By John Allen Small
In his 1965 book Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure, author Richard A. Lupoff included a chapter which was essentially a “recommended reading list” which was intended to provide the reader with limited exposure to Burroughs’ works with a basic overview of his diverse and prolific output.
One thing that intrigued me about the list was the manner in which Lupoff actually broke the list down into several sublists (consisting of one, two, six and twelve books), thus allowing the curious reader to examine what Lupoff felt were either the best or most important works of Burroughs’ career – the idea being that such readers could make their way as far as their interest carried them, and eventually move beyond Lupoff’s recommendations to Burroughs’ other works if they so wished.
I always liked the way Lupoff handled that particular assignment, and at some point it occurred to me that a list of recommended films - compiled in the same manner as Lupoff’s - might be of similar interest to readers. The intent is to introduce to those who are not already fans of the science fiction film genre a small sampling of what I consider to have been important and influential films, in the hopes of providing an overview of the genre in general and perhaps help them better understand why those of us who are already fans enjoy the genre so much.
As was the case with Lupoff, my recommendations are just that - personal recommendations, the selection of which is based on nothing more my own judgment, tastes and opinions as an individual. Other film fans and scholars (not that I consider myself a scholar by any stretch of the imagination) will undoubtedly have their own lists that will differ from my own, for reasons that are their own; I respect their opinions and hope they respect my own. After all, as Lupoff himself said, “It is hardly a matter of anyone’s being definitely right or wrong.”
As already indicated, the most basic of science fiction filmographies is going to be a small one - consisting of just one film. After no small amount of consideration and deliberation, I eventually reached the conclusion that this movie must be George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977; now more commonly known under its later-added subtitle, Episode IV: A New Hope). It has to be.
There are several reasons why it must be so. First, this motion picture - moreso than any other single movie, before or since - made science fiction as a genre far more accessible to the average film audience. Film scholars may argue that other movies are better made from an acting, technological or artistic point of view; fans may insist that certain films are “better science fiction”; critics may decry the merchandising bonanza Star Wars generated as “crass commercialism,” or complain about the inferior imitations (and there were more than a few) that sprang forth in its wake. And they will have evidence to back those arguments. But there can be no denying the phenomenon that Star Wars created was genuine, bringing in thousands of filmgoers of all ages - many of whom had never seen, or perhaps had even wanted to see, a science fiction film prior to its release.
Secondly, it made science fiction far more respectable in the eyes of the film industry itself at a time when many considered the genre to be, if not dead, then most certainly ailing. In the six or seven years that preceded the release of Star Wars, science fiction had come to be viewed by many in the industry as either “kiddie fare” (best exemplified by such Disney films as The Cat From Outer Space or The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes) or low-budget monster movies (such as The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant or Night Of The Lepus); attempts at more serious fare, such as Logan’s Run, Silent Running or Lucas’ own THX-1138, were comparatively few and far between, and then generally not all that successful.
Star Wars - and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (which debuted later the same year) - changed all that; the success of Lucas’ simple yet epic adventure convinced many Hollywood executives that there was a bigger audience for science fiction films than they had previously imagined. Yes, some of those executives missed the point to some degree and continued to churn out titles which, while not wholly without some charm, were certainly inferior: Starship Invaders, Laserblast, Battle Beyond The Stars, Starcrash and others. But it’s also true that the success of Star Wars helped paved the way for some of the true classics of the genre: Alien, E.T., Blade Runner, even the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films, just to name a few.
And if you happen to be a Star Trek fan you especially owe Star Wars a tremendous amount of gratitude, because its popularity quite literally paved the way for the return of Gene Roddenberry’s TV creation as a successful motion picture franchise; this in turn led to four additional television spin-offs, all of which lasted longer than the original series had back in the 1960s.
But perhaps the most important reason Star Wars is deserving of selection as our most basic of basic filmographies is that it represents, within the space of a single film, a history of the entire genre - from the spaceships, robots, aliens and laser guns that have been staples of science fiction films dating all the way back to A Trip To The Moon in 1902, to the heroes and villains and swashbuckling action straight out of the “Flash Gordon” serials of the 1930s. There’s also an “end of the world” scene (the destruction of the planet Alderaan); subtle doses of social commentary (as in the case of a bartender’s bigotry towards robots) much like that found in the original versions of The Day The Earth Stood Still and Planet Of The Apes; and the metaphysical and spiritual trappings of The Force, which have certain parallels in the Monoliths of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Krel of Forbidden Planet. About the only thing missing is a time machine - though it could be argued (in fact has been argued on at least one occasion, because I was among those in the room listening to said argument) that moving through hyperspace, the Star Wars version of traveling faster than the speed of light, does indeed represent a form of time travel.
