Anne E. Johnson Tag

5 Great “Road” Movies

5 Great "Road" Movies

The Straight Story

It’s no secret that road-trip movies are usually metaphors for the characters’ inward journeys, but that doesn’t make them any less entertaining. Road trips are particularly well suited to American filmmaking, thanks to the vastness of the North American continent and the highway system that transects it. With all those thousands of miles available, there’s no story that can’t be told. The following examples represent a collection of human types as various as the regions they travel and the vehicles they travel in.

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006)

If any movie can be described as dark and light at the same time, it’s this one. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Little Miss Sunshine is a comedic gem with a bitingly funny script by Michael Arndt.

 

Olive (the wide-eyed, adorable Abigail Breslin) is an average-looking but unusually determined seven-year-old girl. She’s been training for the Little Miss Sunshine competition, coached by her foul-mouthed grandfather (Alan Arkin is the 

5 Great "Road" Movies

embodiment of a man powered by pure sarcasm). Her exhausted, underappreciated mom (Toni Collette) convinces her hypercritical dad (Greg Kinnear) to drive the family from Arizona to California for the contest.

 

Along for the ride are Olive’s angsty teen brother 

(Paul Dano), who’s stopped speaking in honor of Friedrich Nietzsche, and her gay uncle (Steve Carell), a Proust scholar who’s fresh out of the hospital after trying to off himself over a failed love affair. The script’s best moments happen in the van on the highway as this crazy bunch of characters spar with each other.

 

Little Miss Sunshine may be about the ultimate dysfunctional family, but the movie is underpinned by such intense love that the joy outweighs the black humor in the end.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999)

Family is also the driving force behind The Straight Story, and this time the journey moves from darkness into light. But don’t expect the revelations to announce themselves in Hollywood fashion. This movie takes its pace from the people and landscape of the rural Midwest—long, slow, patient, inevitable. While it might be a surprising piece of work to come from David Lynch, it’s one of his best films. The screenplay, based on a true story, is by John Roach and Mary Sweeney, who also edited the movie.

Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), an elderly Iowa man, learns that his estranged brother (Harry Dean Stanton) has had a stroke. With his eyesight too poor to drive, and no available bus service, Alvin hitches a trailer to a 30-year-old John Deere riding lawn mower and sets out toward Wisconsin to heal the rift with his brother 

while he still can. The story is told through Straight’s interactions with strangers along the way, as he quietly doles out wisdom and humbly accepts small kindnesses. Sissy Spacek is wonderful as his special-needs daughter who holds down the home front while he’s away.

 

Profound but never preachy, the script is often very funny and the visuals rewarding. Rich green farmland melts into gray autumn sky, forming a continuous backdrop, the work of Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis.     A / G / I / V

 

 

AMERICAN HONEY (2016)

Family doesn’t always mean blood relations, but chosen families can be just as challenging as biological ones. That’s one of the themes of American Honey, the ruthlessly hyper-realistic road movie written and directed by Andrea Arnold.

A young woman named Star (Sasha Lane) is stuck in poverty and an abusive relationship, so she doesn’t need much convincing when slick-talking Jake (Shia LaBeouf) tells her he can get her a job selling magazines in Kansas. She joins up with his band of scarred and scared people all seeking some strand to hold onto in life. The van they travel in acts as a protective chamber, letting them be their true selves in safety. Whenever the van stops and its inhabitants have to venture out, we see the “normal” world through their eyes, as a harsh, hostile place that can’t adapt to accept outsiders.

 

As the team’s leader, Riley Keough is an unsettling combination of maternal and cold. Arnold is careful to

Where to See Some Road Movies

Little Miss Sunshine, American Honey, and My Own Private Idaho are available on all of the non-subscription streaming services as well as Kaleidescape. You won’t find The Straight Story on YouTube or Kaleidescape, and Transamerica isn’t on Kaleidescape.

