No surprise here. 2001: A Space Odyssey tops the list of my top five transportive science fiction films with its extraordinary vision that more than lives up to the title of its third chapter, “Beyond the Infinite”. 2001: A Space Odyssey takes the viewer from the dawn of humanity to the birth of a new species, an odyssey few films approach. What makes 2001 top of this list is that it expresses its themes and makes its claims in a specifically cinematic way. The plot is simple, but ideas of humanity and identity, destiny and our place in the universe are all presented through cinematic techniques of image and sound. The opening and closing chapters are entirely without dialogue and remain cinematic touchstones, the stargate sequence one of the most exquisite pieces of cinema I have ever seen. The middle section portrays space travel as both wondrous and mundane, the production design detailing the mechanics of space travel and the logistics of weightlessness and docking. HAL is a definitive example of artificial intelligence, a clear influence on MUTHR in Alien as well as Blade Runner’s replicants. Furthermore, thanks to this film a single red light shall forever be menacing. Despite the detail given to spacecraft and inter-planetary travel, 2001 never explains too much (over-explanation being the major flaw of the film’s recent descendant, Interstellar), relying instead on suggestion and ambiguity. The film maintains a mystery and opacity much like the black monoliths, which is a common feature across the films that constitute this countdown. How human are the replicants in Blade Runner? What is the reach of Eywa in Avatar? What do the extra-terrestrials want in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? How did the alien ship come to be on the planet in Alien (the explanation in Prometheus notwithstanding)? Mystery abounds in 2001 but not to the point of frustration, as enough is suggested by Stanley Kubrick’s precise alignment of production design, cinematography, editing, sound effects and music to give the viewer a sense of what is going on, while leaving enough ambiguity for us to wonder, and indeed, wonder at the majestic mystery of what we behold. After nearly fifty years, 2001 remains the greatest journey undertaken by the sci-fi genre and an unrivalled cinematic landmark.
The penultimate film in this countdown of my top five transportive sci-fi films has some similarities with a previous entry. Like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner transports its viewer to a sci-fi environment on Earth with suggestions of the beyond. Unlike Close Encounters, however, Blade Runner is far from a hopeful dream of a journey that we can envy, but a dystopic nightmare of a grim world in which hope, equality and life have been largely devalued. At the same time, it is a hypnotic and mesmerising vision with a haunting, otherworldly beauty. That the presentation of something so bleak could be so beautiful is testament to Ridley Scott’s superb direction, Jordan Cronenweth’s gorgeous cinematography and Lawrence G. Paull’s exquisite production design, as well as Vangelis’ melancholic score. Blade Runner’s Los Angeles is the gloomy city of film noir turned up to 11, with enough rain for an Indian monsoon and enough filtered, neon light to accentuate the expressive mise-en-scene of sets, costume and performers. The combined effect of these cinematic features is to transport the viewer to this city of the damned, in what may be the most detailed and (chillingly) plausible dystopic landscape every committed to film. Many sci-fi films predict the future. Blade Runner seems to get parts of it right.
The third film in my countdown of top five transportive sci-fi movies gives the most overt attention to transporting the viewer (although it is not necessarily the most successful). Avatar creates a tangible, tactile environment that immerses and surrounds the viewer, an environment that took me far beyond the cinema in which I first saw it and continues to do so across repeat viewings. It is a literally awesome film in the sense that it fills me with awe with its extraordinarily rich and compelling vision of an alien planet and the experience of exploring it along with the protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Nor is this experience of Avatar simply down to the 3D, as I find the film immersive and absorbing on 2D home viewings as well. This effect is partially due to the remarkable production design that details the geography, flora and fauna of Pandora, as well as the film’s vibrant visual style that thrusts the viewer through these gorgeous but also dangerous environments. James Cameron has always been an intensely visceral director, from the relentless pursuit of The Terminator to the collapsing environment of Titanic. In Avatar, the director’s visceral and absorbing style takes the viewer into a world that is both alien and familiar, showing us what we know in a new light and creating greater appreciation of our surroundings beyond the filmic world itself.
My countdown for my top five transportative sci-fi films continues with Ridley Scott’s haunted castle-in space movie, and a reference to an Alien wannabe. The tagline for Event Horizon is “Infinite Space. Infinite Terror”, but unfortunately that film is not very scary. However, apply that tagline to Alien and you have an accurate description. Alien transports the viewer to strange and threatening environments, never letting up the sense of dread and impending danger even when nothing explicitly threatening takes place. Space itself looms throughout, from the slow crawl of the opening credits to Ripley’s final message, the blank, empty void providing a palpable sense of indifference to fear, suffering and life itself. The planet (subsequently named LV-426) where the crew of the Nostromo encounter the alien spacecraft is hostile and threatening, while the craft itself provides an eerie tomb for the fossilised space jockey. The sequence’s magnificent production design, engulfing cinematography and ominous score create a ghostly atmosphere for a menacing environment. Most terrifying of all is the Nostromo itself, an industrial castle filled with dark spaces both cavernous and claustrophobic and occupied by monsters both humanoid and extra-terrestrial, as well as an unsympathetic governing presence in the form of MUTHR, that represents the malevolent absent landlord, the Weyland-Yutani Company. While these tropes may owe more to horror than sci-fi, Alien’s use of space (pun intended) transports the viewer into a realm of fear and wonder, where you can scream all you want, but… You know the rest.
