The year is 3036. Venusian Fnargs have demolished Earth and fried much of the human race with subthalamic energy beams. Now they scuttle through the smoking rubble of New Los Angeles, hunting down survivors. A scrappy band of cyberbike rebels meets in a darkened underground chamber to study the last remaining archive of audiovisual transmissions from the 20th century, seeking knowledge to build the ultimate anti-Fnarg weapon. They are humanity’s final hope…the Kanopian Alliance!
We need your help investigating the Kanopy archive to locate the lost technology we can use to vaporize those horrible Fnargs. Here are 16 underrated sci-fi gems chosen by librarian Daniel Tures and myself, that you can stream for free on Kanopy with your library card—any one of which may hold the key to earthling survival!
Fnarg approaching in sector 7...
Randall: The Quiet Earth is aptly titled. Unlike other “last person on earth” films, which often have a feeling of menace about their empty streets (if not zombies or biker gangs), The Quiet Earth has a profound, melancholy loneliness. Although post-apocalyptic, there is little destructive in its atmosphere: to me, it recalls Atget’s forlorn Paris more than anything else. This sad, quiet quality imbues the characters, too. The story of the last three people on earth after a failed scientific experiment, the love triangle at the film’s heart has none of the explosive, possessive jealousy you’d expect. Instead, there is maturity, resignation, and an emotional complexity that rings unusually true. It’s a sweet film—strangely hopeful considering its setting. And, of course, there’s the ending: one of the most awesome, beautiful, and enigmatic ever. Plus, it’s one of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s favorite films!
Daniel: John Carpenter’s first film is a brilliant stoner comedy made on a microbudget, a bad-mood 70s satire of the heroes-in-space tradition of Buck Rogers and Star Trek. Dan O’Bannon, who would go on to write the ultimate sci-fi horror film, Alien, stars as Sgt. Pinback, stuck on board the spaceship Dark Star twenty years into a tedious bureaucratic mission to ‘destroy unstable planets’ out in some nowheresville corner of the galaxy, with an arsenal of chipper smart bombs that are always eager to deploy themselves. Pinback and his grumbling, unshaven crewmates try to maintain their sanity by playing practical jokes, talking into their video diaries, and caring for their pet alien, a mischievous, murderous green beach ball with claws that refuses to stay put in its storage closet, instead turning up alarmingly in various corners of the ship. (O’Bannon parlayed much of this into Alien—the workaday crew griping about their paychecks, and the terrifying cat-and-mouse game of tracking down the alien hiding somewhere onboard.) The Dark Star is rocked by a series of malfunctions, culminating in a smart bomb that decides to deploy itself and gets stuck in the bomb bay. The crew then has to go out and debate Cartesian philosophy with the bomb while trying to get it unstuck. If I could keep only one science fiction movie scene, it might be Doolittle at the end surfing a chunk of debris into the cosmos to the sounds of a honky-tonk song. Dark Star flopped in the theaters but went on to become a VHS cult favorite in the 80s, by which time Carpenter and O’Bannon had moved on to bigger things.
Randall: Alphaville is not your typical science fiction. Anyone familiar with director Jean-Luc Godard will know vaguely what they’re in for—envelope-shoving, Avant-Garde cinema. Alphaville is as much fluorescent-lit noir as 1984-style totalitarian sci-fi; as much hard-boiled absurdity as a philosophical film of ideas. Its wake ripples through the sci-fi and arthouse canon: Harrison Ford and Sean Young in Blade Runner are descendants of Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina. Similarly, the opening of Lars Von Trier’s Europa (which also stars Constantine) riffs heavily on Alphaville’s. Among the film’s many curious motifs—spiral staircases, positive/negative shifts, strobing lights— the mutability of language is the theme that says the most to me. Just like Anna Karina says about poetry, I’m left wondering if Alphaville is “believed to be secrets, but really it’s nothing.” Watch it and see what you think!
Daniel: In an alternate present in which quantum computing has replaced the regular stuff, Ray is a middle-aged Queens delivery driver who has to care for his half-brother Jamie, who is stricken by a mysterious disease called Omnia. When he has to pony up ten grand to put Jamie in a fancy clinic, he turns to cabling, a form of gig work that promises profit and advancement. The cablers, a motley crew of downtrodden folks mostly younger than Ray, endure lame corporate training sessions in order to trudge through the woodsy wilderness unspooling black cable, hustling for the best-paying routes to lay connections between remote hubs that look like oversized titanium washing machines. They also have to move faster than an army of little cabling robots that plod along like Roombas with legs, which are slower than the cablers but never have to rest. Ray’s co-workers are suspicious of his illicitly acquired cabling license, and they disagree over whether to include him in their planned labor uprising. The tense inter-cabler rivalry, which unfolds as tautly as a season of The Wire, is beautifully filmed in the leafy Allegheny mountain forest, and it steadily builds into a scathing late-capitalist critique on par with Sorry To Bother You or Nomadland.
