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The Best Science Fiction Film of All Time?

So, it's been thirty years since we first saw STAR WARS. Hard to believe.

Amidst all the hype and hoopla of this anniversary, I keep seeing people calling STAR WARS "the best science fiction film of all time." Uh... really? I don't think so. The original STAR WARS was a good movie, and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was even better (Leigh Brackett wrote that one, so there's good reason), but RETURN OF THE JEDI went downhill, and you really don't want to get me started about those three wretched prequels. Even the original triad hasn't aged as gracefully as one might have hoped. It has become apparent that much of the charm of the first movie came from the novelty of seeing favorite tropes from classic SF books realized on the screen for the first time... but that charm wears off on repeated viewings, and once it does you realize that neither the story is, well... not all that it could have been. You also realize how much retrofitting and backfill has gone on since the movie's first release. I don't care what Lucas says, I will never believe that Darth was meant to Luke's father from the outset, or that the romantic pairing was always supposed to be Leia and Han (it is plainly Luke and Leia)... and damn it, Han shoots first!

Never mind about all that. STAR WARS is what it is, and it had a profound effect on both SF and on film, for both good and ill... but it is not even close to being the best SF movie of all time.

What's better? Try 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Try THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Try the first ALIEN, or even better, ALIENS (but never mention the third installment in my presence). Try CHARLIE (the film version of the classic "Flowers for Algernon"). All worthy. Try George Pal's wonderful adaptation of H.G. Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS (a better film than the Spielberg remake, in my opinion), or Pal's version of THE TIME MACHINE (a MUCH better film than the really truly abominable recent remake).

The best, though?

MGM, 1956. Leslie Nielson, Anne Francis, Walter Pidgeon, Robbie the Robot. FORBIDDEN PLANET. Also known as the Tempest on Altair-4. Inspired by Shakespeare, in turn it inspired Gene Roddenberry, who borrowed heavily from it when coming up with STAR TREK. State of the art special effects (for 1956, admittedly), gripping story, some fine performances (especially by Walter Pidgeon, whose performance as Morbius beats anything ever seen in any of the STAR WARS films). Unlike STAR WARS, this is a film that only grows richer every time you watch it. A monster that makes sense, characters with a little psychological depth, science that isn't just empty technobabble, a sexy heroine, a tragic hero, the awesome caverns of the Krel... FORBIDDEN PLANET has it all.

Winner and still champion.

The best science fiction film of all time.


( 141 comments — Leave a comment )
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May. 30th, 2007 09:51 pm (UTC)
According to Steve Haffner, who has read the script, Brackett's original draft was not used at all, and the film was credited in part to her out of respect. She died shortly after turning in the draft.

I'd love to see Eric John Stark tear apart Darth Vader, though!

I'd also love to read that script. There's apparently a copy in the library of the University of New Mexico.

But I do agree with your point. These are hardly the best science fiction movies of all time.
May. 30th, 2007 09:52 pm (UTC)
Now I feel bad, because I've never watched Forbidden Planet... :x I really love the first Planet of the Apes movie though? :O

/Random Swedish lurker on your journal. ^_^
May. 30th, 2007 09:55 pm (UTC)
All valid points, but the Star Wars films really haven't gotten worse with time for me. I think that's because the original trilogy was so intrinsic to my childhood (I'm turning 29 next week). I remember seeing The Empire Strikes Back in the theater with my mom when I was tiny and thinking Yoda was the coolest thing since sliced bread. Seeing the movies early and having them be persona-forming films for me really caused them to have more lasting power than they might have had if I'd been older when they were released or if I hadn't been around for the initial releases as a child.

I do have to say that the most fun I've had watching a sci fi movie in the past few years, regardless of whether it's one of the "best", was seeing Serenity for the first time. Good stuff, that.
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May. 30th, 2007 09:57 pm (UTC)
Hold your horses. You thought 2001 was better than Star Wars?

The book was enjoyable, and the film had some interesting visual/auditory juxtapositions. But in the end, Kubrick loves taking mystery and making it defiantly unintelligible to the audience. The glacial pacing of his films isn't "artisict" but sheer self-indulgence, and breaks the contract of the filmmaker with audience to tell at least a visually coherent story. (Even the opening of the film, with Kubrick's name on the crescendo, lets us know that this is the autheur theory writ large.)

Plus, monkeys fondling giant rocks is not cooler than spaceships chasing after each other in a hail of laser fire.

