Sunday, April 27, 2014

David Brin's Favorite Science Fiction Films

DB-Sci-Fi-FilmScience Fiction is multi-dimensional and no one criterion can be used to determine a best-of list. Hence, I must divide my favorites into categories. And yes, each choice would be worth many paragraphs of explanation, including the runners-up and tragic misfires. I'll be more concise.

1. Movies for grownups: I wish there were a lot more of these -- films in which the director and writer actually cared about the deep implications of their visual thought experiment -- their deliberate departure from reality. Works in which the creators paid close heed to logical what-if and (while delivering tasty action, plus biting social commentary) eschewed the lazy, "idiot plot"* assumption that civilization is automatically and entirely worthless. Some institutions actually function! Adversaries have plausible motives and no red, glowing eyes! Protagonists aren't chosen-ones but merely above-average people with difficult challenges to overcome, in part by using their heads.

INception Inception (2010) works harder than any film I ever saw. It can be overbearing, especially with the aggressive musical score cranked up! But I have never seen a director strive to juggle as many edgy intricacies as Nolan does in this mostly-successful tour-de-force.

Gattaca (1997) and Primer (2004) are much simpler films that nevertheless aim to tease your mind into real thinking. Gattaca isn't as dystopian as some lazily take it to be and the protagonist is actually a self-centered jerk… but a true hero nonetheless, whose triumph is largely one of character and mind. Primer is a delight of logic and an example of what can be done when very smart people have a filming budget of about eighty-five cents.

James Cameron gets a couple of mentions here. But the one that was for grownups is The Abyss (1989). Yeah, sure, the ending was… well, I don't care.

20012001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was epochal in its time -- it helped make me who I am, and remains a mind stretcher -- though it suffers a bit under close examination. So don't.

And Kubrick's other wonder…arguably the best motion picture ever made, though only marginally science fiction…Doctor Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).

Honorable mentions in this category would include the recent films Limitless (2011) and Moon (2009). The grownup in me says thank you.

2. Joyful slumming: At the opposite end are films that I could only watch by tuning my "dials" before entering the theater. Cranking IQ and science and even logic down to"popcorn" levels, without sacrificing my standards when it came to deeper values, beauty, esthetics, ethics. Admit it, some of your brains must be left outside the theater, in order to enjoy most flicks, and that's fine. In other words, appreciating as-if-stoned a movie-movie that is simply way-successful at delivering fun.

Noteworthy: all the fantasies are here. Show me one fantasy for grownups.

Conan the Barbarian (the original 1982) is simply the most successful film ever at delivering what it promised, while never promising what it couldn't deliver. Every scene is filled with visual and musical beauty amid a tale that hearkens to the deeply non-western, non-modern and joyfully brainless part of you and me, going back to the Iliad and Gilgamesh and the caves.

MV5BMTkzOTkwNTI4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMDIzNzI5._V1_SY317_CR6,0,214,317_AL_ The Fifth Element (1997) is the single most joyful work of art I ever saw. Luc Besson's sheer pleasure leaps onto your lap like a great big, floppy-dumb retriever and licks your face for ninety minutes. I adore it. And it adores us.

Avatar (2009)… well, James Cameron would demand that we put Avatar in category number one or even number 3. Sorry. Nice try. It is beyond-brilliant in the popcorn category, but keep those neuron dials turned way down. And then murmur… "wow!"

In contrast, the Back to the Future (1985) trilogy comes that close to vaulting into category three. It's fantastic fun. bighearted, unabashedly logical and darn near perfect.

Honorable Mention in this category:

Lord of the Rings (2001)… all right, Peter Jackson delivered a superb work of art and it was definitely not "just popcorn." I have great respect for Tolkien's complex world building craft and Jackson's fealty to the original material. Still, neither the books nor the flicks bear adult scrutiny. So turn down the "adult" dials. Be a kid and enjoy. I know I did!

Bladerunner-movie3. The whole package: Rarest of all -- films that take us beyond our familiar horizons on adventures that satisfy every age you contain within yourself, from awestruck kid to sober grownup to mystic dreamer.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) delivers from beginning to end. Not only a terrific motion picture but a love ode to the brash, Faustian, unbridled adolescent hopefulness that only Star Trek ever gave us, amid today's grotesque tsunami of grouchy-cliched dystopias.

Bladerunner (1982). Of course. Nothing need be said.



Runners-up: There are so many films that came close, or just missed. Dozens that were enjoyable and I'd have been proud to be associated with. Only nit-picking kept them off the top tier.

Contact-movie Contact (1997) was well worthwhile and inspiring, if a bit preachy in spots.

Gravity (2013). I expect this one may challenge its way into the Top Ten, with time. Exquisitely done, even if Cuaron depicts Earthy Orbit as roughly the size of L.A. County.

Things to Come (1936). My kids were bored. I was moved almost to tears by its paean to the civilization we might (with difficulty) make, if we overcome the worse sides of human nature. Maybe its a generation thing.

James Cameron's Aliens (1986) is the best film about motherhood ever created. And Terminator II (1991) was even better than the first one.

(Note: All through the 80s and 90s there was a "third movie curse" in which the third flick in a franchise betrayed everything good about the wondrous second film. It happened to Star Trek, Star Wars, Terminator and especially the Aliens series. But not Back to the Future, somehow.)

