Category: movies

The Anti-PC Message of Cobra Kai

  I may be prone to hyperbole, but in this case, I may be understating my position. Cobra Kai is one of the most entertaining sequels I have seen and certainly the best thing on YouTube.  This could be nostalgia speaking since I came of age in the 1980s and Karate Kid was certainly a formative movie of my teen years. This show does things that I thought could not be done in this day and age and it certainly goes places I did not think the left-leaning proclivities of YouTube would allow.  The show is positively anti-PC so much so that it staggers the imagination. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some scenes that hint that next season the new Karate Kid (Xolo Maridueña) and the other Cobra Kai students will use their new foundself-confidencee for evil. What do you expect. These kids have been bullied by PC culture and told they can’t fight back against their oppressors all their lives. They say this over and over again to Sensei Lawrence as he berates them for being pussies.
This is where the show shines. The character of Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) doesn’t care or even know about the changes to the world since 1984. It is a running joke throughout the show that he has bascally withdrawn from the world since he lost to Daniel. He was just going through the motions without really being awake all that time. For instance, he doesn’t know what Facebook is. This gives us a character who we can relate to our younger more innocent selves. Johnny doesn’t have thirty years of progressive political correctness weighing him down. When the nerds and losers from the High School join his dojo he treats them the way that kids were treated in 1984. He berates them for being soft, he makes fun of their deformities of self and character.  Sensei Lawrence is not giving out trophies for self esteem…he is telling these kids about the real world and in the real world they either win or they are losers. There are no safe spaces. If you have a problem you have to overcome that problem. If you have a deformity you fix it or get people to see you in a different way. Flip the script. You are responsible for yourself. This is the most powerful message of this show and it is a message kids today need. This is what elevates Cobra Kai to the next level. A positive, dare I say it, anti-progressive message shines out of all this.

There are other things in this show that set it apart from almost anything else out there and I urge anyone reading this to take the time and watch this. You won’t regret it.

Movie Review: Marjorie Prime

A most welcome trend of late has been the rise of the “art-house” science fiction film, and although such movies have been with us for a long time (nearly every French New Wave director made at least one science fiction film), the success of Shane Carruth’s Primer in 2004 has really spurred their production ever since. Typically, such movies are independently-made, often from outside the United States, and are aimed specifically at a usually older film-going demographic that prefers movies that take their time to reveal themselves and do so mostly through dialogue instead of action. Marjorie Prime is one of the best recent movies of this type, ably demonstrating the ability of genre cinema to craft stories as sophisticated and character-driven as its written equivalent.

In the near future, Marjorie (Lois Smith), an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, makes use of an innovative technology to keep the memory of her late husband Walter (Jon Hamm) alive, a hologram AI that replicates his physical likeness perfectly. But the “Prime” program requires that the user generate the hologram’s identity through mutual discussion, and with Marjorie’s memories and conversational skills disintegrating, Walter Prime’s remains incomplete. Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Geena Davis) resents the intrusion of the holographic stranger into the family dynamic; as she laments, her mother treats the artificial intelligence better and with more compassion and respect than she did her own daughter, although she doesn’t seem to notice that she herself is replicating her mother’s possessive and insensitive behavior. Tess’s husband Jon (Tim Robbins) is more sympathetic towards her mother’s plight, and tries to assist in filling in for Walter the gaps that Marjorie can’t close. When Marjorie finally dies, Tess continues the cycle when she purchases a hologram of her mother (the “Marjorie Prime” of the title) to come to terms with both her grief and anger, a cycle that, it is clear, will continue down the family line.

Although based on a play, the movie shares some thematic affinities with Michael Almereyda’s earlier science fiction screenplays for Steve DeJarnatt’s cult item Cherry 2000 and Wim Wender’s Until the End of the World. Like DeJarnatt’s film, it is about artificial simulacra being used by people unable to have the intimate relationships they yearn for, and it shares with the Wenders movie the premise of the invention of a sophisticated electronic recording format to preserve memories, in both instances it being our impressions of individuals and events and not their actual representation. In all three movies, a new technology designed specifically to cure loneliness and repair heartbreak instead has the unintended consequence of compelling its users to further isolate themselves emotionally from others. This also brings to mind some of Theodore Sturgeon’s most personal and heartfelt stories, such as “Slow Sculpture” and especially “When You Care, When You Love,” also about a woman trying to restore life to her deceased lover through replication technology (cloning, in this case). If the film’s themes are most reminiscent of Sturgeon, then the execution brings to mind Alfred Bester’s method of storytelling; many in the audience said afterwards they found the film’s strange dialogue patterns more puzzling or disconcerting than effective, although of course their effectiveness lies in precisely in the way they discomfit the viewer. The jagged dialogue exchanges between human characters and holograms is actually more reflective of how people actually talk in conversation than most movie dialogue, which is driven instead by our expectations of what constitutes an ideal conservation. The vocalized pauses and awkward exchanges suggest that our conversations with artificial intelligence will ultimately be not that much different than those with people nowadays…even those we love.

A movie such as this is driven not just by the dialogue itself but by its delivery, and fortunately the cast is for the most part more than up to the challenge. I was fortunate enough to catch a special screening where Lois Smith herself was in attendance, and she invests the role with the same thoughtfulness and sensitivity that has characterized her other work throughout her brilliant career. Just as Marjorie must take steps in recreate her husband fully, Smith reveals the character to us gradually and in bits and pieces, reflecting not just the slow loss of her own cognitive abilities but her active struggle to hold on to her own identity as well as her memories of others. Even though Smith has surprisingly little screen time, she nonetheless appropriately succeeds in leaving an indelible imprint and her character’s presence is felt even when absent; it’s no wonder there has been Oscar talk for her performance. Smith is ably supported by the excellent performances of both Geena Davis and especially Tim Robbins. In my review of Arrival, I mentioned my Whitaker-Robbins rule, which maintains that any science fiction film featuring Forrest Whitaker or Tim Robbins can’t be any good. Twice now within this year, that law has been broken. Although Robbins gave the worst performances of his career in Howard the Duck and Mission to Mars, he gives one of his finest in this particular science fiction film, probably his best work since his Oscar-winning turn in Mystic River. The sole weak performance is by Jon Hamm, who uses the same boring monotone delivery he used in The Congress. Although his mechanical performance may seem appropriate for the hologram Walter, he also throws in exaggerated facial expressions that are more annoying than effective, and it also doesn’t help that Hamm humanizes his delivery only slightly in flashbacks to the “real” Walter.

The movie has other flaws. Despite the relatively short running time, it moves quite slowly and feels longer than it actually is. Both the three-act structure and limited sets and locations make its stage origins obvious, and Almereyda’s direction doesn’t always help us to forget this. And as mentioned earlier, some people I have spoken to have said that the unusual dialogue patterns were too confusing and disconcerting, but I regard this not as a flaw but as a device to establish the film’s science fiction premise and credentials. There is very little visually to define this as a typical science fiction film, no futuristic sets  or obvious special effects, but as when reading a story in the genre, we pick up that it belongs to it by paying attention to what the characters say. Marjorie Prime is the type of movie more likely to appeal to science fiction readers than those fans who are primarily spectators.

Movie Review: Arrival

Movie Review: Arrival

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WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD

There’s a point early on in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival  where a team of scientists and soldiers, entering the alien vessel for the first time, hike through a tunnel until they reach  the seeming end of it. One character tosses a Glo-Stick up in the air….and it continues to fall upwards. It is at this point that we realize we have entered, to quote Walter Pidgeon’s Professor Morbius in Forbidden Planet (like Amy Adam’s character, a professor of languages ), a completely new set of scientific values. Villeneuve’s film may seem on the surface to be just another alien-first-contact movie but it’s actually something much more interesting and unique. It’s a true rarity, a film adaptation of a quite recent, highly-acclaimed science fiction short story that manages to do its source material justice. While not the masterpiece some are hailing it as being, it’s still a triumph on the part of its director and cast that stands with Interstellar as one of the best and most thought-provoking big-budget science fiction films of the past decade.

The film is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s Nebula-winning short story “The Story of Your Life” (1998), and while it belongs to the tradition of such classics as Murray Leinster’s “First Contact” and especially H. Beam Piper’s “Omnilingual” which also deal with characters trying to learn alien languages and systems of communication, it’s also kin to Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao and Ian Watson’s The Embedding and The Martian Inca. Like those novels, Chiang’s story is about how language  determines our thinking and perceptions, both individually and socially, and draws upon the Whorf-Sapir model of linguistics (long since discredited but still obviously irresistible to authors) for inspiration.  It also belongs to a special subset of science fiction stories that have been  called “lateral thinking” tales. In this particular variation of the science fiction “puzzle” story, the solution is found not primarily through the use of the scientific method or application of scientific knowledge as it is in the typical hard science story, but by thinking outside the box, finding means outside conventional logic or reasoning that are not immediately obvious to the characters or the reader. This type of story was popularized by A.E. Van Vogt (The World of Null-A and “A Can of Paint”)  and Henry Kuttner (“Mimsy Were the Borogoves” and The Fairy Chessmen) during the heyday of Astounding Science Fiction, and remains popular to this day in written SF, although less so with its cinematic equivalent (a notable exception being  Vincenzo Natali’s Cube). Chiang’s story is very much along the lines of more recent variations on the lateral thinking tale such as Greg Bear’s “Tangents” and Charles Sheffield’s “Georgia On My Mind” (which also intersperses the protagonist’s memories of a deceased loved one within the main storyline), where the lateral thinking process is not merely a plot device, but has a profound influence on the development of the characters themselves, and with the author’s own writing style.

Both the short story and the film adaptation center around the experiences of the lead character, Dr. Louise Banks, in trying to decipher the language of the Heptapods, the first intelligent extraterrestrial species to make contact with Earth. In Chiang’s original story, this investigative process is interspersed with the main character’s seeming reminiscences of her daughter’s birth, life, and tragic early death, disconcertingly made in the future tense as if in anticipation of the inevitable, and as if she was addressing her daughter herself. We learn in the end that in discovering how the Heptapod’s system of thought and communication is structurally based on Fermat’s Principle of Least Action in Optics (that a beam of light or any other form of electromagnetic wave will traverse two points through the shortest distance possible), Dr. Banks has not only been able to learn their language but has had her own cognitive sense of time affected as well: the “memories” of her daughter are really flash-forwards (as in the Robert Sawyer novel and subsequent TV adaptation of the same name) she has been experiencing during her studies. Chiang provides a solution to the sort of quandary put forth by Terry Carr in his classic short story “The Dance of the Changer and the Three,” which suggests that the alien psyche will forever be inaccessible to human minds: Chiang proposes that modifications in our own cognitive architecture will enable communication and mutual understanding between us and the alien.  Moreover, such cognitive modifications will also assist us in coming to terms with our own relationships and limitations, a similar outcome to another Robert Sawyer novel, Factoring Humanity.

