Sporting cutting-edge visuals, and not as much leftover camp from the 1950s as you'd think, Fantastic Voyage was one of the more graphically innovative films of the 1960s, heightened by a tense cloud of Cold War paranoia. In the same year that Star Trek hit television, this film truly went where no man had gone before -- into the human blood stream -- with the help of a submarine shrunk to the size of a gnat. This tingling adventure into the unknown is certainly one of the factors that attracted genre director Richard Fleischer, who had helmed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 12 years earlier, and he brought a real seriousness of purpose to a project that could have been laughably mounted with cardboard special effects. Instead, the film earned nominations in all Oscar categories pertaining to visuals, winning for both effects and art direction. Starting with the slick opening credits and continuing through an every-moment-counts narrative, which includes a thorough scene devoted to the machinery and process of shrinking the craft, Fleischer imbued the proceedings with a sense of immediacy. Yes, the ship and its miniature crew have to deal with a week's worth of insurmountable problems in a scant 60 minutes, but viewers willingly gave themselves over to it. The scene in which laboratory technicians must remain absolutely silent, in order not to reverberate the comatose patient's eardrum in a way that would be fatal to the crew, is especially taut. A slippery Donald Pleasance and Raquel Welch, in one of her earliest roles, are the most noteworthy acting performances. ~ Derek Armstrong, Rovi Combining science fiction with horror, Swiss artist H.R. Giger's alien design and Carlo Rambaldi's visual effects creepily meld technology with corporeality, creating a claustrophobic environment that is coldly mechanical yet horribly anthropomorphized, like the metallic monster itself. Director Ridley Scott keeps the alien out of full view, hiding it in the dark or camouflaging it in the workings of the Nostromo. Signs of '70s cultural upheaval permeate Alien's future world, from the relationship between corporate capitalism and rapacious monstrosity to the heterogeneous crew and Ripley's forceful horror heroine. The intense frights and gross-outs, however, are credited with making Alien one of the biggest hits of 1979 (it premiered on the two-year anniversary of Star Wars); Giger, Rambaldi, et al. won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Alien went on to spawn three genre-bending sequels (and reconditioned Ripleys): exceptional '80s actioner Aliens (1986), dark prison drama Alien 3 (1992), and exotically grotesque Alien Resurrection (1997). With its atmospheric isolation, implacable monster, and whiff of social conscience, Alien stands as one of the more thoughtful yet utterly terrifying horror films of the 1970s. ~ Lucia Bozzola, Rovi Reviewing Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea isn't easy -- it isn't Forbidden Planet, with lots of profound ideas scattered around its script, or even The Fly, with a story of human frailty at its core; nor is it even Journey to the Center of the Earth, with its outsized special effects, score, and casting; rather, it represents the fun side of science fiction cinema. Producer/director Irwin Allen was a popular culture maven -- if he saw the potential to recycle an idea into something new and profitable, and pitch it in a new or different way, he did it. Thus, his production of The Big Circus was a B-movie (or "nervous A"-movie) recycling of The Greatest Show on Earth, right down to having Peter Lorre (as opposed to James Stewart) in clown makeup; and Five Weeks in a Balloon was his more modest adaptation of a Jules Verne tale, done after Around the World in 80 Days. And Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was Allen's attempt to retell Disney's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in modern terms, even getting Peter Lorre into the new movie; nuclear submarines were still a source of wonder in 1961, and the Van Allen radiation belt surrounding Earth was still a new discovery, thus giving the movie a topical edge that the Disney film had lacked. Allen's direction is a little flaccid by today's standards, but the movie is great fun and paced perfectly, packing in about two hours' worth of excitement into just over 100 minutes of screen time, all of it looking sparklingly new and topical in its settings at that time. The finished film emphasized the things that Allen cared about most: adventure, excitement, lots of undersea shots (Allen had a special fascination with undersea adventures, having made the Oscar-winning documentary The Sea Around Us), and some colorful star performances. The special effects by L.B. Abbott are the real "star" of the movie, but Walter Pidgeon brings a certain eccentric dignity to the proceedings as the possibly "mad" Admiral Harriman Nelson (a pop-culture re-imagining of real-life nuclear navy gadfly Admiral Hyman Rickover), and the rest of the cast, down to the bit players, brings a lot of color to the film. The television series subsequently spawned by this movie used most of the models and special effects designs as a jumping-off point, and became what was the longest-running non-anthology network science fiction series in history, lasting four seasons. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi Though not as polished and fascinating as its sequel, Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior), Mad Max features some of the most impressive and intense action sequences ever filmed. The first effort from writer/director George Miller, the film is reminiscent of a low-budget road movie in the style of Roger Corman. It was Mel Gibson's second film, and his Max is a vengeful loner anti-hero out of a Western. Instead of the yet-to-be-tamed Old West, however, the setting is an eerily barren world vaguely of our own time. And the horses have been replaced by roaring, menacing cars and motorcycles. The movie's weird characters and tawdry atmosphere, though, suggest something more culty, perhaps a post-apocalyptic Japanese anime film. Unlike such mainstream sci-fi films of its day as Star Wars or Alien, Mad Max has a homespun quality. At the time of its release in the United States, Mad Max hardly made a splash, and it wasn't until Mad Max 2's release that the film was recognized in America. However, it was very popular in its native Australia and elsewhere around the world. ~ Brendon Hanley, Rovi Turning away from the dystopias of The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986), James Cameron marshaled innovative special effects (and a motley crew of oil drillers) to assert that love is the answer in The Abyss (1989). Reportedly inspired by underwater footage of the recently located Titanic wreckage, Cameron decided to transfer his science-fiction-spectacle expertise to the deep sea. Shot underwater in a seven million gallon nuclear reactor tank, this extended yarn about nuclear