March 1, 2021

A Confident Horror Debut Rooted in Jewish Culture


“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by some of the imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.

Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles below (all presently streaming on Netflix) have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson

The Endless

10. The Endless (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, 2017)

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless first shows the appeal of commune living—everyone eats healthy, follows their blisses, and drinks copious craft beer—so that it’s all the more unnerving when the amiable façade falls away. Throughout, there are plenty of hints that something’s up, and the filmmakers excel at crafting an unsettling atmosphere through images of multiple moons in the sky, the daylight that flickers to full-on night and back again, the flocks of birds flying in ring formations, and the fired bullets that are flattened as if by a force field of invisible brick. The Sacrament recalls Adolfo Bioy Casares’s 1940 novel The Invention of Morel (and the Emidio Greco’s 1974 film adaptation starring Anna Karina), in which a scientist records what’s meant to be a perfect weekend on a remote island, then projects it three-dimensionally on an infinite loop atop the locations where it unfolded—a vision of what cinema (and home movies) could be if untethered from the screen. But here, the characters aren’t recordings, and they’re at least partially conscious of their imprisonment, consigned to live out the same events in perpetuity. As such, knotty, unlikely philosophical issues are raised, and if there’s any disappointment here, it’s that the film settles into Spielbergian Hollywood clichés about how divided families come back together. Henry Stewart

Snowpiercer

9. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-hoo, 2014)

Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer is an angry and bleak film, as well as an old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes genre entry concerned with passé niceties such as atmosphere and spatial coherence. The premise also has an inviting bluntness: A few years into the future, global warming slips out of control, and humankind inadvertently initiates an ice age in its attempt to correct it. Soon after, all that remains of humanity are the passengers of an ultra-equipped, self-sustaining train that suggests Noah’s Arc as a speeding elevated bullet. Having predictably learned nothing from their travails, the train’s passengers quickly assume the flawed social structure of the first world that’s recently ended, with the entitled haves exploiting the enraged have-nots. The film is most notable for its evolving visual concept: Each car takes one closer to a representation of the world as it presently works. The first few cars are rendered in the distancing apocalyptic hobo ax-and-sword aesthetic that’s been a cinema standard since at least the Mad Max films. But the latter cars are lit in expressionistically beautiful club-rave rainbow colors that reflect the escalating social privilege of a lost generation. Chuck Bowen

Elizabeth Harvest

8. Elizabeth Harvest (Sebastian Gutierrez, 2018)

The plot convolutions of Elizabeth Harvest conjoin with director Sebastian Gutierrez’s stylistic bravura—blasts of red and blue in Cale Finot’s cinematography that connote a spiritual as well as physical sense of ultraviolence—to create an incestuous atmosphere that’s reminiscent of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Henry is a memorable monster, played by Ciarán Hinds with a bravura mixture of smug entitlement and oily needfulness that’s weirdly and unexpectedly poignant. In one of the greatest mad-scientist speeches ever delivered by a character in a horror film, Henry explains that his cloned wife (Abbey Lee) is only real to him when he destroys her. This admission chillingly crystallizes the thin line, within the male gaze, between adoration and contempt. Bowen

Safety Not Guaranteed

7. Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, 2012)

More focused on emotion than adventure, Safety Not Guaranteed teases out the possibilities and perils of time travel without embroiling itself in the confusion inherent to the subject. It also avoids most of the usual sci-fi clichés, with a suburban mad scientist who’s part man child, part Morel, using his invention as a means to heal adolescent scars. Played by Mark Duplass with just the right mixture of oblivious eccentricity and simmering hurt, the deft handling of this potentially ridiculous character is one of the many nice touches in this surprisingly poignant comedy. The film’s ending does seem to conflict sharply with its “you can’t go back” message, with the sudden appearance of special effects signaling an abandonment of the emotional and narrative verisimilitude exhibited so far. But it’s easy to excuse the film for going for the happy ending, considering how balanced it’s been up to this point, crafting characters that aren’t defined solely by silliness or sentimentality. Jesse Cataldo

Hardcore Henry

6. Hardcore Henry (Ilya Naishuller, 2015)

The film’s first-person perspective is so ingeniously sustained throughout the lean 96-minute running time that you’re liable to swat at your face when a man covered in steel and wielding a flamethrower sets Henry (Andrey Dementyev) on fire, or hold on to the edge of your seat when he battles the telekinetic warlord Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) atop a skyscraper from which a free fall seems inevitable. The film’s singular ambition is to immerse the viewer in the thick of a frenzied drive toward the promise of a lover’s touch and a few more minutes of life. Our aesthetic perception is linked to our perception of Henry himself, so that the film becomes a study of empathy through aesthetics. It’s not for nothing that Henry is made to have no voice, as Hardcore Henry’s unbelievably precise choreography of action seeks to tap into a universal feeling of powerlessness. Ed Gonzalez

Midnight Special

5. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016)

