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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 11:21 pm (UTC)
I feel somewhat obligated to stick up here for Doctor Who, which may not have been a movie until 1996 but damn well ought to get considered if we're to discuss sci-fi greats.

The classification of Star Wars as the "best science fiction film of all time" depends pretty heavily on what you mean by "best." Was it the most creative or innovative? Definitely not. It cribbed so heavily from westerns, samurai movies, and every previous sci-fi epic. Was it the best written? No. Was it the best acted? No. Was it the best directed? No.

On the other hand, was it entertaining? Yes. Did it do a good job creating its alternate universe? Yes, and it continues to flesh that universe out in almost mind-numbing detail. And did it introduce many people to science fiction who otherwise would not have looked its way? Yes. In that respect it's something like what The Matrix has done for the cyberpunk genre in terms of legitimizing it in the eyes of the mainstream audience, which may not seem like much until you consider that it also convinces major purveyors of media that people will buy that sort of thing.

I'll throw in a couple I haven't yet seen mentioned: for my money, one of the best in terms of sheer entertainment has to be Galaxy Quest. Also there's Dark City, Independence Day (wonderful popcorn movie), Starship Troopers, and primer.

Personally I feel there's going to be a real renaissance in science fiction movies soon. Now that special effects and CGI are getting cheaper and cheaper, low-budget scifi flicks are constrained less and less by technology. I predict we'll see writers and directors taking risks in B-movies that the studios don't expect to do more than pay for their keep, and with improved graphics they don't have to limit their stories to what can be portrayed cheaply on screen.
(Deleted comment)
May. 31st, 2007 05:41 am (UTC)
I'm with you man. Blade Runner.

Well, and I was with you at Clarion West, for that matter.

Hey, Jeff.
May. 30th, 2007 11:28 pm (UTC)
I'm surprised no one has mentioned Metropolis yet. Definitely pioneered the sci-fi genre in film.

Other than that, I know this is a topic about sci-fi films but I thought I'd mention some sci-fi television, the new Battlestar Galactica in particular. It does such a wonderful job of taking basic sci-fi premises and ideas and translating them into a show that is all together human. It's such a great commentary on the human race as a whole while still being a wonderful sci-fi show. It truly a testament to how sci-fi doesn't have to be a niche thing but can appeal to the masses.

Also, I don't know if this is the place to mention anime, but many anime series are great sci-fi series. There's some great storytelling to be had in them.
May. 30th, 2007 11:32 pm (UTC)
It truly a testament to how sci-fi doesn't have to be a niche thing but can appeal to the masses.

