Top 20 Sci-Fi Defenses: Rottingcorpse

Rottingcorpse’s list can be found right here.

Let’s just get the main point out of the way up front, shall we? Your list of the twenty best Sci-Fi films of all time doesn’t look anything like mine. That’s the way it should be. To be honest, if your list did ape mine I’d actually be concerned enough to get a restraining order against you. Great minds think alike, but to be that exact would have to have required some kind of illegal surveillance on your part.

See, everybody has different tastes. I know people who love to eat tripe. Me? I think it tastes like what it’s often used as a synonym for: shit. On that level, defending six of the twenty films on my list is a useless exercise. If you’re coming into this thinking Robocop is total crap (or tripe), there’s not anything I’m going to say here that’s likely to change your mind.

We love lists, don’t we? Forced to guess why, I’d say because they affirm our opinions while at the same time emphasizing our independence. The items on a list that coincide with our own feelings and thoughts vindicate those feelings and thoughts. The ones that differ wake up the snotty debate team champ that lives in every one of us. Lists are an excuse to bring the old chap out of retirement for a few rounds of “Yes, but.”

When first confronted with the directive to make a list of the twenty best sci-fi films, my original concern was whether or not I could even think of twenty good ones. I’ve mentioned my love of bad films before. A lot of the movies I enjoy are never going to get mistaken for high art. I try to justify this lapse in good taste by saying I recognize that there’s a difference between what I like and what’s good. Sometimes you just want to fuck a skank. However, for a list of the twenty best, I felt like I had to err on the side of quality. Only high class call girls need apply. Of the six films I’ll be defending, four of them could be accused of being questionable in that regard.

Once I’d made my list and shared it with my co-conspirators in this experiment, it was noted I kept coming back to alien invasion/flying saucer films. Part of the reason for this was that I, more than the other two authors ,felt the need to dig deep into film history, particularly sci-fi’s “golden age” of the 1950s, in order to build my list. I’ve noticed a trend with younger genre fans in which they tend to ignore films made before the mid to late sixties. “OMG! You want me to watch one of those slow paced, pre-feminist, black and white movies with overacting and crappy effects?! ROFL! You’re old, mister!”

As my tastes have matured, I’ve developed a great love for sci-fi and horror films of the black and white (and silent) era. When we inevitably get around to making our list of the “20 Best Horror Films of All Time,” I’m sure most readers under the age of twenty will wonder if I really am a rotting corpse the GS editors dug up from somewhere. I fully understand these older films are an acquired taste. They come from an era where both filmmaking and acting styles are quite different from how they are today. However, if you can get over that mental hump of cultural differences, theatrical acting, and primitive effects, you can find some great stories being told. (And some of the acting, filmmaking, and effects are still pretty revolutionary, even by today’s standards.) I can make the jump pretty easily, but I’m a well-trained movie junkie. I encourage you to train yourself as well, young filmgoer. You won’t be disappointed.
Anyway, my original intent for my defense article was to write a lengthy piece along the theme of “Watch the Skies” which was to discuss six alien invasion films and their influence. Why didn’t I? Time got the best of me. I didn’t get a chance to re-watch all the movies on my list. Plus the more I thought about it, the more I realized that a thorough discussion of the alien invasion sub-genre needed to include movies not on my list (E.T., Invaders From Mars, Independence Day) as well as ones that I consider more horror than sci-fi. (The Thing From Another World from which the phrase “watch the skies” originates, John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of that film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien.) I also felt that no discussion of the invasion film would be complete without talking about the 80s phenomenon V, which being television is a totally different beast from its cinematic counterparts. Rather than half ass what I think can be an interesting and informative piece of pop-culture analysis, I’ve decided to postpone the “Watch the Skies” experiment for a later date. Look for it… I don’t know, someday.

Casting aside that idea, I took a look at my remaining films, cross-referenced them with what the other two authors were writing about and pretty much was left with these six films: Metropolis, 2001: A Space Odyssey, THX 1138, Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers. Is there a running theme? Not really. The first three films are all historically important in my opinion. (Yeah, I know. I’ve got a job to do on THX 1138.) The last three were all directed by Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven. If there is any other underlying thread tying them together I guess we’ll “classify” it as we go along, eh?
All right then. Enough stalling.

Metropolis (1927)

Movies from the silent era are more likely to be viewed as historical artifacts than narratives in their own right. The obstacles of the early camera technology as well as staging and acting styles still very much linked to the world of theatre make it hard for anyone who isn’t “ahem” a film and theatre snob to lose themselves in the moment. Even I had trouble seeing A Trip to the Moon (1902), widely accepted to be the first sci-fi story ever filmed, as anything other than a filmed theatre performance with archaic (yet still pretty cool) visual effects.

