Weekly Top Five: Science fiction, the art of extrapolation

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The cozy confines of Dead End Drive-In
  • The cozy confines of Dead End Drive-In
As one of its late-night offerings, the Logan Theater is screening Philip Kaufman's remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In his capsule review, Dave Kehr considers the film inferior to its predecessor, writing, "Where Siegel was swift, compact, and efficient Kaufman tends to be slow, garrulous, and needlessly baroque." I don't necessarily disagree with Kehr's assertion—Siegel was indeed a very economic director, perhaps his greatest virtue—but I think his characterization of Kaufman is somewhat off point. To my mind, Kaufman was able to unearth some of the more serious themes that are latent in Siegel's film, bringing a sense of paranoia and isolation to the fore without abandoning the original's tenacity. And besides, anybody who's seen Fearless Frank couldn't possibly categorize Kaufman as "baroque."

Anyway, in honor of the film's revival, I figured I'd share my favorite sci-fi films. With the recent 70mm screening of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey still lingering, I've found myself thinking about the genre a bit more than usual.

5. Dead End Drive-In (Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1986, Australia) I mentioned Trenchard-Smith in a previous blog post. He's an energetic, visually-oriented director whose choice of subject unjustly relegates him to a lower class of filmmaker. His instinctual, flamboyant style, which pulls from the likes of Raoul Walsh and Robert Aldrich, is deeply rooted in classic method, employed unpretentiously and with a surprising amount of craft. His work consistently calls into question the excesses of 80s materialism, as in this biting satire about a drive-in movie theater that's been turned into a sort of concentration camps for societal rejects who binge of junk food, punk rock, and B-movies.

4. Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1972, U.S.) A longtime sentimental favorite of mine, this film contemplates any number of weighty sci-fi themes but does so in a manner that's playful and deceptively intelligent. Its dystopian setting, in which all plant life on Earth has been made extinct, is a decidedly grim backdrop perfectly suited for a film about one man's disavowal of human interaction in favor of plant life and the company of robots. However absurd or inane the premise, there's a fine layer of sincerity hovering over the action at all times.

3. Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, 2007, U.S.) One of the last decade's most notable film maudits, this elaborate sci-fi epic has been maligned by critics and fans alike since its disastrous premiere at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. In recent years, newer audiences (myself included) have come to appreciate the film for its audacious vision, a cartoonish yet dead serious piece of social commentary that rather artfully captures the country's hysteria immediately following 9/11. It's by no means a perfect film, but nearly a decade's worth of perspective has treated it well—plus, this is easily one of the best scenes in any movie in fifteen years.

2. Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984, U.S.) A decent indicator of where Southland Tales could be ten years from now—that is, primed for an illustrious release from the Criterion Collection—this sci-fi comedy is one of the most enjoyable Reagan-era takedowns to emerge from the 80s. Like Trenchard-Smith, Cox is a director with a strong understanding of classic style who twists and turns formal logic to better fit his unique vision. Repo Man follows the beats of a western—Cox is something of an aficionado on the subject—but any typical generic element has been either excised or bastardized into a bizarre, Bunuelian framework.

1. Scanners (David Cronenberg, 1981, Canada) Many sci-fi films feature elements of horror, so I figured it would be wise to include this early Cronenberg masterpiece. A chilling exercise in Grand Guignol, the film presents its sci-fi and horror elements in a manner that's disarmingly naturalistic. Even when things turn decidedly phantasmagorical, Cronenberg anchors the action in measured pacing and mounting suspense. Similar to his remake of the The Fly (1986), the more inane things get, the more unnerving they become.

Honorable mentions: Any number of American '50s classics, including Roger Corman's It Conquered the World (1956) and Egar G. Ulmer's The Man from Planet X (1951), as well as some contemporary stuff like Nacho Vigalondo's underrated Timecrimes (2007).

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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