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By Chris Mancini
Ever since I was a tiny little Tribble, I've always been an avid devourer of all things science fiction, and yes, I spent a fair amount of time alone deep in a book. I couldn't wait to see where Larry Niven, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and even Allan Dean Foster were going to take me next. But these were places I could see and hear only in my head.
The thing about movies was that they actually showed me someone's vision of what the future or some far off fantastic world could be like. Unlike television, on the big screen it just looked real. It was more believable, like you were there. And I was. Every time a new science fiction movie came out, I was at the movie theater, eager to see what new world or future I would be visiting once the lights went down.
Science fiction didn't really hit the mainstream until Star Wars came out in 1977. That was a watershed moment. It wasn't based on a book, or anything else, it was a science fiction film. And so the nerd age was born, opening the floodgates to more great films, along with some astonishingly bad ones. Remember Waterworld? Sadly, I do too. But with every Mad Max comes a Thunderdome ...
Science fiction films were relegated to the back of the cinematic bus for a very long time before they got the respect they deserved from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, or even mainstream audiences. (Star Wars won six Oscars, but not for Best Picture or Best Director, and the two sequels pretty much got snubbed.) Science fiction territory was still considered "fringe" and only to be enjoyed by nerds like me in between Dungeons and Dragons sessions. I was an awesome Dungeon Master, by the way.
But at least the science fiction door was slowly opening. What's interesting is that disrespect for the genre was never even deserved. One of the first narrative movies ever made, Georges Méliès's A Trip to the Moon (1902) was science fiction. So why the hating?
I think it has to do with anything that has "fantastic" elements such as aliens, robots, or elves being generally relegated to the kiddie table. Of course super lame science fiction movies don't help the cause. Good luck trying to defend Howard the Duck. And don't go trying to tell me how cool the comic book was. It wasn't.
Science fiction is a very sophisticated genre. When done properly, it offers characterization, emotion, and drama like other genres, and much, much more. It's not just laser blasters, alien bar bands, and three-breasted prostitutes.
Any science fiction writer worth his TARDIS, whether it's books or movies, will tell you the same thing: The best science fiction stories are about people. End of story. Not robots or spaceships. They explore the human condition. Ultimately the ones we remember and rise above the sea of mediocrity are not always the ones with the best special effects, and the fans would agree. We remember Luke Skywalker's journey more than how cool the space battles were.
But hey, let's talk about special effects for a moment. It's mistakenly thought of as the bread and butter of science fiction. But it isn't, really. Pretty eye candy does not a great movie make, and this goes for every genre. Avatar has some of the best visuals and special effects ever seen. Visually, there was nothing to compare to Avatar, except of course for every Final Fantasy video game ever made. But in movies, there wasn't. And the 3D was great. James Cameron even invented his own cameras. Not many people do that.
Now, rather than trashing Avatar, I am going to take the high road. Actually, no, I am just going to let Dave Anthony do it later in the book. In fact, that's the section we had to cut out of every other writer's chapter. So that's your teaser.
On the opposite end of the spectrum you can take an epic movie like the original Star Wars and see that while the effects blew you away (for the time), it was populated with unforgettable characters, an epic gripping story, and freaking holographic battle chess. Damn! Not all the dialogue holds up, but it was over thirty years ago so some slack must be given.
Sadly, after the last three Star Wars movies and a fourth, unnecessary Indiana Jones movie, as far off the rails George Lucas has gone now, it's pretty obvious there was a dedication and focus on story and characters for the first Star Wars trilogy. I'm not really sure what happened, but I think George Lucas is on another planet somewhere making great movies while the aliens, with their technology not quite perfected, left us a robotic simulacrum of George Lucas here on Earth so that we wouldn't notice his absence. Oh, we noticed. Time for a robot simulacrum firmware update for Lucasbot 2.0. And, hey, robot Lucas, stop fucking with your original classic movies. You never saw David Lean add more Arabs later or add new "lines" like "Nooooooo. ...!" And Han shot first, no matter what Lucasbot says in interviews with The Hollywood Reporter. That is all.
A good science fiction film, like a good film of any genre, will stay with you. Unfortunately that's true of bad science fiction films too. While I love thinking about the original Star Wars movies, Blade Runner (without the voice-over, and I can't even remember which cut that is anymore) or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I wish I could get Signs or Battlefield Earth out of my head. If only there was an Eternal Sunshine machine for movies.
Sometimes science fiction movies can be used as allegorical satire, like Paul Verhoeven's Robocop, Starship Troopers, and Total Recall. These three movies often get dismissed as bloody tripe, but I urge you to take another look. They are really bloody satire.
