One Drop-dead Cool Idea
A recent poll by SFX magazine named Joss Whedon's Serenity the Best Sci-Fi movie of all time. Really? Serenity? I mean...it was good. In fact, when you consider that he was constrained to dealing with many loose ends from his unloved series Firefly, it was better than good but not the best ever.
So what really makes for good sci-fi, and how do we rank movies if we had a metric to use? Well, as a frog whose written a bit of sci-fi in his time, I contend that great science fiction is based on the notion of the 'one drop-dead cool idea,' DDCI, if you will. It's the hook that nobody has thought of--the secret sauce. You follow it faithfully to it's logical conclusion, and you don't get distracted by less cool ideas and meaningless subplots. And with that in mind, I'm willing to identify the greatest science fiction movie of all time: The Matrix.
"Why?" you ask. Because the simple notion of humans as batteries was f*cking drop-dead-cool! And every element of the movie was placed in the service of exploring that one theme. The sequels? Garbage! Messy, multi-plot fiascoes with no good ideas, but now that we have our metric, how do other popular sci-fi films stack up...
2001, A Space Odyssey - Revolutionary special effects, but no DDCI. So in the end not as good as everyone gives it credit for.
2010 - The Year We Make Contact - In contrast, this film had a great DDCI, the monoliths as "sun-igniters," life-givers, harbingers of evolution. 2010 deserves better than it got from critics.
Alien - Runner-up to The Matrix for 'Greatest Sci-Fi Film of All Time' prize.
Bladerunner - Another excellent film with a great DDCI, but the credit really goes to Phillip K. Dick.
The Terminator - Great DDCI film. To bad it was done on such a low budget. Though that is part of it's charm.
The Star Trek Films - Mostly drek with the exception of one, Star Trek - First Contact--the film that used the only DDCI the whole series ever came up with, the Borg.
The Star Wars Films - Again mostly drek, but the original should get a buy, because the idea of making space opera on a grand scale is almost a DDCI by itself.
Men in Black - Great DDCI, funny film, great characters, no distractions, exactly what makes for good sci-fi.
HT to Kathy over at If I Ran The Zoo whose post got me thinking along these lines.
But applying the DDCI standard, I would say Forbidden Planet has it. So does Five Million Years to Earth, which hardly anybody ever saw.
Maybe I got too old by the time SciFi got past its B-Movie period. Did like ET though, for all the wrong reasons.
He's raised the bar higher for scfi writers/producers than anybody in a long time:!)
Dave... Personally I'm not a Heinlein fan. Too many plots going on, and the man had a tendancy to get bored with his own stories way before he finished with them. But Asimov? Definitely, many good DDCI's there.
J. Marquis... Contact! What an excellent choice. DDCI in spades! Starship Troopers too...well at least the book. The movie stunk.
Bladerunner, sure, but The Matrix? Yuck.
And no love for The Terminator, either. Sorry Ahnuld.
A couple of Mr. MArquis' favorites are also faves of mine, those being 12 Monkeys and Contact.
I keep hoping there will be more adaptations of Philip K. Dick's books. So far we have had Blade Runner (from "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"), Paycheck (which I still haven't seen), A Scanner Darkly, and Minority Report... and I'm not sure what else. But as I get further into his works (I've read about 15 of his books now) I have to think that in every one I have read so far there is definitely a DDCI. I hope more movies get made from his books.
For funny sci-fi without any major DDCI, I have to go with Galaxy Quest and The Fifth Element. I could watch the Fifth Element scene in which Bruce Willis rescues Chris Tucker from the floor below by using a machine gun to perforate a section of floor Tucker is lying on. Tucker's delayed scream is, to me, worth watching the whole movie for.
No love for Total Recall, eh?
DBK... None whatsoever. ;-) Total Recall, Running Man? Sorry. When it comes to Arnie flicks, it's only The Terminator. The first Predator flick has a pretty cool theme, but I'm not sure it's "drop-dead" cool.
Snave... Fifth Element! Great film, but bad sci-fi. The opposite of The Fifth Element would have to be The Core which is a mediocre film but pretty good sci-fi. The central idea--the earth's core stops rotating and scientists build an 'uber tunneling ship' to head in to fix the problem--though ludicrous is followed up pretty well. Good special effects, a bit of humor, some tear-jerking scenes, and a decent straitforward plot.
Graeme... Ah, Stanislaw Lem was a giant of a writer. Though, he always claimed that he never wrote science fiction. I didn't like the Soderbergh adaptation, but the book is excellent.
Tom H, I saw "Five Million Years to Earth" & agree wholeheartedly, esp considering when it was written.
I liked Planet of the Apes, just for the moment when the Statue of Liberty's crown appears. Is that a DDCI effect?
I watch "A Clockwork Orange" whenever possible, that one is toss-up for me whether the book is better than the film. I watch 2001 just for the ape scenes, right up to where the leg bone gets tossed up in the air & comes down as a space ship. 2010 was a good read (got sucked in by the rice granules on Jupiter, it sounded so familiar), but I didn't enjoy the movie.
Alien, Terminator & MiB are all good, but I never got into Matrix. I just can't get past the Keanu acting style, sorry. ~~ D.K.
2010 had some significant differences from the book, but both were good in my opinion.
Sumo... Can't agree on the M. Knight Shamalayan movies. I have yet to stay awake through one, but 5th Element is a hoot. The Ruby Rhod sequences are a "unbelieeeevaaaable!"
The Matrix is a good choice, the only reason I hesitate at all is because the sequels were so bad.
I would mention Alphaville and Metropolis but those seem like they need to be in a different category.
It's no The Matrix or anything, but there are parts of Superman II that I just love. Kneel before Zod!
That may not be what the poll was about, but I can see how it's hard for fans to separate the one movie (which only needed better lighting, IMO) from their knowledge of the entire story.
And, IMNSHO, the totality of the Firefly universe, characters, development and storyline kicks other Sci-Fi universe's asses.
It is a strange, long film, and it has haunted me for years. It takes place in a post apocolyptic Moscow, where people pay a man (The Stalker) to take them into "The Zone." Surrounded by barbed wire, and soldiers, inside the Zone is a room where one's secret dreams come true.
It is an incredible film.
Julie... Firefly was great, but no DDCI about that universe, nothing to make it truly unique. Ursula K. LeGuin explored the "rough and tumble" universe long before Whedon ever got to it.
I guess I thought Aliens could ride on the coattails of Alien and didn't need a DDCI.
Nvisiblewmn... Nope, no points for the sequel. It has to stand on its own. 2001, OK. 2010, better. The Matrix, outstanding. Matrix Relo-revo--whatever, sucked for air. MiB, great. MiB II, cr*p! ;-)
It looks to me like Total Recall was a rip-off of Videodrome, which, though somewhat dated, is a much better film.
A) Debby Harry
B) Arnie Swartznegger
If you voted B, check yourself in to your friendly neighborhood mental hospital and kindly request gratuitous shock therapy immediately.
ProgressiveT... I've never seen Videodrome. Gonna have to add that to the Netflix list. Thanks.
Michael... I think that one of the problems with Starship Troopers is that they got rid of the subtext condemning the military. The book has a very different tone.
Julie... What is science fiction if not an imagining of something new--something that doesn't yet exist? Serenity/Firefly have great character development and decent enough production values but in terms of ideas, nothing new under the sun.
I agree with you about Starship Troopers where you had caricatures rather than characters.