Best scifi film poll topped by non-scifi flick

by Paul William Tenny

The Scifi Channel website recently ran an email poll asking readers to pick their top 10 favorite science fiction films of all time, from AFI's own top 50 list published at times unknown. It's of little surprise that one of the Star Wars films topped the list, even though isn't not anything remotely close to science fiction unless you broaden the meaning to include pretty much anything that takes place in space. If it's 50 years in the future, and I'm standing on the moon taking a dump, well that's science fiction according to Scifi.

This -- coming from The Science Fiction Channel -- that shows pro-wrestling and B-horror movies on the weekend. This list represents the best of science fiction about as much as pro-wrestling represents real wrestling.
Top 10 lists are subjective by their very nature and so I'm not going to waste time telling you what I think should really top this list, that isn't of any concern here. It's that the list is taken up by films that aren't actually science fiction by any stretch of the imagination that defiles and insults the genre in every imaginable way. I like to say that I don't just like sci-fi in general, I like "smart" sci-fi, but really that's a geeks way of saying that what we like is actually science fiction, while what everybody else likes is really just dystopian space opera.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with DSO, if done well it's as good as any other drama regardless of what the setting is, or the devices used to advance the plot, but that's the vast majority of what we've got right now. It's very much what is sitting at the top of the Scifi Channel list: Star Wars: Episode IV. Nothing wrong with that film per se, other than it's not sci-fi. Ask yourself, what facet of Star Wars examines the effect of science on society and culture? Does being able to travel between and living on different planets make us different than who we are today? Has it changed the course of humanity? Is the force about biological evolution, or is it a less hokey version of magic and fantasy?

Look as closely as you'd like, you won't find George Lucas asking those questions in any of those six films -- that's not what Star Wars is about. Couldn't be further from it, really. You can draw analogies to political turmoil, oppression, growing up and taking on large responsibilities, exploring destiny or the lack thereof.

The stuff of sci-fi, Star Wars is not.

Equally as absurd is the idea that third place Alien belongs on this list. Though it certainly reigns supreme in the quality department, at its core, this is a horror film plain and simple. Imagine that what you're seeing takes place entirely underground instead of on a space ship, today instead of however many hundred years into the future, and all you've got left is an alien killing people. Is that sufficient to slot this movie into a genre that grew from the intellectual exploration of the impact of science on our existence? Is discovering an alien any different than discovering a lifeform here on this planet that we didn't know previously existed?

At some point you've got to wonder how warped the genre has become and whether or not it has any meaning now. Practically anything that takes place in space and in the future is forced into that very convenient label that allows us to dismiss it as useless beyond fantasy. Everybody knows that sci-fi doesn't have broad appeal, can't ever be number one in the big picture, and sure as hell is boring. Right?

Perhaps that's why so many good quality TV shows and films that don't belong, are nonetheless pigeoned holed for no good reason other than to make the true sci-fi fans feel like they've got something to watch, when the studio system isn't really interested in producing real sci-fi content at all.

The most successful sci-fi film to come along in quite some time is The Matrix, coming in a very respectable fourth, though tops the list when you start filtering out movies that aren't really sci-fi to begin with. And yet, that idea isn't terribly original either. James Cameron's The Terminator (and undoubtedly other countless books and short stories that I'm unaware of) were first to consider what would happen if and when man succeeds in creating artificial intelligence. Invariably we end up projecting our own flaws on our monsters and bad guys in fiction, meaning the inevitable result of our creations is the violent death and destruction of ourselves and everything around us.

In so many ways, science fiction still has to tell stories that interest people, and if you're talking about drama as opposed to comedy or horror (although this applies to horror just the same) it means putting people -- not things -- in bad situations and watching what happens with sinful glee. Will he turn right and be snapped in half by the human-sized mousetrap, or will he turn left, shredded and dismembered by the alien/robot?

There are some things you've just got to do in order to tell an interesting story, but putting people in space in the future just isn't one of them -- not enough to make sci-fi good, not enough to make plain jane drama good. In the end, it's just a prop. A space ship, a ford explorer, a phase or a sword -- they all still do get you where you need to go, so you can kill the thing you need to kill.

That's our entertainment complex in a nutshell.

Jurassic Park certainly fits the bill even though the science fiction aspect is basically what gets the story rolling, and from the second act on in it's pretty much just a bunch of people running for their lives, with an occasionally light-hearted moment of introspection about how nature is still vastly more powerful than we are. But at least it has something.

There are plenty of other inappropriate films on AFI's list, too many to mention, but if people today really consider a lot of this stuff real science fiction, then consider myself resigned from this genre. Drama, action/adventure, and horror can cover virtually every film on both lists without breaking a sweat, and I find it quite telling that a number of the best candidates that did make the final cut -- many of them are based on books. Blade Runner and Jurassic Park come to mind. Another would be I, Robot, which didn't make the list even though it should easily make the top 5 by a simple process of elimination.

One thing I feel certain about is that true science fiction is as rare today as it has been since its inception. These feel-good lists are as ignorant as they are pompous. I would sign out by saying something as insulting to the list as I feel insulted by this list, only, amusingly, there's a catch.

Starship Troopers is a corny, bloody disgusting, typical Verhoven film if there ever was one -- one I love because it's just so obviously outrageous while trying to be so incredibly serious and introspective and failing at every corner. It's a spectacularly entertaining train wreck, one that by "popular definition" ought to be near the very top of this bogus list -- yet it's based on an exceptional book by Robert Heinlein that far exceeds is feature film successor. You won't find very many bad adaptations as this was, while still having the B-movie appeal. The list is that bad, though, that the movie should be right there near the top, even though the book is actually a decent example of what really should be near the top, if this list were true to its name.

How odd.
in Feature, Film, Television


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You're a retard...your opinion is stupid. PS I`ll never read your article again, nor will I check to see if you replied to this, so just keep your stupid opinion to yourself. Thanks.
How pedantic. The temerity!

When the entire world considers Star Wars to be not only sci-fi, but a shining example of sci-fi, how dare you try and redefine it simply for the sake of having content. I appreciate the effort, but I'm not convinced.

Thumbs down.

I registered for the purpose of this comment, that's how strongly I disagree with you, Mr. Tenny.

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