As may be expected, there are some significant changes made in expanding Chiang’s story to meet the needs of a nearly two-hour long feature film. One of the most important is that the heptapods do not have the two distinct spoken and written languages as in the original story, but instead are given a single language based on inky circular patterns they emit from their tentacles. Restricting the aliens to the use of visual representation both allows for a more cinematic treatment of the story’s ideas and helps to simplify the depiction of the translation process. It also, strangely enough, makes them less alien, and more like earth’s own highly intelligent cephalopods- octopi, squid and cuttlefish- who also communicate through visual cues, in their case color and pattern changes on the surface of their body (see Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Shining Ones” which anticipated many findings about this fascinating behavior).  Yet they remain tantalizingly alien thanks to Villeneuve’s direction, which keeps us at arm’s length from the creatures and instead makes us part of the puzzle the human characters have before them. Villeneuve’s technique of cutting away between wide shots of the aliens and tight close-ups of Adams and Renner places no doubt where he thinks the film’s emphasis should be, and quite correctly, as even in science fiction, the characters need to take precedence. Some have criticized Villeneuve’s for being too low-key in his approach and deliberate in his pacing, as well as for the film’s visual scheme. Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young have deliberately shot the film in a washed-out tone heavy on shades of gray and deep blue, and even the aliens themselves (who closely resemble the descriptions in Chiang’s story, albeit larger and without the ring of eyes) are mostly featureless entities, being  elephant-hide covered crosses between the aliens featured in Dagora, the Space Monster and Gamera Vs. Viras who are usually obscured by the  thick fog of their own atmosphere.  I disagree with those who have considered this particular directorial choice to be a flaw;  by intentionally drawing back stylistically, Villeneuve is able to better convey the clinical detachment of the main character and successfully build the film towards her final revelations. Whereas most movies about first contact are about the immense and immediate shock and awe of learning we are not alone, Arrival is about the awkward moment after the first meeting when mistakes are made and conversation and empathy develop. If it sounds like I’m talking more about relationships between people than first contact with an alien race, it’s because the movie draws upon these similarities as well.

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Inevitably, comparisons have been made between Villeneuve’s film and both  Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but the story has even deeper cinematic roots, owing a lot to such early films as The Thing From Another World (disputes between the military and scientists, as well between scientists themselves, on how to approach the alien), The Man From Planet X (the use of geometry to communicate with extraterrestrials) and especially It Came From Outer Space, the first movie to feature non-humanoid aliens and being specifically about how miscommunication and misunderstanding result in fear and apprehension.  Arrival perhaps owes even more to Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass television serials and their subsequent film adaptations, for their sober, intelligent, decidedly low-key treatment of its themes and premise as well for its ideas themselves. Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is also a likely thematic influence, dealing as it does with the inability of humans to fully understand alien ways of thinking, and drawing connections between the main protagonist’s drive to understand and the personal tragedy and failed relationships in his/her life (Tarkovsky’s film has also been similarly criticized for its slowness and obscurity).  The use of flash-forwards also brings to mind the elliptical editing of Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, probably the saddest of all alien visitation movies. At least Arrival offers some hope in the midst of its sadness, whereas the Roeg film ends on an unremittingly despairing and pessimistic note; certainly, Villeneuve and Chiang offer a more optimistic perspective on not just human nature than Roeg and Tevis (contrast the way aliens are treated by Earth scientists in both films!), but on the consequences of first contact for all parties involved.

Of course, no film is perfect, and there are some minor flaws in Arrival. For this viewer, the biggest disappointment is that the physics aspect of the short story which provided it with a solid hard-science basis has been largely marginalized despite the fact that the character of the physicist itself has been expanded. In his afterword to the story’s publication in the collection of the same name, Chiang states that it developed specifically out of his fascination with principles of least action in physics,  so the minimization of this facet of the story is particularly ironic. Forrest Whitaker’s military man remains woefully underdeveloped, although this is the first movie I’ve seen to break with the Whitaker-Robbins Rule (a heuristic I came up with years ago: no science fiction film featuring Forrest Whitaker or Tim Robbins can be any good).  Although the film takes the bold move of criticizing both the dictatorial socialist governments of China and Venezuela, the finale seems to be yet another instance of studios bending over not to offend the PRC censors.  Lastly, the title is not just generic and unimaginative, but is almost identical to that of the excellent, much-underrated The Arrival from twenty years ago, which will likely cause confusion along the lines of the 2005 and 1995 films both named Crash.

These are minor quibbles with what is nonetheless one of the most intellectually stimulating and provocative science fiction film to come from a major studio of late. It has already engaged critics into thoughtful analyses (one of the most interesting being Kyle Smith’s interpretation of the film as a pro-life allegory ) and will undoubtedly be the subject of many an academic paper in years to come, maybe even a volume or two dedicated to the movie itself. And it certainly allays any fears about the upcoming Blade Runner sequel currently being directed by Villeneuve.

 

Oscar Enters The Space Age

Oscar Enters The Space Age

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There were some surprising science fiction nods among the major Oscar nominations this year. Despite complaints about STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS not getting a nomination for Best Picture (and in my opinion, it didn’t really deserve one), both MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and THE MARTIAN managed to secure Best Picture nominations.   I only caught the last fifteen minutes of FURY ROAD on cable, so I can’t really judge it beyond that,  but THE MARTIAN while not perfect, was one of the better movies in a mediocre year, and so I have no problem with its nomination. Ridley Scott unfortunately didn’t get nominated for Best Director, which likely punctures (sorry) the film’s chances of winning the top prize, but Matt Damon received a well-earned Best Actor nomination, and Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andrew Weir’s novel was nominated in the Best Screenplay category. The best science fiction film of the year, EX MACHINA, didn’t get nominated for Best Picture but I was pleasantly surprised to see it nominated for Best Original Screenplay, along with Pixar’s fantasy INSIDE OUT. (My choice for the year’s best film, ME, EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, didn’t get any nominations at all, alas).

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Granted, the writing has been on the wall for over a decade now, and you could say the wall actually broke in 2003, when THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING won the Best Picture Award. Although genre films had been nominated in this category going all the way back to LOST HORIZON in 1937, this finally broke more than seventy-five years of aversion to giving the main trophy to films that (other than musicals) adhered to strict realism in content and approach. The following year, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND became the first science fiction film to win a Best Screenwriting Oscar. Then in 2009, when the Academy expanded its list of nominated films from five to ten (a return to lengthy nominee lists of the 1930s), two science fiction films popped up in the Best Picture nominations, AVATAR and DISTRICT 9. It was certainly not the first time a science fiction film had been nominated in this category, but it was the first time more than one film in the genre had made the final ballot, a remarkable event that just a decade or so earlier would have been unimaginable.

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I was as surprised as many fans were, but unlike many of them, I didn’t share the delight that the Oscars were “finally” recognizing science fiction films as Best Picture contenders. For one thing, I didn’t think that either film was good enough to be a contender for Best Picture. AVATAR probably would have nominated even if the Academy had still limited its selections to five films as it was a tremendous box office smash and critical hit, but as has been the case with all of James Cameron’s films, the script rarely, if ever, managed  to attain the same level of accomplishment as the direction and special effects, being extremely shallow, cliched and obvious. DISTRICT 9 is a better film, a more intelligent and original one and it certainly works better as good science fiction even if it is far less extravagant, but its intelligent touches are also unfortunately undermined by occasional illogicities, particularly those involving the same idiotic Big Evil Corporation cliches that undermined not just AVATAR but MOON, which had been the most acclaimed science fiction film of 2009 (and which I previously discussed at the bottom of this page). I would have expected MOON to be a more likely nominee for Best Picture; as it is, DISTRICT 9 is a good example of what I call a “Pink Snail,” after the the Academy’s “WTF?” moment when it nominated the gawdawful Rex Harrison-Richard Fleischer film version of DOCTOR DOOLITTLE for Best Picture in 1967, alongside the likes of BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE GRADUATE and that year’s Best Picture Winner, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. If that wasn’t unbelievable enough, try wrapping your brains around this: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was not nominated for Best Picture the following year.

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Actually, if you read up on the history of the public reception of the film, it becomes more clear why it wasn’t nominated: as chronicled by Jerome Agel in his outstanding 1970 book The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, far from being universally acclaimed, reviews for 2001 were actually quite divided and although many viewers loved it, an equal number hated it and a still equal number seemed undecided on how to approach it. Even the science fiction community was split over it and down to this day, the movie will start arguments between those who consider it a masterpiece and those who think otherwise (for the record, I am one of those who consider it a masterpiece). The Academy didn’t neglect Stanley Kubrick in any case, as not only was he nominated for Best Director, but he won an Oscar for the Special Effects that he personally supervised (a reminder when the question of Kubrick ever winning an Academy Award ever turns up at a trivia contest). Three years later, Kubrick would be nominated for Best Director again for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and although this film proved even more controversial for its graphic sex and violence, it did manage to garner a Best Picture nomination, as would STAR WARS in 1977 and E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL in 1982. However, no science fiction film has won the Best Film trophy as of yet, a fact which has done nothing to calm the  knee-jerk accusations of elitism and snobbery within the Academy by certain corners of fandom.

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The truth of the matter is, however much credibility there is to accusations of impulsive nose-turning among certain Academy members over its nearly century-old history when it comes to science fiction, fantasy and horror, it is equally true that too many fans are guilty of close-mindedness to films outside their favorite genres.  Yes, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY  is one of the greatest films of all time, and I agree with those who consider it both the best science fiction film ever made and the best movie of 1968, but OLIVER! also happens to be one of the great screen musicals.  ANNIE HALL is a better film than STAR WARS, GANDHI is almost or at least as good as both E.T. and BLADE RUNNER, and so on. While saying so may anger cultural illiterates (such as your typical contributor to Cracked.com), this just happens to be the case.  I didn’t see 12 YEARS A SLAVE so I can’t judge whether or not it was better than GRAVITY, but just going by word of mouth, that does seem to be the case as well. INCEPTION very nearly came close to deserving the Best Picture Oscar in 2010…but it was only the second-best film that year, after the deserving Best Picture winner, THE KING’S SPEECH. We shouldn’t expect that a film should be nominated for, much less awarded Best Picture, simply because we think that the Academy has an obligation to honor and respect our own personal tastes and interests, or to try to fulfill-dare I say it?-a quota system in which a movie is honored simply for being the best film of the year in its particular genre.

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We don’t even have to look at the recent past for examples of this. Turning back the clock further, let’s look at the longest stretch of Oscar nominations, from August 1932 through all of 1933, after which the Academy Awards restricted its nominations to a single year. Of course, the most popular movie of 1933 remains KING KONG, and whether you consider it to be horror, fantasy or science fiction (and I do consider it to be science fiction), many film lovers, including myself, would certainly chose it over the fine but long-forgotten CAVALCADE as the Oscar winner for Best Picture that year, as did Danny Peary in his book Alternate Oscars. I hesitate to say majority-plurality, maybe-because, as Peary further notes, there were four other great films that went unnominated that year, DINNER AT EIGHT, DUCK SOUP (very likely the second-most popular film of the year), QUEEN CHRISTINA, and TROUBLE IN PARADISE. With the exception of the third film, which was probably left out because it premiered on New Year’s Eve of 1933 leaving in doubt whether or not it was eligible, all those other films were comedies, a genre that regularly gets snubbed to this day by the Academy, so it’s not just science fiction and fantasy that gets ignored. Those five are in addition to the classic films already nominated: 42nd STREET (probably the third most popular film of the year), A FAREWELL TO ARMS, LADY FOR A DAY, LITTLE WOMEN, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY THE VIII and I AM A FUGITIVE FROM THE CHAIN GANG (my choice for the best movie among the nominated films), marking this eighteen-month period as one of the greatest ever in Hollywood history. Even among horror fans, KING KONG encounters competition from such classics as ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (my favorite horror film of all time) THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE MUMMY, and another Merian C. Cooper-Ernest B. Schoedsack production, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME.

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I do hope a science fiction film wins a Best Picture Oscar someday. I do hope it wins because it is genuinely the very best movie of the year, that it is not merely a good film but a great one, that it is great science fiction as well as a great film, and that all its merits are decided on the basis of its artistic quality, not out of noise and pressure to finally hand the trophy over to a movie of its genre. It would be extremely dismaying if current trends and movements in both SF fandom and attempts to reform the Oscar voting process should converge at some point and make the first science fiction film to win Best Picture an illegitimate victory.