In any event, the end result is a virtual encyclopedia of traditional science fiction settings, character archetypes, gimmicks and ideas – combined with those of other genres as well, such as the western and traditional war movies – all wrapped up in a fun and colorful package like an early Christmas present. Some critics like to point out its obvious flaws - such as Lucas’ tendency to sacrifice character development for action, or the scientific implausibility of having a cantina full of countless alien life forms who all seem capable of breathing the same atmosphere - but these are ultimately minor quibbles After all, this is not real life; it’s a fairy tale.
George Lucas’ intention, first and foremost, was that Star Wars should be fun; in that respect, it continues to succeed beyond measure.
If the filmgoer seeking to become better acquainted with science fiction is interested enough and willing to further his educational experience to a second film, my suggestion would be to supplement Star Wars - a story which was created especially for the cinema - with a cinematic adaptation of one of the great literary classics of the genre.
For my money, one of the very best - certainly one of the most enjoyable - is George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. The novel itself is one of the true classics of science fiction literature (science fiction or otherwise), and Pal’s cinematic version continues to thrill and fascinate despite the decades that have passed since its original release.
Part of its appeal lies in its simplicity. By 1960 Pal was known for having produced and/or directed several of the era’s biggest special effects extravaganzas: Destination Moon, The War Of The Worlds and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, just to name a few. By comparison, The Time Machine has relatively few special effects, mostly involving the depiction of the passage of time around the time machine itself as it hurdles its creator into the future - but those few effects were quite realistic and very well done, earning the film’ visual effects and animation teams a well-deserved Academy Award for their efforts.
Another outstanding feature is the performance of its lead actor, Rod Taylor, as the Victorian-era inventor whose grand adventure of discovery becomes a quest to save Mankind. With his rugged good looks and cultured voice, Taylor is as elegant and believable a representative of Victorian Britain as has ever been seen on screen; his facial expressions, ranging from the wonder and amusement he experiences as he begins his odyssey to the anger and even horror as he learns what has become of his world, capture the viewer’s sympathy and expertly convey the genuine emotions a person might actually experience if thrust into such an incredible situation.
The sense of camaraderie that Taylor and co-star Alan Young creates between the characters of the Time Traveller and his friend Filby is also quite real, and - though it is but a small part of the film - may in fact be one of its greatest strengths. Filby’s affection for his friend is genuine and quite touching, and Young’s performance is quite a revelation to first-time viewers of the film whose familiarity with the actor may be limited to his role on the old Mister Ed television series. (And it bears noting that Young’s brief appearance is one of the best things about the inferior 2002 film version of The Time Machine.)
The film is not without its flaws. For modern viewers the most glaring may be the brief scene which depicts a nuclear war as happening in 1966 - which was still several years in the future when the film was originally released. The monstrous Morlocks are all too obviously men in rubber suits, which means that their appearance may be viewed with some degree of humor by modern audiences. And like most cinematic adaptations of well-known literary works, the movie is only partially faithful to the original novel; Pal’s work jettisons much of Wells’ social commentary in favor of a more straightforward action/adventure tale, a fact that has long bothered those for whom anything less than perfectly literal word-for-word reproductions of literary works is seen as sacrilege.
Even so, the film is far more faithful to the spirit of the original novel than most film adaptations of classic works. And it features what remains one of the most thought-provoking endings to ever appear in a science fiction film: After learning that Rod Taylor has returned to the future in the hopes of saving Mankind, Alan Young is about to leave Taylor’s home when he and Taylor’s housekeeper discover three books missing from Taylor’s bookshelf. When Young wonders which three books are missing, the housekeeper admits she doesn’t know; Young then responds by asking, “Which three would YOU bring?”
All these years after seeing that movie for the first time as a child, I still find myself trying to answer that question from time to time...
Continuing to follow the Lupoffian model, we now move to a third representation of the wonders to be found in science fiction cinema. Such a list would expose the novice viewer to a selection of six films - those two already discussed, plus four more chosen to provide a broader sampling of what the genre has to offer.
