The oft-maligned genre of science fiction could be divided into the pre- and post-2001: A Space Odyssey eras — a take confirmed by LACMA's "Beyond the Infinite: Science Fiction After Kubrick" series, running March 22 to April 6 in tandem with its ongoing Stanley Kubrick exhibit. In the wake of Kubrick's film, the ideas on display in sci-fi movies became more expansive, the visuals more unabashedly "out there" — and a few equally well-regarded directors threw their hat in the genre ring too.
Of the many films worth seeing over the next two weeks, Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (March 30, 7:30 p.m.) provides the clearest case in point. Released just four years after Kubrick's game-changer, the Russian filmmaker's 1972 opus of grief and remorse — in which a widowed cosmonaut is sent to a space station orbiting the semi-sentient yet uninhabited ocean planet of the title and, once there, meets a subconscious manifestation of his dead wife — was partly envisioned as a response to 2001, which Tarkovsky found abhorrently cold and sterile. Think of it as the heart to 2001's brain: where Kubrick's movie expands ever outward by offering a hallucinatory view of the outer reaches of space, Tarkovsky's reminds us that the inner self can be just as vast and unknowable. (It also helps that the perpetually roiling, orange-and-blue planet is one of the cinema's most enduring and visually stunning metaphors.)
Phase IV, the only feature directed by legendary graphic designer Saul Bass, opens the series on March 22 at 7:30 p.m. — and with a rarely seen alternate ending unearthed just last summer. Taking place in a not-too-distant future, when ants have rapidly evolved to the point of baffling earth's greatest minds, the film is marked by close-ups of insects and discursive montages that, given the desert backdrop, sometimes have the air of visualized peyote trips, and show signs of having been influenced by 2001's "beyond the infinite" sequence. Bass, who helped design credit or title sequences for the likes of Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, expertly transposed his visual touch onto this admirably oddball exploration of an instinctive intelligence about which we mere humans know little. Though off-kilter, Phase IV is too enjoyable ever to be off-putting.
Go down the humans-are-no-longer-the-dominant-species rabbit hole long enough, and you'll eventually arrive on Fantastic Planet, which forms the first half of an animated double feature (with the short Quest, from Bass and his wife Elaine) on April 5 at 9:25 p.m. René Laloux's film, in which humans are barely tolerated pests on a planet ruled by giant blue beings known as Draags, may feature more abstracted violence and nudity than any other animated film ever has. Its specific brand of trippy surrealism mixed with genuinely heady ideals hasn't been in vogue for at least a few decades (if ever it was), and is unlike anything you're likely to see in this Pixar-dominated age of ours. If you dig Ralph Bakshi movies (Fritz the Cat, Wizards) and/or syncing up Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz, it may be for you.
Quintet, which marks Robert Altman's only real venture into sci-fi, screens on April 6 at 5 p.m. Largely absent is the cross-chatter made famous by Nashville and MASH, replaced by a narrative propelled by the eponymous cat-and-mouse game, in which losing contestants are killed. While far from Altman's most accomplished effort, it is distinguished by its blurry-edged cinematography, which lends the already out-there happenings an especially strange feeling, most recently emulated by Andrew Dominik's masterful The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Quintet also features an exceptionally sedate performance from Paul Newman, whose travails in an icy landscape at times appear to presage Luke Skywalker's adventures on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, and such pearls of wisdom as "Life can only be felt when death is near." With all its wide-angle shots of a solitary Newman trekking across the vast landscape, the film reads as a Western — only instead of arid desert surrounding him, it's an arctic tundra that somehow feels even more desolate.
Also of note are Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (April 6, 7:30 p.m.), in which David Bowie plays an alien who comes to our planet in an attempt to save his own; George Lucas's first feature, THX 1138 ( March 29, 7:30 p.m.), a dystopian view of the future involving emotion-suppressing drugs; and Zardoz (April 5, 7:30 p.m.), a post-apocalyptic yarn whose cult status is most attributable to the fact that Sean Connery spends most of his time clad in a red speedo. Consider yourself warned.
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes