in the humble opinion of Tony Chester
During a recent exercise, I had to produce capsule reviews for the Top 500 SF Films of the 20th Century' (long story, too boring to go into here...). In keeping with the nature of the project I had to try to be as objective as possible, always accepting that it is never possible to be completely objective. Which is fine; after all, what would be the point of reading this or that book on films if some of the author's idiosyncrasies did not peep through? Be that as it may, an editorial voice was of the opinion that I had 'dodged the bullet', so to speak, by not including my list of favourites (and, it was hinted, my list of 'turkeys'). In due course, though not without some agonising, said lists were produced. This, then, is a spin-off from that exercise.
How difficult this was going to be was apparent from the moment I made up a shortlist of films to choose from: there were 45 films on the list! I manfully struggled on and got the list down to fifteen, then umm'd and ahh'd a lot until I had the final ten (I'll briefly list the five that just did not make it after the main list). I was, however, completely unable to rank them in any order of preference, which is why, following an established convention, I present them here in chronological order. So that the list did not end up being 'just' a list of my favourite films, I considered two criteria. Firstly, "Does this film reflect an actual SF subject, and does it represent it well?" and, secondly, "Would I be happy to watch this film again and again?" So, for instance, I would say that Metropolis (1926) admirably fulfils the first of these criteria, but not the second (especially in its 184 minute version), whereas Repo Man (1984) fulfils the second, but not the first. Bearing that in mind, here are the ten 20th century SF films that I would be happy to recommend to anybody and everybody.
The best SF film list.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) dir. Robert Wise. This classic of post-war SF is based on a short story by Harry Bates, Farewell to the Master (1940). A spaceship lands on Earth and from it emerge Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and his 8-foot robot, Gort (Lock Martin). Shot at by the military he later escapes from a hospital and seeks refuge in a boarding-house where he meets a woman and her son (Patricia Neal and Billy Gray). He seeks out a scientist (Sam Jaffe) to assemble intellectuals in order that they may hear his message: Humans are to stop their aggressive ways or face destruction. Shot again, and this time 'killed', Neal must stop Gort from destroying the planet with the now immortal phrase, "Klaatu barada nikto!" The film is less clear than the short story that it is Gort who is the senior member of the alien crew, but this is a tiny quibble for an otherwise superb movie. The movie is interesting, some might say controversial, in its blatant use of a Christ-like resurrection figure but, just as the 'invasion' cycle of movies got going, this was a more thoughtful take on the 'visitors from space' theme. This film came joint-17th in the Concatenation film poll and third in the Blackwood/Flynn poll of World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) members, as well as appearing in the 'Top Tens' of writer Arthur C Clarke and critic and broadcaster Nigel Floyd. As I put this article to bed, the 2008 remake is about a week away from general release... It looks pretty, but I am not expecting much!
Forbidden Planet (1956) dir. Fred McLeod Wilcox. A genuine masterpiece, a loose updating of Shakespeare's The Tempest, and a forerunner of Star Trek. In 2200AD an Earth spaceship visits Altair IV, with whose colonists contact has been lost. The captain (Leslie Neilson), doctor (Warren Stevens) and first officer discover Professor Morbius (Walter Pidgeon as Prospero), his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis as Miranda) and their robot, Robbie (Ariel). The other colonists are all dead, killed by an invisible entity which now threatens the ship. Morbius has discovered beneath the planet's surface the abandoned laboratories of an extinct race, the Krel, seemingly also killed by the same entity. This "monster of the Id" (Caliban) has been unleashed by Morbius' unconscious mind. The influence of this film on the likes of such TV shows as Star Trek and Babylon 5 is fairly obvious, but it is also notable for producing one of SF's most enduring robot icons, Robbie, who went on to star in The Invisible Boy (1957), and a further version of him was part of the crew in the TV series Lost In Space and appeared in an episode of detective show Colombo, not to mention his numerous cameo appearances. This was also the first film to have a completely electronic soundtrack, though it was beaten to the punch by The Day the Earth Stood Still in that film's use of the eerie-sounding theremin. This was damn good 'space opera' for a film made in the mid-fifties. It came fifth in the Concatenation poll and appears in the author Top 10's of Arthur C Clarke, Ramsey Campbell, Tom Milne, Bill Warren and in that of editor, writer and encyclopaedist Peter Nicholls.