 

A = Amazon Prime / G = Google Play
I = iTunes / K = Kaleidescape
V = Vudu / 
Y = YouTube

avoid stereotypes among the troubled young people, focusing on specifics that make them individuals. A standout is Arielle Holmes, who plays Pagan, a tiny, delicate woman obsessed with Darth Vader because she understands the darkness he represents.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

TRANSAMERICA (2005)

While it’s not as original in its structure as any of the previously mentioned films, Transamerica is groundbreaking for its subject matter. A trans woman in L.A., only one week from her transition surgery, is amazed to discover that she has a 17-year-old son in New York. He’s in jail with no one to help him. She shows up, bails him out, and offers to drive him to California. But she neglects to mention that she’s his dad.

 

The script by director Duncan Tucker, while satisfyingly emotional and hilarious, uses the road-trip trope in predictable ways to develop, destroy, and rebuild the main characters’ relationship. Still, the issue of a young person discovering his parent is trans is new enough to cinema that it’s well worth exploring. Felicity Huffman is completely convincing as Bree, the trans woman, even if activists at the time were disappointed that a trans actor was not cast in the role. As her son Toby, Kevin Zegers hits the right range of teen overconfidence, rage, and sexual confusion. Graham Greene makes a wonderful cameo appearance as a good Samaritan who helps and befriends them as they pass through Texas.     A / G / I V / Y 

5 Great "Road" Movies

MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991)

Most road trip movies are about completing a journey; My Own Private Idaho is about how we are stuck being whoever we are, no matter how far we travel. River Phoenix is Mike, a homeless narcoleptic who turns tricks to scrape together a living. Keanu Reeves is Scott, heir to a fortune, who turns tricks because it amuses him to dabble “in the life” until he inherits his money.

 

Mike is in love with Scott; Scott acts like Mike’s friend—he even drags him to safety when his narcolepsy strikes, over and over—but friendship has no meaning to him. Their ragtag band of misfits is lorded over by Bob Pigeon (William Richert), aka Fat Bob, who is their Falstaff. Just so you don’t miss that allusion, writer/director Gus Van Sant wrote Bob’s scenes in iambic pentameter.

 

As for the road-trip element—well, there’s definitely a road. The movie begins with an endless black highway cutting through the flatness of Idaho (cinematographer John J. Campbell captured some breathtaking vistas). Mike stands on the shoulder, with no car in sight. This film is largely about what isn’t there. As Mike and Scott travel around—to Seattle, Portland, Idaho, even to Rome—it doesn’t matter how they got there. The places have roads between them, but just like Mike’s narcoleptic experience of the world, much of their surreal journey is riddled with blank spots. Even if you know what road you’re on, you might still be lost.      A / G / IKV / Y

Anne E. Johnson 

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. Her music journalism appears
regularly in
Copper Magazine, Classical Voice North America, and Stereophile. She’s
also the author of several novels and over 100 short stories, mostly science fiction
and fantasy. Learn more on AnneEJohnson.com.

5 Great “Big City” Films

5 Great "Big City" Films

Anyone who’s spent much time in metropolitan areas knows that each big city has a distinct personality. Filmmakers have long taken advantage of this fact, allowing urban centers to be not just the backdrops for their stories, but practically characters. Woody Allen’s work is a prime example: What would Hannah and Her Sisters, Annie Hall, and Manhattan be without New York City? Here are a few movies that celebrate the good, the bad, and the ugly of major American cities and their inhabitants.

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1956)

How can a film without a single on-location shot qualify as a celebration of New York City? Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps relies on studio sets for its very few outdoor scenes, and the establishing skyline doesn’t pretend to be anything but a hand-painted set. It works because a city is more than its buildings. In Casey Robinson’s screenplay, based on Charles Einstein’s 1953 novel The Bloody Spur, the characters’ actions, attitudes, and dialogue define Manhattan. On its surface, this is a homicide thriller, but we know who the murderer is in the first scene (it’s John Drew Barrymore). The real point of the story is to show how the news media exploits crime for ratings. That practice is commonplace now, but it used to be centered in New York.

