Deep Cuts: Science Fiction Edition

Tess Bowler ’25 offers three chilling science fiction films for those looking for a new recommendation.

by Tess Bowler | 7/7/23 2:00am

by Lila Hovey / The Dartmouth

If Dartmouth was a movie, sophomore summer would be the cliche to end all cliches. But there’s no doubt that this term means many things to rising Dartmouth juniors. For some, it marks their first term taking a break from a sport they’ve played their whole time at Dartmouth; others take two classes and split their time between the river and Webster Avenue. For me, it means finally getting back to writing after a term as an editor for the Mirror. But I won’t lie to you, the other day, when I was researching films to write about, I thought to myself, “Why am I even doing this?”

After doom-scrolling Wikipedia pages on different science-fiction movies, I accidentally clicked on a tab I had opened to browse showings at Hanover’s only movie theater, The Nugget Theater. I remembered how a friend and I planned to see Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City” at The Nugget on opening day, June 23. But June 23rd came and went, and for some unknown reason, “Asteroid City” never played. In fact, if we wanted to see the movie at all, we would’ve had to drive over 40 miles to Montpelier, Vermont, once again reminding me that in many ways, Hanover is an artistic desert. I’m not egotistical enough to believe that I’m filling this creative gap, but maybe someone out there in Hanover or a galaxy far, far away is discovering a movie because of this column.

If nothing else, at least I’ve gained a reservoir of inconsequential knowledge that could definitely get me first place at a pub trivia game years down the line. Who else knows the name of the novel that “Soylent Green” was based on? Could anyone tell me the ending of “A Boy and His Dog?” What about George Lucas’s directorial debut? I’m starting to get the feeling this isn’t what Francis Bacon meant when he said knowledge is power.

1.  “Strange Days” – Max

All this talk of purpose and beginnings got me thinking about Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days,” the movie that inspired me to start this column back in the winter. Before the film was made available on Max, “Strange Days” was somewhat lost to time. The film was unavailable for streaming and could only be viewed on physical DVDs that were hard to come by, much like Bigelow’s solo-directorial debut “Near Dark.” Falling somewhere between the colorful visuals of “The Fifth Element” and the noir atmosphere of  “Chinatown,” the film takes place in a reimagined, cyber-technical Los Angeles during the last two anxious days of the year 1999. In this hyper-violent and crime-ridden future, people get their kicks by “jacking in” to illegal devices that allow a user to experience someone else’s pre-recorded memories – which feature everything from a nice walk in the park to adrenaline pumping robbery scenes. Ralph Fiennes, portraying an ex-cop named Lenny Nero, sells such contraband tapes until he receives one that contains the murder of his former girlfriend’s acquaintance.

The following investigation leads Nero into seedy, neon-lit scenes of L.A.’s underbelly, with special attention to clubs filled with equal parts glitter and grime. Outside of Bigelow’s immersive world-building — which culminates in an unforgettable New Year’s Eve scene — the film features a star-studded cast, as well as a grunge-rock performance by Juliette Lewis that’ll have you listening to the soundtrack for days. That is not to say the film places aesthetic over substance. Though “Strange Days” is nearly 30 years old, it is undeniably relevant to the present, providing commentary on exploitative media, police brutality and the abuse of systems of power that you would think were coming from 2020, not 1995. However, at the heart of “Strange Days” lies heartbreakingly raw performances that ground the film. Although the film is set in a world the audience knows little about, ultimately, the actors encapsulate problems of loss, identity and addiction that universally pervade the human experience. Maybe we can already feel what it’s like to be someone else.

2.  Children of Men – Starz or Amazon

In his work “Studies in Pessimism,” German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, “If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist?” Alfanso Cuarón’s “Children of Men” showcases what the world would look like if humans stopped having children — in this film’s case, because they are no longer able to reproduce.

After 18 years of world-wide human infertility, civilization is slowly collapsing: the environment is damaged beyond repair, and a global depression seems likely. The United Kingdom — the only functioning nation — has closed its borders, while the police state wars against rebel groups over immigrant rights. At the center of this story is Theo Faron, a jaded bureaucrat and former activist played by Clive Owens, who is kidnapped by a rebel group led by his ex-wife. Owen is soon persuaded to help them smuggle an immigrant into Britain that might have the key to saving humanity.

From the sweat-inducing long takes to the helplessness of the characters displayed through dialogue, “Children of Men” is a movie about struggle. Even more convincing is the world of 2027, which is not shiny and does not feature advanced technology, but rather looks like someone put our modern world through a garbage disposal. “Children of Men” is, of course, political, with built-in commentary on immigrant rights, authoritarianism and the climate crisis, but I also see it as innately philosophical. Owen experiences a pretty typical arc from bitter cynic to believer. However, the storyline is unique in that our world and Owen’s world share the same problems, just on a grander scale. We don’t have to pretend to understand Owen’s cynicism, because in our era riddled with climate crises, catastrophic wars and a pandemic, we feel just like he does. But the film insinuates that we can overcome this pessimism, finding the hope in humanity of all people and the future of this world before it’s too far gone, just like Owen does. 

So, if children were brought into the world by an act of reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Probably not. But, Cuarón supposes that maybe it’s a good thing humans aren’t wholly reasonable all the time. 

3.  Starship Troopers – Netflix

Do you remember being 17? When football was the highlight of the week and dissection in science class was the scariest thing you had to do? Do you remember not knowing what you wanted to do with your life, and all you could think about was asking out your crush to the dance? Do you remember when an asteroid destroyed your city? Do you remember when all of your friends decided to enlist in the military in order to fight giant alien arachnids that were wreaking havoc on your planet?

Truth be told, this wasn’t the first Paul Verhoeven movie I sprung for when making this list, but “Total Recall” isn’t streaming anywhere, so I had to scratch that idea. “Starship Troopers” is not like the other movies on this list; it is crude, camp, gory and somehow still unapologetically childish. It’s like you’re watching “90210,” but there’s a bunch of terrifying alien spiders and an even scarier military state, the United Citizen Federation, that only grants you citizenship if you serve your planet.

When “Starship Troopers” first opened, it flopped miserably because it was marketed as an action film rather than a satire. Audiences thought the film was promoting fascism instead of criticizing it, but I remember watching “Starship Troopers” on VHS when I was younger and thinking it was the funniest thing ever, so I guess audiences in the 1990s weren’t smarter than a fifth grader. While the story appears to be superficial and the characters even moreso, “Starship Troopers” manages to be as thought-provoking as either of the “doom and gloom” movies I suggested before this one; in a way, this fact makes the “unintelligent” movie on this list the most harrowing. If you’re not into fun and want something more serious, check out “Gattaca,” my runner-up, for free on Youtube.