Focused Favorites: Films Based on Sci-Fi Shorts
FOCUSED FAVORITES is an ongoing taste of my personal favorites, narrowed down with a fine-tooth comb, into very specific categories and topics. Itâ€™s a way I can share some of my personal choices in film and hopefully introduce others to films they may not have otherwise seen or even heard of. Enjoy!
I love short fiction! Nothing personal against the novel. I’ve read a few myself and have my favorites, but nothing appeals to my personal philosophy of “less is more” than a well-written and concise short story. For anyone who has worked on a production of a 30-second TV commercial, you know that shorter does not necessarily mean easier. 30 seconds may not be much time, but you’ve still got to tell a story and have it make sense. Here lies the challenge. It’s generally more difficult to tell a great story in a very limited amount of words than it is in a novel with virtually no limitations on it’s length.
More to the point, I am especially attracted to science-fiction short stories, and there are an abundance, both good and bad. What there isn’t such an abundance of, and surprisingly so, are movies based on science-fiction short stories. Of the limited selection, many of them have called upon only a few very well-known authors as their source. In an attempt to raise some awareness of the existing films based of short form sci-fi and to possibly encourage a renewed interest, I am offering up my personal list of five favorite science-fiction films based on short stories.
5. TOTAL RECALL (1990) based on “WE CAN REMEMBER IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE” – by Phillip K. Dick
Paul Verhoeven has a perspective on filmmaking that I find most closely matched with William Castle. Some of you may be reading this and think I’m joking around, but the fact is, both filmmakers were able to make terribly entertaining films that are somehow both distinctly cheesy and classically brilliant. Their movies are fun and, despite the appearance of being schlock on the surface, both filmmakers took their craft very seriously.
With that said, TOTAL RECALL is not just one of my favorite Verhoeven films… I would have to go all in and say it IS my favorite. It also happens to be one of my favorite films based on a science-fiction short story. Of course, being adapted from a Phillip K. Dick writing makes for a great starting point. A great story is already there, so it then just comes down to developing a unique vision for the screen and Verhoeven certainly did that. He managed to squeeze literally everything he could out of Schwarzenegger during his prime, utilized the relatively middle-of-the-road state of special effects technology of the time to great effectiveness and created a sci-fi/action classic!
TOTAL RECALL is wild, almost over-the-top. A mutant resistance is struggling against an oppressive human authority om Mars, where a massive greedy corporation is perpetuating the divide between the have and have-nots. The story is dark and satirical in nature, poking sticks at our own contemporary cultural ways. The mutants are grotesque and believable. The effects are a strange combination of horror meets Tim Burton, splicing the morbid and obscene with the twisted and comical elements of design that make us laugh at something otherwise horrifying.
The movie features Sharon Stone, prior to her rise to fame, followed by her nose dive into virtual obscurity. To be honest, the real “quality” performances did not come from the film’s co-stars, but from the varied actors playing the supporting characters and bit-part mutants. TOTAL RECALL will blow you away, if seeing it for the first time, simply because it is so uniquely bizarre and entertaining. Nearing 20 years since it hit theaters, this one totally holds up to the test of time.
4. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008) based on “THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This is the most recent film on my little list. Based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald… you know, that guy that wrote that book THE GREAT GATSBY that we all reluctantly were forced to read in high school. And, if you aren’t part of this bitter crowd, then screw you! That book was boring! Anyway, I did enjoy this short story by the otherwise talented American writer and I enjoyed the movie even more.
Directed by David Fincher, and let me tell you… I love David Fincher, the movie does an amazing job of recreating the life and experience of the fictional title character, played brilliantly by Brad Pitt. Yes, I did just use “brilliant” and Brad Pitt in the same sentence. So, what? You gotta give credit where credit is due. Many felt Pitt received his praise on the shoulders of the make-up, but I feel this robs him of the truth in his performance. The make-up isn’t a crutch in this case, but instead was a tool he managed to utilize and strengthen his performance. Next time you want to go bad-mouthing someone for a good performance in make-up, try doing it yourself. It’s that much more difficult to convey the subtle nuances of the human experience in one’s face when it’s caked thick with latex.