Planet of the Apes (1968) dir. Franklin J Schaffner. Based on La Planete des Singes (1963) by Pierre Boulle. Some astronauts led by Taylor (Charlton Heston) crash land on a planet where mankind is mute and the world is ruled by intelligent, speaking apes. The only female crewmember dies in stasis and, of the three surviving males, one is killed and one lobotomised leaving Taylor effectively alone. Himself wounded in the throat he is, initially, unable to speak but nonetheless attracts the attention of two chimpanzee scientists, Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall). When he finally regains the power of speech he is condemned as an abomination and sentenced to death by the orang-utan Dr.Zaius (Maurice Evans). Accompanied by the chimps Taylor escapes to the 'forbidden zone' with a mute woman he names Nova (Linda Harrison), but is followed by Zaius and gorilla soldiers. There he proves that man once ruled the world before escaping deeper into the zone. Zaius covers up the evidence. The film ends with one of the most iconic of SF film moments, Taylor discovering the half-buried and melted Statue of Liberty and realising that he is on Earth after all. John Chambers won an Oscar Honorary Award for Best Make-up; the principal actors took five hours each to do, and the total make-up budget for the film was $1 million (about 17% of the whole cost of the film), employing a team of 78 make-up artists. Four direct sequels followed: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1969) dir. Ted Post, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) dir. Don Taylor, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) both dir. J Lee Thompson. The last two of these are the poorest in the sequence but, together, they describe an interesting time loop which, sadly, gives rise to many a continuity error, but that's a relatively minor failing in such an ambitious project. The films gave rise to a live-action TV series (1974) which starred McDowall, and an animated TV series (1975). In 2001 director Tim Burton made a film called Planet of the Apes, with Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth and Helena Bonham Carter, which was quite the worst thing he's ever done. The original came sixth in the Blackwood/Flynn WSFS poll and appears in second place in the Top 10 of novelist and critic Tony Masters.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) dir. Stanley Kubrick. Scripted by Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke, based loosely on Clarke's short story 'The Sentinel' (1951). The film opens with proto-hominids gaining tool-using skills under the guidance of a black monolith. This segues to the balletic docking sequence of a shuttle-like craft with a space station. Dr.Hayward Floyd (William Sylvester) travels to the Moon where a monolith has been found under the surface near the crater Tycho. When uncovered it beams a signal towards Jupiter. A spacecraft is sent to investigate with astronauts Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and David Bowman (Keir Dullea), three frozen scientists and a computer, HAL9000. During the journey HAL malfunctions and kills all the crew but Bowman. In Jupiter space he discovers yet another monolith, a star gate, travels through it and lives through his remaining years at an accelerated rate, only to be reborn as a 'star child' who returns back through the gate to contemplate the future of Earth. This film, despite (or perhaps because of) the debates surrounding it, is still considered to be the best SF film ever made. It won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, though it also had nominations in the Best Director, Writing and Art Direction categories. Sadly the sequel, 2010 (1984) dir. Peter Hyams, did not live up to the promise of the original, but it was always going to be a tough act to follow. In addition to 2001's Oscar and nominations, it was awarded the 1969 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation; in 1979 was voted the Best SF Film Ever by the readers of Starburst magazine; came second by ranking, but first by weighting, in the Concatenation poll and first in the Blackwood/Flynn WSFS poll. It also appears in the Top 10's of writers Ramsey Campbell, Arthur C Clarke (perhaps unsurprisingly!), Denis Gifford, Tony Masters, David Pirie and Bill Warren, and in those of critics Nigel Floyd, Alan Jones, and Peter Nicholls. Even after 40-odd years this film has an enduring quality, a kind of SF purity, that even modern audiences respond to and, as such, is likely to remain the no.1 SF film for some time to come.
