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Sky High, Mars Attacks!, and more: 12 genre movies that were way ahead of their time

By Josh Spiegel
Sky High

In a normal year, the summer movie season would be full of big-budget swings in an attempt to lure audiences to the multiplex. Remakes, sequels, reboots, and revivals would abound, with comic book characters and more taking the spotlight. This is, of course, a very abnormal year, and since there are no new movies at the movie theaters (because there’s barely any movie theaters that are open), we can only look back. 

And looking back this week leads us to a film celebrating its 15th anniversary, the Disney 2005 superhero comedy Sky High, which starred big names (Kurt Russell, Lynda Carter) and up-and-comers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Steven Strait) alike. It’s a movie that arrived too early for its own good, a few years before the true superhero craze in cinema began. The candy-colored story all about a group of teenagers going to a high school for superheroes may have taken some inspiration from the world of Harry Potter, but its embrace of old-school comic book tropes was infectious, and wholly at odds with dark, gritty fare like Batman Begins.

Thus, Sky High feels like it was playfully digging at a type of superhero movie that didn’t even exist by focusing on the tropes and tribulations of so many superpower-centered films that have come in its wake. But, in retrospect, it feels like it was predicting a future wherein superheroes truly did rule the skies (even if onscreen superpowered teens still aren’t attending school among the clouds... yet). 

Sky High isn’t alone — it’s one of many genre films that arrived too soon to be appreciated until they got a cult fanbase on home media. Here are 12 films (Sky High included) that launched into action before the world was ready.

01. Blade Runner (1982)

1982 was a good year for science fiction in mainstream movies, as long as you actually showed up. That, of course, was the problem initially with Blade Runner. Though it served as the follow-up film for Alien director Ridley Scott — pairing him with the already very popular Harrison Ford (fresh off playing Han Solo and Indiana Jones) — Blade Runner was the stuff cult fandoms are made of.

The adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story was a strikingly designed and visualized blend of science fiction and neo-noir, as the hard-bitten Rick Deckard tries to locate a handful of replicants in the grim future of Los Angeles, circa... 2019.

Though the future isn’t quite what was envisioned back then — maybe it’s worse now? — Blade Runner’s vision of a metropolis dominated by wall-to-wall ads, mixed-up cultures sharing space in a vast metropolis, and video technology is a lot more prescient now than it may have seemed nearly 40 years ago.

02. The Thing (1982)

Some films gain added resonance over a long period of time, and others gain it thanks to situations outside of their control. Consider The Thing, the 1982 remake of the '50s-era horror/sci-fi film in which a remote outpost is beset upon by a mysterious alien that’s able to mimic any... thing, whether it’s human, animal, or something else.

So, really, just think about the raw power of a horror film in which anyone could be infected by something unseen and debilitating... oh, and also, everyone’s trapped inside for a while.

The Thing isn’t the only such horror film to fit some part of that description, but its visceral thrills only grew more resonant over time. The bleak horror film may not be a fun sit now, but its prescience of how quickly people distrust each other in the face of unimaginable terror is unnerving.

03. Brazil (1985)

Prescient visions of the future sometimes struggle to make headway with audiences; in the case of Brazil, the issue was making headway with the studio in charge of the film. This 1985 black comedy from director Terry Gilliam had a solid cast, including Robert de Niro and Bob Hoskins. But Universal Pictures seemed patently unwilling to release the film until Gilliam called it out in the industry trades — and the LA Film Critics Association awarded the film after Gilliam arranged for them to see the film before Universal ever set a release date.

Add to that a series of truncated versions, and Brazil was guaranteed to make a splash only on home media. And its presentation of a future dominated by corporate doublespeak, endless paperwork, and crushing soullessness feels extremely recognizable 35 years later. What a shame Gilliam couldn’t have had his full vision realized initially.

04. Return to Oz (1985)

In the 2010s, the concept of a major film studio greenlighting a movie that would revisit a recognizable world and do so in grim, gritty fashion is almost too common. Reboots and revivals are the name of the game in Hollywood now. But in the mid-1980s, as much as people loved The Wizard of Oz, they weren’t entirely sold on Return to Oz.

The sequel directed by Oscar-winning sound editor Walter Murch — his only feature directorial effort to date — doesn’t pull any punches, with Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) going back to the land of Oz mere seconds before she’s about to receive electroshock therapy.

You can stream this strange, strikingly designed film on Disney+ right now, and wonder if it might’ve gone down better with audiences in the era of intellectual property.

05. They Live (1988)

You might know about They Live thanks to its incredible all-out brawl between Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David. (Some fight scenes don’t need to be any more complicated than just two dudes in an alley, duking it out.) But this John Carpenter sci-fi horror film has become a lot more remarkable to consider in the last three decades.

Its vision of a country where most people conform thanks to the glut of hidden messages embedded within all sorts of products, advertisements, and more has only grown a lot more potent in the intervening three decades of overwhelming fealty to corporate symbols. You can come for the fight scene, but They Live will stick with you long after the fisticuffs are over thanks to its social commentary.

06. The Rocketeer (1991)

When Batman opened in 1989, studios were quick to pile onto the superhero wagon as fast as they could. For Disney, it gambled big and didn’t get much in return when it released The Rocketeer in the summer of 1991... except, of course, one of its very best live-action films.

