Thursday, July 15, 2010

Best science fiction to watch online: Your guide to on-demand summer sci-fi

I'm guessing a lot of you students have some serious free time for the wasting this summer. I know at the end of my undergrad summers I was always trying to figure out how I wasted three months of my life. So, to help you along your way, I thought I'd facilitate your do-nothing-abilities with some summer sci-fi you may not have seen before. Most of it I'd suspect you die-hards are familiar with already. I also wouldn't try to argue all of these are "underrated," but I tried to reach for the less-than-obvious. I also gave a very strong preference to movies available on-demand (i.e almost all of these are currently on Netflix watch instantly or rentable on iTunes).

Metropolis (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

Released in 1927, this is the first feature length science fiction movie ever made. Set in the year 2026, society is separated into two classes; an ultra wealthy futuristic high-society and a class of workers forced to live underground. One man rejects the privileges of his life to join the workers in revolution. This version is remastered and includes the original movie score. Not exactly light watching, but a pivotal piece of sci-fi history.

Moon (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

Kevin Spacey stars as a HAL style robot companion and Sam Rockwell as homesick astronaut Sam Bell who has reached the end of his solo three-year moon mission and is eager to see his wife back on Earth. Mysterious things start happening on the base and Bell becomes aware his lunar mining company employer has other plans. This movie is creepy and mind-blowing, the whole product is amazing and it took down some awards at Sundance.

Serenity/Firefly (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

The tragically short-lived space western series and follow-up feature film are some of the best sci-fi to originate outside the mainstream in recent years. The stories are compelling and funny, the technology and science believable enough and the acting is more than tolerable. People pushed me to see this for a long time before I caved and became as disappointed as everyone else this show was canceled, but if you haven't seen them there's no better time than the present.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Rent on Netflix/Rent on iTunes)

I think every nerd's favorite Star Trek movie is the Wrath of Kahn, but this one's about the Bay Area (aka my home) so it takes the cake for me. An alien probe approaches earth, sucking the power from everything it passes as it sends out an unusual communication. Cpt. Kirk and company (somewhat miraculously) figure out that the ship is attempting to reach the now extinct Humpback whales to determine why they lost contact with them. The crew must go back in time on a Klingon ship and bring back a pair of whales to save the planet (the Wrath of Kahn and First Contact are streaming on WI).

Gojira (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

Gojira is the original Japanese movie from 1954 that featured the monster that would later become Godzilla. However , the original movie is far from a silly monster action flick. Gojira is actually a story of unrequited love (not of giant lizards) and the ethics of scientific breakthroughs (alluding to the atomic bomb). The unrequited love subplot is one of the first and few portrayals of a scientist with human emotions as the love of his life falls for a ship captain. The scientist also struggles with the ethics of whether his method of destroying Gojira will be used against other people.

Gattaca (Rent on Netflix/iTunes)

Not unlike me and you, a genetically challenged man played by Ethan Hawke, always wanted to be an astronaut. However, in this futuristic setting everything in life is determined by your genetic make-up. He buys DNA from a paralyzed man (Jude Law) to make his dreams happen (can't say I wouldn't mind having some myself) and falls in love with a gorgeous high-society woman (Uma Thurman). Not unlike the rest of these movies, the future plays a convenient setting for making political statements about the present. Fantastic acting and killer narrative make this an obvious watch for the two of you that haven't seen it already.

WarGames (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

I suspect this is a generational movie, most nerds my age grew up on WarGames, The Last Star Fighter and Flight of the Navigator. A very young Matthew Broderick is a hacker who gets into the Air Force's supercomputer and starts playing a game of war under the impression that it's just a very hi-tech video game. The young genius accidentally orders a nuclear strike on Cold War era Russia and he and his girlfriend must warn the Air Force and stop the computer from launching.

District 9 (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

Considering the film was nominated for best picture among other things it’s hardly underrated, but I've heard some science fiction fans didn't like District 9: I did. Aliens land in South Africa only to be placed in government forced slums. The alien ghetto conditions are horrific and speciesism abounds while world powers use their technology to turn massive profits. Through a sequence of odd turns, one government official is forced into an alliance with an alien and leads a resistance movement against the human government.

K-PAX (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

Disguised in human form, a self-pronounced alien named Prot (Kevin Spacey) claims to hail from the planet K-PAX, which supposedly surrounds a binary-star. The alien meets regularly with a psychiatrist (Jeff Bridges) who tries to show him he's not an alien and is in fact crazy. However, Prot shows strange behavior and seemingly supernatural abilities until the entire mental institution questions whether or not he is an alien. If explosions in space are what you're after, this isn't the flick for you. Spacey and Bridges are incredible in this movie, the drama they play out is hilarious and feels natural from start to finish.

Primer (Rent on Netflix)

This one was on Netflix WI forever, which is how I'd guess most anyone that has seen it was able to. You'll have to get creative to watch this one on demand, but it's well worth it. Talk about indy, this movie was made on $7,000 budget. A young engineer accidentally builds a time travel machine and a very bizarre suspenseful sequence of scenes follows. The chronology has to be the best/most plausible of any time travel movie ever made, and the dialogue and storyline are shockingly high-quality for a movie any college kid could afford on their credit card. As a testament, the film picked up the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. If you haven't seen it, the first time is incredible.

Bicentennial Man (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

This movie is only two hours long, but it feels like three. Not that the movie is slow, but 200 years is a long time to live. The movie chronicles the life of a robot (Robin Williams) from a family's household servant to a creative and intelligent being capable of complex emotions. Truly one of the highest quality sci-fi movies of all time and one of Robin Williams' greatest performances. Well worth a lazy summer afternoon.

It was decided these last five weren't Science Fiction, more like fictionalized historical science, so I threw them in at the end.

The Right Stuff (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

This is not just an epic movie about a time of major leaps in science, but a film classic in general. I'm surprised at how few of my friends have seen this. The film starts with the breaking of the sound barrier and moves up through the Mercury space flight missions. Tom Wolfe's version of history is entertaining, mostly accurate and incredibly inspiring.

Apollo 13 (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

I said they wouldn't be obvious, but really when was the last time you watched Apollo 13? I'm guessing it wasn't recently enough. This movie is an epic retelling of one of the most incredible tales NASA has in their storied history. The movie shows the unwillingness to accept failure and the determination to bring the crew back alive. This is what the public's perception of American space flight is about, it's also why everyone is so bored having our astronauts now confined to LEO. If only the agency still had this much guts today.

From the Earth to the Moon (Rent on Netflix)

Like the other highly successful HBO series, Band of Brothers, this one is also brought to you by Tom Hanks and company. Apparently, Apollo 13 wasn't enough for Hanks so he made a mini-series drama with each episode documenting one of the Apollo missions. Other than A-13, this is one of the few times I've seen a personal face put on our nation's first space heroes. These men will be built up into immortals as long as humans survive on this planet, so it's intriguing to see them warts and all. The series is equal parts tragedy and comedy, as well as inspiring and true to the times.

Fat Man and Little Boy (Netflix Watch Instantly/Rent on iTunes)

Chronicling another historic event in science history, the Manhattan project, this film shows the clashes between Gen. Groves and famous physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer in the race to build the very first nuclear bomb. The film follows the suspense felt at the time to build the bomb before the Germans and it's truly an intriguing dramatization of the dawn of the atomic age.

Thanks to Uncountable and Quantum for their help with this list.

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