The Andromeda Strain (1970) dir. Robert Wise. Based on Michael Crichton's 1969 novel, and utilising the same fact-based approach, this is one of the best SF films of the 70s. A satellite, Project Scoop, returns a micro-organism to Earth which proves to be deadly to the inhabitants of a small town in New Mexico. It is recovered, along with the town's only two survivors, a baby and a drunk, and is taken to 'Wildfire', an underground research laboratory with state of the art containment facilities, and a team of scientists are assembled to unlock the microbe's secrets. The scientists (Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olsen and Kate Reid) find themselves in a race against time as their subject is prone to mutate into other strains without warning and, eventually, looks like it might escape while, on the outside, a nuke is being prepared to 'sterilise' the town and surrounding area... the problem being that the bomb might actually supply the microbe with the energy it needs to reproduce uncontrollably. Taut direction, excellent acting, great sets and an intelligent script combine to produce real viewing pleasure. This, strangely, is probably my most contentious inclusion in the Top 10, insofar as it did not make it into either the Concat or WSFS polls, nor that of any writer or critic known to me! I am at a loss to explain these omissions, especially considering that this film is (imho) the absolute epitome of the use (and presentation) of science in science fiction. In 2007/8 The Andromeda Strain was adapted as a TV mini-series, produced by Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, directed by Mikael Salomon, and starring Benjamin Bratt, Eric McCormack, Christa Miller, Daniel Dae Kim and Viola Davis. It was pretty good, as such things go, but the film is much, much better.
Alien (1979) dir. Ridley Scott (and I would include here the first sequel, Aliens (1986) dir. James Cameron). In the first film the crew of the commercial towing vessel Nostromo encounter alien eggs in a derelict craft and John Hurt ends up with one of the eggs' occupants attached to his face. Back on board their own craft the crew, including Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto and Veronica Cartwright all fall prey to the adult alien, while Ian Holm turns out to be a company robot, and only Sigourney Weaver is left to save the day. In Aliens, one of the few cinematic sequels to improve on the original, a squad of space marines, including Michael Biehn and Bill Paxton, led by Weaver go up against a whole bunch of aliens on the planet LV422 (where the original derelict craft was found) following the loss of contact with the terraforming colonists that were there. Lance Henriksen plays a loyal robot, and Weaver goes up against an alien 'queen'. In all the films the star is the alien, based on HR Giger's original designs, as it munches its way violently through the humans. Giger, Carlo Rambaldi and others shared an Oscar for Visual Effects. Aliens also picked up an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, the honour going to Stan Winston and others, as well as another for Don Sharpe's Sound Effects. When Alien first appeared, just two short years after Star Wars and Close Encounters, it was a real breath of fresh air, combining the designs of Giger, Ron Cobb and Moebius (Jean Giraud) in a detailed and fully realised future. The spin-off Dark Horse Comics' serials really opened up the Aliens universe (and the stories were unmatched until the fourth movie, Alien Resurrection (1997) dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet), and it was there that the first cross-over with Predator occurred, eventually giving rise to a fifth movie Alien vs. Predator (2004) directed by Paul Anderson, which itself had a sequel Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007) dir. Colin & Greg Strause. The first two films each won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, in 1980 and 1987 respectively, came 4th and 7th in the Concat poll and 5th and 10th in the WSFS poll. Alien appears in the Top 10's of Brian Aldiss, Arthur C Clarke, Alan Jones, Tony Masters and David Pirie, and Aliens in the Top 10's of Nigel Floyd and Stephen Jones.