Yet sadly, facing off against the likes of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and T2: Judgment Day, The Rocketeer was unable to compete at the box office.

Its '30s-era vision of superhero culture is as much a throwback to old-fashioned serials as it is to the Indiana Jones films and Back to the Future. But The Rocketeer also presaged the MCU version of Steve Rogers; its director, Joe Johnston, would go onto direct the first Captain America film for Marvel and establish Steve’s innate, old-fashioned goodness that served to endear him to so many fans.

But the original all-American man was Cliff Secord in The Rocketeer.

07. Mars Attacks! (1996)

Some movies are too quirky for their own good when they’re initially released. Such is the case with the 1996 sci-fi comedy Mars Attacks!, boasting a massive ensemble cast and director Tim Burton.

Burton’s film is technically set in the present but owes a lot to the B-movie schlock of the 1950s. Coming mere months after the summer blockbuster Independence Day, Mars Attacks! felt like a timely parody but one that was too weird to land with audiences correctly.

Now, its gaudy presentation of American culture, as being so self-obsessed and media-saturated, is weirdly much more timely than perhaps even Burton could have imagined. The film’s not a pretty presentation of human culture, but then... we might not deserve that kind of treatment anymore.

08. Gattaca (1997)

Before he wrote the well-liked The Truman Show, Andrew Niccol had a different vision for a not-so-distant future with Gattaca. The moody sci-fi drama had an impressive cast, including Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and a young Jude Law, and a sterilized depiction of a future heavily reliant on its denizens having good or bad genes.

Hawke plays a janitor with aspirations for space travel that would be hindered by his bad genes, until he works alongside Law’s wheelchair-ridden invalid (who otherwise has flawless genes) in the hopes of getting to explore outer space. While most of the scientific theories here feel like hooey, the notion of people being obsessed with their physical presentation (and denigrating those with lesser qualities) has not diminished in the new century.

09. Dark City (1998)

After the cult success of The Crow, director Alex Proyas moved onto the ultra-moody, 1998 sci-fi neo-noir Dark City. Though that mashup of genres always appeals to filmmakers, it wasn’t enough to appeal to audiences, which is a shame.

This haunting drama puts Rufus Sewell at the center of the action as an amnesiac trying to remember his identity and why it is that he’s been dropped in the middle of a grim, bleak city where A) it’s always night, and B) no one else except for our intrepid hero seems to notice that it’s always night.

Dark City was a fantastical vision but one that feels awfully timely now, as people’s perceptions and interpretations of reality become so jagged and unsure. Proyas’ distinct eye for visuals made Dark City a remarkable story and one that burrows into your memory long after it’s over.

10. Mystery Men (1999)

Superheroes have been a part of popular culture for nearly a century. But for a long time, they were much less common within cinema. For every Superman: The Movie, there was a Supergirl or a The Shadow. So satirizing superheroes in movies was a bit of a harder ask back in the late 1990s.

That’s what the very funny, and weirdly prescient comedy Mystery Men aimed to do. Its lead characters, played by Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, and Hank Azaria, were all unique and distinct heroes whose powers were... uh... questionable. (Macy’s earnest good guy is The Shoveler, because... well, he carries a shovel around and uses it as a weapon.) After these B-list heroes inadvertently knock the Superman-like Captain Amazing (who walks around with a suit full of advertisements and sponsorships) out of the picture, they have to face off against the weird and terrifying Casanova Frankenstein.

Mystery Men is very, very strange, with non sequitur humor, a heroine whose talent is throwing a large bowling ball that houses her father’s head, and the Smash Mouth song "All Star." But its vision of a world dominated by superheroes was a few years too early.

11. Sky High (2005)

The film celebrating its anniversary this month would have to be on this list. Before the Walt Disney Company purchased Marvel and brought the MCU into the fold at the House of Mouse — hell, a few years before the first entry in the MCU even was released let alone greenlit — it released the lighthearted superhero teen comedy Sky High.

Taking a cue from the world of Harry Potter, Sky High envisions a world in which budding heroes go to a special school to hone their craft. Our hero, Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano), has the burden of being the only child of the two most beloved superheroes in the world (Kurt Russell and the late, great Kelly Preston). But Will soon finds his own powers, makes some new friends, and saves the day.

Sky High is a playful take on superhero culture, but in a campier way than what the MCU would turn into. It’s kind of a shame that this didn’t hit bigger with audiences; its charms work on you on repeat viewings.

12. Colossal (2017)

The toxicity of men cannot be denied, especially in an era dominated by countless abuse and assault allegations towards men in varying levels of power and industries.

But the 2017 genre mashup Colossal was merely a few months early in its depiction of how a seemingly nice guy (Jason Sudeikis) winds up being very cruel and nasty indeed by revealing his true colors to our heroine, played delightfully by Anne Hathaway. In this complex performance, Hathaway plays a frustrated woman who realizes that when she’s walking in a specific playground at a specific time, she’s able to remotely embody a Godzilla-like monster wreaking havoc in Seoul, South Korea.

Hathaway’s performance, full of nuance and dimension, makes Colossal worth watching; its depiction of how men terrorize women, especially when they seem nice, wound up being awful prescient in the post-#MeToo era, as well.