I'm not done! And so let me roll off some of my favorites that fall just outside the top ten, each one funky and unique and different in its own way:

Men-In-Black-movie Forbidden Planet (1956), Rollerball (1975), Soylent Green (1973), Men in Black (1997), Galaxy Quest (1999), Logan's Run (1976), Source Code (2011), The Truman Show (1998), The Time Machine (1960), District 9 (2009), Alien Nation (1988), Charly (1968), Serenity (2005)... plus weirdnesses like Brazil (1985), SteamBoy (2004) and Solaris (1972)… illustrating the fantastic range and breadth and wondrous opportunities for creativity that science fiction offers to those who think bold.

Special Category: Faustian SF. I especially like films that buck a cliche. And the worst cliche of all is hopeless gloom. A few… a bold few… express confidence in us, in our ability and righteous right to go beyond what we were, and in our children to be better than us… call these the anti-Crichton movies that declare the opposite of Michael's endless chiding: "don't touch that!"

Examples mentioned already are The Wrath of Khan and Inception.

Close_Encounters_posterAlso expressing this rebel sense of belief-in-us: Ghostbusters (1984)Brainstorm (1983)Altered States (1980), Dark City (1998), Quatermass and the Pit (1958), and eXistentZ (1999). And may I be honest? Kevin Costner's The Postman (1997) was harmed by a nonsensical last 20 minutes - and was uneven throughout - and it might have benefited from even 5 minutes of talking to the original author. Still, large swathes of it were terrific. It features some of the most gorgeous cinematography in the history of film. Also, its heart was pure and brave and it belongs in this category. Still. Compare to the book.

Special Mention: Surprisingly, no single Steven Spielberg film made my top ten sci fi films. But almost all Spielberg films would make it into my top fifty, while Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and War of the Worlds (2005) and Minority Report (2002) skate much closer. Spielberg and Zemeckis are the most consistent and skilled story tellers of our age. Nolan and Cameron, while much more uneven and less disciplined, did make it onto the list.  Vive les differences.

And finally….

Tragic misses: What might have been... if only

star_wars_v___empire_strikes_back___movie_poster_by_nei1b-d5w3mt4 The Empire Strikes Back is a fine film in its own right, and it shows what a wonderful epic we might have had, if George Lucas had stuck to his strength, as one of the greatest of all visionary Hollywood producers, and simply hired great writers and directors for his films, the way he did in Empire… and the way he hired terrific artists for all the other Star Wars flicks. (Their one strong suit was then endlessly voluptuous visuals.) Alas, his choices became our tragedy.

The Day the Earth Stood Still… could have explored the immorality of the other side. It's smarmy and unhelpful preachiness prevented adding another layer of potentially really interesting counter-preachiness. How tasty if one human had stepped up and said: "I know, I know we are all that… but what are you?"

Total Recall… you're kidding me, right? You can be this creative -- in BOTH versions (1990 and 2012) -- yet still timidly shy away from getting all Philip K. Dick on us and persuading us to actually fret that it might all actually an actual bummer recall-trip? You couldn't do that? Why? I mean, why not? It would have been so easy and so cool.  Dang.

Dune Dune (1984)… actually, I have no major complaints. It's a pretty good movie and deLaurentis was utterly faithful to Herbert, accurately conveying the complex world and characters. Alas, lo and behold, the silver screen made clear what most readers of the novel - captivated and immersed - failed to notice. That every single character in the story is loathsome and ought to die. Yes, the "good" guys, too. Please. As quickly as possible.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Fun and all that. But. Um. And the real villain is…………?

And so it goes.  Let's all hope that there will be great new films in the next decade the outshine all of the above!

Hey, here's a pitch: "dolphins… in space!"

Eh? Who could possibly beat that?


Idiot-Plot-favoritecliche-1* Followup links:

The "Idiot Plot Cliche" that civilization must always be portrayed as worthless.

Other science fiction riffs by David Brin:

Speculations on Science Fiction: collected articles.

A video rant: Name the Villain...


Mohin said...

Hey, here's a pitch: "dolphins… in space!"

So long and thanks for all the fish? ;)

Anonymous said...

Maybe we can get a Startide Rising summer series :)

garth2 said...

I would give a minor limb to see dolphins in space, and all of the Uplift books on film from a good director with the author consulted. Those books make Star Wars look like it was filmed in a sandbox, to my mind.

brian t said...

Did anyone in the USA get to see Danny Boyle's "Sunshine" when it came out? I thought it was a good hard SF film but it did go off the rails by the end. Some of the visuals are embedded in my brain for good.

arna11420 said...

Maybe it would be better to start with The Uplift War.

Wage Slave said...

I just have to say my Granddad. was in the 1936 "Shape of Things to Come" - he was one of the wild men attacking the coal mine. The film crew came South Wales in the depression and the umeployed miners were all extras. I have a distant coursin that falls on the wire. My Granddad can be seen behind the man with the flag who is shot on climbing the mine. Sadly this was his one and only movie appearance - his career was cut short by the arrival of rearmament and a growing demand for coal.

David Brin said...

cool story about grand-dad!

Various folks recommend Silent Running (which I grade as B+, Zardoz (!weird and I like it! But um weird!)
Dark Star… sure! But I can't quite list it.
Clockwork Orange (there are already 2 Kubricks), Metropolis (B+) and 12 monkeys… which is good A- but I never felt that stunned sense that I had den uplifted.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin,

To misquote from Blazing Saddles: "You said 'Soylent Green' twice." To which you are perfectly within your rights to rejoinder: "I like 'Soylent Green'."

In the earlier comment-level discussion of this topic, I can't believe I forgot to mention "The Time Machine." A rare movie that is better than the book, that movie made me think "That's what time travel would really look like!"

Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" was as good a film adaptation of those books as is possible, but it seems to me that what it tried and failed to be was the books in movie form--to be the definitive version of the trilogy for a generation who doesn't read books. And what it proved is that you can't make a movie that is the book.

I tried to think of adult fantasy, and all that came to mind was "Atlas Shrugged", which I don't think is what you had in mind. Especially since it's really adolescent fantasy in disguise anyway. The next example I thought of was "Summer of 42", which makes me think I'd better just shut up now.

Unknown said...

I am glad you mentioned Galaxy Quest. I thought there was something wrong with me that I thought is was such a fun movie.

Anonymous said...

I'd nominate (John Carpenter's) The Thing as both one of the best SF movies and best adaptations of classic SF source material out there.

LarryHart said...

Oh, and I did like "Back to the Future!", but it suffered just a bit from being made in the 80s. Ten or fifteen years earlier, the professor character wouldn't have had to be played as a clown. And as my then-roommate pointed out at the time, the "happy" ending where Michael J Fox's character's older brother works in a suit and tie instead of at McDonalds--he was just as creepy in the new future as he was in the old.

I will give the movie credit though--the time paradoxes seemed to "work" without cheating (though I'm mostly thinking of the first film, which I saw many more times than the others). And it managed to make me nostalgic for the 1950s, even though I never actually was alive in that period.

LarryHart said...

Tim McElligott:

I am glad you mentioned Galaxy Quest. I thought there was something wrong with me that I thought is was such a fun movie.

Likewise, I'm glad you mentioned "Logan's Run", which often gets looked down upon, but which I enjoy quite a bit. I'd put in in the category (along with the previously-mentioned "The Time Machine") of movies which surpass the books they are based on.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin in the main post:

Surprisingly, no single Steven Spielberg film made my top ten sci fi films.

Ok, that made me think--would "Raiders of the Lost Ark" count as a fantasy for adults? I mean, I mainly think of it as an action/adventure film rather than fantasy, but the ending may push it into that category.

LarryHart said...

"Dune" is one of my all-time favorite sci-fi books. The movie suffered for it not being possible to cram everything that makes it a good book into a two or even three hour time frame.

The extended tv mini-series had not really been invented back in 1984, but that would have been a much better venue for bringing "Dune" to life.

Anonymous said...

Agree with much of what you have listed, written. Enjoyed Cargo on TV the other day...decent sci-fi, not great...but not quite the worn Alien type plot development expected:

Anonymous said...

>>Maybe we can get a Startide Rising summer series :)
3:41 PM

Wouldn't that be nice. :)

How about Kiln People too.

I can think of plenty of other books that could be turned into films, mini-series. Hyperion, Rama, Eon, The City and The City, Chanur, Doomsday Book, Snowcrash, Cryptonomicon, Agent to the Stars, Otherland...for starters.

Steve O said...

"The extended tv mini-series had not really been invented back in 1984, but that would have been a much better venue for bringing "Dune" to life."

There was a mini-series version of it that clews much more to the actual book, and I think preserves that "they are all pretty horrible" ideal Dr. Brin mentions. It does not particularly cater to the American cinematographic ideal though. I found if I think of it as an extended stage play where the set is a character, it fares much better than if I think of it as a big budget film (which it wasn't).

Anonymous said...

So pleased you listed Solaris (1972). One of my faves. I wonder how many would have the patience to watch a Tarkovsky film these days? I hope to see Stalker one day.

This from Wikipedia:
Solaris (Russian: Солярис, tr. Solyaris) is a 1972 Russian science fiction art film adaptation of the novel Solaris (1961), co-written and directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. The film is a meditative psychological drama occurring mostly aboard a space station orbiting the fictional planet Solaris. The scientific mission has stalled out because the meager skeleton crew of three scientists have fallen into separate emotional crises. Psychologist Kris Kelvin travels to the Solaris space station to evaluate the situation only to encounter the same mysterious phenomenon as the others.

The original science fiction novel by Polish author Stanisław Lem is about the ultimate inadequacy of communication between humans and other species. Tarkovsky's adaptation is a “drama of grief and partial recovery” concentrated upon the thoughts and the consciences of the cosmonaut scientists studying Solaris' mysterious ocean. With the complex and slow-paced narrative of Solaris, Tarkovsky wanted to bring a new emotional and intellectual depth to the genre, since he viewed western science fiction as shallow. The ideas which Tarkovsky tried to express in this film are further developed in Stalker (1979).

mythusmage said...

Peter Jackson and fidelity?

That word you used, I don't think it means what you think it means.

Carl M. said...

What? No Demolition Man?? No Boy and His Dog? Where's Death Race 2000?

Avatar had pretty colors but the dialog and plot never reached the intelligence of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

Lord of the Rings betrayed the spirit of the books with the opening scene. Imagine a Sherlock Holmes adaptation which tells who done it in the opening scene. It was that bad. And where was the poetry? Conan the Barbarian was more Tolkienesque. Jackson managed to make Middle Earth feel like the size of a single U.S. county. Old westerns managed to convey time and scale with a mere 90 minute run time.

Dune was terrible. I would have walked out had I gone alone. Dune may be hard to adapt, but note how Hollywood LOVES martial arts vs. guns. The book actually gives a rationale for martial arts over guns and Lynch had the Saudaukar [sp?] lugging machine guns.

Wrath of Khan was a decent movie, but not faithful enough to the show. The only faithful Star Trek movie is IV.

Bladerunner rocked. It's up there with Demolition Man and the Charlton Heston films.

I'm shocked you didn't rank Rollerball higher. It voices your political thesis pretty much exactly. Ditto for Robocop and Death Race 2000. Death Race 2000 even has the baddies extolling "minority priviledge" over democracy.

