Rolling Stone has published their list of the “50 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the 1970’s,” and it’s an enjoyable read, even if (as a friend, novelist Gene Pozniak observed) their top five does seem intentionally obtuse. Outraged debate generates more clicks than consensus does, I suppose.
Personally, I can’t argue too much with Alien taking the top spot. The collaboration between Dan O’Bannon’s expert storytelling, H.R. Geiger’s super-disturbing visual design, and a pre-masturbatory Ridley Scott* is about as close to perfect as special effects in the 1970’s would allow. It spawned a formula that would be followed by almost every rubber monster movie for the next two decades. Okay, maybe Jaws did that–but Alien was nearly as influential.
No, my complaint with Rolling Stone’s list is how many movies aren’t even science fiction–including the movie most people are infuriated to see in the #5 spot, Star Wars (A New Hope, to the true geeks among us).
Call me a traditionalist–and admittedly, this is an area where I can be rigidly geeky–but I adhere to a traditional definition of science fiction that does not include just any story set in space. Science fiction must meet two criteria:
- It must explore the possibilities of our scientific understanding and its implications for our world, and
- It must not violate any of the presently known laws of science.
So…interstellar travel? Sure! Faster-than-light travel? Mmm, okay. But time travel? Telekinesis? The Force? Sorry, that’s the stuff of fantasy. Call it “space opera” if you like, or “sword and planet,” or even “science fantasy.” But please, not science fiction.
Now, take a look at the list Rolling Stone puts forward. Wizards? Time After Time? SUPERMAN??? All great movies, sure, but these are fantasy movies, not science fiction.
As for Star Wars? I love Star Wars, but it’s the story of a tribe of wizards discovering and training in a banned and forgotten magic. It’s a fantasy movie: Luke Skywalker is the Chosen One, the ringbearer, Azor Ahai complete with a flaming sword. Star Wars is so Lord of the Rings it even has a dark lord, and the Death Star is his Mordor.
On the other hand, I appreciate the high rank for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which would take #1 in my list of 1970’s sci-fi, and might take the top spot in my list of all-time science fiction movies. Admittedly, adhering to the two rules I set disqualifies most movies from really being labeled science fiction, but I try to be a little bit forgiving. Often a film’s choice to violate some rules of science–like sound being audible in space, for instance–can be chalked up to artistic license and the desire to entertain an audience. Space battles just aren’t particularly entertaining when they’re silent.
Other choices I’m fond of? Westworld is a great pick, as is The Andromeda Strain. I’m also fond of Mad Max and Zardoz, even if the latter is so weird that even after three viewings I’m not sure what to label it. A Clockwork Orange at first struck me as an odd choice for a list of science fiction movies, especially ranked third, but the more I think about it the more I like that choice.
I wonder if they’ll do a list of 80’s sci-fi next, and if they’ll rank Blade Runner at #5 and Dune at #1, just to troll readers.
* Speaking of which, there’s an interesting conversation for the comments: At what point did Ridley Scott jump the shark? My vote is for Hannibal.