Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Top Fives or Tens: Favorite Sci-Fi Movies of the 1990s

Aaron: This time our choices of topic were a bit easier to pin down. We briefly considered our Top Five Paranoid Thrillers (too broad), and Top Five Films Featuring Simulated Realities (too narrow), but in the end, the choice was obvious: our Favorite Sci-Fi Films of the 1990s. The nineties represents probably the largest sustained period of movie watching in my entire life. I spent much of the decade in video stores, and for a stretch at least one theatrical movie per week (largely aided by the local dollar theatre). At one point, I was such a regular at Video City that clerks would let me take four or five movies out in the morning without charging me, because I would be back by closing time to return them, at which point I would rent a half dozen films that I would pay for. I was generally a year or two behind the curve on most of the major releases during this decade, but I think I've seen most of the major sci-fi releases from the nineties. And it turns out it was a pretty good decade for science fiction fans (though the 2000s were just around the corner to give that record a run for its money).

I think it goes without saying that the usual disclaimers apply. I know, for me, that this list is in no real order, and placement alone should not denote preference over another title. Also, it should go without saying by now, but this list is in no way definitive, nor is it trying to be. There are many great films to choose from, and if you want to read a list ranking them all, several are just a short google search away. This is, instead, a list of sci-fi films that were notable to us. Like all such lists, it is highly subjective, but we'd like to make the case that all of these films are worth seeking out.

Rik: Speak for yourself. Don't watch any of these goddamn movies! I keed, I keed... Yes, the '90s had some truly wonderful movies in this particular genre (but then again, so has every decade since the 1950s). I know that when we look at the huge list of science fiction released in the decade, the real question was "Where do we begin?" Just too many possibilities to just choose five, so I am glad we decided not to have crossover titles at all. 

On my end of things, while the big budget epics are more obvious and a hell of a lot of fun, I tried to pick at least one film for my Five that operated on a much smaller level. I think we have been spoiled as special effects have advanced through the decades, and we have forgotten that science fiction is supposed to first be about the ideas, not the action that may result from those ideas. But, of course, action and not words sell movie tickets, so I understand why the scale is balanced in that direction. Still, there are less well-known films out there that deserve recognition. And, might I point out that The Matrix is not on our final list?

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Rik: I do recall there was a fleeting moment before seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day in its original release where I had a twinge of doubt that it could possibly live up to The Terminator. That first film was such a game-changer in my mind back in 1984, and it still holds up completely for me today. The then-groundbreaking visual effects, Ah-nuld, the time-leaping story, a lovely shag-do bearing Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn back when we thought he was going to be one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and best of all, Dick Miller. Loved it all. We had no idea who this James Cameron guy was (or what a pain in the ass he would turn out to be), but a few years later, post-Aliens and The Abyss, I had a nearly complete faith in him. Naturally, once the lights went down and "T2" (an abbreviation I still hate) began, that tiny little twinge dissipated instantly. It is usually a bad thing when a production company extends many times the original budget for a sequel, but in the case of Terminator 2, it proved to be that bigger actually was better. That is because Cameron incorporated mind-bending effects work that he was slowly developing through his other films and brought them fully to the fore in this film. The smartest choice was in its villain, an otherwise unknown Robert Patrick, who felt so cold and mechanical throughout the film that years later, when I almost ran smack into him after running off of Grizzly River Rapids in California Adventure soaking wet, I stuttered a bit when offering my apology to him. (He turned out to be rather a nice guy.) One more note: this film was so great that it really marked the last time that I could possibly care about the Terminator franchise (Summer Glau and Lena Headey being mega-hot in The Sarah Connor Chronicles notwithstanding).

Starship Troopers (1997)

Aaron: It seemed, for a short while during the 1990s, that Paul Verhoeven might just be the savior of big budget, blockbuster sci-fi films. He combined the muscular, propulsive style of James Cameron with a much more cynical and ironic worldview. His work with screenwriter Ed Neumeier (this film and Robocop) achieve what the best sci-fi novelists often strive for: a future that actually feels forward-looking and futuristic, and stories that so pointedly examine issues of their time that they are often confused of being what they mock. It's difficult for me to believe now, but Starship Troopers was, at the time, considered part of Verhoeven's downfall as a big Hollywood director. The film was a pretty big flop, and it's many detractors, smart people who should have known better, criticized the film for its glorification of xenophobic violence and its focus on teen-soap opera-ready love triangles. To say that those people missed the point is an understatement. I'm not sure how anyone can see this film, one of the most subversive anti-military films to come from a major studio that I can think of, and come away thinking that it glorifies fascism. What I really think happened is that people got caught up in the rah-rah action, the thrillingly staged gunfights against hordes of impressively rendered giant insectoids, and then felt betrayed when it's revealed that the heroes are the Nazis in this allegory. For those that missed the subtleties at play in Michael Ironside's speechifying that might makes right, it must have felt like having the rug pulled out from under them to see Doogie Howser himself, Neil Patrick Harris, come out in full Nazi regalia for the film's triumphant ending. The years have been kind to this film, as it's become a full-fledged cult darling. Part of that can be attributed to the special effects, which hold up remarkably well, looking more convincing than many big budget films released over a decade later, and easily outshining Star Wars Episode 1, which wouldn't come out for two more years. But beyond that, the film itself rewards those who get onto its wavelength and can appreciate the world that Neumeier and Verhoeven build for us, and all of the little touches they throw in to reward multiple viewings.