May. 30th, 2007 09:59 pm (UTC)
(That would be "artistic", and not "artisict".)
(no subject) - harrytheheir - May. 30th, 2007 11:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - madbard - May. 30th, 2007 11:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
huh, 2001 much better - bizzleburp - May. 31st, 2007 04:05 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: huh, 2001 much better - madbard - May. 31st, 2007 04:21 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: huh, 2001 much better - bizzleburp - May. 31st, 2007 12:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rhazer - May. 31st, 2007 12:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 30th, 2007 09:59 pm (UTC)
Best of all time?
I don't know....
While Forbidden Planet is amazingly fantastically great science fiction, I like The Day the Earth Stood Still soooo much better. For me, scence fiction is a semi-morality tale of people discovering fundamental truths about humanity that is set off in sharp relief against an un-human/alien environment, situation or character. This is something that very little in the way of science fiction does anymore, or really EVER did, especially when it comes to the cinemazation of scifi. The Day the Earth Stood Still meets that criterion, and while it might not be perfect (surprise--the aliens look just like...humans!), it is the best of the best of the best in cinema. Not that it isn't, but the Truth in Forbidden Planet, to me, isn't as compelling as that in TDTESS.
May. 30th, 2007 10:32 pm (UTC)
Re: Best of all time?

Klaatu Verata Nikto!
Re: Best of all time? - sturgeonslawyer - May. 30th, 2007 10:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Best of all time? - chgriffen - May. 31st, 2007 02:05 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Best of all time? - sturgeonslawyer - May. 31st, 2007 07:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Best of all time? - ericcoleman - May. 30th, 2007 11:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Best of all time? - getouttatheway - Jun. 7th, 2007 03:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 30th, 2007 10:00 pm (UTC)
Aliens is awesome but always rides the line between that and horror for me. Not that I mind multi-genre things, I love them but it always clouds the issue on the "Best of" rankings.

Speaking of the movie which should not be mentioned near you in the same vein as above, have you seen the director's cut? Much different feel to it. Much more coherent.
May. 30th, 2007 10:00 pm (UTC)
OMG I love A Space Odyssey, it's one of my favorite movies. I still like the original Star Wars trilogy, mainly because I loved Darth Vader and Princess Leia so much when I was a kid. But I don't think it's better than A Space Odyssey
May. 30th, 2007 10:04 pm (UTC)
I've always loved The Day the Earth Stood Still and The War of the Worlds and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I agree that the Star Wars franchise hasn't produced anything similar in intellectual depth to any of these films. The acclaim for the original trilogy is that it captured a wide spectrum of audience and that it was a hit in the mainstream. It certainly deserves credit for that. But calling it the best SF movie of all times will be committing the folly of equating popularity with quality. Not that something can't be both, just that it's not a given.

That said, I think some of the high-ranking that Star Wars enjoys is in part a nostalgic vote from those who grew up with the films. They are not really voting for the film, per se, but more about voting for that warm glow of reliving fleeting moments of childhood/adolescent joy.
May. 30th, 2007 10:22 pm (UTC)
Billy, why do you hate America?
(no subject) - terraprime - May. 31st, 2007 06:27 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - yagathai - May. 31st, 2007 06:42 am (UTC) - Expand
May. 30th, 2007 10:08 pm (UTC)
Star Wars was a great adventure movie, but not the greatest SF film ever. I was seven when it came out, so I think I was at that perfect age for it to really have a profound impact on me...it's probably one of the main reasons why I started writing SF.

For me, it will always be 2001. Great movie.

May. 30th, 2007 10:09 pm (UTC)
I have to admit, Star Wars is my first love. I first saw it when I was about 3. It's stuck with me ever since and I'll always love it. I think it's this love that fans have for it that makes it widely viewed as the best sci-fi film ever. You also have to admit that it did help popularize sci-fi. Everything we have today probably wouldn't have happened if it weren't for Star Wars.

With that said, sci-fi has been a huge part of my life. Forbidden Planet especially. I remember constantly watching it when I was young. It and Star Wars were two of my favorite things to watch. Heck, I grew up with The X-Files as well. The first episode aired just days after my fourth birthday. i was with the series till the end. Sci-fi as a whole has made me who I am today.

Now, I love anything by Joss Whedon. He truly is a master of the art form. Firefly and Serenity are two of the greatest pieces of sci-fi work ever.

