The Top 5 Sci-Fi Movies That Never Were

No, David Cronenberg’s Total Recall never made it to the screen. And we are all the poorer for it.

This article is adapted from the book The Sci-Fi Movie Guide (Visible Ink, 2014).

Even were it not for the mental anguish brought about by the revival of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it would be obvious we live in strange times, cinematically speaking. To wit: Every other movie playing in theaters features alien invasions, bionic bodysuit weaponry, time travel, or a half-dozen other elements that make a geeky kid’s heart beat just that much faster. You would think, then, that studios would be dusting off every science-fiction script their D-girls passed on over the past couple decades and working out how to put Matthew McConaughey in it.

But there are still drawers full of unproduced maybe-classics out there just waiting for somebody to give them a couple hundred million bucks and a few movie stars to play with. Here are some of the more legendary never-produced science-fiction films that should be green-lit tomorrow. Before you ask: No; these films would almost definitely not make their money back. But after Cowboys & Aliens, Transformers, and Star Trek Into Darkness Hollywood owes us a few gimmes in exchange for allowing Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman to debase the entire field of cinematic science fiction.

David Cronenberg’s Total Recall

At one point in the 1980s, having proven that he could make uniquely personal sci-fi like The Fly that could still sell a lot of tickets, David Cronenberg was in line to direct a big-budget adaptation of Total Recall for producer Dino De Laurentiis (whose Alien, Cronenberg once noted, shared a lot of similarities to his proto-body-horror classic Shivers). After countless drafts and at least a year of work trying to adapt the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”, Cronenberg (whose work was and is heavily influenced by the writer’s cheeky dissociative humor) exited the project. According to Cronenberg, it wasn’t a good fit because he actually wanted to make a full-on PKD movie. Meanwhile, the studio finally admitted that they just wanted Raiders of the Lost Ark on Mars. Of course, the joke ended up being on the money men, since neither Paul Verhoeven junky 1990 mess or whatshisname’s 2012 robotic action travesty even came close to fulfilling that desire.

Night Skies

In this planned follow-up to Close Encounters of the Third Kind that Steven Spielberg messed around with for some time, rampaging alien marauders threaten an isolated farming. Originally titled Watch the Skies, and influenced by John Ford’s settlers-vs.-Indians drama Drums Along the Mohawk, the story was built out of a dark and pulpy material more befitting the Spielberg of Duel and Night Gallery than Close Encounters. Many hands tinkered with the screenplay over the years, including John Sayles. It never came to fruition, except in one of its less-threatening alien characters serving as a seed for the more wildly sunny E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

The Demolished Man

Alfred Bester’s bruising 1953 book (the first novel to win a Hugo Award) about a murderer trying to escape justice in a society patrolled and regulated by powerful telepaths, was turned into a script in 1968. By the late 1970s it was supposedly ready to roll under Carrie director Brian De Palma but never did. Not long ago, De Palma told Empire that he still thought it would make a “terrific movie”… but that Spielberg sort of scooped it by making Minority Report with its precogs. Which seems like a perfectly good reason to leave that one be and turn to Bester’s real masterpiece, the resolutely unfilmmable The Stars My Destination: Teleportation, religious fanatics, and a hero who’s also a revenge-obsessed psychopath with a tattooed face and curiously Victorian language patterns; where are the Wachowskis when you need them?

1969: A Space Odyssey, or How Kubrick Learned to Stop Worrying and Land on the Moon

This one hasn’t been kicking around nearly as long as most of the others on the list, but that doesn’t mean it is any less deserving. Stephany Folsom’s script landed on last year’s 2013 Black List of unproduced screenplays and it sounds like a corker. The premise is an alternate historical 1969 in which a White House staffer hires Stanley Kubrick to fake the moon landing. You know, just like how one of the conspiracists in Room 237 claimed that Kubrick shot 2001 as nothing more than a technical rehearsal for doing just that. The fact that it’s on the Black List (and perhaps more importantly could probably be done on the cheap like so many other closed-room and found-footage science-fiction films of late) means that at the very least this one has a shot of getting out there.

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune

A decade before David Lynch’s 1984 attempt, filmmaker/illustrator/eccentric Alejandro Jodorowsky was tapped to bring Frank Herbert’s Hugo-winning saga to the screen, with Orson Welles in a major role and Dan O’Bannon to head special f/x. Prominent fantasy/sf artists H.R. Giger (who later teamed with O’Bannon for Alien) and Chris Foss contributed spacecraft, set, and costume designs; their published portfolios contain some amazing paintings of what might have been. It’s easy to dream about this one, particularly after witnessing Lynch’s promising but turgid mess and then getting goosed by the cult-like mania the filmmaker brought to the wildly worshipful documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. Who wouldn’t be excited by the roster of pop-surrealist talent that Jodorowsky promised: Salvador Dali as the mad Emperor and a soundtrack by Pink Floyd? Whether or not he could have actually delivered on a fraction of those fevered, Coppola-esque claims (including, but not limited to, believing that the film would literally change the consciousness of everyone who saw it) is something else entirely. Maybe it would have been a masterpiece. Or maybe it would have been science fiction’s Heaven’s Gate. Perhaps we’re all safer not knowing.