The first time I saw this film was on television one Saturday afternoon, and it was one of my earliest realisations of the sheer wonder of film. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a remarkable play of light and sound (which is the fundamental action of cinema – no nonsense about characters you have to care about, that comes later), a visual and aural display that takes the viewer on the same journey as the protagonist Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus). Roy’s abandonment of his family is problematic (Steven Spielberg has said in interviews that were he to make the film since becoming a parent, he would make different choices), but the infantalising journey of wonder that Roy goes on is still alluring and transporting. Roy, along with the young boy Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey), follows the lights not towards death but towards rebirth; the term mothership has rarely been used so aptly. Even if the viewer baulks at the journey of Roy himself, there are also the military and scientific spectators at Devil’s Tower, who are treated to an extraordinary display of light and sound, including the famous five tone theme. These spectators are similar to those of a cinema audience, also assembled for the dazzling display of the film itself, making Close Encounters of the Third Kind a meta-cinematic experience. Just as characters within the film make a pilgrimage to the mountain, audiences flocked to cinemas for the release of this film and continue to do so for other journeys into the imagination. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is at times the purest form of cinema – a transportive experience through the play of light and sound towards the infinite. Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) tells Roy that he envies him for the journey he is taking. The journey of the film, and of sci-fi cinema as a whole, expresses this journey and, at its best, gives us a sense of what that journey might be like.
As a completely unofficial tie-in with the British Film Institute’s science fiction season, Days of Fear and Wonder, I’ve prepared a countdown of my top five science fiction films that transport the viewer to fantastical environments. At its best, science fiction can be the ultimate cinema experience, as it creates another world and takes you to distant places and times. These are not necessarily the greatest science fiction films of all time, but they are all films that take the viewer on a remarkable journey. The next few days will feature a countdown of my top five transportive science fiction films, beginning with…
Star Wars (1977)
The cultural impact of Star Wars can never be over-estimated, and for its time it was an extraordinary piece of groundbreaking cinema. While I do not find it particularly transportive and its script and direction is ropey in many places, it remains an undiluted thrill ride through a far away galaxy, a long time ago. Contact (1997)
Contact’s journey is as much about travelling into the heart and mind as it is about a journey to a distant world. An intelligent science fiction film that explores humanity on Earth while also reaching out to the stars. Solaris (2002)
Steven Soderbergh is a great utiliser of editing and cinematography, which sometimes collapses into irritating style for its own sake. In the case of Solaris, however, the discontinuous editing takes the viewer both into a grieving mind and to a strange world where time, memory and reality blur together and nothing is what it seems. WALL-E (2008)
One of Pixar’s finest films conveys both the ghastly isolation of an abandoned Earth and the expansive wonder of space. One is gloomily familiar and the other a source of inspiration and beauty, best demonstrated in the space dance sequence between WALL-E and EVE. But perhaps most importantly in WALL-E, the journey to the final frontier is not only transportive but transformative, as humanity, led and inspired by little robots, returns to the Earth that is our home. Interstellar (2014)
The most recent entry and a convenient release for the BFI’s season (Coincidence? Unlikely). Fear and wonder populate Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic: fears include the horror of ecological devastation as well as the vacuum of space, balanced with the spectacle of Saturn as well as spherical worm holes and alien landscapes. Interstellar echoes earlier films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and Contact and, while it sometimes tries too hard to explain everything, it remains a breathtaking journey into the infinite.
How do we negotiate between personal loyalty and social responsibility? This question propels the first part of The Hunger Games finale, exploring conflict on a micro and macro scale. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is frantic with worry over the imprisoned Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson), but she has been recruited by revolutionary president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and spin doctor Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as the Mockingjay, symbol of the Panem rebellion. A key dramatic tension throughout the film is Katniss balancing her concern for Peeta against the larger demands of the revolution, while Coin and Heavensbee endeavour to use the Mockingjay to win the hearts and minds of Panem’s population. The flickers of rebellion allow for thrilling but brutal action set pieces, director Francis Lawrence and DOP Jo Willems making judicious use of handheld cinematography (which was overused in the original The Hunger Games), at one point conveying the aesthetic of a journalist embedded in combat troops. Alongside these set pieces, Katniss delivers heartfelt, impassioned speeches about President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) atrocities, her words utilised in propaganda videos that are stirring and inspiring. Lawrence is magnificent in a role that requires both strength and fragility, the viewer never in doubt as to Katniss’ pain and fear as well as her courage and resolve. The dilemma that she faces is perfectly encapsulated in the film’s final shot, as Katniss’ reflection is superimposed over the human cost of the escalating conflict. The answer to the film’s central question may have to wait until Part 2, but Part 1 remains a grim and compelling exploration of the conflict between personal and social duty.