In honour of Star Wars month here at GateCrashers, this month’s theme for Reagan’s Recs is Science-Fiction.
Science-Fiction is one of my favourite genres and it has been for a very long time. For just about as long as I can remember I’ve always loved everything from B-movies to more horror-leaning stories to science-fantasy epics. Star Wars and Star Trek have long been staples of my life but they aren’t the only pieces of Science-Fiction that I love nor are they the pieces that have been in my life the longest.
That honour instead belongs to Godzilla (1998), the first movie I ever saw and to date, the only movie that has ever caused me to get so upset about it that I’ve given myself a tension headache while talking about it (true story).
Most of the movies or franchises I mentioned (with one very big exception) aren’t part of this list. Instead, I chose to focus mostly on stand-alone features ranging from the 1950s all the way up to 2019. This list went through several variations, some of the movies I wanted to include earlier didn’t make the cut not because I didn’t feel they deserved it, but because I didn’t feel I could do my love for them justice in the way I was writing about them. Others that did make the cut felt so necessary to include that I just had to. One in particular (the second-to-last one) struck me as perhaps the most necessary inclusion to this list.
Rather than prattle on for even longer than I already have, I’ll let everyone move on to what they’re actually here for; the recs.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), dir. Robert Wise, United States
Perhaps my favourite science-fiction film ever; The Day the Earth Stood Still is a cold war-era film about an alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) who travels to earth with a message: “change or be destroyed”.
Directed by Robert Wise who would later go on to direct Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Day the Earth Stood Still is, at its core, hopeful sci-fi. Klaatu doesn’t come to Earth with only the intention to destroy it, he comes with the intention of help.
Hopeful sci-fi is my favourite sci-fi, I was raised on Trek, why would I want a story that says that humanity is doomed, that there’s no hope for us.
Treasure Planet (2002), dir. Rob Clements, John Musker, United States
Treasure Planet slaps, it just does. Look me in the eyes and try to deny the fact that this is a good movie. It’s Treasure Island in space! There’s some dad stuff! What’s not to love? (I admit that these two points are very specific to me and my tastes.)
This movie understands two things: pirates are cool and space is awesome, it also understands that the best way to improve on both of those concepts is by combining them.
But it isn’t what’s on screen so much as the story behind the production that really stands out to me. For decades, Treasure Planet was Rob Clement and John Musker’s passion project. First pitched in 1985 at the same time as The Little Mermaid only to be rejected because Michael Eisner was aware of a Star Trek film with a similar approach that was in production at Paramount (as evidenced by the fact that no such film exists, it eventually went unproduced) In 1989, following the release of The Little Mermaid Musker and Clements pitched it a second time with Disney still uninterested in the idea. Following the release of Aladdin, the duo pitched Treasure Planet for a third time only for Jeffrey Katzenberg to reject it. Eventually, they brought the idea straight to Roy E. Disney himself who backed the idea and made his wishes known to Eisner who finally agreed to produce Treasure Planet. Following the completion of Hercules, production on Treasure Planet finally began with principal animation beginning in 2000.
Treasure Planet is very different from Musker and Clement’s other projects in that it isn’t a musical. Instead, the film makes use of an orchestral score and two songs by John Rzeznik of The Goo Goo Dolls (“I’m Still Here” and “Always Know Where You Are”). That isn’t to say that the songs aren’t as good as the songs in say The Little Mermaid or Hercules, I included a link to “I’m Still Here” for a reason after all.
I could say so much more about this but I’ve already said so much so instead, I’ll leave you with this: Treasure Planet has heart and it has it in spades.
Annihilation (2018), dir. Alex Garland, United States
Based on the book by James VanderMeer, Annihilation is about a group of women who enter a quarantined zone known as The Shimmer that is full of flora and fauna that has been mutated by an alien entity.
Cosmic horror (which is what Annihilation is, let’s face it) is woefully difficult to get just right. But when it’s done right it’s great. Annihilation does it right and it does so (quite literally) beautifully. The events unfolding onscreen are horrifying and yet still, they’re beautiful. It’s eco-horror that pays painstaking attention to making the horror as gorgeous as possible. An entire world in the form of a carnivorous plant, drawing its victims in and invading them, making them part of it. It’s horrific. It’s awesome in the most traditional sense of the word. It’s beautiful.
And yet the true beauty of Annihilation lies not in the visuals. Instead, the true beauty of this film comes from the fact that everyone who sees it seems to come away from it with a different idea of what it’s about; to some, it’s ano-cancer, to others it’s about how relationships change us on a fundamental level, and even still others see it as addressing humanity’s leaning towards self-destruction. I prefer the second explanation myself, the idea that loving someone is something that you don’t come out of unscathed regardless of how things turn out is something that’s really struck me from the moment I first heard that interpretation. The idea that love is a powerful enough force to change our very beings is both beautiful and terrifying; just like the movie.
The Vast of Night (2019), dir. Andrew Patterson, United States
(CW: The Vast of Night contains a fictionalized reference to the United States government employing minorities — in this case, Black men and Mexican men — to work hazardous jobs, with one of the characters remarking on whether or not those people were chosen on purpose and several instances of period-typical use of the term “Indian” in reference to First Nations people.)
The Vast of Night is one of those rare debut features that knocks your socks off. Made on a budget of $700,000, Vast of Night makes up for lack of funds with clever tricks and snappy dialogue. The movie, which is framed as a Twilight Zone type of story is a simple, quiet, 1950s science-fiction story about two teens in a small New Mexico town.
While both of the lead actors are incredible, the real star is the cinematography. With an overabundance of the technique in recent years, it takes a lot for a long take to be impressive but somehow, someway, cinematographer M. I. Littin-Menz makes his standout amongst the crowd. The four-minute, fifteen-second shot takes us from the switchboard to the radio station where Everett (Jake Horowitz) works, along the way showing us just how small this town is. It’s both a show of brilliance on the end director Andrew Patterson and Littin-Menz and a clever way to get us oriented.
Aside from that long take, one of the other standout scenes is the scene where Fay (Sierra McCormick) is running the switchboard. It’s one of a few scenes that allows the movie to introduce the idea of an alien invasion through the calls that Fay is listening in on and the strange frequency she hears over the radio and as she listens in on calls.
The Vast of Night is brilliant both as a debut and as a vintage-flavoured science-fiction story that feels reminiscent both of the radio dramas I used to listen to on long car drives and the AM radio shows I would turn on when I was bored and couldn’t sleep late at night.
Star Trek: Beyond (2016), dir. Justin Lin, United States
Star Trek: Beyond has one of the best needle drops in the history of cinema and I will fight you on that.
The most important thing about this movie is that it’s fun. After all, a key moment is set to the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”
Star Trek is about space exploration, yes, but it’s also about hope. The world of Star Trek is a world that says “we are going to be ok.” This is a world in which humanity has come together for the greater good. It’s a world where space exploration can be for anyone, not just the ultra-wealthy. It’s a world I’ve wanted all my life, one that seems less likely as each day passes. The world outside is harsh, but Star Trek, in many of its forms, argues that that harshness will not be forever. It’s a kind of hope that at times feels useless.
But the thing about hope (or at least the thing I believe about hope, relentless optimist that I am) is that it’s a form of rebellion. To see darkness on the horizon and to still refuse to give up and accept that darkness as inevitable is, on the one hand, stupid. But at the same time, who are rebels if not those who saw the worst was to come and yet still refused to give in, refused to accept that hope is worthless.