The beginning of a new decade is always a great time for reflection – both on what’s come before and where we’re headed. Cinematically, countless writers and directors have given us their visions of the future, both near and far – some dystopian and rugged, others shiny and overflowing with astonishing new technologies. We’ve learned from past experience not to take their ideas all that seriously (weren’t we supposed to have flying cars by now?), but it’s a lot of fun to entertain the notion of a future world bearing little resemblance to our own. In the horror genre, this future world is almost uniformly presented as a dark, hostile place, filled with malevolent organisms that would sooner rip your head off than engage in a “meaningful dialogue”. To celebrate these films, and to mark the new decade, I’ve listed ten of the best. Let’s just hope our real-world destiny is a lot more hospitable.
Future Year: Unspecified
This little-seen sci-fi horror from Mario Bava is rather hokey in spots, but it’s got loads of atmosphere and merits a definite watch. The story concerns a crew of astronauts stranded on a strange, mist-shrouded planet after crash-landing there. What they encounter is a race of disembodied aliens who possess and reanimate the dead in order to stalk and kill the living. Frankly, the film has nothing to do with vampires and is more akin to fare like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing. That being said, it’s a lot of fun and showcases the celebrated director’s ability to create an evocative mood with a miniscule budget (the film was reportedly shot for about $100K). It’s a B-movie all the way (complete with awkward dubbed dialogue), but better than most.
Future Year: 2047
Ok, let’s just tell it like it is: for all its cool visuals and inspired set design, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon is kind of a cheese-fest. In the hands of a more subtle director, the truly scary premise (space ship goes to Hell and back, literally) could have made for a genuinely disturbing and provocative film; what Anderson gives us is loads of gore and cheap shocks. Nevertheless, sometimes gore and cheap shocks are just what horror audiences are in the mood for, and on that front Event Horizon delivers. The way the film unfolds is nothing short of preposterous, but that’s part of its charm – Anderson is nothing if not a blunt-force director, with little time for mere suggestion; the images we get here are straight out of an exploitative B-horror picture. God bless it for that, and for a few moments of inspired absurdity (most of them courtesy of our beloved Sam Neill).
Future Year: 2078
Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, Screamers was a flop upon its release but has since gone on to become a minor cult classic. In the early going it comes across as a futuristic Tremors, but it ends up evolving into something quite a bit more ambitious than that. The story involves a “race” of artificially intelligent beings that are essentially miniature killing machines that burrow under the sand, slicing and dicing any humans unlucky enough to cross their path. The ever-reliable Peter Weller stars as the commander of an Alliance military base set on an arid planet called Sirius 6B. The Alliance was responsible for developing the machines to ward off attackers, but now they’ve begun to mutate into other forms and turn against their creators. There’s nothing all that mind-blowing here; just a nifty little entertainment with some inspired special effects, a game cast and a neat premise.
Future Year: Thousands of years in the future
The sequel to 1985 cult anime classic Vampire Hunter D (based on the novels by Hideyuki Kikuchi) improves in every way upon the original. Better animation, more identifiable characters, a greater sense of scope. In some ways it’s less a sequel than a re-imagining of the first movie, only with greater layers of character complexity and a more fully-immersive visual landscape. It’s also a bold imagining of a far, far, far-future world that blends elements of horror, sci-fi, American westerns, and folk mythology. “D”, the eponymous vampire hunter, is hired to rescue a young girl from the clutches of a vampire intent on making her his bride. Only problem is, the girl’s father has also hired a team of tough-talking bounty hunters to complete the job, so “D” must get to her before they do if he’s to reap the rewards. The film is beautifully rendered in the best anime tradition, with compelling action sequences and a human heart at its core.
Future Year: 2179
Alien 3 is the least effective of the iconic series; which is to say, it’s still pretty damn good. Stories of the troubled production are now legendary, with Fincher alleging constant interference by the studio during filming and even walking out during the editing process. It’s easy to see why – the studio-butchered theatrical cut is confusing, does next to nothing to delineate any of the prisoners before they’re slaughtered, and overall comes off as a deeply flawed (albeit visually stunning) creation. Which is why I’m going to suggest now that instead of watching the theatrical version, you should check out the “Assembly Cut” (released as part of the Alien Quadrilogy box set), which is as close to Fincher’s vision of the film as we’re ever likely to get. While still far from perfect, this edition of the movie is much, much better, fleshing out the characters and establishing a more coherent chain of events and motivations. It’s just as dark (if not darker) than the theatrical version, but with the benefit of the added scenes all that gloomy atmosphere actually serves to underscore the film’s thematic aspirations.
