Five Films Every Star Wars Fan Should See
Mr Bruce Dern in Silent Running (1972). Photograph by Alamy
This 4 May, the force is strong with these cult sci-fi classics.
There is a certain amount of crossover between the style-conscious and the science fiction obsessive. Have you ever despaired at someone “incorrectly” knotting their tie or wearing the “wrong” type of shoes for a particular occasion? Then, it could be said, you are in the same camp as those souls who are just a little too eager to point out that, for example, Star Wars is technically not sci-fi. It features magic (in the form of “the force”) and is therefore a fantasy movie that happens to be set in space. Take note, fact fans.
The minutiae of genre classifications aside, few would argue that Star Wars (episodes four to seven, at least) are deserving of their global adulation. With 4 May upon us, however, it seems the perfect opportunity to point out that Mr George Lucas’ universe exists within a much wider canon of excellent, often overlooked space-set masterpieces. Below are some of the best, from a whole host of galaxies.
Mr Donatas Banionis in Solaris. Photograph by Mosfilm/REX Shutterstock
“Cult” is one of those descriptors that gets thrown around all too easily in the world of cinema, but it’s one that is certainly fitting of Mr Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditative space-station epic. After its Cannes success, it was initially released in just five cinemas across the USSR – the reaction was so strong from those who did see it however, that it ended up showing in limited runs across the USSR for an astonishing, uninterrupted period of 15 years.
It tells the tale of psychologist Kris Kelvin, sent to investigate a scientific mission that is falling apart due to the various emotional crises of the space-station’s crew. With its grandiose themes and haunting imagery, Solaris was Mr Tarkovsky’s attempt to transcend what he saw as the emptiness of Western science-fiction cinema. There is, then, a certain irony that it inspired an entirely unnecessary, more vacuous remake starring Mr George Clooney. In advance of that 2002 version, Mr Salman Rushdie summed up wonderfully why you should avoid the remake and instead watch Mr Tarkovsky’s masterpiece: “Before it’s transformed by Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron into what they ludicrously threaten will be 2001 meets Last Tango In Paris. What, sex in space with floating butter?”
Mr Nathan Fillion in Serenity. Photograph by The Ronald Grant Archive
From the ashes of Mr Joss Whedon’s criminally cancelled TV series Firefly came Serenity. Like Star Wars, it is essentially a rip-roaring western that replaces stagecoaches with spaceships; six-shooters and bows and arrows with laser guns and grandiose swordplay. It stars Mr Nathan Fillion as the world-weary but nevertheless swashbuckling captain of a ragtag pirate crew who give refuge to a mysterious young girl, River, and her protective, uptight brother. Over the course of their adventures, they uncover a conspiracy that might just be enough to overthrow the oppressive planetary “Alliance”. It’s perfect Saturday matinee plotting, all delivered with both tongue firmly in cheek and a surprisingly heart-wrenching emotional impact.
Silent Running (1972)
Mr Bruce Dern in Silent Running. Photograph by United Archives GmbH/Alamy
“Amazing companions on an incredible adventure that journeys beyond imagination!” So goes the bombastic blurb on the original poster to this environmentally themed, post-apocalyptic space movie. It’s a little misleading though, because this story of one man’s decision to kill his (space) shipmates rather than his precious cargo of Earth’s only surviving plant life is, as Mr Roger Ebert put it in his review at the time, “told with simplicity and a quiet, ecological concern”.
It’s true that there is nothing deeply profound about the way it plays out, but its message resonates all the more for it. It is carried by a superb, nuanced performance from Mr Bruce Dern, supported for almost the entire running time by only three robotic companions. Silent Running is a treat too for admirers of vintage special effects: director Mr Douglas Trumbull carries his sensibilities over from his earlier effects work on 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Andromeda Strain.
Dark Star (1974)
Messrs Dan O'Bannon, Brian Narelle, and Cal Kuniholm in Dark Star. Photograph by United Archives GmbH/Alamy
It’s safe to say that Mr John Carpenter’s reputation as an auteur has transcended the genre trappings within which his best known work exists: whether that’s through inventing the slasher movie with Halloween, composing one of the finest soundtracks ever for Escape From New York or pushing pre-CGI effects to their limits with The Thing.
So it’s easy to see why his bizarre, hilarious sci-fi spoof from 1974 is so often overlooked. Following a crew of “planet-smashers” as they make their way across the universe in delightfully loopy fashion, it’s almost as funny to imagine what the po-faced science-fiction fans of its day made of the movie – given that it was marketed as a straight-faced space opera.
Mr Sam Rockwell in Moon. Photograph by The Moviestore Collection
Moon was the debut film from director Mr Duncan Jones, son of the late Mr David Bowie. Written specifically as a vehicle for underrated leading man Mr Sam Rockwell (and featuring a distinctly HAL 9000 turn from Mr Kevin Spacey as the voice of his robot companion Gerty), it follows Sam Bell as he negotiates the final days of a solitary stint mining for helium on the far side of the Moon.
With its homages to two other films on this list, Solaris and Silent Running, it forms the final part in an excellent trilogy for those wishing to explore a more transcendent form of sci-fi epic – these are escapes not just into the outer reaches of space but into the equally wondrous/treacherous depths of the human condition.