Visions Of Glory: Sci-Fi’s Epic Adventures

Despite humanity’s many flaws and failings, we have always done one thing consistently well; dreaming. We stare wondrously at the sky and imagine times, places and peoples far beyond our own pitiful corner of the Universe. We spin fantastic tales about civilizations, wars and loves that span the vast cosmos. We marvel at space much like those in earlier times dreamt of the open ocean. While in 1600, a young man in Bristol, England would dream about magical lands far to the East, South and West, a young man from Bristol today would have to cast his eyes in a different direction; skywards. But because our telescopes can only pierce so much of the interstellar gloom and our space ships can barely traverse the distance between the Earth and Mars, we are forced to witness those distant places through the power of our minds.

Space Opera is arguably the grandest, oldest and most well known genre of Science Fiction. It is the source from whence most of the other sub-genres sprung. It is timeless, incredibly broad and easily adaptable. It can represent not only the myriad of fears we have concerning space travel –as Cyberpunk and Dark Sci-Fi does– but also all the hopes and expectations as well. It is also the most relatable. Many of the greatest Space Operas incorporate elements of human culture and society that are incredibly ancient. Whereas Cyberpunk owes its roots to the socio-technological developments of the 1970s (and onwards), Space Opera contains elements of The Odyssey, Jason And The Argonauts, The Epic of Gilgamesh and a vast collection of other seminal works from human histoyr. Space Opera is, simply put, the latest version of the epic adventure, gussied up for the modern age. And while Epic Sci-Fi has been a staple of literary culture for well over a century, it was the medium of film that allowed humanity to enjoy these stories to their absolute fullest. The swelling music, the flashing lights and exotic vistas finally realized and brought to the masses with all the thundering glory human imagination (and a budget) can muster. Having already taken a cursory look at Cyberpunk and Dark Sci-Fi, I figured it was only right that the next installment of Visions series, would be concerned with the grand old lady of science fiction. Now as with the other two installments the lists of ten are not a countdown, and the final film is not “the best” per say but rather the film which I think best personifies the genre. Additionally, because several reputable Sci-Fi epics are part of a franchise I have decided it would be better choose only one film from the series. So without any further ado….Dune (1984: David Lynch)
The plot of David Lynch’s sprawling and divisive adaptation of Frank Herbert’s story can best be summed up by the oft repeated line; “he who controls the Spice, controls the universe”. While at its heart Dune is the story of an epic series of power plays it encompassed so much more within its pages. Religion, politics, love and ecology all play equally important and intertwining roles. Lynch, bless his heart, tried his damnedest to touch upon all this key points while simultaneously taking the classic story in a new direction. Whether he succeeded or failed is for each individual fan and viewer to decide. He did take considerable liberties with a story many Sci-Fi aficionados consider to be one of the greatest products of the genre; a risky manoeuvre for anybody who tries to work within the genre. Even Frank Herbert’s own son wasn’t immune to vitriolic attacks when he decided to expand the series based on his father’s notes. In my opinion what cannot be denied is that Lynch’s vision was ambitious and its product reflected this. Though it has its flaws 1984’s Dune can be stunning at times. A worthwhile watch for anybody, Dune fan or not, and I emphatically suggest you find the extended version. For a more faithful adaption of the beginning of the Dune saga I recommend you watch the superb miniseries from 2000.Stargate (1994: Roland Emmerich)
Part of the reason that interstellar travel is a distant prospect for humanity is because of the relatively primitive nature of our starships. They are fragile, extremely limited in range, unable to achieve any sustainable periods of high speed and are prohibitively expensive. But what if that was no longer a problem? What if mankind were able to traverse vast distances and search for intelligent life without needing a vessel? In Stargate, just such a possibility is realized with the discovery of an ancient device which, although discovered among Egyptian artifacts, is of alien design. More importantly it opens a portal to a distant inhabited world. Eager to explore, the US government sends a team through the device and what they find on the other side both amazes and disturbs them. The movie that would spawn a series of long-running television programs and T.V films, Stargate on its own is a pretty decent actioner with an interesting concept that put a new spin on both space exploration and theories concerning ancient astronauts, best typified by Erich von Daniken’s book Chariots of the Gods?Contact (1997: Robert Zemeckis)
Like the previous film, Contact puts an interesting spin on space exploration. Instead of relying on a spaceship to probe the wonders of the wider universe, humanity receives an alien communication which contains detailed plans for a device which it is believed will open a slidestream to our new found friends. The movie then focuses on the potential impact such a momentous event and opportunity could have on the global community. Our fear, our excitement and ultimately our division. In particular the conflict between religion and science that could conceivably arise. The actual fantastic voyage and the events that surround it essentially take a back seat to Carl Sagan’s exploration of human society. Unusual and criminally underrated.Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (2001: Shiniciro Watanabe)

