Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Authoritative* Ranking of the Science Fiction Movies of the 80s

A little while ago put out a list of the best 80s fantasy movies, which I reworked because the first list was just dumb. But it got me thinking about how there were so many more 80s sci-fi movies, and how a good number of them became famous classics, which isn't really the case with any of the fantasy movies (they're more in the way of beloved cultish movies); and that they were also much more financially successful, some of them. With that in mind, I decided to create a ranked and slightly explained list of those movies. There's a good number of caveats: I only include movies I've seen and can remember, so there's movies that aren't on the list (Buckaroo Bonzai, Cocoon, Brother from Another Planet, Starman) because of my own failings. Also, I tried to avoid sequels (thus no Empire or Jedi) but I made exceptions where the sequel felt really distinct from the earlier movie (Aliens, The Road Warrior) or where I felt like it (Wrath of Khan, which, to be honest, does feel distinct from Star Trek The Motion Picture in that it's a movie that is watchable). I also left off a bunch of things that are kinda sorta sci-fi (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure; Weird Science; Brazil) because I don't think they're actually meant to be sci-fi and/or I don't want to think of them as sci-fi. And probably I just missed some, because the 80s had a lot of science fiction films going on. By a strange chance, I ended up with 25 movies to rank, which is a nice number, and so I'm going to not look too hard for any more in any case.

Now, without further ado, the rankings, starting from the lowest ebb and climbing to the greatest heights.

25. Night of the Comet (1985) I put this movie on the list not because it actually deserves to be on it, but because you have to have a rock bottom. There has to be a movie that I decided was the worst of what I'd put on here, and this is it. Not that it's entirely awful. Mostly awful, yes, but it's kind of good silly fun? It's not that different from several movies that appear higher up on the list, to be honest. Here's the "plot": a comet sweeps by earth and kills pretty much everyone, except evil military scientists, two rather shallow young women, and a couple of guys. The idiot brigade have to save what's left of the world. That's about it. But it's kind of fun for being so dumb, and it's definitely sci fi even if stupidly so, and so it can fit on the bottom of the list.

24. Deep Star Six/Leviathan (both 1989) They only get one listing because, though I saw them both, I can't remember what they're about separately. For some reason in 1989 movies became obsessed with what was going on under the sea. There were these two films and the much better The Abyss (see below) all in one year. All I remember about these two is monsters and water. Lots of monsters and water. Maybe I'm even remembering Deep Blue Sea in there a little? Hard to say. They both pretty much sucked, and together maybe they were better than Night of the Comet, and they are much more sci-fi, so I'll give them one more rank. Barely.

23. Cyborg (1989) Jean Claude van Damme. That's about all that needs to be said. He's a cyborg. I think he's protecting some scientists, or some women, or possibly some women who are scientists? Mostly he's kicking people, and punching them, and doing the splits, and sometimes having wiring showing. I think it was supposed to be kind of like Terminator 2 (which isn't on this list because sequel, even though Linda Hamilton was amazing in that movie, and I wish I could put it on, but it's kind of too similar to Terminator, which, see below.)

22. Escape from New York (1981) This is a bit of a weak showing, I'll admit. There's a good amount of love for Snake Plisken (even if he is rather short). But I don't really remember caring hardly at all for the movie even when I first saw it, and it's one of those ridiculous movies where the future it's predicting is so far from ever having come true that it's gotten a little embarrassing. The very idea of Manhattan being an enclosed prison seems bizarre now; it's about the richest enclave in the United States that's still open to all and sundry. But sometime in 1980 everyone could imagine it happening easily enough that this movie got made. What I remember is a lot of grottiness and gangs, and bad lighting, and probably Adrienne Barbeau? She was also in Swamp Thing which I left off this list (forgive me, but I couldn't add it in, I just couldn't. Swamp Thing. Ugh.) Anyway, it wasn't terrible, but it's not very good, either. So 22 it is.

21. E.T. (1982) I cried like hell when I saw this movie. I was also 10. It's really well made and it's cute and at times it's pretty dark, but it is an artifact of Steven Spielberg's career. Probably it deserves to be higher ranked than this, but I'm not going to be the one to put it there over the movies I have in the top 20. Even if I have serious reservations about some of those movies. The fact is, I've never felt the faintest need to watch this movie again after seeing it when I was 10; have seen most of it one time since then, and bits other times, but don't feel like I'm missing anything. That's why it's where it is.