Would you like to know more?

Dark City (1998)

Rik: I remember that Dark City came out after a particularly strange break-up with an old girlfriend. Needing a release beyond the mere emotional, I lost myself in the movie theatre within the layers of this still utterly strange film for about three straight weeks, seeing it over and over again. 
I will freely admit that part of the allure was in watching Jennifer Connelly lusciously inhabit the extremely stylized 1940's noir atmosphere of this film as Rufus Sewell's wife. Exquisitely designed in every aspect, Dark City is a veritable feast for the eyes and a head-scratcher of a mystery built around a city where the citizens, naturally, only seem to exist in darkness). Each evening at midnight, the whole population of the city falls asleep for a period while the Strangers, a group of pale, bald men (who are corpses inhabited by aliens) use their incredible powers (called "tuning") to physically rearrange vast portions of the city and shuffle the identities and often the memories of some people. Mostly everybody, but not Murdoch (played appealingly by Rufus Sewell) who has not only grown immune to the powers of the Strangers (the creepiest of which is played by Rocky Horror scribe and star Richard O'Brien), but he suddenly has the ability to "tune" for himself. This gives him the potential to fight back against the Strangers, something they do not like one little bit. It is hard to discuss Dark City without revealing too much for anybody that has not seen the film, and there are plenty of surprises in store. Even eighteen years later, this film still looks stunning and is a complete delight for the senses. I had such monstrously high hopes for director Alex Proyas after his debut, The Crow, and then this film. I guess that I was OK with his take on I, Robot, but then he made Knowing, and while it had interesting visual moments, I couldn't buy into it. (I have yet to see his latest, Gods of Egypt, but the trailers have me doubting why I should.) But I also somewhat knew that it would be extremely hard for anyone, even Proyas, to top Dark City. And Connelly? Well, she doesn't really do it for me anymore, but I still love to visit Dark City when I am feeling down.

eXistenZ (1999)

Aaron: Like your experience with Dark City, this film is inextricably tied to the theatrical experience in my memory. I saw this film one afternoon at the University Center theatre, just a couple years before it eventually closed for good, when the mall it was attached to was sold to the University of Alaska, fulfilling the promise of the mall's name. I was stranded after my morning classes at the aforementioned University, and with friends and family all preoccupied, I began the hours-long walk home. Passing by the theatre, I saw this film on the marquee, and due to my budding Cronenberg fandom recognized it immediately. Stopping at the nearby Safeway for some cheap snacks, I went and bought my ticket for the show. I've always enjoyed communal theatrical experiences, where the combined enjoyment of a large crowd permeates the air and increases the film's impact. eXistenZ was not like that. I was alone in the theatre, and I mean alone. Not a single person joined me for the show, which was actually fairly common at this point in the theatre's life (that same year some friends and I went to see Cradle Will Rock and were 15 minutes late. We expected to miss the trailers, maybe part of the opening credits, but when we bought our tickets the guy at the booth called back to tell the projectionist that he could start the film, because some people finally showed up), and the solitary nature of that viewing made it seem as if the film had been made just for me. Looking at Box Office Mojo, that might have been closer to the case than the producers would have liked. But I've always found eXistenZ to be a more-than-worthy entry in Cronenberg's ouevre of films about how technology degrades, corrupts, and warps our bodies. I also think the film has a quite canny understanding of the psychology of videogames, and how unsettling it would be to interact with fully immersive virtual reality. More than any other film that came up during our Thirteenth Floor discussion, eXistenZ feels truly mindbending at times, as Cronenberg captures and conveys the disorientation of his characters. The film might not occupy the upper echelons of Cronenberg's filmography, but I've always thought it was worthy of more attention.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Rik: Any friend of mine – and any reader of my other blogs – knows how truly obsessed I am with dinosaurs. I had Snap-Tite dinosaur models as a kid, and even some motorized models as well. I devoured books on paleontology. My early attraction to genre film was largely based on films like The Beast of Hollow Mountain, King Kong (where the dinos were the initial appeal before I turned to Fay Wray), the Godzilla films, and The Valley of Gwangi. But I had always been annoyed that there were so few examples of excellent dinosaur effects work, apart from Willis O'Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Jim Danforth, and a handful of others. Since the public adoration of these creatures was so huge and seemingly ever growing, I could never fathom why there weren't more quality dinosaur-centric films being made. When an Advanced Reader's Copy of Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton showed up at the news agency warehouse where I worked in the summer of 1990, I remember grabbing it before anyone else could see it. (Still have it, as a matter of fact.) I whisked it home and read it immediately. I knew Crichton's writing and films full well already, and now he was basically reinventing the Westworld concept with a T. Rex instead of a rampaging cowboy robot? If there is a prime example of my multiple worlds colliding, it was reading Jurassic Park at that exact moment. And I am not lying when I say that as I read it, the filmmaker I instantly envisioned to director a possible feature film was Steven Spielberg. Now, this could have turned out badly if the resulting film had gone on to disappoint me even the slightest bit, but I am still flabbergasted that it came off so remarkably well. Sure, you can criticize the thin characters and some of their motivations, but I am not watching Jurassic Park for characters and motivations. As the film that made me fully believe that dinosaurs on a movie screen were absolutely real and not mere special effects work, Jurassic Park succeeded mightily.

