Stephen Arnell

The classic sci-fi films that rival Dune

The classic sci-fi films that rival Dune
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Denis Villeneuve's eagerly awaited remake of Frank Herbert's sci-fi novel Dune features a host of barons, dukes, and princes living under a Galactic Emperor.

In his dystopia, Herbert depicts a highly stratified society of competing guilds, noble houses, human computer schools (‘Mentats’) and religious cults, with a Padishah Emperor playing them off against each other to retain his place at the top of the heap.

Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) the son of a ruined Ducal house rises to become a Madhi-like figure on the planet of Dune, the only source of ‘Spice,’ a substance that both enables faster-than-light space travel and prolongs human life. Thus an intergalactic battle over natural resources ensur

The new Apple TV+ series Foundation (based on the Asimov trilogy) also features a galaxy spanning empire.

The interstellar aristocracy is a familiar trope in sci-fi movies – witness George Lucas’s Star Wars, with the evil emperor Palpatine. Lucas has been widely criticised for his invention of ‘Midichlorians,’ a fictional master race.

Whilst not really monarchies as we know them, Aliens (1986), Star Trek: First Contact (1996) and Independence Day: Resurgence (2016) all feature extra-terrestrial Queens leading the forces of evil.

Here are ten more motion pictures, either set in space or in the Earth’s future, where aristocracies hold sway:

Valerian & The City of a Thousand Planets (2017) Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

Anyone expecting a return to the (flawed) fun of 1997’s Fifth Element will be disappointed in Luc Besson’s big-budget sci-fi flop.

V&TCOATP visuals are OK, but don’t seem to have moved on in the 20 years since The Fifth Element.

Having a great deal of the action at the beginning of the movie conducted remotely further distances the viewer from the plot, which involves the alien Emperor Haban Limaï’s (voiced by Elizabeth Debicki) quest to seek the perpetrator of a genocidal attack on his planet of Mül.

The charisma-free duo of Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) swings into action to right wrongs and restore peace to the galaxy.

Sam Spruell, who you may recognise as the vile Cavendish in The North Water (BBC2, Friday evenings) pops up as General Okto Bar, sidekick to Clive Owen’s baddie Arün Filitt.

Jupiter Ascending (2015) Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

The star-spanning story of Russian loo-cleaner Jupiter (Mila Kunis) who discovers that she is reincarnated galactic royalty.

To recover her heritage and battle her scheming transhuman relatives in the House of Abrasax, Jupiter is aided by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a human/dog hybrid and Sean Bean as Stinger Apini, who is half human, half honeybee.

Yep.

In a movie not lacking in ham, Eddie Redmayne (as Balem, Emperor of the House of Abrasax) decided to put his foot down hard on the over-acting accelerator.

Jupiter Ascending is daft, but surprisingly enjoyable, with great effects and images; for me, The Wachowskis best picture since the first Matrix back in 1999.

Last Knights (2015) Pluto, Amazon Prime & Rent/Buy

Japanese director Kazuaki Kiriya helmed Last Knights, a sombre re-imagining of the real life Forty-seven rōnin.

Set in a potential future of an unnamed country, Last Knights sees the humiliation and execution of the noble Bartok (Morgan Freeman) spur his elite guard under commander Raiden (Clive Owen) to plan an elaborate revenge scheme on Geza Mott (Aksel Hennie), corrupt minister of a disengaged Emperor (Payman Maadi).

The picture flopped at the box office and earned mediocre reviews, but if you watch it with no preconceptions, it is a perfectly competent action-thriller.

Clive Owen can currently be seen playing Bill Clinton in Impeachment: American Crime Story. Well, if Alan Rickman can play Ronald Reagan (The Butler)

John Carter (2012) Disney+, Amazon Buy

Famously mismarketed by Disney, the Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure John Carter is a seriously underrated movie. Executives supposedly removed ‘of Mars’ from the film’s title due to the failure of the studio’s Mars Needs Moms the previous year.

Briefly, former Confederate cavalryman Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is mysteriously transported to the dying planet, where he finds love, new pals and a host of evil villains led by brutish Seb Than (Dominic West) and his puppet master, the shape shifting Thern Matai Shang (the ubiquitous Mark Strong).

John Carter boasts great imagery and a wealth of eye-popping set pieces, together with a memorable score by Michael Giacchino, who also composed the music for Jupiter Ascending. The picture constitutes an unofficial Rome (HBO/BBC) reunion of sorts, with James Purefoy (Mark Antony), Ciarán Hinds (Caesar), Nicholas Woodeson (Posca) and Polly Walker (Atia) all featuring.