 

Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning TV newsman, part of the Kyne News Syndicate, which has just been passed to its founder’s lazy playboy son, Walter Kyne, played with wide-eyed bafflement and bravado by Vincent Price. Kyne pits three of his top newsmen—George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, and James Craig—against each other, competing for the new job of Executive Director. Mobley gets caught in the middle of their battle. The underhanded dealings, the snide remarks, the workaholism fueled by alcoholism, the use of sex as corporate currency (Rhonda Fleming, Sally Forrest, and Ida Lupino hold all the power)—these are hallmarks of the frantic NYC media life of the 1956. We don’t need a shot of Times Square to recognize Manhattan’s pounding heart.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

PREMIUM RUSH (2012)

Fast-forward into the 21st century, to a very different movie that’s just as much a love song to Manhattan’s frenetic pace. Written and directed by David Koepp, Premium Rush stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Wilee, a bike messenger who gets finds his life in danger when a customer specifically asks for him to pick up a parcel. Unfortunately, gambling-addicted cop Michael 

5 Great "Big City" Films

Shannon wants what’s in that package—at any cost. Good thing fellow messenger Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) steps up to help.

 

The normal whoosh of bike messengers in traffic turns even more breathless as Shannon chases bike-bound Gordon-Levitt from the safety of his car. The client is up at Columbia University and the package is going to Chinatown, so the movie becomes a lightning-paced tour up and down Broadway. This film uses only on-location shots, mostly outdoors, so 

lovers of NYC will enjoy recognizing landmarks block by block. Action fans will love all the hair’s-breadth near-misses as bikes maneuver between moving cars, thanks to visual effects orchestrated through a combination of a crack stunt team and the CGI magic of Zoic Studios. The sound design alone makes this movie a thrill; Jamie Baker and his Foley team put the viewer right there on the street with the yellow cabs.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

ABOUT LAST NIGHT (1986)

Not every city has that East Coast vibe. In 1974, David Mamet wrote Sexual Perversity in Chicago, a lean, sarcastic play about dating in a midwestern city in the 1970s. More than ten years later, the play inspired a screenplay by Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue for Edward Zwick’s romantic comedy About Last Night. The only remnants of Mamet’s signature 

acidic, stylized dialogue are hilarious passages where Bernie (Jim Belushi) flaunts his sexual exploits to his pal Danny (Rob Lowe). Yet, while the language may have lost its zing and the expanded plot runs toward Hollywood predictability, there are few finer cinematic tributes to the city of Chicago.

 

From a baseball diamond in Grant Park and a walk over the Chicago River on the Adams Street Bridge to the commute north from the Loop on a clattering L train, Zwick and cinematographer Andrew Dintenfass capture the essence of the Windy City. The focus on noisy bar life squares with midwestern reality. Zwick filmed pubs on Division Street, and the interior of Mother’s, the characters’ favorite 

Where to See Some Big City

All of the films here are available on all of the non-subscription streaming services, as well as for download on Kaleidescape, except for the The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which isn’t available on iTunes.

 

A = Amazon Prime / G = Google Play
I = iTunes / K = Kaleidescape
V = Vudu / 
Y = YouTube

hangout, is a studio set exactly replicating the real thing, although they chose a bar across the street from Mother’s to be its exterior.

 

As for the film itself, there are some interesting moments of truth about relationships as Danny dives too fast into a commitment with Debbie (Demi Moore). Debbie’s best friend Joan (Elizabeth Perkins) is the snarky-tongued female counterpoint to Belushi’s character, and she gets in some prime jibes about male behavior while simultaneously craving men.
A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

STRAIGHT TIME (1978)

On the West Coast, filmmakers have viewed Los Angeles from many angles and in many different lights. One distinctive view is Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time, based on Edward Bunker’s novel No Beast So Fierce. Dustin Hoffman is Max Dembo, newly 

released from a six-year prison sentence for armed robbery. The opening sequence shows him lost in the wide, cold world of L.A., trying to get his bearings and re-enter life.