An ex-Special Operator turned terrorist is on the loose and he’s armed with a deadly bio-weapon. Desperate to stop his genocidal plan the government of Mars puts a massive price on the mysterious man’s head. It isn’t long before the galaxy’s slickest bounty hunters show up to collect. Though it feels like an extended episode of the series, the movie stands on its own merits. Excellent action, realistic (for anime) characters and a smooth jazz/blues soundtrack make this animated epic worthwhile. For North American and European viewers I suggest watching the dubbed version. Unlike a raft of other dubbed animes, Cowboy Beebop’s voice actors are top notch. Especially Steve Blum, who voices the lead character; the always cool under pressure Spike Spiegel.Enemy Mine (1985: Wolfgang Petersen)
A potential risk associated with deep space travel and inter-species contact is the possibility of provoking a massive interstellar war. It is part of the reason some people actually oppose the SETI program. Humans have a piss poor track record of relating and interacting with other humans. We have come up with a thousand and one reasons to kill each other, the vast majority of which are completely ridiculous. It isn’t inconceivable that when faced with a form of life considerably different than ours violence could possibly ensue. In Enemy Mine, which is based off an award winning Barry Longyear novella, just such an eventuality has occurred. Mankind is at war with a hermaphroditic reptilian race called the Drac. While the war brings much suffering it also creates an unlikely opportunity to foster true understanding when two fighter pilots from the opposing sides find themselves stranded on a hostile planet and dependent on each other for survival. An underrated film with an interesting premise and surprisingly good performances.Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982: Nicholas Meyer)
With eleven Trek films to choose from and two distinctive crews, picking only one example from this venerable series is a difficult task. But after careful consideration probably the best and most beloved of all of Star Trek’s big screen voyages is Wrath of Khan. It is Shatner versus Montalban in the ultimate battle of the over-actors, and all the old hands are along for the ride. To be honest, Wrath of Khan isn’t actually my favourite Star Trek film but I do believe it was the best executed. Capturing that special blend of humour, action and emotion which always made Star Trek so enduring. It is considerably better than most of the series’ other silver screen outings. With a bold ending (nullified by the following film) this movie is responsible for one of William Shatner’s most iconic movie moments. You probably know which one I’m talking about.Wild Blue Yonder (2005: Werner Herzog)
Warner Herzog is a director largely known for his unusual subjects and willingness to explore unconventional stylistic directions. The end result of this has been some of the most unique and expressive films and documentaries ever created. In my books Wild Blue Yonder is one of his best and to call it unique would be a massive understatement. The story, told in retrospect by a lonely extraterrestrial, revolves around a group of aliens who over roughly half a century flee their oceanic homeland and seek refuge on our blue planet. Despite trying their hardest to rebuild their civilization and hide it in plain sight, they ultimately fail and inadvertently bring the downfall of their new homeland with them. With Earth under threat, humankind launches a desperate space mission in search of new home, this journey bringing the story full circle. What makes Wild Blue Yonder so interesting is precisely how this story is told. Instead of going out and spending millions to shoot the footage (something Herzog is not above doing) he uses documentary footage recontextualized and supplemented by a moving score and scenes featuring Brad Dourif as the mournful alien storyteller. Some of this footage has rarely been seen and is frankly simply astounding. Segments which were shot onboard a Space Shuttle (fittingly the Atlantis) are particularly fantastic. Accurately depicting the cramped conditions and complicated tasks astronauts on long term missions face in greater detail than I have every seen before. Unique, odd and undoubtedly moving, this film is nonetheless a complex movie and may not be to everyone’s tastes. If you are willing to expand your cinematic horizons however, then Wild Blue Yonder is definitely well worth a look.WALL-E (2008: Andrew Stanton)
