The combination of science fiction and comedy can often be an uneasy blend. The Men in Black franchise had some success with it initially and has struggled through three sequels now to replicate the results. This week’s Roundtable looks at some other movies, TV shows, and even a video game that got the formula right.
One of the best films to blend science fiction with comedy is Galaxy Quest. A send-up of both classic Star Trek and its fans, the movie absolutely nails every element of both halves of fandom: the cocky pilot, the meticulous followers, the inscrutable plots, etc. Best of all, Galaxy Quest wraps all of these into a premise that wonders what would happen if all of those intergalactic happenings were actually real. Every single player in the film is a vision of perfect casting, and they’re all given a lot to do. Even the mildly mute Thermian shipmate played by Missi Pyle has some honest to goodness character development. It’s funny and it’s in space. What’s not to like?
M. Enois Duarte
Since childhood, Alex Cox’s Repo Man has been a personal favorite. Featuring a pair of dead aliens in the trunk of a car, the plot’s science-fiction atmosphere is up front and in the open, but its comedic elements are arguably more subtle, artful and nihilistically dark. The pairing of Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton provides much of the film’s humor. Stanton largely steals the show as the hardened and cynically embittered repo man mentoring Estevez’s unruly teen punk. What makes it such a beloved cult classic is the clever and perceptive jabs at modernity. The story tackles various social themes, littered with seemingly random, quasi-philosophical observations that are surprisingly incisive insights at life’s purposeless existence, while also laughing at the absurdity of it all.
There are so very few dark sci-fi comedies out there. I would rank Cox’ directorial debut at the very top.
It might not have the best reputation among film connoisseurs, but I really liked Evolution when it came out back in 2001. Director Ivan Reitman’s sci-fi comedy about a strange alien organism that balloons into a slimy behemoth and terrorizes a sleepy desert community in Arizona includes nods to Alien and Ghostbusters, and strikes just the right balance between the two. With surprising aplomb, it juggles thrills, special effects, a snappy script, some light-hearted romance, and plenty of goofy situations. David Duchovny, Orlando Jones, Julianne Moore, and Seann William Scott enjoy surprisingly good chemistry, and Dan Aykroyd contributes a stellar cameo as well. (Ted Levine, Ty Burrell, and Sarah Silverman are in it, too.)
Some of the lines are laugh-out-loud funny, especially those delivered by Jones. When the organism enters his body, Jones understandably freaks out, becoming certifiably apoplectic when a doctor discusses options for eradicating the invader, one of which involves using forceps via his rectum to grab the little bugger. When the doctor says there’s no time for lubricant, Jones bellows, “There’s ALWAYS time for lubricant!!!” There’s also discussion about amputating his leg, which Jones flatly rejects… until the doctor sees the organism heading up his thigh toward his testicles. “Take the leg!!! Take the leg!!!” Jones shrieks.
A shower of glop and goo – care of Head & Shoulders shampoo – constitutes the explosive climax, but all the tomfoolery before it (Duchovny, Jones, and Scott singing along with “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” in their Jeep after killing a dragon is another fun moment) keeps this flick amiably chugging along. It may not be art, but it’s a rollicking good time.
Spaceballs may not hold up as a Mel Brooks unequivocal classic like Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein, but seeing it at the right age – young enough to laugh at the silly jokes and open to having my beloved Star Wars poked fun at – was transformative for me. I saw it before Alien, and to this day I equate Ridley Scott’s iconic chestburster scene with the sounds of “Hello, My Baby!” dancing through my head.
When I think of some of the funnier sci-fi favorites of mine, I’m reminded how tough a genre mesh it is. Happily, one movie I grew up watching on VHS that fits the mash-up perfectly is Innerspace. Assuming that the combination of Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, and Martin Short sounds at least watchable, the movie makes for a fun ride. It’s better plotted and less serious than Twins or the spiritual sequel Junior, and the sci-fi tech of miniaturization leads to some fun spaceship/submarine type action.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
When I think of point-and-click adventure games, the very first title that springs to mind is Day of the Tentacle, LucasArts’ 1993 sequel to Maniac Mansion.
As a longtime fanatic of the original game, I knew the general idea of what I was getting into: trawl my mouse slowly across the screen, hunting for anything I can interact with. If I’m stuck on a puzzle, try every conceivable combination of every action and every item in my inventory.
Although the core mechanics weren’t terribly different, Day of the Tentacle could hardly be mistaken for more of the same. The stylized animation came as close to a Saturday morning cartoon as I could hope to see in a computer game circa 1993. If you were lucky enough to have a CD-ROM drive, there was full voice acting. That included a starring turn by WKRP‘s Les Nessman himself, Richard Sanders, which was astonishing to me in those days.
And, most relevant to this Roundtable, the game’s blend of science fiction and comedy wasn’t just set dressing; it was an integral part of the gameplay. Several very distinct characters, from a dweeby science nerd to a heavy metal roadie to a skittish basket case, were separated centuries apart in time. To save mankind from the machinations of a hyperintelligent mutant tentacle, they only meant to take the time-traveling Port-a-Potty back a single day in the past, but it’d be an awfully short game if everything went according to plan.
Their quest involves shuffling objects to and from this nation’s founding to the present day all the way to a far-flung tentaculocratic future. The game’s devious sense of humor includes painting a mummy red (you see, the IRS tied up another character in literal red tape, and you’ve gotta pull a switcheroo) and tricking Martha Washington into sewing a tentacle anatomy chart as a flag for the not-yet-official United States (for a disguise that’ll come in handy 400 years later!).
