Saturday, February 04, 2012

Eblog: Top 10 Science Fiction/ Fantasy Movies

Fantasy and science fiction are different genres. Yes, they’re lumped together sometimes (as they are here) and there are similarities between the two, but they are different literary approaches used primarily to provide social commentary. Science fiction is generally predictive, and comments on current society by using a futuristic setting. Fantasy is generally reflective, and comments on current society by using a loosely historical past. There are novels that mash them together. And yes, I’m aware of the explosion of non-traditional-fantasy like urban or steam punk that really are a combination of the two. Hell, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files crosses mystery and fantasy. But generally speaking, the two genres are separate, and if this was a list for novels, hell would snap, crackle and pop and THEN freeze before I would lump them together.


However, fantasy never translated well to the big screen until the leaps in CGI about fifteen years ago. Science Fiction meanwhile has carved out a nice niche for itself. An, ahem, very nice “niche.” And so for the purposes of this list, I’ll swallow my fantasist’s pride and combine the two genres.

THE RULES: The rules of this Top 10 list are simple. Due to the dominance of trilogies and series, I was allowed to pick only ONE movie from each trilogy or series. So if a certain LOTR movie is not on the list, you understand why.

THE LIST: Perhaps more than any two genres (particularly fantasy), any attempt to translate a SFF story to the big screen requires a certain amount of graphic capability. That’s why you’ll notice a dearth of older movies here, like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Movies are a visual medium, and if the movie now looks cheap or campy, regardless of how it was received back when it was first released, I left it off the list. In the best Science Fiction and Fantasy, setting is not merely decoration, it’s usually the core of the story. So if the movie looks like shit, it ruins the story. For these two genres especially, the ability of the viewer to engage the settings matters a great deal. And so some SFF films that might have been highly regarded twenty years ago are not nearly thought of in that manner because of the dynamic nature of the medium itself.

10. BLADE RUNNER (1982)


Remember when Harrison Ford wasn’t a grumpy old man? Back when he was cranking out great movies? Apparently he clashed on this film with director Ridley Scott quite a bit, so maybe he was always cranky. I'll be honest, I respect the power of Blade Runner, but I never loved it. The visuals could use a Lucas like upgrade as well. Still, I respect the depth of what they accomplished here.

9. STAR TREK (2009)

I can already here the muttering by the legions of Star Trek fans in my choice of JJ Abrams version over the likes of WRATH. I’m sorry, but the older films in the series look campy, and even when their budget increased, the storytelling doesn’t hold up to an origin story like this one. (Origin stories always have an advantage.) The actors are uniformly excellent here, no need to highlight one over another, although Zachary Quinto as Spock is particularly good. STAR TREK is science fiction royalty, and for good reason. It has spun off a number of excellent TV series and movies, and it deserves to be highly regarded. When it comes to a single film, however, there simply isn’t one that rises near the top. Still, I loved this movie and highly recommend it.

8. 1984 (1984)

If we were judging science fiction films based on their source material, 1984 would be closer to the top of the list. However, we’re judging movies based on their merit as films alone. Even still, 1984 the movie is a haunting cautionary tale about the power of an organization or government that desires to control its population. That idea still resonates today. Conservatives would argue (wrongly) that the idea of “political correctness” is a form of thought control. (When in actuality it simply means that we need to be more inclusive and be careful not to stereotype people based on race, gender, sexuality, etc…) And liberals would argue that means censorship, which we have seen again and again over the past century with books like Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer banned. (Something Orwell witnessed backed when he was writing the novel) Closer to the mark, however, would be the tradition of communist Russia in the 20th Century, now carried forward by the ruling communist party in China. John Hurt is the perfect Winston Smith, and the washed out look of the film is a visual metaphor for what happens in a world where we no longer control our own destiny. Stunning.

7. AVATAR (2009)

“It’s such a simple story.” This is the most common complaint for AVATAR, and I heard it a thousand times even after it continued to smash records to become the biggest box office draw in history. It would be a reasonable argument if AVATAR wasn’t a work of art, but the visuals are so entrancing, the world so well drawn, that the argument doesn’t hold. As I mentioned above, setting matters greatly when it comes to fantasy or science fiction, and so to argue that the story is “simple” implies that the other, less visually compelling films on this list are deeply complex. I find it interesting that James Cameron referred to Edgar Rice Burroughs in his interviews regarding the story, and AVATAR certainly recalled that for me. I read most of ERB’s novels as a teenager, and there are definite allusions to John Carter of Mars and Burroughs’ four book series on Venus. So yes, the plot is not especially complex, but the message is a good one, and the film takes you to another world, which is exactly what the best SFF material attempts to do. It should probably be higher on the list.

6. ALIEN (1979)

I hesitated to include ALIEN because it’s a horror movie first and a science fiction movie second. Technically, however, it makes the cut, which means it has to be included. ALIEN is a riveting, scary-as-shit story with tremendous pacing and large swaths of silence through the film which serve to build the tension. I love the way this movie takes its time. Sigourney Weaver kicks ass in the lead role, her first, and the other (older) veteran actors provide gravitas to a fairly unsophisticated “alien in outer space” story. I should note here that the same people who accuse AVATAR of being “simple” never make that criticism of ALIEN. Why not? If you’re going to criticize certain SFF movies of simplicity, you probably have to start here.

5. HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004)

Okay, so being able to pick only one from the biggest money making fantasy series of all time was daunting. But the first two were for kids, and it isn’t until the third installment, with Alfonso Cuaron on board to direct, that we had a fantasy series for adults to dig into. Much darker than the first two (and the fourth, which sucked), this was the defining movie of the series. It promised what was to come, and visually it works on a much different scale that is later replicated in the later installments. I’m shocked when I see lists of all-time great fantasy movies and Harry Potter is left off the list. How is that possible? The themes in these books are as dark and complex as anything you’ll find in literature. This isn’t Twilight. (An idiotic and morally challenged series about whether a girl gets the boy and what she has to do to “keep” him) At this point, keeping Harry Potter out of a top ten list smacks of jealousy and vain pandering. I’m guilty of those things occasionally, but not this time.

4. CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982)

Fantasy can be broken into many categories, and continues to splinter. Unlike LOTR, Conan is considered Sword & Sorcery, a very different subset than typical epic fantasy. I read the original Conan books as a kid, including the ones by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter and later Robert Jordan’s six Conan novels in the eighties. (This was before he became famous writing the Wheel of Time series.) If I have any problem with putting this movie on the list, it would undeniably be due to the themes reflected in the film, many of which are disturbing. The Nietzschean epigraph is easily evident here, as it is in the source material, with Schwarzenegger as Howard's Aryan ubermensch. Women are portrayed as little more than sexual companions, including Valeria, who is clearly submissive. (Look at her position in the posters) While some of this is reflected from the source material, the original Howard stories held Conan’s female companion (Belit or Valeria) as someone who could drink and fight and hold her own with him, and so the outsized misogyny is disappointing here. The themes of American individualism are also evident. (We need only to will ourselves to be greater, and that when we do, we will see victory.) As for the rest, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his film debut, is perfectly cast as Conan. The physicality of Conan is of great import to his character, akin to that of a superhero, and so perhaps only a seven time Mr. Olympia champion could capture that. The plot is scattered, and at times it moves slowly, but it helps that the movie is backed by perhaps the best cinema score in history thanks to the genius of Basil Poledouris. This film is an interesting and complex reflection on philosophy, theology and sociology in the guise of simple fantasy. Howard was brilliant, and this movie captures a good portion of that.

3. THE MATRIX (1999)

It’s easy to forget that THE MATRIX is science fiction. Sleekly visualized with cutting edge photography, it never feels “heavy” like so many dystopian settings typical of its genre. Not until, that is, we cut to the harrowing scenes of millions of humans being “milked” in rows and rows of machine cornfields like some nightmarish cemetery. The film is essentially a treatise on postmodernism, a mashed up set of ideas that references everyone from Baudrillard to Plato, though most people seem unaware of its origins. (You know that you’ve spiked a vein in narrative when widely varied groups claim a story as a defense of their beliefs. In this case, everyone from conservative fundamentalists to liberal anti-consumerists were happy to showcase THE MATRIX as “proof” of their claims.) Beyond that, it’s a smart, fast paced action movie that still holds up, and thirteen years later remains a visually stunning masterpiece. This is science fiction at its best, pure and simple.

2. STAR WARS EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

There’s still a great deal of debate whether STAR WARS is actually science fiction or just another space opera. I like to think of STAR WARS as fantasy in the guise of science fiction. The commentary here is not nearly as deep or rich as you find in the STAR TREK anthologies, (and certainly not what you find in THE MATRIX) but the world building is second to none, and what commentary you do find, while simple, is telling and important. The philosophy of Taoism is represented here (the force) and again, feels much closer to a work of fantasy. The visuals are stunning, and yes, they’ve been updated by Lucas through the years, but they still hold up (unlike the old Star Trek movies). And in terms of its impact on the movie industry, well, STAR WARS changed it forever. (Some would say it destroyed it. We now get Transformers 4 instead of smaller films built around great ideas.) For all its criticism, however, STAR WARS is a masterpiece of storytelling. I chose Empire because I could only pick one from the series, and as a stand alone film, I give it a slight edge over the first. (I liked Return of the Jedi, but I hated the ridiculous “Ewok” teddy bears, which undermined the seriousness of the whole story.)

1. LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001)

The greatest work of fantasy (the first of its kind) converted into the greatest fantasy movie, and one of the greatest films of all time. Oh, I know, it’s only “fantasy”. It can’t be an “all-time great”, right? Bull shit. Next year, we’ll get another list of the 100 "greatest" movies of all time and it will have the same shitty ass films from the 1940’s that look and sound terrible with actors not actually acting (before Brando), and great, visually stunning pieces of art like LOTR will be relegated somewhere at the back of the line. Here’s the thing, film is a progressive art. That doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the films from fifty years ago or what they accomplished, but Gone With the Wind, for example, is a terrible f***ing movie. It’s unwatchable. Unlike literature or painting and sculpting, film generally ages poorly due to its technological base. And if we’re going to compare film properly, than that means LOTR is in the discussion as the greatest movie of all time. Like the book, the film is actually one movie broken into three parts. I chose the first, not only because it was such a stunning revelation, but because RETURN OF THE KING meanders a bit too long at the end and TWO TOWERS is the meal that isn’t finished yet. When it comes to top ten lists such as this one, LOTR is head and shoulders above the rest, and for my money, deserves a spot on any list that discusses the greatest movies of all-time.

Okay, so what did I miss?

-Steve