Debate Club: british sci-fi films
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Debate Club: The 5 best British sci-fi films

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Jan 29, 2020

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

With a new season of Doctor Who now going on, we thought it might be a good time to pay tribute to the best British sci-fi films.

So what do we mean when we say "British," you ask? Basically, that the movie was, at least, a British co-production. The director could be of another nationality, and the film didn't need to be set in Great Britain to qualify. Pretty straightforward, right?

So, with those ground rules established, here's a look at our top five, which include disturbing dystopias, aliens, and one killer computer.

28 Days Later (2002)

Danny Boyle, after the electrifying 1-2 debut of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, went Hollywood with A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach, to decidedly less thrilling effect. So it perhaps shouldn't be a surprise that he went back to London, and perhaps back to basics, with this stripped-down, raw, absolutely terrifying zombie thriller. (Yes, yes, it's a virus. But it's still a zombie movie.)

The movie retains its visceral, propulsive horror nearly 20 years down the road: It is both fully committed and uncompromising. Perhaps a 28 Years Later at some point?

Under the Skin (2013)

This Jonathan Glazer head-trip was ignored by the Oscars — Scarlett Johansson may be nominated for two Oscars this year, but this is far and away her best performance — but the London Film Critics called it the Best British Film of 2013, and it has only grown in power and reputation since then.

The scenes Johansson filmed in-character with strange men she met on the street in Scotland remain legendary and riveting today; it is to those men's credit that they agreed, after the fact, to be a part of something that may last forever.

Alien (1979)

Ridley Scott had been blown away by Star Wars when he first saw it, but for his own landmark late-'70s sci-fi film, he knew he had to go in a different direction.

"[Alien had to be] the antithesis of Star Wars," the director said in 2019, "and be kind of dirty spaceships in space, used craft that were no longer spanking new and no longer futuristic, but felt like, as we ended up calling them, the 'freighter in space.'"

That's just one reason why his monster movie remains a stunner: you feel the dank corridors and claustrophobic design of the Nostromo in every frame as the crew tries to stay alive. Alien is such an influential film that it continues to inspire knockoffs like Life and Underwater. But no one has been able to improve on the original.

Children of Men (2006)

Among the things that's so upsetting about Children of Men is that its dark futuristic premise is presented in the most straightforward, realistic way imaginable.

As a result, Alfonso Cuarón's stunner has the weight of prophecy — it feels like a terrible future that's definitely going to happen, we just haven't gotten there yet. Not only is the film set in the U.K. but it also has the bitter resignation of so much British drama, starring a reluctant, jaded hero (Clive Owen) who does the right thing simply because no one else can do the job.

A technical marvel and bleakly funny, Children of Men isn't getting any less despairing with each passing year — even if you could call the film's ending (somewhat) happy.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick's classic is as British as films get, you know: it was edited and produced entirely in southern England, and MGM even used a British tax on box office receipts to help finance it. So if you didn't realize that 2001 was a British production, now you do.

Do we need to talk any more about the brilliance of 2001? Is there anything we can tell you that you don't already know? How about this: Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke met to discuss the project for the first time at a Trader Vic's.

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

 

 

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