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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.


( 132 comments — Leave a comment )
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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.
May. 30th, 2007 11:05 pm (UTC)
Klatuu barada niktoo! (Or something like that) The Day the Earth Stood Still has always been my most favorite! Next on my list is Forbidden Planet, but then we're in same age group and were raised on those classics!
May. 30th, 2007 11:07 pm (UTC)
Blade Runner pure and simple.
May. 30th, 2007 11:10 pm (UTC)
I thought I'd add a few films that I don't believe have been mentioned in the discussion: The Road Warrior, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1950s version) and The Incredible Shrinking Man.

Does The Incredibles count?
May. 30th, 2007 11:19 pm (UTC)
I'd say The Incredibles counts seeing as how it deals with super heroes and the show Heroes is considered sci-fi and deals with the same subject matter, albeit, in a completely different manner. Still, I wouldn't call The Increbibles great sci-fi or anything. Best Pixar film other than Toy Story though.
May. 30th, 2007 11:12 pm (UTC)
No, Star Wars isn't the Greatest of All Time--as far as true cinematic quality goes, it's not so very high. But it can boast of one, and I think a vital, advantage over 2001: A SPACE ODDESSY--Star Wars is fun. It's entertaining, it's rollicking, there's explosions and lightsabers and special effects that were truly impressive at the time. 2001? Slow, ponderous, confusing, and excitement-free. I know which one I'd go see.

That said, I also have an extreme distate for significantly older movies--especially black and white movies--modern filmmakers, whatever their other flaws, have for the most part realized how to tell a story that moves along swiftly and doesn't drag its feet bringing entertainment to the audience. (2001; the Good, the Bad, & the Ugly...I'm looking at you two)
May. 30th, 2007 11:19 pm (UTC)
STAR WARS isn't science fiction. It's space fantasy. And on that basis it's the best space fantasy of all time. It's "Lord Of The Rings" in outer space.

FORBIDDEN PLANET, however IS science fiction. And yeah, I also consider it to be the actual, true pilot for STAR TREK.

No love for GATTACA, ya'll?
Jun. 10th, 2007 08:12 am (UTC)
"gattaca" is what i see as happening soon. today. it was awesome. especially the ending. it is one of my favorites.
Gattaca - gencinjay - Jun. 12th, 2007 04:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
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