I guess I'm saying this because I think sci-fi shouldn't be judged on just one series or film when there's so much that has given to the genre.
May. 30th, 2007 10:28 pm (UTC)
I wholeheartedly agree
I was about to prepare my mumblemumbleFireflymumbleSerenity post, when I saw that you beat me to it. Well said.
(Deleted comment)
May. 30th, 2007 10:23 pm (UTC)
I really, really doubt that Ender's Game will be done right. I hope, but I think it's a doomed hope.
(no subject) - malimar - May. 31st, 2007 12:23 am (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - yagathai - May. 31st, 2007 02:14 am (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - yagathai - May. 31st, 2007 03:09 am (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - kizeesh - May. 30th, 2007 11:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
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May. 30th, 2007 10:17 pm (UTC)
Hrm. While I agree wholeheartedly that Star Wars of any stripe cannot be crowned Best SF Movie Ever, I wouldn't put Forbidden Planet on that pedestal either. As for which one deserves top billing? I'll have to think about that one. ;-)
May. 30th, 2007 10:20 pm (UTC)
Where is Colossues: The Forbin Project? (A highly unecessary remake is due to tumble into theatres soon) Or how about something a little more realistic, though much less fantastic (in some respects): Sneakers?

Seems to me that there are a great many films that are quasi-science-fiction if not outright science-fiction that merit our attention.

Besides, Star Wars is also science-fantasy. Or so some arguments go. Besides the point, where genre is concerned? Sure. Doesn't hurt to mention the other arguments made concerning its classification.

(And where's Bladerunner? Or Akira? Or even Aelita? Or There Will Come Soft Rains? Or, heh, Chasing Amy)
May. 30th, 2007 10:20 pm (UTC)
Definitely with you on Forbidden Planet. I can watch that over and over again. Star Wars, eh. It is fine for popcorn moments, but if you actually stop to think about it the story is really shallow.
May. 30th, 2007 10:26 pm (UTC)
Star Wars is not science fiction. It is a Western.
May. 30th, 2007 10:27 pm (UTC)
So, on Monday I meet a friend at the Star Wars Convention in Los Angeles. I begin explaining to this friend such films as Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet with its wonderful Theremin Score and basis on the Tempest. Like a deer in the headlights, all he can tell me is that he has not seen these films.


Still, I am rather fond of Ridley Scott's adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Phillip K Dick. That film strikes me on many levels and I have yet to get from the beginning to the end without shedding a few tears.
May. 30th, 2007 10:32 pm (UTC)
"... and damn it, Han shoots first!"

And so did Alderaan. But that's another story.
Jun. 8th, 2007 07:24 pm (UTC)
I'd love to hear it.
May. 30th, 2007 10:32 pm (UTC)
I don't care what Lucas says, I will never believe that Darth was meant to Luke's father from the outset, or that the romantic pairing was always supposed to be Leia and Han (it is plainly Luke and Leia)... and damn it, Han shoots first!

You're right. The only female member of the writing team, and one of the last hired to complete the team came up with the Lei/Han pairing and Lucas was against it because he was convinced he had written them as hating each other. I wish I could remember her name.

Best critic quote about Ep2:
If this is Lucas' idea of romance, it's no wonder his first marriage ended in divorce.

Lucas had a wonderful idea, but it's a shame he wrote the fanfic first.
May. 30th, 2007 10:34 pm (UTC)
other options:

Blade Runner
Star Trek II
The Fifth Element
Clash of the Titans

i'm not saying any one of them are "the best", necessarily, but we shouldn't forget about the possiblity. i'm partial to Blade Runner and Dune, myself.

Jun. 5th, 2007 08:58 pm (UTC)
Dune as it was theatrically released was disjointed. The re-edit which was 4-5 hrs was much better.

BladeRunner ranks as my "best" Sci-Fi flick. Given the option of watching BladeRunner, The Empire Strikes Back, Wrath of Khan, Forbidden Planet, The Fifth Element (one of my faves), Space Balls or Galaxy Quest, I 'd choose Galaxy Quest. It's just too much fun and I like fun.
May. 30th, 2007 10:36 pm (UTC)
Aliens, yes. If just because it's so imminently quotable.

After the classics -- TDTESS especially -- I must say that my favorite recent Sci-Fi flick is Strange Days. It is really vastly underappreciated. It takes an idea and pushes its implications to the extremes, which is what sci-fi is all about.

