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Insomniac Science Fiction


My house has three cats, and every morning between 2 and 4 a.m., at least one of them needs to go outside. My wife, who could sleep through an alien invasion, they do not bother. No, they come to me, doing that cat thing of whacking you in the face until you wake up, groggily go down the stairs, and let them out (yes, I put them out before I go to bed. They get back in. Somehow). Sometimes I stagger back upstairs and then immediately fall back asleep. But sometimes I don’t, and then I’m stuck being awake, with a low-revving brain, for a few hours at least.

This has given me an appreciation for films that are watchable in my insomniac state — some bad, some quite good, but all for various reasons that one may, if one chooses, sort of stare at glassily for an undetermined period of time, waiting for sleep to come again. As it happens, quite a few of these films are science fiction films. Here are some of my favorites to view, half-awake, between 2 a.m. and dawn.

2001: A Space Odyssey
I figure I’ll get the one
acknowledged classic out of the way. And it is a classic, but that’s not
why it works in this circumstance. It works because it’s a low-dialogue
film, and most of the dialogue that does occur happens in flat,
unemotional tones, i.e., doesn’t really impinge on what’s passing for
your consciousness at the time. Even HAL killing everyone seems oddly
soothing. And in the meantime, oh, look: pretty pictures. One may
appreciate Kubrick’s obsessive attention to detail without having to
engage with it. This one pretty much works as a sedative as it is.

Logan’s Run
It’s kind of a terrible movie, but there’s something about the
unrepentant ’70s feel of it — feathered hair, tunics, hippy-trippy free love
among the youth (with the sinister undercurrent of, you know, death) —
that makes it oddly compelling when your brain is on the “duh” setting.
Like, dude, it’s the future, and everyone looks like they came out of a Wella Balsam commercial.
Is that a future I really want to live in? My balding head tells me no.
If you’re too young to get the Wella Balsam reference, incidentally,
you’ll fit right in with the people in this flick.

Blade Runner
One, it’s pretty to look at, in a “world’s gone to hell but at
least it’s being photographed by Ridley Scott” sort of way. Two, it’s
got that film score by Vangelis which is big on soaring synths and
which may ease you back into sleep all by itself. Three, this is
Harrison Ford’s most laconic performance; he looks like he’s
sleepwalking through the film, even when he’s getting the crap beat out
of him. Four, if you’re like most science fiction nerds, you’ve already
seen it a hundred times so you can just settle in and shut off your gray
matter. It all works.

The Hidden
This is
an underappreciated gem of a science fiction movie about a bad alien who
hops into human bodies in modern L.A., causing all sorts of wreckage
along the way. There’s lots of action and shooting and killing in the
film, which initially doesn’t suggest that it’s a film you’d want to
watch if you hope to get back to sleep. But there’s something hinky
about the pacing and direction (from journeyman director Jack
Sholder) that turns it oddly soporific. It’s not bad, it’s just off — and it makes the film seem weirdly airless and dreamlike. Maybe it’s just me. Watch it and see you if you see it too.

Battlefield Earth
This
is one of the worst science fiction films of all time if you’re
watching it with your brain turned on, because you’ll spend all your
time going, “But … but … what? Oh, hell, no, John
Travolta!” But when your brain is doing a slow-speed chase down the
highway of early morning? Oh, my. It’s still bad — this is a protean
level of awful, which cannot be denied — but it also becomes horribly
watchable. This is almost entirely because it’s clear John Travolta is
having the time of his life playing a terrible, dreadlocked alien in
Gene Simmons boots. His enthusiasm for the thing is infectious, like a
tetanus-laden nail (Forest Whitaker, on the other hand, looks like
there’s not enough tequila in the world for what he’s stumbled into, and
he’s absolutely correct). I don’t want to say I recommend this
film to anyone. What I’m saying is that if it’s 3 a.m. and you’re up and
it’s on cable TV somewhere? Well, it’s not like you were planning on
doing calculus then, anyway. Might as well watch Travolta chew an entire
planet’s worth of scenery.

So those are my insomniac scifi flicks. Got any others?

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