So, you’ve used up the rest of your vacation time for the year going to see Star Trek in the middle of weekdays so you could get a decent seat. Don’t worry: it happens to the best of us. But while you’re stuck at home waiting, turn off that Countdown to the Special Edition DVD desktop widget and check out some movies that tackled science fiction just as well as the new Trek (and often better).
You want to classify prime numbers now?
This is how interstellar travel begins: not with a bang, but a committee. Contact (adapted from the Carl Sagan bestseller), goes into the nuts and bolts of space travel when an interstellar communiqué gets caught in a web of red tape. Though it lacks the astronomy-candy of the novel, the movie paints a picture of a near future where religious conservatism, economic trouble, and political turmoil conspire to prevent scientific exploration. So close to life it’s hardly science fiction.
There are no answers, only choices.
Proving it’s possible to set a movie in a spaceship and not blow up everything in sight, this adaptation of the Stanislaw Lem novel is a drama about an encounter with the truly alien. When psychologist Chris Kelvin travels to a spaceship orbiting oceanic Solaris, his dead wife appears in bed beside him, with no memory of having been gone. The struggle between the crew members (and between the ideals of morality and happiness) is compelling—though George Clooney struggles to carry it off. Caveat viewer.
I thought it said “Liberate me”—save me. But it’s not. It’s “Liberate tutame”—save yourself.
You think space is scary when you’re ejecting your warp core to avoid being sucked into a black hole? Try a ship that’s come out of a black hole and brought an alien with it—an alien out to break down the rescue crew, one mind at a time. The typical horror tropes ensue (never go anywhere alone, what is wrong with you?), but the idea that the truly alien is more terrifying than humans can handle is enough to make you think twice about exploring strange new worlds.
4. Buck Rogers
And you are the men I made counsellors of Earth? I would be better served by this Buck Rogers who walked through your men as if they were children.
Laser-gun-toting Buck Rogers and his loyal underage sidekick enlisted the people of Saturn to rebel against a tyrannical Earth in this serialized movie based on the uber-popular short stories and comics about space’s first badass. (Fact about Buck Rogers: Buck Rogers does not dive in freefall towards the Romulan mining platform. The Romulan mining platform dives in freefall towards Buck Rogers.)
Every day, Federal scientists are looking for new ways to kill bugs.
A dark-side-of-Trek look at the camaraderie within a soldiering space force, Starship Troopers takes a liberal dose of World War II-era propaganda wars and points it at a colonial army of chiseled young no-talents out to rid the solar system of the insectoid aliens they’ve been told threaten Earth’s existence. Bonus: this movie used more ammo than any movie before it, which is good for those who enjoy a bit of the old ultraviolence.
Bad news: it’s a silent movie. Good news: it’s the first science fiction movie ever made (in 1902, pretty much any movie was a first), and is full of inspiring imagery—literally, since many other filmmakers of the era were directly influenced by director Georges Méliès’ use of special effects. Its tale of scientists who battle moon monsters was so good that Edison pirated it and made it famous. (Which is good news for everyone but Méliès.)
Extra-good news: it’s only eight minutes long, so it’s not going to take a huge chunk out of your day.
7. Pitch Black
Would you die for them?
This movie launched Vin Diesel’s career. However, if you can forgive that, this hardscrabble adventure is well worth a look. Made on a shoestring budget, the movie follows a motley crew whose space transport crashes on a planet where monsters come out at night—and they’re on the verge of an eclipse. The survivors struggle to restart the ship in time to avoid a grisly demise, including convicted murderer Riddick, who’s been modified to see in the dark and deliver all his lines in a gravelly monotone. (Bonus: in this movie, the leading lady gets a character arc of her own!)
That piece can only be played with twelve.
An underrated gem, Gattaca tackles the ethics of genetic modification and the aesthetics of a world so sterile that the presence of an eyelash is enough to get you convicted of a crime. Deliberately paced, the movie still manages to make use of every scene; with lived-in dialogue and casual world-building, it’s cerebral science fiction with a streak of dry humor. Plus, Ethan Hawke and Jude Law have the sort of antagonistic male friendship a thousand Kirk/Spock slash fics were made of.
Two weeks, two weeks, two weeks
It’s not even out yet (release date: June 12), but this Sam Rockwell drama about a man on a lunar mining facility losing his mind (or not) promises to be interesting for at least the first hour. With the always-quality Sam Rockwell at its center and top-notch effects guys painting the moon’s ghostly palette, the buzz is strong enough that it’s worth getting tickets for this tale of a man stranded where, uh, three men have gone before.
Please remove all articles of clothing and proceed into the scanner.
I mean, if you’re going to watch two hours of inexplicable plotting punctuated by lengthy prologues, hyper-edited fight scenes, and lens flares, at least renting this is less expensive than a movie ticket.