Blade Runner (1982) dir. Ridley Scott. In the quarter century or so since its release this film has been as over-criticised as it has been over-praised, but it remains, at the very least, a visually arresting movie portraying an acutely sf world. Based, somewhat loosely, on Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), the film revolves around Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and his attempts to find and kill 'replicants' (genetic androids). They have been given human memory implants to keep them docile and a fixed four-year lifespan as a fail-safe. Led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) they seek an audience with their creator, Dr.Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), in order to plead for more life. The half-deserted Earth and run-down city of the Los Angeles of 2019 are pure Dick, but the film concentrates so much on re-creating the noir feel of 40's hard-boiled detective films that much of the philosophy of Dick's work (what is and is not 'real' or human) is lost. The original cinema release, following comments by American test audiences, had an irritating Marlowe-esque voice over, explaining the obvious, and a tacked on happy ending. Thankfully these were dropped in the 'director's cut' when it appeared, and stayed out in the 'final cut' released in 2007. The real mystery, implicit to European audiences, but completely missed by the Americans, was whether or not Deckard himself was a replicant (yes, he is, according to Scott), though a sub-plot was dropped from the movie that more than implied that Eldon Tyrell was also a replicant! Also starring Sean Young as Tyrell's secretary, Edward James Olmos as a Blade Runner and M Emmet Walsh as his and Deckard's boss, William Sanderson as prematurely aged genetic designer JF Sebastian and Daryl Hannah as the replicant Pris. This is one of the most popular SF films ever made and not to be missed. Cleverly reconciling the world of Dick's novel and the film are three novels (Blade Runner 2, 3 & 4 respectively) by KW Jeter which are worth seeking out. The film won the 1983 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation and came first by ranking (second by weighting) in the Concat poll and second in the Blackwood/Flynn WSFS poll, as well as appearing in the Top 10's of Arthur C Clarke, Nigel Floyd, Stefan Jaworzyn (editor of Shock Xpress), Alan Jones, Stephen Jones, Peter Nicholls and Bill Warren.
The Terminator (1984)/Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) both dir. James Cameron. In 2029, following a nuclear holocaust instigated by a machine intelligence, Skynet, the remains of humanity struggle against the robot and cyborg creations of that intelligence. When it is on the verge of defeat by the humans' leader, John Connor, it sends a cyborg 'Terminator' (Arnold Schwartzenegger) back through time to kill John's mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton), before he is even conceived. John sends back one of his troops, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) to protect her. And so begins the cat and mouse chase across LA, during which Kyle impregnates Sarah before disposing of the cyborg and dying himself. When last we see Sarah in this movie she is pregnant and awaiting the nuclear holocaust she knows is to come. At the beginning of the second movie she is in a mental institution due to her 'delusion' that judgement day is coming. Her son, John (Edward Furlong), is with foster parents. Then one day a Terminator (Robert Patrick) comes looking for him. This is the new T-1000 model, made of shape-shifting metal, and only the old model (Arnie) can save John from it. They spring Sarah from custody and learn that the man responsible for the building of Skynet, Miles (Joe Morton), is nearby. It transpires that the reason he is capable of inventing the super-computer is due to advances culled from the remains of the Terminator in the first film. After first attempting to kill Miles, he joins them in destroying his research, during which he dies. The final battle with the T-1000 sees a victory which only becomes final when the second (Arnie) Terminator destroys itself. These spectacular movies are a wonderful double-bill time loop that satisfies on both the action and SF fronts. In 2003 (and, therefore, too late to be included in the 10 worst SF movies of the 20th century) there was Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines directed by Jonathan Mostow, with a female Terminator (Kristanna Loken), which invalidated the first two films' message. Where they had said, the future can be changed so there's always hope, the new one said, nuclear war and Skynet are inevitable so tough luck. It is not recommended. The second movie, the better of the two, won the 1991 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, but arrived too late on the scene for inclusion in the Concat film poll. The original came 12th in the Concat film poll and 7th in the WSFS Blackwood/Flynn poll, and appears in the Top 10 of author and critic Kim Newman.
Dark City (1996) dir. Alex Proyas. John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) has amnesia and fears he may be a suspect in a series of brutal slayings. He is also the target of 'Strangers' (including Richard O'Brien), but seems to have an ally in Dr.Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland). A police detective (William Hurt) is on his trail and questions Murdoch's estranged wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly). But it is always night in the city and at midnight everyone falls unconscious and the Strangers emerge to swap the population's memories, while the buildings morph into other configurations. What is going on, and what do the Strangers want? These questions were too much for cinema audiences and, despite good reviews and critical acclaim for the director of The Crow (1994), the film flopped until it found its audience on DVD and video. This is, in fact, one of the best SF films of the nineties and, like Altered States, makes its romantic point without becoming twee or sentimental. Due purely to the timing, many films of the nineties were too late for inclusion in various polls, but Dark City has always done well in various internet-related film polls.