(I’d like to note that Charlie Chaplin is one of the few consistent exceptions to the silent era’s inability to translate to modern sensibilities, but he was also a friggin’ genius. Those folks tend to tweak the curve a bit.)

Metropolis is noteworthy as a precursor to the big budget, sci-fi extravaganzas of modern cinema. At its time, it was the highest budgeted film ever made. (5 million Reichmarks, whatever the hell that translates to.)The sets are huge. The number of extras in the crowd scenes is ridiculous. Upon re-watching it, I more than once found myself wondering how many people either drowned or trampled to death in the movie’s climactic scene where our heroes Freder, Maria, and Josaphat lead the children of the rioting worker class away from the flooding underground city beneath Metropolis.

In many ways, Metropolis is the link between the literary fantasy worlds of the 19th century to the cinematic ones of the 20th. You see shades of H.G Wells’ morlocks from The Time Machine in the underground civilization of the worker class that powers the luxurious Metropolis above them. The mad scientist, Rotwang, is the descendant of Mary Shelley’s mad doctor in Frankenstein as well as the father of Colin Clive’s interpretation in James Whale’s film adaptation made less than ten years later. Much has been made of the Machine Man’s influence on the design of C-3PO from Star Wars. Metropolis’ themes of class warfare are felt in films as varied as THX 1138, Planet of the Apes, Logan’s Run, Escape from New York, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and The Matrix. (In fact, Metropolis at times plays like an older but far better version of the crappy second sequel to The Matrix.)

The theatrical conventions of the era are still readily apparent in Metropolis, particularly in the acting. The “Delsarte System” of movement and emoting which was insanely popular in the Victorian era was still very much in vogue in the 1920s. If you’re not prepared for it, it can come off as rather hysterical and overwrought. (My wife in particular had quite a giggle over the actors need to emote in about a dozen different ways over the course of thirty seconds before making a hasty exit. “Talk about ‘taking your moment’ to the extreme,” she noted.)

The most well-known sci-fi element to Metropolis is the Machine Man, a robot with the ability to “clone” the image of another person. Rotwang kidnaps Maria (spiritual leader of the worker resistance) and creates a clone of her that will lead a worker’s rebellion, destroying Metropolis. Much credit needs to be given to actress Brigette Helm who embodies both the pure and kind Maria as well as her evil, erotic machine doppelganger. “Delsarte System” aside, when this chick starts raising hell you believe it.
I could probably prattle on about various aspects of Metropolis forever. There’s the interesting period of German history between the end of World War I and the rise of Hitler in which it was produced. Somebody could write a book on the major cuts, lost footage and restoration of the movie in its long career.

Certainly worth mentioning is the strange politics of Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, the married director and writer team who created Metropolis. They divorced when Harbou joined the Nazi party, which banned the films of Lang (a Catholic Jew) from screening in Germany and forced the director into exile in France. The film is pretty Marxist in its views of the symbiosis of a united worker class and wealthy ruling class. I guess they were called the National “Socialist” Workers Party, but Harbou’s script preaches the necessity for cooperation between various classes of people which wasn’t exactly the Nazi’s stance. Though to be fair, maybe that idea was Lang’s. Who knows? Watch it and draw your own conclusions.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

First off, let’s toss out any auspices toward a deep Stanley Kubrick discussion. I don’t have the time or space to get into the “Kubrickian” aspects of 2001, though for a lot of cinephiles it’s hard to look at this film for anything but. Forget about the nature of the monolith(s), the star child, or what the hell the significance is of the last twenty minutes. (My answer? I have no idea.) I don’t want to get in a debate about Kubrick’s use of spheres, circles, and repetition. Nor do I want to try and figure out if HAL-9000 was possessed by the monolith(s), controlled by Dave Bowman’s superiors, or simply had a nervous breakdown.

2001 is on my “best of sci-fi” list because it’s a mind blowing visual experience which even today has few peers. This is as much the achievement of visual effects supervisor, Douglas Trumbull, as it is Kubrick’s. The filmmakers took great pains to emulate the physics of actual space travel. Designs used for the ship and costumes are incredibly accurate from a scientific standpoint. (NASA says that in terms of Aerospace, 2001 is the most scientifically accurate film ever made. Thanks Wikipedia!) The use of matte paintings, models, and camera effects weren’t necessarily revolutionary at the time. Yet never had they been employed so successfully.