Thor (2011) Disney+, Amazon Buy

Kenneth Branagh’s Marvel movie verged on the kitsch with its depiction of Asgard, home to the super-powerful ‘Gods’ of Nordic myth.

With a rainbow bridge, golden spired city and galloping white steeds, there is more than a hint of Studio 54 about the place. If you get over Branagh’s tiresome penchant for tilted camera shots, there is plenty to enjoy in Thor, as Odin (Anthony Hopkins) depowers and exiles his ‘vain, cruel, greedy’ son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to Earth, a situation engineered by the All-Father’s adopted offspring, the sneaky God of Mischief Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

This November will see more of these glitzy super-heroics with the debut of Marvel’s Eternals, a group of immortal spandex-clad space aliens locked in a battle with their deadly foes on Earth, whom they name ‘Deviants.

Doomsday (2008) Amazon Rent/Buy

The premise of Doomsday may have sounded farfetched when it was released 12 years ago, but now it seems oddly prescient.

The year is 2034; 27 years have passed since the ‘Reaper Virus’ infected Scotland, resulting in a population turned into raving, ravenous beasts, sealed behind a rebuilt Hadrian’s Wall.

When the pandemic breaks out in London, a special team is assembled to cross the border to find a long-missing scientist Marcus Kane (Malcolm McDowell) who may have found a cure.

They are in for a surprise when they discover that Kane has set himself up as a king, living in a reconditioned fortress (Blackness Castle Linlithgow, Falkirk) complete with a quasi-medieval court, mounted knights, and obligatory cringing peasants.

The Time Machine (2002) Amazon Rent/Buy

H.G. Wells’ critique of the direction of society posits a distant future where the tables are turned on the former upper classes (the Eloi) who are now literally food for the tunnel-dwelling descendants of the proletariat, the Morlocks.

Simon Wells’ (great grandson of HG) picture differs in having a telepathic Über-Morlock ruling the bestial race. Jeremy Irons swallows his pride to play the albino king, bearing a resemblance to rocker Edgar Winter in his 1970s heyday.

In a strange coincidence, Wells directed the animated feature Mars Needs Moms (2011), whose failure resulted in the planet’s name being yanked from John Carter (2012).

Men in Black II (2002) Amazon Rent/Buy

The sequel to 1997’s MIB is basically a xerox of the first, with a female alien (Serleena – Lara Flynn Boyle) replacing Vincent D'Onofrio ‘s Bug as the main extra-terrestrial antagonist for Agents J and K (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones).

The plot has something to do with the alien Zarthan Queen entrusting a power source called The Light to the MIB for safekeeping. It turns out that The Light is the half-alien Princess Laura, an unknowing Rosario Dawson. MIIB ranks below MIB & MIIIB in the franchise, but well above 2019’s execrable MIB: International.

Stargate (1994) MGM, Amazon Rent/Buy

The pharaohs of ancient Egypt were regarded as at least semi-divine by their subjects, an aspect that plays into Roland Emmerich’s Stargate, a 90s movie that has aged well – due in part to effects work which has held up whilst those of other bigger budgeted films have not.

Archaeology boffin James Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spader) teams up with depressed Colonel Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell) and crew to travel through the alien artifact of the film’s title. There they find a desert world where an alien parasite in human form Ra (Jaye Davidson) rules as an Egyptian god-king over his enslaved human subjects.

After The Crying Game (1992) this was Davidson’s only other mainstream cinema movie, for which he secured a $1m fee and the proviso that his nipple rings would be left in situ.

Flash Gordon (1980) Amazon Rent/Buy

According to Brian Blessed, this is the Queen’s favourite film. Mike (Get Carter) Hodges’s Flash Gordon is a garish high camp take on the popular pulp hero of the 1930s.

Hodges subverts the Boys Own adventure with an undercurrent of twisted sexuality and sadism, with stunning costume and production design by Danilo Donati, responsible for the outrageous outfits in 1979’s Caligula and Fellini’s Satyricon (1969).

Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) presides over the planet Mongo and its subject principalities, including Voltan’s (Brian Blessed) Sky City and Barin’s (Timothy Dalton) Arboria.

When Ming takes an interest in Earth, it’s up to Flash Gordon (Sam Jones) to save the day.

Star Sam Jones pulled a George Lazenby with his arrogant onset behaviour, which blighted his career thereafter – aside from his amusing turn spoofing himself in Ted (2012) of course.

Flash Gordon is brimming with enjoyably OTT performances, with Sydow, Ornella Muti (his naughty daughter Princess Aura) and Peter Wyngarde (Jason King) as the devious Klytus making the biggest impression.