In Another Earth, out on July 22nd, Rhoda Williams is an MIT business student who caused the car accident that killed the wife and son of a young composer. On the night of the accident, a duplicate of Earth—which is hypothesized by scientists to be inhabited by the same people as the original planet—is discovered. Rhoda, racked with guilt, tries to win a chance to travel to the other Earth so that she can correct her mistake. Another Earth is a low-budget, introspective indie drama that’s helped to put its leading actress-co-writer-producer Brit Marling on the map after it was a breakout hit at Sundance, where it won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize and the Special Jury Prize for World Cinema.
“Introspective,” “dramatic” and “award-winning” aren’t phrases that often apply to a movie where the central plot point is similar to that of the latest Star Trek movie. Sci-fi devotees are many, varied and often vocal, but there are a lot of moviegoers who just plain don’t like the genre. Science-fiction movies can be intelligent and thought-provoking, sure (see 2001: A Space Odyssey), but they can also be frustratingly inaccessible to audience members who just don’t care about space travel, alien invasion or sentient robots (see 2001: A Space Odyssey).
A growing number of movies, though, have been taking elements traditionally found in sci-fi and applying them to more general fare. It’s more common than you might think. The Adjustment Bureau stars the classy A-list duo of Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in a classily-marketed movie based on a story written by the grandfather of sci-fi, the decidedly un-classy Philip K. Dick, who wrote the books that became Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report. In Limitless, heartthrob Bradley Cooper plays a struggling writer who takes a mysterious pill that, in a nutshell, gives him super powers. Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, in which Earth is about to be destroyed by another planet crashing into it; a similar idea was used in Michael Bay’s Armageddon (which did not win anything at Cannes).
In appreciation of the sci-fi elements at the heart of many movies that otherwise wouldn’t require much suspension of disbelief, MovieMaker presents: Sci-Fi Movies For People Who Hate Sci-Fi Movies.
WARNING: Many of the movies below keep their sci-fi heritage close to the chest before going for a glorious sci-fi reveal. As such, much of what is written below contains spoilers. Proceed at your own risk…
The Boys from Brazil (1978)
directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier: Not two actors commonly associated with the sci-fi genre. And yet, in The Boys from Brazil, Atticus Finch and Hamlet are archenemies involved in a plot to clone Hitler. Peck plays Dr. Josef Mengele, who escaped to Paraguay after Germany’s defeat in World War II and spent the next several decades creating 94 clones of Hitler and getting them adopted by unsuspecting couples all over the world. Exactly what Mengele hoped to achieve by doing this is never fully explained, though admittedly the phrase “94 clones of Hitler” is scary on its own. Olivier plays Ezra Lieberman, a Nazi hunter who, in trying to locate Mengele, stumbles upon a bunch of different boys, all the same age, who live in different countries and speak different languages yet all look and act exactly alike. Hmmmm. The Boys from Brazil has its flaws, and one of the biggest is how it plays fast and loose with genetics. In the movie, cloning a human being is relatively easy to do (the only really tricky part, according to the movie’s genetics expert character, is the “microsurgery” involved), and the clone develops the exact same personality as its original, regardless of any external factors. Still, oversimplifying scientific concepts and hand-waving away technological impossibilities are the birthright of any sci-fi movie, and the scene where Lieberman realizes exactly who it is Mengele cloned makes the movie worth watching.
See Also: Never Let Me Go, The Prestige
A Life Less Ordinary (1997)
directed by Danny Boyle
Robert (Ewan McGregor) is a janitor and aspiring novelist who gets fired from his job when his boss, the autocratic multimillionaire Mr. Naville (Ian Holm), replaces him with a floor-sweeping robot. Celine (Cameron Diaz), Mr. Naville’s daughter, is pampered and longing for adventure. Robert bursts into Mr. Naville’s office, where he’s busy lecturing his spoiled daughter, and by the time five minutes is up Robert has accidentally kidnapped her. Since the kindhearted Robert isn’t that good at being a kidnapper, Celine gives him some pointers and their relationship blossoms. Sounds like a romantic-comedy, sure, with maybe a bit of heist movie thrown in, but science-fiction? Nah. But A Life Less Ordinary does have some sci-fi, courtesy of two angels, O’Reilly and Jackson, who have been told by the archangel Gabriel that if they don’t get Robert and Celine to fall in love, they’ll be banished to Earth. The relationship between Robert and Celine drives the plot of the movie, but Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo as the two angels who will do anything to unite the couple—including sending Celine a forged love poem and shooting at Robert with a machine gun—is its most enjoyable part. A Life Less Ordinary doesn’t just span the romantic comedy, adventure and sci-fi genres, though. It covers horror, too: Those claymation-style credits will haunt your dreams.