20. Flash Gordon (1980) Over the top ridiculousness. I know a lot of people have a lot of love for this movie, though I have no real idea why. It's goofy, looks cheap, is generally poorly acted, and perhaps is a relatively accurate depiction of its intellectual property, which isn't the best thing. It's not the strongest property in the end. The movie has its moments, though, and its commitment to being alarmingly wacky works in its favor. This is a movie I can waste two hours watching, but note, it's still two hours wasted entirely.

19. Robocop (1987) After NYC took a dive in the 70s, Detroit collapsed in the 80s (and continues to do so to this day.) So making this movie only made sense, and it's dystopia of commerce, crime, decay and rampant over-policing feels much more fresh than anything Escape From New York has to offer. Anchored by a solid performance from Peter Weller (as an unfeeling machine for much of the movie, but still) Robocop holds up well and is still a decent film. Brutal and grim and made with a good will by Paul Verhoeven, I'd still buy that for a dollar.

18. The Last Starfighter (1984) Perhaps the first movie to manage to take seriously the idea that video games are important (I don't know that I count Tron, below, because it wasn't actually about video games, but was inspired by them...hard to say.) Bound by the technology of the time, the video game is shamefully low rent, and one wonders how a galactic civilization would produce such a shitty device. But they wanted it to blend in, I guess? It's a great story, though: chosen hero has a chance to save the galaxy, while his weird clone is left behind to provide comic relief on earth. Great fun to be had with this one, but it's kind of slight, and the effects have dated very much. I still like it, though.

17. Transformers: The Movie (1986) I piled into cars with eight or so of my friends and we all drove up to the far north of Seattle to go see this movie. It was that important, that we'd drive twenty miles packed into a couple cars, darting and weaving, to see the Transformers on the big screen. Screw all these modern live action Transformers movies: this is the real deal. Suddenly deep history, destroyed planets, dying heroes, Orson Welles doing his last bit of voice work before he died. To be honest, the voice cast is pretty great: Eric Idle, Leonard Nimoy, Judd Nelson, Scatman Crothers. But the fact of the matter was, this was a favorite show made over into a bigger, more dangerous, more epic on all levels movie, and as such it still holds a special place in my heart. It's also not really that good, and probably I'm rating it too high. Too bad, it's my list, so here it is.

16. Tron (1982) This movie I could watch over and over, and I have. It's got a kind of freakish genius to it; none of it makes any sense or is in any way accurate to anything anyone has ever known about computing. But it doesn't matter. It looks great (still; weirdly, it still looks great), it's got amazing ideas, there's a wonderful story to it and it was so far ahead of its time that no one had any clue what to do with it when it came out. 1982 is probably the strongest year as far as this decade is concerned; it will turn up again on this list more than once. I don't know what was going on: maybe technology had reached a point where some things were possible that hadn't been before. But there's some good films in 1982, and Tron not the least of them.

15. They Live (1988) This isn't strictly speaking a good movie. It features really stupid fight scenes; Rowdy Roddy Piper is a strange but compelling choice as lead; in the end it's pretty dumb. But it's also genius, for many reasons. The first is, it's actually got a message, which science fiction should have, and which a lot of the movies on this list just don't. Commercialism is bad, y'all, and we're all sheep, and even if we weren't, maybe we'd still go along with it. Secondly, it's clever when it needs to be. "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum." That's a great line. It just is. And the movie has a lot of them. The subliminal signs saying "Consume" and "Buy" and "Submit" are all awesome. It's just clever enough without being too full of itself.

14. The Abyss (1989) Higher maybe? I wish I could put this movie higher. It's good. It's so good. Great performances (mostly; they're a little over the top, I guess). Beautifully made. All sorts of great effects. Maybe even a message? (Aliens are okay? Love conquers all? Hard to say...there might not be one at all.) But for Pete's sake, is it ponderous in places. Overwrought. I'd put it higher except I don't think I want to ever watch it all the way through again, even though I liked it a lot. But it is, empirically, a good movie. It earns the #14 slot. Maybe even more, but the Abyss isn't getting anything higher on my list, nope.

13. Dune (1984) What a mess. What a glorious, extravagant, alarming mess. Take a complicated, weird book, and film it so that it's complicated and weird in entirely different ways. Hire superb actors and have them be caricatures or cameos. Film so much material that you can make multiple director's cuts if you want. And then still have people be able to be surprised that it's David Lynch, because they didn't think he did this kind of peculiar. Whether it's the Battle Pug, or milking a cat (and a rat?), Sting, or Muad'dib as a killing word (wtf?) there's nothing the least bit ordinary about this movie. That being said, it's close to unwatchable unless it's already of interest to you; unlike most of the movies on this list there's no easy point of access. You have to like Dune, or like Lynch, or be deeply invested in science fiction as a genre, to want to expose yourself to Dune. A mess. An amazing mess.

12. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) Controversy! On two points! First, this is a sequel, and I don't have sequels on my list (except I do, and the first Star Trek movie was genuinely awful and should be forgotten). Second, it's not even in the top 10! Well, that's because it's a great Star Trek movie, but it's not a great movie. I'm judging on the overall scope of things, and Wrath of Khan is pretty good as a movie, but it's not superb. I don't really need to say much, as this is one of the best known movies on the list. Costumes were awful, hair was terrifying, visuals were nice, acting was what you could expect from Star Trek. It revitalized the franchise, which is good: another snooze fest or a bomb would have probably finished it off entirely, and that would have been a shame for the course of science fiction entertainment (and the career of the Battle Pug's steed, Patrick Stewart).

11. Enemy Mine (1985) This is a small gem of a movie. Very small. Mostly it's about two people: first a human and an alien who hate each other but grow to be hostile friends; and then a human and an alien who are most certainly family, and would do anything for one another. It's a small story, really, one with great ramifications in its fictional world, but still small, and all the better for it. It suffers from being dated like a whole lot of these movies, but even so, it very nearly cracks the top 10, and it very nearly deserves to. It was close.

10. The Fly (1986) Some people might say this is horror, and I'd give them that point. But it's really about the ramifications of science and experimentation, so I'm calling it science fiction. Now, Brundle is an idiot who shouldn't be allowed to run experiments, but that's science in the movies for you. The practical effects are great, the plot is actually pretty gruesome and horrifying, and there isn't a happy ending. It's a great movie that follows through on its ridiculous premise very well indeed, and it wouldn't work if Jeff Goldblum wasn't a weirdo in real life as well as this film. But because he is, it works very well indeed.

9. Alien Nation (1988) Police procedural; first contact film; social commentary. This is the grandparent of District 9, done in a slightly more hopeful way: the aliens can adapt, kind of; the humans can accept them, kind of. But in both cases, not really. The movie's pretty solid though. Solid enough that they made a show out of it, which was kind of solid too. The key thing about it was, I feel, that it told us enough to be interesting without telling us enough to be obvious. That's a hard balance, and this was a good movie because it carried it off.

8. The Running Man (1987) Oddly, we're now going to get into the movies that are fun. Gripping yarns, in one way or another, instead of smart and thoughtful (and dullish) movies. A couple manage to be both at this point, but mostly we're in for fun, slightly clever movies. The Running Man is the worst of the best: it's mind-numbingly stupid as far as the one liners given to Arnold to spout out, but there's some cleverness to the overall conceit. Reality TV hasn't gotten this bad, but the delight people take in watching the shame and misery of contestants on the Bachelor or Real Housewives isn't too far off. This movie, supposedly based on a Stephen King story, has nothing to do with it in reality; instead it's just about a brash capitol punishment style game show, with celebrity killers in a death maze. And it does that really well. There's a faint suggestion of a social message about freedom and human dignity, but that's just lip service: this is about Arnold getting into fights with lightning and winter, and winning. But the real star, the real reason to watch the movie, is somehow Richard fucking Dawson, and I don't understand that, but it's true. He's solid. So is the movie around him, impossibly.

7. Back to the Future (1985) The first of two time travel movies to make the list. It's weird because time travel is normally a horrible thing, but it goes over fine in the two movies featuring it in my top 25. Back to the Future is of course a cultural touchstone; the constant (and wrong) memes of "This is the day Marty went to in the future" prove that. (Note: he'll be here soon). Also, we still get to bitch because we have no hover boards or flying cars (though that's the sequels, and we won't be talking about them, but still). The movie is brilliant in so many ways, though: the picture changing slowly but surely as Marty messes up, the clever ways it plays with time, the excellent casting (though the age makeup was never very strong). It's also just enjoyable and that's actually very important. This is a movie you can smile as you watch for the umpteenth time. Michael J. Fox was never better, and Christopher Lloyd is forever Doc Brown. So good.

6. Predator (1987) A smarter movie than it appears to be. Brutal and vicious alien comes to Central America, hunts commando team sent to capture some sort of rebels (I can't even remember the details there, and don't need to: it's window dressing.) Deaths ensue, one after another, as an invisible Predator chases down our "heroes" and kills them effieciently and without much more interest than a big game hunter. Which is what the Predator is, of course. Decent performances by the various slabs of meat depicting our commandos are pleasantly surprising. Sadly it inspired a sequel or two, and then those Alien v Predator movies and comics and games, and I can't be thrilled about all of that, but you can see at least why it did: this is a solid foundation, and a great movie.

