Originally, I didn’t plan to follow up my list of Underrated Science Fiction Films with a list of those I consider the most overrated. First of all, such a list would frankly come off as self-trolling if not done right, an attempt to gain page hits by tempting potential visitors with a subtle “come see how much this will enrage you, and if it doesn’t, share it with friends who will be.” Secondly, there’s a not so subtle implication in such essays that there’s something wrong with those who already enjoy these movies (or books or shows or whatnot), instead of simply chalking up any disagreements to mere differences in taste.
But then I thought about how much fun I’d have writing it…
I have nonetheless decided to play fair in compiling this list. Roughly one-third of the movies are ones that I myself have personally overrated as both a viewer and fan. The others are not necessarily movies I have personally disliked, but ones which I have found myself in conflict with the “consensus” view of critics and fandom, and my personal relationship with their champions has as much shaped my decision to include them on this list as my opinion of the films themselves has as well. My favorite film criticism has usually followed the lead of Pauline Kael in explaining how the writer’s personal relationship with the movies in general has influenced their attitude towards a specific film and whose writings also display their larger kinship with the community of film audiences. Similarly, when writing about science fiction or any other genre, I feel that your own relationship with it and its community of fans and practitioners be integrated into your writings as well.
Finally, if you’re wondering why STARSHIP TROOPERS isn’t listed….why beat a dead horse? Let’s move on…
1. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL
The first lesson to be learned is that not only can a good movie be overrated, so can a genuinely great one. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is a certified classic, one of the “Big Six” of Fifties science fiction, and the one that usually makes all-time greatest film lists. In fact, of late it has become the only science fiction film of the decade to regularly appear on them. Yet it’s the one I’m least likely to watch when I’m in the mood for a science fiction film; I not only find the other films more satisfying, but find that they hold up more to repeat viewings. So why is it so much more popular than the other Fifties classics? Politics no doubt plays a part; better than any movie other than GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE, it best epitomizes the attitude of liberal fascism that so many progressives sincerely adhere to with unwitting and unquestioning fervor (they don’t seem to notice that the heavy-handed Christian symbolism means that it can just as easily be interpreted as a religious fundamentalist fantasy as well, in which the people of Earth, in denying the word of the allegorical Son of God, are forced to live under the threat of a robotic Archangel of Death). Then there is the fact that unlike THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, both of which were considered its superior for many years, it did not receive a remake until recently, and it’s unlikely that film will replace it in the fan consciousness, at least for the time being. But the biggest reason seems to be that it is more likely to be shown in film classes than any other Fifties science fiction film; as a result, it is more widely seen by younger viewers than than the rest of the decade’s genre output and also winds up being treated more seriously than others.
2. 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH
Like most fans of classic science fiction film, I adore the brilliant animated artistry of Ray Harryhausen; unfortunately, that doesn’t take away from the sad fact that as entertaining as most of his feature films are, the quality of the scripts rarely were on the same level as Harryhausen’s special effects. His color and widescreen films, most of them in the fantasy genre, are his most successful in this regard. Unfortunately, with the exception of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, none of his black-and-white science fiction films of the 1950s really had a good screenplay. EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS has a truly awful script and that for IT CAME BENEATH THE SEA is pretty boring, but the screenplay for 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH is simply mediocre. I nonetheless include it in this list because out of all of Harryhausen’s movies, it’s the one that I personally have tended to overrate the most. Harryhausen’s terrific special effects and animation of the Ymir as well as the generally effective direction by Nathan Juran have often lead me to overlook and forget all the glaring flaws: the clunky dialogue, the by-then cliched and stock characters who are a lot less animated than Harryhausen’s creations, a storyline over-reliant on coincidence and contrivance, and worst of all, the presence of an annoying and obnoxious child added simply to pander to the juveniles who by then constituted the majority of the audience for science fiction movies. The best I can say about this miserable brat (who, like the equally annoying tyke in THE BLACK SCORPION, is an offensive ethnic stereotype that winds up being responsible for people dying as a result of his selfishness) is that he disappears early in the film, although if there were any real justice, he would become Ymir chow.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that while the story borrows heavily from KING KONG and THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, with the Ymir even resembling a cross between those two iconic movie monsters, it fails at the very basic task at generating pathos for its own creation, something that those other movies succeeded so well at. Sure Kong and the Gill Man killed people and committed other horrible acts, but we came to sympathize and even identify with them, because they came off as living creatures with their own reasons for existing, and their actions could be understood as similar to that of any wild beast that is mistreated and abused. With the Ymir, we’re in awe of the special effects, yet it never gets developed as a character beyond that. Consequently, we have no sympathy for it or any real feeling at all by the film’s end.
3. PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE
Yes, you heard me, the alleged “Worst Movie of All Time” is overrated. How can a film with such a reputation possibly be over-praised by any measure? First of all, it’s not really the worst movie of all time, not by a long shot. Although any given movie by Andy Milligan (my choice for the worst director of all time), H.G. Lewis or Jerry Warren is far worse than anything by Ed Wood, knowledgeable film buffs and scholars have stated the true worst films of all time are to be found among the roadshow and exploitation films of the Thirties and Forties. It’s not the worst movie Wood made (that would be JAIL BAIT), the worst movie starring Bela Lugosi (as anyone who has seen the appropriately-titled MURDER BY TELEVISION will attest) or the worst collaboration between the two (the way ahead of its time transgenderism plea GLEN OR GLENDA is even worse, although I don’t know if the Social Justice Police will allow anyone to discuss how bad it is anymore). It’s not even the worst Tor Johnson movie; that “honor” goes to THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS, which some consider to be the worst science fiction film of all time. Personally, I think it’s a three-way tie between MONSTER A GO-GO, THE CREEPING TERROR and ESCAPE FROM GALAXY THREE in the worst science fiction film sweepstakes.
As should be made clear by now, PLAN 9’s reputation, like those of TROLL 2 and THE ROOM, is really based on its being the most entertainingly bad movie, one that is so ineptly made, written and acted that it becomes a fascinating viewing experience, yet is never so boring or unpleasant that it becomes unwatchable (which can’t be said about, say, any given Italian cannibal film). Yet even when considered as a “good-bad” movie, PLAN 9 falls flat. Unlike its camp followers, I don’t find it particularly amusing or even funny (except for one scene where all these arms pop out of a bus to point up at the flying saucers supposedly flying overhead), and I instead just watch it with a vague and muted disinterest. If any lesson is to be learned here, it’s that if you’re going to call a movie one of the worst of all time, you need to be sincere about it and not simply follow the wisdom of crowds.
Not too long ago, an Internet poll was taken of the best science fiction and fantasy novels, and the top science fiction title (second overall) was THE HITCH-HIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY. It seems inconceivable that so many serious science fiction fans would have rated such a slight satire above the likes of DUNE, THE TIME MACHINE or CHILDHOOD’S END…until you saw that the poll was sponsored by National Public Radio. It should only be expected that the typical NPR listener would select a title reflective of a mentality that sees itself as being “above” the genre yet also thinks it knows it better than its readers and is entitled to tell them what is really good for them. A similar attitude also explains the popularity of Jean-Luc Godard’s ALPHAVILLE among the same political and cultural mindset. Like the Douglas Adams book, it’s a favorite among those who not only don’t really like the genre, but look down on it as “low” culture. Needless to say, this wrongheaded attitude has only helped to inflate the reputation of a movie that is mostly dull and didactic, and also happens to be poor science fiction, doing little with the “mad computer takes over the city” cliche other than use it as an excuse for Godard’s usual soapboxing. It is, in fact, anti-science fiction, not just an attempt to subvert a genre its director evidently thinks he can handle better than its American practitioners, but is outright hostile to science itself, and on that level, it is deplorable. Unlike many other science fiction fans, I have no problems with art-house cinema; I feel that one’s cultural life is all the poorer if one doesn’t take in a wide range of movies as well as books. However, I don’t think just because a movie has pretensions to higher art that it necessarily qualifies as such, and I certainly feel that way about much of Godard’s oeuvre. At least it was made before he started boring us with tiresome Marxist polemics, and became the cinematic equivalent of the Facebook friend you have no choice to put on ignore because he keeps cluttering your timeline with idiotic political memes.