For the third title on this list it seems appropriate to turn our attention back to the era of silent films, and to a movie which even close to a century after its release remains one of the most famous and influential such tales ever created: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a landmark in the history of both motion pictures in genera and science fiction in particular.
Its impressive use of special effects and cinematography was innovative and highly unusual for 1927 moviemaking - and still tends to impress viewers today, despite the passage of time and the advances in visual effects those years have produced. Its bleak depiction of a future Utopia gone awry struck a chord and became a staple countless films to come, from Just Imagine in the 1930s to THX-1138 and Logan’s Run in the 1970s to The Island in 2005.
The plot is admittedly somewhat simplistic, particularly for a film produced on such a grand scale, and is generally cited as the reason Metropolis was considered a failure upon its initial release. H.G. Wells reportedly referred to Metropolis as “quite the silliest film,” and Fritz Lang himself later claimed that he disliked the movie even while he was making it. And yet its images and ideas have seared themselves into the collective consciousness of audiences over the years, and even by modern standards few films have inspired such an extensive degree of commentary, analysis and homage. Metropolis’ place in cinematic history is well deserved, and its restoration and theatrical re-release in 2001 (and subsequent release on DVD) have insured that this dizzying vision of the future can continued to be studied, debated and enjoyed for generations to come.
The fourth film listed on our science fiction filmography is the original Planet Of The Apes (1968), a film which - like Star Wars a decade later - launched one of the most successful film franchises in motion picture history and created a mythology that far surpassed the imaginings of its creators. By the time the film was shown for the first time on television - some five years after its initial theatrical release – the status of Planet Of The Apes had metamorphosed beyond that of a successful motion picture to become a bona fide cult phenomenon.
Its successful combination of action, adventure and allegory into a unified and entertaining whole places Planet Of The Apes among not only the best science fiction books and movies, but also earns the film a rightful place alongside such literary classics as Jonathan Swift’s immortal Gulliver’s Travels. Some of the allegory was rather heavy-handed at the time - remember, the film was released at the time that America’s military involvement in Vietnam was just beginning to generate what became a firestorm of controversy - and some of it may even seem laughable by modern standards. And the impact of its ending - considered so shocking and even controversial at the time of the film’s initial release - has been dulled somewhat by more than three decades of imitation and parody.
Yet the film remains powerful and entertaining - the result of the dedication which producer Arthur P. Jacobs, director Franklin J. Schaffner and star Charlton Heston brought to the project. Schaffner (who later directed Patton) brings a sense of grandeur and scope that is missing not only from the later entries in the Apes series, but from a great many science fiction films in general. The notion such an iconic figure as Heston - best known for his larger-than-life roles in such films as The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur and El Cid - reduced to captivity at the hands of intelligent apes serves to drive home the utter hopelessness of the basic situation. And while the passage of time may have diminished the shock and surprise of the finale, there remains something about that final image - the sight of Heston collapsing to his knees before the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, bitterly punching the sand with his fist as he realizes at last that he’s been home all along - that can still send chills up the spine of viewers, even after repeated viewings.
Our fifth film returns us to the works of the great George Pal, and the film that not only introduced him to science fiction audiences but was the first to realistically depict the idea of man travelling to the Moon - an event which would not actually occur until almost 20 years after the film was released.
The film is 1950’s Destination Moon, which at the time was highly (and rightly) praised for its documentary-like portrayal of manned spaceflight. It was arguably the first science fiction film ever - certainly the first of the post-World War II era - to have taken its concepts so seriously; there are no raygun-wielding aliens anywhere to be seen, and the Moon proves as desolate and inhospitable in the film as it later proved to be in real life.
The acting isn’t always on par with the special effects - particularly during a melodramatic sequence near the end, when a weight problem with the astronauts’ ship makes it look as if one of them may have to be left behind. And the film’s strict adherence to the scientific knowledge of the time made it inevitable that Pal and director Irving Pichel would one day be seen as having gotten some of the details wrong; as a result the film now has a “period piece” look about it which may prove a distraction for some modern viewers for whom space flight has become more or less a regular part of everyday life.
But for all its faults, Destination Moon remains perhaps the best cienamtic example ever of science fiction’s ability to accurately predict things to come. It introduced audiences to a filmmaker who would ultimately be responsible for several of the genre’s best-known and most-admired classics. And like Star Wars nearly three decades later, it launched a science fiction boom that resulted in some of the best (and some of the worst) films in the genre. For these reasons, Destination Moon is as worthy of attention today as when it was first released.
