Some actors and even directors pop up in the oddest places. In sci fi movies, for instance. In roles that are neither cameo nor star billing, their fame nevertheless propels them up the credits and makes you think, “He’s in it? Really?”
Sometimes their performance, though brief, can be good enough to make a so-so movie watchable, at least while they’re on-screen (think of Steve Buscemi’s scene-stealing act in The Island). Others seem to relish the chance to kick back and have fun with the part, like Stanley Tucci as Dr. Zimsky in box office stinker, The Core.
So, here’s my choice of five sci fi movies featuring someone you wouldn’t necessarily think of for the role. I’m not using the word miscast because often the casting turns out to be brilliant, just …. unexpected.
Back in 1977 when Close Encounters was released, director Steven Spielberg’s main claims to fame were Duel (1971) and Jaws (1975). He wasn’t the colossus of cinema he is now. Which made the appearance of Francois Truffaut, French icon and director of the classic Jules et Jim, in Spielberg’s sense-of-wonder movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind intriguing.
As Claude Lacombe, the scientist searching for the aliens, he is Reason to Roy Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss) Emotion. But when he asks Roy, “What is it you want?”, you sense his yearning for the answer is no less acute than Roy’s. Truffaut is great in the role and made Lacombe, like us, a wistful observer of the great finale.
Donnie Darko is the great 2001 cult film about time travel, alienation and death. Troubled teen Donnie escapes death by aircraft engine when he sleep walks outside and has visions of a giant rabbit called Frank who tells him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.
In an already quirky movie, the casting of Patrick Swayze of Dirty Dancing and Ghost fame seemed odd to say the least. But as Jim Cunningham, a motivational guru with a cheesy line in self-promotion, Swayze is remarkably good, oozing oily charm on a surface which overlays a cynical manipulator with a dark and dirty secret.
We’re now used to De Niro’s forays into cameos and comedy (Capt. Shakespeare in Stardust and Jack Byrne in Meet the Parents) but back in 1985 he was identified with intense and serious movie roles (Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle in 1976 and The Godfather: Part II’s Vito Corleone in 1974).
So when he turned up in Brazil it grabbed some attention. Dark and dystopian, full of weird and disconcerting imagery, Brazil could only be a Terry Gilliam movie. It’s overlong but utterly brilliant and De Niro as Tuttle, an air conditioning technician suspected of terrorism, delivers a performance full of manic energy that manages to be both comic and unnerving.
OK, I know Die Hard 4.0 is mostly an action picture but I’m gonna allow its inclusion in the sci fi category due to its subject matter of hacking and cyber-terrorism. The ‘fire sale’ in the movie where all the major institutions and utilities are hacked and sabotaged could be theoretically possible, I guess, but hasn’t happened yet so I’ll allow it as a sci fi movie.
Anyway, it’s right up there with the first Die Hard for me, easily beating the second and third instalments in the franchise. It’s great for a DVD and pizza night and one of its many joys is Kevin Smith of Clerks and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back fame. As Warlock, an uber-hacker who lives with his appalling mother, Smith is maybe not so such an unexpected a choice for this role (I’m not saying Kevin Smith is either a hacker or lives with his mother (!), just that the general geeky, basement living, computer-nerd Warlock seems like a character he would enjoy). He nearly steals a couple of scenes from right under Bruce Willis’s nose and that’s no easy thing to do. Plus, there’s a great in-joke when McClane (Willis) stands next to Warlock’s cardboard figure of Boba Fett and Warlock asks him, “What, like, you a big fan of the Fett?”. “No”, comes the reply, “I was always more of a Star Wars guy”.
Not even the clutch of contemporary star power in director David Lynch’s Dune could save it from a critical slating. One of the problems is that the book by Frank Herbert is dense and complex and if you haven’t read it, the film is frankly a confusing shambles that not even the likes of Patrick Stewart, Jurgen Prochnow or Brad Dourif could save.
Some of the casting was bizarre too with Sting, singer and bassist from The Police, in the role of Feyd-Rautha, nephew of the gross and grotesque Baron Harkonnen. Although physically suited to the role he still seems an odd choice considering all the other actors that must have been available.
Still, it’s an odd movie …. but interesting and worth watching (if you’ve read the book) …. much like Sting’s performance.