5. SILENT RUNNING
Basically, this is the Al Gore of science fiction movies: if you’re already down with its environmental message you’ll think it’s brilliant, but if you actually know something about the topics it addresses, you’ll be unable to ignore all its factual errors and lapses in logic as well as its overall extremism, and be all too aware of just how profoundly stupid it really is. It has provoked great divisions and disputes among fans and critics over its actual quality, and I admit to having been torn over the film myself. On the one hand, it’s certainly sincerely made, I greatly admire the superb performance by Bruce Dern, and it’s well directed by special effects master Douglas Trumbull who of course provides some beautiful visuals. On the other hand, nearly all its virtues are sunken by the utter idiocy of the script, which is a textbook example of bad science fiction writing at work. It is as scientifically preposterous as ARMAGEDDON or THE CORE, and worse yet, much of the plot is driven by the need for its lead character to not just be obsessed beyond the point of reason but to be a complete scientific illiterate. No matter how well made the movie is, or how sincere the message or how many people agree with it, it ultimately doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t work as science fiction, it doesn’t work as anything. Not only does it wind up trivializing a serious issue that deserves a more scientifically serious and well-informed treatment, it unintentionally sabotages any goodwill for its message as well as its lead character through its own sense of self-righteousness. As was the case with 2004’s THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, the film’s supporters seem to think all the bad science is acceptable as long as it’s done in favor of “educating” the public on environmental issues, and it’s pretty scary that they’re willing to excuse Dern’s character committing murder and theft in order to preserve the world’s last remaining forests. Most disheartening of all is that some people will dismiss out of hand the importance of environmental conservation and preservation specifically because of the extreme rhetoric embodied by the film.
Incidentally, if you were hoping AVATAR or WALL-E would make the list, you can easily substitute either of them for this film, as many of the same arguments apply.
6. FLASH GORDON
If you know who Sam Jones is but not who Buster Crabbe is, I kind of want to slap your grandparents. And if you were one of those people whining “stop ruining my childhood!” when they announced yet another film reboot of Alex Raymond’s classic science fiction comic strip, I really want to slap you. Yeah, I’m a Queen fan, but come on now! Dino De Laurentiis may have had sincere intentions in trying to produce a feature-length version of the comic strip, given that it is regarded as high art in much of Europe, and interest in it had revived with George Lucas admitting it was one of the main inspirations for STAR WARS. Unfortunately, he had to once again hire Lorenzo Semple, who was known to actively hate science fiction and fantasy, especially when he was assigned to write them. The “camp” attitude worked well enough when Semple wrote the BATMAN TV series , but was completely inappropriate to the big-budget film adaptation of FLASH GORDON. Not only were the comic strips played straight, so were the original serials, and George Lucas to his credit recognized that what made them work was that they took not just themselves but their audiences seriously as well. Not so with Semple’s script; as with his KING KONG screenplay, it drips with contempt not just for its original source material and the genre as a whole, but for the very audience it plays for. Yet like so many other awful films from the Eighties, it has somehow gained a massive cult following among supposed grown-ups who still remember watching it as children and are still uncritically enamored of it. There’s some kind of progressive devolution of cultural literacy here: The original comic strips inspired Ray Bradbury and other great science fiction writers, and the serials inspired George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to direct their own science fiction and adventure films that as planned, would be both great entertainment and lasting art. The 1980 FLASH GORDON film seems to have primarily influenced today’s makers of “blockbuster” entertainment who regard pre-existing stories as “products” and “properties” whose value is based on their net worth and who think catchy visuals can indeed compensate for bad writing, direction and acting.
7. JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING
You saw this one coming, didn’t you? I’ve already made the claim that this is the most overrated science fiction film of all time, and I see no reason to revise that judgment. As I have said before, this is a strictly personal list, and given that the original THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is one of my very favorite films of any genre, I of course resent the way the over-hyped popularity of the 1982 rehash has diminished the original classic’s status as one of the great science fiction films. But even if I weren’t such a fan of the original, it wouldn’t change the fact that the later film’s rabid fans are are not just among the most uncritically-minded but the most obnoxious and annoying in cinemadom. They are so absolutely and ridiculously obsessed with “their” movie that they insist that all commentary on the Internet be reduced to to mindless praise of it, and will make the most inane attempt to squeeze in even a mention of the film. “This movie is set in a remote, cold snowy area-it’s just like John Carpenter’s THE THING!” “Those Twilight Zone episodes aren’t as good as John Carpenter’s THE THING.” “So ZELIG is Woody Allen’s version of THE THING?” Enough already! Worse yet, they will not tolerate even the mildest criticism of the movie, regarding it as something sacred that is not to be blasphemed. Prepare yourself for a barrage of personal attacks if you find the slightest fault with it, or don’t consider it to be a masterpiece, or state that you prefer another movie over it for whatever reason…especially if you dare assert that you prefer the original 1951 film.
As for my opinion of the movie itself: three times I let all the hyperbolic praise and gushing convince me my initial assessment might have been wrong and to give it another try, and each time my opinion of it only worsened. The film starts off well enough, but soon degenerates, like its creature, into an implausible and inconsistent mess. My biggest problem is that none of the characters are remotely interesting or likable, and neither the dialogue nor the performances (with the exception of Wilford Brimley, who hated the film and the experience of working on it) do anything to elevate them beyond two-dimensional stereotypes. Kurt Russell may physically look like the hero of the novella but they made a big mistake in turning him into an asshole helicopter pilot instead of someone intelligent and identifiable. The character and performance are clearly based on Cary Grant’s in another Howard Hawks classic, ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, but Grant’s pilot was stationed in South America, so it made sense for him to wear a sombrero. What’s the excuse for Russell’s to wear one in the Antarctic, except to make himself seem like an even bigger douchebag than he already is? While the novella and the 1951 film followed the rules of good science fiction, this one starts playing Calvinball with the science fiction aspects midway through. It’s especially annoying that some characters seem to know that they have become the creature and others don’t, and that the alien’s behavior and transformations depend more on shock effect than on whether or not they make sense. This refusal to follow proper story logic especially hurts the blood test scene; in the original story, a blood serum test on rabbits establishes that the test may work, but in the movie, the suggestion of one of the scientists is all they go by. In the novella it’s well established that MacReady is a meteorologist with some medical training, giving him sufficient knowledge of both the human body and the scientific method in order to undertake the task, but how does the film’s MacReady know enough to be sure? He’s just an asshole helicopter pilot! It is not surprising really that the film has such extreme popularity, because it appeals to the most uncritical attitudes among the fan bases for both genres. The film sadly represents the most obvious downward trends in both science fiction and horror where story has been compromised, in the name of special-effects spectacle with the former and gory gross-out scenes with the latter.