 

THE OVERPRAISED AND OVERHYPED: A STRICTLY PERSONAL LISTING OF THE MOST OVERRATED SCIENCE FICTION FILMS OF ALL TIME

THE OVERPRAISED AND OVERHYPED: A STRICTLY PERSONAL LISTING OF THE MOST OVERRATED SCIENCE FICTION FILMS OF ALL TIME

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 andfandom, 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

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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

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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

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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.

 

4. ALPHAVILLE

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

 

10. MOON

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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 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.

 

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: A Personal List, Part IV. The Eighties To The Present

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: A Personal List, Part IV. The Eighties To The Present

And now, we complete our list! There are two reasons why I’ve decided to include the Eighties and Nineties together with the 21st century in this compilation of overlooked science fiction films. First of all, it takes time to decide whether or not a film is truly underrated, and the older they are, the greater the danger they have of sinking into completely undeserving obscurity. On the other hand, not only are more recent films still fresh in the memory and more readily available, they also get discussed more, and as a result, it becomes much more difficult to judge whether a film is truly underrated or not; if anything, a recent movie is more likely to be overpraised by audiences. It annoys me when current movies that get plenty of on-line buzz and widespread critical praise are called underrated simply because they were box office disappointments (as with Edge of Tomorrow, a movie I genuinely enjoyed) or the label is applied to under-the-radar releases that primarily played the festival and independent theater circuit to great acclaim and relative financial success (such as Snowpiercer, which I haven’t seen yet).  The films I’ve chosen to spotlight may have cult followings or have been critically lauded, but not to a large or excessive degree. I prefer to label such films as Attack the Block, Upstream Color and Europa Report  as “sleepers,” as I expect they will gain sizable cult followings in the future, at the very least. The two youngest films on my list seems unlikely to do so any time soon, which is why I decided to include them; both are well-made and intelligent enough, however, that they deserve better than obscurity, and there are probably plenty of other movies like them out there.

Secondly, despite all the improvements in effects technology, the science fiction film has not changed much fundamentally since the 1980s. Action films still make up the bulk of the science fiction movies made, and most contemporary major releases do little more than retread old ground. However, one notable change is that over the past two decades, more science fiction films are being made with the intention of being shown to art-house audiences, and ironically, these films which are not made for or marketed to what is now viewed as “typical” science fiction fans bear more resemblance to “real” literary science fiction in terms of basic concepts and ideas. There are also more “independent” science fiction films being made overall, thanks to the new affordability of digital film techniques, and although Sturgeon’s law still applies (many of them lamentably seem to draw their main inspiration from video games), one can find many thoughtful and intelligent science fiction features and shorts legally on YouTube and elsewhere. When it comes to modern SF film, I prefer that which approaches written science fiction in its ideas, themes and treatment of science (I’m particularly fond of the emerging subgenre of “lab-lit” science fiction epitomized by Shane Carruth’s PRIMER and Mike Cahill’s I ORIGINS), and that’s certainly true of most of the films I’ve selected for this list. If you think science fiction movies are synonymous with action scenes or special effects, you’ll likely be disappointed. But if you’re on the lookout for intelligent and thoughtful as well entertaining cinema, you’ll probably enjoy these titles as much as I have.

 

24. ELECTRIC DREAMS

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Thirty years before Spike Jonez made HER, another director best known for his innovative rock videos made a thoroughly beguiling story of the possibilities of love between personal computers and their human users. Directed by Steve Barron, best known at the time for such videos as Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and a-ha’s “Take On Me,” ELECTRIC DREAMS works well enough as a sharp romantic comedy, but it’s equally interesting for its seemingly inadvertent predictions about how home computers would later affect our lives and relationships. Lenny Van Dohlen (later a part of the TWIN PEAKS ensemble cast) is a shy and lonely architect who pines for his lovely new neighbor, professional cellist Virginia Madsen (who wouldn’t get a part nearly this good until SIDEWAYS twenty years later) who lives upstairs from him. At first, Van Dohlen simply uses his computer to play the role of Cyrano de Bergerac to Madsen’s Roxanne, but when the computer gains sentience, an unlikely and very strange love triangle emerges. Beyond the film’s obvious charms (I’m particularly impressed that Barron is able to maintain a light touch even when the story takes dark turns), there’s also some pointed commentary about how we are becoming over-reliant on technology as a means of developing and maintaining our interpersonal relationships, and although I hate the term “even more relevant now” to describe how a story of years past speaks to later audiences (does that mean it wasn’t relevant before?), it has an even greater impact in an era of Internet dating and chatting where texting has replaced casual conversation. Indeed, the film appears to be addressing how the Emerging Computer Age will soon integrate itself into our entire culture and everyday lives, something that’s evident from the opening airport montage of people speaking into headsets, fiddling with wristwatch calculators, playing with remote-control toys, etc. Van Dohlen at first purchases his computer to help him with his conceptual design for a living space, an earthquake-proof building based on the work of M.C. Escher, but it soon connects itself to every appliance in the house in order to exert control over his life. Even the fine arts are not immune to technological change, as demonstrated when the computer courts Madsen through music (a duet between Madsen and the computer is wonderfully photographed and edited, as well as beautifully performed by Madsen). Plus, I have to love any movie that features a clip from THE GIANT CLAW.

 

25. THE QUIET EARTH

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In compiling this list, I’ve tried to avoid movies that pop up repeatedly on other “underrated” lists; can a film really be considered as such if it gets continually held up for praise and attention? However, I’ve made an exception for this movie which seems to be everyone’s favorite “overlooked” science fiction movie, since my reasons for liking it are different from others. The consensus viewpoint seems to be that the film’s first half, in which physicist Bruno Lawrence suddenly wakes up to find himself seemingly the last person left on Earth, is stronger than the second act when he discovers he isn’t as alone as he thought it was. However, I am of the opposite opinion: I found the film’s first act, where Lawrence engages in a series of “one-man shows” in an attempt to hold on to his sanity, to be too obvious and self-conscious but that the movie gets much more interesting when more characters show up and it tries to explain their situation. I find those scenes where Lawrence’s character puts his scientific knowledge and training towards investigating how the world changed particularly engrossing; watching him go through his former workplace and record a monograph on how his research team’s experiments may have altered the constants and parameters of the universe is much more thought-provoking and satisfying than his heavy-handed political theater near the beginning.

 

26. BIG MEAT EATER

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What would happen if you hired They Might Be Giants to make a PG-rated remake of LIQUID SKY? It might look something like this thoroughly charming low-budget Canadian release, which has much of the same sensibility as other homegrown Canadian comedies as THE RED GREEN SHOW and CORNER GAS. Trying to describe the “plot” is pointless, but involves a cheerful butcher store owner who has invented a new universal language; his new employee, a murderous 300-pound jazz vocalist; his friend, a genius amateur scientist who has invented a new rocket fuel and flying car; and wind-up toy aliens who take up residence in the shop. Oh yeah, it’s also a musical with some weird but fun songs that perfectly compliment the overall quirkiness of the project. My favorite is a tribute to chemistry that would make Tom Lehrer proud. One of the cast members, Andrew Gillies, has continued to be visible in Canadian TV and movies, many of them genre-related; most recently, he has been a semi-regular on both ORPHAN BLACK and the TV adaptation of TWELVE MONKEYS.

 

27. NIGHT OF THE COMET

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After the Earth passes through the tail of Hailey’s Comet, mass apocalypse ensues, and the survivors try their best to patch things together. Sure Abel Gance did the same sort of thing in the silent era, but this being the Eighties, the focus is almost entirely on two  suburban California girls, and it’s done with tongue somewhat in cheek. This charming movie has a small and affectionate cult, but I’m surprised it isn’t much bigger and fervent. After all, it’s post-apocalyptic science fiction, it has zombies, it positively drips Eighties all over itself , and it has a strong, Uzi-toting female lead played by Catherine Mary Stewart, in an absolutely terrific performance. You actually wind up caring a lot for the film’s two heroines. I can’t really say I’m part of the film’s cult, as it runs out of gas two-thirds of the way through when it becomes much more conventional with a routine and rather dull government conspiracy subplot taking over and much of the humor being lost. Until then, it’s a very enjoyable, nostalgic product of its time that is both a homage to earlier films and an ahead-of-its time foreshadowing of the directions the genre would take.

 

28. UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD

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Wim Wenders’ “science fiction road movie” disappointed most critics and audiences at the time of its release, as apparently they were expecting another WINGS OF DESIRE (the following year, Wenders gave them exactly that with FAR AWAY…SO CLOSE!…and no one liked that movie much either). Although they admired the ambition of a nearly three-hour long movie filmed on four continents, many found that its extreme length and range of locales worked against it, as it required viewers to try to sort out the story at the same time they were trying to figure out what Wenders was trying to say, and they weren’t willing to watch such a long movie multiple times to do so (similar criticisms have been leveled against Andrei Tarkovsky’s science fiction classics SOLARIS and STALKER).  Worse yet, they found it difficult to penetrate the motivations of the main characters, even though they were played by such first-rate talents as William Hurt, Max von Sydow, and the late Solveig Dommartin.  Since then, we’ve had our fill of so many “globetrotting” movies that try to span so many different locales and periods while juggling multiple themes and storylines (including science fiction films such as CLOUD ATLAS and THE FOUNTAIN), that Wenders’ film no longer comes off as difficult as it once seemed to be. Instead, rewatching the film reveals that it is quite coherent both thematically and storywise; I’m particularly impressed by how the two major science fiction plot devices, that of a nuclear satellite that has fallen out of orbit and threatens environmental disaster and the von Sydow character’s experiments in trying to restore vision and record dreams electronically, both wind up being relevant to each other and eventually come together by the end. The worldwide nature of Wenders’ film also no longer seems like a gimmick, but essential to film’s major themes of how to facilitate human communication and understanding in an era of global social and technological change. The often-controversial but always-thoughtful Kyle Smith has recently written an excellent appraisal and appreciation of the film. It should finally be noted that this has one of the best soundtracks ever for a science fiction film and U2, then at their creative peak, provided a great theme song.

 

29. THE ARRIVAL

Airdate: Saturday, December 12 on NBC (8-11 p.m. ET) THE ARRIVAL -- NBC Theatrical -- Pictured: Charlie Sheen as Zane Zaminski -- Photo: Live Entertainment/Orion

The feature directorial debut of screenwriter David Twohy received highly variable reviews and was a box-office washout upon its initial release in 1996. I saw it in theaters in its first week, loved it, and fully expected it to at least become a cult classic, but that hasn’t happened, at least not yet. Although there is is the usual awkward moment here and there that usually accompanies a sophomore directorial venture (Twohy had already directed a TV movie, DISASTER IN TIME, adapted from C.L. Moore’s classic novella “Vintage Season”) and Charlie Sheen does his eye-bugging routine a little too often, it’s still an excellent film, much better than the same year’s more expensive and financially lucrative INDEPENDENCE DAY, and definitely a more intelligent one. Made when the X-FILES was at the peak of its popularity, Twohy’s film actually owes more to classic alien invasion films of the Fifties and Nigel Kneale’s QUATERMASS series of TV serials and their film remakes (especially QUATERMASS II). What I particularly enjoy about the film is how it juggles a wide variety of science fiction concepts to advance the plot, while maintaining a firm and credible use of actual science to keep the story rooted in reality. One of my favorite moments is when the frustrated Sheen (who to be fair is excellent in much of the film) is on the phone trying to explain the differences between sidereal time and geosynchronous orbit to his boss (the late, great Ron Silver) only to get cut off.  It’s just a brief moment that demonstrates that Twohy really knows his science and doesn’t need to go into tiresome exposition to impress us with this fact. Unfortunately, Twohy’s subsequent directorial career has been disappointing (I had high hopes that PITCH BLACK would be a similar hard SF thriller, with its premise reminiscent of Hal Clement’s CYCLE OF FIRE and Poul Anderson’s FIRE TIME, but halfway through, it became just another ALIENS clone), but hopefully, he will fulfill his promise yet someday.

