8 underrated, underseen science fiction films

You're guaranteed to live long and prosper if you see these films – and get all the  references, too. Photo: Supplied

You're guaranteed to live long and prosper if you see these films – and get all the references, too. Photo: Supplied

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opened this week, and it’s a spectacular, silly film that is going to be a great time at the movies for anyone who sees it. The problem, as its overseas box-office performance has shown, is that not too many people actually turned up to the cinema. Consider this your encouragement to do just that, and a reminder to watch (or rewatch) some of these underseen, underrated sci-fi gems.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

It’s somehow been 20 years since The Fifth Element was released, and this is Luc Besson’s best film since that bona-fide classic. Valerian is magnificently bonkers – it’s a smorgasbord of invention, with amazing costume and creature designs and some truly inspired action. (The opening set piece, a heist and a chase that occurs simultaneously across two dimensions, is a highlight.) Cara Delevingne is excellent in this, smart and spry and continually arresting; Dane DeHaan is, well, not. Still, Valerian’s biggest failing is that it dreams too big; there is so much going on that it can feel overstuffed at times, but that’s only because it’s a labour of love. – Hari Raj

Strange Days

These days director Kathryn Bigelow is one of the most respected filmmakers in Hollywood. No thanks to this 1995 near-future thriller starring Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett, which was a critical and box office disaster. On release, the end-of-the-century setting seemed a little far-fetched. Two decades later, the film feels positively topical, as VR edges ever closer to verisimilitude and America edges ever closer to the violent dystopia shown here. The ending is a little messy, but this is a visceral, compelling thriller with bold ideas and a fantastic pair of lead actors. Catch it at MIFF as part of their Science Fiction program. – Myke Bartlett

The Fountain

Darren Aronofsky’s opus is a meditation on mortality that is all too rare in Western cinema; one that doesn’t rage against the dying of the light, but accepts that there are other worlds than these. The Fountain takes place across three timelines – the present day, the Spanish Inquisition, and in the far future – but its emotional core is simple and lovely, anchored by astonishing performances from Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman. It’s a film that tells us acceptance can be more courageous than resistance, that change is as important as it is hard, and that there can be no new beginnings without endings. It is wonderful. – HR

John Carter

This adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s pulp novels took more than 80 years to reach the big screen, with a cartoon first mooted in 1931. Worth the wait? No. The result was a massive flop, panned by critics and losing Disney around $200 million. Much of the problem lies in the fact Star Wars stole most of John Carter’s best ideas while the rights were mouldering on a studio shelf. At times the CG sequences set on the planet of Barsoom (that’s Mars to we Earthlings) inadvertently recall the god-awful prequels, but John Carter has a tremendous sense of fun and high adventure that those films lack. – MB

Cloud Atlas

This collaboration between the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer is one of the most criminally underseen films of this century. There are six threads to follow over some 600 years, with the likes of Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Tom Hanks and Doona Bae playing multiple roles, multiple genders and multiple races. You could look it as some sort of karmic Brownian movement, souls bouncing off each other in seemingly random directions across the aeons. Or you could see it as a story of how love and kindness and violence and inspiration echo through the ages, how we affect each other in ways we may never know. Cloud Atlas isn’t just a great movie, it’s why we have movies. – HR

Alien 3

While this sequel to Aliens did okay at the box office back in 1992, critics and viewers alike were biting. Director David Fincher went so far as to disown the film, citing studio interference. It’s certainly a gloomier, sparser affair than the guns-blazing action adventure that preceded it, dropping Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley into a grubby, all-male prison populated by top-shelf British actors. Still, it recalls the claustrophobic horror of the original Alien much better than any of the other sequels. A “director’s cut” released on DVD is a definite improvement, but the original version looks like a masterpiece now compared with Prometheus. – MB


This is one of those films that you can tell the studio had no idea how to market; it’s simultaneously a meta high-school satire, a slasher film, a time-travel adventure, and more besides. It is also completely and consistently crazy, in the very best way, flying over some plot points and doubling down on some until you have no idea what to expect next. This is pop culture frenzied and fermented, doled out in a delicious, delirious overdose. – HR


Arriving at the tail end of Star Wars mania, this 1983 British-American sci-fi/fantasy mash up pits laser guns and aliens against swords and sorcery. Sadly, nobody went to see it. These days, it’s one of those films by which geeky children of the’80s identify one of their own. The eponymous fairytale planet is invaded by the Beast, who kills the king and queen and kidnaps a princess. Can Prince Colwyn, armed only with a really cool blade thing, rescue her? Liam Neeson makes an early screen appearance as one of the prince’s band. The effects look a bit shaky and the script is on the nose, but this hokeyness just adds to Krull’s charm. – MB



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