The 8 best sci-fi films with minimal dialogue

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Feb 27, 2017

In 2001, Daft Punk's Discovery put a metaphorical gun to critics' heads and blew their collective minds. But then, the French electronic music duo revealed they had also made a multimillion-dollar movie whose entire audio was the Discovery album.

This made me consider other classic sci-fi and fantasy films with minimal dialogue.

At first, I thought, "Why wouldn't I want dialogue spicing up every film?" Then, after hearing lines like "I think that only applies if you’re kissing a human," "Too bad you will die," and Nic Cage screaming about bees, I decided I never wanted to hear any movie dialogue again.

In honor of the 16-year anniversary of the release of Daft Punk's second studio album, Discovery, take a look at these industry classics that achieve high art without any repartee.

Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem (2003)

After making the groundbreaking electronic music album Discovery, Daft Punk decided to make a film using the album as the only audio -- this one! If you like the Discovery album, you'll probably enjoy this film. However, if you hate Discovery but you love blue alien musicians being kidnapped ... you're going to be conflicted.

The $4 million work tells the story of a power-obsessed man who kidnaps alien bands and forces them to make gold records. As it turns out, acquiring 5,555 gold records will allow their owner to rule the universe. (Just think, Elvis Presley got almost 2% of the way to "ruling the universe.")

The ambitious concept is kept afloat through the control of Dragonball/Sailor Moon director Kazuhisa Takenouchi, and his techno-space-pop style is pervasive. Check out the whole film here. On a scale of "one" to "twice as good as Avatar," I'd rate this film as a "little better than Avatar." Definitely worth at least one watch

The Mechanical Man (1921)

This 1921 Italian work is the first film to show a battle between two stiff robots (a battle that would be mirrored in the climax of every Rocky sequel). For decades, this landmark movie was thought to be completely lost. A damaged reel was eventually discovered, which is why only 26 minutes of the 80-minute film now exist. Still, what's left is enough to convey how extraordinary this film was for its time. (If you want to skip to the cool robot scenes, go 12 minutes into the video.)

The mechanical man action starts with the classic tale of robot-chases-man, man-hides-in-wardrobe, robot-carries-wardrobe-to-the-roof-rather-than-just-destroy-it. The robot fight scene (at 22 minutes in) is spectacular. They meet up in an opera house and duke it out with special effects technology that was pretty eye-popping for the time.

Alice (1987)

The classic Lewis Carroll yarn is usually portrayed somewhat like a fairy tale. But in 1987, Czech director Neco z Alenky thought "It's not a fairy tale, it's just a bunch of weird stuff that happened," and from there embarked to make his vision of the classic story. Since most people's dreams have minimal music (unless you're Paul McCartney), the entire film is devoid of any score. In addition, there is minimal dialogue, and the whole thing comes off so award-winningly unsettling that some have said it more closely resembles a horror film than one from the dark fantasy genre. There are snippets of speech, but fans of weird will be pleased to know that these are usually accompanied by uncomfortable close-ups of the mouth speaking them.

Adding to the odd style is the inclusion of a ton of stop-motion shots, but, uniquely, no miniature sets. It also adds to the horrific creepiness: When Alice shrinks, the actress is replaced by a freaky-looking doll. This is just one of the many visuals which check the "uncanny valley" box.

Blood Tea and Red String (2006)

This delightful "fairy tale for adults" had an arduous production process that even Walt Whitman might call excessive. Creator/animator Christiane Cegavske drew about ten seconds of footage per day for 13 years. The result is a delightful (and sometimes creepy) fairy tale which touches on modern issues such as class differences, intellectual ownership and giving birth to scary birds with human heads.

Overall, the charm comes partly from the original fable illustrated but mainly from the rough but painstaking animation style. If you're like me, then almost every movie you see begins with a cartoon desk lamp and you're getting tired of overpolished animated films. It evokes memories of those stop-motion animation commercials on MTV during the '80s and '90s, not to mention some of the videos from that period.

The second part of this trilogy was announced in 2011, but since the first part took 13 years, temper your expectations until 2024. Click here to watch the whole film.

Idiots and Angels (2008)

Bill Plympton got famous in the 1980s for his wriggly lined animation style. He's the artist who people go, "Oh, it's that guy," when seeing a sample of his work.

Work like this.

Yeah, that guy. In the 2000s he made two feature films. The first, Hair High, was a brightly colored movie with lots of dialogue. Plympton decided he wanted to go the completely opposite direction with his follow-up title, Idiots and Angels. So the animation is more gritty and drab, and there's no dialogue.

Here's a link to watch the entire film that you're sure to love (provided you love 1/4 of your screen showing the film and 3/4 of your screen demonstrating a non-Newtonian fluid).

Plympton states that he chose to include minimal sound and dialogue to focus on scenes as if they were "music videos." Since Plympton has actually produced a Kanye West music video, this got me plenty excited. However, upon watching Idiots and Angels, I found "music video" to be a misnomer, as the film is missing the quick cuts and needless visuals that fill most music videos, instead focusing on character development set to a background of instrumental musical fare.

