Dystopian Sci-Fi Makes for Good Cult Classics

Originally published at Examiner.com on January 3, 2010.

Since it’s the beginning of a new year and decade, films about the future come to mind when thinking of cult classics.

In particular, there seems to be a trend of dystopia (the opposite of perfect utopia) in these sci-fi, futuristic cult films. Perhaps they are only appreciated later or by a specific audience because of their distressing, yet somewhat realistic images of the future.

For starters, there’s the silent film directed by Fritz Lang, Metropolis (1927). Released over 80 years ago, this is one of the first groundbreaking sci-fi films with a dystopian outlook. Early on, Metropolis explored themes of capitalism, technology, and urban social crises. While today it’s a landmark in film history, it is also considered a cult classic because of its then unpopular, less-than-ideal depictions of a futuristic world.

Then in 1982, there was Blade Runner, of course – one of the most recognizable of its kind. Directed by successful filmmaker Ridley Scott, the movie’s plot centers around the war between human clones (known as “replicants”) and the cops who are out to terminate them (called “Blade Runners.”) The story is set in a 2019 Los Angeles – just nine years away from our current year. Upon its theatrical release, it didn’t fair very well at the box office and critics were undecided. Today it is considered a staple in sci-fi films and is a favorite cult classic of film enthusiasts and scholars.

A few years later, Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame) directed a film called Brazil (1985). The film is both comedic and tragic with its themes pointing to a bleak future. The society depicted is very Orwellian and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and is eerie to watch given some of its realstic predictions of current society (like rampant plastic surgery, for example.) Again, not a box office success in 1985, but it is more highly regarded and appreciated now.

With all of the examples (and these are just a few), it seems that sci-fi, dystopia, and futuristic are good ingredients for the cult status recipe. And why? Because for some reason, they fail to make an impact upon release, yet are appreciated later. This is somewhat ironic since all of these films are set in their relative futures. Can we just not handle seeing disturbing predictions of our own world?

Take today’s case. Children of Men (2006), directed by Alfonso Cuaron, proved to be a brilliant film about a frighteningly realistic and grim 2027. It is probably the dystopian sci-fi movie of our generation, but it somehow went under the radar despite being critically acclaimed across the board.

Perhaps the trends are tried and true, and Children of Men is the next dystopian sci-fi cult classic in the making.

Weirding Up the Romance: Cult Classics for V-Day

Originally posted on Examiner.com and my Open Salon blog.

Why watch the upcoming Valentine’s Day with an overload of trite story lines and actors when you can watch these strange cult films instead? Yes, cult classics can tell stories of romance and sex…Just don’t expect it to be mainstream love.

Some of the best romantic couples on screen were the most interesting and complex ones found in films that had a cult status. Below are some recommended cult films, or films that have strange and fascinating couples.

Weird up the romance this Valentine’s Day weekend with the following movies:

  • Harold and Maude (1971). Beware – This first one is probably the weirdest. Hal Ashby directs this black comedy in which a 19-year-old boy (Harold) begins a relationship with a 79-year-old woman (Maude). And yes, it turns sexual. The film is surprisingly heart-warming, but in a way that involves themes of death, friendship, and human connection. Don’t let the storyline scare you – It’s worth the watch.
  • Fight Club (1999). Whether or not the film Fight Club - directed by David Fincher – is a cult classic is debatable and depends on who you ask. But the audience appreciation (which happened after its DVD release) much resembles the cult “fight club” gang that makes up the movie. Why is it relevant for a cult classic V-Day weekend? Two words: Marla Singer. Played by Helena Bonham Carter, she and Edward Norton’s character (The Narrator) find each other through support group meetings – and both of them are imposters. The story takes many surprising twists and turns, but ultimately, this destructive pair is one you can’t forget.
  • Punch-Drunk Love (2002). Though not a box office success, a select many have come to love this off-beat love story directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Another dark comedy, Adam Sandler breaks out of his typecast and surprises with this performance as Barry – a loner with severe rage issues. He meets Lena (Emily Watson) after she tracks him down with the help of one of his seven sisters, but many complications start to challenge their new romance. By the end of the film, it’s clear that their connection is due to their individual oddities, which help them understand each other in ways that no one else could. Not your average pair, but an intriguing one nonetheless.

So there you have it! Non-Hollywood films with couples that can shake up any Valentine’s Day movie plans. Have a film in mind that I didn’t mention? Share it in the comments!

The ‘Twilight’ Movies: Cult Classic Status?

AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was written on my Chicago Cult Classics Examiner page a few days before the release of Twilight: New Moon. This is not meant to belittle the Twilight series, but rather, it’s an observation based on the fact that the saga has often been referred to as a “cult classic” in the media.

Originally published at Examiner.com on November 18, 2009.

With the sequel New Moon on its way this Friday, there’s been a lot of talk once again about the Twilight series. Several blogs and online news sources have been using the following phrase to describe the movies: “offically a cult classic.”

But can you really call a multi-million dollar franchise like Twilight a cult film? For one, it was successful before it was even released in theaters. Normally, but not always, cult classics become such a thing because of their post-release success – such as in DVD and video rentals. According to IMDb, the first Twilight film made an estimated $70 million in its U.S. opening weekend alone. Compare that to, say, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (considered a cult classic), which made $147,839 its opening weekend. By the end of its theater run, it had made less than $3 million overall.

Yes, the films are adapted from the already-popular novel series. However, it’s difficult to see how something this successful and wide-ranging could be considered a cult classic with a cult following.

Cult films get their name from their limited success and their audience – usually, a very specific and dedicated kind of audience. It is not measured strictly by devotion, but rather, what kind of audience shows that devotion. This is a big factor that sets Twilight apart from cult classics. While the series is very successful and anyone and everyone seems to be a fan, that’s just it – everyone and anyone make up its fanbase. Everyone from teenage girls to university professors to grandmothers have read the novels and seen the film adaptation.

For true cult classics, like David Lynch’s Eraserhead or The Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, their appeal often stems from their off-kilter nature and general rejection of the mainstream. Thus, the mainstream is not drawn towards these kinds of films. And that’s where the cult fanbase comes in.

This is not meant to undermine Twilight‘s success or legitimacy. Though for every blogger or reviewer who refers to the series as a “cult classic,” there just might be a whole band of cult fans who would disagree.