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January, 2009 : Essay:

Brother Can You Spare A Disk?

The SF Film Fan's Guide To What We Want And Why We Want It

The worst part about being a big fan of science fiction movies is that you've already seen all the good ones. At least it seems that way. You can find the same handful of classics listed in most books on the subject—and it doesn't take that much effort to see most of them. Yet there are a lot of interesting and largely unseen SF films out there. Finding them is the hard part.

This has always been true of the movies, of every type and genre. Yet it is harder—a lot harder—for the science fiction devotee. SF accounts for no more than a small fraction of all the films made—and the video companies have made little effort to uncover some of those hidden gems. In the last few years, we've seen an explosion of SF films onto DVD, from neglected classics (Village Of The Damned, Quatermass 2, Fiend Without A Face, La Jetee), to oddball cult films (Big Meat Eater, Sins Of The Fleshapoids, Creation Of The Humanoids, Privilege) and obscure foreign efforts (Who Wants To Kill Jesse?, Stalker, On The Silver Globe).

But there still are a lot of excellent films out there, even if some of them can be found only in film archives and in the hands of a few fanatical collectors. Some of them are so good that it seems impossible to explain why they remain unseen.

Here is a (baker's) dozen of the best of them, films just crying out for a DVD (or BlueRay) release. This is not meant to be a definitive list, there are quite a few others that could take their place (and I'll mention a few of those later).

But it would be a start.

Je T'aime, Je T'aime (1968)

Alain Resnais is one of the best known of the directors of the French Nouvelle Vague. While his Hiroshima, Mon Amour remains his best known work, it is his early films like Last Year At Marienbad, with their twisted time lines, that the critics loved best. Je T'aime, Je T'aime comes from that early period, and uses his curious editing approach to tell the story of a young man who volunteers to take part in a time travel experiment after his suicide attempt fails.

While hailed as one of his better films, Je T'aime, Je T'aime has remained obscure, thanks in part to a badly bungled U.S. theatrical release and the cancellation of the 1968 Cannes Film Festival. Nor have many in this country seen it.

Just this year, Je T'aime, Je T'aime and the other films that never played back in '68 were shown in a special fortieth anniversary retrospective at Cannes. There are signs that there may be an American DVD release in the works. We can only hope.

Kin-Dza-Dza (1986)

Few Americans have seen Kin-Dza-Dza. Even fewer have seen it with English subtitles. Many believe Western audiences would find its Soviet era humor incomprehensible. And yet, it has is an undeniable reputation. Georgi Daneliya's absurd comedy propels two ordinary Muscovites onto the strange planet Kin-Dza-Dza, where they have to somehow find their way home with the help of the single most valuable commodity on the planet: a box of matches.

Technically, RUSCICO did release a region one import DVD of Kin-Dza-Dza. But for some reason they chose not to include the English subtitles which come standard on all their DVDs. A good translation does in fact exist, which gives us hope that someone may pick up Kin-Dza-Dza for an American release (as Image has with other RUSCICO films). An animated version, Kin-Dza-Dza-Dza! is due out in December: with luck that might speed up an American release of the original film.

Signals (1970)

In 2005, First Run Features gave us a wonderful and thoroughly unexpected new DVD release: The DEFA Sci Fi Collection, which included three science fiction films produced by the East German DEFA film agency: The Silent Star, Eolomea and In The Dust Of The Stars. But the set had one curious flaw: it lacked one of DEFA's four SF movies, 1970's Signals (although the set did include its trailer and several references in the bonus materials).

Signals' omission seems inexplicable. Gottfried Kolditz's film may not be as well known in the West as The Silent Star (a.k.a. The First Spaceship On Venus), but many consider it one of the classics of Communist era SF cinema. Inspired by the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey (and sharing a very similar mood), Signals follows the search for a missing spaceship that turns up without its crew.

As they would a few years later with Eolomea, DEFA filmed Signals in 70mm. Some reports suggest that its 70mm prints may have decayed, but the Braunschwieg film festival showed a 35mm print in 2005, so there's still hope—though it may be hard convincing First Run (who holds the rights) to offer a separate release.

Voyage To The End Of The Universe (Ikarie XB 1) (1963)

By now, you've probably noticed how many films from Iron Curtain countries have made it onto this list. Foreign films have never done well in the American market—at least, not since the end of the silent era. Nor did many films from the Communist world manage to penetrate our borders during the Cold War. As a result, a number of intriguing SF films virtually unheard of in the West are out there, just waiting for someone to find them.

In the sixties, Roger Corman bought the rights to a handful of Soviet films, cutting up most of them to use the special effects in his own films. One of the most impressive of these films, the Czechoslovakian Ikarie XB 1, did manage to get released by AIP nearly intact—but only nearly. AIP's Voyage To The End Of The Universe features a new twist ending—and the plot and dubbed dialogue seem to diverge considerably from the descriptions of the original.

Those fortunate enough to have seen the American release know just how impressive Ikarie XB 1 was, with its large, moody sets (parts of which look suspiciously like they ended up on the Discovery five years later), sharp black and white cinematography and an opening sequence that might have come out of the French New Wave. What it's missing, however, is the original script by the brilliant Czech writer and director, Pavel Juracek. Fortunately, the complete original version (with new English subtitles) came to the U.S. in 2004, as part of Facets' retrospective of Pavel Juracek's films. Facets released one of the films from that series—the grimly poetic apocalyptic film, The End Of August At The Hotel Ozoneon DVD in 2006, but so far has not followed it with Voyage To The End Of The Universe. There may be a problem with the American rights to the film.

The Cosmic Journey (Kosmicheskiy Reys) (1935)

When this Soviet film played at Festivals in 2006, few people had heard of it. It may never have been shown outside the Iron Curtain before. Kosmicheskiy Reys presented a lavish, intensely-detailed vision of man's first trip to the moon, based on the ideas of the film's scientific advisor, rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. The film may not have much plot beyond the story of the first flight to the moon, but it offers detailed miniatures, stop motion sequences and painstaking efforts at scientific accuracy. Curiously, it is also a silent, with title cards.

The Cosmic Journey stands half-way between Lang's Frau Im Mond (now available on DVD from Kino) and Destination Moon. Its scientific rigor, effects, historical interest—and obscurity—make it a film that needs to be rediscovered.

Algol (1920)

Long thought lost and only recently unearthed, Algol tells the story of a man who receives a strange device from a mysterious alien named Algol. He figures out how to mass produce this machine, which can produce energy out of nothing. This makes him impossibly wealthy, but at the same time causes vast economic upheavals that put millions of people out of work.

German Expressionist cinema gave us some of the most remarkable films of the silent era. Full of shadow and strange imagery, their work eschewed realism in favor of mood and visual impact. Walter Reimann, who created the unsettling sets of perhaps the most famous Expressionist film—The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligarialso helped bring to life Algol's mysterious home planet. That alone makes the film worth seeing.

World On Wires (Welt Am Draht) (1973)

One of the curious differences between the American and European film industries is that acclaimed European directors have made notable films for television: Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander and Scenes From a Marriage; Lars Von Trier's Medea and The Kingdom; Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogueand Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Welt Am Draht.

Based on the same novel as 1999's The Thirteenth Floor, this five hour, two part movie begins when the inventor of a virtual reality system sees a friend vanish before his eyes. However, no one else remembers him and there is no evidence he ever existed. Gradually, the hero realizes that there is something sinister going on—and he begins to question his reality.

Fassbinder himself is a rather bizarre figure, who somehow managed to make 40 films before his death at age 35. Several of those films are now considered classics. While most of his best work is now on DVD, World On Wires remains unreleased. Rumors suggest this may involve some dispute over rights. Still, with the Ranier Werner Fassbinder Foundation hard at work preserving and re-releasing his films, it is probably just a matter of time before it makes it to DVD.

Not Of This Earth (1957)

Back in the 50s, Roger Corman churned out a series of zero-budget movies that many today consider classics. Certainly he had a knack for giving his films a little something extra that somehow allowed them to transcend their flaws. In these early films, the fantastic usually takes place in the midst of the everyday (mostly for budgetary reasons). In Not Of This Earth a nurse slowly begins to realize that there's something very wrong with her new patient.

Many consider Not Of This Earth Corman's best early film. That makes the absence of a DVD even harder to explain. Most of the other films he did in the fifties are on DVD, as are its two later Corman produced remakes. Not Of This Earth still plays at film festivals—and it isn't hard to find a bootleg copy. But there's no official DVD.

Let's hope Roger can get his act together!

High Treason (1929)

It didn't take long for filmmakers to copy the silent German SF masterpiece, Metropolis. U.S. filmgoers saw vast science fictional cities in The Mysterious Island and the daffy musical, Just Imagine (both of which could stand a DVD release), while England's tiny film industry made what was probably the first SF film of the sound era: a political thriller set in an impressive Neo-Gothic future London. In it a league of women devoted to peace try to stop an impending war.

