"Keep watching the skies"

By David Sturm, Copyright © 1996


Science fiction can go off in many directions and cross- pollinate with almost any other genre, but for our purposes we are considering classic science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, animation, and big monsters.

"King Kong" (1933), directed by Merian C. Cooper, set a standard that is still hardly surpassed for excitement and special effects as a giant ape is captured and brought to New York City, where it escapes. Remember, it was not the planes that killed the beast.

"Things to Come" (1936), directed by William Cameron Menzies, is the great film testament to the vision of H.G. Welles, who even wrote the screenplay. The grand scale of this depiction of a possible future is so engrossing you can overlook the quaintness and posturing.

"The Thing (From Another World)" (1951), with Howard Hawks at the helm, is the prototype for many monster movies to come, including crashing alien spaceship, escalating terror, confined quarters, military teamwork, misguided scientist, jerry-rigged monster trap and more.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), directed by Robert Wise, is a sober view of what might happen if an alien came to earth to warn us of the perils of nuclear weapons. Naturally, he makes enemies, but his big robot is an effective enforcer.

"War of the Worlds" (1953), directed by Byron Haskin and produced by George Pal, brings Welles' novel about a Martian invasion to the screen with panache. Big tripod war machines are outstandingly realized.

"This Island Earth" (1954), directed by Joseph Newman, has some earth scientists kidnapped and taken to another planet where their expertise is needed to turn the tide in a space war. Gadgets, saucers, death rays, bug-eyed monsters--this movie's got 'em all.

"Them!" (1954), directed by Gordon Douglas, is the all time classic kill-it-before-it-multiplies monster movie in which ants mutate into the size of buses. This is one of the few with cast, special effects, and budget to pull it off.

"Godzilla, King of the Monsters" (1956), directed by Terry Morse and Inoshiro Honda, introduced us to the skyscraper-sized, fire-breathing beast that emerges from the ocean floor to trample Tokyo. The monster, as often noted, is an obvious metaphor for nuclear weapons.

"Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956), directed by Don Siegel, a nail-biter about space pods that are transforming the neighbors into blank-eyed ultra-conformists, was interpreted by many as a comment on Cold War paranoia. Slapped-on "We're saved!" ending is a sour note.

"Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers" (1956) is just what the title says. Army comes up with big ray guns to fend off invasion by saucer fleet. Ray Harryhausen's crashing saucer special effects are spectacular.

Finally in 1956, "Forbidden Planet," directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox, is Hollywood's lavish paean to classic science fiction with rockets, men in ribbed jump suits, a talking robot, beautiful girl, an exotic planet, and the famous "id monster." You could eat the Technicolor with a spoon.

"The Incredible Shrinking Man" (1957), directed by Jack Arnold, is a special effects and prop department extravaganza as a man, exposed to radiation cloud, begins to shrink inch by inch until he finds himself in mortal danger from cat, spider, etc. Ending is "oh wow" cosmic.

Roger Corman belongs here somewhere and what better to include than his "Not of This Earth" (1957), an effective little chiller about an alien visitor gathering human blood with help from an umbrella-like flying creature. Maximum creepiness for minimum budget.

"Queen of Outer Space" (1958), directed by Edward Bernds, has wiseguy astronauts crash-landing on Venus, where they find a society of beautiful women in mini-skirts ruled by tyrannical queen. The boys get acquainted, then help Zsa Zsa Gabor get some ray guns and lead a revolt. Any list of classic science fiction that cannot make room for this one is too pretentious.

"Plan 9 from Outer Space" (1959), the most notoriously awful of Ed Wood's films, has been ignored, hooted at, deconstructed, and lionized. You be the judge. A one-of-a-kind movie from a bottom-of-the-barrel director.

"Village of the Damned" (1960), directed by Wolf Rilla, has townsfolk on edge when a group of children, all born at the same time, appear to have special powers, including telepathic communication. Neat twist on the alien-pod people plot.

"Robinson Crusoe on Mars" (1964), directed by Byron Haskin, is a straightforward survival tale of marooned astronaut who survives through luck, ingenuity, and comradeship with an alien he meets. It's an impressively earnest little film.

"Fantastic Voyage" (1966), directed by Richard Fleischer, is a high concept special effects thriller about a submarine and crew that are shrunk down to microscopic size and injected into a comatose scientist to perform emergency surgery inside a blood vessel. The crew is menaced by microbes, a pounding heart valve, and a traitor in their midst.

"Fahrenheit 451" (1967) is director Francois Truffaut's interpretation of the Ray Bradbury cautionary tale of a future where books are banned and reading is a crime. Truffaut deliberately gives this world a flat, artificial look.