While Button obviously never existed, his life weaves adventurously through several key moments and events in history that did actually happen. This movie has it all, true love (if that exists), lost love and reunited love… a veritable romantic triple crown, as well as something for the war and history buffs out there. When you think about it, this is TITANIC for the guys but still appeals to the gals. Following Button’s journey of life in reverse, and to some extent learning life’s lessons in reverse as well, is eye-opening and thoughtful. Button’s story is both miraculous and tragic. It feels similar to the idea of a vampire having great power but stricken with everlasting loneliness as a result of his immortality. Button wants to have a meaningful relationship like anyone else, but this is difficult when the girls your age look their age and you look like their grandpa. Truly tragic!
This is an epic story, but doesn’t exactly flow like an epic on screen. I thought the movie was an awe-inspiring masterpiece, and despite a subtle sense of lacking just enough emotional commitment, the film nearly achieves a hole-in-one. This is not a science-fiction story that falls into the popular style of the genre, but the thematic elements are there. It’s a bizarre twist on the age-old time travel theme, but presents itself in a more intimate manner that delves into social commentary. What’s NOT sci-fi about a human being born as a wrinkly, crippled old man who progressively gets younger as he ages? Yeah, wrap your head around that one, will ya? Fincher’s vision tackles the logistical issues of portraying this on screen with great success, developing special effects that are appropriately just enough and blends them in with some utterly amazing cinematography.
3. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) based on “FAREWELL TO THE MASTER” by Harry Bates
If you’ve never sat down in front of an old science-fiction film from the 50’s or 60’s and really watched the film with an open mind and a sense of curiosity and wonder that goes hand-in-hand with the genre, then you’ve never really experienced this era of sci-fi filmmaking. It’s all too easy to laugh and point fingers and mock these films, but many of them really aren’t as bad as they have been labeled by the general viewing public. Your average film historian and critic would never go so far as to call THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL a “bad’ movie. Likewise, I believe this could very well be considered one of the most important and socially relevant films of all-time.
While some may feel the original movie is dated, and newer generations may have been introduced to the story through a far inferior remake, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL remains one of my all-time favorite science-fiction classics. Harry Bates’ short story is probably not a household name to most people, but the relatively obscure piece of writing spawned an adaptation into the 1951 film that brought the writerâ€™s message to masses of moviegoers. That message can be interpreted in various ways, but essentially it’s a cautionary tale of human ingenuity and the consequences of blindly pursuing technology we barely understand.
Indirectly, the THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is a warning against nuclear weapons, whereas the remake deals more with an environmental approach. More directly, the film paints in broader strokes the idea that the human race is growing to violent and, if we intend to survive, we will need to change our ways. Klaatu, the humanoid alien visitor, has every intention to help the human race, but when the very violent nature of which we are being warned takes hold, triggered by fear and ignorance. Surrounded by the military, Klaatu is shot by a nervous soldier, sending Gort on a protective rampage until Klaatu is able to voice those magically classic wordsâ€¦ â€œKlaatu barada nikto.â€
The indestructible guardian robot Gort from the classic film, in all his complex simplicity, remains a mainstay in the minds of science-film devotees. Sure, some of the dialogue and even the acting can legitimately be labeled as “dated” but, if you allow yourself to look past that, even embrace that (and this goes for many classic films) then, you may just find that the film holds up over time better than you think. If you haven’t seen the original 1951 film, and especially if you’ve only seen the remake, you really should do yourself a favor and give this classic a respectful viewing.
2. ENEMY MINE (1985) based on “ENEMY MINE” by Barry B. Longyear
Circa 1985. One of the lost and often forgotten gems of science-fiction cinema. Directed by Wolfgang Peterson and based on a short story by an even lesser-known writer to the masses, it’s one of the coolest sci-fi stories to be adapted. ENEMY MINE is awesome not because of special effects, which it has but are relatively minimal aside from set and prop design, but it’s because it’s primarily a dialogue-driven story.