8. JURASSIC PARK
Believe me, it pains me as much as you to see this listed here. I’ve loved dinosaurs since I’ve been able to read, and so I naturally got totally caught up in the hype surrounding the movie before its premiere. When I first saw it in a full theater, I was naturally wowed by the incredible special effects, and thoroughly entertained…yet even then, I noticed something was missing. At the time, my major disappointment was that the massive Mesozoic menagerie of the novel had been drastically cut down to just six different types of dinosaur, but watching it again in its IMAX 3-D re-release two years ago (the very same theater, only this time I was the only person there) I realized that the film’s problems went deeper than that. What really hurts the film is that dinosaurs are for the most part not used well at all. Michael Crichton’s original novel had a subtle message to go along with the thrills, critiquing the way we transform wildlife into entertainment in the form of zoos, safaris and the like, and the film adaptation winds up ironically confirming this thesis. Crichton’s dinosaurs were depicted as the real animals they actually were, behaving the way they did because their instincts were still ingrained in them even after they were revived millions of years later. The dinosaurs produced by Spielberg and his film crew are convincing and formidable, yet their realism is compromised by the need to turn the predatory ones into the same sort of monsters dinosaurs have been portrayed as before in popular culture. The tyrannosaurus behaves no differently than any other in earlier films even if it is better executed, and the velociraptors meanwhile are made to be more intelligent than they actually were; they may have been as smart as living crocodilians or some species of bird but ascribing to them a level of intelligence equivalent to that of crows or ravens is too much of an exaggeration. Worst of all is the dilophosaurus; having it spit venom is one thing, but the frill only makes it look silly. Not only is there no evidence for them ever having one, it doesn’t even make evolutionary sense when they already had display crests. On top of that, its appearance is redundant; they should have removed it and made its scene the one that introduced the velociraptors, or better yet, deleted Wayne Knight’s character altogether, given that he’s the worst part of the entire movie.
Which brings me to my second problem, the flimsy characters. In some ways, the movie improves upon the book by switching the ages of the two children (the girl in the book is even more annoying than the kid from 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH), and both the characters of Hammond and more importantly Ian Malcolm (my favorite in the entire book, although I think it would have been more interesting if Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neil had switched roles) are allowed to live to the end, but it also reduces all the adult characters by at least one dimension. None of the characters compare to those in such other Spielberg films as JAWS, ET, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, or for that matter, the characters played by Richard Benjamin and James Brolin in Crichton’s very similar film WESTWORLD. As a thought experiment, try taking some of the characters in the movies I’ve mentioned and imagine them in JURASSIC PARK, and you’ll agree that it could have been even better, and more deserving of the appellation of “classic.”
9. INDEPENDENCE DAY
The very fact that a movie this stupid and crassly commercial is now considered a “classic” by some is a sad comment on the erosion of aesthetic standards in both fandom and the general public. I’m hesitant to even call it a movie; I remember very clearly the ridiculously huge advertising campaign for the film, and and am more inclined to call it a scam, the cinematic equivalent of a “Cash for Gold” store. It’s a rip-off in every sense of the word; not only does it steal shamelessly from the science fiction films of the Fifties (making it even more frustrating when you consider that the same people who drool over movies like this are the same who sneer at older science fiction films), but it also borrows from one of the worst-ever trends in big-budget film making, the “disaster” film made in the 1970s by Irwin Allen and others, painful reminders that such vulgar wastes of money are not a recent development but have always been a part of the film industry. And yes, I have a more personal reason for disliking it. In addition to being a derivative copy of other, much better movies, it also shamelessly exploited one of the most embarrassing fads of the 1990s, the revival of the UFO obsession and interest in alien sightings spurred by the success of THE X-FILES. That show never pretended to be anything other than well-written entertainment, but Roland Emmerich has made a career out of exploiting pseudoscience in the name of cynical moneymaking. In addition to this film’s use of the Roswell craze, Emmerich’s earlier STARGATE was based in the idiotic “Chariots of the Gods” and “Alien Astronauts” tomfoolery that now dominates so-called “reality” networks, and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW was based on a novel by Whitley Streiber, a name that alone turns the BS detector up to eleven. Worst of all was 2012 which not only exploited the “Mayan Calendar” and other doomsday stupidity but featured the absolute worst misuse of science of any big-budget film in recent memory; yes neutrinos undergo oscillations and flavor-changing, but no, they do not “mutate”. Emmerich’s entire oeuvre is a pox on the genre, based on an appeal to the lowest common denominator and in complete contempt of the public’s intelligence.