I enjoyed the movie version of Total Recall more than the story, but order of reading does create a bias. The first movie did ask whether it was all a dream at the end, and provided clues to that effect early on (note his selection of love interest before taking the trip).

Brazil needs to go into the prediction registry, alas.

Thank you for not including the Matrix movies in your list of great SF. They weren't as terrible as Avatar, but they are wildly overrated.

Tony Fisk said...

While perhaps not an 'adult' fantasy, I was impressed with 'Frozen' for the deviousness of the villain and the subtle act of selfless love needed to save Anna. Oh, the warm hugs and the uplifted reindeer were a plus too!

'9' is a terrific tale of group of post-apocalyptic AIs who are trying to figure out a) what the hell happened and b) how to stop it from happening again. It would also make a good adventure game.

I disliked Dune for a number of reasons: uneven effects, the buffoonish depiction of the Baron, and Sting's ridiculous jockstrap!

I liked the ox driven Roll Royce in Things to Come but otherwise? Oh, David! (actually Kubrick had a similar reaction when Clarke suggested it to him)

As for dolphins in spa-ace, I have an opening sequence for Sundiver....

Finally, another candidate for the 'oughta be an sf movie' category... I've just completed Pratchett and Baxter's Long Earth, which takes a set of unlikely premises and asks some quite interesting 'now what?' questions. Filming wouldn't be that hard, although the potatoes might need some thought...

Carl M. said...

Commenting on the comments:

Silent Running beats Avatar for preachy eco SF. I need to see it again with a more mature brain, but from what I recall the bad guy dialog came much closer to real world anti-environmentalists.

The bad guy dialog in Avatar was too cartoonish for an expensively produced film. Corporations rationalize their actions. Civilized people can go into berserk extermination mode because they are pissed off after a barbarian raid. Yes, Columbus was even worse than the bad guys in Avatar, but there was not sufficient dystopian backstory to make a Columbus like baddie believable.

Clockwork Orange wins for best Kubrick SF, IMO.

@LarryHart: Jackson's adaptation was by no means the best Tolkien adaption possible Jackson betrayed Tolkien's sense of mystery in the opening scene! I refuse to see his butchering of The Hobbit. The Rankin-Bass cartoon did a decent approximation of that tale.

@Anonymous: if I'm going to nominate a John Carpenter film, it's gotta be They Live.

And how about "Predator." It's a bug-eyed monster film with a plausible premise(!)

David Brin said...

Great Stuff Tony. But start with a weird premix and go with it? Um… Practice Effect and Kiln People?

Anonymous said...

In ET, the villain is us, and the things we put our children through. Its Joy is that it is the last innocent vision of a child becoming a man, a place very boy has been and some remember. It was an exquisite film and worthy of any top 10 list in my opinion

JSintheStates said...

Good article! Had to look you up, cause you had to be close to being a true baby-boomer to cover the span of sci-fi and movies you did in such a short space, elegance in writing aside! No, you weren't born in '47, but you certainly could have been! I'll give you score of 0.950. That includes quantum fluctuations!

Tony Fisk said...

Not quite sure what you meant by that last remark. If you were thinking of ideas for movie treatments, Kiln People has *got* to have the opening riff of 'I am the Walrus' in it somewhere. I also think each morning should involve a tirade about why *he* always gets to be the stay at home green who never does anything interesting.
Got nothing on Practise Effect yet. Maybe I should read again. And again?

I think Jackson's LOTR treatments have been quite satisfactory, on the whole. I don't mind the liberties he's taken with the storyline because the only way anyone can be manage afaithful rendition is to visualise it for themselves. Therefore I take it as a point of interest to see where other people take a story. My main objections with LOTR were with how some of the characters were depicted (Gimli the comedy relief and Denethor the crazed madman... yes, he was, but the real tragedy lies with how he was driven to that state.)

So far, The Hobbit has achieved a better mix, except for one shark polevaulting scene made all the more awful because it occurs right at the end of the second movie, where it sticks in the memory. (Ugh!)

harlequin said...

Thank goodness someone mentioned A Boy and His Dog. Great Ellison story, great adaptation.

Thanks to Ebay I got a copy from the USA, couldn't find any here in Oz.

Mark said...

I do think the original Matrix fits in here, or at least would if the next two either didn't exist or were much better. The original had a few flaws (humans as batteries??) that easily could have been cleaned up with competent followups. (After all, they could have been wrong about the battery thing, etc.)

Unfortunately, the next two took the flaws and amplified them, showing the truly great stuff was partially accidental.

Rob Perkins said...

Does reading The Practice Effect a lot turn it into a collector's edition hardcover with a personal note from the author? Because if it does...

Mark said...

The only adult fantasy I can think of is Game of Thrones, but of course it isn't a movie.

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Tony Fisk said...

...Any flying cars with that?

Paul451 said...

Wouldn't The Life Eaters be your most film-ready story? And Hollywood is loving the graphic novels these days.

If you get to pitch Uplift movies, I agree with arna11420 that you should start with The Uplift War. Most of it is set on the ground, in cities, forests, etc, making it easier to film, and more importantly easier to imagine filming. Trying to sell Startide first means you have all the difficulty of pitching... well, the image for the money people will be Water World with an entirely non-human cast.

With Uplift, the mostly simian cast are are more "understandable" for the buyers in light of the recent Planet of the Apes series. And it imprints the name "Uplift" in people's minds. For film, it's a more natural introduction to the Uplift universe, imo. Characters can talk about uplift without devolving into "why are you telling me something we both should already know" exposition, and we are being shown deep uplift history, the whole client-patron system, the human alliances, etc, without needing a clumsy info-dump.

If that works at the box office, it becomes vastly easier to sell Startide Rising as a sequel to a known property: "with dolphins... in space". (And Uplift works as a teaser, with references to and concerns (and alien bragging) about Streaker.)

Then if all goes well, the Storm trilogy could be inter-cut with smaller, lower budget In-Universe stand-alone pieces, as the recent Marvel Movies did, with Sundiver, Aficionado, and Temptation.

(And I still think The Hairy Adventures of Harry Harms would make a great stand-alone animated series.)

Paul451 said...

The Koch Bros. are running ads attacking solar power. Saying it will hurt "older people on fixed incomes". Wouldn't those be the entitlement junkies we can no longer afford? Sheesh, make up your minds, guys.

Tom Crowl said...

I'm currently reading "The Martian"... and would love to see it in a visual form...

Similar to "Gravity" in being a straightforward survival story...

It has a very 'can-do' spirit with lots of clever and RATIONAL approaches to realistic problems being solved by a thinking individual and a co-operative team.

The "enemy" revolves around managing conditions for survival rather than fighting some evil cohort of aliens, criminals or businessmen.

I think it would make a bundle!

(and all it takes is a desert, a small cast and some hardware)

Pat said...

Great list indeed!

Nice remarks made about The Postman;
Kevin Costner's version looks like a Disney Film compared to my vision of the novel.

James said...

Hi David,

Thanks for an enjoyable list. I completely agree with your ultimate popcorn movie tag for Avatar! But it has to be 3d for the immersion factor.

I think Children of Men & Cloud Atlas are notable omissions from your musings.

I suspect you have read the book by P.D. James and the film is a brilliant example of what a highly skilled and creative team can come up with. After COM I was just hanging for Curon's next scifi epic, and wow didn't he impress with Gravity!

Surely he is the man to make Startide Rising!

Have you looked into Kick Starter to get the ball rolling? I for one would invest.

KInd Regards, James

Larry C. Lyons said...

An interesting list. I agree with most of it, and was rather surprised by some of your choices. Steam Boy for instance. That was probably the best depictions of steam punk yet. And after years of rumors of a sequel, alas there won't be.

Little story about Dune. a friend of mine who graduated a couple of years ahead of me became a cameraman and worked on Dune. That Christmas he brought home a copy of the shooting script. I was really charged because of how close it followed the novel. Then came the edits, the deletions and the reshots. And a 4 to 5 hour film became almost a farce.

matthew said...

The place to start with filming Uplift is with Sundiver. Remember your advice to writers, David, "Start with a murder mystery?" Same logic holds with movies. Plus Sundiver allows for the introduction of Jacob and Helene, who get to make cameos in later movies. I've always thought of the Uplift stories as "the secret history of the Alvarez clan," btw.

More movies - Do not forget
"Strange Days" (1995). Incredible acting and nostalgia as a literal drug. And perhaps overlooked as kids fare, but "Wall-e" manages to be in the third of your categories, with a powerful message or two and no enemy except an overprotective AI.

A notable director has produced at least four very good fantasies - Guillermo del Toro. "Pan's Labyrinth" is category 3 all the way, with amazing visuals, a moving story, and an unclear resolution. Both of the "Hellboy" movies represent the high water mark of superhero films. Nothing better has been done in the genre. And "Pacific Rim" is popcorn-movie fun at its' goofiest. He is the director I secretly wish for your Uplift adaptations.

And much like George RR Martin, I think that television is the real medium for visual storytelling these days (video games have yet to produce their version of Sergei Eisenstein) . The Dune miniseries is light years better than the movie. Game of Thrones is doing the huge-budget fantasy thing moderately well. Lesser gems like Carnivale or Wilbur. The staggering achievements of Babylon 5 and Firefly. Go small screen young man, go small screen.

Finally, what scifi books are ripest for adaptation (host excluded)? John Varley's "Red Thunder."

matthew said...

Oh, and "Orphan Black." Everyone that loves good sci fi and great acting needs to be watching "Orphan Black." Run, do not walk, to do so.

Anonymous said...

I noticed only one animated film on your list ("Steamboy"), which I think gives short-shrift to the field.

One of the best would be "Spirited Away" by Hayao Miyazaki. A gorgeous, wildly imaginative fantasy (albeit a bit uneven) that deserves to be included in any list. Most of Miyazaki's works are worth mentioning, ("Howl's Moving Castle," "Princess Mononoke," "Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind," "Castle in the Sky," & "Kiki's Delivery Service" to name the best).
If you haven't seen at least some of his work, I highly recommend them.
"Akira" was also good, science-fantasy anime, too, although brutal.

A.F. Rey

locumranch said...

There was a brief 10-year Golden Age for Scifi film. It lasted from the mid-1960's to the mid-1970's. It posited our human weaknesses as strengths; it rejected utopianism & the perfectibility of man; and it was full of vitality & hope.

'Candy','The Monitors', 'Fahrenheit 451' & 'Clockwork Orange' belong on the above list. Also the bombastic 'THX 1138', 'Planet of the Apes' and/or 'Omega Man'. Then a soupcon of 'Sleeper', 'The President's Analyst' and 'Wild in the Streets'.

Counter-culture Scifi was then (largely) replaced by 'Good v. Evil' tripe, the revamped Morality Tale, the buzz-kill that is 'Star Wars' & its many clones, so much so that 'Celebrate Diversity' has come to mean its polar opposite, the horrifying pursuit of compliance, passivity & uniformity, what Pinker calls 'The Better Angels of our Nature'.