subs, oil rig divers, and the interpersonal relations between the oddball Deepcore crew, their fearless leader Bud, his prickly almost ex-wife Lindsey, and gung-ho Navy SEALS feels authentically claustrophobic and other-worldly. The seraphic NTIs complete the sub-terrestrial wonder. Praised for its visual splendor and strong performances from Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, if not always for its plot, The Abyss was not quite the blockbuster it needed to be. But the ground-breaking, Oscar-winning special effects -- particularly the exploratory water node -- set the stage for the 1990s' explosion in CGI effects, beginning with Cameron's molten-metal T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Despite The Abyss's warm message about marital bonds, Cameron and producer-wife Gale Anne Hurd split during production. ~ Lucia Bozzola, Rovi Mike Wilson and Rod Serling's script plays heavily (and sometimes simple-mindedly) on the conflicts between faith and science, while the paradoxically inverted relationship of man to apes allows the filmmakers to drive home some rather pointed attacks on racist behavior and intolerant attitudes on our planet. Charlton Heston's performance is not particularly subtle, but, between contorted grimaces and hollered epithets, he does create sympathy for his lost and angry character. The most compelling performance is by Roddy McDowell, who must spend the entire movie hidden in an ape costume. Director Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Papillon), along with his set designers, art directors, and makeup artists, creates an intriguing alternative world, with rabbit-warren-like habitations and cold, clinical ape masters. Planet of the Apes has an undeniable camp appeal -- several lines of dialogue are both intentionally and unintentionally hilarious, gender roles are badly dated, and the ape costumes have not aged well -- but the final scene holds up as a stirring and evocative moment of self-realization. John Chambers won an honorary Oscar for his innovative makeup. ~ Dan Jardine, Rovi A movie you either go with or completely resist, this cheerfully disreputable science fiction blockbuster actually has more in common with its '50s film brethren than many other modern films. Unlike the director's heavily dismissed follow-up effort Godzilla, Independence Day revels in its genre conventions and aliens-from-Mars cliches, not to mention its steadfast rah-rah patriotism that pervades throughout. Borrowing heavily from such films as Alien and especially Star Wars, the film has enough broad performance style and overheated exchanges to fit in nicely with the films it semi-parodies. In fact, at times, it almost feels like a product of Cold War paranoia, especially in designing its alien invaders as predators before we even get to know who they are. Director Roland Emmerich pulls out all the stops, and even if it's not to everyone's liking, you can't blame the guy for trying. An Oscar winner for Best Visual Effects, and part of the $300 million-plus box office club, though it's one of those blockbusters that has as many detractors as admirers.
~ Jason Clark, Rovi For big-budget, high-octane showmanship, Aliens (the sequel to Alien, directed by Ridley Scott) is hard to beat. While not as deliberate or interesting as the first in the series, Aliens is a wide-open visual-effects bonanza, with enough intensity and thrill for three standard action movies. Director James Cameron again proves himself more than capable when it comes to making the genre pay off. Sigourney Weaver reprises her role as Ripley, but this time she's no mere survivor, she's ready to lay waste to those ultra-nasty creatures from the first movie. She's like Wonder Woman without the skimpy clothes. The female heroine in this series has always been fascinating because of her complete ignorance of her sexuality. This is given an interesting spin at the end of this film when Ripley's goal becomes to destroy the alien eggs in their nest. A slap in the face to traditional motherhood? Anyway, too much shouldn't be read into the proceedings here. The dialogue is often horrendous, and the characters other than Ripley are little more than fodder for some impressive scenes of carnage, but this remains one of the most enjoyable action movies of the mid-'80s. ~ Brendon Hanley, Rovi At a time when science fiction on film had yet to work itself out of its bug-eyed monsters period, The Day the Earth Stood Still was a dramatic step forward for the genre. Intelligently written and directed, well-crafted, and boasting a top-notch cast in good form, it was a class act all the way, as well as one of the first Hollywood films to take the idea of extraterrestrial visitors seriously (if not as a practical reality, at least as an interesting metaphor). Klaatu, as played by Michael Rennie, was that rare alien invader who wanted to save us from ourselves, and Rennie gives the character an intelligence, compassion, and strength that make him seem a lot more human than many of the earthlings he encounters, while Sam Jaffe, Patricia Neal, and Billy Gray manage to prove that not all the Earth people are violent, brain-dead slobs. Director Robert Wise and his crew create an admirable sense of tension and awestruck wonder in the wake of Klaatu's arrival (many later films with higher budgets failed to capture the magic of the spaceship landing in Washington, D.C., or the towering mystery of Klaatu's robot assistant Gort), and, at a time when Cold War paranoia was at its height, The Day the Earth Stood Still carried a strong pro-disarmament message that was quite brave for its day. The film's message remains pertinent today, and, as entertainment, its intelligence, warmth, and solid filmcraft make it an enduring classic of its kind. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi John Carpenter is a cinematic virtuoso, and his talents as a writer, director, and even composer are all at the forefront of Escape From New York. Given the mere seven-million-dollar budget, the film is a technical achievement as well as a testament to Carpenter's ingenuity. These were the days before computer-generated special effects; the aerial city view, for example, was an actual physical model that Carpenter painted and filmed -- there's nothing digital about it. At the time, Kurt Russell was best known for his roles in family films, and it's safe to say that Escape sent his career in a more profitable direction. His growly performance as the eye-patched Snake Plissken is one of the more memorable cinematic bad-guy heroes. For all its strengths, the film has a rather slow pace and never really develops much suspense, even in the action sequences. Regardless, there are many great scenes and images here; the view of the unlit, desolate New York City skyline is particularly memorable. In the years since its release, the film has gained a solid cult following and given rise to many imitators, particularly on the Italian filmmaking scene. ~ Matthew Doberman, Rovi