Total Recall

Total Recall: Our Favorite Sci-Fi Noirs

With Inception hitting theaters, we take a look at movies that take a dark view of the future.

by | July 16, 2010 | Comments


After months of speculation and slowly deafening buzz, Christopher Nolan’s Inception arrives in theaters this week, bringing with it a mind-bending storyline that promises visual thrills as well as thought-provoking themes. It’s also the latest in a long line of films that blends the visceral power and dark mood of film noir with the boundless worlds of sci-fi — so naturally, we got to thinking about our favorite sci-fi noir classics from the past. This week’s Total Recall includes plenty of manhunts, an abundance of rich subtext, and — of course — plenty of Philip K. Dick. Let’s get started!


12 Monkeys

A hunted man, furtively moving through darkness, burdened with a fight against seemingly insurmountable odds. A post-apocalyptic future in which the human race has been ravaged by a lethal virus. And a knotty, helical storyline that paws madly through the tangled space-time continuum. While it isn’t the best-reviewed movie on this list, and it certainly wasn’t the biggest box office hit, Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys combines its sci-fi and noir elements more enthusiastically than most — and it has the added benefit of a protagonist whose frantic befuddlement often matches the audience’s. To earn a pardon for his misdeeds, convict James Cole (Bruce Willis) agrees to try and stop the virus by traveling back in time — a mission complicated by the fact that, to anyone in the past, he sounds like a crazy person. As with many time-travel movies, you’ve got to pay attention or you’ll lose the plot; the upside, as noted by Robert Roten of the Laramie Movie Scope, is that “It will keep you thinking long after you watch it.”


Ghost in the Shell

A source of heavy inspiration for the Wachowski brothers, Ghost in the Shell takes thorny philosophical questions like “what is the nature of human consciousness?” and coats them in an anime candy shell. Set in the year 2029, Ghost follows the adventures of Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg police officer on the hunt for the Puppet Master, a shadowy hacker who implants false memories into his victims — and who may have a deeper connection with Motoko than she realizes. Sleek, stylish, and immensely influential, Ghost in the Machine spawned a sequel (2004’s Innocence) and earned praise from critics like Barry Walters of the San Francisco Examiner, who wrote, “If you try focusing on the plot particulars, Ghost is frustrating and, despite the gunfire, not entirely dramatic. But as a piece of dark art, it’s substantial and successful.”


The City of Lost Children

Brimming with writer-director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s signature visual élan, The City of Lost Children plunges viewers into a dark world where a mad scientist (the fabulously creepy Daniel Emilfork) kidnaps children, hooks them up to nefarious-looking contraptions, and…steals their dreams. Their only hope is One (Ron Perlman), a circus strongman whose little brother is among the kidnapped; he enlists the help of a deceptively adorable orphan (Judith Vittet) and embarks on a perilous journey filled with bizarre, Gilliam-esque touches like weirdly monocled henchmen and a talking brain. “The City of Lost Children is a series of associated visual stimuli so imaginative and omnivorous that their spectacle has the effect of wearing us out,” wrote Jeff Millar of the Houston Chronicle, echoing a common complaint of Jeunet’s work. “Nevertheless, if you think of yourself as warped, you really must see this.”



Taking our darkest fears about eugenics and cloning, and combining them with a classically structured crime thriller, Gattaca starred Ethan Hawke as a genetically flawed “in-valid” who makes his astronaut dreams come true by buying off a paraplegic ex-swimmer with perfect DNA (Jude Law). In doing so, he breaks the tightly enforced genetic purity laws, forcing him to live with one eye over his shoulder — and putting him secretly at odds with his policeman brother (Loren Dean). It was greeted with critical applause, but audiences weren’t interested for some reason — a disappointment for scribes like James Sanford, who called it “a smart, beautifully crafted piece of not-so-science-fiction that manages to successfully mix social commentary and suspense into a generally enthralling story.”


Minority Report

What if we discovered a system that gave law enforcement the ability to see crimes before they happened…and what if that system had a flaw no one knew about? Based on a 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick, Minority Report explored the tension between public safety and individual liberty during a time when the debate over how to find a reasonable balance between the two raged with particular rancor — and it did it with style, too, thanks to Steven Spielberg’s distinctive direction and the action hero antics of Tom Cruise, who starred as John Anderton, a “precrime” officer who goes on the run after he’s accused of committing an upcoming murder. Its mix of thoughtful themes, dazzling special effects, and fast-paced action proved a potent blend for audiences as well as critics; as Dan Jardine wrote for Apollo Guide, “There is much to praise here, as Spielberg’s onscreen technical wizardry represents, in many ways, the apex of this art form.”