Perfectibility is the Death of Hope.


Matt said...

I want to see A Deepness in the Sky as an epic-length film. Would enough people sit for three or four hours of it?

David Brin said...

LOTR was a twenty hour mini-series skillfully reduced to nine hours. The Hobbit is a 90 minute kiddie cartoon bloated to nine hours.

Paul451 thank yoiu for confirming that someone actually read the Uplift Storm trilogy…
 The other locumranch popped in and reminded me of one I should have included…

"The President's Analyst"…! Seriously folks. add that one to your hunt-down list.

David Brin said...

Sorry anonymous, but Spielberg makes it plain. The "oooh so scary" adults and US government turn out to be totally the opposite of evil in the film. They struggle to make up for the wretched selfish errors made by the kids… Eliot commits both treason and manslaughter in his self-centered refusal to ask for help to save an alien visitor. But his excuse is exactly that youth is a time of savage simplicity. Indeed, his fantasies about what his own government would do to a visiting alien expose that savage mind-set of youth.

When we finally meet the scary "man with the keys." we find he is Eliot… grown up! A decent scientist whose contact with ET would have been skilled and professional and earnest… both saving ET and getting something for US out of the deal, like maybe an Encyclopedia Galactica.

There is only one villain in the flick… ET's captain. Read

Walt Socha said...

To paraphrase Adams (and Mohin): So long and thanks for the list.

LarryHart said...

Carl M:

Lord of the Rings betrayed the spirit of the books with the opening scene. Imagine a Sherlock Holmes adaptation which tells who done it in the opening scene. It was that bad. And where was the poetry? Conan the Barbarian was more Tolkienesque. Jackson managed to make Middle Earth feel like the size of a single U.S. county. Old westerns managed to convey time and scale with a mere 90 minute run time.

Ok, I have to admit to something embarrassing here. At 50+ years of age, I never yet got around to reading the trilogy. So I'm going by my first-hand knowledge of "The Hobbit" only.

Dune was terrible. I would have walked out had I gone alone. Dune may be hard to adapt, but note how Hollywood LOVES martial arts vs. guns. The book actually gives a rationale for martial arts over guns and Lynch had the Saudaukar [sp?] lugging machine guns.

My enjoyment of the book "Dune" involves getting totally immersed into the world it portrays--the geology, the language, the history, the politics, etc, etc. While I'm in the middle of reading that book, I start looking at a glass of water and thinking about how much wealth it represents. A movie just doesn't have the scope to do justice to that sort of experience.

Also, I always have a problem when the charactersistics of a particular actor overwhelm the character he's supposed to be playing, whether it is Sting in "Dune" or Stallone in "Judge Dredd" or Michael Keaton in "Batman". The exception which proves the rule was Christopher Reeve as "Superman", who literally seemed to have been born to play the role.

Wrath of Khan was a decent movie, but not faithful enough to the show. The only faithful Star Trek movie is IV.

I'm genuinely curious as to the details behind that assertion. Because my experience was feeling that Wrath of Khan was like the definitive Star Trek episode, and "The Voyage Home" (the one you refer to as IV) was like the definitive funny Star Trek episode (a la "Mudd's Women" or "The Trouble With Tribbles"). I loved them both, but for very different reasons.

LarryHart said...


Wouldn't The Life Eaters be your most film-ready story? And Hollywood is loving the graphic novels these days.

Maybe too close to Hollywood, though. It would probably be difficult to market (let alone fight for trademark for) a non-Marvel version of Thor and Loki right now.

It wouldn't be too hard to simply refer to some of the entities as "Donar", "Wotan", their Teutonic names rather than their Viking names. Not sure what could be done about Loki, though, and his character is essential.

I'm pointing out the logistic difficulties, not saying I wouldn't absolutely love to see that story on the big screen!

LarryHart said...

Speaking of Dr Brin's Nazi gods story (originally titled "Thor Meets Captain America"), has there ever been a screen adapation of Robert Harris's "Fatherland", which starts from a very similar alternate-history premise although has no supernatural elements whatsoever?

That one would certainly qualify as adult fantasy, albeit "fantasy" only in the sense of it being an alternate history.

LarryHart said...


If that works at the box office, it becomes vastly easier to sell Startide Rising as a sequel to a known property: "with dolphins... in space". (And Uplift works as a teaser, with references to and concerns (and alien bragging) about Streaker.)

Everything you said (not just the snippet I quoted) makes a lot of sense. And yet, I'd also like to see "Sundiver" as a film, and I'm not sure how well that one works if we already "know" about the Galactics.

Mulling it over...

Alfred Differ said...

The first Dune book captivated me as a reader, the next two blurred in my head as more of the same, while the live action portrayals did exactly as David described. They all need to die.

I remember plodding through the fourth book and having to promise myself I would finish it just for the sake of finishing it. By the end I wanted it all to end. In hindsight, I can't think of a better way to do that book, though, because I think that was the take away message, and the next two books reinforced it.

As stories go, I look back to Dune to help my understand why we need to set aside our 6000 year experiment with a social system that we can't personally stand. How many dark ages do we have to plod through to get this? How many tyrant/saviors do we have to adore before we understand we can do far better... and have?

I don't know how to put that kind of message in a movie format. I don't think it can be done. Movies are far too short. B5 tried a large, sweeping message and got some of it across, so I suspect it takes a format like that to make it work.

Rob said...

Glad The Abyss gets a favorable mention. It's one of my favorites. The Orson Scott Card novelization fleshes it out a bit and helps the ending make a bit more palatable, I think.