What I’m about to say isn’t going to be very popular amongst my filmmaking peers. However, I never really shined much to the “deeper” meaning of Kubrick’s sci-fi film. For me, 2001: A Space Odyssey was about Dave Bowman’s back and forth with one of film’s greatest antagonists ever, HAL-9000. In HAL, Kubrick (and author Arthur C. Clarke) foreshadowed all our anxieties about the technology we’ve created, that someday it may act on its own because it thinks it knows better than we do what’s good for us.
From HAL we get the omnipotent ship computer “Mother” and malfunctioning android Ash in Alien. James Cameron physicalized the threat of machines taking over for his Terminator films. You see the idea expressed later everywhere from The Black Hole and Virtuosity to Colossus: The Forbin Project and The Matrix to even the 80’s slasher film Chopping Mall.

I’m sure author Harlan Ellison, who sued Cameron for a chunk of The Terminator money, would say the “self-aware computer” idea wasn’t new with Kubrick and Clarke. However, 2001 presented it in a way that has affected the culture most readily. When Apple commandeered HAL for their Y2K commercial a decade ago, my sadness at the sellout was only matched by the reminder of how much that voice creeped me out.

Even today 2001 still works; maybe more so now that computer technology is a part of our daily lives. For anybody who ever watched in horror as the blue screen of death appeared on their monitor, or whose cell phone craps out during that important call, or whose virus protection failed on that funny video your friend sent; they can see in HAL a perceived maliciousness from our machines. We personify our gadgets in a way we probably aren’t even aware of. “Stop dropping calls, you shitty phone!” “Quit freezing, you crazy program!” “Go faster, you stupid computer!”

“I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

THX 1138 (1971)

Right now, somebody out there is reading this and saying to themselves, “THX 1138? Are you fucking kidding me?!”
Maybe I’m off my rocker here, but as dystopian fantasy THX 1138 is one of the best movies of its type. As in Metropolis before it, we’re back underground with a subjugate working class forced to play by the rules of an unseen authority. Even with its sterile environments and the protagonists drugged to the gills in order to repress their emotions and sexuality, in its own way THX 1138 is as emotional a movie as George Lucas has ever made.

It’s really hard to separate the guy who made the movie from the movie itself in a lot of ways. It’s not my intention to tear Lucas down for ruining Star Wars with his misguided prequels, but I’m going to anyway. The sterility of THX 1138 seems apt for its cautionary tale of repression. Yet when confronted with the sterility of the Star Wars prequels, you get the feeling that repressed emotions are all Lucas knows how to do. I always liked to believe that Star Wars and even American Graffiti were just detours along the way for a guy destined to travel the same road as Kubrick, Jean Luc Godard, and later David Lynch and David Cronenberg. However, the prequels almost empirically disprove that notion.

Let’s try to stay positive though. THX 1138 is Lucas at his most visionary with imagery that’s still striking when viewed today. The use of (and lack of ) color emphasizes a world where lies are built solidly on top of each other in order to keep control of an over worked and over medicated populace. (Sound familiar, America?) The lesson of THX 1138 is that truth rises. The longer you keep something down, the more powerfully and violently it will come back.

THX 1138 takes most of its cues from George Orwell’s 1984. And there are uncomfortable parallels to the media driven world we live in now. The unseen “powers that be” are given their authority by a technologically fueled religious zeal. Fear of disease and of the scorched over world are utilized to control behavior. (The scorched Earth scenario is a staple of sci-fi that dates back to the nuclear panicked postwar years of the 1950s.) The fact that the unseen authority is given no political or religious affiliation makes it all the more powerful a symbol. You can insert whatever tyrant du jour you’d like.

It’s not a perfect movie. While the emotional context is present, it’s subtle in a way that can alienate some viewers. Of course alienation is what keeps the world of THX from breaking down. The characters have an illusion of connectivity without true communication. This too mirrors the internet life we all now lead. We feel connected, but in some ways aren’t we more alienated from each other than we would be without all this social networking? How many times have you seen two kids sitting beside each other communicating via text message?

I could easily be ascribing more meaning to Lucas’ first feature than it deserves, but to me that the achievement of THX 1138. It allows you to project meaning onto it. Dystopia has certainly been done clearer and more thrilling before and since, but in many ways it’s never been done with as much truth.

Robocop (1987)

More dystopian class warfare? I guess a theme is developing.

With Robocop, we begin our exploration of the sci-fi “trinity” of director Paul Verhoeven. This was totally accidental on my part, but since the last three films being discussed all originate from the same artistic mind, a little background on Verhoeven is probably in order, no?