12 Monkeys (1995)

Aaron: Twelve Monkeys, when it came out in 1995, combined two of my burgeoning loves: the films of Terry Gilliam, and movies dealing with time travel. I've always loved time travel stories, even if I sometimes tire of having discussions that deal with the inherent paradoxes and inconsistencies of the genre. I don't care if time travel is possible or not; if it's in a movie, I will buy that it exists in that universe. All I ask is that the film or story creates consistent rules for the phenomenon and sticks to them. To my mind 12 Monkeys might have the most ironclad time travel story I can think of, as its infinitely looping story affords the audience to both hope that the past can be changed, and also the terrible knowledge that it never can. Terry Gilliam was, at this time in his career (and for years to come), one of my all-time top five directors, and any film he released was a highly anticipated event. I saw this with my best friend at the time, and one thing I remember most clearly about seeing this in 1995 was that during the scenes set in 1996 there were advertisements and billboards in the background for albums and movies that didn't exist. We noticed this because one of the advertisements was for a band we liked, and was for a previously unknown album. When that album finally came out, in 1996, it gave a brief thrill of connection to the experience. Of course that sort of things happens all the time; movies set in the near future will often try to throw in little Easter eggs like that, but 12 Monkeys was the first time I had ever consciously noticed it, and I thought it was a really cool touch to one of my favorite movies of that year. 

I am just now realizing that out of my five choices for this list, I saw all but one of them in theatres, three of them at the University Center Theatres, two of them with my high school best friend Justin, and two of them starred Bruce Willis. Above all else, this list is clearly informed by the experiences and emotions of that time in my life.

Darkman (1990)

Rik: What a world we once lived in when superhero thrills were far and few between on our movie and television screens. Apart from a Batman film here and there, we had little hopes that any of the big superhero characters would end up in a halfway decent film. So we turned to variations on the superhero theme, and somehow, our pal Sam Raimi, who made us fall in love with a goofball with a chainsaw arm named Ash, gave us Darkman at the beginning of the decade. Yes, placing a superhero film in the science fiction category is debatable, though I would argue that anyone receiving extraordinary abilities to battle the evils of the world does belong in there somehow. So, let me point out that the powers Liam Neeson's doctor character receives from medical operations to save his life (incapability to feel pain due to severed nerve endings and, thus, enhanced strength) and the technological advancements he creates (replaceable and absolutely believable temporary skin that the wearer can use to disguise himself, but only for 99 minutes at a time) fall fully into the requirements of the genre. It's also a nice twist on the mad scientist subgenre, in that this time, the doctor decides to turn his new talents towards stopping an ambitious crime kingpin (a sublimely slimy Larry Drake) and an unscrupulous land developer (Colin Friels). All this, and Frances McDormand and Ted Raimi, too (and Bruce Campbell, originally meant to play the lead, in a blink-or-you-will-miss-him cameo). The film is, in the Raimi style, fast, flashy, dark-humored, and uber-violent. I loved it from the moment the film started playing on that first showing, and I have never stopped adoring this film.