"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), directed by Stanley Kubrick, is the single awe-inspiring masterpiece in this genre. A grand entertainment as well as a thought-provoking movie, it captures the wonder of space travel like no other film.

"Planet of the Apes" (1969), directed by Franklin Schaffner, wowed audiences with story of astronauts marooned on planet where apes rule and humans are treated like cattle. It's Charlton Heston's finest moment. Final scene is still a hair-raiser.

"Dark Star" (1974) by director John Carpenter is proof that engaging science fiction does not need a huge special effects budget. In this droll story, a space ship run by bored hippies travels around blowing up planets to keep space lanes open. Then, the bombs, which can think, get ideas of their own.

"A Boy and His Dog" (1975), directed by L.Q. Jones, is a sardonic Harlan Ellison story about a teenage boy, Don Johnson, who survives in a grim post-apolalyptic future because he can communicate telepathically with his dog, who is smarter than he is. Complications arise when the lad is enticed into entering a squeaky clean but fascistic underground city. The ending proves that even in a man's world, girls come in handy sometimes. This is not a kiddie movie.

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), written and directed by Steven Spielberg, tries hard to portray the childlike wonder humans may feel some day if and when we are visited by friendly aliens. It succeeds handsomely.

"Star Wars" (1977) and its two sequels, "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) and "Return of the Jedi" (1983), re-established the space adventure movie as a successful movie genre, set a benchmark for special effects, won a pot of awards, turned Harrison Ford into a star, established George Lucas as a pre-eminent film visionary, and made a jillion dollars.

"Alien" (1979, director Ridley Scott) and its two sequels, "Aliens" (1986, director James Cameron) and "Alien 3" (1992), are the dark, adult flip side to the sunny, kid-friendly "Star Wars" trilogy. No movies have ever exploited the fear of insectile otherness quite so ruthlessly. Sigourney Weaver, as Ellen Ripley, is for my money the greatest space hero ever.

"Heavy Metal" (1981), containing all-animated episodes inspired by the magazine of the same title, panders shamelessly to adolescent tastes in music, superheros, and babes. But some episodes are clever and irreverent. A mixed bag.

"Q" (1982), directed by Larry Cohen, is a tongue-in-cheek but nonetheless effective romp about a giant Aztec dragon-bird that lives in the Chrysler building in Manhattan and preys on rooftop sunbathers. Michael Moriarty, flamboyantly method acting, plays the cheap hood who discovers the monster's lair and tries to sell the information to the cops.

"E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982), another warm fuzzy from Spielberg, has a 10-year-old boy befriending and trying to harbor a cute little marooned alien. It manipulates shamelessly, but you gotta give in to it.

"Blade Runner" (1982), a masterpiece of atmospherics and set design, is an anti-utopian tale of a detective, Harrison Ford, who specializes in tracking down and destroying rogue androids. Director Ridley Scott recut this years later.

"The Terminator" (1984) is science fiction as high-firepower action spectacular. Director James Cameron crafted this Arnold Schwarzenegger blitzkrieg about a cyborg wreaking havoc to protect a little boy from his enemies.

"Back to the Future" (1985), directed by Robert Zemeckis, wrests the time-travel movie away from its stodgy Victorian conventions and plants it firmly in Suburbia USA. Michael J. Fox is the 1980s skateboarder transported back to the 1950s, where he tangles amusingly with his own parents when they were teenagers.

"Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (1986) is the only Star Trek movie here because it's the only one with a non-cliched story line and a sense of humor about itself. This is the one where the crew must save the whales so the whales can save us.

"Akira" (1988), an all-animated film, is a grotesque and violent portrayal of motorcycle-riding Japanese punks of the future. They acquire telekinetic powers to wreak mass destruction and that's just what they do. The violence is spectacular. Not for kiddies.

"Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988), directed by Robert Zemeckis, is in the fantastic realm in depiction of a modern Hollywood where cartoon characters exist side by side with real people. Live action and animation are matched seamlessly.

"Tremors" (1990) successfully updates the conventions of 1950s monster movies with grace and wit. The script takes care to provide the menace, in this case giant underground worms, with powers and weaknesses that are internally logical.

"The Handmaid's Tale" (1990), directed by Volker Schlondorff from Margaret Atwood's bleak satire of patriarchal imperatives, is a vision of a dystopian future akin to "Fahrenheit 451" and "1984." Most women of the future are sterile and those who can bear children are simultaneously prized and resented. To break out of this world, one enters a dangerous underground movement.

"Jurassic Park" (1993) is the modern benchmark for dinosaurs-running-amok excitement. The special effects are the star and they do indeed dazzle. Spielberg does it again.


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