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Hollywood & Sci-fi: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Updated: Feb 20, 2021

Think Tinseltown is gonna score big with their blockbuster sci-fi megabucks films? Maybe yes and maybe no. I mean, they should get it right, right?


What have you noticed about science fiction movies in the last 50 or 60 years? Granted, I’m not old enough to have watched Buck Rogers on the big screen, but I know a bit about the subject. For instance, as a kid, The Day the Earth Stood Still, starring Michael Renney was my favorite. “Gort. Klatu Barata Nikto.” How can anyone forget Patricia O’Neal smartly saying that command to the giant and deadly robot?

So we can say that sometimes the geniuses in Hollywood get it dead right. And then there are times when they fail miserably. Case in point—not to hurt anyone’s feelings—Gravity, the movie. Yes, the movie, not actual gravity, which we all appreciate so much at 9.8 m/sec^2.

In the movie, Gravity (2013), let’s say that it wasn’t a great moment in sci-fi history. Granted, it won some Oscar’s for best musical score, best cinematography, best-director even. Nevertheless, I remember very well sitting in the theater with my wife. She later told me that I must have commented “dead,” and “Bullock just died there,” and “yep, she’s dead.” The count was something like 20 times in the first ten minutes of the movie. Was the purpose of dozing off just so I could see Sandra Bullock in her underwear at the end of the torturous event? Truly, the popcorn was the highlight of our night out.

But then, you catch a gem like Galaxy Quest or Guardians of the Galaxy. Is there really that much to complain about when films don’t care about physics and instead concentrate on pleasing the viewer with great lines, a great script, and a kick-ass ride? For example, when Tim Allen shoots the evil alien at the end of Galaxy Quest, the creature disappears with comical POP and a puff of smoke. So what? At that point, the movie had so thoroughly won over the audience that the cartoon-like demise of Sarras was acceptable. Same thing with Guardians. The characters ruled over that picture. For all the authors out there, character development, connecting your readers / audience to the protagonist and villains—utterly essential. Guardians does that in spades. I’m sure you can come up with many examples.

In terms of the good, Hollywood gets it right when they take a book or a screenplay and remember that it has to work for the people who are paying to see it. Some films are so far off the path of goodness that you have to wonder, who authorized this? But I digress. The good is found even in some not-so-famous sci-fi films like The Arrival (1996), starring Charlie Sheen. The aliens suck, and even though the politically-correct message is kind of jammed down our throats: to paraphrase the lead, nasty alien, “if you won’t take care of your planet, you don’t deserve to live here.” I mean, excluding that irritation, the film is great. It has the elements, a hero in over his head, a villain who has no remorse, and surprise twists.

The list is endless in terms of films that work out well, but the bad list is maybe twice as long at a minimum. Shall we mention one or two?

Everyone knows that Battlefield Earth is one of the most painful sci-fi movies of all time. Think about this: Sci-fi could have been buried forever from the damage a movie like that causes. And there’s more. Here’s the link to Business Insiders worst SF films:

It’s bad. It’s really bad, although I don’t think that some of them deserve to be called Sci-Fi. Case in point, Baby Geniuses (1999). Amazingly, this film starred Kathleen Turner and Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future...yes him), and it’s so bad that it is number 1 on the list. It’s so bad that I had to research it to see how awful. It almost falls into a category called bad and ugly.

Let’s re-visit something. Gravity. There are people who swear this is the greatest movie they ever saw. How is that even possible? I think that is the ace-in-the-hole for Hollywood. They know that they can make their money back even if a good chunk of the audience is contemplating the number of times that the main character would have died from things like pulling 200 gees or falling into the ocean at terminal velocity. Hey, it’s Hollywood, suspend reality.

And that is what they expect us to do. And we’ll gladly do it, provided that the story is WORTH IT. One such story would be Forbidden Planet (1956) with the fantastic comic actor, Leslie Nielsen. Hey, it’s the mid-50’s, and there is no CGI, no big budget computer effects, but this film tells a story and we get the lead guy doing straight lines and not a comedy—not too shabby. It even has Robbie the Robot.

Of course, Planet of the Apes, with it’s long list of errors, is still an outstanding film. Charlton Heston, superb as Bright-Eyes, fulfills all the requirements. It’s almost like Hollywood directors and screenwriters should be forced to sit in a chair, or maybe duct-taped to a chair…then be forced to watch movies that worked and the garbage that didn’t. Can you imagine if the director of Saturn 3 (1980) had been told “NO! You’re not making that film! Forget about it. Walk away!”

Somehow that doesn’t happen enough, and that is why Hollywood will keep producing films and TV series that leave you scratching your head and wondering why they didn’t call up her 22-year-old nephew to make the film.

Perhaps the “ugly” of sci-fi nowadays is that they choose to keep making them. The utter volume of space junk that ends up on our tv screens is baffling. And there is a heck of a lot of it out there. I can think of the current big services that have film and tv on demand. I’m not naming them, but they put out horrible movies and series on a regular basis. But then, they occasionally get it right, like the new series, The Expanse. This show, other than making sure that the LBGTQXYL etc., is fairly addressed in most episodes—I mean, despite that, the story is pretty darn good. Clearly there are film producers who actually consult folks with brains on occasion. The Expanse gets it mostly right. I’m not talking about the physics, because you will always find errors in that. The story is good, and the conflict between Earth, Mars, and the Belters almost feels like it could really happen. Humans are inherently flawed, so why assume that space factions wouldn’t develop and despise each other?

For fun, here’s some films that make the cut.

Soylent Green

Guardians of the Galaxy (all)

Fantastic Voyage

The Day of the Triffids

The Martian (despite the cast)

The Thing

Terminator II: Judgement Day

There are plenty more, but let’s just close on this note. Alien (Ridley Scott 1979), hit the freakin’ ball out of the park. Aliens, the follow-up, was killer. Sigourney Weaver? I mean seriously, compare Ripley in her underwear to Sandra Bullock in Gravity (in her underwear)? Is there any comparison? This is like Ali vs. David Spade. Alien, and I must admit that I watched it on the big-screen when I was home from college. I drove to the theater with my good buddy in my 1970 Cutlass. We watched that outstanding film, and I was trembling for a couple of days. I mean, really, when we walked out of the theater at 10 p.m., I got to my Oldsmobile sedan and was checking the backseat in the dark for the possibility that one of those things might be hiding in there.

I will leave you with this for now. Readers and movie audiences have brains. If you want to by-pass the laws of physics, please do, but make it work with the story. We will gladly forgive you if it works in context. If you want to go for authenticity, like 2001, A Space Odyssey, then fantastic, we will be right there measuring wavelengths and photons to check your math. Just do us one favor, think about who’s watching when you put that stuff up on the screen.

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