Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Pulp Sci-Fi Movies

With ‘John Carter’ opening in theaters this week, today’s Roundtable seems like a good time to talk about our favorite pulp sci-fi movies. What exactly do we mean by “pulp” sci-fi? Read on to find out.

Essentially, we’re looking for so-called “space operas” and sci-fi adventure movies. In years past, these would have been called B-movies, but with budgets soaring as they have, yesterday’s B-movie is today’s prestige production (like ‘John Carter’). Both low- and big-budget features are fair game here.

The instructions I sent to our staff outlined the following points:

  • No serious science fiction films like ‘2001’ or ‘Blade Runner’.
  • The movie should take place primarily either in space or on another planet.
  • The plot should involve aliens (though I’ve allowed one exception below).
  • No movies from the ‘Star Wars’, ‘Star Trek’ or ‘Alien’ franchises. Those are too predictable.

M. Enois Duarte

Oh, man! As a huge, and I mean HUGE, fan of Phillip K. Dick and all his books, a couple of movies immediately come to mind when discussing pulp sci-fi flicks. Aside from the obvious ‘Total Recall’, which is simply awesome in terms of cheesy badness, there are also ‘Screamers’ and ‘Impostor’, both of which deserve more of the Blu-ray treatment than the stupid ‘Paycheck’ or the even stupider ‘Next’ do. But whatever, that’s a whole other topic. Besides, being a fan, these movies might be too easy, as would be a whole bunch of others.

So, I’ll go with a long-time favorite of mine, ‘The Ice Pirates‘. Call it a guilty pleasure if you like, but this terribly-bad sci-fi schlock is a hilarious classic in my book. I’ve watched this Robert Ulrich ‘Star Wars’ knockoff so many times since its release that I sometimes find myself having weird flashbacks to certain scenes or bizarre dreams about the kung-fu robots.

The overall plot and story is pretty silly – something about a battle over water and who controls the supply of it. We’re talking intergalactic battles and, apparently, all the planets in the nearby solar systems are bone-dry! Even better, when our heroic pirates break into some huge warehouse full of ice water, the fighting and killing is over what essentially amounts to enormous ice-cubes. It’s a tongue-in-cheek comedy that blatantly capitalizes on the popularity of ‘Star Wars’, but at least the filmmakers don’t pretend that it’s more than it is and have fun with the silliness.

Tom Landy

I’m a big fan of ‘Pitch Black‘. I think it’s a clever science fiction/horror film that has some great characters, entertaining action sequences and memorable monsters. That ultimately makes it a very rewatchable film, at least in my household. I also think that the Riddick character is perfectly suited for Vin Diesel’s limited acting abilities. He’s great in this, very dark and mysterious. And you really want him to kick the shit out of Cole Hauser and maybe even that annoying antiquities guy just for bonus points. Plus, the movie also has the lovely Radha Mitchell, so you can’t really go wrong there. It’s just too bad that the sequel strayed so far from the first, but hopefully the upcoming third live-action movie will put the franchise back on course.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

There are just some movies that I have to force on anyone unfortunate enough to be my friend, and ‘Starcrash‘ is one of them. It’s not a good movie in the sense of… well, anything, ever, but this shameless, no-budget, Italian rip-off of ‘Star Wars’ is so ridiculous that I can’t help but adore it anyway. Rather than just try to lazily cash in on Lucas’ space opera juggernaut, ‘Starcrash’ aims really, really high. It’s an ambitious movie, and that it tries so hard makes its failures (its howlingly bad visual effects, impossibly stilted dialogue, and ham-fisted acting from a cast that includes Christopher Plummer and David Hasselhoff) all the more endearing. I truly, sincerely love ‘Starcrash’, and I can’t recommend its release on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory highly enough.

Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)

Wow, so many of these sweeping epic sci-fi tales have been done so poorly, e.g. ‘Dune’ (sorry, Josh!), ‘Battlefield Earth’, etc. It’s hard to think of a favorite. A guilty pleasure of mine would be ‘Starship Troopers‘. The Conservative (some might even say “Neofascist”) Cold War era sci-fi novel from Robert A. Heinlein made its way to the big screen courtesy of director Paul Verhoeven (‘RoboCop’). While it has the appearance of being militaristic like the novel upon which it’s based, Verhoeven’s film is richly infused with satire that turns the author’s Right-wing, xenophobic viewpoint on its head. “Would you like to know more?”