Rounding out our six-title filmography is the aforementioned Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, director/writer Steven Spielberg’s beguiling and lyrical look at alien visitation whose optimistic tone and ultimately benevolent portrayal of its interstellar travellers set it light years apart from such UFO films of an earlier era as Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (1951) or George Pal’s The War Of The Worlds (1953).
Indeed, that is part of the magic of Spielberg’s tale - it forces the viewer to essentially unlearn everything previous films have taught us about alien visitation, but it does so in such a way that we don’t realize where the story has taken us until the very end. Early on - when Richard Dreyfuss’ character has his first encounter with the aliens in his truck and Melinda Dillon’s son is abducted from their home - we feel the same sense of dread that characterized so many earlier UFO movies, a feeling that builds as the action progresses. Only at the conclusion, as Earthmen and Aliens finally connect, do we come to consider the possibility that not being alone in the universe does not necessarily mean that we are in danger of extermination - a radical shift in mass perception that Spielberg would later explore in greater depth in the film many still consider to be his personal masterpiece, 1982’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. (Ironically, Spielberg would later revert to the more traditional view of alien encounters with his 2005 version of H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds.)
As strong a film as it is on its own terms, it is important to remember that Close Encounters owed much of its initial success to good timing - it was first released in 1977, closely on the heels of Star Wars, and so benefitted greatly from the appeal that science fiction had suddenly generated among mass audiences in the wake of Lucas’ blockbuster. But despite the proximity of their release (and the well-known friendship between Spielberg and Lucas, who would later collaborate on Raiders Of The Lost Ark and its sequels), Star Wars and Close Encounters are very different films indeed.
Whereas Lucas’ story is essentially a fairy tale told in science fiction terms, Spielberg’s remains - for all its fanciful imaginings - grounded in a reality we all inhabit and understand. Much of the credit here belongs to the performances of Dreyfuss and Dillon, who both develop their characters into individuals the average viewer can easily identify and sympathize with. There’s nothing special or extraordinary about either of them; they are two average, everyday people - one a working class husband and father, the other a single mother - whose otherwise routine lives have simply been interrupted by the most extraordinary of circumstances.
They quite literally could be any one of us - and that fact, coupled with the childlike sense of wonder that permeates its conclusion, gives Close Encounters a strength that continues to resonate with audiences.
This brings us at last to our fourth, larger, filmography which again consists of the six titles we have previously discussed, along with yet another half-dozen - starting with a second title from the silent era, 1925’s The Lost World, starring Wallace Berry as the indomitable Professor George Edward Challenger.
The acting - like so many silent films and even the early talkies - is melodramatic at best and downright hammy at times; young audiences accustomed to the modern wonders of computer generated imagery will find its special effects crude, jerky, perhaps even laughable. Who cares? This film is still a great deal of fun, and in many respects actually holds up better today than the 1960 version starring Claude Rains. From a strictly historical point of view, its place as the cinematic ancestor of films ranging from the original King Kong (1933) to Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and its sequels makes The Lost World at least as important as Metropolis.
My nominations for the remaining titles - numbers eight through twelve - on this final version of our filmography include the following:
• The War Of The Worlds. George Pal’s 1953 version of H.G. Wells’ classic novel is very much a product of its time - as best evidenced by leading man Gene Berry’s role as an atomic physicist, who comes complete with stereotypical horn-rimmed glasses - and Pal, along with director Byron Haskin and screenwriter Barre Lyndon, inject a religious motif into the story that, while not inappropriate given the events being depicted, almost certainly would have been met with great disapproval by the atheistic Wells.
Yet for many the film remains the definitive Hollywood depiction of alien invasion of Earth, and as such is the perfect counterpoint to the far more optimistic Close Encounters. And it contains one of the truly great (and intentionally humorous) bits of dialogue to be found in any such film. As the first men to see the invading Martians cautiously approach the spaceship, white flag in hand, one of the men asks, “What shall we say to them?” To which his companion replies, after a moment’s thought, “Welcome to California?”
• The Bride Of Frankenstein. The inclusion of James Whale’s 1935 masterpiece - the first of Universal Pictures’ many sequels to the original Whale-Boris Karloff collaboration of four years earlier - might at first seem an odd choice for inclusion among those who typically view horror and science fiction as two different and mutually exclusive genres. It shouldn’t. The core concept of the original 1818 Mary Shelley novel that inspired both films is one of the most basic and familiar of all science fiction themes; the only things separating Dr. Frankenstein’s man-made monster from the countless robots inhabiting so many other tales, really, are the materials from which he was made.