The best example of sci-fi satire is Terry Gilliam's Brazil. It is one of my favorite movies. The studio, Universal, didn't even want to release it without first shortening it and slapping a happy ending on it. Gilliam had to steal his own film print from the studio's vault to screen it for the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. They gave it Best Picture, and then the studio finally agreed to release it, and it's one of the finest films ever made. So the movie had a happy ending, without actually having a happy ending, except for that studio "Love Conquers All" cut that is ridiculous but available in boxed sets. It's great to watch if you really want to see how a studio can take a great movie and turn it to shit right before your very eyes.
Speaking of turning to shit, whenever science fiction jumps genres, there are mixed results to say the least. For every successful Galaxy Quest there are at least five Ice Pirates. Horror fares even worse than comedy. Sci-fi installments of Hellraiser, Friday the 13th and Event Horizon threaten to blot out the greatness of the original Alien. At least Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce about space vampires was guiltily watchable but these are exceptions rather than the norm. Hot naked vampire space chick? Sold! Even so, at the end of the lunar cycle, science fiction stands tallest when standing alone.
But what is it about science fiction that makes it so attractive and like no other genre? I think it's that science fiction films (and other media) offer two basic but very different views of the future: Utopian and Dystopian. Guess which of our favorite movies fall under? Of course, dystopian when the robots (The Terminator) or trash (WallE) take over. There's much more fucked up shit going on in Blade Runner than there is in Star Trek. One has rogue robots killing people, the other has a holodeck where you can play tennis.
The ultimate dystopian future film would have to be The Terminator. Even before Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor. Actually when you look at Predator now, with two muscle-bound state governors, you really think Carl Weathers should run for something.
Anyway, the Terminator movies (1&2) feel like they could actually happen because they seem so frighteningly plausible. Technology keeps advancing far quicker than the basic person's understanding of it, and why would robots, should they become sentient, want to ever serve humans? The answer, clearly in the films, is that not only would they not serve humans, they would see no use for them. Yes, in The Matrix they used them as an energy source, but really, machines would literally have no use for humans. Why would they? We're slow, weak, and mouthy. They would exterminate us coldly and mechanically. Chilling, right? There wouldn't be any "good robot" bullshit like in that McG Terminator movie. The less we speak of Terminator: Salvation the better. Then again, in a dystopian society, McG is still making movies.
The Best Dystopian movies can also be more subtle. OK, not that subtle. Fahrenheit 451, 1984 — Boy did George Orwell get that date almost wrong. OK, maybe he wasn't that far off. In 1984 we got stonewashed jeans, the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the AIDS virus.
The Utopian future, while less common, is still ultimately compelling in film because it's what we WANT the future to be, and we get excited when we see it. We want teleporters, holodecks, and injections without needles that just make a really loud "psssshhhhh" sound. The Star Trek films are primary examples of this. All the conflict comes from without, not from within. We got our shit together and now we're seeking out new problems. Money and conflict on earth has been eliminated. There is no more racism, discrimination, or petty squabbling over dwindling resources. Unless you work in cable news, these are all good things.
Even 2001 showed us a hopeful future from our beginnings as cavemen. However, one of the most interesting scenarios is when a dystopian future poses as a utopian one, like in Minority Report and Surrogates (not great movies but you get the idea). I love movies with this concept. Kind of like a futuristic Trojan horse. Things aren't as great as they seem. Make a fortune in real estate with no money down! Incidentally, I'm not sure which future sex robots and orgasmatrons would fit into, because if they were in the Utopian future, how much work would actually get done?
Science fiction's central appeal lies not in asking "Why?" but "What if?" What if you could predict a crime and arrest the criminal before it happened? What if the world finally united and we set our sights to exploring the galaxy? Would aliens really want to anally probe us? And if so, what the fuck is their problem? What would the world be like after a nuclear apocalypse, and would or wouldn't there be a Postman? Would we be eating each other while looking for some blind dude and his book? What would really happen if we keep advancing robotic AI? Eventually, they would make a better movie than the actual AI and then either enslave or kill us. At any rate they will definitely get tired of pretending to be cowboys. Make no mistake, no matter what a robot says, whether it's your car reminding you to buckle your seatbelt or Tickle Me Elmo, it really just wants to take over. "Elmo is master now."
So as a corollary of what if, what will the future technology look like and has some of it already come true? Star Trek communicator? iPhones actually do more. Although where are the personal jetpacks? Seriously. When will those engineers at Intel and Apple get off their asses and finally make something useful, like hover cars and jetpacks? I want to fly like The Rocketeer. So what is down the pike? Will we be able to steal shit from other people's dreams? Will we all have robot butlers? Most importantly, what will replace Twitter?
I love watching old science fiction movies to see that their vision of future technology was more steampunk than anything else. Everything still had black and white blurry displays (that all somehow looked like radar screens, no matter what it was) and everything from kitchen ovens to spaceships were still controlled with large knobs and giant levers. Also, it was all covered in tin foil, but rivets were optional. On the other hand, the alien women always had an aversion to clothes, so it wasn't all bad.