While a young child, Vehoeven lived in The Hague, which housed a German base in the Netherlands during the last years of World War II. The base was bombed repeatedly by the Allies during Verhoeven’s tenure there, and in interviews he has recounted vivid memories or death and dismemberment. These events very obviously inform Verhoeven’s use of violence in his films. He’s known for portraying graphic violence in such a direct way as to seem cavalier about it. The important thing to note is that Verhoeven almost never romanticizes the violence. His take on it is very matter of fact and obviously comes from someone who has seen violence firsthand. You can easily envision the director saying, “This is what it looks like.” There’s almost an emotional detachment from the brutal acts he depicts in his films.

Robocop is no exception. In the first fifteen minutes, we’re treated to the sight of the film’s protagonist, Alex Murphy, as he’s tortured, mutilated, and “killed” at the hands of Old Detroit’s criminals. Only he doesn’t die. Instead, the corporate overlords of OCP use Murphy’s body to create the prototype for Robocop, a cyborg designed to uphold the law.

The film has a lot to say about the “military/industrial complex” and the shady line where political interests end and corporate interests begin. The police force is privately owned and run, and is used more as a gentrification tool for OCP’s city revitalization project than an actual crime solving unit. Again, we’re treated to the unmet needs of a working class by a wealthy ruling class who doesn’t care one way or the other about the people it uses as fodder for its money making machines.

Robocop/Murphy is just meant to be a Public Relations cog in the larger part of OCP’s moneymaking machine. However, they don’t count on Murphy’s humanity. Like THX 1138 and Metropolis, we’re faced with a character that, through his trials, discovers a way to exercise the free will forbidden to him and ultimately removes himself from the confined space a “system” has put him in lest he threaten the integrity of that system. (This is also true for 2001 if you look at it literally. HAL the system physically confines Dave Bowman the human outside the Discovery One because it views him as a threat to the overall mission.)

Murphy’s programming requires he “serve the public trust, protect the innocent, and uphold the law” as well as an unrevealed fourth directive. In many ways, the entire film is one long set-up for a punchline at the end of the movie involving this mysterious fourth directive. (It’s a pretty awesome pay off, so I won’t ruin it for you.) The black comedy aspects of Robocop (as well as Verhoeven’s other films) shouldn’t be overlooked. Even the over the top violence can be seen as having an almost slapstick quality to it. Robocop is also the film where Verhoeven pioneered his satire of media propaganda that many would say he perfected in Starship Troopers. More on that later.

Critics accused Robocop of betraying its comic book atmosphere by using excessive violence. However, as any fan of ‘Heavy Metal’ magazine will note, comics can be pretty damned violent. At its heart, Robocop is indeed a superhero romp, albeit one crafted with higher themes for the taking if you decide you want them.

Total Recall (1990)

At this point, you’re thinking I must have known I was sitting on a bunch of sci-fi films dealing with class warfare, but I really hadn’t connected the dots until now. Like the other movies I’ve mentioned, the plot of Total Recall also revolves around a wealthy elite taking advantage of lower classes for motivations based on greed and self-preservation.

In this case, the villainous Cohaagen is the elitist, a corporation supported autocrat of a Martian colony. He’s sitting on an alien terraforming device that could improve the life of all the Martian citizens in order to steal a huge cut of Martian profits. Meanwhile, the Martian citizens live in deplorable conditions with limited amounts of oxygen and levels of radiation high enough to cause deformities, which the corporation of course deems “natural.” This (again) Marxist political world is the backdrop for a story of manipulated memories, mistaken identity, and Arnold Schwarzenegger doing what he did best in the late 1980s, kicking ass.
The plot revolves around a construction worker, Quaid, who dreams of exploring the now colonized Mars. Unable to afford the hefty price it takes to get to Mars, Quaid opts to have the less expensive option of a implanting a memory of a fake Martian vacation. Only when the technicians go to do it, they find out that Quaid may or not be a Martian freedom fighter (or corporate G-Man) who has already had his memories tampered with. What ensues is an almost non-stop chase as Quaid tries to outrun the various parties who want him detained or dead while trying to get to Mars and figure out who he really is.

I view Total Recall as the last great sci-fi film of the post-Star Wars/pre-CGI era. Somewhere in the forums, I’ve gushed about Dan O’Bannon and his influence on many of the genre classic of the 1980s. (In addition to Total Recall, he was involved on some level in the development of Dune, Alien, Heavy Metal, and Return of the Living Dead, just to name some of the good ones.) I won’t harp on it too much here, but O’Bannon is one of those guys in the trenches (a “Working Class Hero” if we want to stick with the theme) who despite never achieving the accolades of many of his peers, helped shape the evolution of sci-fi cinema.