 

The fates and the system are stacked against him. An irresponsible friend (Gary Busey) and an unsympathetic parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh) make going straight impossible. A nice girl who thinks she wants adventure (Jenny Mercer) falls hard for Max, even as he returns to his life of crime with an old colleague (Harry Dean Stanton, who flat-out steals the film). 

5 Great "Big City" Films

There’s nothing nostalgic or sweet about this version of the city. To the accompaniment of David Shire’s sultry jazz score, Grosbard focuses on gritty L.A. as an empty shell. Its wide streets and wide sky ironically symbolize what a harsh, suffocating prison society can be.      A / G / KV / Y

5 Great "Big City" Films

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO (2019)

Some 500 miles north of L.A., writer/director Joe Talbot gives cinematic life to a unique perspective on San Francisco. This is the true story of a black man named Jimmy Fail (playing himself) and his best friend Jonathan (a wonderful performance by Montgomery Allen), who decide to go live in a historic mansion when the owners move out. Jimmy has been told his whole life that his grandfather built the house, and he believes he has an ancestral right to it.

 

This is a quiet yet intense film about the search for belonging. Jimmy and Jonathan, thoughtful and artistic, don’t feel they fit in with the colorful characters in their own poverty-line neighborhood. But they don’t seem to belong in a four-million-dollar house either. The spot between those extremes eludes them, a place where they could celebrate their heritage yet also be modern individuals. Innovative editing and the use of slow motion make everyday actions take on an otherworldly quality. There’s a lot of humor, too. San Francisco comes across as both a great mystery and an old friend, holding secrets in her fog and answers just over the rise of each hill.     A / G KV / Y

Anne E. Johnson

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. Her music journalism appears
regularly in
Copper Magazine, Classical Voice North America, and Stereophile. She’s
also the author of several novels and over 100 short stories, mostly science fiction
and fantasy. Learn more on AnneEJohnson.com.

6 Classic Time Travel Films

6 Classic Time Travel Films

Humans are fascinated by the idea of traveling in time, either to observe what happened in the past or to learn about future civilizations. Ever since H.G. Wells published The Time Machine in 1895, the concept has captivated both creative artists and audiences. It’s no surprise that vaulting across the decades or centuries is a recurring theme in movies. What is less expected is the different approaches filmmakers have taken, both in terms of how the time travel is achieved and what motivates the experiment. Among the following six movies, no two have the same purpose.

6 Classic Time Travel Films

THE TIME MACHINE (1960)

This is the granddaddy of all time-travel films, the first theatrical release to use Wells’ book as source material. It’s directed and produced by George Pal. Screenwriter David Duncan stayed true to the novelist’s two lofty reasons to explore time: Knowledge for its own sake and the wish to believe human society will improve in the future. The dashing Rod Taylor plays Wells, and Alan Young is his best friend, Filby, showing up later as his own son. Yvette Mimieux is Weena, a cringe-worthily vapid blonde many thousands of years in the future, when pretty, empty-brained Aryan types live a perfect existence, except for the pesky fact that they’re controlled by a horrible humanoid species called the Morlocks.

 

Pal’s Time Machine is rightfully cherished for its Oscar-winning special effects, mostly achieved with stop-motion animation. Some scenes are reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen’s horror and humor—keep an eye out for an atomic lava flow that buries a London neighborhood!—while some are charming or beautiful. As Wells tentatively tries out his machine for the first time, we see what he sees: Flowers blooming and dying within seconds, a candle 

melting in a heartbeat, the seasons passing before our eyes. It seems the representation of time as a tunnel is not yet in the film lexicon, so this made sense as the best way to show time passing at different speeds. The visuals are enhanced by the rich Metrocolor hues.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

THE TIME MACHINE (2002)

Knowledge for its own sake doesn’t really fly as entertainment in the 21st century. So, for this Simon Wells-directed remake starring Guy Pearce, a new impetus was needed. If you’re familiar with the Penny Dreadful Showtime series, you’ll know that writer John Logan is devoted to love and destiny as underlying themes.