These questions bring us to the ultimate question science fiction asks: Is space really filled with hot alien women? No, wait. The ultimate question: Is all this technology actually good for us? The answer in science fiction films, from The Terminator to Minority Report, is usually no. Some idiot actually commented in front of me once "What did we do before cell phones?" We left messages and looked each other in the eye and had actual conversations without having a little robot strapped to our ears. That's what we did, you tool.
When you think about it, do things like email, cell phones, and Facebook make our lives easier, or more complicated? Is it really the best use of technology to make sure all your friends know what you're having for lunch? Side note: I don't fucking care what you're having for lunch. UNFOLLOW.
But, broadening out from the questions asked, science fiction films often give us a cautionary tale of the consequences of giving over too much power to ANYTHING, be it government (V for Vendetta), robots (The Terminator, I Robot), corporations (Wall-E, Soylent Green, Robocop, etc), or angry monkeys (Planet of the Apes).
Ultimately, science fiction films stimulate the imagination like no other genre. They wash over us in a darkened theater and show us what could be, and often what we could be, in the future. Will we be even more detached as a people, or more connected? Or will it be both? Will privacy be a thing of the past, so even our dreams can be spied upon, like in Inception? What do we ultimately want? Or will it not matter because the robots will finally take over like in the Terminator movies? I swear every time I look at my iPhone I can hear it thinking "Just a few more years, meatbag ..."
Science fiction films show us robots, spaceships, alien monsters, and aliens wearing medallions. They show us alternate universes, alternate realities, but ultimately reflect our own in a way no other genre can. So open up your big fat mind and let science fiction in. It will be good for you and you may even learn something. Like how to talk to an alien babe. But mainly, you'll learn about the human race and where we are going, in both the physical and metaphysical sense. But we'd get there a lot faster if we had jet packs. Just saying.
Note: It was surprising to me how many of the same filmmakers are on both lists.
THE TEN BEST SCIENCE FICTION MOVIES
1. The first Star Wars Trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983)
No surprise there. The reason nerds had for getting up in the morning.
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
OK, this is on everyone's list, but with good reason. Philosophical science fiction at its best.
3. The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
James Cameron at his finest. High concept, great characters, AND cool special effects.
4. Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986)
Creepy sci-fi horror followed by an action packed sequel.
5. The Matrix (1999)
Mind-bending fun and introduced "bullet time" to movies and video games — even if it was quickly overused and went from cool to annoying in a very short period of time.
6. Blade Runner (1982)
A thousand cuts of this movie exist. Just see the director's cut. You don't need the voiceover and yes, Deckard is a Replicant.
7. Metropolis (1927)
A startling futuristic vision and an allegory for class warfare, all from Germany in 1927. You can see how it influenced modern science fiction films, from Star Wars to Dark City.
8. District 9 (2009)
An unexpected hit: Sci-fi, action, and social commentary from South Africa, based on a short film and cast with no recognizable actors. A studio marketing department's worst nightmare and a great film.
9. Planet of the Apes (1968) The ending is still killer, and possible. You heard me.
10. Brazil (1985)
Terry Gilliam's dystopian masterpiece is both haunting and filled with gallows humor. Yes, that's Robert DeNiro in the same movie as Michael Palin.
If you can get past the slow pace and the Russian metaphoric cold war imagery, this film is a classic. It's philosophical and dreamlike, almost like a Russian 2001. Not the George Clooney remake, the original. Just clarifying.
Darren Aronofsky's mind-bending no-budget hard science fiction debut feature.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Comedy Film Nerds Guide to Movies"
Copyright © 2012 Graham Elwood & Chris Mancini.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Doug Benson ix
1 Science Fiction Chris Mancini 1
2 Westerns Graham Elwood 10
3 Comic Book Movies Mike Schmidt 19
4 Fantasy Jackie Kashian 31
5 Horror Matt Weinhold 40
6 Comedy Suzy Nakamura 54
7 Rockin' Movies Lord Carrett 64
8 Animation Neil T. Weakley 77
9 Action and Adventure Chris Mancini 88
10 War Movies Allan Havey 98
11 Film Noir Greg Proops 107
12 Musicals Jackie Kashian 116
13 Documentaries Graham Elwood 124
14 Film School Classics Chris Mancini 133
15 Romantic Comedies Laura House 142
16 Cops and Robbers Graham Elwood 151
17 Sports Movies Mike Schmidt 160
18 Drama Dean Haglund 172
19 Family Movies Chris Mancini 179
20 Martial Arts Movies Graham Elwood 188
21 Cult Classics Neil T. Weakley 197
22 Sequels, Trilogies, and Franchises Dean Haglund 206
23 Movies We're Ashamed to Admit We Like 216
24 Movies That Deserve to be Yelled at Dave Anthony 221
25 Movies We'd Like to See Made 229
411 Nerd 233
Thanks and Acknowledgments 237