Sunday, June 28, 2015


My Sci-fi Top of the Pops

What had I planned to write about this week? More visual observing. A new visual observing project I intend to execute from my backyard; one I think you will find interesting. Unfortunately, the weather gods had other ideas. It’s been two weeks of almost unrelentingly cloudy skies and when it hasn’t been cloudy—or raining torrents—it’s been too hazy for me to bother with the back forty. I know you want something to read on Sunday morning other than The New York Times, though, so here, in no particular order, are my favorite Sci-fi flicks.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Let’s start with the mother load, Stanley Kubrick’s (he of Dr. Strangelove and Paths of Glory fame) masterpiece. Frankly, this shouldn’t even be in a list of Sci-Fi films. It is more like real SF. When I saw this at age 15 at the Roxy theatre with my brother, Danny, I was downright puzzled by its metaphysical (kinda/seemingly) ending, but I still loved it and I still do. There’s a very good Blu-ray print of it out now, and even if you have the DVD you should get that and watch it one more time.

From the sublime to the ridiculous? Perhaps, but I have loved Ib Melchior’s color-riot of a movie since I was a kid. For what it is, it just doesn’t get any better:  wisecracking spacemen…a pretty girl…mile-high Martian skyscrapers, and most of all, that fearsome rat-bat-spider. Many of the Sci-fi films of the 50s and 60s I once loved don’t hold up to viewing today, but, surprisingly, this one does. It’s not great sci-fi or great filmmaking, but it is fun.

This was my other real fave flick as a youngster, a little-known film from the (then) mysterious Eastern Block, the Warsaw Pact, that is. It’s a little creaky and those Soviet hairdos (on men and women both) are a riot. If you want to know more about director Kurt Maetzig’s tale of exploring a nuclear war ravaged Venus, click above. Here, I will just say if you keep an open mind, it may surprise you. It’s based on a story by SF master Stanislaw Lem, and even given its (many) flaws and foibles, it lands, like 2001, in the SF camp rather than in the sci-fi ranks.

Destination Moon (1950)

To get to Irving Pichel’s Destination Moon, we have to go back, way back, to the earliest days of the space program, to the days when N.A.C.A. was just beginning to play around with liberated V2s. Naturally, some of the movie seems a little silly today. The idea of a handful of dudes at an aircraft company designing a Moonship is risible—but excusable. In those days, who knew what shape space exploration would take? Would it be a national effort, something done by lone inventors like the Wright brothers, or, as in this film, by private industry? Anyway, how could you not like a film based loosely (very) on a Robert Heinlein novel (he is seen briefly in the film in the opening blockhouse sequence)? Yes, the movie’s comic-relief character, “Joe Sweeny,” is a hard to take, but overall this film holds up well.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Oh, God, I wanted this to be good. Frankly, after ten years of a Trek drought, I’d have been happy with anything, but I wanted it to be good. To prove to the wider world that we Trekkies weren’t (that) crazy. Unfortunately, the result was neither black nor white, but gray. STTMP is not a bad flick; it’s just not a good one. The problem is that the writers misunderstood Trek. It’s not about special effects and grand conceits like this movie’s mechanized villain, V’ger. When it’s at its best, Star Trek is about its characters. When it’s at its very best, those characters are set in a little morality play. Still, I like this one OK and watch it occasionally.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

It took a little while longer to get a good Star Trek movie, but eventually we did with Khan. It is in my estimation the only really outstanding Trek movie ever made. They didn’t just recycle Khan Noonan Singh (from a very good episode of the original TV show) as the recent and very poor reboot movie did; they expanded on his character and story. A fine film any way you slice it.

Alien (1979)

Is it an old dark house style horror movie, or is it Sci-fi? Maybe it is both. Ridley Scott’s first Alien movie sure was creepy. Make that downright scary. The night I saw it (in Cinerama format) I dreamed that darned old Alien was chasing me around my neighborhood in Jacksonville, Arkansas. Alien also feels like a very good sci-fi, maybe even SF, movie. The dark, dreary, worn ship, Nostromo, just seemed so freaking real. Oh, and Sigourney Weaver was just so pretty.
Aliens (1986)
Sequels are never as good as the originals. Well, almost never. There’s Godfather II and Aliens. Quite a few critics and film fans would say both are better than the initial films. That said, Aliens is a different sort of movie. There is still some of the scariness of Alien, but it’s not in an old dark house context. It’s a military sci-fi tale of hard-bitten space marines. But it is cool and very well done and Sigourney is as pretty as ever.
Star Wars Trilogy
These are three of my favorite films of any genre. I love them all. Do I have a favorite, though? Is it A New Hope? The Empire Strikes Back? The Return of the Jedi? In some ways Empire is the best film as film, but it is also the darkest and least fun of the three. Jedi, on the other hand is fun and exhilarating if not as well made. For me, nothing will ever quite equal sitting in the theatre in 1977 watching A New Hope, seeing that huge imperial star destroyer roar overhead pursing our heroes.
Star Wars I, II, III
There are fans who like Ewoks, and those who don’t. There are fans who like Jar-Jar Binks and those who’d like to nail his silly hide to the wall. I confess I like both. So sue me. I enjoyed the first three films, including the first (sorta silly) one. I cannot see how anybody cannot get caught up by Episode II. Yes, it gets darker and darker, but it gets better and better, too. Episode 3 is a fine and engaging film any way you slice it.