Drawing inspiration from a Phillip K. Dick story, Total Recall was conceived by O’Bannon in the 1970s, and was developed over the course of fifteen years. (The original pitch was “James Bond on Mars.”) O’Bannon apparently had mixed feelings about the results that finally made it on screen feeling that the whole thing kind of falls apart (and was rewritten) in the third act. I’m inclined to disagree as the “alien artifact” device elevates it beyond the mind bending actioner it had been up to that point. It’s less a “deus ex machina” than an implication that there are more powerful forces afoot. But I don’t want to give away the ending.

Total Recall has all the tropes and elements of classic sci-fi: Martian exploration, terraforming, brain manipulation, and hints toward alien cultures, all of which are executed with the utmost respect to the genre. The often cited flaws are often related to the over the top violence and the acting. And indeed, one gets the impression that the script may have been altered to suit “Ah-nuld’s” less emotional sensibilities. Still, in a genre where dumbed down has almost become the rule rather than the exception, Total Recall is as much thinking man’s sci-fi as it is an action film.

Starship Troopers (1997)

Utopia, at last? Even if it’s of the pseudo-fascist variety?

My two main rules for inclusion on a “best of” list, which you’ll remember are scientific accuracy and historical importance, are least supported by Verhoeven’s third and arguably best sci-fi outing, Starship Troopers. I guess my strongest argument would be the historical one. It’s based (loosely) off a Robert Heinlein novel of the same name. And… Um. Okay that’s pretty weak. Maybe I’m better off looking for scientific support. It’s about Earth’s future war with, uh, giant telepathic bugs.

Okay, forget history and science. Let’s try and tie this back into our themes of classism. In Starship Troopers, the wealthy and working class is replaced by a military based society made up of “citizens” and non-citizens. Citizenship and all its privileges are not a birthright in the world of the movie, but must be earned by military service. “Service guarantees citizenship” is the oft repeated refrain on the brilliantly conceive faux propaganda used in the movie.

Starship Troopers very cleverly apes war propaganda films and newsreels of the 1940s at various intervals within the film. It illustrates that war is just another product that has to be sold, a very expensive product that literally costs lives. These faux ads make it very clear that the people fighting these wars are not from the upper castes, but from the working classes and the poor. The ads are laughable in Starship troopers because they harken back to a style of propaganda long dead. But the message is the same. War is hell, but in order to facilitate it we offer you the promise of heaven, be it honor, patriotism, or “citizenship.”

The quasi-fascist idea of citizenship in the movie has an added layer of the class duality with the disparity between infantry (Read: worker class) and officers and pilots (Read: wealthy class). Our hero, Johnny Rico goes against the wishes of his parents and enlists with the promise of citizenship. However, unlike his enlisting friend Jenkins and girlfriend Carmen, both of whom qualify for officer and pilot training respectively, Rico is only considered good enough for mobile infantry. (Read: cannon fodder). What follows are the trials and travails of Rico’s bumpy career as an infantryman. In training camp, he accidently kills a fellow grunt. Shortly before this, he loses Carmen’s affections to another pilot. Rico is about to quit when the enemy Bugs attack, requiring every able bodied infantryman to do his or her duty.

If it all seems like a hokey war movie from the 1940s, that’s the exact vibe the movie elicits. Except instead of a bit of smoke and pained expressions when a soldier dies, Verhoeven treats us to all the horrors that war injuries can bring. Heads explode. Limbs are torn off. Beloved characters die covered in gore while gasping for breath in fear and terror. Even the officers and pilots aren’t spared the brutality.

“War makes fascists of us all,” was Verhoeven’s response to criticism that the film glorified fascism. I look at it in a different way. Officers or infantrymen, rich or poor, wealthy or worker, everybody is equal when they’re dead. In the final analysis, no matter its cause, war in its purist form doesn’t recognize class.

If all this seems a heavy burden for a cheesy sci-fi to bear, I’ll remind you that Starship Troopers is a hell of a lot of fun. Ultimately, it makes my list for that reason more than any other.

# # #

I guess that’s about it. The only summing up I can do is to say that the class wars of the past hundred years are still being waged today. If our sci-fi movies are any indication, it sadly seems those battles will be fought for a long time to come.

Agree? Disagree? I (Nacho and Cass too) welcome all conversation and debate or ‘Best of Sci-Fi” lists. Comment below or join us in the forums.

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