What does it take to be a person? Is it vital to fit a series of biological conditions before you can be considered one? Or does self-awareness and the ability to feel count for enough? If so then WALL-E is one hell of a guy. This lonely robotic Romeo is willing to travel any distance and face all dangers in the name love; and an unrequited one at that. Though poorly prepared for almost every situation he is faced with, this bashful little robot always overcomes thanks to pluck, determination and the unconquerable power of his love for EVE. Which makes this faceless, chirping automaton an oddly relatable and ironically ‘human’ hero. What makes this critically lauded film even better is its breathtaking visual style. An epic Sci-Fi for the whole family.The Last Starfighter(1984: Nick Castle)
A straight up, unpretentious and cheese-filled Science Fiction actioner from the 80s, the Last Starfighter is an ultimate guilty pleasure flick. The cinematic equivalent of a Boy’s Own adventure novel, the story centers around a teen living in a dead-end, podunk American town. His only refuge from his humdrum life being an arcade game, which he has become quite adept at. So adept that he finds himself recruited by an intergalactic civilization which is under attack and in desperate need of skilled gunners. The special effects and characters are incredibly dated, the plot line is formulaic and the whole premise is ludicrous, but I defy any Sci-Fi to not like this movie. Especially the “death blossom” scene. It is cooler than it sounds.Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980: Irwin Kershner)
George Lucas has made himself a lot of enemies in recent years. Legions of once diehard Star Wars fans have completely turned their backs on what was once considered by many as the pinnacle of Science Fiction. I remember the joy and anticipation of these people in 2001, before the release of Phantom Menace and I remember the look of discomfort that many of them wore as they came out of the theatres. Most remained cautiously optimistic for the future installments however and to be honest, aside from introducing some largely disliked concepts and characters (Jar-Jar and midiclorients spring to mind), Phantom Menace wasn’t an awful movie. It had a few solid performances (Liam Neeson, Ewan MacGregor and Ian MacDiarmid mostly) and it had some great action scenes. There was hope that the ensuing two films would drastically improve. They didn’t. Marred by Lucas’ overdependence on CGI, sloppy writing and increasingly juvenile sense of humour, the abysmally titled Attack of the Clones was horrendous; and a raft of wooden performances only made it worse. After its release the fan exodus began in earnest. The final new film, Revenge of the Sith, managed to salvage some of the prequel trilogy’s dignity. But not much and not for long as Lucas set about destroying the last good thing associated with the prequels; an animated short series called simply The Clone Wars. Transforming this edgy, action packed fan creation into a kid friendly marketing opportunity. It is no wonder so many Jedis have become jaded and cynical. Even the promise of a darker live action series not written by Lucas isn’t enough to lure back many of the wayward fans.

In the wake of the prequels, many of those who did not abandon the series have chosen to simply disregard the offending articles and focus their attention on the original and far superior trilogy. I am one of those people. While Lucas’ reputation has been sullied in my mind his previous creations have not (this goes double for the Indiana Jones series). I still get the same joy from watching the original movies (especially the pre-special edition versions) as I did when I was six years old. And in my books the best of the three is undoubtedly the Empire Strikes Back. Darker and more emotional, it set the stage for the dramatic climax in an appropriate fashion; hobbling the hero and placing another major character in direct peril. Throw in some still impressive special effects (more impressive than the new trilogy’s CGI in many cases), a great score, fantastic action scenes and some of the few instances of honest to goodness character development in the entire series and you have not only a superb entry in the Star Wars saga but a superb film on its own. Even better when you watch the original version.

Merry Christmas to all!

Robert Marsh, Candidate For CBC’s ‘Canada’s Next Prime Minister’