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Aaron: If you asked a hundred people what their favorite Star Trek movie of all time is, I'm pretty sure a fair percentage of the answers would be Galaxy Quest. Proof that you have to love something in order to successfully poke fun at it in a satisfying manner, Galaxy Quest works as both a takedown of and homage to the original Star Trek television series. This is another on my list I saw theatrically, and another where it was an almost empty room; just my three friends and a father with his children were there. It was a pretty great experience, as my friends and I nearly fell out of our seats laughing, while the father would have to follow up each bout of laughter with an explanation of the joke to his confused children. I don't think I laughed harder at a movie during that decade than I did when the crew lands on an alien planet and Tony Shalhoub opens the shuttle doors much to Sam Rockwell's shock and terror, and says, "Is there air? You don't know!" Speaking of Shalhoub and Rockwell, get a look at that cast: Tim Allen has never been better with the Shatnerian swagger, Alan Rickman brings real frustration and gravitas to even his character's silliest moments, and Sigourney Weaver gets to point out the often demeaning sexism of the ever-optimistic Star Trek universe. Galaxy Quest occupies the same air as Young Frankenstein for me, a film that can be appreciated as both a good story and a pretty good example of the genre it's aping, while also serving as a hilarious takedown of said genre.

Late for Dinner (1991)

Rik: So, this film is my different choice, the one that steps away from the high budget special effects thrills and loud violence, and gives us a far quieter story and concept. It's a time travel movie, only there are no complicated machines or time portals in which the two main characters – brothers-in-law who have been framed for a kidnapping and murder in 1962 by yet another evil developer (Peter Gallagher) – travel through time. With one brother (Brian Wimmer) wounded from a gunshot and the other (Peter Berg) unknowingly dying from a kidney affliction, in desperation they happen upon a doctor in Pomona who is experimenting with cryonic freezing. Without their knowledge or approval, the doctor puts them to sleep for 29 years, and when they wake up accidentally in 1991, to a world with cell phones and diners where you can't get two burgers and two orders of fries for less than ten bucks (with change). They return to their Santa Fe home to Wimmer's now much older wife (Marcia Gay Harden) and grown daughter. The sci-fi trappings in Late for Dinner are so low-key as to be almost non-existent, but the payoffs in this film are on a far more emotional level than mere genre thrills. The film's main characters have a charming way with dialogue, as you would expect in a film directed by W.D. Richter, who also made The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension and who co-wrote Big Trouble in Little China. When Berg's child-man character worries about Wimmer having been shot, his brother-in-law tells him, "I've just been brutally grazed, that's all." The film drifts along nicely on the chemistry between these two actors, but the entire cast maintains the same light and ultimately romantic tone (though Harden comes off a little too "actor-y," as she often does). A year later, Late for Dinner would be all but forgotten when Mel Gibson's Forever Young, with a much bigger budget and similar concept but an even more convoluted plotline, would be a huge worldwide hit (both films received mixed reviews initially). I feel Late for Dinner has been rather a lost treasure, and this tender, nostalgic story deserves a modern audience.

The Fifth Element (1997)

Aaron: For those keeping track at home, this is the second movie on this list that I saw with my friend Justin, and the third at the University Center. The major difference in the experience was that here, two years before eXistenZ, the theatre was a bustling place. Or maybe we saw the film opening weekend. Whatever the case, I remember not finding a seat during the movie and sitting with Justin against the back wall of the theatre. I also remember we weren't the only ones doing this. I'm not sure what management's position on this blatant disregard for fire codes was, but we were luckily not escorted out and sent to a later showing. In 1997, I was only vaguely aware of French director and one man film industry Luc Besson, having seen and loved The Professional and La Femme Nikita, but not really being aware of his extensive career or overall style. The Fifth Element changed that, and Besson immediately became a name I sought out and followed thereafter. I loved the mix between high art and crass exploitation that he often indulged in, and in many ways never more successfully than in this film. The Fifth Element is one of those sci-fi movies where imagination trumps actual science, making it more akin to the fantasy of Star Wars than anything else, full of crazy looking aliens, meticulously detailed backdrops, and high concepts about the galactic importance of love. Also Milla Jovovich (Besson's wife at the time) as the 'perfect specimen', a casting choice I could find no fault with at the time, Gary Oldman as a hilariously evil intergalactic arms dealer, and Chris Tucker screeching his way through the movie in a manner I'm surprised I never find annoying. I've since cooled, considerably, on Besson's films (and don't even get me started on some of the garbage he produces or writes for other directors), but every time I see his name attached as director I make sure I get around to watching it. 

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