In fact, it is primarily this discrepancy between one's expectations of an animated film and the actual morose setting which leaves the film open for artistic interpretation, as the story is generally straightforward. That's not to say the film isn't without it's 'cartoon' moments: a car is blown up, the protagonist cleaves off his own appendages with a chainsaw, there's a lot of bombs, etc.

In all, Idiots and Angels is great artistic mind fodder for those with patience/those who don't have patience but do have ample access to downers.

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

This September will mark the 115th anniversary of this legendary French short film. Known as the first sci-fi flick, it was a mind-blowingly grandiose project for the time: the 14-minute short cost approximately 10,000 francs ($4 million today) to make. The elaborate sets and effects would push filmmaking to new levels. Unfortunately, the fact that George Melies, the creator of the film, went bankrupt from it is a cruel twist of fate. Oh, did I say, "fate"? Because I meant to say "a cruel twist of Thomas Edison's wicked whim." The inventor bought a smuggled copy of the film, then distributed pirated copies all over America. Still, one thing Edison could not take away from Melies is his status as the most innovative turn-of-the-century filmmaker.

There are two versions of this film on YouTube: The original black and white print and a hand-colored one. Having only seen the black-and-white version prior to researching this film, I was surprised to see the colored version had some key additions. Namely, when the bullet capsule hits the moon's eye, the colored version shows a huge gob of blood dripping out of the wound, changing the theme from whimsical to tragically gory. Both versions have the same ... minor astronomical imperfections.

The astronauts return home safely (and even bring a moon man prisoner because that's how callous people were in 1902). Interestingly, this seems to be the first movie instance of "everyone starts dancing in the end, even if it doesn't make sense," as the captured moon man even jumps into the party.

La Jetée (1962)

A true artist is able to create even when stripped of his key tools: Da Vinci ditched his paintbrush to make timeless sculptures, Beethoven created classical music despite being deaf, my cousin Marty can make almost anything into a bong, etc. Despite these historical precedents, it's still shocking that one of the most fundamental sci-fi movies was made almost completely without a video camera. Director/Writer Chris Marker could only afford a camera for a brief afternoon shoot, so the rest of the movie was comprised of still photographs accompanied by narration. A tall order for a film that is attempting to present visual evidence of a post-apocalyptic society.

This dialogue-free film, the inspiration for Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys (1995), tells a tale of love and time travel. Frankly, this film is so groundbreaking, it's worth learning French to understand (but still, here is the English translation). The narration is important, as it establishes that captives are sent back/forward in time to try to fix the present.

It is a known law of science that, if you give a lab animal precise instructions for solving a maze and then let it out of its cage, that animal will ignore the maze and procede to hump the nearest breathing creature. This high-end concept is mirrored in La Jetée. A hapless prisoner of war is repeatedly sent back in time to save the present but spends most of his time utilizing his Groundhog Day powers to seduce a woman. Finally, the captors realize that sending him into the past is not saving the present (what, did they expect him to come back with a society-saving cotton gin?). Sending him ahead in time fixes the present in like three seconds, thanks to futuristic super-technology. The result is a more intense slideshow than when my Drivers' Ed teacher updated Red Asphalt into a Powerpoint.

Electroma (2006)

Fans flocked to see Daft Punk's 2006 film release hoping for more of the visual feast provided by Interstella 5555. They were roundly disappointed. While Electroma has some amazing points going for it, the style is nearly the polar opposite. Despite featuring the iconic robot costumes of the band, Daft Punk does not star in the film. They didn't even do the music. Instead, they were the directors, writers and cinematographers for this risky release.

A warning: Electroma was most enjoyed by people who like arthouse cinema, fans of Warhol's works and other films meant to intentionally alienate the viewer. If looooooooong takes of gorgeous scenery isn't your thing, you will not enjoy this film. Actually, it turned out that one part with uncomfortably long scenes of robots hiking through breathtaking shots of the desert isn't anybody's thing, as this part prompted a majority of the audience to walk out when the film was screened at Cannes.

While slow, the shots are amazing, and there are enough plot points to keep the artistic experience generally enjoyable. The filmmakers do a great job of making everything appear like it's 1975, using an avant-garde technique called "filming in Central California." In addition, there is a lot of toying with contrast to make spectacular shots.

Fans of Daft Punk's body of work will find the theme quite familiar: Robots seeking to become human. Originally conceived as a video for their third-album track "Human After All," Electroma was given the midnight movie screening treatment in Paris for six months.

NOT SAFE FOR WORK WARNING: About 2/3 of the way through this otherwise inoffensive film, there is a silhouette of what appears to be ... some sort of private organ. In fact, the shot is lit in such a highly-contrasted way, and the inclusion of this shot was so gratuitous and out-of-place (it's placed among an excessively long walk through sand dunes) that I couldn't even tell I was looking at something dirty. But then my wife walked in and asked "Why are you and the kids watching a giant hoo-ha on TV?" so I figured I should warn you.

Still, in a way, all of these films are showing us their own metaphorical private organs by expressing an unusual level of intimacy. Here's hoping this list inspires you to experience a common form of media in a new way (like how I used to think all movies were in 3D but it turned out I just needed glasses.)