The Terminator

It was made with a fraction of the mega-budget gloss that enveloped its sequels, but for many, 1984’s The Terminator remains the pinnacle of the franchise — not to mention one of the most purely enjoyable movies of the last 30 years. Subsequent entries would get a little hard to follow, but the original’s premise was simple enough for anyone to follow: A scary-looking cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) travels back in time to kill a woman (Linda Hamilton) before she can give birth to the child who will grow up to lead the human resistance against an evil network of sentient machines. Tech noir at its most accessible, Terminator earned universal praise from critics such as Sean Axmaker of Turner Classic Movies, who wrote, “Gritty, clever, breathlessly paced, and dynamic despite the dark shadow of doom cast over the story, this sci-fi thriller remains one of the defining American films of the 1980s.”



A strange film, even within the genre-blending context of this list, Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville takes the popular gumshoe Lemmy Caution (played by Eddie Constantine) and hauls him into the grim future world of the dystopian titular city. Armed with a pistol, a trenchcoat, and a dame, Caution embarks on a mission to destroy Alpha 60, the computer that runs Alphaville, and kill its creator, the enigmatic Professor Von Braun. Unlike most sci-fi movies, Alphaville includes no special effects — Godard filmed in Paris, relying on the city’s modernist architecture to set a futuristic mood and creating, as the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr put it, “an outstanding example of the filmmaker’s power to transform an environment through the selection of detail: everything in it is familiar, but nothing is recognizable.”


Dark City

Philosophers and scientists have been trying to locate the seat of the human soul for as long as there have been philosophers and scientists, and we’re arguably no closer now than we were when we started — so it would be unreasonable to expect a 100-minute science fiction film to solve the riddle, or even shed any new light on the subject. Dark City probably doesn’t do either of those things, but it does provide plenty of nifty special effects, and it blended sci-fi and noir more enthusiastically than any major American entry in the genre since Blade Runner. For some critics, this wasn’t enough to forgive City‘s occasionally incomprehensible plot (eFilmcritic’s Rob Gonsalves called it “one of the most ludicrous movies in years”), but most scribes responded to director/co-writer Alex Proyas’ stylish visuals, and some fell completely in love with it; the Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter, for one, declared that “if you don’t fall in love with it, you’ve probably never fallen in love with a movie, and never will.”


The Matrix

At the unlikely intersection of sci-fi, noir, and “whoa,” The Matrix postulated a future world in which sentient machines harvest energy from people housed in vast pod farms, with only a remarkably adept kung fu student named Neo (Keanu Reeves) standing between the human race and indefinite servitude. Taken as a whole, the trilogy might be uneven, but the Matrix movies blended sleek futurism, messy cyberpunk, and good old-fashioned action thrills with an original audacity that hasn’t been seen since. “If there has to be a quintessential film for the end of the millennium,” wrote Kevin N. Laforest of the Montreal Film Journal, “this is it.”


Blade Runner

When you hear the words “sci-fi noir,” Blade Runner is probably one of the first — if not the first — movies that comes to mind. And for very good reason: Although it landed with a damp thud when it arrived in theaters in 1982, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has acquired a devoted following over the years, and is almost universally acknowledged as a classic today. Unforgivingly grim and brilliantly plotted, this is a look at a future in which bio-engineered robots called “replicants” are used for dangerous off-planet work — except for the brave few who sneak back to Earth, where their presence has been banned. To keep the planet replicant-free, cops called “blade runners” are tasked with hunting them down; Blade Runner follows the weary path of a runner named Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who is lured out of retirement in 2019 to decommission a small band of replicants hiding in Los Angeles. Calling it “A dark masterpiece exploring android slavery and the decay of the human condition,” Brian McKay of eFilmCritic declared, “Its visceral imagery of a futuristic and dystopian Los Angeles sticks with you for life.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Inception.

Finally, here’s the trailer for the revival of Metropolis, a movie that blended sci-fi and noir before there was even film noir:

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