Pairing the tantalising mixture of sci-fi and fantasy with stylish, gritty crime and intrigue on movie screens is nothing new. In fact, it’s been a tradition practically since film noir came into fashion, and the combination has resulted in some truly great films. Here are our favourites.
Gattaca. Image: Columbia Pictures
15) The Thirteenth Floor
An amazing new virtual reality program can transport your mind to 1937 — but things get awfully complicated when the inventor of the system is murdered and his second-in-command is accused of the crime, requiring him to “travel back in time” to clear his name. What’s real, and what’s just a simulation? Even the characters aren’t sure all the time in this not-always-successful (but still visually arresting) loose 1999 adaptation of 1964’s Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye, one of the earliest sci-fi novels to tackle virtual reality.
14) Kiss Me Deadly
Author Mickey Spillane wrote the source material and his iconic detective Mike Hammer is the main character, but this is not your typical gumshoe caper. What sets this 1955 tale of Cold War-era terror apart is its fantastic object of desire: A box containing a mysterious, obviously destructive glowing substance — probably a weapon, probably nuclear, and definitely nothing you should open and look at, but of course everybody wants to do exactly that. This eerie plot device would influence numerous films in years to come, including Repo Man and Pulp Fiction.
13) Cat People
A beautiful woman (Simone Simon) can’t sleep with her husband because she fears an ancient curse will transform her into a giant cat if she does. His eye soon wanders, and his new flame can’t shake the feeling she’s being stalked… by a giant cat. Directed by Jacques Tourneur — who went on to make Out of the Past, one of the most highly-acclaimed noir films — 1942’s Cat People is almost too early to be classified as a noir, plus it’s typed most often as a horror movie… almost. But we think this tense, atmospheric chiller, which dances around sexual themes and features a literally deadly dame, absolutely fits this list.
12) Strange Days
The titular “days” of this 1995 Kathryn Bigelow film are those just before the turn of the millennium; the place is a violence-plagued Los Angeles, where obsessively “jacking in” for virtual reality experiences recorded directly from someone else’s cerebral cortex (almost always while they’re doing something terrible) is the new dangerous addiction. Meanwhile, there’s a twisty mystery involving a murder cover-up, a ton of guns, a slippery woman (as well as one who kicks much arse), and a hero who is far from squeaky clean.
11) Dark City
The combo of “a world where the night never ends” and a man with amnesia who’s accused of murder is the ultimate noir set-up. Things go quite outside the lines in this gorgeous-looking film from 1998, however, with a plot involving psychic powers that allow the gifted to shape time and the minds of others, some very uncanny science experiments, and the revelation that the titular city is actually in outer space.
10) The Groundstar Conspiracy
Hannibal from The A-Team plays the heavy in this groovy thriller very loosely inspired by an L.P. Davies novel. Though most of the film takes place in broad daylight and is generally more of a ’70s sci-fi-action movie, it has some serious noir trappings. The main character is, once again, an amnesiac, and the film’s resounding chords of desperation and paranoia, as well as a shout-out to classic noir Dark Passage (two words: Plastic surgery, though it’s used to very different ends here), can’t be denied.
Image: Toronto Film Society
In this low-budget but alluringly odd thriller from 1946, dishy dame Margot Shelby (played by Jean Gillie) is so determined to possess an ill-gotten wad of cash that she finagles her gangster boyfriend’s body out of a prison morgue and has him brought back to life so that he can lead her to it. That bit of weird science actually works — and a lot more wild stuff happens, albeit of the more conventional double-cross variety — but in the end, obviously, nobody wins.
8) Angel Heart
There are some problematic things about 1987’s Angel Heart, but its neo-noir plot — in which an NY PI played by Mickey Rourke travels to New Orleans for what he thinks is a routine missing person case, but is in fact waaaaay more screwed up than that — is a pleasingly trashy, sweat-soaked bowl o’ gumbo. Most pleasing of all is Robert De Niro’s scenery-gnawing performance as the big man who’s really pulling all the strings: “Louis Cyphre”, a noir archetype who happens to be a sharply-manicured Satan.
7) The City of Lost Children
Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Alien: Resurrection, Amélie) and his Delicatessen co-director Mark Caro made this dark fantasy in 1995 about a monstrous scientist who steals children and harvests their dreams. Its memorable visuals are heavily steampunk, and its plot draws from fairy tales. But the noir influences are there, particularly in the shadowy cinematography that helps guide the tone toward dread.
6) Minority Report
Steven Spielberg’s Philip K. Dick-inspired tech noir follows a DC cop (Tom Cruise) in the “PreCrime” division, who works with psychic “Precogs” to prevent crimes by arresting their would-be perpetrators before they occur. Things get messy when Cruise’s character is marked as a pre-murderer. The high-contrast cinematography lends extra noir flair to what’s obviously a very futuristic story, and Spielberg himself has said he specifically watched films like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon to get him into the right mindset for the movie.
Terry Gilliam’s one-of-a-kind movie blends, among other things, comedy, surrealism, dystopia, and a distinctly 1940s vibe that evokes film noir rather overtly at times. Though there’s some Humphrey Bogart and The Third Man influence lurking within, there are also obvious callbacks to one of the decade’s most enduring novels: 1984, albeit a version with sharper fedoras and overcoats.
Director Andrew Niccol probably could have gone with any aesthetic to shape this 1997 tale of a future ruled by eugenics, but Gattaca‘s sleekly retro sets and noir-inspired costumes lend a serious layer of eye candy to the story’s small-man-against-the-system theme.
Science fiction meets pulp fiction in Jean-Luc Godard’s wonderfully weird 1965 film about intergalactic secret agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), who’s out to capture the inventor of the evil mega computer that controls everything in the titular city. Alphaville famously has no sci-fi-style special effects or sets; instead, it creatively uses existing locations in Paris to bring its off-kilter future to life.
2) Who Framed Roger Rabbit
An innocent patsy, a boozy private investigator who tries to help him, a va-va-voom nightclub performer, a terrifying villain, and a sinister conspiracy that goes to the very top — Roger Rabbit would almost be exactly a classic noir film, except for all the bright colours… and cartoons.
1) Blade Runner
It might be Los Angeles, 2019, but it’s just as scum-filled a place as Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles — albeit with a tad more neon to brighten up the otherwise rather noirish light-and-dark contrasts seen through Ridley Scott’s lens. The penetrating themes of cynicism, alienation and general unease about the world are classic film noir touchstones. And while Rick Deckard — fond of overcoats and, depending on which version you see, voice-overs — may be an ex-cop bounty hunter instead of a private eye, he does the exact kind of work that legendary gumshoe Philip Marlowe would probably do in the same setting, albeit with a replicant as his femme fatale.