5. The Road Warrior (1981) Top 5. Here we go, into the real quality stuff. The Road Warrior is technically a sequel, but Mad Max (the first movie) is so very different in style and quality from TRW that it's not actually easy to see how they're connected except that we're told they are. I mean, they both take place in Australia in the future, but in one there's a broken society not too far off from Escape From New York or Robocop, and in the other there's...the Road Warrior. This movie has perhaps the most excellent long term chase scene, as Our Hero (mostly silent) struggles to get a water tank from one isolated base to another; this set piece goes on and on, and is so good that it obscures the fact that there's a rest of the movie. Which there is, though it's not the best, and there's not really much of it (the set piece chase is very, very long.) In many ways the sequel Beyond Thunderdome is better (especially a scary good Tina Turner) but it wouldn't exist without this movie. Solid action science fiction, and a classic soon to be remade (and probably worsened, but that's to be seen.)

4. The Thing (1982) Another movie that could be horror, yep. But it's an alien life form in an Antarctic base, and it's got a space ship, and genetic conquest, and holy crap why am I not watching this movie right now? Solid terror, solid paranoia, good effects (that haven't aged well, but still they look kind of grossly neat) and a strong cast make this a winner in every way. Even if the story doesn't quite explain itself (how did the alien infect certain people? Well, there's fan theories, but who the hell knows if any of them are correct?) You know what? Wilford Brimley does good work; Kurt Russell's a solid anchor; and the ending is one of the most grim and gripping in film. It holds up very well indeed except for the effects, and why am I not watching it right now?

3. The Terminator (1984) After that last one, you'd think I should have given The Thing a higher place. But I know it's not the best thing ever, just a very good movie to watch, and the two categories aren't necessarily the same. And with this movie we arrive on three incredibly good films, amazingly good. I had a hard time figuring out which to put where, to be honest. The Terminator is a stellar film. Arnold is perfectly cast as a machine who is deadly and is in fact programmed to deliver occasional one liners; Micheal Biehn was really good (and really hot) and Linda Hamilton did pretty well with what she was given. Her return in T2 would more than justify this first movie, with it's not terribly strong female lead. Why is this movie great? Because it handled time travel really well; because the Terminator itself was a great villain; because the connection between the two leads felt as if it could have been real; because the action was superbly put together and the world building was strong. It was good enough to inspire a better sequel (but 1991, and also very much a sequel so it's not on this list) and to make me willing to accept that T3 was actually a good thing (because it's got a great ending that rivals The Thing for appropriate grimness). I probably can't say enough in praise of this movie, but I probably don't need to. It's spectacular.

2. Blade Runner (1982) But not as spectacular as Blade Runner. Harrison Ford as a gumshoe, effectively; a grim noir future that is almost still possible; beautiful design elements everywhere; so much style and panache. This is a movie that gives you a world and makes you live in it entirely, without really any slips or suggestions that you're seeing a fake thing. That's hard to accomplish, but Blade Runner does it pretty easily. There are partisans for the director's cut, but I don't actually care; I thought it was nearly perfect in the theatrical version, and the other cut doesn't improve it for me. The much maligned narration doesn't hurt it at all, as far as I am concerned; I think having already heard the narration means you don't need the information when you see the director's cut, but that if you'd never seen the original, you'd miss it. Either way,  for completeness of vision, for excellence of execution, for the fact that it still looks good today, I think it's the second best movie on the list. (Note: this too is an adaptation, more inaccurate even than Dune though not quite so bad as The Running Man. But it's also an improvement over the source material, so there's that.)

1. Aliens (1986) A movie so good some people are willing to forgive Prometheus for existing. Also so good I overlook the fact that it's a sequel, but I have a reason for that, too: Alien and Aliens are entirely different movies. One is a monster movie, a slasher picture even, just set on a space ship and done with gruesome beauty. The other (this one) is an action movie, and a really damned good one. The writing, the acting, the direction, the effects, it's all superb. Every character feels different which is hard considering most of them don't get much screen time and most of them are in the same profession (Marines). A smarmy villainous corporate goon who does his job really, really well. Bishop. Hicks and Newt, whose untimely deaths prejudiced people strongly against the also excellent Alien3. And Ripley. Holy shit, Ripley. A strong female character who is actually strong and actually female, who uses her skills and her spirit and her knowledge and her desperation, all at once, to pull out a win of sorts. Pacing that hits all the right beats at all the right moments. I could go on and on, but instead, you should just watch this movie again. It's that good, and you all know it.

So there's my list. What's in the wrong place? What did I unforgivably forget? What movie would you put as your #25 placeholder?

*totally not authoritative.

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