Top 20 Sci-Fi Defenses: Nacho

I started with a grand plan to work through all the movies that were specific to my list of top 20 sci-fi flicks, but that got way too long. So, when I hit a point with They Live, where it was obvious that we are still living in that materialistic, alien-dominated world, I figured that was the best spot to end. The Quiet Earth and Pandorum will have to wait for another day… So, here are my explanations for some of the titles on my list:

There were some movies that had to be on my top 20 list even though, deep down, they probably don’t belong there. This has haunted all of us as we discussed our lists in the forums. One of the big sticking points is Star Wars, where it’s my opinion that the prequels have, quite simply, ruined the entire franchise. Well, hell. It was ruined well before that, if you want to be honest about it. The franchise was destroyed by Jedi, the Ewok Adventures TV movies, and merchandising that made Nazi propaganda seem coy. But, Star Wars must be represented on the list. As I’ll try to illustrate today, the list isn’t entirely about good movies. That was the struggle, and why it’s taken us four months to put these thoughts together. For me, a “20 best” list demands acknowledgement of the movies that shaped the genre, even if they’re entirely unwatchable.

This becomes complicated when I select sequels, such as Terminator 2 and The Road Warrior. But, in those cases, the sequels transcend the original. The original Terminator isn’t a milestone – it’s part of a boom of “alien possession” or “future invasion” movies that came out of the 80’s. It’s a simplistic homage to classic 50’s sci-fi, and startlingly similar to Westworld – a movie that came up again and again as the major influence for titles that I reviewed and ultimately rejected for this list. The Road Warrior is just a more approachable and entertaining version of Mad Max (and, for most of the world, was the first movie in that series in terms of mainstream releases).

So – movies that shaped the genre. The granddaddies that must be on the list simply because they’re the elephant in the room if they aren’t. Star Wars and, right next to it, Star Trek

Old Man Enterprise

Let’s face it: Star Trek has become an embarrassment. When they said Enterprise and the TNG movies died because of “franchise fatigue,” I agreed. I know the real reason is because the franchise was being managed by simpletons, but, even if the movies were all kick ass, and even if Enterprise really did manage to tell a watchable story, the whole concept of Star Trek, as we moved into the 21st century, started to feel like kicking a dead horse across the galaxy. Sci-fi, between 2001 and today, has become a different beast. Star Trek failed to move out of the era in which it was created. It embraced the same utopian, mixing pot ideals of the 60’s, even when it tried to get gritty like in DS9, or removed from the all-seeing eye of the Federation like in Voyager, or even in the unexplored vastness of space like in Enterprise. There was always this sense that everything was okay because Mankind had been uplifted in some way, even when corruption plagued various agencies. The best creature in the panoply of alien cultures was Humanity. DS9 even went so far to suggest that Humanity was the purest version of the offspring of some inter-galactic super race that seeded the universe. In the new century, we were ready for something grittier. A trend that started around the same time as Enterprise and, of course, is blindingly obvious now. The need for gritty, flawed humanity is what’s screwed up the Stargate franchise with SGU, and what propelled BSG to the top of the pole, and even infects the Doctor Who remake which, despite a joyful smile for the younger audience, is shot through with a troubled darkness that would have horrified the Doctor’s classic incarnations from the original show. (I would rather think the first six Doctors would have been thrilled to be the last Time Lord. And the seventh Doctor was always “something more than a Time Lord” anyway and probably wouldn’t have missed them.)

On the big screen, Star Trek was always a different beast. We begin the movie franchise with, essentially, a glorified episode that’s mainly about everyone gathering around the paper that detailed their budget and masturbating onto it. The reveal of the glamorous new model for the Enterprise, and all the talky bits, and the warp drive screw up, are great chances to go make some tea, or even bake a cake or two. But, beyond all that, the vision of the 60’s series is still pretty pure. The Motion Picture gives us that sense of childlike wonder blended with suitably non-fatal action that is what Star Trek was then all about. The brave heroes of the brave Federation exploring the unknown. Though Kirk was always quick to shoot things in the series, he just as often tried to make things right. He saw the situation for what it was. The script forced him to open fire but, largely, it was about exploring those strange new worlds and trying to help out the less fortunate. A scene I always think of when I think of the original series is the Civil War planet where Kirk holds up the tattered remnants of an American flag and haltingly explains the Constitution. “We…the…people…!”

When Kirk first takes on Khan in one of the greatest episodes, he does so with friendly intent, and tries to reason with him, and, even after the dire situation that Khan puts the entire ship through, Kirk benevolently exiles him to Ceti Alpha 6 as opposed to doing what anybody else in sci-fi would do and flushing him out an airlock.

The Motion Picture captures all of this. Instead of phasers and torpedoes, the approach is to try and reason with V’Ger, and V’Ger’s avatar in the form of baldilocks. There’s always the impulse to blow shit up, but there’s that tiny sparkle of humanity that lets them go, hmm, maybe there’s another way out.