See Also: Harvey, It’s a Wonderful Life
Technology… of the Future!
Open Your Eyes (Abre los ojos) (1997)
directed by Alejandro Amenábar
In Open Your Eyes, César (Eduardo Noriega) is a handsome, spoiled womanizer who falls in love with Sofía (Penélope Cruz), only to have his life go off the rails when a psychotic ex-girlfriend causes a car crash that leaves his face horribly disfigured. That’s when the nightmares and visual hallucinations start, and it’s all downhill from there. Open Your Eyes touches on several common sci-fi tropes, including the “Dreams vs. Reality” concept that would become the basis for Christopher Nolan’s Inception over a decade later. Near the end of the movie it’s revealed that after the car crash, the depressed and suicidal César hired the company Life Extension to cryogenically freeze him, with the intention of waking him up at a time when facial reconstructive surgery was up to the task of restoring his good looks. Life Extension, being a luxury cryogenics company, doesn’t just freeze César, wait a while and wake him up. They also let their clients live full, happy, complete lives while they’re in the cryogenics chamber—as a dream. Life Extension isn’t the most competent of sci-fi companies, though, and César ends up in a nightmare instead. At the end of the movie he’s told that, in order to wake up, all he has to do is kill himself. He should probably ask Life Extension for a refund.
See Also: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Man in the White Suit
directed by Wong Kar Wai
This artful blend of drama, romance, sci-fi and fantasy is the sequel to Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, in which a man and woman grow close after discovering their spouses are having an affair. In 2046 the man, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) is living in the Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong, where he is drawing on the stories of those around him to write a sci-fi novel entitled 2046. The scenes of Mr. Chow in 1960s Hong Kong are interspersed with scenes from his novel, about a placed called 2046 where people go to recapture lost memories. The title of Mr. Chow’s book comes from the number on the hotel room next to his, and the author’s statement about his book seems like a remark on the film itself: “I made it bizarre and erotic, without crossing the line. The readers liked it. Some didn’t take to the science-fiction angle… but all ‘2046’ meant to me was the number of a hotel room.”?
See Also: The Truman Show, Being John Malkovich, Pleasantville?
Big Brother is Watching You
Stranger than Fiction (2006)
directed by Marc Forster
Some of the sci-fi genre’s greatest classics are about a society or person whose every move is monitored and controlled by an all-knowing, all-powerful force. In Brave New World and 1984 it’s a malevolent, totalitarian government that controls every aspect of the main character’s life. In Stranger than Fiction it’s the depressed British novelist Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). The main character in question is Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), an IRS auditor who begins to hear a woman’s voice in his head that narrates his every action (“It’s not schizophrenia. It’s just a voice in my head. I mean, the voice isn’t telling me to do anything. It’s telling me what I’ve already done… accurately, and with a better vocabulary”). Though he doesn’t know it, Crick is a character in a book being written by Eiffel, who in turn has no clue that her character is out there somewhere, hearing her voice in his head. The movie’s unique approach to a common sci-fi trope is refreshing, and unlike 1984, Stranger than Fiction doesn’t have anyone in danger of his or her face being eaten off by rats.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
directed by Woody Allen
Amidst of the chatter surrounding Midnight in Paris prior to its Cannes debut in May—It’s Woody Allen’s return to form! Think of all the Oscar nominations it might get!—there’s one thing that no one thought to mention: Midnight in Paris, like Back to the Future and The Terminator before it, is a time travel movie. Or, at least, it involves time travel. According to the official synopsis, the movie is “A romantic comedy about a family traveling to the French capital for business. The party includes a young engaged couple forced to confront the illusion that a life different from their own is better.” And what gets the ball rolling on main character Gil’s journey of self-discovery? Every night, over a period of a few days, Gil ends up in 1920s Paris, where conversations with such figures as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel, Pablo Picasso and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald help him to accept his own life. Allen has played in the sci-fi sandbox before: In 1973’s Sleeper, he plays a health food store owner who is cryogenically frozen and thawed out 200 years later.
See Also: Donnie Darko