Daniel: Men are from Mars, and women get stuck with them when octopus-faced aliens invade Norrisville and inhabit the bodies of the town’s menfolk in this chilling creature feature, which doubles as a dark satire of the ‘50s battle of the sexes. Bill and the boys are out having a drink to celebrate his ‘last night of freedom’ before getting hitched to his sweetheart Marge. Driving back through the woods, Bill encounters a shimmering figure and gets enveloped by a spooky cloud, and next thing you know, his body has been alienized. He’s no longer the loving, attentive Bill that Marge wanted to marry—suddenly he’s cold, awkward and distant. When he kills the family dog, Marge starts desperately trying to figure out what’s wrong with so many of the men she interacts with, who of course paternalistically dismiss her concerns about some kind of body-snatching going on. The dislocated feeling of your world suddenly turning upside down and no longer knowing who to trust is aptly visualized in scenes of Marge walking dazedly around her neighborhood, with that weird shadowy ‘50s lighting that could be either nighttime or high noon. Finally, Marge convinces her doctor to round up a posse and go out into the woods to track down the alien spaceship. In a long, tense scene featuring some eerie gadgetry, we learn the truth about where the octopus-faces came from and what they want. Surprisingly strong lead performances from Gloria Talbot and Tom Tryon (who would go on to write pretty good sci-fi novels himself), as well as creatively developed suspense and great special effects like bodies dissolving into freaky goo.
Randall: No foray into science fiction would be complete without anime: a Japanese style of animation that counts sci-fi as a major genre. Memories is an anthology of three short films, all of which have a connection to Katsuhiro Ôtomo, the writer and artist best known for his legendary manga and anime Akira. The three shorts that makeup Memories vary in theme, tone, and style. The first, called Magnetic Rose, is my favorite: a mix of Solaris and Junji Ito in space, it also has overtones of Ridley Scott’s Alien—a connection further emphasized by the fact that one off-screen character is named Carlo Rambaldi. The second short, Stink Bomb, is a semi-comical look at a government experiment gone wrong—and by wrong, I mean it involves a pill that makes someone smell so bad people fall into comas. The final short, Cannon Fodder, which was directed by Ôtomo himself, is perhaps my least favorite: the story of a militarized city whose residents work at the business of shelling an unseen enemy. The pastel-like animation in this section is gorgeous and differs from the other, equally gorgeous shorts, but watching it was a lot like work for me. Perhaps that was the point. At any rate, this is a fantastic film, not unlike an animated Kwaidan or Kurosawa’s Dreams!
Daniel: The distant moon where Damon (Jay Duplass) and his young daughter Cee (Sophie Thatcher) land their beat-up ship is thickly wooded, its golden, murky atmosphere hazy with poisonous spores, in this character-driven indie about interstellar prospecting that plays out like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in space. They tramp through the foliage in plastic helmets and canvas suits, on the hunt for valuable gems that can be harvested from underground alien pods, if dug up and sliced open with expert timing. Damon has dollar signs in his eyes, hoping to follow up a tip on a legendary deposit of these pods called the Queen’s Lair. But before they get very far they are ambushed by Ezra (Pedro Pascal, pre-Mandalorian), a mustachioed prospector with a creepy drawl and a gun. Cee turns the tables with a harpoon thrower and becomes the central character as she sheds her meekness for growing strength. Ezra’s shifty patter has the snake-eyed menace of Warren Oates or Lee Van Cleef, but Cee is forced to partner with him as they tangle with even worse lowlifes while striving for the gem motherlode and a way home. Prospect drops you right into its absorbing world of future lingo, weird botany, and crummy tech, but it’s an old-fashioned Western two-hander at heart, a classic tale of a heroine stranded in a frontier outpost facing down money-grubbing banditos.
Randall: I have now seen The Visitor twice, and apparently, I didn’t understand it either time. I’ve reached this conclusion not only because I was in a dissociative state of low-key bafflement both times, but also because when I read the plot summary on Wikipedia, I said to myself, “No kidding? Satanists were involved?” The Visitor features an all-star cast that must have been under heavy obligation to the Mafia, since there is really no other plausible explanation for why they agreed to participate. It stars director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) as Obi-Wan Kenobi to a bunch of bald men in Sears tracksuits; Lance Henriksen (Aliens) as a basketball team CEO who’s so desperate to win he’ll let his wife be abducted by truck driving surgeons and artificially inseminated by Space Satan; Shelley Winters (The Night of the Hunter) as the cosmos’s surliest housekeeper; and Glenn Ford (Gilda) as a cop whose eyes taste like bird food. I could attempt a description of the plot, but I’m honestly not sure if I should trust my own ideas or those on the internet. Suffice it to say, if any of the follow sounds interesting to you (and it ought to), you should check out this movie: John Huston and a pigtailed, eight-year-old narcissist blowing polyurethane foam all over each other using only their minds, exploding basketball nets, ice-skating rink battles, space pigeon attacks, and time capsule scenery of Atlanta in the late 70s.
Daniel: Brand New-U, Inc.. "Other self-help programs tell you to change yourself… it never works. We offer to help you find a new life… lose only your problems, and start over brand new..." In a dark, rainy future London, whose skyline is now dominated by strange cylindrical skyscrapers, Slater and Nadia’s romance is interrupted by masked gunmen breaking down the door of their flat. Turns out they were trying to drop off Nadia’s replacement, created by Brand New-U, but things take a turn and the new Nadia 'identical' gets killed in the melee. Now Slater must go in for his own upgrade, launching a Kafkaesque descent into multiplying identities and mazy corporate intrigue with a paranoid vibe not unlike Brazil or The Double. Director Simon Pummell, whose award-winning 2003 Bodysong was a kind of Koyaanisqatsi of the human body set to a Jonny Greenwood score, has an eye for striking visuals, as in a scene where a pair of sinister Santas confront the couple in an elevator. As Slater, Downton Abbey’s Lachlan Nieboer thoroughly explores the shattering emotional echoes of the initial trauma. A slow-burning thriller that demands careful viewing.
—Co-authored with Edendale Branch librarian, Daniel Tures