While the reviewers have not treated it kindly, High Treason definitely deserves a look. It has made a few appearances at film festivals recently—as a silent. A sound print has supposedly survived, only in such poor condition that it is unusable. The documentary Silent Britain (available on Kino's recent release of A Cottage On Dartmoor) includes a few tantalizing glimpses of the film, including shots of its futuristic London.

Project X (1968)

Don't confuse this one with Matthew Broderick's lame monkey comedy: William Castle made this Project X back in 1968 and few other films come close to its sheer weirdness.

Filmgoers remember Castle best for the wild gimmicks he used to sell his films—ghost viewers, seat tinglers, Emergovision and Zotz coins—but he'd finished with them by the time he made Project X. Instead, he made a film so bizarre and phantasmorgical that it sounds like a gimmick in itself. In the 21st century, an American spy comes back from the Eastern Bloc, carrying an urgent message, but he falls into a coma before he can deliver it. Scientists try to unlock his memories by pushing him back into the year 1968, where he thinks he's taking part in a bank robbery. Then they unlock his unconscious memories, in the form of an animated sequence provided by Hanna Barbera. The wild tangle of ideas and SF concepts may never quite come together, but Castle's only science fiction film deserves to reach a wider audience. Unfortunately, it too is caught in a battle over rights.

(These Are) The Damned (1962)

Inspired by the success of MGM's The Village of the Damned, Hammer Films decided to make their own film about sinister children. They hired blacklisted American director Joseph Losey, who created a movie in which a young couple, escaping from a gang of juvenile delinquents, find the underground home of a group of radioactive children created by a secret government project. Its bizarre events take place against the familiar British landscape, and Losey films it all with a low-key realism that makes his paranoid story even more unnerving.

The Damned does occasionally show on TCM, but it deserves a wider audience.

Split (1990)

Not all that long ago a science fiction film made for next to nothing by a first time director would inevitably have been a piece of drive-in schlock. But that changed somewhere back in the 90s (thanks in large part to the emergence of the Independent film movement). Now films like Pi, Cube, and Primer have thrust themselves into the mainstream and some of the most interesting SF films of recent years have been the raw, unpolished work of backyard film auteurs (although the term "independent" threatens to become just another marketing gimmick).

Chris Shaw's tale of one man's revolt against a repressive society, Split, was one of the earlier examples of Indie SF. It remains appallingly obscure—even for a cult film—but it has its own (tiny) cadre of drooling fanboys. Certainly it—as well as several other similarly bizarre and extravagant films, such as 1993's Wax; Or, The Discovery Of Television Among The Beesdeserves a decent DVD release.

The Quatermass TV Serials: The Quatermass Experiment (1953), Quatermass 2 (1955), Quatermass And The Pit (1958)

For that last, extra treat thrown in to fill out our "dozen" films, we stray a little bit from the movies. In an era when American science fiction television shows offered kids a chance to buy their own ray guns, BBC screenwriter Nigel Kneale created three highly intelligent six-part SF miniseries. Filmed live on a tight budget, they mixed horror, science fiction and current events into chillingly realistic stories about a series of alien invasions: about an astronaut who comes back from space and slowly turns into something hideous; about a creature which comes to Earth in lots of little pieces and has already taken over the government by the time anyone notices what's going on; and of a spaceship found deep beneath a subway station, where it has been buried for millions of years.

The Quatermass stories spun off a series of movies, inspired the development of British science fiction television, and set the tone for British SF cinema for the next twenty years or more.

Only the first two chapters of The Quatermass Experiment still exist, but the other series have survived complete. Not long ago, the BBC restored them and released a region 2 DVD set containing all three. As with many of their DVD releases (such as the complete Blake's Seven), they have not offered an American version—and there is little sign that they will.

Perhaps some day they'll relent.

One needn't look far to find more deserving SF films that haven't made it onto disk: for starters, there's Jack Arnold's The Space Children, perhaps his only SF film that isn't on DVD—and one of his most heartfelt films. It can't possibly be worse than his Monster On Campusand that one's on video. Or there's Unearthly Stranger, one of the most interesting of the Quatermass-inspired British SF films, about a man who thinks his wife may be an alien.

One of my personal favorites is the Italian masterpiece of low-budget outer space insanity, Wild, Wild Planet, which plays like something out of one of William S. Burroughs' fever dreams. The short, Bunker Of The Last Gunshots, by French directing team Jeunet et Caro is still missing, even though in England it's part of a three-film set (along with Delicatessen and City Of Lost Children). The sheer weirdness of Immortel Ad Vitam makes me quite curious about Tyhko Moon, one of Enki Bilal's earlier films.

While my list somehow avoided animated film, at least four are worth noting: René Laloux's follow up to The Fantastic Planet, Light Years (Gandahar); Piotr Kamler's strange stop motion film, Chronopolis; Karel Zeman's elegant 1958 mix of animation and live action, The Fabulous World Of Jules Verne; and Mamoru Oshii's beautiful but decidedly surreal Angel's Egg.

In the realm of art films, the noted anthology RoGoPaG includes a SF segment by French New Wave auteur, Jean Luc Goddard. (Kino released it on VHS but so far have not given us a disk.)

Toho studios gave us a lot of SF films of all sorts. Among the most interesting of those not yet on DVD are the killer asteroid film, Gorath; a pair of films combining SF and crime, The H Man and The Secret Of The Telegian; and the apocalyptic The Last Days Of Planet Earth.

The most tantalizing collection of unseen films comes from behind the former Iron Curtain. In the West, some of these are little more than names, but still sound so intriguing one hopes someone will bring them here. Many praise the Russian/Polish production of Stanislaw Lem's Test Pilot Pirxa; Mechte Navstrechu was the follow-up to Planet Of Storms [bits of it were seen in another, DVD-less film, AIP's Queen Of Blood (Planet Of Blood), perhaps the best of the films Roger Corman stitched together out of bits of Russian films]; and then there's the surreal Estonian mystery story, The Dead Mountaineer Hotel, in which a detective trying to solve a murder realizes that some of his suspects are aliens (a new video game based on the original story by the Strugatsky brothers just debuted in the U.S. Hopefully this may inspire someone to release this film).

Two recently rediscovered documentaries deserve a spot on this list, as they come tantalizingly close to being SF—the German silent, Wunder Der Shöpfung (The Miracle Of Creation) and the Russian Road To The Stars. Certainly both feature truly remarkable visions of space travel (and Kubrick seems to have borrowed a few odds and ends for 2001 from Road To The Stars).

Others include the Italian film, Planets Against Us; the French Prize Of Peril (which may have been an inspiration for The Running Man); another English film, 1966's Island Of Terror (which scared me so much when I was young that I never saw the whole film); the classic 1934 German movie, Gold (and perhaps 1953's Magnetic Monster, which borrowed its effects footage); and 1964's No Survivors, Please, a German alien conspiracy film in the Invasion Of The Body Snatchers mold.

Even with this list, we've only glanced at all the interesting lost films out there. A little research could easily uncover many more. Maybe we haven't seen all the good science fiction films after all.


  1. Signals; Ikarie XB-1
  2. Kosmicheskiy Reis
  3. Je T'aime, Je T'aime
  4. Quatermass Trilogy
  5. Project X
  6. (These Are) The Damned

Copyright © 2009, Mark Cole. All Rights Reserved.

About Mark Cole

Mark Cole writes from Warren, Pa.

You can read his short story, "Reverse Engineering" at Flash Fiction Online.


Jan 7, 06:57 by IROSF
Leave your own thoughts here.

Article is here.
Jan 7, 09:33 by Ian Sales
Wax, or the Discovery of Television among the Bees has, I believe been released on DVD. And Queen of Blood certainly is available on DVD - I wrote about it on my blog here.

Myself, I'd like to see a full version of the Russian To The Stars By Hard Ways. The only English-language version of it has been Humanoid Woman, which is apparently a very bad edit. A director's edition has been recently released in Russian, however.
Jan 7, 23:07 by A G
Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World is the one I want - there's rumours of different cuts floating around.
Jan 12, 21:19 by Gabriel Mckee
A few suggestions:

A couple years ago Lincoln Center in NYC did a festival of Russian/Soviet SF. I was fortunate enough to catch the delightful Planet of Storms,, but I missed a couple others that I wanted to see, most notably Zero City (Gorod Zero), which sounds like a Soviet cross between 1984 and Kafka's The Castle; and First on the Moon (Pervye na Lune), a 2005 alternate-history mockumentary (kind of like CSA) about a fictional Russian moon landing in 1930.

There's also a Korean short film I recently read about (in Esquire, of all places) called Wild Korea-- which ponders what would happen if every Korean citizen were required by law to carry a gun.
Mar 29, 18:08 by Robert Paul Gemmell
Nice list. World on a Wires was eventually released on DVD/Bluray, so fingers crossed for the other titles.

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