E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1983)

Science fiction? Or maybe more on the fantasy side? Don’t know, but this Spielberg film struck a chord with me. I wasn’t long out of the Air Force and was living through a rather lonely time in my life (“Ouch.”). This movie offered much hope and heart and I couldn’t help feeling a little better by the time the credits rolled.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

As you regular readers know, I’ve long been interested in the maddeningly ambiguous phenomenon represented by the UFOs. And have even occasionally been spooked on a dark and lonely observing field by something that might have been a saucer of the dreaded Greys. The magic of this Spielberg film, over and above all the other good and spectacular things in it, is that he makes us like the weird little aliens. We want to hold hands with ‘em and go onboard the Craft just as Richard Dreyfus does. Oh, and a Celestron C11 puts in an appearance toward the end of the film, so you really can’t lose.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Those of you who, like me, are of the middle aged persuasion will remember that back in the hallowed sixties NBC ran a movie every Saturday night. Saturday Night at the Movies. And they showed The Day The Earth Stood Still every year, once a year, just like CBS showed The Wizard of Oz every year. I loved Day and didn’t miss it for several years. In addition to the very scary robot, Gort (“Gort! Barada Nikto!"), there was Michael Rennie as the good and noble alien. The recent remake? Meh.

Watchmen (2009)

People don’t seem to think of Watchmen, the ground-breaking Alan Moore – Dave Gibbons graphic novel, as sci-fi or SF, but is it ever. The story of a gritty alternate time-line inhabited by tired and desperate heroes like Night Owl and Silk Spectre is just that. While not as good as the graphic novel, the film retains many of the strengths that make Watchmen the first graphic novel to make the New York Times list of the top English language novels. Do get the director’s cut, OK?

Flash Gordon a.k.a. flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938)

I don’t like all serials. Some, like the famous Radar Men from the Moon seemed stupid even when I was a little kid and we were far closer to the days of serials at the movies than we are now. Others, however, like Flash Gordon are still fun, will always be fun, and I recommend them highly. Other much higher budget Flash Gordon films have been made, like the way too campy 1980 attempt, but the serial is still best. Pop some popcorn, suspend your disbelief, and have fun. It is easy to get on DVD.

And that is that; I could keep going, but those are my best of the best. I’d be happy to hear your picks if they are different from mine, so hit the comments section, y’all.

Next week? I hope to get out and do a little observing. The weather, it appears, may be a little better. MAYBE. Unfortunately, and wouldn’t you know it, the darned old moon is back. Such is the life of an itinerant astronomer, brothers and sisters.

I really like The Voyage Home StarTrek Six.
Thanks for your list. For audiences of a certain age, "Forbidden Planet" seems to me to be up there ("monsters from the id!"). It still holds up as a treat for the eyes, and then there's that fantastic soundtrack.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars is one of my favorites that I watch about once a year. It was made in the early 60s. It was technically ahead of its time. I saw it at a small kids theatre called The Metro in Abilene TX. Blew me away. I was in junior high.
As a kid...Planet Patrol. Super marionation at its best!
2001: A Space Odyssey is not merely the greatest sf film of all time, it is one of the best FILMS of all time, period. Brilliant, visionary, a film that still has me thinking about its themes and implications 40 years after I saw it. And the special effects have held up well, in fact look and feel even more authentic than many current CGI effects.

And one more vote for Forbidden Planet, certainly way ahead of the curve, re an idea-based sf film with the idea of murders created from the energy of the primitive subconscious minds of the crew.

Nice list, Rod. I enjoyed the revisiting.

Doug Rennie
Thanks for your list.
I would replace Star Trek: The Motion Picture with Star trek: First Contact. I agree with the other commenters on Forbidden Planet. Even just for the theremin laden sound track. I would add Blade Runner. Of all Philip K Dick stories that were made in films, and there have been quite a few, Blade Runner is my favorite. Great story, visuals, and soundtrack by Vangelis.
Sorry, but I find the "first" three Star Wars almost unwatchable, and not entirely due to Jar Jar. They seem sanctimonius and hagiographical compared to episodes " 4 - 6", which seemed more fun and campy. Or maybe it was due to the age I was when each of the respective blocs were released. Another vote for Forbidden Planet, also the original Day the Earth Stood Still and War of the Worlds. And don't forget 1960's The Time Machine. It's now what's termed Steam Punk.
But for me, really, the campier, the better. But surely you must know about MST3K, and its current incarnation, RiffTrax? You watch Svengoolie. These are even funnier, and some of the films they lampoon are so poorly made, they serve as a negative example in how NOT to make a movie!
BTW, kudos on having not one, but two articles published in the same issue of S & T. You're on a roll!
Cuz Roe from Addulam's Cave, South North Jawja
I like funny horror hosts, Cuz, but I never could abide the silly MST3K running commentary. But, hey, I am the guy who appreciate's Ed Wood's auteurship...hell, I should have put Plan Nine on the list. I agree Forbidden Planet should be there. I guess this means I need to do a Part II soon. LOL
Yep, we had a sf/horror movie host here in San Diego named Seymour, way back in the 1970's. His humor, much more droll and dryer than Svengoolie, could make the worse no-budget drek palatable.

Robinson Crusoe On Mars is top notch, and other favorites are the George Pal movies than followed Destination:Moon (When Worlds Collide, War of the Worlds). Indeed, Chesley Bonestell's art work is featured in all three of those Pal films and it helped to get me hooked on astronomy at an early, impressionable age. I was fortunate to see some of Chesley's original work on display recently at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.
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