But what elevates Bride to the level of good science fiction - a status to which even its predecessor could only aspire - is actor Ernest Thesinger’s role as Dr. Praetorius, Dr. Frankenstein’s former teacher and the prototype for every mad scientist who turned up in countless science fiction films and serials from that point forward. But while most such characters were little more than wide-eyed stereotypes, Thesinger’s Praetorius is actually a quite charming - if ultimately misguided and delusional - social misfit; and his own man-made lifeforms, the miniature homunculi who appear in one of the film’s most humorous scenes, remain one of the most memorable creations in cinematic history.
• THX 1138. At first glance, George Lucas’ first feature film appears light-years removed from his Star Wars series. Set in a future dystopia where all humans sport shaved heads and go about their work in a government-mandated state of drug induced sedation, the film borrows heavily from both Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 - a far cry from that mythic galaxy long ago and far, far away.
Yet certain of the film’s underlying themes can also be found not only in Star Wars but also in the most successful of Lucas’ non-science fiction or fantasy work, the nostalgic teen comedy American Graffiti (1972). And in its celebration of the title character’s quest for individual freedom against all odds, THX proves far more successful than cinematic adaptations of Huxley’s or Orwell’s novels. What’s more, its cautionary stance on where we might be headed as a civilization - its concerns about the personal loss of identity and control of the individual in a modern, technological society - may be even more relevant today than ever. It’s almost frightening how much some of our modern television commercials (“This little purple pill may be your answer...”) actually sound like moments from THX 1138.
• 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. This 1954 outing by Walt Disney Productions remains the best and most memorable of Hollywood’s attempts to translate the works of Jules Verne to film (though 1959’s Journey To The Center Of The Earth runs a very close second in the opinion of this writer.) Its only real flaw is that shared by just about every other cinematic adaptation of Verne: the elements that made his novels so fantastic when they were first published were outdated by the time they were turned into movies.
That particular flaw hampers 20,000 Leagues far less than it does the other Verne adaptations - although presented as a straightforward action/adventure yarn, there is still a certain sense of wonder to be found in the notion of a sea captain who commanded a submarine almost a century before such vehicles actually existed. As portrayed by James Mason, Captain Nemo is truly a man ahead of his time whose actions - misguided as they may be - truly are committed with the best interests of mankind in mind.
• Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. My inclusion of this film is likely to be viewed by certain readers as an unnecessary concession to those die-hard fans who feel to the very core of their being that Star Trek represents the pinnacle of science fiction storytelling. That said, this particular outing - the last to feature the entire cast of the original television series, before turning the reins of the movie franchise over to the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation – is a thoroughly entertaining film with a storyline that in my opinion would have been just as interesting had Captain Kirk and the good ship Enterprise been replaced by Captain McGillicudey and the star cruiser Studebaker.
The majority of fans I’ve talked to tend to consider Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home to be superior entries in the series, and there is some justification for this point of view - but they are the first and third parts of a trilogy making up a unified storyline, whereas The Undiscovered Country can be appreciated on its own merits without ever having seen any of the other films in the series. As such it encompasses much of what made the best episodes of the original TV series so popular in the first place - interesting characters, exciting action, a certain degree of humor and an imaginative plot that echoes actual events of the time in which it was made. First-time viewers may not grasp the sense of nostalgia that permeates the film, but they will get a good look at the qualities that evokes such strong feelings among longtime Trek fans.
This, then, is my suggested basic science fiction filmography for those unfamiliar with the genre. As noted previously, it is the product of my own personal tastes and opinions and, as such, is likely to be the subject of debate among those who consider themselves more knowledgable about such things than I.
Much of any such debate, I suspect, will focus upon my omission of two films in particular. The first of these is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey - a film which many critics genuinely consider to be the greatest science fiction film ever made. To be perfectly honest I have never understood this assessment; the special effects were indeed groundbreaking for their day, but the storyline - such as it is - is such a dull and plodding mess that Kubrick himself is said to have once claimed that even he didn't know what it was supposed to be about.
Some critics who have disliked the Star Wars films like to accuse George Lucas of sacrificing storyline for special effects. In my mind this is a charge more accurate leveled at Kubrick and 2001; there are a great many long. lingering shots on the various spacecrafts seen in the film, but the characters are as cold and lifeless as the film’s computers and the plot is so ambiguous that it is incomprehensible.
