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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.


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.


George R.R. Martin
George R. R. Martin

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