Debate Club: Children of Men or Under the Skin as best sci-fi film of the 21st century (so far)

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Dec 7, 2017

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle both sides of the greatest arguments in pop culture.

In this installment, we turn our attention to the new classics in sci-fi cinema to figure out which film reigns supreme. So let's settle this once and for all. What is the greatest sci-fi movie of the 21st century (so far): Under the Skin or Children of Men?

THE CASE FOR UNDER THE SKIN

Part of what’s amazing about Under the Skin is how it expands the idea of what constitutes a sci-fi film. On its surface, this Scarlett Johansson vehicle is an alien-invasion horror flick: She plays an extra-terrestrial who lures randy, unsuspecting men to their death. But despite its incredible visuals and otherworldly score from composer Mica Levi, Under the Skin, like its title suggests, is a scruffy, intimate, unsettling experience that doesn't need big-budget spectacle to give you serious shivers. (After all, this is a film whose malicious main character drives around Glasgow in a beat-up old van.)

Johansson's terrifically off-kilter performance is the movie's greatest effect: Her edgy, chilly temptress seems just inhuman enough that her every action gives off a slight whiff of menace. (Johansson is probably most famous now for her role in the MCU, but in Under the Skin she's a real Black Widow.)

Adding to the sense of realism is the fact that director Jonathan Glazer filmed Johansson with hidden cameras as her character interacts with everyday Earthlings — and that the filmmaker cast non-actors for several key roles. In a movie that's about an alien discovering its soul, this lo-fi masterpiece strips away sci-fi's razzle-dazzle to tell a very human story that nonetheless feels profound and cosmic — which has always been the goal of science fiction's greatest works.

THE CASE FOR CHILDREN OF MEN

Most movies are desperate to show off their dystopian future. Half the time, that's all they really have to show you: lurking despair, glowing anime advertisements, gloom gloom gloom. Their atmosphere is a production designer's dream. The greatness of Children of Men is how gradually and carefully it unfurls its nightmare future world. The world looks a little bit like ours, but then little details pop up in the margins to differentiate it: to let us know, increasingly, that something has gone horribly wrong.

Children of Men is the most terrifying science fiction movie of this century because it's so definitively not sci-fi: It is dingy and ugly and sad and way too close to home. The best science fiction takes our world and twists it slightly in a way that's both new and worryingly familiar. Children of Men is chilling precisely because it doesn't feel futuristic at all. It feels like right now. Frankly, it feels more like right now than it did 11 years ago.

THE CASE AGAINST UNDER THE SKIN

This movie is horrifying — most parents we know still can't shake that scene by the lake from their minds — but one could argue that it's less a science fiction film than a sociological experiment, even with all the alien business. Heck, there are scenes in this that are arguably documentary. Great sci-fi rewards multiple viewings, but this one arguably requires them: Many viewers need to watch it twice to understand the basis of what is going on.

Also: As creepy and sad as Under the Skin is, it feels disconnected from our world in the same way as its protagonist: It feels relevant to our current world, but not urgently so like Children of Men. And not to be lizard brain about this, but shouldn't a sci-fi film at least have one action scene?

THE CASE AGAINST CHILDREN OF MEN

Children of Men is a technical marvel, especially in its use of those brilliant 'uninterrupted' car and siege shots. Its director, Alfonso Cuarón, is a genius. (Not only did he make the best Harry Potter movie, Prisoner of Azkaban, but he's also responsible for one of the great road movies/sex comedies with Y Tu Mamá También. Oh yeah, and then there's Gravity.) The guy can do anything.

All that said, Children of Men can sometimes feel a bit too showy — it's sometimes less about its ideas than it is about flaunting its incredible technique. Shouldn't the movie that wins the crown for greatest sci-fi film of the century be more than just an awe-inspiring spectacle? It also needs to have brains, heart and soul. Children of Men is a dazzling exercise, but it's also a bit impersonal — an incredible flexing of craftsmanship that invites you to wonder how the hell they pulled it off more than engages you with its familiar dystopian themes.

DECISION

Under the Skin observes us from afar, quietly commenting on our weaknesses and fatal flaws in steadily horrifying ways. But Children of Men is right down there with us in the muck. It's our world if things get out of hand; It's our world if it all falls apart. It might just be our world now. Plus: Even if the world is ending, there might be no better way to go out than by smoking weed with Michael Caine.

Children of Men is the pick.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.