Future Year: 2154 or later
Sometimes I just don’t get the critics. This nifty sci-fi horror (sort of the The Descent in space, but way more ambitious than that sounds) was almost universally panned on its release as a junky Alien clone. Which is absurd, given that Pandorum shares very little in common with that film other than the fact that it takes place on a claustrophobic spaceship. If this movie would have come out 20 or 30 years ago, it would have been applauded as a superbly directed, well-acted study in isolation and paranoia. I’m not saying there are no derivative elements; of course there are. But for god’s sake, this is loads better (and smarter) than 90% of the sci-fi product Hollywood routinely churns out. I can only hope audiences will discover this film on DVD – it deserves way more attention than it got.
Future Year: 2379 (roughly)
Gripe if you must, but I consider Alien: Resurrection a sadly underrated sequel that boasts some intensely stimulating visuals crafted by City of Lost Children director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I’ll admit that I found the justification for Ripley’s return to be almost laughable in its absurdity, but Jeunet directs the whole thing with such ingenuity and conviction it ends up making a strange sort of sense. And really, what would an Alien movie be without our beloved Sigourney? Many saw this entry as the death of the franchise; I viewed it as a bold new beginning, in a series that should be applauded for its willingness to take risks. Enough with this Predator crossover nonsense – bring on Alien 5!
Future Year: 26th Century
Pitch Black comes off rather ordinary in the early scenes, as a spacecraft bearing a few dozen civilian passengers crash-lands on a desert-like planet and strands them in the midst of some particularly nasty winged beasties. However, it evolves into something truly special in the later going. That’s because unlike most sci-fi directors, David Twohy (who also wrote the film) doesn’t lose sight of his human characters along the way. The arcs of the two leads (played deftly by Vin Diesel and Radha Mitchell, both excellent and underrated actors) are genuinely compelling, with an unexpected pathos emerging over the course of their chaotic fight for survival. Working with a limited (for the genre) budget, Twohy nevertheless crafted a great-looking film as well, utilizing blue and red camera filters to give the alien planet a disorienting beauty. The CGI is a little underwhelming at times, but no matter; these creatures only come out at night.
Future Year: 2122
If not for its first sequel, Alien most definitely would have been number one on this list. This is the standard-bearer, the movie that spawned a new era in sci-fi horror (not to mention a raft of inferior copycats). The film is famous for its (still cringe-worthy) chest-bursting scene, but that’s merely the centerpiece of a movie so perfectly calibrated that it holds up just as well today as it did over 30 years (!) ago. Scott’s direction rightly gets the majority of the praise, but one of the main reasons for the movie’s timeless appeal is the design of the creature by surrealist Swiss artist H.R. Giger. The phallic, terrifying, strangely alluring Alien ranks alongside vampires, werewolves and mummies as one of film-doms most enduring movie monsters.
Future Year: 2179
The first film is an artful, claustrophobic nightmare whose main strength is its slowly-enveloping sense of dread and heart-catching suspense. Aliens is a different beast altogether, a balls-to-the-wall action movie with loads of firepower and Sigourney Weaver (who was nominated for a freaking Oscar for this movie, lest we forget) in full warrior mode. At the end of the day, it’s tough to distinguish which is the better film, since they’re both such excellent and visionary works utilizing very different approaches. I give the edge to Cameron’s sequel, if only for its endless re-watch-ability factor and the fact that it so effortlessly melds the foreboding atmosphere of the first movie with the breathless pyrotechnics of a full-throttle action film. It also has that bad-ass Alien Queen, one of the most magnificent creations in sci-fi history. With Aliens Cameron not only made the rare sequel that lives up to the original (and then some), he created one of the greatest films ever made in three different genres (action, horror, and sci-fi). No small feat.