 

At the start of this screenplay, Logan has Pearce’s Alex (no longer named Wells) witness the death of his fiancée, prompting him to devise a way to go back and try to save her. It doesn’t work, so he decides to explore the future instead, eventually 

losing control and ending up beyond the next Ice Age. The Morlocks still hold power in this version, but now the terrified surviving humans finally have some agency and pride (not to mention melanin in their skin). Samantha Mumba is intelligent and sympathetic as Mara, the far-future woman who befriends the temporally and emotionally lost Alex.
AC G / I  / V / Y

 

 

TIME AFTER TIME (1979)

And speaking of self-actualized female characters, writer/ director Nicholas Meyer made a point of baffling Wells (Malcolm McDowell) with the “women’s lib” movement when the inventor shows up in 1979 San Francisco. No Morlocks are needed in this story. Wells is on the trail of another

How to Do Some Time Travel

All six of the films here are readily available on non-subscription streaming services. If you’re looking for the best possible picture and sound, Kaleidescape has everything but the 2002 Time Machine remake (which is free on Crackle).

 

A = Amazon Prime / C = Crackle
G = Google Play / I = iTunes
K = Kaleidescape / V = Vudu
Y = YouTube

kind of monster, Jack the Ripper, who turns out to be a friend in 1893 London (David Warner), fast-thinking enough to borrow the time machine to escape police. In 1979, Wells enlists the help of a bank official (Mary Steenburgen) to find the serial killer.

 

The cutting-edge visual effects are by Richard F. Taylor, who would later design Tron, and you’ll notice early versions of some ideas that show up in that later movie. While Meyer doesn’t really follow through with the feminism angle—this was 1979 Hollywood, after all—his primary motivation is to show that, while there are horrible people in every age, kindness is also a constant.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

PROJECT ALMANAC (2015)

The previous films make overarching claims about the human species, yet they skate over the challenge of getting a time machine to work. Focus on that process makes director Dan Israelite’s Project Almanac one of the most satisfying in terms

6 Classic Time Travel Films

of hard science fiction. This is even more surprising given that it’s a YA story about nerdy teens. The choice to shoot the whole thing as if through the characters’ phone cameras is distracting at first, but eventually pays off.

 

Instead of letting teen energy derail the story, writers Jason Pagan and Andrew Deutschman capitalize on common traits of the adolescent psyche. No deep philosophy here. 

David (Jonny Weston) wants to complete the time machine he finds in his late father’s lab so he and his brainy friends can have fun. He misuses it because he has a crush on a girl (Sofia Black-D’Elia). And rather than dreaming of traveling a thousand years to find Utopia, these kids want to go back to yesterday to do better on a test at school. No villain is needed; teens are their own worst enemy.      A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

THE FOUNTAIN (2006)

If there’s a villain in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, it’s cancer. Tommy, played by Hugh Jackman, becomes obsessed with cheating death when his wife Izzy (Rachael Weisz) develops an inoperable brain tumor. Maybe this isn’t a time-travel movie at all; there’s no time machine. But whether it’s Tommy’s conviction to live until the end of the universe to find a cure, or Izzy’s tumor-induced vision of herself as a queen in Renaissance Spain with Tommy as her conquistador seeking the Fountain of Youth, the characters certainly experience many aspects of time.

 

This film is also astonishingly beautiful. The meditative score by Clint Mansell supports James Chinlund and Isabelle Guay’s breathtaking designs inspired by Mayan art and ancient Indian mandalas. Don’t expect a linear story; just let the temporal shards wash over you, and the pieces will come together.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

6 Classic Time Travel Films

12 MONKEYS (1995)

In the era of COVID-19, movies about pandemics are more popular than ever. Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys doesn’t show one moment of the disease itself, but instead jumps between its aftermath a generation later, when surviving humans must live underground, and the years leading up to the 1996 outbreak. Written by David and Janet Peoples, the screenplay is an expansion of Chris Marker’s 1962 short, La Jetée.

