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In my last Strange Horizons column (Desert Island Top 12), I looked at the books on the Internet Top 100 list in SF and fantasy and whittled my own picks down to 12.

This time around, I'd like to do the same for the movies list (again, science fiction and fantasy). I'll point out off the top, however, that a desert island list of movies doesn't make nearly as much sense as the same metaphor for a list of favorite books. So . . . I'm planning to get shipwrecked, but to watch any of the movies, I have to have a big screen TV, a DVD or Blu-ray player, a reliable and portable power source, and, just to make the experience complete, my favorite couch. . . . Why not just avoid storm-tossed ocean routes? Or, even safer, stay home? There's still something about the low-tech nature of the book that's pleasing to me. That said, I still like the onscreen whiz-bang as much as the next fan, even if the experience is mediated by a fair amount of technology, so on to the list.

I ran into a roadblock almost right away, however. For the list of science fiction movies, I had seen almost all the titles mentioned—I had to go down to Them (#71 at time of writing) to get to a movie I hadn't seen before on the SF side. On the fantasy side, there was a much higher proportion of titles that I was unfamiliar with. In the course of catching up on some of the fantasy items, I realized that I wasn't missing anything and promptly gave up. More on this in a moment—the short version of my conclusion is that the SF movie list is, approximately, 100 times stronger than the fantasy movie list. Give or take. I see easily a dozen classics of cinema I could pull from the SF list, whereas the fantasy list has Peter Jackson, followed by . . . some really rough choices. Willow at #3 makes my hair stand on end (specifically: in fright), for example.

One other comment before I jump into my list. The Internet Top 100 list splits up the Harry Potter movies into separate entries but puts the Lord of the Rings trilogy together. If the Harry Potter movies were consolidated, I think the top two movies (or at least, movie entries on this list) would be adapted from the top two books, that is, the series authored by Tolkien and Rowling. On the SF side, the top two books are Dune and Ender's Game; there have been a few movie or miniseries versions of Dune, none particularly successful, and Ender's Game is still stuck in development hell. I'm not sure what it means that the fantasy material from the world of the book made for two of the stronger movies or series, whereas the SF selections are generally more original to the medium. Even Blade Runner, the #1 choice on the list, may as well be counted as its own work, since it's a massive reworking of the Dick source material, and while there's a book version of 2001, it was written by Clarke in tandem with the development of Kubrick's movie version.

Now: a slightly shorter list of movies that I really liked, followed by a list of ones that I had missed, with reactions.

Science Fiction

My own list is pretty short: Alien/Aliens, The Terminator, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Incredibles. On the list where I'm claiming some jumped-up genre movies to be classics of world cinema, I would mark down the usual suspects: Blade Runner, The Matrix, 2001, 12 Monkeys, and E.T.; a bit further down, I would maybe add The Andromeda Strain and RoboCop (all listed in order as ranked in the Internet survey). The depth of the field on the SF side can go even further, like two items that aren't on the list but that I would recommend as minor masterpieces, The Quiet Earth and The Brother from Another Planet (both from the '80s).

Alien/Aliens

It's strange to me how no one has topped these two movies, after so many years and so much wasted effort. I think this is what happens with items that are so unique and ground-breaking—trying to compete with them on their own turf is not so much a form of flattery as an admission of defeat. Ridley Scott put so many pieces together in Alien and then James Cameron twisted the formula in an action movie direction so successfully for the sequel that they made it look it easy. The franchise has been downhill ever since, a pronouncement that is utterly "well, duh" in the face of movies like the two recent Alien vs. Predator efforts (I won't even call them movies, since watching a movie ordinarily won't destroy such a sizable number of brain cells as these did). Horror in space and action in space seem like a can't-fail proposition, but you need to have some characters and some ideas to make the apparatus work. Also, some freshness, something that's inevitably missing after too many years and too many iterations.