The Matrix (1999) dir. The Wachowski Brothers (Larry and Andy). Thomas 'Neo' Anderson (Keanu Reeves) has a straight day job but, under his hacker name, deals in illicit software. He is also searching for someone called Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and the secret of the 'Matrix'. Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) invites Neo to a meeting with Morpheus who reveals that the Matrix is, in fact, the world and everything in it. 'Reality' is just a computer simulation and, when Neo is rescued from it, the real world turns out to be a nightmare future where the Earth is all but destroyed and machines dominate. Humans are nothing but an energy source for the computer intelligences, aside from a few free humans who live in the sanctuary of Zion. Can Neo discover if he is 'The One', capable of reading and altering the Matrix's code, before Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) closes in on him and Morpheus? This huge hit from the end of the century owed its success in part to the popularity that had built up for anime subjects and, to some extent, European SF comics, as well as great special effects and brilliantly executed fight sequences. In 2003 the story was continued in 9 animated shorts (particularly Final Flight of the Osiris, which also gave more of the background to the Matrix 'universe'), and in two further movies, filmed back-to-back: The Matrix Reloaded, in which the attack on Zion begins and Agent Smith returns, changed by his experience with Neo; and The Matrix Revolutions, in which Smith, virus-like, takes over the whole Matrix and Neo travels to the machines' city to bargain for the life of Zion and all the humans it contains. Some feel that the films do not 'wrap up' the universe neatly enough, but rarely bother to ask why they think it should. For a start, it could be something as simple as leaving the way open for further sequels, not least to question the assumption that the 'real' world outside the Matrix is indeed real, or whether it too is just another simulation but, perhaps more tellingly, such critics need to take account of the plethora of comics and web-site stories that add to the over all story. Whatever the truth, these are remarkable films, satisfying from an action perspective and fascinating from an SF perspective. Not to be missed.
So that's the Top 10 (or 12 if you want to be pedantic about it), but I agonised over leaving out the following five films: This Island Earth (1955) dir. Joseph Newman (though the Metaluna sequences were directed by Jack Arnold), based on the 1952 novel by Raymond F Jones; Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) dir. Don Siegel, based on Jack Finney's 1955 novel, which I left out because of the unnecessary framing device (I am given to understand that the film is now available without said framing device, but I have never seen it!); Charly (1968) dir. Ralph Nelson, based on Daniel Keyes' short story (1959), later novel (1966), Flowers for Algernon, this starred Cliff Robertson as the title character, and he had to start his own production company in order to get the film made, which effort paid off when he received the Oscar for Best Actor (remember, this film was up against competition from 2001 and Planet of the Apes); The Thing (1982) dir. John Carpenter (and, for that matter, The Thing from Another World (1951) dir. Christian Nyby, actually Howard Hawks), based on the short story Who Goes There? by Don A Stuart (John W Campbell), the 1951 film appears in the Top 10's of Ramsey Campbell, Arthur C Clarke, Phil Hardy (editor of the Aurum SF Film Encyclopaedia), Kim Newman and David Pirie, and the 1982 film in those of Stefan Jaworzyn, Stephen Jones and Peter Nicholls; and, the final omission, Twelve Monkeys (1995) dir. Terry Gilliam, loosely based on the short film La Jetee (1963) dir. Chris Marker, another film that was too late to appear in polls and Top 10's, and another SF film that confused the general cinema audience. For my money any of these would be welcome in a Top 10 film poll but, with the exception of the two Things, are curiously often overlooked.
