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Science Fiction for the Advanced Viewer

The literature of science fiction is vivid in imagery, rich in depth and expansive in scope. Hollywood, however, has by and large failed to mine this prosperous ore and instead chosen to force feed us aliens in rubber suits and time travel flotsam. Below are three science fiction films of real merit that slipped through the cracks, and one that may have changed the whole game.


This film, released in 1974, was written and directed by the underrated minor genius of film, John Boorman who, also directed such singular films as Point Blank, Excalibur and Deliverance. It stars Burt Renoylds as a mankini-clad noble savage slash savior of the species figure, in a world that is governed by simulated Gods, controlled by an immortal and elite caste of super-humans. Some argue that this film borders on kitch, but if you take it seriously, it's serious as a heart attack. Best experienced rather than "watched," and if you do so you'll be rewarded with a startling and almost telepathic communion with a new mode of being.

Phase IV

Also released in 1974, this film, directed by celebrated title designer Saul Bellow, was sadly his only feature film. A novel re-imagining of the sci-fi/horror classic, "Them," Phase IV is told through grotesque macroscopic photography of real, living ants. After the Earth is irradiated by an obscure cosmic event, ants across the globe rapidly evolve a complex hive mind and become a sentient enemy to humanity. Two scientists sequester themselves in a technological metal placenta in the desert to study the ants, perhaps to open up a dialogue, perhaps to initiate a war. Things go awry in the hot sun and the battle for humanity is begun. Ham-fisted and braying acting by lead principle Nigel Davenport give this film a charming "otherness."

Altered States

Based on Paddy Chayesvsky's novel of the same name, this film, improbably released in 1980, follows a John Lilly type character -- played by a bizarre William Hurt -- as he investigates the nature of the mind through personal experiments with isolation tanks and major hallucinogens. It's Faust on acid. The denseness of its dialogue, recited manically but with automata-like detachment, lends the film a Hollywood naivete both bewildering and unconsciously avant garde.


Shane Carruth's 2004 brilliant mind-bender clocks in at 77 minutes, but time is a flighty issue in this masterful first work. Time travel is the most abused of sf conventions, but Carruth, formerly a mathematician and an engineer, infused his film with a stunning clarity, scientific depth, novel filmmaking and an eye for real human relationships. Some have written the film off as being overly cerebral and an insoluble puzzle but its full of heart, even if its buried deep within. No expository dialogue or background, the film, like truth itself, exists just slightly out of our reach -- sometimes we grasp parts of it for ephemeral moments, but mostly its elusive. Many will hate this film, or compare it to Memento and so forth, but its of a different order for a select few.


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