Dennis Quaid plays Willis, a head-strong fighter pilot in deep space, engaged in a long and brutal war with the Dracs. The Dracs are an alien race of vaguely reptilian humanoids. During a cosmic dog fight in which Willis manages to damage a Drac fighter, forcing it to crash land on a desolate nearby planet, he opts to follow the craft to make sure his enemy parishes. Not a smart move, as this results in his craft crashing as well. Now stranded on this rugged and harsh space rock, his anger and hatred manifests itself is a pursuit to locate the downed Drac fighter and finish the job.
Shortly after catching up with the Drac, played by Louis Gossett, Jr., Willis and “Jerry” (a name given him by Willis) comes to terms with the fact they are both stranded on this planet and must work together to survive. Eventually becoming friends through hardship and loneliness, Willis discovers that Jerry is with child. The male of the Drac species bares the children, but pays the ultimate price upon delivery. Now, Willis finds himself raising a Drac child by himself on a distant and dangerous planet. What results is a great story of a man redeeming himself through the child of his former enemy, changing the way Willis looks at the war and the Drac species as a whole.
Given that Peterson is best-known for his big budget, epic cinematic endeavors such as TROY, water-based adventures like THE PERFECT STORM and POSEIDON, and action/thrillers like AIR FORCE ONE and OUTBREAK, he did a wonderful job with this story, translating the experience onto film in a way the audience can share the hypothetical scenario vicariously through Dennis Quaid’s performance. It’s not often a science-fiction story can be called touching and emotional, but this one sort fits that mold. Willis and Jerry share moments, build trust, have fights, depend on each other… all the things we experience with our best of friends in real life. ENEMY MINE is a kind of futuristic reconciliation story, a metaphor for overcoming racial barriers… that takes place in space.
1. A BOY AND HIS DOG (1975) based on “A BOY AND HIS DOG” by Harlan Ellison
If you wanna talk cult classics with me, don’t even bother until you’ve seen A BOY AND HIS DOG. Granted, it can be a little tough to find, but it’s mandatory viewing for anyone interested in the genre of bizarre films. Based on the story by the legendary, multi-award-winning short fiction writer Harlan Ellison, this movie was directed by LQ Jones. Haven’t heard of him? Well, that doesn’t surprise me. This was his second (and last) film as a director, but is an experienced character actor with a LONG list of credits and a personal favorite of Sam Peckinpah’s.
So, what is A BOY AND HIS DOG? On the surface, the title says it all. Here’s a blast from the past… Don Johnson plays Vic, a young man just trying to survive on the dead and barren surface of post-apocalyptic Earth. He roams across the desert surface with his mangy dog named Blood, who communicates telepathically with Vic and has a nose for locating human females… a trait highly sought-after by the male species. Blood finds this work demeaning, but does it for his master and friend Vic.
Blood is significantly smarter than Vic, but Vic provides for Blood. It’s basically a classic man’s best friend relationship. The hitch is that the surface of the planet is a dangerous place. Mad Max style dangerous. One day, Vic and Blood stumble upon an especially attractive female, but this is one dame Vic will ave wished he hadn’t chased. Vic discovers the secret to the underground civilization that exists beneath the free but lawless surface. With the men of their society sterile, the women need strong, healthy men from the surface to “assist” them in preserving the species. Vic finds out the hard way that the concept is far less rewarding than he had originally imagined and must now find a way to escape becoming an enslaved prisoner of sexless procreation.
The surface portions of the story offer enjoyable nomadic adventures of Vic and Blood, always mired in one-sided ethical and moral banter, seeking out food and shelter (and women) while avoiding the ruthless types that pepper the terrain. The underground society however, is far more disturbing. The girls are beautiful but uninterested in sex for fun. The men and women dress like Amish mimes with their faces painted white, completely distorted in their new beliefs. Often called a “kinky tale of survival” the movie is humorous and even so bizarre at points to produce unintended laughter, but is a great flick to enjoy late at night with other fans of cult cinema.
Hopeless film enthusiast; reborn comic book geek; artist; collector; cookie connoisseur; curious to no end