 

James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent from the future to trace the origins of a virus that kills five billion people. He shows up too early, landing him in a mental institution, where he’s treated by Dr. Railly (Madeleine Stowe) and encouraged to escape by the manic Jeffrey Goins (Brad Pitt, in a career-altering role), who happens to be the son of a famous virologist (Christopher Plummer). The top-notch plot twist tells us that studying history is just a long game of Telephone; even the best scholars’ conclusions about the past may be hilariously and tragically wrong. No one can show the slime and grunge of disintegrating society quite like Gilliam, who makes a point of conflating the post-viral dystopia with the nightmare always lived by the world’s homeless and unwanted.     A / G / KV / Y

Anne E. Johnson

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. Her music journalism appears
regularly in
Copper Magazine, Classical Voice North America, and Stereophile. She’s
also the author of several novels and over 100 short stories, mostly science fiction
and fantasy. Learn more on AnneEJohnson.com.

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-Fi Films

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-Fi Films

Gattaca

Science fiction is a genre almost as vast as space itself, and even its sub-genres can be approached in wildly varying ways by filmmakers. Stepping away from Hollywood’s beaten path to indies and smaller releases can uncover astonishing imagination and daring. The following movies, all dealing with space travel and/or aliens, demonstrate this range. From energetic heroes tearing past the stars to exhausted travelers who never asked for such a strange life, these movies represent a bit of all of us.

 

 

THE LAST STARFIGHTER (1984)

Thanks to the original Star Wars in 1977, space became a cinematic backdrop for both individual heroism and humor. Like many movies of the ’80s, The Last Starfighter, directed by Nick Castle and written by Jonathan Betuel, tends toward a particular flavor of sweet goofiness. And while it hardly qualifies as lofty art, it’s a fun family movie with excellent alien 

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-fi Films

makeup that looks ahead to the creative wackiness of the Men in Black films.

 

A young man named Alex (Lance Guest) longs to escape from the trailer park where he grew up. He keeps his sanity by obsessively playing Starfighter, a video game. When he reaches the top 

level, he’s visited by an alien named Centauri (Robert Preston, resurrecting his Music Man slickness), who recruits Alex as a gunner for a real intergalactic war. Call it Tron meets War Games. In space.

 

Castle wisely had the spaceships and battle stations animated rather than photographed from models. This not only avoided the inevitable problems of making viable effects for a movie without a Star Wars-level budget, but it also fits thematically with the video game Alex pictures as he fights. Dan O’Herlihy turns in a touching performance as Grig, the turtle-faced alien who pilots Alex’s ship.     A / G / I / K / V / Y

 

 

GATTACA (1997)

The longing to escape also underpins the much more serious Gattaca, but the focus here is on the longing, not the escape itself. Ethan Hawke, as a man born without the genetic preselection that has become commonplace, must take on another identity in order to reach his lifelong dream of flying in space. The underlying theme here is defiance of societal prejudice.

Writer and director Andrew Niccol employs the trope of a future society that looks perfect and ordered until one scratches the surface to reveal its rotten foundation.

 

Visually and aurally, it’s a film of great beauty. Michael Nyman’s powerful score is the ideal match for the costumes and Oscar-nominated art direction, together evoking a sepia-toned Art Deco future world. The intriguing story, if a bit too reliant on narration, is given life by a fine cast: Jude Law as the man who sells his identity to Hawke on the black market and Uma Thurman as Hawke’s co-worker at the space-travel corporation, along with appearances by Tony Shalhoub, Ernest Borgnine, and Gore Vidal.
A / C / I / K / TV / Y

Where to See Some Sci-Fi

The letters after each movie description link to the major non-subscription streaming and download services that offer the title. Kaleidescape has all 5 films available for download in the best available quality. Gattaca is free on Crackle and Tubi, as is Midnight Special on Amazon Prime.