Luke Hickman

Call me blasphemous, but I’ve never been a fan of pulpy science fiction movies. I was raised on a healthy blend of ‘Star Trek’ and solid sci-fi, so the space Westerns like ‘Star Wars’ never really did much for me. In college, my roommates watched ‘Firefly’ in a repeating loop, but I couldn’t get into it. I understand that it’s supposed to be a Western set in the future, but give me a break. If technology exists that allows space travel, there’s no way in hell that the people with this technology are living in shanty towns and using outhouses. I’m not on board with that. It’s a lame excuse for having a tiny budget. That said, I was surprised when I actually walked away from ‘Serenity‘ completely pleased. Of all the cheesy space Westerns, it’s the only one that I fully enjoy. Perhaps this comes down to the fact that it feels like it could be set in the ‘Star Trek’ universe. It’s easily my favorite of the geeky fanboy space Westerns.

Aaron Peck

This isn’t even close. If we’re taking out the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, then this choice is easy for me. Don Bluth’s ‘Titan A.E.‘ is one of the most splendid sci-fi movies out there. It also happens to be atop my list of most anticipated Blu-rays. Featuring Don Bluth’s unique and unforgettable animation, coupled with some stellar 3D computer generated effects (yes, they even look good compared to the CG used in animated films today), this movie is one of my favorite cinematic experiences. On top of the lush animation from a giant in the industry, ‘Titan A.E.’ sports an engaging story that starts with the end of Earth and follows along as humans, who’ve become an endangered species, look to reclaim a planet for themselves. I can’t sing enough praise for ‘Titan A.E.’

Josh Zyber

I’m making it a point to not write about ‘Dune’ today. I’ve defended that film enough on this site. (I’ll even forgive Chris his little dig at it above.) I also consider that movie more of a serious science fiction story, even though some viewers may mistakenly consider it cheesy.

Instead, my pick for this category is something much deliberately sillier. Dino de Laurentiis’ 1980 adaptation of the old ‘Flash Gordon‘ comic strip (and matinee serial) is a gloriously goofy swashbuckler with its tongue firmly in cheek. The movie is a riot of gaudy colors, cornball special effects and hammy acting, all played to a rockin’ soundtrack with some of the most ridiculous songs that Queen ever performed.

“Flash – ah ahhhh!
Saviour of the Universe!”

The movie may not have a brain in its sparkly little head, but it sure is fun to watch.

Those are our favorite pulpy sci-fi movies. What are yours?


  1. Interesting category. I also am going to give a nudge to Flash Gordon. I also really like Forbidden Planet. I was thinking Day The Earth Stood Still as well, but not quite sure if that meets the criteria.

    Oh oh oh! I nearly forgot, but Spaceballs would probably fit well into this category!

    • BTW, just remembered that Flash saved everyone-of-us! The soundtrack to Flash Gordon was the first record I ever owned. I was like 3 years old! I have had the soundtrack memorized since I was 4!

      Hey, what about Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journeys. Part of it took place in Hell, and part of it took place in Heaven, and it had aliens and robots in it!

    • EM

      I have trouble thinking of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Forbidden Planet as pulp movies—they’re both a little too serious—but they have some pulp roots, anyway.

  2. Luke Hickman

    I wish everyone could see ‘Starship Troopers’ as the brilliant piece of comedy that it is.

    When I was 18, two of my co-workers got jobs as extras for the high school football scene. They’re actually visible in at the end of it when the crowd rushes the field. Because they were in it, our boss took up out on company time and the work’s dime to see it and “boost morale.” Best day of work ever.

    • “Starship Troopers” is brilliant. Never really considered it a comedy, though. But I just remember how much adrenalin I had after watching it at the theater the first time. Yeah, I think its a great movie, and have owned it on VHS, DVD and now Blu-Ray. But never considered it a comedy.

      “Star Crash” just looks so bad, that I want to see it now! May see if I can get it on demand here in a bit

      • Luke Hickman

        I laugh throughout the whole thing. Perhaps I view it as an unintentional comedy – especially the NPH stuff and the infomercials.

        • Josh Zyber

          The humor in Starship Troopers is completely intentional. Verhoeven tossed the Robert Heinlein novel in the trash and told his screenwriter that he wanted something that would thoroughly ridicule every word in the book.