Plus, it features a kickass female lead and a total anti-hero male lead. Great stuff.
May. 30th, 2007 10:40 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I recall seeing Strange Days with mswas. I netflixed it recently because I've been meaning to see it again.
(no subject) - chgriffen - May. 31st, 2007 02:02 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - noctolator - May. 31st, 2007 02:08 am (UTC) - Expand
May. 30th, 2007 10:38 pm (UTC)
I'm unusual amongst geeks for not having seen the Star Wars films until I was an adult, and then on the small screen. I could not for the life of me figure out what the big deal was. The storytelling was bad, the acting was awful, the sfx were--ok, well, by the time I saw them they were been-there-done-that, but I appreciated that they were cutting edge when they were released. But wow, such not-good-storytelling!

I eventually saw them in the theatre when they did the back to back releases in the 90s, and then I finally got it. Those movies are *made* for the big screen. The awe and delight of the Epicness of it all helps take away from the bad acting and awful scripts (though Empire's pretty good, all things considered). I'd probably agree they haven't aged well in general, but seeing 'em in their proper venue helps a lot.

Gotta wholeheartedly agree about FORBIDDEN PLANET, though, and I think the above poster who commented on THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is right on the mark, too. Those two are movies I wouldn't mind seeing remade, except there's no way they'd be as good as the originals.
May. 30th, 2007 10:39 pm (UTC)
Well, si(e?)r, While I may not agree with what you say, I shall defend to the death your right to say it.
May. 30th, 2007 10:43 pm (UTC)
alien kicks ass! =D
May. 30th, 2007 10:56 pm (UTC)
Forbidden Planet best of all time (to date)?

Eh. I donno, Doc. Lots good about it, and it's certainly worn well, but it's not all that deep. If you had a movie with the depth of 2001 and the plot value of FP, now, boy howdy, that would be a sumbish of a moom picher, neh?

I'd say Blade Runner comes close; if you can discard the PKD novel (or the Alan Nourse novel, for that matter) and take it as it is, it's amazing, and not just because of the kewl nwarish look that prefigures the whole cyberpunq thang: also because it's got real depth, it's about identity and conscience and what the frick does it mean to be a "person" anyway; and it manages to do this all in a solid adventure plot (esp if you get the version without the annoying narration the studio put on -- they released the "for Dummies" version to theaters...). Far from perfect, yes, but an intense and rewatchable movie that makes you both feel and think.

Roughly contemporaneous was the PBS adaptation of UrsulaK's The Lathe of Heaven, which is even more amazing when you realize it was done on a budget that might best be described as "laughable." They captured the book, but (unlike the first couple of Harry Potter flicks) they didn't forget that they were making a movie -- they didn't just "film the book," they adapated it.

If you want to go back a bit further for something that has shown longterm staying power, a couple of HG Wells films come to mind: Things to Come (which, yes, does get a bit preachy toward the end, as did HGW), and The Invisible Man. Or for that matter the classic Frankenstein, which for all its messingsabout with Shelley's luminously dark plot, conveyed a great deal in a short space.

Or more recent: First, I almost feel guilty mentioning it, but The Matrix -- not its loathesome sequel! -- looks to me like it will wind up sitting on the classics shelf in time, after we get over all the bullet-time SFX mania u.s.w.

I guess I'm not really arguing with you (I have not the presumption), but suggesting that there is no single "best" SF film of all time.

Certainly not Star Wars; on that we are in compleat accord, sir.
May. 30th, 2007 11:05 pm (UTC)
Star Wars not all it's cracked up to be? Shocking! well not at all really, Star Wars is largely pap. It's entertaining but still pap nonetheless, people who regard it as the greatest sci-fi film ever probably think Battle of the Bulge is a better war film than The Dambusters.

However I do have to disagree on your Alien/Aliens notions, Aliens is nowhere near the genius of Alien. It's a shoddy, manipulative and at times terribly written film, with some nice visuals and a good soundtrack. Alien is a masterpiece of film making with a brilliant story and the kind of horror pacing that is all but lost in today's cinema. Additionally Alien3 isn't all that bad, there's some fine acting there and the denouement is refreshingly bleak.

Myself, I rather think that the best Science Fiction film ever is probably 12 Monkeys, but if we're going by the old Chris Foss, space-ships and robots ideology I'd probably side with 2001.
May. 31st, 2007 02:09 am (UTC)
12 Monkeys is good but I liked Brazil even better.

The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet are both excellent, however.

I wouldn't have considered Charly a science fiction movie but probably only because I watched it in 8th grade English. Apart from that I suppose it is.
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