 

A = Amazon Prime / C = Crackle
G = Google Play / I = iTunes
K = Kaleidescape / T = Tubi
V = Vudu /
Y = YouTube

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-Fi Films

MOON (2009)

Not everyone in space wants to be there, as quickly becomes obvious in Moon. Laboring alone on a lunar energy-mining base, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is nearing the end of his three-year contract and can hardly wait to get home to his wife and daughter. GERTY, the computer and its robotic extensions (voiced with HAL-like eeriness by Kevin Spacey), keeps asking Sam if he feels all right. We watch Sam struggle with sudden physical and mental problems until they quickly become extreme, and we wonder with him whether any or all of this is in his imagination. It eventually becomes clear that the movie’s theme is not solitude, but corporate exploitation of workers.

 

Director Duncan Jones won a BAFTA for this film debut. Gary Shaw’s cinematography is gritty and gray to evoke the lunar atmosphere as well as Sam’s emotional state, while the base interior glows threateningly through orange filters. While the visual illusions are very different from those usually needed in science fiction—I can’t explain without spoilers—they are integral to the plot and well enough executed that they don’t become an annoyance. After Sam’s battle to learn the truth of his own existence, the film’s final moments are psychologically satisfying if physically nonsensical.     A / G / I / K / V / Y     

 

 

HIGH LIFE (2018)

Solitude in space has a different context for Monte (Robert Pattinson) in High Life, directed by Claire Denis, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jean-Pol Fargeau. Monte started his voyage with a dozen fellow violent convicts as part of an

experimental space-survival program, acommpanied by a supervising doctor (Juliette Binoche). For him, space is just another version of prison.

 

At the movie’s opening, Monte is the only one still alive, with the exception of a baby girl. We learn his backstory through the rapid intersection of his

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-Fi Films

memories, both from his early life on Earth and the more recent time on his current voyage when his co-travelers were still alive. This is a violent tale of blood and sex, society’s outcasts reduced to their most primal urges. In that sense, it’s a horror movie.

 

The sound engineering is raw and thrilling. Occasionally Stuart A. Staples and his band, Tindersticks, supply spooky electronic atmospherics, but Denis is not afraid of long stretches without music, letting the aging ship’s creaks and groans be the score.     A / G / K / V / Y

5 Classic Offbeat Sci-fi Films

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

One might argue that this film is not about space or aliens. But there are many definitions of being not of this world, and while the child Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) was born of humans on Earth in our own time, he has powers that connect him with something beyond humanity.

 

In a feat of highly skilled storytelling, writer/director Jeff Nichols starts near the end of Alton’s story, yet explains what led to that point piecemeal throughout the movie without resorting to either flashbacks or the “info-dump” exposition so common in less well-crafted science fiction.

 

Michael Shannon is Alton’s father and a member of a cult called The Ranch, led by a pastor (Sam Shepard) whose sermons are interpretations of the mysterious phrases and numbers Alton speaks during his “fits.” Among those numbers are coordinates for satellites, which alerts the FBI to Alton’s existence. Alton’s father and a friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), are trying to bring Alton to a certain place at a certain time, without knowing why; the cult leadership pursues them, wanting Alton back; the Feds chase both parties, thinking a terrorist attack is in the offing.

 

Despite this complex, high-stakes plot, the hallmark of this film is its underlying calm. Nichols hints at violence without showing it, thus maximizing the impact of the violent onscreen episode that starts Act Three. Throughout, the small-mindedness and greed of those in power is muted by acts of love—the father’s sacrifices for his son, Lucas learning to reopen his heart to a friend he lost to a cult, a social scientist (Adam Driver) who really listens, and a mother (Kirsten Dunst, in the best work of her career) who understands that someone can belong to this world and another at the same time.
A / G / I / K / V / Y

Anne E. Johnson

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. Her music journalism appears
regularly in
Copper Magazine, Classical Voice North America, and Stereophile. She’s
also the author of several novels and over 100 short stories, mostly science fiction
and fantasy. Learn more on AnneEJohnson.com.