Hollywood may turn out most of the big screen's sci-fi/fantasy/horror films, but it isn't exactly an exclusive relationship. In fact, many of the most unique (and occasionally offbeat) of these genre's films come out of other nations' studio systems. Unfortunately, due to the relationships between theater chains and major studios, a large percentage of these worthwhile flicks never reach your average cinerama.
With many of the summer blockbusters already behind us, the the long and dreary winter months are looming closer, taunting us with their lack of major releases. Why not dust off the ol' Netflix account and add these eight worthwhile flicks from the farthest corners of the planet. (Some are from the nearer corners, too.)
1. Sunshine (2007, United Kingdom)
Remember 28 Days Later? It was a surprise success worldwide, despite its usually-looked-down-on subject matter of zombies. What you might not know is that director Danny Boyle followed this horror offering with a solid foray into hard sci-fi. Sunshine follows the crew of Icarus II, a massive ship journeying to the sun to carry out some stellar CPR.
The ship's sole purpose is to deliver an enormous bomb (with roughly the mass of Manhattan Island) into the sun in an effort to jump-start it. Icarus II's voyage isn't quite as smooth as the crew would like, though, as Sunshine slowly transitions from space drama to space thriller. A solid cast, surprisingly accurate science, great special effects, and an incredible electronica score make Sunshine more than worthy of a slot on any sci-fi fan's queue.
Pay close attention to the year on this one, boys and girls. At first glance you might think "Hey! I remember that! Dr. Ross is the coolest doctor ever!" If you did, then you probably saw the 2002 American version starring George Clooney. While there's nothing wrong with the 2002 version, there's no substitute for the Soviet original. Solarís (both versions) deal with the strange phenomenon encountered by the crew of a scientific expedition to a distant planet aptly named "Solaris."
It's much more of a psychological drama than most films today, and not the easiest to wrap your brain around on the first viewing. Fortunately, Solaris is contextually rich enough and full of enough interesting visual details to make multiple viewings enjoyable. A word of warning, though: Solaris boasts a 165 minute running time, and takes a bit to hit full stride. If you're going to watch it, be sure to stick through it even if you're bored by the early scenes.
Based on P. D. James' 1992 sci-fi novel and directed by famous Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men is a dystopian sci-fi film set in a near future world where humanity has become infertile. Faced with its own quickly-approaching extinction, mankind has all but crumbled throughout the world. Only Britain retains some semblance of normalcy and civilization, having become a police state.
The film follows former political activist Theo Faron on his reluctant quest to protect and transport the first woman to become pregnant in over 20 years. Children of Men has an incredibly distinct visual style that puts you right in the action. Seamless visual effects and long one-shot scenes (i.e. long periods without camera cuts) make this one of the most effective attempts at sci-fi cinéma vérité of all time. Watch it for the action. Watch it for the drama. Watch it for Michael Caine playing an old stoner with a love of bad jokes, industrial music, and strawberry-flavored weed. It really doesn't matter why you watch it, just do!
This is probably the film on this list that most of you are likely to have seen because it garnered quite a bit of popularity after great success on the festival circuit. I'm including it anyway because I'm still surprised how often I run into people that have never even heard of it. Pan's Labyrinth is a dark and sincere modern day (mostly) fantasy film -- a fairytale stuck smack in the middle of a period piece.
The story revolves around a young girl and the slightly twisted fantasy world she creates to cope with (and mirror) the war-torn world around her. While the movie has its fair share of CGI, what makes Pan's Labyrinth a visual spectacle is its unparalleled work with practical creature effects. Not since Jim Henson's fantasy films of the 80s -- Labyrinth & The Dark Crystal -- has a movie taken advantage of this level of puppetry and "man in a suit" work with this much success. Considered by many to be Guillermo del Toro's best film to date, it's perfectly suited for one of those dark and eerily quiet winter evenings.
Read on to page two for the last four flicks.
Night Watch is a great movie! So is the sequel, Day Watch. I think they are completing the story with a third sequel called Twilight Watch but this one isn’t out yet.
Wow — this is an awesome list. The only films on the list I’d heard of were Solaris and Pan’s Labyrinth. I’m definitely heading to Netflix…
I’ve seen all of these but Let The Right One In (Gonna watch it soon), Time Crimes (Never heard of it), and the original Solaris (Might watch it soon). The only thing I can POSSIBLY disagree with is Sunshine…I really don’t like that movie. Well I love 90% of it. You know what I’m getting at if you’ve seen it.
Great list though. I didn’t think anyone but me had seen Returner =D
“Let the Right One In” is a must-see, but get the UK version. The US version uses a different, worse translation (I have no idea why.)
I agree with you on the ones I have seen ( Children of men and Pan’s Labyrinth) So I am going to work my way through this list…. Thanks.
Prep the Frak parties…we have a bunch of new material to cover. Great article! I am looking forward to seeing these films with the GWC crue!
I really enjoyed Solaris (and for those who haven’t seen it, it’s really quite good), but I have to admit, the other two on your list that I’ve seen (Children of Men and Pan’s Labyrinth) I didn’t really like. That said – Alfonso Cuaron’s also the director of the 3rd Harry Potter movie, which I love.
Also, it’s cool that these are all more or less available! Yay!
Awesome list! Thanks for this great blog!
May I also suggest the film, 2046, written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. Not strictly sci fi but enough elements to claim the genre (there are androids, for godz sake!) It’s beautifully filmed, and haunting…but may be a little slow for action-oriented Coolerheads out there!
Thanks for the recommendation, FrenchToast! 2046 is on the top of my queue, now. I’m a big fan of foreign cinema (not just sci-fi/fantasy), so I’m always on the lookout for new ones.
The Night Watch (and the trilogy) are some of my favourite movies. (Weirdly enough, I actually saw Day Watch on a plane. Interesting viewing experience, that’s for sure.) Thanks for including them in the list.
2046 is somewhat interesting, but I’d say definitely not one of Wong Kar-wai’s best movies; and I agree that its only very loosely related to the sci fi genre.
Let The Right One In is the best movie I saw in 2008, by far.
I truly love Night Watch. It has by far the best use of subtitles in any movie i have ever seen. They do not just appear and disappear like a normal movie. They come and go with the camera movement. They are wiped away by cars and doors opening. Also they are often colored or written differently to emphasize the words that are being spoken. For example there is a spookey vampire telpathic call calling in a victim. The words are written in red and as i reacall are not a clean font almost as if it were hand written.
Two more films that deserve to be on this list are the french films City of the Lost Children and Delicatessen. Both are dark dissutopic tales set in France. Both are also made by the same dude who made Amalie so you can anticipate amazing visuals.
Delictessen takes place in a post apocalyptic suburb of in a Deli and the Apartments above it. The residents, scarce on food, turn to hiring a handyman and eventually, when their previous meat supply runs low, eating him. It follows the story of the new handyman arriving falling in love with the shop keepers daughter and the hilarity that follows. Its a really Dark Comedy but the visuals are amazing.
City of the Lost children is the story of a young street urchin and her new friend a Circus Strong Man (played by Ron Perlman who learned french for the movie) investigating why kids are going missing in a sort of Steam punk France. Its kind if a bizarre very loose mashup of Monsters Inc., The Professional, and Annie.