As obscure as so many of its puzzles are, even after my umpteeth playthrough, I still adore Day of the Tentacle. I’ve wound up buying it three times over the years, and a remastered version is on the Apple app store, every PC storefront, and PSN. And hey, if you’re feeling nostalgic, you can even play through the entire thing in all its original 4×3 pixelated glory.
Douglas Adams’ hoopy science fiction comedy masterpiece The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has evolved through many forms, including a stage play, record albums, a very early computer game, a wonderful five-part trilogy of novels, a bath towel, an extraordinarily low-budget television production, and a much bigger-budget feature film. They’re all brilliant. (Well, the towel is fairly clever, at least.)
Despite being made for less money than the average episode of Doctor Who from the same period (which is to say that it’s C-H-E-A-P), the 1981 TV miniseries remains the definitive live-action incarnation of the story. Cramming almost all of the events from the first two novels into six half-hour episodes, the show perfectly captures Adams’ droll wit, his cluttered humor, his throwaway jokes that continually loop back around one another, and all of his seemingly random philosophical digressions, stray tangents, and messy loose ends. It’s delightful from beginning to end.
In contrast, the 2005 movie has much better production values (its depiction of the Vogon alien race, brought to life by the Henson Creature Workshop, is absolutely perfect) and an ideal bit of casting with Martin Freeman as the befuddled hero, Arthur Dent. However, it also condenses the story and many of Adams’ best dialogue exchanges to their barest coherency. The film feels like it was made primarily for existing fans, who would recognize most of the jokes in advance and fill in the missing bits from their knowledge of the material. Although that’s disappointing, the picture is still very witty and visually inventive, and adds several clever new twists of its own. The movie may not be perfect, but it’s underrated and is a worthy illustration of Adams’ crazy universe.
What are your favorite sci-fi comedies? Tell us in the Comments.
Are you kidding? ARMAGEDDON!
Or THE FIFTH ELEMENT.
‘Ricky & Morty’ is pretty outstanding. Can’t wait for Season 4.
Real Genius, Weird Science. Two of my top favorite 80’s comedies. Gentlemen Broncos, although it’s more about sci-fi nerds than a science fiction movie. The book excerpts that come to life are hilarious and poke fun at the pulpy sci-fi books and help me justify it as a sci-fi comedy.
Back to the Future is the best Sci-Fi comedy.
Gentlemen Broncos is definitely a worthy runner-up but The Ice Pirates is the clear winner!
A dashing Robert Urich heads a cast including Angelica Huston, Ron Perlman and the legendary John Matuszak in his crew. Bruce Vilanch makes a strange (even for him) cameo
FX are delightfully cheap, as are the laughs. I love the (not very PC) pimp robot and the classic space herpes joke. The world building is surprisingly effective and the environmental themes currently relevant.
I’m going to go with a TV series: The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. Bruce Campbell was great in the lead role and had a wonderful cast of characters in the Sci-Fi/Western combo. A shame that like so many Fox shows, it only survived one season.
My favo(u)rite incarnation of The Hitchhikerʼs Guide to the Galaxy is the original BBC radio program(me), and I agree with Shannon and Julian that Back to the Future is the best science‐fiction comedy, but Iʼll highlight a different favorite of mine.
(No, Julian hasnʼt posted yet—but you know how heʼll respond.)
The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is an indie black‐and‐white 2001 parody of indie black‐and‐white 1950s sci‐fi B flicks, replete with lousy production values, wooden acting, and inane dialogue (“It could mean actual advances in the field of science”). Lovingly made, this story of scientists, a meteorite, a living superpowered skeleton, aliens from outer space, a murderous mutant, and a mysterious woman made from four different forest animals pays homage to its inspirations by generally being more compelling than they are. Some follow‐up productions, including a direct sequel, spread the joke too thin, but Cadavra is a classic.
Hahaha. Thanks! I’m flattered! Actually, I wanted to post the following in this roundtable: ‘I don’t really consider ‘Back to the Future’ to be a comedy.’ In my official BTTF review, I wrote this: ‘It’s quite hard (be it impossible) to define Back to the Future. There’s not enough techno babble to be called science fiction; there are brilliant chuckle-worthy moments, but it’s not a comedy; there’s action aplenty, but it’s not an action movie. The script is layered, effective, touching, funny, sharp, quotable, still relevant and never ever a one trick pony.’
I should have known better than to put words in someone elseʼs mouth! 🙂
No, no, no, I’m still immensely flattered to be quoted ahead of time. Ha, “time”, “Back to the Future”, I’ll be here till Thursday, try the veal.
I mean it has to be Ghostbusters, right? Great comedies are often quotable, and this is a script composed entirely of quotable lines. And even though the premise is of a supernatural nature, it’s scientists solving problems with science. The brilliance of Ghostbusters cannot be overstated.
Also Julian, BTTF is a comedy. It is absolutely all those things you said but it is a comedy, and it is a sci-fi one at that. The fact that it delivers more than laughs and not enough techno babble doesn’t mean it’s not a sci-fi comedy.
Oh. Okay then. I’ll concede 🙂
This is a historic moment for the internet!
Haha, hey, I’m not that notoriously difficult. Timcharger is harder to please.
Oh, wait—I was right after all!
“The World’s End” has some incredibly hilarious moments.
I loved Firefly and it had quite a few funny moments. Enough that I’d consider it and the Serenity film sci-fi comedies. I mean, even the last line in the film is a joke.
Idiocracy. A kind of riff on HG Well’s When the Sleeper Wakes. A cheap, throw away satire on our possible future, but it is startling how prescient it is. Prescient first entered my vocabulary back in the early 70’s when I first read DUNE, ditto for the word Jihad, it means being able to see events before they happen. This was an extremely prescient movie, just turn on your TV.
I prefer my dystopian science fiction not to be a documentary… ☹