The big and fascinating glory of V’Ger then becomes the centerpiece. It’s not a villain – there is no villain in the movie. It’s a pure tale of exploration, and it leaves the mind wondering about all the data that V’Ger has collected, and the aliens who gave it its pseudo-sentience. It ends with an upbeat, romantic notion. It ends like the series always ended – all of our principles are on the bridge and ready for the next adventure. No muss, no fuss.

It’s not a great movie, and the slap-happy, no harm done description above isn’t what puts it on my list. It’s there because it’s the last instance of Star Trek on the big screen. A final hurrah. After The Motion Picture, Roddenberry was retired, and the studio saw the cash cow for what it was and reworked everything. Next up came Wrath of Khan – a great movie that was briefly on my list. But I took it off because it stepped away from what Star Trek was all about. It’s a lumpin’ 80’s sci-fi action movie. It throws everything away and attempts to give us a new vision of Star Trek. It still has that strain of purity, and is actually quite clever, but it’s really just a submarine battle in space. It’s Run Silent, Run Deep, and combines all of the great elements of those old time sub movies. But the days of exploration and new experiences are over. Like those old sub movies, it’s now a saga of the crew, and the odds they must face to survive. Two captains battling it out, one clearly good the other clearly evil. Well done…but not Star Trek.

The remainder of the TOS movies are a flawed set of adventures that drift further and further away from the source material. The primary tale becomes one of old age. The whole idea behind Wrath of Khan is that Kirk is an aging hero who must now face his mistakes. Search for Spock and Voyage Home are more of the same, part of the “Khan trilogy,” if you will.

Final Frontier attempts (and fails) to reclaim the sense of wonder, and I reviewed that one separately a few months ago. Undiscovered Country is just a de facto Next Generation movie. By then, we’re very far away from the original series and The Motion Picture.

While the utopian ideals of the franchise were taken to, probably, their utmost limit in TNG, the TNG movies turned their back on everything we’d come to know and love over the previous seven years. The four movies of the TNG division of the franchise are, basically, feeble attempts to copy Wrath of Khan. In some cases, scene for scene. The TNG movies are just shameful across the board.

Now – the 2009 reboot is on my list. Here I condemn ten movies for being too action-oriented, so what the hell am I thinking?

While all of the mindless action stuff influenced the reboot, the reason I put it on the list is because there was also an element of joy and wonder that eluded the bulk of the franchise’s films. The TNG movies are like watching a dysfunctional family devolve into fisticuffs at Thanksgiving dinner, and the TOS movies from Search for Spock onwards are like listening to your grandparents worry obsessively about old age and related ailments.

The reboot says nuts to all that and becomes this pure, glitzy action flick. But, beneath that, it washes clean the 60’s, and the legacy of the 60’s, and the darker legacy of the 80’s revitalization. But it’s not gritty. It maintains the utopian ideals of a super-democracy, and the “money’s not important anymore” aspects of future life, while also bringing us a much needed booster shot of storytelling and special effects.

It’s a beautiful movie. And it’s so feverishly loyal to Star Trek, isn’t it? It’s not classic Trek – nor should it be – but it’s clearly put together by a team of people who believe in the franchise. Karl Urban’s uncanny portrayal of McCoy almost single-handedly makes the movie worth the list. In an age of remakes, Star Trek 2009 is probably the only truly loyal and palatable one.

Three Books

Whew! And now I’m getting long winded… With lots more to go! There are a couple classics on my list. The Time Machine and First Men in the Moon.

My love for sci-fi goes back to my childhood. What I desire from the genre is a sense of wonder. The “what-ifs” that come out of these movies and shows. I’m not special in that – it’s the bread and butter of sci-fi. It’s the reason The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits are shows that are enjoyed by multiple generations. We all need that dream sometimes. And the movies that deliver that dream are legion. Compiling the list, I settled on two that, for me, best represent that sense of wonder. That what-if dream.

The Time Machine, in 1960, broke major special effects ground. A masterpiece at the time and, even now in the days of CGI, it’s a stunning spectacle. The trick, of course, is not to be too sci-fi heavy. A few matte paintings, a wave of lava, the rise and fall of a mountain, and there you go. The rest of the work is in the excellent and still-frightening make-up for the savage Morlocks. The wonder and discovery element of the nameless Time Traveler and his machine is perfectly captured. The Time Traveler bursts in, late to his own New Year’s Eve dinner party, and relates his wild tale of the future. We go back with him as he tells the story and follow his slow advance through the ages from 1899, watching the progress all around him, the horrors of the World Wars, the spectacular feats of the city rising up, and then the end of the world. The angry earth reacting to a nuclear cataclysm and burying him. We shiver beneath a mountain with him as he anxiously describes his wild dash forward nearly a million years to a utopia that’s rotten at the core.

In that distant future, Earth is once again Eden, with the naïve and innocent Eloi frolicking in the ruins of a long deceased civilization. The Time Traveler listens to the ancient annals of a history of war and devastation, and then he learns of the cannibal Morlocks, the industrialized descendents of men who escaped beneath the surface in the final days of the apocalypse.