30. THE WILD BLUE YONDER

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Werner Herzog came late to making a science fiction film, long after genre entries by fellow “West German New Wave” directors Wim Wenders and Rainer Fassbinder (the TV serial WORLD ON A WIRE), and when he did, he made one that was uniquely his. An intense, pony-tailed Brad Dourif plays an alien originally from a “blue planet” orbiting Alpha Centurai (or so he says) who tells the story of how his people came to Earth in a failed attempt to make a new home, and then how he had to watch helplessly as the natives of Earth mirrored them in trying to leave their polluted planet for the world he himself abandoned, a mission that according to him will only prove to be as quixotic as those of the protagonists of Herzog’s masterpieces, AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD and FITZCARALDO. As with Herzog’s other films, the lines between fiction and the real (natural) world are blurred. Dourif’s tale is visualized through some brilliant editing of NASA archival footage, some breathtaking original documentary film of the ocean depths beneath the Antarctic ice shelf to depict the alien planet that Dourif supposedly comes from, and even some interviews with scientists on the subject of space exploration. Although some of the footage (especially that aboard the space shuttle) goes on for too long, it remains involving throughout, thanks both to Herzog’s direction and the captivating performance by Dourif. The main message of the film is one that some science fiction fans will nonetheless object to, that this planet must be taken care of and understood before we can be called responsible enough to venture further into space (there is the implication that Herzog is also calling out non-manned missions as well), but there is a less questionable underlying secondary theme, which is that The Alien is Where You Find It. It’s a theme that recurs in much of the best science fiction as well as throughout Herzog’s oeuvre.

 

31. FLATLAND

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Most science fiction movies have difficulty fulfilling their promise, but this one fulfills several of them  beautifully: it’s the successful adaptation of a classic story in the genre; uses CGI to tell a story and create a new world instead of simply trying to awe its audience; and tries to use the genre as a vehicle for discussing and dealing with ideas in a thoughtful and original way. Hewing quite closely to the original story by Edwin Abbott for the most part, writer-director Ladd Ehlinger manages to create a fully-realized visualization of both the titular two-dimensional world and its three-dimensional counterpart on a budget that wouldn’t buy a spare microchip at Pixar. The film is not only great-looking but fascinating to listen to, as the characters discuss philosophy, epistemology and ontology, and after it’s done, you’ll find yourself actively thinking about subjects you usually wouldn’t expect from watching a movie, such as, say, the role of axiomatic argument in both geometry and legislation. An added plus is that the updates and modifications to the original story by Ehlinger build upon and elaborate upon themes and social commentary in the original Abbott book, while adding a new pro-science twist (reminiscent in some ways of Hal Clement’s MISSION OF GRAVITY, which itself has been called a variation on FLATLAND).  In the two-dimensional Flatland, quasi-religious or theological dogma has placed limits on scientific progress, as has historically been the case; on the other hand, the 3-D world exists on a higher plane, where the anti-science movement is the result of government bureaucracy and anti-capitalist hysteria, reflecting modern social movements and trends. A well-known conservative-libertarian activist in real life, Ehlinger provides a trenchant critique of how ignorance and arrogance from all across the political spectrum limits scientific and independent thought, and impedes the conceptual breakthroughs that keep a civilization vibrant and dynamic. Ehlinger’s follow-up film HIVEMIND was even more overtly political, and unfortunately, as a result did not get a proper release (as well as a predictably vicious review in VARIETY that was utterly appalled at the audacity of a right-of-center film maker expressing his views). Once again, I’m hoping that an extremely talented and intelligent director gets his shot at making a movie worthy of his abilities someday.

 

 

32. ASTRONAUT: THE LAST PUSH

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If you loved INTERSTELLAR, EUROPA REPORT, GRAVITY and other entries in the current trend of “hard science fiction” films about space, then this one is a must-see,  even though it was made at only a fraction of their cost. It  features top-notch effects work, and not only does it succeed at conveying scientific detail and technical realism, but is also suffused with a genuine Sense of Wonder, despite concentrating on a single character on one set. Made partially in the pseudo-documentary style of EUROPA REPORT by director and screenwriter Eric Hayden, and similarly dealing with the first manned mission to that particular Jovian moon, it focuses on one astronaut’s attempt to both survive and hold on to his sanity in his confined quarters when the mission goes wrong.  Lead actor and story co-writer Khary Payton (a voice actor some of you will immediately recognize as Cyborg from the TEEN TITANS animated series, and who has since become a regular cast member on THE WALKING DEAD) is excellent as the titular astronaut, who starts out already weary from global attention, builds in frustration as he struggles to survive both mentally and physically, and learns to embrace his role not just as a pioneer but as an ambassador for humanity worldwide. Best of all, it gives the great Lance Henriksen one of his best roles in years, as the philanthropist who funds the mission; his character owes more to Fred Kavli than Richard Branson or Elon Musk, and is played totally sympathetically and compassionately. In fact, the film, much like DESTINATION MOON, also raises important questions about private vs. public financing of space travel (“It takes NASA at least a year to pass gas” snorts Henriksen early on).  If you’re looking for a film that approaches the best written SF in respecting both the science involved and the audience’s intelligence, then this labor of love is worth watching out for while you’re waiting for THE MARTIAN.

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: The Sixties and the Seventies

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: The Sixties and the Seventies

As we move into the Sixties and Seventies, you’ll notice that we’ve dropped in the number of films selected, from ten to seven. Unfortunately, the science fiction boom of the Fifties crested by the early Sixties, and the number of films being made by American studios plummeted; it’s not a coincidence that the bulk of the movies selected for this article came from outside the United States. 1968 then saw the release of two landmark films: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and PLANET OF THE APES. Not only did they help to revive adult-oriented science fiction as a viable genre, but they demonstrated for the studios that they could make back their investment in a big-budget science fiction film. A big-budget boom did not truly begin until STAR WARS was released in 1977. On the positive side, in demonstrating that they could make back their investment not once but many times over, it convinced the studios to produce far more SF films than any time since the late Fifties. On the downside, history repeated itself as they wound up orienting their output towards principally juvenile audiences, and became more concerned with the exploitable and profitable aspects than with artistic quality. Consequently, a very narrow conception of the genre emerged, one that unfortunately persists to this day.

It must also be said that as we enter the Seventies and beyond, it becomes increasingly difficult to think of genuinely underrated science fiction movies. As Danny Peary explained in the introductions to his legendary Cult Movies books on why he limited the number of science fiction and horror films in each volume: nearly every science fiction film has a cult or at least a coterie of admirers of some sort, and that’s especially true of those made in the past forty or thirty years. Yeah, ZARDOZ and THE BLACK HOLE have fans, but there is no way that they can be considered “underrated” by any yardstick. I also left off THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN and COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT, two of my very favorite science fiction films. They may seem underrated because they don’t get discussed as much as they should, but are still well known and extremely well-respected by most fans.

So what does that leave us? Well….

17. UNEARTHLY STRANGER

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Although Great Britain had made science fiction films since the beginning of the 1950s it wasn’t until Hammer released the feature film version of Nigel Kneale’s THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT that the UK experienced a science fiction boom of their own. At their best, they followed in the tradition of the Quatermass serials in creating thoughtful stories with novel plot devices unlike anything found in American films of the era. UNEARTHLY STRANGER is a unique, haunting movie totally unlike any other made in either country at the time. John Neville, an Anglo-Canadian stage legend forever immortalized as Baron Munchhausen in Terry Gilliam’s film, is a scientist working on a research project involving space travel through astral projection (don’t worry, it’s essential to the plot), and several of his colleagues have mysteriously died from massive brain aneurysms. Could Neville’s “Swiss” wife be linked to them? Well, if you’ve ever read Richard Matheson’s short story “First Anniversary” you may figure it out early on, but the fine performances and intriguing ideas will keep you watching anyways, and there are some startling camera angles and editing effects that help to create the intended feeling of unease, that something from beyond has intruded into our reality. The most startling sequences feature the wife (Gabriela Licudi) who not only sleeps with her eyes open and can touch a hot stove without flinching, but whose very presence has a strange effect on children.

18. IKARIE XB-1

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Science fiction also proved to be a popular genre behind the Iron Curtain, with Eastern Europe being a prolific purveyor of the genre for many years. The former Soviet Union, East Germany and Poland made the most science fiction films (often co-productions between two or three countries), but nearly every former Communist Bloc country-Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, even Bulgaria- produced at least one science fiction film. Yet one country stood out not just as a prolific source of SF cinema but for the sheer quality of its output: the former Czechoslovakia turned out some of the best science fiction films of the Sixties and Seventies, even if most of them went unseen outside the borders of the Warsaw Pact countries. A few managed to escape, and Karel Zeman’s great fantastic films, which combined live-action with every conceivable form of animation have enchanted audiences worldwide since the mid-Fifties. However, since Zeman’s films are not only well-acclaimed here (mostly by animation aficionados) and are as much genre hybrids of science fiction and fantasy as they are of technique, I have chosen instead to spotlight a “harder” science fiction film that deserves more attention. IKARIE XB-1 is one of the best space movies ever made, and while it may not be as acclaimed as either 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or SOLARIS, it still deserves priority as a “thinking person’s” science fiction film that used its space setting for the purposes of drama and thematic relevance, not just for audience thrills.

Curiously enough, although it has the distinct look of a European film (the cinematography reminds me of Sven Nykvist’s work for Ingmar Bergman films of the period) and an episodic story structure that is at odds with conventional Western notions of narrative, it nonetheless has a premise more redolent of American pulp science fiction than that associated with Eastern Bloc science fiction (even though it was adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s novel THE MAGELLANIC CLOUD).  Set on a giant spaceship destined for colonization of a planet in Alpha Centurai, the storyline has no real plot beyond focusing on the personal conflicts and crises of those involved, making it seem even like a literal adaption of an American “paste-up” novel.  It’s quite reminiscent of Robert A. Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, itself a paste-up of two novellas originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction. The comparison to the pulps should be viewed as a compliment as it evokes a similar Sense of Wonder in its best scenes: the spaceship circling an abandoned vessel in space; the shots of the “Black Sun” (a Karel Capek reference?), a star that spews lethal radiation that threatens the hundred or so voyagers; a lonely robot, calling out for its owner as it rolls through empty hallways; and the great final scene, which alas was cut out by AIP, the film’s American distributors. In its place, they substituted a stock cliche ending (think the Twilight Zone episode “Third from the Sun” or one-fourth of the endings of EC’s science fiction comics) that makes you want to kick in the screen. Fortunately, Sinister Cinema has issued a special edition double DVD set containing both the original Czech film and the American edit (entitled VOYAGE TO THE END OF THE UNIVERSE).

19. PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES

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Mario Bava is deservedly acclaimed as one of the finest horror directors of all time, but he worked in other genres as well, giving them his own unique stylistic touch. Hercules in the Haunted World is easily the best “sword and sandal” film I have ever seen, and Diabolik is one of the better “Swinging Super-Spy” movies of the late Sixties. To top it all off, Bava’s Planet of the Vampires is probably the best Italian science fiction film ever made. Although I admit that Antonio Margheritti’s Battle of the Worlds and Wild Wild Planet are probably my favorite SF films to come out of the country, they probably count as “guilty pleasures” more than anything else, given that I’m quite alone in my affection for them. On the other hand, I’m surprised Bava’s science fiction film has a mixed reputation. There’s a great divide among American science fiction fans (most of whom dislike Italian science fiction films of the Sixties, although they’ll readily concede that they’re better than the innumerable Star Wars and Road Warrior rip-offs that would come out of the country in subsequent decades) regarding the film’s merits, many admiring Bava’s characteristic style and visual invention, while others find it ponderous and dull. I personally find the film fascinating. Yes, it’s deliberately paced, but I find that works in the its favor as it takes its time to reveal itself without relying on long passages of expository dialogue. That the movie manages to do so speaks volumes about Bava’s skill at telling his story as much as his ability as dressing it up. It’s one of the the most visually evocative and haunting science fiction films until Alien was released, and while the story similarities are likely a coincidence, the fact that Carlo Rambaldi worked on both films helps to explain some of the visual likenesses.  If you’ve only seen it on TV before, pick up the DVD or Blu-Ray for a rich visual and aural experience.

20. ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS

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Jess Franco is a horror director I place several (OK, many) notches below Bava on the quality scale. Still, I must be fair and concede that while he made too many awful films (with a resume as vast as his, you’re bound to miss your aim more often than not), and I’m repelled by the content in many of them (particularly his later oeuvre) he doesn’t deserve the “Worst Director of All Time” monicker some have attached to him. He certainly isn’t the worst horror director, not as long as prints of H.G. Lewis and Andy Milligan films still exist, and he isn’t even the worst prolific director, a dubious title that Joe D’Amato deserves far more. And at his best, he’s genuinely good. ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS is a an entertaining hybrid of the spy film and science fiction, and while most of the innumerable James Bond rip-offs of the Sixties had some science fiction content (particularly as they became more prominent in the Bond films themselves), they usually pushed it to the margins.  Not this film, which owes as much to the German Dr. Mabuse films of the Sixties as it does to Bond; the “robots” of the title (really people placed under artificial mind control) are central to the plot. It also helps that it stars the always-engaging Eddie Constatine, who became a superstar in Europe as a result of movies like this one, and a genuinely witty script by Jean-Claude Carriere, shortly to gain worldwide acclaim for his Luis Bunuel scripts and is still actively working today…and a recent winner of an Lifetime Achievement Oscar! Although hardly representative of most of Franco’s oeuvre, fans of his will recognize similarities to some of his earlier films, specifically THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z and DR.ORLOFF’S MONSTER and if you’re not a fan of Franco but still want to see one of his films in the name of completion, I recommend this one.

21. THE MIND OF MR. SOAMES

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Charles Eric Maine was a surprising choice for a science fiction writer to have so many of his books adapted to the movies, but no less than three were made in the Fifties: SPACEWAYS, THE ATOMIC MAN and THE ELECTRONIC MONSTER, none of which live up to their compelling titles. The film version of his novel THE MIND OF MR. SOAMES was made much later in 1970 and is by far the best adaptation of his work. A problem with the other movies based on Maine’s work is that if they fall into any subgenre, it’s so-called “mundane science fiction”-both literally and figuratively. Although the premise of MR.SOAMES is the least far-fetched of the four, dealing as it does with a man (the always-exceptional Terence Stamp) who has been revived from a coma he has been in since birth thanks to an advanced operation, it develops it in a most intriguing fashion. Stamp is superb in a difficult part (unlike some performances by actors in similar roles, there is no attempt ever by Stamp to overplay or exaggerate his character’s mental state or to play for sympathy), and he’s complimented by almost-as-good turns by Nigel Davenport and a bearded Robert Vaughn as his doctors. Incidentally, this is also probably the best movie ever produced by horror specialists Amicus Productions.

22. I KILLED EINSTEIN, GENTLEMEN

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Once again we return to Czechoslovakia but for a very different type of science fiction film, a time-travel comedy that’s as enjoyable as the BACK TO THE FUTURE series and also plays wittily with time paradoxes, but is much more biting and political in its satire. By the late Sixties, a Czech New Wave had emerged in the nation’s cinema, that offered some of the most stinging rebukes to communism and socialism in the film world. Many delightful and wonderfully entertaining SF comedies came out of the country during this period: MISTER YOU ARE A WIDOWER, DINNER FOR ADELE and possibly the best of them all, WHO KILLED JESSE? All of them are pretty great, but I’m singling out I KILLED EINSTEIN because it has received the least attention; certainly a title that suggests the murder of not just one of the greatest scientists who ever lived but also one of history’s great humanitarians may make many apprehensive about watching it.  The Overlook Science Fiction Encyclopedia in fact outright panned the film, being aghast at the idea of blaming Einstein for the atomic bomb, although they were missing the whole point. The precise target of the film are those who blame science and technology as well as scientists themselves for disasters that are the result of poorly-thought out political decisions. The political satire is very much in the Czech tradition of Karel Capek’s science fiction work as well as the anti-authoritarian films of Milos Forman and Vera Chytilova, taking on both the anti-intellectualism of totalitarian societies (numerous communist governments had banned the teaching of relativity and quantum physics for going against Marxist principles), and the absurdity of government solutions. It also features one of the best and most accurate depictions of Albert Einstein (wonderfully played by Petr Cepek) in the movies, and is one of the few to acknowledge that he accomplished his greatest work while still a young man. Movies like this one make me understand why the Czechs loved Frank Zappa.

23. STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE

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I’m as surprised as you are to see this one listed here. For once thing, not only am I definitely not a Star Trek fan, but for many years, annoyance with the show’s obsessive cult kept me from fully enjoying it. I actually quit reading STARLOG magazine in the early Nineties when their overwhelming coverage of the franchise at the expense of all other facets of fandom just grew too ridiculous for me to handle. However, over the past few years, I’ve started to warm ever-so-slightly to the original series. While its cult certainly hasn’t died down, both the lack of a new TV series for a now quite-long period of time as well as reruns of the earlier series becoming less ubiquitous in a changing TV landscape has helped make it seem less in-your-face obnoxious. I can understand now why science fiction fans who weren’t necessarily fans of SF films or television nonetheless loved the show. Normally, it annoys me when TV or movies recycle ideas that have been used umpteen times by science fiction writers, but I don’t mind it all with this particular franchise, since they not only seem essential in building the setting and developing the plots, but there is no attempt to sell them as daring or original. It just accepts them as a necessary component of the architecture.

I’ve also manage to warm-up somewhat to the film franchise as well, and this movie in particular. Yes it was critically lambasted upon initial release, but I think Roger Ebert (who liked the film with reservations) was correct when he said that over-familiarity with the main characters helped work against its acceptance by the public at the time, as it initially seemed incongruous seeing them transplanted to a big-budget setting. Ironically, the biggest complaint by fans at the time was that it was too familiar, with a plot redolent of too many episodes of the TV show…so make up your minds, dammit! Had it been made without them, it may have been recognized as a noble attempt to make a genuine actual-to-goodness science fiction film instead of yet another action flick or feature-length special effects reel made in a crass attempt to cash in on the success of STAR WARS. All the same, it probably wouldn’t have worked as well if the film didn’t have such beloved characters that had been well-developed over the course of the series; seen today, it’s easier to embrace the film’s fantastic events since we are experiencing them through individuals who have been developed even further in the cinematic universe, so we can easier relate to their feelings of awe and danger. Of course, the director’s cut is a massive improvement over not only the original theatrical edit, but the television one as well, which featured what may very well be the worst print transfer of any big-budget movie.

As we conclude our look at the Sixties and Seventies, it’s probably best to quote from Dick DeBartolo and Mort Drucker’s MAD MAGAZINE parody of ST:TMP:

KIRK: Spock, did we just witness the beginning of a new life form?

SPOCK: No Captain, we witnessed the beginning of a new motion picture form where the special effects are ten times more interesting than the people, the plot and the dialogue!

Just a simple of way saying…we wrap up with the Eighties and Afterwards next week!

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: A Personal List, PART II-The Fifties

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: A Personal List, PART II-The Fifties

When coming up with a list of favorite or best science fiction films of the 1950s, a half-dozen indisputable classics almost always show up: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL , THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD,  FORBIDDEN PLANET, THEM, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. The decade also saw the release of several second-tier classics: THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, WAR OF THE WORLDS, GODZILLA: KING OF MONSTERS, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE,  INVADERS FROM MARS, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE, THE FLY, DESTINATION MOON,  2,000 LEAGUES BENEATH THE SEA, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE,  and the first two QUATERMASS films. While not necessarily great films like the first six, they nonetheless range in quality from excellent to very good, and are worthy of their reputations. However, there are other movies made from the decade that are just as good but often overlooked, not just by general audiences, but by avowed science fiction fans as well. It is usually only the most devoted and well-read fan who is aware of them and actively seeks them out, and unfortunately, they tend to be an older demographic whose numbers are dwindling.

Fortunately, both DVD and channels such as Turner Classic Movies have helped keep many of these movies alive and available for younger viewers to discover and enjoy. All the films listed are available on DVD (and in some instances, Blu-Ray as well), and the curious viewer will be well rewarded if he or she seeks them out. Continuing from where we left off from the last post, here are my Top Ten underrated science fiction films from the Fifties:

 

7. THE MAN FROM PLANET X

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1951 was a landmark year for the science fiction film with the release of both THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, two genuine classics that not only influenced the genre output of the rest of the decade but continue to do so to this day. It can be plausibly argued that any subsequent treatment of the topic of extraterrestrial life in the American cinema has merely been a variation of either film.   Made and released in the same year, THE MAN FROM PLANET X is not quite on their high level, but it’s nonetheless a fine movie that’s worthy of further study in its own right. For once thing, the film’s treatment of the “First Contact” scenario between humans and alien is quite intriguing, with an aura of mystery and ambivalence that makes for an interesting comparison with the other two movies. It’s also one of the best movies by the legendary director Edgar Ulmer, and I actually like it more than his more acclaimed DETOUR and BLUEBEARD.  If you’ve ever wondered why Ulmer has such a cult, this movie goes a long way to help one understand why, as it’s wonderfully atmospheric and very stylized in its photography and set design, much like Ulmer’s THE BLACK CAT. It can actually be viewed as a intermediate species between the horror films of the Thirties and Forties and the science fiction films that would in turn dominate the Fifties. For that reason, I especially recommend it to fans of classic horror who aren’t necessarily science fiction fans as well.

 

8. THE MAGNETIC MONSTER

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If 1951 was the year the SF cinema broke, 1953 was the year it exploded. That year saw the release of such classics as WAR OF THE WORLDS, INVADERS FROM MARS, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, DONOVAN’S BRAIN and THE BEAST FROM 2,000 FATHOMS. My personal favorite from this year is one of the few genuine “hard science fiction films,” the Ivan Tors production THE MAGNETIC MONSTER, a movie that does for physics what THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN did for biology. The monster of the title is actually a new form of matter (a magnetic monopole, as it turns out) created in a cyclotron that threatens to destroy the world through a chain reaction when it is found that it periodically “feeds” on nearby matter, converting it into energy, and that this process increases by the inverse cube. Yes, it’s fanciful, but no more so than the conspiracy scenario (I refuse to misuse the word “theory) continually thrown-up by today’s scientific illiterates of particle accelerators destroying the world by creating an artificial black-hole or “strange matter” (which the hungry isotope in the movie actually resembles in its hypothetical properties). The story is made believable through the use of credible science to provide a technical background for its fantastic elements and a documentary-style realism to the proceedings, not unlike that of the similarly- plotted PANIC IN THE STREETS. It also helps that the hero is played by Richard Carlson, the second-best (after Kenneth Tobey) recurring lead actor in Fifties science fiction films. Carlson was especially good in challenging roles as scientists and other experts, always coming across that he both knew what he was doing and knew what he was talking about.   Watch it as part of a double bill with either X THE UNKNOWN or THE MONOLITH MONSTERS to see how a similar premise can be handled differently but no less effectively.