By now, you’ve probably figured out that I’m something of a contrarian curmudgeon, who is more critical of some of the most popular films in the genre than most other fans. It’s not so much that I dislike something just because it’s popular; it’s more the case that if there’s tremendous critical or fan hype surrounding a film, I’m more likely to be skeptical and keep my expectations low. When I finally get around to watching it, I’m more inclined to view it with a more critical eye than I normally would, so that I can form my own independent opinion of it. It’s rare that the hype itself actually actively annoys me, but that was the case with this movie. Every critic raving over MOON seemed not just to hail it as “the smartest sci-fi movie ever” which was hyperbolic enough itself, but then they would proceed to demonstrate their profound ignorance of the genre when they seemed to think that this was the exception rather than the rule for science fiction, or that it was somehow breaking new ground with its storyline. Clearly, most of them were not actual readers of science fiction and allowed their perceptions of the genre to be totally based on all the action films using its trappings. It also didn’t help that director Duncan Jones came off as less than humble in interviews, acting as if he thought he knew the genre better than all its other fans and practitioners, when he actually demonstrated a shallow understanding of the genre and its history. The low point in my expectations came when Jones provided a list of his five “must-see” science fiction films to Empire magazine, and listed the awful OUTLAND among them. Worse yet, he took a cheap shot at FORBIDDEN PLANET (and Fifties science fiction films as a whole) in the article, and the fact that he would dismiss one of the most cerebral and intelligent of all science fiction films while recommending one of the worst ever big-budget films in the genre did not sit well with me.
I nonetheless tried to put these feelings aside when I finally got around to watching the film when it appeared on cable TV. I found the movie to be merely good, not great and certainly not the masterpiece people were falling over for. In particular, it seemed that people mistook Sam Rockwell giving two good performances in a technically demanding role as being equivalent to a great one; his performance came nowhere near Jeremy Irons’ superb dual performance in DEAD RINGERS or even Boris Karloff’s in THE BLACK ROOM. I could understand nonetheless how someone who has never actually picked up a science fiction book or seen a movie made before STAR WARS might think it a revolutionary achievement, but for this lifelong reader and viewer of science fiction, it was a letdown. The political subtext in the film that some regarded as a sign of its intelligence is not just simplistic, but has been hammered over and over again in science fiction literature and film alike; the movie isn’t saying anything original about the ethics of biotechnology or the way Big Evil Corporations treat individual consciences that wasn’t already said more effectively in BLADE RUNNER, only with clones replacing androids. It is in fact a highly derivative film, and I found myself distracted early on by Jones’ insistence on pushing his homages so unsubtly, particularly when Rockwell started doting on his plants like Bruce Dern in SILENT RUNNING. Before I had seen the film I thought maybe Jones had read the Algis Budrys novel Rogue Moon (something I also felt after watching his follow-up film, SOURCE CODE), but I realized when I finally watched it that it was actually Arthur C. Clarke’s Imperial Earth done in reverse. In that novel, the protagonist (named Duncan!) departs from his family-owned hydrogen extraction base on Titan and arrives on Earth to be cloned in order to continue his mining operations; it is revealed later that his “family” consists of a succession of clones of which he is merely the next generation. Clarke was pilloried by science fiction critics and fans for misunderstanding the nature of cloning, and MOON repeats these very same errors, but this time, the critics didn’t notice or care. It seems a shame that Jones would make such a big deal over how he tried to get the engineering details of mining Helium-3 from the moon correct, when he couldn’t make a similar effort to get the science of cloning right as well, even though it’s far more important to the storyline. For that matter, the ever-annoying sound-in-a-vacuum also helped to negate the film’s pretensions to being hard science fiction. In the final judgement, it’s a movie I wish I could like more, but I instead found myself somewhat let down by, something that happens all too often.