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In the Catbird Seat/Joe Kirkish

Examples of quality sci-fi flicks

August 11, 2011
The Daily Mining Gazette

Moviegoers interested in science fiction - and that includes all of us who flock to summer blockbusters - are amazed at the technical advances (and enormous costs) of such flicks, which for economic reasons must sacrifice intellectual content for simplistic stories and cardboard characters fronted by astounding special effects to draw mass audiences at the expense of "egghead" depth.

But a good SF movie need not be expensive. Look back to Don Siegel's original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers -made on a tight budget, yet still a nightmarishly effective classic - as effective as its 1978 extravagantly produced color remake.

Earlier SF films also achieved success with smaller casts and crews, unlike today's multi-divisioned studio organizations that range into - yes, thousands - to accomplish no better results.

The same can be said about other low-budget SF films, made before the use of costly computer effects, added to extravagant amounts of money now spent on a saturation of advertisements, so as to (bottom line) pay off at the box office, at the expense of originality or intellectual quality.

But there were exceptions: all the way back to the 1927 world famous Metropolis (discussed in last week's Catbird Seat) and a pair of flight-into-space films, the British 1936 Things to Come, and the 1950 Destination Moon - each combining impressive technical effects along with thought-provoking material -and paying off.

We could leap ahead to the thoughtful The War of the Worlds, which won an Oscar in 1953 for George Pal's remarkable design and execution of a space ship and its hidden outer space creatures.

Or to Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick film from Peter George's cautionary novel "Red Alert" to give us in 1964 a satirical but frightening prediction of dangers from the military's possible misuse of atomic weapons.

Kubrick in 1971 produced another thought-provoking SF movie, this time warning of the dangers of a future society in which crime among the "ultraviolent" youth of England runs rampant. A Clockwork Orange focuses on Alex, head of a gang of youths whose lives are taken up with casual violence, rape, thievery, and murder. The ending is chilling.

Stalker, made in 1979 by Europe's most controversial SF filmmaker, Andrey Tarkovsky, is another thought-provoking futuristic film, this one about a man - a "stalker," one of a handful of such men - who leads people into a mysterious Zone, then to a Room, where secret hopes come true. But do they? Tarkovsky cleverly permits multiple guesses.

Serial SF movies entered the scene, starting in 1980, with the Star Wars dominating in popularity for years, eventually competing with New Zealand's The Lord of the Rings series beginning in 2000, and then with the Harry Potter series (2001-11). The Alien films, about futuristic horror creatures, arrived in 1979, while Superman and other comic book super heroes flooded our screens starting back in the mid-70s. Before that, talking apes dominated a series of films from the mid-60s on to and including the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which is more of a spin-off extravaganza capitalizing on the success of the original series, upped with spectacular special effects in its second half.

A few ambitious films finding a more esoteric audience included, with astonishing SF effects, the brilliantly conceived Blade Runner (1982) about a man authorized to track down and terminate replicants who have returned to earth to find their makers. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) revealed multi-talented Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as a couple who undergo a procedure to erase each other from their unhappy memories, with unexpected after-effects. It was followed in 2010 by another mind-bending SF extravaganza with remarkable design effects, Inception, about a modern world in which technology permits entering the mind through dream invasion, with thievery on a global scale as motive.

This summer's lot, unfortunately, skirts cerebral issues for nothing more profound than more of the loud and fast time-worn patterns, leaving the brain far behind. Pity.

Rotten Tomatoes average: "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," B-



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