I'm a BSG fan too, but... this might have been more convincing before the ratings drop of season three.
(no subject) - master_fisto - May. 30th, 2007 11:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - terraprime - May. 31st, 2007 06:41 am (UTC) - Expand
May. 30th, 2007 11:57 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen Forbidden Planet, but I'd say Blade Runner is the best all time sci-fi movie.
May. 31st, 2007 12:08 am (UTC)
I agree. I don't like Star Wars at all.
May. 31st, 2007 12:10 am (UTC)
Wow... I go through your list, and I think, no, that one was bad... I hated that one... that one suck... That's sort of it, anyway.
I liked Star Wars, but it wasn't any sort of best of anything. I guess 2001 was okay, once you cut out the incomprehensible bits. Alien and Aliens were okay, for horror movies, I guess. Hate horror movies so much.
Sorry. Give me a moment to adjust my invective gland. I don't know why I'm talking with so much scorn about something I love. Maybe I'm upset that Hollywood has so rarely come through for me.
I will add Forbidden Planet to my list of movies to see, but I can tell you now that I probably won't like it. Simply because I don't any movies made before, say, 1970. I can understand why older people appreciate older movies, they grew up with them and that's what they expect from movies. But I'm only about to hit 20. Blade Runner was soo sloow and booring. The original Metropolis, a film my father loves, is soo sloow and booring. Because the fact that they are slow compared to modern films make them worse? No. It just makes me hate them. There is a profound difference between being bad and me thinking they are bad. But the upshot is that if I think something is bad, I obviously can't think it's the greatest of all time, now can I?
I thought for awhile, and at first came to the conclusion that I had never seen a truly good sci-fi film. I liked Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith, but they weren't great films. I liked Star Trek: First Contact even more, it might qualify as borderline great.
I liked Titan, A.E., but it is by no means great. I want to see Treasure Planet, but I can tell from the little I know about it that it won't qualify as great.
What are films that I think are truly great? What are my favourite films, leaving out the sci-fi prerequisite? Boondock Saints. Fight Club. V for Vendetta. Maybe the last is borderline scifi. Or even really and truly scifi, but for some reason it doesn't register as such in my mind.
Then I remembered:
The Matrix. The first Matrix, the one that actually lived up to the hype, before the legacy was tarnished by the (still not actively bad, in my opinion, but not revolutionary as the first was) sequels.
And Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The first was fairly good, the third was fairly bad.
But the Matrix and Terminator 2 were both truly great films, were both truly great science fiction films. They made you think, as all great sci-fi should, they both (or at least Matrix) have revolutionary special effects for their time, as all great sci-fi should, they have compelling stories, logical plots (though Matrix perhaps borrows too heavily from the stupid nonsense tradition of anime and Terminator 1's father twist was perhaps better than any twists in T2). Are they supposed to be just action films? Maybe, especially T2. Do they transcend this and become oh so much more? Absolutely.
May. 31st, 2007 12:21 am (UTC)
T2 still has some of the best visuals in any movie even today. It was definitely revolutionary back in the day.
(no subject) - terraprime - May. 31st, 2007 06:56 am (UTC) - Expand
May. 31st, 2007 12:11 am (UTC)
and damn it, Han shoots first! ~ Absolutely!

I've never seen Forbidden Planet, but if it's based on Shakespeare's Tempest, I'm sure I'll like it. Thanks for the recommendation.

Also, I'm looking forward to your online reading. I feel like I've been waiting for news on that book forever, but I only read the rest of the series for the first time last January. :)
May. 31st, 2007 12:19 am (UTC)
No, the Star Wars films have aged badly. In fact Lucas' THX-1138 holds up better than all three of the original.

I was a kid and I loved the Luke/Leia pairing until Lucas & Co went and turned it into some kind deviant desire.

Han does shoot first, they changed him from sociopath to cuddly guy-next-door. What????

May. 31st, 2007 12:24 am (UTC)
Yes. Forbidden Planet is still awesome. :)
May. 31st, 2007 12:39 am (UTC)
not a fan of bladerunner are we?
May. 31st, 2007 12:48 am (UTC)
I can't believe you think Alien 3 was horrid. The theatrical release wasn't stellar, but it was David Fincher at the helm and that means he'd have to have tried to make it bad. Check out the director's cut. PHENOMENAL. A lot more to it, including a plot exploration of the guy who's dragged into the infirmary whimpering about "a dragon". (cue suspenseful music...)
May. 31st, 2007 01:16 am (UTC)
I think that you are mistaken. There was no third "Alien" movie. Just like there was no sequel to Highlander and the Star Trek movies mysteriously all have even numbers in their names.
Jun. 10th, 2007 08:20 am (UTC)
...except for "star trek: nemesis," which was st 10. that movie killed the st movie series and does not exist for me. "long live Data!"
May. 31st, 2007 02:18 am (UTC)
Hooray for Forbidden Planet! And yes, I too think it is sad that the writers of Star Wars aren't nearly up to the standards of some of my other favourite writers. :p
May. 31st, 2007 05:52 am (UTC)
Many of my favorites have been named
including Day the Earth Stood Still and Blade Runner, but an oldie, but the granddaddy of the space oater, you gots to go with Buck Rogers. The serial, not the remake TV series.
May. 31st, 2007 06:11 am (UTC)
Event Horizon is the greatest and scariest sci fi film ever IMHO
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George R.R. Martin
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