Guess you're not a big fan of animation? Though with Zemekis on the list I'm guessing Roger Rabbit is in the room somewhere...

I just recently watched Puella Magi Madoka Magica and it really affected me. It helps if you're an Anime fan to begin with, but as someone knowledgeable about fantasy and SF you should be able to relate to most of the story. Stick with it to the end.

Rob said...

Also on my suggested F&SF animation list:

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Howl's Moving Castle

Roguewave1 said...

Good choices all, yet I would have given "Starman" a mention.

Richard said...

OK, I'll bite... why no The Matrix? Along with Bladerunner, it's my favourite SF movie of all time. When the first one came out in 1999, it was visually stunning and very thought-provoking. So I'm curious why you don't like it David?

LarryHart said...

Alfred Differ:

The first Dune book captivated me as a reader, the next two blurred in my head as more of the same,...

To me, the relationship between "Dune" and the rest of the series is the same as the relationship between "Star Wars" and all that came after. In both cases, the original left me hungry for more, and then the sequels went off in a direction which utterly failed to satisfy that craving.

while the live action portrayals did exactly as David described. They all need to die.

I'm not sure about Paul (whether he's just another aristocrat, or whether he's more like the Luke Skywalker of the book), but I don't know that Jessica was so bad. Or the Lady Fenrig. Or Princess Irulan for that matter. Maybe the girls were really the good guys? Maybe the message is really Vonnegut's post-WWII "Now, It's the Women's Turn."

Mention of Vonnegut reminds me that he used the narrative voice of "Galapagos" to explain why his own books are unsuitable to be made into movies, the climactic scene of that book depending as it did on symbolic Lesbian sex. While Dr Brin's own books are not quite unsuitable in that way, I suspect that they are square pegs which are not easy to fit into the round holes of the expectations of Hollywood.

Still, we are in an age of technologically-empowered fanboy directors who are able to (almost) bring "Watchmen" to the screen and are able to do so with "Sin City". There might be reason for cautious hope for a full-fledged Brin film yet.

Jumper said...

At least no one's talking of filming The Iron Dream.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

One of the most overlooked science fiction films of recent years has been the 2000 joint Australian-American remake of On the Beach. Although Nevil Shute would have absolutely hated it, the 2000 remake was an excellent retelling of the basic story with 21st century attitudes and technology rather than early 20th century attitudes and technology.

This is not at all the kind of movie that I normally like, but this one is my favorite.

The basic premise of any version of On the Beach is unrealistic because nuclear war could not unleash enough radiation to cause human extinction. (It could, of course, destroy modern human civilization, which is a different thing.)

The 2000 remake of On the Beach emphasizes the tragedy of human extinction, which could come any number of ways (although not by nuclear war). The movie is three-and-a-half hours long, and was originally a two-part made-for-TV movie. It is available on DVD, but I have never seen it for less than $50, and it seems to still sell well at that price.

Paul451 said...

Re: Thor and Loki and Marvel and Trademarks.
The names of Thor and Loki are pre-copyright, the depiction (both character and appearance) has no resemblance to the comic characters. The "origin story" is utterly different from the Marvel universe. The issue is similar to the one faced by Shrek, where they referenced old fairy-tale characters without tripping over Disney copyright and trademark issues.

David's already solved the issue with the original title (Capt. America). Provided you keep the images classical viking rather than Marvel Comics or Marvel Movies, as indeed the graphical novel already does, you're golden.

Hmmm, might be a sell for a rival studio wanting to "counter-program" or "spoil" Marvel's run with Thor and The Avengers.

"has there ever been a screen adapation of Robert Harris's "Fatherland","

Yes, there was a HBO version with Rutger Hauer. Not the book, but not bad. Won awards, etc.

Re: Sundiver.
Been awhile but I think I first read it before I read Startide, then reread it sometime after. I don't remember the reread losing anything because I then had more background about the Galactics on the reread. So I think my idea of making it as a small In-Universe stand-alone story in between releases of the Uplift Storm trilogy would work. And by then, for that audience, you wouldn't need to add a single piece of back-story, giving you a more pure experience.

Any list of good SF&F films should include any and everything Miyazakhas touched.

Paul451 said...

"Any list of good SF&F films should include any and everything Miyazakhas touched."

Try "Miyazaki has".

(Turing phrase: "Arfully limited".)

LarryHart said...


Re: Thor and Loki and Marvel and Trademarks.
The names of Thor and Loki are pre-copyright, the depiction (both character and appearance) has no resemblance to the comic characters. The "origin story" is utterly different from the Marvel universe. The issue is similar to the one faced by Shrek, where they referenced old fairy-tale characters without tripping over Disney copyright and trademark issues.

David's already solved the issue with the original title (Capt. America). Provided you keep the images classical viking rather than Marvel Comics or Marvel Movies, as indeed the graphical novel already does, you're golden.

I'm not saying Dr Brin couldn't eventually win a court fight. I'm saying that at this particular point in time, with the Marvel movies so current and so big, there would probably be a fight in a way that there might not have beeen five years ago.

Re: Sundiver. Yes, I can see it working as a prequel to "Uplift War" and "Startide Rising". You might have something there.

Jumper said...

I read this the other day and thought you might appreciate it, David. It's by Charles Mackay from Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.
"The weeping philosopher too often impairs his eyesight by his woe, and becomes unable from his tears to see the remedies for the evils which he deplores."

matthew said...

Ok, so a swimmer crossing a strait to raise money for dolphin / whale protection is not my choice for an impartial witness, but this story of "dolphins save swimmer" is timely given our recent turn of discussion.