 

9. THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT

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This is a certified classic, one of the finest of the marvelous Ealing Studios comedies of the era that starred Alec Guinness, so why is it on this list? While it’s been hailed as a comic masterpiece and a stinging satire on both management and labor alike, it’s less widely recognized as a great science fiction film, even though it most certainly is one. No less an SF luminary than Ben Bova has named it his favorite science fiction movie of all time, and it’s easy to understand why: it takes on all the challenges that good science fiction tries to do, and does a superlative job at each of them. The film credibly portrays a possible scientific or technological advance (in this case, an indestructible fabric that repels all dirt and stains), plausibly portrays the possible social consequences of such an invention (which involves the attempts of rival businesses and manufacturing unions to suppress it because of their fears such an innovation will destroy them) and most importantly yet not as often discussed, the effects such a discovery has on the characters involved. Guinness plays a chemist and inventor who in many ways is very much like Tony Stark, Marvel’s Iron Man. He wraps himself with his own invention because he is defined by his science, and does not fully consider the ethical or social consequences of his work, or the dangers to himself from not doing so. It’s not just one of the funniest comedies of the era, but one of the most intelligent as well.

 

9. THIS ISLAND EARTH

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There was once a time when this would be ranked among the classics or near-classics but thanks to MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 THE MOVIE, its reputation has dropped precipitously and unfairly so. Now don’t get me wrong, I greatly enjoy MST3K myself, but if you’ve only seen this movie through it, then you haven’t really seen it all. Not only do the jokes run non-stop over the dialogue, but at least a third of the original film has been cut out! Unfortunately, many have indeed decided to judge the film this way, and consider it to be a bad film just because a couple of puppets told them so (mind you, these are the same people who uncritically obsess over genuinely awful contemporary movies and TV shows). This is in spite of the fact that it has one of the most sophisticated plots for an American science fiction film of the era, is one of the best adapted from written source material (in this case, Raymond F. Jones’s novella  “The Alien Machine”), and along with FORBIDDEN PLANET is the film that comes closest to the actual literary science fiction of the period (the original story had been published in Astounding Science Fiction). It’s also been more influential than you might think: the fondly-remembered THE LAST STARFIGHTER obviously borrowed its main premise from it,  Weird Al Yankovic has featured an Interocitor in UHF and at least one of his videos, and a clip from the movie even played on the TV in ET: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL.  Alas, not only has its reputation suffered from studio-sanctioned heckling, but the official DVD doesn’t even do this intelligent and imaginative movie justice (how many other films know what a Rydberg atom is, much less incorporate them in its set design?), as the picture has been panned-and-scanned and some scenes show more dirt and damage than they should. This is really inexcusable, especially since it’s been shown letterboxed whenever I’ve seen it played on TV. Adding even further insult to injury, there are no extras on the disc…but the Blu-Ray of MST3K THE MOVIE does feature a half-hour documentary on the making of THIS ISLAND EARTH! In spite of this, I still recommend the DVD of THIS ISLAND EARTH, just to watch it un-riffed; it’s a thoughtful and thematically rich film that even manages to be touching in its final moments. I also recommend buying the MST3K disc for the documentary…that and “Ladies and gentlemen, A Flock of Seagulls!”

 

11. THE WEREWOLF

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I’ve always found werewolf movies to be particularly scary, probably because they so perfectly integrate the main components of both types of horror: the breakdown of the laws of nature that lies at the heart of dark fantasy and the disintegration of the human psyche that is at the core of psychological horror. Watching someone turn into a monster is terrifying enough but their mental reversion into a feral state just adds further chills. THE WEREWOLF (1957) is a particularly interesting example of this subgenre by providing a scientific basis for lycanthropy, as did Jack Williamson’s novel DARKER THAN YOU THINK. The titular lycanthrope has been the unwitting victim of experiments by a pair of well-meaning but ethically challenged doctors with the goal of improving the human survival instinct (an almost identical premise to the following year’s I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF) resulting in his periodic transformation into a murderous beast. As noted in Phil Hardy’s OVERLOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION, it’s historically significant in that it marks the moment that horror began to reassert itself after SF’s domination throughout the decade, but the science fiction elements still predominate: not only are the normally supernatural plot elements explained through quasi-scientific means, but so is the theme of psychological descent into madness as well. The movie was directed by Fred Sears, who also made THE GIANT CLAW, and while that movie is my favorite of his, THE WEREWOLF is probably his best. They’re both available together on a DVD set with two other Sam Katzman productions, the watchable but unremarkable CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN and the deadly dull ZOMBIES OF MORA-TU.

 

12. THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD

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Of all the giant monster movies released during the decade, this one is my personal favorite. It’s one of the few that seemed to really learn the lessons provided by THEM! on how to make an effective film in the genre, and while watching it, you may be reminded of some later scenes in JAWS as well. Director Arnold Laven had already made a name for himself as a director of hard-hitting crime dramas and thrillers and he put his skills at maintaining realism and building suspense to good use for this genre turn. Fine performances are provided by the entire cast, headlined by Tim Holt as the Colonel and Hans Conreid as The Scientist, both of whom play fully-rounded human beings instead of the stereotypes you’re probably expecting. The monster itself, (it’s called a mollusk but it’s really more like a giant predatory sea louse) is an extremely effective and mostly convincing animatronic creation. Finally, the excellent script by Pat Fielder turns most of the then-established cliches of the genre upside-down and makes us care about all the characters. It’s surprising that this particularly well-written entry into the Fifties Monster Rally has seemingly received little to  no feminist attention, as not only is it one of the few such movies of the decade to be written by a woman, but it provides a strong central female character played by Audrey Dalton. Dalton plays a secretary and single mother who is believably strong, smart and capable,  and she winds up being the character most of us, regardless of age or gender, wind up identifying with the most. A Korean War widow who as had to juggle being both a mother to her daughter and working a full-time job (a situation many women of the time were in, but a fact that popular culture rarely acknowledged), she winds up having to provide emotional support to all the other characters in their moments of crisis. In fact, a fascinating “mother motif” runs throughout the entire movie. In addition to Dalton, the female characters also include her daughter, who has a maternal attitude towards animals (when she looks for her lost ladybug, we instantly think of the old schoolyard chant), the mother of a victim, who had been very strict and possessive towards her daughter; the pregnant wife of one of Conried’s co-workers, and a switchboard operator who is constantly being badgered by her mother. Even the titular monster can be viewed as just an overprotective parent instictively attacking those who would harm its offspring. It’s available on DVD as part of a double feature with another surprisingly effective sleeper from the era, IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE.

 

13. THE INVISIBLE BOY

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Ever finish watching a movie and then find yourself saying “damn, why isn’t this better known?” That was my reaction after watching this charming and engaging follow-up to FORBIDDEN PLANET which moves Robbie the Robot front-and center, co-starring with the very likeable Richard Eyer (best remembered for playing the Genie in THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) who plays the titular transparent lad. In addition to robots and invisibility, a whole host of other SF conventions (I also refuse to misuse the word “trope”) come into play: a mad supercomputer, artificially-accelerated intelligence, time travel, space travel and mind-control cybernetics. Although it’s more obviously made for children than its progenitor, there’s also a layer of social commentary underneath that helps make it watchable for adults as well. It’s available as an extra on the  FORBIDDEN PLANET 50th Anniversary Special Edition DVD.

 

14. THE 27th DAY

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Political biases can also play big role in why a movie gets underappreciated, especially as they change over time. THE 27TH DAY has received some exceptionally hostile, even savage attacks that don’t reflect on the actual quality of the film. Its critics are appalled by the portrayal of communist leaders as brutal dictators and the suggestion that things would be improved if communism not only went into the ash heap of history, but was rendered one itself. Because we all know that communism was a simply a noble idea that never had a real chance, and its adherents were all just good people who tried to make a better world, right? Never mind the one hundred million dead bodies….Anyways, this story of five individuals from five different countries who are literally given the power of life and death by an alien visitor and are challenged to use it is a very thoughtful and sober work, not at all “paranoid,” “hysterical” or “extremist” as its detractors claim. It takes its “What If-?” scenario and convincingly demonstrates how it would affect all sorts of relationships, both interpersonal and international. Although the ending is a little too pat and convenient, watching the characters wrestle with the ethical dilemmas handed to them makes for fascinating viewing. It’s the science fiction equivalent of TWELVE ANGRY MEN.

 

15. THE 4-D MAN

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Here’s another one that has slipped through the cracks, so to speak. One of the most offbeat and unique science fiction films of the decade, it was the second by Irwin Yeaworth, who had previously helmed THE BLOB. While that film is a certified cult classic, I consider THE 4-D MAN to be even better, a more accomplished and assured work as well as a decidedly more mature one. What really helps to make this a solid (pun intended) piece of work is the superb performance in the title role by Robert Lansing, one of the decade’s best for a science fiction film. Lansing is completely sympathetic and believable as a dedicated physicist who is coming apart over the stresses of both his workplace and personal life but then accidentally gains the ability to walk through walls and whatnot. At first he revels in this ability, only to be horrified by its side effects on both himself and others. Although the premise itself is highly unlikely to say the least, and the explanation for it largely nonsense, the film nonetheless manages to be quite involving, not just through the excellent performances by the entire cast (which in addition to Lansing include Lee Meriwether,  Robert Strauss, Edgar Stehli and a very young Patty Duke) but by its realistic depiction of scientists at work. The scientists are presented as people like anyone else, and their profession is shown to involve a tremendous amount of hard work that takes not days but months or years to complete. Experiments don’t always work the first time and must be repeated and replicated before they are accepted, and there is much internal conflict over who gets credit and who gets funding and workspace. The interesting depiction of both science and scientists is something it shares with many of the other films selected for this list. I also love Ralph Carmichael’s jazzy score; some dislike it and consider it inappropriate, but I think it perfectly suits such an offbeat and unique entry in the genre. I particularly like the tune that plays while Lansing strolls down the street at night, testing his new-found abilities, as well as the theme used for the nifty Norman McLaren-style animated opening credits.

 

16. BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE

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Ishiro Honda was Japan’s most prolific director of science fiction films and certainly the best known in the West, almost entirely on the basis of GODZILLA and subsequent entries in Toho Studio’s dakaiju films. However he directed a wide variety of films in the genre featuring a diverse array of plots and themes that reveal Honda to be an extremely versatile as well as talented helmer of SF subject matter: THE MYSTERIANS, ATRAGON, THE H-MAN, THE HUMAN VAPOR, MATANGO, GORATH and the entry on this list, BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE. I have chosen this film specifically because it seems to be the most neglected of Honda’s science fiction films, in spite of being one of his finest genre contributions. Possibly, the lack of a monster has something to do with this: THE MYSTERIANS, ATRAGON and (in the Japanese print) GORATH all feature brief appearances by giant monsters while this one goes kaiju-less.. However, that only makes it seem all the more interesting and mature. Like THIS ISLAND EARTH, it’s not just extremely eye-catching and visually imaginative but an amazingly ambitious film for the period, with action taking place all over the world and on the Moon, as well as the titular space battles between Earthlings and alien invaders. Honda’s earlier experience directing war films, not just depicting scenes of mass battle but those of the human tragedy and sacrifice that inevitably arises from large-scale conflict certainly helps a lot here. Some may be reminded of INDEPENDENCE DAY, especially in scenes of mass destruction and a montage where the world’s nations unite to fight the invaders. Other, more historically informed fans will also be reminded of plot points from CAPTAIN SCARLET AND THE MYSTERIONS and the model work and effects are at least as good as those in Gerry Anderson’s classic series. Granted it has some flaws: the first third tends to drag and with all the constant cross-cutting, we don’t get to know the characters long enough to really feel for them, but it’s still a worthy would-be epic. It’s available on a DVD set with two other great films from Honda, MOTHRA and THE H-MAN.

