The internet lives on lists. Well, lists and cat photos. This week (22 July) the UK London listings and entertainment guide Time Out published part of an on-going series of genre by genre features on the 100 Best Films. The current one is ‘The 100 best sci-fi movies’.
I’m not going to pick the rankings to pieces in much detail. You can have hours of fun doing that yourself. Hours? Yes, because this is a large piece of work spanning many web pages. Time Out has asked well over a hundred people to offer their Top 10 lists and divided them into ‘Film and TV personalities’ (not as bad as it sounds because a lot of them are filmmakers like John Carpenter and Guillermo Del Toro – though why Brian Blessed’s opinion should be any more relevant than that of a film editor or cinematographers or make-up artist isn’t addressed), ‘Scientists’, ‘Science fiction authors’ and ‘Film critics and experts’. Some of the latter may be experts in their fields, though it’s not necessarily obvious how their expertise quantifies them for the subject at hand. Anyway, it is an interesting collection of highly intelligent and knowledgeable people. And it is from their opinions Time Out has complied its ‘definitive’ list.
You can see the resulting Top 100 at a glance here. There is also a page offering the opportunity to tick off how many you have seen: My score is 85 out of the 100, including every one of the top 45. Suggesting this is something of a popularity contest.
This page is actually fascinating, in that it shows how few great SF films there really are. It does this by listing pretty much, give or take a handful, the same films as every other list of 100 great science fiction films. There is close to a consensus because there are so few great SF films, so few that almost all of them are going to make it onto every list. In fact there are so few great SF films – try a similar exercise with thrillers and you would get a lot less agreement, there being so many more fine films in the genre (you could keep 35 or so places just for Hitchcock alone) – that lists like this tend to get packed out with films that might be great, but aren’t SF. In this case Superman (1978) Or aren’t even cinema films – here the example being the two part TV mini-series World on a Wire. Or films which don’t even come into the broader category of Fantasy (where Superman and other superhero and monster movies get by). Here this inclusion is represented by Three Colours: Red. Which is an excellent film, but it takes a massive stretch of the imagination to include it in a list of SF cinema. If any Kieslowski film were to be included surely it would be the metaphysical doppelganger drama, The Double Life of Veronique. And that would be pushing the boundaries of genre.
Conversely, titles missing from the hundred which I would add include Franklyn, Cloud Atlas, Death Watch, Never Let Me Go, The Day The Earth Caught Fire, Time After Time, Rollerball (the original, obviously – see my review of the recent Blu-ray here), the omission of which is baffling, Avalon (2001), a much better film than Ghost in the Shell, which is included, the vastly under-rated Alien 3, the fantastic Spanish film, Open Your Eyes (Abres los ojos) and Mr Nobody, which as I wrote about here, is the best SF film hardly anyone has ever heard of, let alone seen. It should be in everyone’s top 10.
As to the listings themselves, they have been by an undisclosed methodology averaged out to conclude that 2001: A Space Odyssey is the best SF film ever made. Fair enough. They won’t get much argument from me. Equally, Blade Runner at #2 seems a reasonable conclusion. I may howl with laughter that the ludicrous Moon and Children of Men are even on the list, let alone come in at #14 and #18 respectively, or that Jurassic Park (#30) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (#22) are ranked considerably higher than Inception (#36) (click the link for my blog post) and The Prestige (#71) (click for my interview with Christopher Priest, author of the original novel), but that’s the law of averages against personal taste. And we all know our own taste is better than that of everyone else. I mean, Minority Report. Seriously? I just tore it to pieces last week.
What I will take issue with is the introduction to the feature. The uncredited writer begins: ‘This is a golden age of science fiction cinema. Wander into your local multiplex and you’re faced with a choice between aliens and superheroes, giant robots and dystopian futures, all presented in shimmering 3D with top-of-the-line digital effects. Purists love to quibble about quality, but they don’t really have a leg to stand on: sure, many modern movies prize spectacle over substance, but that’s nothing new, and the likes of ‘Gravity’, ‘Under the Skin’, ‘Moon’ and the Marvel series prove that smart sci-fi is still very much in demand.’
It’s hard to know where to begin. But superheroes and giant robots have little to do with my idea of a golden age of science fiction cinema. In fact I would argue that fantasies about superheroes and giant robots are in competition with intelligent SF films for production budgets and screen space, and that they are overwhelmingly winning the battle.
Shimmering 3D – well I don’t necessarily want my films to shimmer, and the assumption that 3D makes films better is bizarre. As is the assumption that top-of-the-line digital effects count for anything without a decent screenplay.
I’ve not yet seen Gravity or Under the Skin, but if Moon and the Marvel series prove ‘that smart sci-fi is still very much in demand’ then we are in more trouble than I thought. The ‘Marvel series’ isn’t SF. Moon, well, I might just have to howl at it all over again.
I agree with just about everything you say here, Gary. The list really does show how few universally acknowledged ‘greats’ there are in SF cinema. Still, the list doesn’t do justice to 50s Hollywood for a start — an era which produced some of the genre’s most intriguing films. Roger’s absolutely right about Destination Moon — and where’s my childhood favourite, When Worlds Collide?
That introduction is ridiculous, and not very Time Out (at least not the way I remember Time Out). Are we really living through a golden age of SF cinema, just because a lot of superhero movies are being released? Actually I think there have been a number of excellent SF films in recent years, but this piece doesn’t make much of an argument for them.
As for this sentence: “We hope it’ll serve not just as a fun read for film fans, but as an inspiration for future directors, writers and perhaps even budding scientists” … Modest, aren’t they?
Sorry for the duplicate post before. Thought I’d deleted one, but there it still is.
I agree with just about everything you say here, Gary. The list really does show how few universally acknowledged ‘greats’ there are among SF cinema. But the list is quite light on 50s Hollywood SF, which at its best gave the genre some of its most intriguing films. (Where’s my childhood favourite, When Worlds Collide?)
That introduction is unbelievable, and not very Time Out (at least the Time Out I recall from a few years back). Are we really living through a golden age of SF cinema because a lot of superhero movies are being released? I do think there have been a handful of excellent SF films in recent years, but this article doesn’t really make the argument for them.
And as for the sentence: “We hope it’ll serve not just as a fun read for film fans, but as an inspiration for future directors, writers and perhaps even budding scientists” … Modest, aren’t they?
Nope. Where’s Destination Moon? One of the most important, influential SF films that led to the sci-fi movie boom of the ’50s and inspired popular support for the space program?
I saw 84 of the films listed. Other classics are missing such as Planeta Burg (The Storm Planet), Voyage To The End of the Universe, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Fantastic Voyage, This Island Earth, Explorers (on of my favorites), and even King Kong, certainly more sf than Frankenstein or Ghost Busters.
Amazing Stories should do it’s own poll, and stick to science fiction. Please.
I’ve not seen Storm Planet or Voyage to the End of the Universe – and that Time Out list is very lacking in non-Hollywood fare. I have to agree with you that The Incredible Shrinking Man and Fantastic Voyage should be on the list. Ghostbusters clearly isn’t SF, but then I wouldn’t argue that King Kong is either.
An Amazing Stories poll sounds like a good idea to me. We shall see…