So far, so so-so. Nothing particularly contentious about any of that, I hope you'll agree. Which is why, of course, it's so much more fun to compile a list of the 10 Worst SF Films of the 20th Century. This should set the cat among the pigeons, as it were but, before we continue, a word about the criteria employed in this section. I do not consider a film worthy of being the worst just because it had poor production values or a low budget. So long as it does the best it can within the constraints of its limitations, I am happy. Nor do I consider something to be the worst just because mainstream critics are embarrassed by, or otherwise averse to, the subject matter. Here, primarily, I am referring to films whose major selling point/s is/are nudity and/or gore. If a film promises these things and delivers on them, then (to borrow a phrase) "it does what it says on the tin"! Just because some people are concerned that SF achieves some form of unnecessarily desirable 'respectability' does not make these films, in and of themselves, 'bad'. To me a film that is of the 'worst' is one that completely fails to deliver on its promises, or perverts SF or a better forerunner (in the case of the one sequel below), or masquerades as SF in the service of some other idea or person. Furthermore, the films I am talking about do this sometimes despite all the advantages of big budgets and good actors and directors. They are the worst because the disappointment is, proportionally, so great. So here are the movies I think stink so bad that it wasn't worth making them.
Worst SF film list
Just Imagine (1930) dir. David Butler. This musical was a total failure and today is of interest only to SF film buffs (mainly as the film that killed SF in the cinema until the 50s). A man (El Brendel) struck by lightning in 1930 awakens in the New York of 1980. The miniature set, reportedly costing $250,000 (this is 1930 dollars remember), rivals that of the city featured in Fritz Lang's Metropolis and is the best thing about the movie (the footage of it was extensively re-used, notably in Buck Rogers). It was the first movie to successfully and extensively use back-projection, though it had been used briefly and with difficulty in The Lost World and Metropolis. Brendel gets involved in trying to help J-21 (John Garrick) and LN-18 (Maureen O'Sullivan) get married. There's even a trip to Mars thrown in for good measure, with a beautiful Martian and a (momentary) love-triangle that needs sorting out. But it's all very weak, the SF downplayed and used mainly as backdrop to a plot that was hackneyed even for the time. If the musical numbers had been any good, I would have been inclined to forgive the movie, but they were rubbish.
Robot Monster (1953) dir. Phil Tucker. This bad movie was always known as such but, like Plan 9 from Outer Space, was catapulted to cult status by the 'Golden Turkey' awards. The plot, such as it is, is framed as a dream: Ro-Men bombard the Earth with 'calcinator' rays killing all but six humans. Before the thousands of invaders can land these survivors must be killed by Ro-Man, an actor (George Barrows) in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet on his head, complete with antennae. The one week of principal filming was done on a budget of $580, but $16,000 was spent making this a 3D print. Good for a laugh. Just. In truth, I just threw this one in to make up the 10 (which proves how forgiving I am that I could only find nine films for a 'ten worst' list!).
Silent Running (1971) dir. Douglas Trumbull. In the future Earth has been defoliated, presumably by nuclear war. The last remaining plant life is aboard the spaceship 'Valley Forge' in huge domes. When the crew are ordered to abandon the project and come home Bruce Dern rebels, kills his crewmates and hi-jacks the ship for a trip to Saturn. He is aided in tending his 'garden' by three cute robots. Eventually he has to leave the plants in their care. This film has a plot so full of holes as to be untenable, and the sympathy we're supposed to feel for Dern is mitigated by the fact that he has committed multiple murders. Nevertheless, for some reason this film remains well thought of and, for some, it is a classic. On a personal note, the thing that pushes this film into the Worst category for me is the Joan Baez soundtrack. This film actually came 8th in the Concat poll, and appears in the Top 10 of Phil Hardy who states that it "has the feel of science fiction literature".