UP NEXT: The Sixties and The Seventies…

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: A Personal List, PART I  The Twenties Through The Forties

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: A Personal List, PART I The Twenties Through The Forties

Lists. Every site creates them; why should this one be any different? Well, for one thing, this site was created specifically to provide an outlet for thoughtful writing on science fiction, not click-bait for advertising revenue, but given that I’ve enjoyed reading lists since I came upon my dad’s copy of THE BOOK OF LISTS by Irving Wallace back when I was eight or nine, and the rest of the Internet seemingly does as well (except when they have to keep plowing through one page after another because money-hungry designers couldn’t put them all on one page), I figured, why not? (Is there a “List of Longest Introductory Sentences on the Internet?” No? There should be.) More importantly, as explained further below, some excellent articles from other sources made me want to write on some of my favorite science fiction films, specifically those which are underrated either by audiences in general or fandom in specific. I quickly realized that there were so many genuinely good science fiction films that are either unknown to many or unfairly maligned for one reason or another, that it was necessary to split this article in several parts.

It must first be established that an underrated film is one that is genuinely good at the very least, and underappreciated by most audience members. It doesn’t have to be a great film, but it helps if it reaches a certain standard of excellence.  For the purposes of this list, we should be specific about movies that not just the mass audience but the science fiction audience tends to overlook or unfairly downgrade. All too often, a list of “underrated” films is just a “list of movies I like that I think everyone else should,” and lazily consist of films that are already widely known and respected. Such films as GATTACA and PRIMER (two of my favorite science fiction films of recent decades) that have enjoyed widespread critical acclaim and audience appreciation, clearly do not qualify, and it is ludicrous to label them as “underrated”. Nor is a film underrated just because it wasn’t a box office success. DARK CITY might have been a financial failure in its initial theatrical run, but thanks to largely to the late Roger Ebert (a science fiction fan in real life) who first gave it a laudatory review and then later named it the best film of 1998, its reputation grew and it now has a fervent cult following. Additionally, a movie may be underrated for many years but either slowly or suddenly gain the attention it deserves, as with the case of John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS.  Difficult to see for many years, it is now properly regarded as a masterpiece, one of Frankenheimer’s best films as well as one of the best science fiction films of the 1960s. Similarly, Roger Corman’s finest contributions to the 50s science fiction cycle (NOT OF THIS EARTH, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS), although long beloved by a select group of fans, are much more appreciated now than they used to be, celebrated even, for being intelligent, entertaining and efficiently-made films that rise above extreme low budgets (think of Corman as the Sam Fuller of science fiction films). I’ve tried to span across space as well as time as much as I could, bringing attention to movies made from the rest of the world; the list includes movies from France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Russia, Canada, the former Czechoslovakia, and New Zealand. Finally, the list reflects a diversity of themes and subjects as well; those who think older science fiction films were all the same will be pleasantly surprised to find out just how wide-ranging and even daring they were in the topics they handled, anticipating many of today’s well-worn premises.

Finally, before we proceed any further, I must thank Brian Saur, whose excellent Underrated Horror Film series on his great blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks helped to inspire this article in the first place! I also recommend, as an alternative list and for more recommendations, this excellent list from Pierre Comtois which was an inspiration as well. Additional thanks need to go to Gerry Carpenter, Dave Sindelar, Tim Lucas and Steve Joyce, from whom I learned about some of these movies in the first place! Thanks to each and every one of you!

 

BEFORE THE GOLDEN AGE

 

Before the Fifties, most people can only cite THINGS TO COME and METROPOLIS, sometimes A TRIP TO THE MOON by Melies and KING KONG (which they more often than not don’t realize is science fiction), as important science fiction films made during the first half of the century (excluding serials such as FLASH GORDON) . It is therefore necessary to spotlight some of those feature-length SF movies made from the silent era through the 1940s deserving of greater critical attention and wider viewing from present-day audiences, even if there  re less of them to discuss.

My main criteria, beyond personal preference, in the composing of this list to was to select films that tend to be underrated or overlooked by both classic film buffs and science fiction fans alike. Unless one is specifically a fan of older science fiction film, it is unlikely that they will have heard of, much less seen, most of the movies listed below. While it’s discouraging enough to see that many science fiction fans nowadays have no interest in older movies (or books) it’s just as disheartening to find out that many fans of classic  cinema continue to turn their noses down on  science fiction and horror films, except for a small select handful of exceptional films. Hopefully, lists such as these will encourage a broadening of horizons on the part of both groups of fans. Certainly, I am not alone in my affection or outright love for many of these films, but in general, they have not received sufficient attention, and deserve more, for being well-made and entertaining films, and in many cases, genuinely intelligent and thought provoking ones that have a lot more going underneath the surface than one would normally surmise.

I hope this list encourages you to seek out some of these hidden gems of the science fiction cinema. And I do hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

1. THE CRAZY RAY

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Rene Clair was one of France’s great cinema pioneers, and one of my favorite directors. I first encountered him when I caught his delightful musical Le Million late night on Canadian TV and shortly afterwards saw both Sous Les Toits De Paris and his abstract film Entr’acte in film class. It would be many years until I finally saw his masterpiece A Nous La Liberte, but when I finally did, it didn’t disappoint; what a truly wonderful, life-affirming film! It is also borderline science fiction, but his first film, Paris Qui Dort (English title: The Crazy Ray), is a full-fledged entry in the genre, about a scientist who makes time stand still in France’s largest city. Although it combines elements of both Clair’s later experimental shorts and social comedies, it also anticipates the delightful fantasy films he made as an exile in the English-speaking world during the Occupation: The Ghost Goes West, I Married a Witch and It Happened Tomorrow.

2. THE WOMAN IN THE MOON

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Fritz Lang’s other major contribution to the science fiction film isn’t usually viewed as highly as Metropolis, even though Lang himself thought otherwise; he considered the introduction of the rocket countdown in this movie as one of his greatest accomplishments. Granted, it’s slow-going at the beginning, and the depiction of a Moon with a breathable atmosphere (Irish physicist G.J. Stoney had already demonstrated that the Moon couldn’t possibly have any sort of atmosphere in 1870) and diamond-studded surface may be risible today, but it’s nonetheless well worth one’s time. Although the aforementioned lapses in scientific accuracy can be attributed to artistic license along the lines of The Martian Chronicles, the film does offer a credible depiction of rocketry engineering, thanks to technical advisers Werner von Braun and Hermann Oberth. It’s well worth a look, and I recommend the Kino DVD

3.THE ROBOTS OF RIPLEY

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This 1935 Soviet film (originally titled Gibel Sensatsii, literally, Loss of Feeling) has only recently received a good, subtitled release in North America thanks to Sinister Cinema, the most indispensable of companies in preserving public domain science fiction and horror cinema. Often incorrectly referred to as an adaptation of Karel Capek’s classic play R.U.R, it’s an original story set in a fictional “capitalist land” where an attempt to replace the proletariat with massive automatons leads to unintended consequences for the bourgeoisie. As you may have already surmised,it’s burdened with the same regrettable propaganda that infected the entire cinema of the Stalinist era…but it’s so well made and visually brilliant that this is easily forgiven. A scene of the robots’ inventor controlling his massive creations with the use of a discordant saxophone number is not easily forgotten, and neither is the rest of the film.

4. THE WALKING DEAD

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I had considered including one of Boris Karloff’s “Mad Doctor” films that he made for Columbia in the 1940s for this list, but I decided to include this Warner Brothers film, as it contains one of his finest yet least appreciated performances. It’s also both one of the most underrated movies directed by the legendary Michael Curtiz. Karloff is a man unjustly convicted of murder and executed, only to be brought back from the dead by scientist Edmund Gwenn. As always, Karloff is superb,  providing a performance that is both sympathetic and frightening, cerebral as well as physical. This is the only time I found that an actor was able to successfully convey to me what it would feel like to have actually died and then come back to life, and Karloff managed to do it through the most subtle use of facial expression and body language. Curtiz’s legendarily masterful use of shadows works particularly well here, better even than in Mystery of the Wax Museum or Doctor X since it was filmed in black-and-white, making them all the more effective. Part of the reason for it being underrated is that it was unavailable in any home video format for a long time; it was finally released to DVD a few years ago.

5. NON-STOP NEW YORK

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Imagine a cross between one of Hitchcock’s British thrillers of the 1930s and an issue of AIR WONDER STORIES from the same era, and you get this delightful and engaging movie, the best of a number of Thirties science fiction films that dealt with extravagant feats of engineering. The massive luxury aircraft that serves as the film’s science fiction element is relatively modest compared to technological artifacts of Transatlantic Tunnel or FP.1. Doesn’t Answer, and for that matter, it’s not introduced until midway through the film. It’s really a 39 Steps-style chase film about an English actress who is the only witness that can save an innocent American man from being executed (and this time, Edmund Gwenn won’t be able to revive him), and the aircraft exists mainly to provide an appropriate setting where the bad guys are able to chase her while en route to States. But that scarcely matters when you have a script as witty as this one, with performances that find the right balance between seriousness and humor and the smooth, well-paced direction of Robert Stevenson, later to become the Disney Company’s best live-action director. It’s in the public domain, so you can find it easily on-line or on DVD, sometimes in boxed sets.

6. DR. RENAULT’S SECRET

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Science fiction film was largely a dormant genre in the 1940s, if one excludes movie serials from the list of feature films. When it did turn up, it was usually under the guise of horror films, as in the aforementioned cycle of mad scientist films Boris Karloff made for Columbia Studios, with the SF devices ranging from bionic organ transplants (in The Man They Could Not Hang) to cryogenics (in The Man With Nine Lives).  During this period, 20th Century Fox produced its own short-lived but memorable series of horror films  to compete with the innovative horror and suspense films being made by Val Lewton at RKO. Although the most popular of them are those fine films directed by John Brahm (Hangover Square, The Lodger and to a lesser degree, The Undying Monster), my personal favorite among them is Dr. Renault’s Secret, directed by Claude Lachmann, better known as a painter. George Zucco is Dr. Renault and his secret is his servant played by J. Carroll Naish, who it turns out…well, I’m not going to spoil it for you, but if you’ve seen Island of Lost Souls, you’ll probably figure it out, and it would make a good companion to two other science fiction-horror films Fox would make much later on, The Fly and The Alligator People. It’s like a much classier version of the sort of horror film Zucco and Naish were making for “Poverty Row” studios Monogram and PRC at the time, and is really more of a mystery film with a science fiction twist. It’s available as part of a “Fox Horror Classics” box set along with the Gothic melodrama Dragonwyck and the fantasy adventure (also with science fiction trappings) Chandu the Magician. Although neither of its companion films really qualify as horror films either, all three are nonetheless highly recommended!