          • JM

            Paul Verhoeven should reteam with Edward Neumeier to adapt his novel, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’

          • I was completely onboard with a reboot that followed the Heinlein novel, but after seeing how lame G.I. Joe made the suits look, I’ll fine with just the Verhoeven version.

      • Starship Troopers is pure Verhoeven. It’s a completely funny Dark Satire and really shows how patriotism and that type of society could be so over the top rediculous.

        Alot of scifi fans hate on it simply because it didn’t highlight the power armor that is so prevalent in the book. But the fact is nobody want’s to see a movie where most of the cast are inside giant suits of armor. It can be pulled off but would have made the movie even more expensive than it was at the time.

        Hell Verhoeven threw out all of the space battles as it was and redid them with (at the time) state of the art CG and models. I remember really being floored by the effects in that movie and they really hold up even today.If you are a fan of this movie and don’t own the latest blu-ray your missing out the image is amazing.

  3. Flash Gordon is a great one…saw that in the theater when I was a kid and loved it…I still like it a lot.

    Does Total Recall fit this category? If so, that would be my pick.

    • Do you consider Total Recall to be a serious sci-fi film? I do, which is why I didn’t list it, but I love that movie too!

      Then again, you could argue that many of the movies that were listed were ment to be serious, but the end result was something less than the original vision.

  4. JM

    ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ and ‘The Fifth Element’ have sensibilities I like.

    ‘Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow’ was almost as good as I hoped.

    ‘Event Horizon’ had infinite space and infinite terror.

    But the undisputed champion of pulp has to be ‘Heavy Metal.’

  5. HuskerGuy

    My two are already taken. First ones that came to mind were Titan AE and Serenity.

    If Fifth Element counts then throw that one in as well.

  6. Jon D

    How about The Black Hole? It has everything: cheesy effects, misplaced kiddie humor, actors oblivious to how bad the script is, industrial revolution era production design, and an overwrought music score. I love it!

  7. EM

    Requiring both extraterrestrial principal settings and extraterrestrial characters eliminates a lot of perfectly valid sci-fi pulp, including Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Death Race 2000, Zardoz, Outland (or would that be too serious?), H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator, The Thing From Another World and John Carpenter’s remake The Thing, Them!, Tron, and Plan 9 From Outer Space. And here we’re eliminating certain franchises, which for discussion’s sake may not be a bad thing. But looking over my own collection, I don’t know what’s left! Since we haven’t specified feature-length films, I’m going to suggest Méliès’ “Voyage dans la Lune” and leave it at that.

  8. Dimwit

    Some good ones listed. I would throw in Galaxina just because and Outland. Yeah, Outland doesn’t aliens but it does have the alienated.

    Is Moon not pulpy enough?

  9. Barsoom Bob

    I offer up Vadim’s “Barbarell”, one of the progenerators of sexy, pulpy, sci-if cinema fun. Jane Fonda getting undress while floating in zero Gs, almost as good as the underwater nude ballet in Piranha 3D. The rest is space ships and sex and crazy alien worlds and sex and death by orgasm. And, it is coming to Blu ray on July 3rd.

    JM – the master illustrator and designer, Metal Hurliant alumni, Moebius passed away today. Respect to a unique visionary.

    • Barsoom Bob

      That is Barbarella. Damn touch key pad and the iPad spell correct keeps changing my tag to Barroom Bob. Not that it wouldn’t be appropriate too !

    • JM

      “Moebius disturbs and consoles. My admiration for him is total. I consider him a great artist, as great as Picasso and Matisse.” – Federico Fellini

      Jean Giraud’s Filmography:

      The Time Masters
      Masters of the Universe
      The Abyss
      Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland
      The Fifth Element
      Thru the Moebius Strip
      Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune
      Blade Runner
      The Empire Strikes Back

    • EM

      No, but I’d like to. Has it ever been on DVD even? I know it’s been on VHS but I’ve never seen it for rent.

  10. August Lehe

    Half you guys broke half the rules right off the bat. But I can’t clear my mind of Mel Brooks’ appearance on the TODAY SHOW
    years ago, promoting his SPACE BALLS. He thought the words: “Jew!” “Jew!” were perfect
    stand-ins for the sounds of ray guns. Katie Couric, I think, was rather offended but Brooks simply would not give up and he kept repeating that over and over.. Got to love a guy like that! No, I’m not Jewish, but I had friends at Fort Lee High School in N.J. who did the same ad nauseum!