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.
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?”
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.
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.’
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?