The 10 best science fiction films that haven’t been made

Cover of "The Chronoliths"

My daughter just published a list of the best science fiction films, and I told her she should publish another list: of films shouted out by my dad after I hit Publish; but that’s another story.

Older readers will know that I generally disdain what passes for moving image science fiction. It all tends towards fantasy, really, which is the world’s favourite genre. There are some good sciency fiction things out there, but that wouldn’t generally be filed under SF. For example, I love Pleasantville, in which a brother and sister end up living inside a 50s TV show; by the same token, something like The Truman Show tends to have more in common with some of the SF I’ve read than, say, Star Wars.

But my daughter got me thinking about great science fiction that has never yet become a film – maybe because the narrative arc would’t work for Hollywood, or because the state-of-the-art in visual effects isn’t there yet. But it’s getting there, I think. And there are plentiful rumours concerning the first two on my list.

  1. Ringworld. Larry Niven‘s 1970 science fiction novel has seen prequels and sequels a-plenty, enough to keep a Hollywood franchise going for a decade. It has been rumoured but never made. Narrative arc: it’s a road movie, so deal with it. Visual effects: biggest problem would be not the Ringworld itself, but Niven’s imaginative alien species: the cat-like Kzin (who are aggressive but always attack before they’re ready) and the three-headed Puppeteers (who are cowardly and very manipulative). They would tend to look too much like Farscape-style muppets. Probably.
  2. Rendezvous with Rama. Arthur C Clarke’s superior version of 2001 from 1973. The technological sublime, the mysteries of alien technology; and, with its sequels, enough for a franchise (the Ramans did everything in threes…). Narrative: yeah, apart from awe and mystery, what is there? Only a ticking time-bomb deadline of getting too close to the sun and a touch-and-go escape to safety. Visual FX: I can’t think of a problem here. Spoiler: no goofy aliens required.
  3. Unto Leviathan/Ship of Fools. I’ve written before about Richard Paul Russo‘s superb and disturbing novel about a generation ship whose crew has forgotten its original purpose. It has everything you’d want for a gripping science fiction yarn, and, for a standard-length novel there’s an amazing amount of material – enough for two films. The first would be the discovery of the abandoned colony on a planet; the second would be about the encounter with the empty alien ship. Narrative: has everything. Space opera, mystery, scary aliens, the horror, the horror. Visual FX: I would very much look forward to the stained-glass-window-in-space sequence.
  4. The Chronoliths. The first Robert Charles Wilson novel I read. All of them, probably, would make great films. In this story, giant monuments to a great leader start appearing all over the world – sent from the future. Narrative: at the centre of this immense vision of mind-bending self-fulfilling prophecy is a very human story of love and loss. Visual FX: the chronoliths themselves would present no problems. The biggest challenge would be the ageing of the main characters over time.
  5. Spin. While we’re in the Robert Charles Wilson department, this one is another perfect film in the making, and has two built-in sequels. Earth is suddenly isolated from the rest of the universe. Time outside the isolation passes much more quickly than on Earth itself. Society falls apart. Then a gate opens to another world… Narrative: huge, bewildering events anchored down, Wilson-style, with a story about human beings, politics, and friendship. Visual FX: easy, plus super-evolved humans from Mars, just for fun.
  6. The Holdfast Chronicles. Suzy McKee Charnas‘ classy series about a post-apocalyptic world in which men are mired in intergenerational conflict and keep women as slaves is a lesson in feminist SF for Margaret Atwood fans. There are four volumes, so it’s another built-in franchise. Volume 1 is Walk to the End of the World, in which one of the slaves escapes the city and discovers the free women living in the wilderness – without men. Narrative: huge adventure story with a powerful message. Visual FX: post apocalypto. With horses.
  7. Bears Discover Fire. Terry Bisson’s short story could easily be adapted into an indie-style film, with a subtle message about climate change and humanity’s relationship with nature. Narrative: a simple story about people and generations, with a backdrop of extraordinary events. Visual FX: bears who can make fire.
  8. The Forever War. Ridley Scott is rumoured to be working on an adaptation of Haldeman’s story about war and alienation, the mindlessness of the military and the psychological effects of time dilation. Again, a number of sequels, but let’s make it so, Ridley. Narrative: human soldiers in a conflict they cannot possibly understand. Visual FX: space, aliens, distant planets, time dilation, military hardware. (Alternatively: John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.)
  9. Spirit. Gwyneth Jones’ space-opera version of The Count of Monte Cristo is an excellent story (obviously) of revenge told against a backdrop of her fully-realised future world of interstellar travel and alien encounters. Narrative: Count of Monte Cristo, yeah? Visual FX: Buonarotti faster-than-light travel, space stations, alien prisons, aliens. Lots for the make-up department to do.
  10. Beggars in Spain. A future world of genetic modification,  and social divisions between those who have it and those who don’t. What if we could engineer ourselves not to need sleep? What might we achieve? And what if we were immortal. Nancy Kress’ original novella and its various add-ons would make a great film. Narrative: human stories and huge social impacts. Visual FX: what does the world look like in 2091?

Here be spoilers: Prometheus

BLADE RUNNER (Photo credit: Adam Crowe)

So it’s not a direct prequel, taking place on a different planet than the one they land on at the beginning of Alien.

Is that a cop-out? Maybe. On the other hand, Ridley Scott clearly went to pains to distance this film from Alien while staying in the same fictional universe.

So I emerged with a vague sense of disappointment, because I’d gone to great lengths to avoid as much pre-publicity and discussion about the film – even going as far as offending some people on the Twitter. But then I do that every day. Probably.

But it turned out that there were no surprises in the film, not really. Even though I’d done my best to learn NOTHING about it, I could have predicted most of it, if asked.

Then I ask myself, what if I had never seen Alien or Blade Runner, two of the best films of all time, and probably the best attempts at science fiction ever committed to screen? Would I still feel disappointed?

And the answer to that is probably not. So in other words, let’s cut Ridley Scott a break. Because he is clearly the best director of fully-imagined future worlds, and that is no small thing. If you loved Alien, you couldn’t help the sense of anticipation you felt going into this. Prometheus looks fabulous, with the kind of production design you’d expect from the fully visual thinker Ridley Scott. The only problem I have with it really is that there are too many characters in it. Alien had a nice small cast, but this one adds at least 11 other characters who don’t do much other than get in the way. Maybe it needed to be longer (I would never say that about a film normally, which is saying something).

3D or 2D? Clearly when a studio is spending this much money, the director has no choice. In reality, Ridley Scott is not stupid enough to think 3D is better. I saw the 2D print and it looked great and at no point did I wistfully look towards one of the 3D screens. My 2D showing was full, too, and not all of us were wearing spectacles.

Ridley Scott hints that he’ll do a Blade Runner film. Please don’t tell me anything about it for the next four years.