Futureworld (1976) dir. Richard T. Heffron. In this sequel to Westworld (1973) dir. Michael Crichton, Arthur Hill is an administrator at Delos (the resort from the first movie) who is bent on world domination by replacing world leaders with robots. Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner are the reporters out to uncover the plot. In a twist ending which surprises no one, Hill turns out to be a robot himself. Bad as this was, in 1980 a TV series, Beyond Westworld, was so bad that the company only aired 3 of the 5 episodes that were made! It's as if someone decided to deliberately crap on a good idea.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) dir. Steven Spielberg. This came out shortly after Star Wars and is the ultimate in optimistic UFO-logy. Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon, each after their own UFO sightings, become obsessed with a mountain in Wyoming. Francois Truffaut, with assistant Bob Balaban, is tracking down UFO phenomena. Dreyfuss' obsession results in the loss of his wife (Terri Garr), and Dillon's son (Cary Guffey) is abducted by the aliens, while Truffaut receives co-ordinates for a rendezvous. The climax sees the benign aliens returning all abductees in a special effects extravaganza. While there is no doubting the impact of this movie, it all seems a bit weak and, as a character notes when the humans and aliens are communicating via sound and light, "What are we saying to each other?", to which a colleague replies, "I don't know." That pretty much sums up the film. CE3K (as it is known) lost out on many Oscars to the superior Star Wars, but did pick up two, one for Vilmos Zsigmond's Cinematography and one for Frank Warner's Sound Effects Editing. 1980 saw the special edition with even more effects, including a brief look inside the aliens' craft. I honestly think this is the worst SF movie ever made, and is certainly my most contentious inclusion in this list but, tellingly, it did not make it into the Concat and WSFS polls, nor did it win a Hugo but, to be fair, it does appear in the Top 10's of Ramsey Campbell, Arthur C Clarke (!), Denis Gifford, Tony Masters, Peter Nicholls (!!), David Pirie (!!!) and Bill Warren. For years I held my hatred of this film in check, supposing that no one would agree with me on this but, after floating this list past some friends, I have to say that there is more agreement out there than I had ever suspected. Areas of the film that engender mutual contempt include the illogicality of the aliens' communications (sending co-ordinates to Truffaut, but 'imprinting' the mountain on Dreyfuss and Dillon), and the stupidity of the characters (could Dreyfuss not have built his model in the garden, rather than importing it indoors?), but mostly the 'worship of angels' ending when we poor humans sit in awe of flashing lights and multi-decibel tubas; let's not forget that these alien bastards are multiple kidnappers who return many of their abductees only long after their parents are dead and their friends and lovers have all grown old! If ever a spaceship needed a nuke up its exhaust pipe...
Stalker (1979) dir. Andrei Tarkovsky. Screenplay by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky based loosely on their Roadside Picnic (1972). In the Zone is a Wishing Room, but it takes faith to get there. A stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) leads a writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and a professor (Nikolai Grinko) through the dangerous Zone. After reaching the Room they scuffle, then decide to go home without entering. A total waste of 161minutes. Considering the writing and directorial talent here, it is surprising that this film goes nowhere. Slowly. Stalker came joint-17th in the Concat poll and appears in the Top 10 of Ramsey Campbell but, perhaps needless to say, the film is much more popular in Eastern Europe.
Tron (1982) dir. Steven Lisberger. This Disney offering broke new effects ground but, sadly, fails to deliver on the plot front. Jeff Bridges is a computer programmer who seeks evidence to prove his boss, David Warner, is up to no good. Bridges is digitised and injected into the world of Tron where he interacts with analogs of his colleagues, Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan, and takes part in 'games' in order to enter the CPU and confront the Master Control Program (an analog of Warner). Though groundbreaking then, the effects now look decidedly clunky and, since they are not backed up by a good plot, the film has lost any charm it might once have had. It's especially hard to defend this movie in a modern context where kids computer games have led them to expect so much more from an actual film. While I dislike this movie, I also kind of pity it: it was a product of its time, and now that time has passed.