With Mud and Take Shelter, writer-director Jeff Nichols has already used withholding narratives to weave distinctly Southern tales about fringe believers, survivalists who could also be seen as evangelists. Nichols was forthright about the motives of his protagonists, but cagey about whether their causes were worth believing in. Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) is another in Nichols’s lineage of would-be prophets, but no one here doubts the world-changing potential of the child’s visions. If in Midnight Special is, at its heart, a work of science fiction, it rolls out like a chase film. With the help of his childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Alton’s father, Roy (Michael Shannon), has kidnapped the child from captivity at a compound run by a Branch Davidian-like cult that once counted Roy as a member. Given its twilit suburban adventures and encroaching security forces, the story exudes a superficially classical sensibility, recalling Starman and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Nichols has an easy mastery of pacing and tension, employing a churning sound design (and a pulsing score by David Wingo) that allows moments of occasionally bloody action to arrive with a frightening blast or a deep, quaking rumble of bass, and the film moves with purpose to its final destination. Christopher Gray

Mad Max

4. Mad Max (George Miller, 1979)

The Mad Max trilogy is the work of a talented virtuoso who blended seemingly every trope of every movie genre into a series of punk-rock action films. The plots, which are nearly irrelevant, are always similarly primitive even by the standards of low-budget genre films: In a bombed-out future version of the outback, a vicious gang pisses off a brilliant highway daredevil, Max (Mel Gibson), and stunning vehicular mayhem ensues. Though the second film, most commonly known in America as The Road Warrior, is often cited as the masterpiece of the series, the original Mad Max is still the most ferocious and subversive. The 1979 film most explicitly riffs on delinquent racing movies and the kinds of crudely effective 1970s horror movies that would sometimes show a family being violated in a prolonged fashion, and there are sequences in Mad Max that could be edited, probably with few seams, into, say, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Mad Max also has a distinctly Australian masculine tension that’s reminiscent of other outback-set classics such as Wake in Fright, as it’s concerned with the pronounced sexual repression and frustration of a predominantly male population that’s all dressed up in tight leather with little to do apart from mounting their bikes and revving up their big noisy engines. Bowen

The End of Evangelion

3. The End of Evangelion (Hideaki Anno, 1997)

When Hideaki Anno ended Neon Genesis Evangelion, his elaborate analogy for his own untreated depression, with a moment of calming, redemptive group therapy, the backlash he received from fans who wanted a cataclysmic climax was overwhelming. In response, Anno crafted this theatrical alternate ending, in which he brutally and unsparingly gave fans all the nihilistic chaos they could ever want. If the anime series’s finale was a psychological breakthrough, End of Evangelion is the relapse, an implosion of self-annihilating revulsion and anger rendered in cosmic terms. Religious, sci-fi, and psychosexual imagery intersect in chaotic, kaleidoscopic visions of personal and global hell, all passing through the shattered mind of the show’s child soldier protagonist. Its finale is the most fully annihilative visualization of the Rapture ever put to screen, a mass death rendered as cathartic release from the hell of existence that, in a parting act of cruelty, leaves the broken, suicidal protagonist alive to bear witness to oblivion. Jake Cole

A Clockwork Orange

2. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is about uninspired moral negligence, and about its hero tuning into violence as entertainment and institutions using violence and brainwashing as a means of control. It’s Kubrick’s most prescient work, more astute and unsparing than any of his other films (and he had more where that came from) in putting the bleakest parts of human behavior under the microscope and laughing in disgust. It was made right after his other high watermark, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as he returns to Earth from his mind-blowing brush with the cosmic, it’s a sort of sequel about our planet rotting away from the inside. As a drunk says to Alex (Malcolm McDowell) right before taking a vicious beating: “I don’t want to live anyway! Not in a stinking world like this! Men on the moon and men spinning around the Earth, and no attention paid to earthly law and order no more!” One could say this was ripped straight from the headlines, only nowadays one could argue there’s no attention paid to anything, be it outer space or earthly matters, just an endless feeding to audiences who have developed a voracious taste for, as Alex would say, “the [good] old ultra-violence.” Jeremiah Kipp

Total Recall

1. Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)

An imaginative expansion of the brisk Philip K. Dick short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” this film about fake memories and a real interplanetary crisis now stands redolent with nostalgia, both for its time, as well as for itself. Beneath its show of smoke and mirrors, mercenary babes, and treacherous holograms, Total Recall is a story about a man who must choose between two possible, contradictory realities. In one timeline, he’s an earthbound schmuck; in the far less likely one, he’s a hero who must save an oppressed people on a faraway planet. He can’t afford to waver, but it’s our privilege to do so. As viewers, we’re welcome to consider the persistent motif of walls collapsing, subterfuges dissolving, and rugs being pulled out from still more rugs. The film now exists in a twilight of an era in which factory-produced entertainment could still serve as a keyhole into a dimension of weird, through which we might glimpse the otherworldly, and contemplate fondling the third breast. Jaime Christley



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