an unhelpful US military pathologist dumps a vast amount of formaldehyde into a South Korean river. A few years later, there’s something quite large and very hungry lurking in the Han River in Seoul, and the family of snack-bar owner Hee-Bong will have to defeat it in order to survive the day.
It’s fun, and messy, and horrific, and the characters are all great, bringing a very recognisable family tension to the story that lifts it and makes you really care about what happens next. Unlike most monster movies, it’s not about the slow reveal of the creature; we get to see it straight away and in broad daylight, and that means we don’t waste time wondering what exactly the human race is up against. Instead we can get on with worrying about how we’re ever going to defeat it. It’s a new angle to an old story and, due to the very convincing special effects, it works.
6. La Jetée (1962)
The least interesting thing about La Jetée is that it inspired Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, so I’ll get that out of the way first. It’s more romantic, more challenging, deeper and better than anything it might have inspired, including novels such as The Time Traveller’s Wife – and it’s only 28 minutes long.
After the third world war, people live below the surface of a contaminated Earth, and the film follows the story of one prisoner in that terrible regime who is tortured and subjected to brutal experimentation, then sent backwards and forwards in time to try to find a way to help the present. During the trips to pre-war Paris the man falls in love with a woman, and sets in motion events that make sense of his own past for the first time.
The movie is made up almost entirely of black and white stills, and most of these are of faces and eyes: contorted, covered, gazing directly at you. Along with a great soundtrack, this makes for very powerful stuff; it’s a meditation on time, trying to change it, to stop it, in the way that only a frozen image can. When the lovers visit the Museum of Ageless Animals we have to consider whether love can resist time, or if everything must continue changing as the minutes tick away.
7. Planet Of The Vampires (1965)
Two spaceships are making their way through deep space when they pick up a distress signal from an unexplored planet. They land, and immediately some of the crew become murderous and have to be restrained. Trying to find answers, they explore the terrain and discover another ship from a long-dead alien race; only a skeleton is left. It seems they were not the first to fall into the trap of the distress signal…
This is classic science fiction on the cheesy end of the scale: everyone is wearing a shiny catsuit, and the spacecrafts are populated with machines that make high-pitched wobbly noises. It has a great set, with atmospheric lighting and a lot of dry ice, and the shots of the surface of the planet are eerie and unsettling. There are some real jumpy moments, and it has one of those endings that you find yourself thinking about much later. Also, it’s impossible to watch it and not think of Ridley Scott’s Alien.
8. Renaissance (2006)
The cyberpunk trend in modern French cinema has given us some interesting sci-fi movies, including the excellent Chrysalis, but Renaissance is the natural successor to Alphaville. Another black and white film noir, this time in animated form with the occasional splash of colour, motion capture was used along with computer graphics, resulting in a stylish and fluid look that suits the story.
The cosmetics corporation Avalon reports a kidnapping: a police captain sets out to find Ilona Tasuiev, one of their top scientists. The Captain (voiced in the American version by Daniel Craig) gets mystery, romance, and more than he bargained for as he tracks her down. Avalon has been working on dubious products, and there are some uncomfortable moral issues to be dissected. It’s a very arresting film, with beautiful images throughout. Should everything be gorgeous in the future? Is the look more important than the content? Renaissance is a film for our generation; if it appears a bit too slick and polished, maybe it’s because we consumers like it that way.
9. Stalker (1979)
For me, there has to be some Tarkovsky on any list of great sci-fi movies, and it’s difficult to choose between Stalker and Solaris (1972), as they both deal so well with similar themes of what constitutes human desire, conscious and unconscious. Stalker is a little more gritty, more barren, with long shots of wasteland that mean it really wouldn’t be your cup of tea if you prefer action movies. But it is rewarding, giving watchers a visual puzzle to solve: if you could have your deepest desire, would you risk everything to get it?
The characters set out on a dangerous journey across a constantly changing landscape called The Zone, guided by The Stalker, to reach The Room where their wishes can be fulfilled. They leave wives and families behind, they strive to understand their own motivations, and nothing is straightforward. Solaris has better characterisation, but Stalker is more intriguing.
10. Timecrimes (2007)
Hector has a peaceful existence with his wife and a fondness for spying with binoculars, which leads him to the mysterious building next door where his neighbour has been working on a strange machine. In an attempt to escape the terrifying man with his head wrapped in pink bandages who is chasing him, Hector gets into the machine, and ends up reliving the last hour of his life.
Timecrimes is not just science fiction. It’s also horror, black comedy, and farce, all at the same time. You’re terrified by what’s happening and yet you find yourself laughing as Hector runs around desperately trying to fix the ever more serious mistakes he’s made in time through no fault of his own. Overall, it’s funny, but also very touching, and human in a way that sometimes gets missed in sci-fi. Hector is an Everyman – he doesn’t even begin to understand the machine or what it’s doing to him, and yet he has to cope with the consequences. It’s a very engaging and accessible film, and perhaps the best place to start if you’re new to the joys of foreign language science fiction.
Which is why, fittingly for a time travel movie, I’ve put it at the end of this list.
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