The movie carries you along on this journey. It’s so well crafted that you become the Time Traveler. You’re there standing with him as he marvels at the world around him, and learns the dark secrets. And you’d like to fuck Yvette Mimieux as well!

The movie has the single-best ending of any sci-fi movie ever made. It’s what the genre is all about. It’s why we watch sci-fi.

Back in 1899, failing to convince his friends (save one) about the reality of his adventure, the Time Traveler wearily bids them good night and Happy New Year. A few parting words with the one true friend who believes him, and then he shambles off, and we hear the time machine’s rotors start up and fade away. His friend rushes into the workshop with the housekeeper and finds it empty… But sees all of the tell-tale signs of the machine and the evening’s story. He realizes that the whole story was true and muses about the future. Then, as he’s leaving, the friend notices that three books are missing from the bookshelf in the living room. He and the housekeeper surmise that the Time Traveler must have taken the three books.

We end with the friend asking the housekeeper, “Which three books would you take?”

1964’s First Men in the Moon follows the same formula. A dying old man is watching the first moon landing and reminisces about the first actual moon landing many years before when he, a nobody looking for a country getaway, stumbled across a genially mad professor who had invented an anti-gravity paint that ultimately propelled a home-made sphere to the moon, where they discovered a bustling community of insect-creatures beneath the surface and become embroiled in an adventure. All escape except for the professor, who’s left behind with the insects.

The old man relates this very Edgar Burroughs’s-style tale, then we return to the present day where, with everyone watching on the TV, the astronauts discover the ruins of the insect society. The professor, who stayed behind, had a cold throughout the movie. The creatures had all been wiped out. A favorite theme for H.G. Wells (whose story this is).

As in The Time Machine, the story being proved true in the epilogue is just a thrill. The British flag still flying, the discovery of the tunnels. And you’re left wondering – what happened after our storyteller escaped? How did the professor’s days end?

Clumsy Pioneers

I mentioned Westworld above, and movies that really don’t belong on the list but still shaped the genre.

Westworld is the original Terminator, and the original Jurassic Park. It’s Michael Crichton’s first attempt at an ultra-real theme park adventure. Except, instead of dinosaurs, it’s a theme park peopled with realistic-looking androids. Westworld, Medieval World, and Roman World. For an enormous amount of money, you can go to these parks and completely immerse yourself in the history. Marry the queen, become the Emperor, or shoot it out with a cowboy in a black hat.

Our story follows two proto-yuppies who go to Westworld and live it up, running afoul of android Yul Brenner who steals just about every scene he even thinks about being in.

Meanwhile, the theme park’s comically negligent board of directors chooses to ignore potential problems where the androids become homicidal and keep moving forward. When the androids do eventually all become killers, an attempt to shut them down backfires. Yul Brenner runs amok.

It’s all basically Jurassic Park. The park’s controls go offline, in this case after things go crazy, and the controllers are left with no power. Meanwhile, the regular folks are all killed, except for our one guy who is chased relentlessly by Yul Brenner. We end with a Terminator overkill – bullets don’t work, fire don’t work. Brenner is finally neutralized, and our hero’s impossible survival almost feels like a Pyrrhic victory. His friend is dead and you know he’s a candidate for day screams the rest of his life.

One viewing of Westworld and you’ll see elements of every sci-fi blockbuster between 1974 and the 90’s.

Dark Star is far less glamorous. It’s a movie only for the true nerd. Slow, cheaply made, and clumsy as hell, Dark Star is what it is – and it is, essentially, a film school project. A first outing for the architects of 80’s sci-fi and horror – John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon (who wrote the screenplays for Alien and Total Recall). Dark Star is meant to be a comedy, and, if you’re a Red Dwarf fan, you’ll get it. Otherwise you’ll be left staring blankly at a movie that looks like it was shot in my apartment one weekend.

It’s on the list because it’s the movie that taught Carpenter and O’Bannon what they needed to know to carry on. And you see it. The claustrophobic, utilitarian Dark Star is the Nostromo. The blue collar, unionized crew is only missing Ripley. And, when it comes to Carpenter’s techniques, you’ll see shades of The Thing.

I Have One That Can See

They Live. It came late to my list, but, once I added it, I wondered why it wasn’t obviously in the top 20 from the get go. One of the major elements of sci-fi is that it reflects the era in which we live. And that’s absolutely They Live. The corporate subliminal advertising of an alien race of yuppies bent on destroying us, and the ordinary Joe Six-Pack who rises up to fight them.

What makes They Live somewhat upsetting is the realization that we’re still living in the world that was being mocked. Of course, the movie doesn’t end with giving us freedom. Nobody important believes Roddy Piper, and he’s ultimately betrayed by humans working for the yuppie aliens. He disables their immediate hold on things, but there isn’t this sense that he’s won. The aliens are exposed, yes, but… The world isn’t saved. It’s all about mind control and, as soon as the broadcast antenna is repaired, we’ll be enslaved once again.

They Live is a cautionary comedy about conspicuous consumption. Have we changed our ways since 1988? Not at all.