Next week, we look at the underrated gems of the first Golden Age of Science Fiction Film, the 1950s…

 

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….3….Poul Anderson

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….3….Poul Anderson

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Writers of hard science fiction, that most rigorously realistic of the genre’s subdivisions, pride themselves on their unwavering commitment to scientific accuracy and adherence to the known laws and facts of the physical universe in their stories, yet they find themselves making a necessary exception for one of the most significant of all its invariants. Since the Theory of Special Relativity has established that nothing can move faster than the speed of light, which has only been further buttressed by experiment and observation, the practitioners of hard science are forced to bend their own principles slightly whenever their stories go beyond our own Solar System. Fortunately, the Great Einstein giveth as much as he taketh away, and the many fascinating predictions and outcomes of both Special and General Relativity have provided the “loopholes” many writers are looking for in trying to explain how their characters can traverse such great distances. In some instances, the stories are specifically about faster-than-light travel itself; the brand-new Christopher Nolan film INTERSTELLAR follows a well-worn path to the stars that science fiction writers have traveled many times before, attempting to explain how FTL or the “warp drive” in terms that are consistent with current scientific knowledge, and using it as a platform for both the stories and themes. The movie has its own pedigree in real-world science as well, being based on a story idea by noted cosmologist Kip Thorne, whose textbook Gravitation, written in collaboration with John Archibald Weaver and Charles Meisner, is cited by friends of mine in the know as the definitive book on the subject . Hopefully, the movie will also pique interest in the written word, getting curious viewers to search out the classic science fiction stories that already grappled with the premise of faster-than-light travel from as solidly scientific and rigorously rational a perspective as possible. With that, we will begin a three-part look at some of the finest works of dealing with the premise in hard science fiction, and what they have to say about the treatment of science and the physical universe in science fiction: Poul Anderson‘s novel Tau Zero, Gregory Benford‘s short story “Relativistic Effects,” and the selected short stories that make up Charles Sheffield’s collection One Man’s Universe.

POUL ANDERSON AND TAU ZERO

It is rather unfortunate that there is only one legitimate film adaptation of Poul Anderson’s novels, and it is a terrible one at that: a truly awful “comedic” German adaptation of his exciting novel The High Crusade. Even so, Anderson, who wrote prolifically at what were usually very high levels of literary quality in as wide a variety of science fiction and fantasy as is possible, has seemingly made his own small mark on science fiction film: when James Cameron’s blockbuster AVATAR was released, many noticed its similarities to Anderson’s celebrated novella “Call Me Joe” (but not his novel The Avatar), something I had myself noticed a few years earlier when Cameron’s project was still in Development Hell and a draft of the screenplay was floating around the Internet. Cameron is not the only filmmaker who seems to have borrowed from Anderson: David Twohy’s PITCH BLACK is quite reminiscent of Anderson’s Fire Time, and the aliens of GALAXY QUEST who take every statement literally seem descended from the Hoka! Anderson created with Gordon Dickson. Fans of both BABYLON 5 and STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE should read the stories in Anderson’s Technic History series, to see where the writers for those shows may have learned how to depict the politics of a spacefaring mercantile culture (for that matter, G’Kar is exactly how I imagined Anderson’s Merseians as resembling). Finally, Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR owes a considerable debt to Anderson’s Tau Zero, possibly the Grand Master’s finest book. The cover of my Gollancz copy features a blurb by James Blish hailing it as “the ultimate hard science fiction novel.” While there are other legitimate contenders to that title (Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama and Gregory Benford’s Timescape among them), I can’t think of another novel that from a purely thematic perspective best exemplifies this particular subgenre. Poul Anderson is usually not thought of as being primarily a hard science fiction writer because he wrote in so many other different genres and sub-genres, but he was one of science fiction’s premiere “world-builders,” writing some of the key essays on how to create scientifically credible alien worlds and planets, and was a master of the “puzzle story,” a variant of the mystery or detective story (which Anderson also wrote prolifically) in which the solution lies in the scientific method. Anderson’s proficiency in these areas as well as in prose writing in general helped produce one of the most masterful works in the genre. Even if one is to argue over whether it is the “definitive” hard science fiction novel, it is the one I would try to introduce to a novice reader to get them interested in the subgenre, and appreciate it as one of literary merit.

The initial premise of the novel is not unlike that of the excellent, underrated Czech science fiction film Ikarie Xb-1 (released in an edited form in North America as Voyage to the End of the Universe), depicting the human drama between members of a space journey to settle the planet located in the star system Beta Virginis. Anderson’s world-building skills are not used this time in the construction of the planet of destination but the vessel of voyage, and this is as much a feat of physics as it is of engineering. As with Thomas Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” (which is itself frequently cited as the definitive hard science fiction short story), the action may take in the confines of a single spaceship but the actual drama takes place against the backdrop of the entire universe, whose laws and limits help define both the outcome of the story and the actions of the characters. The setting is the spaceship Leonora Christina, another tip of the hat to Anderson’s Danish ancestry that recurs throughout his fiction. The real Leonora Christina was a 17th-Century countess, the daughter of the King of Denmark, who spent two decades in solitary confinement as punishment by the royal family for the supposed crimes of her Dutch husband (who was executed), during which time she wrote a celebrated autobiography and became a Danish folk hero, a symbol of stoicism and endurance in the face of long-lasting hardship. Time, and history, seemingly stood still for the real Leonora Christina in the walls of her dungeon cell during her imprisonment, who gave up her freedom for love, just as those who voluntarily sign up for the space journey will find that time will slow down and they will lose touch with hundreds of years of human history once they have completed their journey. Under the leadership of Constable Charles Reymont, a crew of 50, of equal numbers men and women from all races and nationalities, and consisting of highly trained scientists, engineers and other experts, tries to deal with both technical and interpersonal crises when the ship accidentally collides with a nebula on its way out. This unexpected change of course forces the crew to adapt to a new change in its mission as well, and it turns out that there is something even more profound than just the survival of the ship’s crew at stake.

To be excessively pedantic, the Leonora Christina is not really a warp drive, as it does not go faster than light, just 99% of it. The ship is a Brussard Ramjet, a popular spacefaring vessel in science fiction of the period, that continually scoops interstellar hydrogen and other free atoms to fuel the ion engines that propel it outwards through the void. According to the mass-energy equivalence principle that everyone knows by its mathematical shorthand, as the ship continues to gather mass to accelerate itself, it nears the tau zero of the title, where its velocity will finally equal the speed of light. Now, it goes without saying that the Brussard Ramjet itself will likely remain an improbability, if not outright impossibility; as Larry Niven explains in his essay “Bigger Than Worlds” (published in his collection Playgrounds of the Mind) it involves certain absolutes, such as an infinite fuel supply in all directions and 100% efficiency to work properly. But its importance in Tau Zero is as an illustration of the process of how the universe functions, and the evolution of our perception of its workings. We move upward from the classical Newtonian-Maxwellian model to the Einsteinian, first through the Lorentz-Fitzgerald Contraction that bridged classical mechanics with special relativity, and as both the ship and the storyline accelerate in momentum, the wider notions of general relativity (which Einstein formulated by applying his ideas in special relativity to accelerated frames of reference) enter the narrative as well.

In addition to his Scandinavian background, the Pennsylvania-born, Texas-raised, University of Minnesota-educated Anderson also draws proudly and profoundly from his American heritage as well. If you are wondering how you can successfully write a so-called “Space Western” that successfully works as science fiction, then Tau Zero is the book to read. The vivid prose seems to owe much to the classic Western novels of Louis L’Amour, Jack Schaefer and Zane Grey, and story itself is not like those of such films as STAGECOACH and RED RIVER, about the travails and conflicts of those settling The Open Frontier, and the hero Reymont (not an American but a native of Earth’s Antarctic colonies, strengthening at once that he is a Citizen of the World and a Child of Pioneers) could very well have been played by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood or Joel McCrea. The publication of Tau Zero was regarded by many, according to David Pringle in The 100 Best Science Fiction Novels, as a repudiation of the “New Wave” movement in science fiction, and the “First Salvo” by science fiction’s “Old Guard” in maintaining its traditional literary values. By staying firm to the crisp, straightforward writing style that the genre had long been known for and providing a storyline that is a heir to the pioneering tradition in American literature, Anderson offers an effective counter to the excesses of the New Wave, although this does not mean he avoids literary flourishes. The passages used to explain the novel’s science not only avoid the dryness usually (and more often than not, incorrectly) associated with the hard science sub-genre but sometimes rise to the level of poetic vividness, approaching the language used by Ray Bradbury in The Martian Chronicles and other stories to impress the reader with that elementary Sense of Wonder regarding both the majesty of the cosmos. A frequent error made even by those who consider themselves fans of the genre is that hard science fiction is defined by the amount of scientific detail accumulated in the plot, and the degree to which the author explains the science behind it. A good hard SF story may do so but it can also be a fatal mistake, if the writer forgets to provide a compelling story or characters, or if the detail is ruined by one or more errors. Hard science fiction instead focuses on scientific realism, and finds a way to integrate the details and explanation in a non-obtrusive way, without letting them interfere with the essential elements of any good story. Truly great hard science fiction goes beyond escapist entertainment and makes science itself a theme for further thought and discussion. Possibly because of his right-of-center politics or his old-fashioned writing style, likely both, the masterful thematic profundity of Tau Zero and other Anderson works when it comes to the relationship between science and both societies and individuals has remained unexplored.

A friend has cited Tau Zero as having inspired him to become a physicist, with his motto being “the universe is what it is and not what we wish it to be.” This adage not only summarizes the prevailing world-view of hard SF, but Anderson’s own personal and political beliefs as well. Anderson considered himself to be a Libertarian politically, but much of his fiction and essays also display a deep and abiding cultural conservatism, in the sense that he was concerned with the preservation of both historical memory and those institutions and values key to the healthy development of civilization: science, reason, free enterprise and a sense of duty and chivalry. One of the first generation of science fiction writers to have grown up with the original printing of Campbell’s Astounding and its stable of authors, he was also one of those most directly influenced by the writing of Robert A. Heinlein. Like Heinlein, Anderson started out on the Centre-Left, (his early stories “Un-Man and “Sam Hall” are deft satires of McCarthyism and the John Birch mentality), but started moving rightward as the Fifties themselves moved onwards. Tau Zero, like many of Anderson’s later novels (from Orion Will Rise to A Harvest of Stars as well as the novella “Goat Song”) is not only pro-science but pro-civilization, standing directly against the leftist politics and deep cultural pessimism of the New Wave as well as the irrationalism and anti-science attitudes of New Age thinking, which had also lamentably infiltrated the SF community (Anderson was NATIONAL REVIEW’s science fiction critic during this time and he wrote a particularly damning critique of Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods for the magazine the same year Tau Zero was published). Just as the laws of science are the same regardless of their frame of reference, so are the laws of human nature; certain rules of political economy and social decorum must continued to be maintained in this Brave New World, in contrast to the “revolutionary” sexual and social attitudes that were supposedly sweeping the country and whose depiction had become commonplace in the genre. Despite the fact that his multinational dramatis personae lives under a world government dominated by Sweden, American-style liberal democracy and free-market economics have ultimately won out (a possibly satirical touch, given the way so much of the American intelligentsia was infatuated with Swedish-style socialism and pacifism at the time), and it is strongly suggested that this is a positive means of maintaining a balance of power in this brave new world, just as the spaceship tries to maintain physical balance itself through the journey. The New Wave movement in science fiction was deeply rooted in revolutionary political and social movements of the time, that sought to “break down barriers” and reform the culture along the lines of Utopian thinking. Early on in Tau Zero, there is the suggestion that the crew of the Leonora Christina will attempt a new community based on free love but the circumstances of their journey as well as of human nature itself prevents it from emerging. At the end, the ship survives the end of this universe and enters a new one through a second Big Bang, but it is strongly implied that the laws of this new universe will be no different than those of the last, just as the the ship’s crew will not only re-perpetuate the human race in this Brave New Universe, but re-establish civilization and the laws that keep it stable and functioning. The universe is what it is and not what we wish it to be. And it will continue to be so, onwards, to the end of time.