The 10 greatest sci-fi films never made
The unfinished masterpieces of fantasy cinema

November 13, 2008
by Jonathan Ross

Since Georges Melies' 1902 'Trip to the Moon' cinema has been in love with science fiction. The romance has been rocky though, with many potential classics lost to spiralling budgets or studio whim. David Hughes the author of a new book, The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, shares his favourites with us

1: Vincent Ward's Alien 3
Having rejected a script by sci-fi author William Gibson, the producers of the Alien franchise planned to follow James Cameron’s “Vietnam in space” Aliens with an ambitious, arty third instalment by Vincent Ward, the visionary New Zealand-born director of The Navigator and, more recently, The River Queen. A planet made of wood, and spaceships modelled on clipper ships, were just two of the strange ideas in Ward’s approach. Sadly, it never got off the ground, though Fox ultimately went with another maverick director, David Fincher.

His much-derided Alien3 is, by the way, ripe for re-appraisal; sadly, a director’s cut of the film – an unofficial version of which is included in the Alien Quadrilogy DVD set – will probably remain the Greatest Sci-Fi Movie Never Seen

2: Superman -vs- Batman
Having abandoned plans to make Tim Burton’s Superman Lives with Nicolas Cage as Clark Kent/Superman, Warner Bros. decided to take an alternative approach to their long-gestating revival of the Superman movie franchise: Batman vs Superman, a script by Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker in which Gotham’s caped crusader would face off against Metropolis’ Man of Steel.

With pre-production in full swing under Troy director Wolfgang Petersen, the studio switched gears again, when a brand new script by Lost creator J.J. Abrams plonked onto their desks. Eventually, they abandoned this idea to back Brett Ratner, and later Bryan Singer, to make the disappointing Superman Returns.

3: Steven Spielberg's Night Skies
Contractually obliged to produce a sequel to the smash hit Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg came up with the idea of a family attacked in their farm by malevolent extraterrestrials, a kind of “Straw Dogs with aliens”. One of the invaders, he decided would befriend the farmer’s young son, and during the shooting of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg and Mrs Harrison Ford – screenwriter Melissa Mathison – isolated this idea and turned it into the basis of what would be his biggest film, E.T. the Extraterrestrial. Spielberg didn’t abandon the family-in-peril idea, however: he simply altered the evil aliens into ghosts and produced another smash hit: Poltergeist.

4: John Carter of Mars
Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ other famous creation, John Carter, was an American civil war veteran who uses a form of astral travel to visit a Mars crawling with monsters. Twenty years after its 1912 debut in the pages of a pulp magazine, John Carter of Mars almost became the first feature-length animated film.

Despite Bob Clampett’s stunning early animation tests, described as akin to a moving oil painting, Disney abandoned the plans and made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs instead. It would be another eighty years before the project was revived as a live action feature for Pixar, now due for release in 2012 – the one hundredth anniversary of the story’s first publication.

5: Star Trek: Planet of the Titans
The surprise success of the original Star Trek TV series in syndication, several years after its cancellation, led Paramount to consider a feature film outing for the original crew, with Invasion of the Body Snatchers director Philip Kaufman at the helm. In the script, subtitled Planet of the Titans, Kirk and his crew encounter an alien race they believe to be the mythical Titans of Earth legend, and, after travelling a million years into Earth’s past, introduce the concept of fire to primitive man. Although Paramount ultimately shelved the project in 1977, telling Kaufman – without apparent irony – “there’s no future in science fiction,” the success of Star Wars a few weeks later prompted a rethink, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture – dubbed The Slow Motion Picture for its glacial pace – was born.

6: Childhood's End
Some years after Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey put Arthur C. Clarke on the filmmaking map, Universal Pictures began developing one of Clarke’s earlier stories, 1954’s Childhood’s End, in which mile-wide spaceships appear over the world’s major cities – a trope subsequently nicked by everything from Independence Day to Signs – heralding an evolutionary leap for humankind, in which the world’s children are taken away, by aliens resembling medieval depictions of the Devil, to meet their destiny among the stars. Despite lavish production designs and several scripts, the project languished in development hell until its recent revival by Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce, who has written a fresh draft and hopes to take it before the cameras next year.

7: The Stars My Destination
Alfred Bester’s 1956 novel The Stars My Destination, which appears on virtually every list of the best science fiction novels, is a kind of “Count of Monte Cristo in space” described by sci-fi author William Gibson as “the perfect cyberpunk novel.” Despite numerous attempts to film the story – including one with Richard Gere as the book’s vengeful, tattooed anti-hero Gulliver Foyle, and another with Event Horizon director Paul W.S. Anderson at the helm – the project remained in limbo until Variety announced, in March 2006, that Universal had acquired the rights for Lorenzo di Bonaventura, producer of last year’s smash hit Transformers.

8: Alejandro Jodorowsky's Dune
“A lot of people have tried to film Dune. They all failed,” stated the opus’s author, Frank Herbert – after David Lynch’s noble effort reached the screen in 1984. A more promising adaptation was proposed in the mid seventies, with Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky overseeing production designs by H.R. Giger, British artist Chris Foss, and French comic book artist Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud. Among Jodorowsky’s more outlandish ideas was offering the role of Emperor Shaddam IV to Salvador Dali, at a previously unheard-of salary of $100,000 per hour. Perhaps unsurprisingly, financing on the film fizzled. However, the two extant adaptations – Lynch’s, and a successful 2000 miniseries – will be joined, in 2010, by a third, with The Kingdom director Peter Berg at the helm.

9: Ridley Scott's I am Legend
Despite half a billion dollars in box office earnings, last year’s film version of Richard Matheson’s thrilling 1954 vampire novel, starring Will Smith, is only half a good movie (the first half, before the unconvincing computer-generated creatures show up). Far more promising was Ridley Scott’s 2000 adaptation, with Arnold Schwarzenegger roaming a deserted San Francisco hunting the nightmarish creatures which the rest of the population has become. Despite many script drafts, spectacular production designs, ambitious effects tests and a scheduled start date, Arnie’s waning box office clout led Warner Bros. to get cold feet. Star and director both walked – Arnie to Washington as governor of California, Scott to ancient Rome as director of Gladiator.

10: The Outer Limits
Following the success of Species (three sequels and counting) and Stargate (two successful TV spin-offs so far), MGM planned a big-screen revival of its most famous sci-fi brand, the classic TV anthology The Outer Limits. An outbreak of a terrifying ‘sleepy sickness’ puts 99.9% of the world’s population into comas, preparing the planet for a hostile takeover by aliens who’ve studied human behaviour closely enough to know that the best way to spread the disease is through infected currency. With echoes of Outbreak, Signs, and the John Mills version of Quatermass, The Outer Limits could be a future sci-fi blockbuster, if Tom Cruise – whose newly-revived United Artists now holds the rights – decides to follow Minority Report and Wars of the Worlds with a third foray into science fiction territory (his religious views aside).

The full story behind these and many more lost science fiction films can be found in The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made by David Hughes, published 25 July by Titan Books

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