Still, its continued status among some critics and fans as a bona fide classic of the genre make 2001 worth seeking out by those viewers who wish to make up their own mind. My only suggestion is that any viewers who choose to go to such trouble should also look for the 1984 sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, a more mainstream film that was far more comprehensible (but, curiously, less successful) than the original.
The other film some will argue should have been on this list is James Cameron's Avatar. They'll no doubt base this argument primarily on the fact that Avatar drew large audiences and made tons of money and eventually claimed the title of top grossing film of all time - which, of course, it did. (As did Star Wars and E.T. before it.) But this list is not based on the size of the films' audiences or the amount of money they brought in; if it were, it would be a much different list indeed.
I know a great many people liked Avatar. And speaking as a lifelong fan of the science fiction genre in general, I'm pleased by that; any movie that captures the viewer's imagination and spurs him to seek out other works is good for the genre as a whole. But to be perfectly honest, I simply wasn’t all that impressed with the film. It’s not that it was a bad movie. It just wasn’t terribly original; every single frame reminded me of other movies I’ve seen over the years. Now if it had just been me who felt this way, it might not be such a big deal. When a fellow gets to be my age and has seen as many movies during that span of years as I have, the likelihood that some new movie will remind me of some old movie would seem to be almost inevitable.
But both of my sons – who, though rabid film fans in their own right, could probably add up the total number of movies they've each seen in their lives and still be nowhere near my total (I spent way too much time at the picture show as a lad, I’m afraid) – felt exactly the same way. Indeed, Joshua and William took turns pointing out the many different films Avatar seemed to be borrowing from all throughout the picture – to the point that I actually had to “shush” them several times in order to hear some of the movie’s dialogue.
A few examples the boys pointed out as they watched the movie:
• When Sigourney Weaver’s character talked about the mystical “energy field” that bound life on planet Pandora together, Joshua and William said in unison (almost as if they had rehearsed it), “It’s the Force!”
• When the hero gave his inspirational speech to the planet’s natives shortly before the climactic battle, Joshua said, “Now he’s Braveheart!” The battle sequence itself was found to have harkened back to everything from John Wayne’s The Alamo to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Had they asked, I would have added that Cameron also managed to work in a few references to some of his own earlier films, such as Aliens and The Terminator).
• The scenes involving a consciousness transference ritual was hugely reminiscent of the Fal-tor-pan ceremony at the end of Star Trek III: The Search For Spock.
And that’s just a few of the comparisons the boys made that I can still remember several days after the fact. I’ll just add the one most obvious comparison that really jumped out at me as I watched the movie, the fact that the hero’s gradual integration into the planet’s native culture was straight out of Dances With Wolves - with just a touch of a Tarzan movie or two thrown in for good measure.
And it was also Joshua and William who pointed out that – for the ballyhoo about director James Cameron’s supposedly groundbreaking digital character creations – none of the alien creatures seemed any more or less “real” than Jar-Jar Binks – or, for that matter, most of the video games the boys like to play.
(As an aside: I have to admit that, as much as I love science fiction films in general, I am beginning to grow a little weary of all the computer generated characters and pyrotechnics that are bombarding the silver screen these days. CGI is a useful tool for moviemakers and when used right - the 2009 Star Trek reboot and the entire Pixar oeuvre spring immediately to mind - can serve as a great springboard for creativity. But more often than not (just like the more "mainstream" special effects of the pre-CGI era) the whiz-bang computer graphics become too much of a crutch, as filmmakers attempt to veil incompetent writing, acting and/or directing with a lot of cool but ultimately meaningless special effects. Indeed, the author of one of the few negative reviews I remember reading of Avatar at the time of its release stated that he wished Cameron had spent less time on developing his special effects andmore time developing his story. That’s a common complaint with most such films these days, I’m afraid.)
Taking ideas from other sources to tell a story is nothing new, of course. The writers of the Greek and Roman myths did it; so did Shakespeare and the Brothers Grimm. Indeed, some of Avatar’s most vocal fans have been quick to point out how George Lucas took bits and pieces from all kinds of sources – ancient myths and legends, comic books, westerns, Saturday morning movie serials, etc. – when he created his Star Wars series. Lucas himself has made no secret of this, and I’m told that there have even been college classes devoted to the study of Lucas’ films and the mythological archetypes that inspired them.