The Abyss (1989) dir. James Cameron. Though this film starts promisingly enough with a downed nuclear submarine in need of rescue, it quickly slides downhill into a mawkish romance between estranged couple Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, each of whom get to bring the other back from the dead during the story. The aliens/natives (it is never made clear) of the abyss are thus relegated to agents of these characters being re-united at the film's climax. The morphing effects used to animate the water 'probe' of the creatures were eventually used to much better effect in Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but are still fairly primitive here. The longer version of the movie casts the abyss-dwellers in a more sinister light as they threaten several coastal cities with suspended tsunami waves of gigantic size in response to having their realm 'invaded' by human's polluting nukes. But a film, which is already over-long at 140 minutes, is even more plodding at 171 minutes. The film did pick up one Oscar for Best Sound, but features in no polls or Top 10's known to me. My brother, Les, will hate me for this inclusion (it's one of his favourite movies!); he especially hates it when I refer to this film by the title The Abyss-mal... Somewhere in here is, probably, a fairly decent 100-120min movie, which needs to leave the alien threat intact, but has to cut out tons of sentimentality.
Communion (1989) dir. Philippe Mora. Based on the 1987, supposedly fact-based, novel by Whitley Strieber, this film details his account of encounters with aliens, the type being familiar to fans of CE3K and the X-Files as "greys". Christopher Walken plays Strieber and Lindsay Crouse his wife, with Frances Sternhagen as his psychiatrist, in this plodding catalog of group-encounter sessions. Also features Andreas Katsulas (G'Kar from Babylon 5) and Eric Clapton theme music. Don't bother. Some would call Strieber a mendacious self-publicising fantasist, but I couldn't possibly comment (for legal reasons!).
Independence Day (1996) dir. Roland Emmerich. Producer Dean Devlin and director Emmerich produce another blockbusting crowd-pleaser but, like most of their movies, it only satisfies once. Nasty aliens attack Earth, destroying landmarks and capitals (rather than, say, strategic targets) and it's up to Jeff Goldblum, as the computer whiz, Will Smith, as the wise-cracking fighter pilot, and Bill Pullman, as the plucky President, to save the day. Also starring Robert Loggia as the military advisor with faith in his President, Randy Quaid as the drunken plane-flying former alien-abductee, and Brent Spiner as the kooky scientist at Area 51. This is, by any standards, poor SF, but the spectacular effects will reward sitting through it once, then all the plot holes and total lack of logic will wipe out any momentary pleasure. I have a particular dislike of movies where invaders come to eat our women and rape our food, ahem, that is, steal our resources when the Earth represents such a tiny fraction of everything that's available in our whole solar system. Seems the aliens are as stupid as they are evil. And as for the wish-fulfilment fantasy that some computer geek is going to save the world by cracking an alien's system, puh-leeeze!
Of course, my inclusion of films in either of the above lists should not influence your judgement. My attitude towards critics and reviewers alike (including myself) is that by all means listen to what we have to say, but make your own mind up! See the movies: there is no reason in the world why you shouldn't loathe something I love, or love something I hate. Remember, 'there's no accounting for taste'. If a film entertains you, then you do not require that the film has had critical acclaim, and if a movie bores you silly, then it hardly matters if 'recognised' critics praise it to the skies. Even between critics the fact remains that there are so many movies out there that there are bound to be disagreements, and part of the fun of watching movies is, or at least should be, discussing them afterwards and trying to articulate why a film did or did not appeal to you. Perhaps the truly 'worst' movies are the ones where you leave the cinema (or turn off the DVD player) and find that the film just did not affect you at all?
So far, in the 21st century, SF films seem to have taken the back seat to horror and comics (but that's OK, these things are cyclic), but that's not to say there hasn't been some good SF. I have particularly enjoyed The Illusionist (2005) dir. Neil Burger and Primer (2006) dir. Shane Carruth, and (though comics based) I have a soft spot for Immortal (2004) dir. Enki Bilal as well as the thoroughly hilarious Planet Terror (2007) dir. Robert Rodriguez. So keep watching the screens... you do not know what is coming next (though I am looking forward to the 2009 release of Watchmen).
See also The 2008 American Film Institute top 10 SF films.
Meanwhile there are also Concatenaton's annual top SF film charts (based on box office take).
Tony Chester is one of Concatenation's core team based in Leicester, Great Britain. He was also the co-compiler of Essential Science Fiction that has in it films (and books) that have won fan-voted awards (as opposed to juried awards or non-SF accolades).
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