Top Five - Sci-Fi Flicks

George R.R. Martin has something to say to people who, in the hoopla surrounding the Star Wars 30th anniversary, are calling George Lucas's opus, "the best science fiction film of all time." And that something is, "Nuh-uh."

And he's right - though I disagree as to the reasons why. In my opinion, it's hard to compare Star Wars to other science fiction movies as it's essentially a mythological/fantasy story dressed up in sci-fi trappings. It's got at least as much, if not more, in common with The Lord of the Rings than with 2001.

So, what is the best science fiction film of all time? So glad you asked - it's time for another Great Big Nerd Top Five.

Honorable Mentions go to Contact, which would probably rank higher if Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey had shown even the slightest spark with one another and which has what remains, ten years later, one of the best and most stunning opening scenes in any movie I've ever seen; to The Day the Earth Stood Still, the iconic Cold War sci-fi movie; finally, to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, because it's still the best Star Trek movie, and because "KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!"

5. Minority Report: This movie may age badly. But right now, it feels like the future. Other than the more out-there premise of the Precogs, everything in this movie seems totally plausible. The giant computer on which Tom Cruise conducts his searches for the not-yet-murderers identified by the Precogs seems exactly like the computer we'll all be using in thirty years. The retinal scanning technology, the intrusive personally-targeted advertising, the self-driving cars on giant super-superhighways, it all seems like what's really going to happen. Throw in some crackerjack action and chase scenes - Anderton's escape from his former colleagues, the spider-bots' search of the building where he's hiding out after his eye transplant, the flight through the mall guided by Agatha's precog abilities - and you've got a heck of a movie.

I do get tired of hearing people say, "If Spielberg had just ended it twenty minutes earlier, it would have been great." No, if Spielberg had ended it twenty minutes earlier, it would have been incomplete and entirely unsatisfying. The key mystery would go unsolved and the movie would have a downer ending just for the sake of not having a happy one.

4. Forbidden Planet: This one is Martin's choice for the Best Science Fiction Movie Ever, and I think he's not too far off. Okay, it's a little jarring after nearly-religious watchings of Airplane! and The Naked Gun as a kid to see a young Leslie Nielsen as the square-jawed hero. But the whole thing is just tremendous, and holds up amazingly well fifty years later. Robbie the Robot remains cool as hell, first of all. The special effects are dated, but not really cheezey or even unconvincing. Walter Pidgeon is just terrific as Dr. Morbius, creepy, villainous and ultimately tragic. I love that it's a sci-fi version of Shakespeare, but it has interesting and original ideas of its own, so it doesn't just play as "The Spaaaaaaaace!" I love the way the ship functions sort of like a spacefaring submarine - something we see far too little of in spaceship movies - cramped and unpleasant, and the reaction of the ship's crew when they encounter the first girl they've seen in nearly a year. And did I mention that Robbie the Robot is cool as hell?

3. 2001 - A Space Odyssey: One of the great things about this movie is the way it illustrates the perils of creating science fiction: the all-too-easy possibility of hopelessly dating the movie by your choices. We're well past 2001, and we have no permanent moon colony, and no manned mission to Jupiter. Nor did a self-aware (and potentially psychotic) computer go on-line on 12 January 1992 (or 1997, depending on whether you go by the book or the movie). And even had we a moon colony, it would be impossible to fly Pan-Am to get there, as it went out of business in 1991. Certainly, all of these things must have seemed eminently plausible in 1968, a year before Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. And even with its now-anachronistic elements, 2001 remains one of the greatest science fiction movies ever, without a doubt. It's mysterious and thought-provoking, and in refusing to spell out every detail (or, for that matter, any detail) for the audience, remains one of the supreme cinematic mindfucks of all time. The movie's last act is confusing enough sober; I can't imagine what it must have been like for the '60s audiences who went to see it stoned or tripping or both. I also think its reputation for being slow and ponderous is somewhat ill-deserved. The entire sequence wherein Dave Bowman attempts to rescue Frank Poole after HAL goes nuts and then figure out how to get back aboard the ship is suspenseful and exciting. The following scene, the famous scene of Dave dismantling HAL, is both moving and deeply disturbing.

Also, it has ape-men beating the crap out of each other, which is always a good thing.

2. (tie)Alien/Aliens: Extra-terrestrial life has been a key component of science fiction since Giovanni Schiaparelli's observations of the Martian "canals" and H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. The question of "What else is out there?" has always been a compelling one. Of course, as often as not, the answer science fiction writers and filmmakers have come up with is, "Something nasty." The best cinematic take on this is the first two movies in the Alien series. "In space," the first film's tagline reminds us, "no one can hear you scream." Damn, that's a great line. The first movie turns science fiction convention on its ear in many ways. Rather than the heroic Flash Gordon or Captain Kirk type we're used to, the main characters of the film are basically space truckers. Perhaps space merchant marines, but the point remains the same - these aren't heroes, they're just blue-collar folks doing what they think is a routine job. When they encounter alien life, it isn't technologically or intellectually superior. It's a great big space insect, killing them off one by one for no other reason than that's what it does, without remorse or conscience. Alien presents the same primal, existential dread we feel when we watch Jaws, or hear on the news about someone being attacked and killed by a mountain lion or a bear. It's about fear of the unknown, and fear of that with which we cannot reason. The sequel ups the ante. Here, the heroes face the unknown without a trace of trepidation, but instead with swaggering bravado, with no better result. The only way the humans can relate to the aliens is on primal terms - life and death, the need to survive and to perpetuate the species. It's deep and heady stuff for a movie filled wall-to-wall with machine-guns and explosions.

1. Blade Runner: "What else is out there?" is a question unique to science fiction. By contrast, "What does it mean to be human?" is sort of the basic question of all narrative, be it cinematic or literary, and indeed of essentially all artistic endeavors. However, it is a question that science fiction is particularly well-equipped to deal with on fairly direct terms. With Blade Runner, Ridley Scott tackles this bull directly by the horns. The title of the Philip K. Dick novel upon which it is based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is far more evocative than the movie's fairly generic title, but probably doesn't really fit on a theater marquee. Fortunately, the title is one of the few places where Scott doesn't match or even outdo Dick (I know, saying a movie adaptation might in some ways be superior to a Philip Dick novel is nerd heresy; so be it). With the villains, who are most certainly robots, acting more human than the hero, who is ostensibly human, one can't help but wonder about the definition of humanity. The "sci-fi-meets-film-noir" atmosphere is nailed perfectly, with or without the voiceover narration. Like Minority Report, Blade Runner feels quite plausible in the little details. "Cityspeak," the mashup language of English, Spanish, Japanese and others that Gaff speaks, the strong influence of Asian culture, the enormous advertising billboards (including one, once again, for Pan-Am), the state of decay and dystopia in the all feels real. And, as with the dismantling of HAL in 2001, Roy Batty's death is moving and disturbing. As near to perfect as any science fiction film has ever come.

Of course, there are dozens of great science fiction movies, and it was a real effort to whittle the list of ones I love down to five plus a few extras. I could go on at great length about many more - but I think it's worth noting that all of the movies I've named - even Star Trek II - are at least as much about ideas as they are about action and cool special effects. Great science fiction doesn't always need special effects - Primer, the 2004 ultra-low-budget time-travel mindbender is Exhibit A. None of the movies I've listed are about kung-fu and cool sunglasses, or Will Smith cracking wise. The one of the great things about science fiction literature is that it is more often than not about ideas and big themes. The movies listed here prove that science fiction cinema can be the same thing, if only the filmmakers are willing to try.