The difference between George Lucas and James Cameron is that Lucas was able to take themes and ideas universal to all those various sources and distill them into something that at once seemed both new and timeless. He took the time to actually study the source material and figure out why those themes have continued to resonate in so many different cultures throughout history. Joseph Campbell, the noted American writer and lecturer best known for his work regarding mythological, religious and psychological archetypes, once referred to Lucas (whom he did not meet until fairly late in life) as “the best student I ever had.” High praise, indeed.
Cameron, on the other hand, seems to have taken the easy “cut and paste” path – like the college student who copies bits and pieces of various Wikipedia articles, turns it into a five-page report and prays that his professor never notices. (It bears noting that, even before Avatar was released to theatres, Cameron was already being accused of swiping part of his concept from a 1957 short story entitled "Call Me Joe," by acclaimed science fiction author Poul Anderson.)
As I said, Avatar isn’t a bad movie; But it could have been better. And I can’t help thinking that its current status as Number One box office hit of all time says less about the film’s actual quality than it does about the mass audience’s short attention span and/or general lack of cinematic knowledge. But, as is the case with 2001, those who may not have seen the film at this point should endeavor to seek it out and make up their own mind.
The selection of other titles beyond the dozen included in our suggested filmography is a matter probably best determined by what the individual viewer determines he or she likes and dislikes about these twelve pictures. Those who find themselves swept up in the fun and spectacle of the original Star Wars, for example, will probably wish to view the entire series in chronological order in order to fully appreciate the depth of the new mythology Lucas eventually created. Fans of the three George Pal films included on the list may likewise consider seeking out some of the influential producer-director’s other genre works, such as When Worlds Collide or Atlantis: The Lost Continent. Viewers enthralled by James Mason’s performance as Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea may also enjoy his role as another Jules Verne protagonist, the more heroic and humorous Professor Lindenbrock, in Journey To The Center Of The Earth.
And for those who still aren’t sure just what to make of all the hoopla surrounding Star Trek in any of its incarnations, viewing the aforementioned Trek theatrical film trilogy of The Wrath Of Khan, The Search For Spock and The Voyage Home can be quite an educational experience. Taken as a whole these three entries in the series encompass everything that is both good and bad about Gene Roddenberry’s much-loved creation; they are also a great deal of fun.
Other films certainly worthy of consideration would include The Day The Earth Stood Still; Forbidden Planet; Alien; E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial; Time After Time; Jurassic Park; Fantastic Voyage; Tron; Cocoon; Robinson Crusoe On Mars; Blade Runner; Contact; Deep Impact; the first Christopher Reeve Superman; Logan's Run; and the Back To The Future trilogy, among others.
The possibilities are endless, and the viewer is advised to seek out and enjoy as many films as time, money and interest will allow.
A postscript, if I may: The temptation in attempting to compile any such listing of the truly good science fiction films is that one might also feel moved to put together a companion list of the worst science fiction movies ever made. But it occurs to me that such a project would in fact be the more difficult task, since many of the movies generally considered by critics to be the worst of all time - such as Plan 9 From Outer Space or Robot Monster, to name just two of the best known - actually possess a certain goofy charm that earns such films their own devout fan base and so allows them to somehow endure.
Indeed, in conducting my research for this volume I came across only three films that are almost universally considered to have no redeeming value whatsoever and should thus be seen only at the viewer’s own risk:
• Battlefield Earth, a downright painful 2000 adaptation of an equally bad (and severely bloated) novel penned by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard - a book which reportedly only made it to the best-seller lists due to a massive campaign which saw Scientology members buy up enormous quantities in order to make the novel appear more successful than it actually was (as has reportedly been confirmed by at least one of the larger bookstore chains);
• The Adventures of Pluto Nash, the infamous 2002 bomb starring Eddie Murphy, which cost a staggering $90 million to make but brought in only $2.9 million at the box office (and was darned lucky to bring in even that much); and
• A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), a film that was started by Stanley Kubrick and completed by Steven Spielberg after Kubrick’s death – demonstrating once and for all that some filmmakers’ individual styles are as incompatible as oil and water.
These three titles are bad enough to almost make even the most loyal science fiction fan never want to go to the movies ever again, and are almost enough to make Plan 9 From Outer Space look like Citizen Kane by comparison.
Avoid them at all costs. Trust me, you’ll thank me for it later.
(Copyright 2010 by John Allen Small)
Tags: "science fiction" "pop culture"