Discussions about the precise delineations between sub-genres of fantastical fiction must sound as tedious to the outsider as listening to a headbanger break down how sludge metal exactly differs from doom metal. As such, I’ll simply say that space opera’s unique from “regular” science fiction for its inclusion of mysticism in a wildly-removed outer space setting. Hence Star Wars and Flash Gordon are space opera, Sunshine and Solaris aren’t, and Firefly and Farscape are maybe in a gray zone. Green Lantern is most definitely space opera--its mythos takes much inspiration from Doc Smiths’ seminal Lensmen series--so if its release has got you curious about exploring something similar on screen, what say we look at some notable entries in the sub-genre?
Dune (1984) Dir. David Lynch
Fanboys wishing for something darker and more challenging out of Star Wars more-or-less got their wish about 30 years ago from a director who famously turned down an offer to direct Return of the Jedi. It may stand as a cautionary example of the gulf between what audiences say they want and what they’ll actually put their money down for. Frank Herbert’s classic is arguably the most important modern science fiction novel and it has the un-filmable complexity that’ll typically goes with an honor like that. Lynch’s adaptation is an absolute triumph of provocative visuals, otherworldly sound design and unrelenting mood; a nightmarish vision that remains unsurpassed in its terrifying grandeur. It’s also really, really hard to sit through, and not because any of the ghoulish grotesqueries of House Harkkonen or the Spacing Guild are intolerably unsettling. The politics of Arrakis and all its sister planets’ are just too damn dense for any amount of voice over narration to adequately convey in a movie. This version of Dune may not turn your eyes blue, but it'll most likely make your head feel like it's in a Bene Gesserit Agony Box.
The Fifth Element (1997) Dir. Luc Besson
Pure, unadulterated entertainment with an uncommonly human core. It’s the best picture Besson’s ever made, by my reckoning, and it’s easily one of my favorite movies ever. Bringing the fantasia of Heavy Metal magazine to life in much more representative way than either of the actual Heavy Metal movies, the Fifth Element’s a ceaseless parade for the senses that still feels fresher than a whole nose-full of mountain mist. And it’s certainly the most fashionable space opera I’ve ever seen. People so often joke about whether runway designers are actually making clothes for aliens, and this might be the one flick to put that idle joke into practice. The fact that French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier designed almost a 1000 individual costumes might actually be more impressive than all of its well-aged VFX.
In less high-minded terms, Chris Tucker's hysterical as Ruby Rhod, Milla Jovovich's Leeloo might just be the most kick ass “manic pixie dream girl” you’ll ever find and Willis anchors all the interstellar madness with one of his most relatable, grounded performances. Dare I say, this has all the elements of what you want from a proper adventure.
Titan A.E. (1998) Dir. Don Bluth
It’d be really too bad if this ended up being the last full-length feature directed by Don Bluth, one of the true masters of American animation. However, for as much fondness as I hold for an American Tail, Dragon’s Lair and the Land Before Time, et al, it’s rough to see the man’s timeless vision tied up in such a hodgepodge of elements that already seemed kind-of dated in the late 90s. I’ve never been too big of a fan of integrating CG models with traditional animation and the painfully-basic cobalt blue aliens in this never seem like they’re in the same universe as the crisply-fluid 2D figures. Still, even though this runs through some well-worn plot standards and archetypes, it’s impossible not to be even a little charmed by its wide-eyed earnestness. And I don't care if you detest 90s alt rock--this had a kicking soundtrack.