Swimmer saved from white shark by dolphin pod
Next we need to see a chimp come of the jungle to order a beer in a small jukejoint.

David Brin said...

Thanks Matthew & Jumper. Good stuff.

Alfred Differ said...


The pre-Paul Bene Gesserit are definitely on my list of people that need to die. They are society designers with sufficient power to accomplish it. Boo, hiss!

Post-Leto II they learned not to do it... that way. It has been awhile since I read the books, but I didn't walk away convinced the characters understood the general lesson that WE should know, so they would still be on my list of people to shoot on sight. 8)

David Brin said...

Not a big fan of "chosen ones." I think Frank Herbert was warning us about them. OS Card on the other hand, cannot write a single thing without the lesson being "kowtow to the chosen demigod! He knows so much better and is SO much wiser and more soulful than any of you!"

LarryHart said...

@Alfred Differ,

I can see that you'd detest the Bene Gesserit as an organization. I wouldn't, for instance, have listed the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam as a "good guy". But the three female characters I listed above came off as...I dunno...a kinder, gentler version?

@Dr Brin,

I get your attitude toward "chosen ones", but I'm wondering if Paul fits that bill. Sure, after he comes to power, it's like "He was the chosen one all along!", but before that, his very conception was an act of rebellion by Jessica, who had been ordered to produce a girl child, presumably to bear the chosen one.

Paul strikes me as a bit like Luke Skywalker--buffeted by forces beyond control, but trying to be a good guy anyway.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin,

As long as "Dune" is on topic...I think I may have asked this before, but as a writer, do you see any significance in the almost identical structure of the opening paragraphs to "Dune" and "Foundation", the one establishing that while it is hard to think of Muad D'ib without associating him with Arrakis, he was born on Caladan; and the other establishing that while it is hard to think of Hari Seldon without associating him with Trantor, he was born on Helicon?

David Brin said...

Herbert was a very deliberate writer. He had read Asimov and liked the grand sweeping saga.

Tim H. said...

Jumper, "The Iron Dream" might be a natural for Frank Miller, though I'd rather see "Child of Fortune" if a Spinrad story was to be filmed. Any of the late Iain M. Banks culture novels would provide opportunity for a LOT of FX.

Alfred Differ said...

Larry Hart:
The proper description for my feelings regarding Herbert's Bene Gesserit is detestation/fascination. Too dangerous to let live and too seductively attractive to kill without losing a part of one's own soul.

A much shorter and explicit version of this warning incantation is in David's 'Temptation' story. That one left me spooked for many days. No doubt I'll have to have my teeth repaired a few years earlier than scheduled because I ground some of the enamel off of them. 8)

Anonymous said...

Great list, some I've not seen and will look out for. No mention of Hayao Miyazaki films. My favourite is Howl's moving castle. I can turn the dial down beyond popcorn to the child in me.

What about your TV/TV series list?

Anonymous said...

Ah, steamboy! Mark

Anonymous said...

If you go into anime, for the stuff directed at grownups there is Shin SekaiYori(From The New World). A sadly underated anime about kids growing up in a dystopian society made up of peoples with psychic powers and the choices and reasons on why was built such a society.

David Brin said...


Peter said...

I am genuinely surprised noone has mentioned The Man from Earth (2007) yet. It explores a wonderfully fantastical narrative, all through a bunch of teachers sitting in a room together and talking. (Without ever getting boring.)

I would also like to suggest Ghost in the Shell (1995) as an excellent Sci-Fi Anime dealing with issues of identity and reality.

And finally Event Horizon (1997). Tragically underrated and my personal favourite horror movie, with a spaceship as the villain.

David Bley said...

I appreciated the job that PJ did with LOTR. However, I like the books better. So far, The Hobbit has been dissapointing.

One of my top sci-fi movies was a made for tv "The Lathe of Heaven", both versions.

I would like to see "The Left Hand of Darkness" as a movie.

I so appreciate your efforts to counteract our trend toward dystopia. We may not achieve all we intend, but how do we improve the world if our mental model is dystopia?

Latest Bollywood Movie Ratings said...

I want to add to the list - Mr. Nobody, Cube (all parts) and Dredd as my favorite science fiction movies. Thank you for sharing your favorite. I haven't seen some of them yet.

arna11420 said...

Herbert's true point in Dune is explained very slowly. It is not until after The God-Emperor of Dune that the real purpose of Leto II's actions is fully revealed. Paul froze in terror when he understood what must be done for Humanity to survive.

From Wikipedia:

"By monopolizing the only remaining supply of the spice and ending further production, Leto II became an unrivaled power in the Imperium. By keeping the Imperium stagnant and contained in a Golden Age, Leto set the stage for a severely difficult age, which would become known as the Famine Times. The stated goal of Leto's predator-aspect was to "teach humanity a lesson that they will remember in their bones". Leto sought to teach the human race through a bad example: by becoming the greatest predator, his goal was to immunize the race against overcentralization, which resulted in The Scattering."

Dr Brin, I've read the whole Uplift cycle three times now. Once in my native language, and twice in English. I'll do it again in a couple of years. And I yearn for more. It stands among the greatest worlds-of-ideas-building achievements, with Dune, Culture, Xeelee, Hyperion.

Frank Blisard said...

Dr. Brin: As a fellow Edgar Rice Burroughs fan, I’m curious what you make of the 2 recent films “John Carter” and “Legend of Tarzan”? Also, WHEN is someone going to attempt a serious (or fun), visually faithful film version of his “Pellucidar” cycle?