The Terminator

A bit of a James Cameron theme here. Oddly, I'm kind of dreading the upcoming mega-blitz for his years-in-the-making opus Avatar, since I think he lost his way a long time ago. When Cameron is firing on all cylinders, like in The Terminator, he can provide the audience with a lean, mean SF spectacle, and in the particular case of The Terminator, he made one of the only action movies where the amount of punishment that Arnold Schwarzenegger can absorb actually makes sense. But post-Aliens, the bigger the budget, the more of a mess the movie became; The Abyss already verged on bloated self-parody, but I'd take that one over True Lies or Titanic any day. If Avatar were made for the same budget as The Terminator, I'd have some hopes, but as far as I can tell, the budget is unlimited and the restrictions are nil. I'll gladly eat my words if Avatar doesn't have the same inward-focused regard as, say, The Phantom Menace, another entry in the "film-maker has no constraints, indulges ego, wanders far into the wilderness" sweepstakes.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I'm not as big a fan of the mind-trip angle in movies as I used to be, but Eternal Sunshine is an enduring and successful example. A movie about people messing with their memory might seem like a logical candidate for messing with the head of the audience—I think maybe one case in ten can pull that off. It's the characters here that keep the enterprise going. I also like how we're not automatically on the side of Jim Carrey's character and the sense that he's not automatically going to get the girl. Does a wish-fulfillment character like the guy in Adventureland or 500 Days of Summer really deserve the girl? And what does the girl think about all this? Carrey is definitely the POV character, but it functions a little differently than most such movies; specifically, the hopeful ending is along the lines of "with a lot of luck and hard work, they might make this work." I also like the side characters and their stories; their actions and dilemmas support the development of the ideas over the course of the movie, but they don't feel like cardboard cutouts standing in for the ideological machinery of the film-makers.

The Incredibles

I'm a fan of Pixar, like quite a few other folks. Wall-E is not even on the Internet survey, which is a shame, and Ratatouille at #95 is one of the bright spots on the fantasy list. The Incredibles is still my favourite, though. Maybe not a sentimental favourite, since I recollect it as a bit colder in emotional impact—kind of like Wall-E now that I think about it. All the same, one of the things that makes The Incredibles work so well is right there in the title: the Incredibles are not a superhero team, as might be expected, but a family. That's the kid-friendly angle, providing some wish-fulfillment of a family that's cool and gets to do exciting stuff. Better, there's an unexpectedly deep thematic structure. A comparison makes the case even more clearly: Monsters vs. Aliens was a perfectly serviceable computer-animated movie from 2009, with lots of funny bits and lots of action, but it didn't have a shred of substance. The Incredibles has all the same good and shallow bits that light up the screen, but it's got the goods to back it up. And by "the goods" I mean of course the writing. It feels like a regular movie, if regular movies were still well-written and worth revisiting.

So that's my surprisingly short list, concluding with an appropriate note of jadedness. I used to watch a much higher number of movies than I do now, and I'm just not as thrilled about them as I used to be. Previously on Strange Horizons, I looked at the summer movies of 2007, and returned to the same task again in 2008; I'm not sure I'd do that again. Maybe my preferences have settled down and only the old stuff, seen in the enthusiasm of youth, retains a spark. Maybe, maybe not; I'm generally prey to enthusiasms, so the phase of being excited about movies could very well return. On that note, have you heard about James Cameron's new movie coming out soon? It will blow your mind, I can tell already. . . .

Speaking of older favorites: if you haven't seen any of the following, do so as soon as you can! Blade Runner is one of those seminal experiences—the rainy streets, the iconic future design, etc, etc. I admit to owning the fancy briefcase version of the recent umpteenth director's cut release; I also admit to not having watched the least minute of it. I went in to The Matrix completely cold, and lately I've been trying to avoid movie news as much as possible, since I liked the experience of getting my mind blown with no warning. Wachowski Brothers forever! By which I mean: Wachowski Brothers for one movie and then about four baffling things in a row. 2001 is not super audience-friendly, and it's a movie that rewards some background reading and pondering; knowing the context for its release and some of the speculation about its meaning will help, which is a rare case for a movie. 12 Monkeys is my token Terry Gilliam pick—I've seen all of his movies and admire Brazil and The Time Bandits a great deal, but 12 Monkeys is the sweet spot for me. I also admire his perseverance in the face of great difficulties (the documentary, Lost in La Mancha, about one of Gilliam's failed movie projects, is worth tracking down); too bad that the results lately haven't been as stellar as his earlier movies. E.T. would be the token Spielberg—the movie has held up remarkably well, and it's worth a rewatch if you haven't seen it since childhood. I wasn't expecting much from The Andromeda Strain and enjoyed it immensely, finally getting a sense of where Michael Crichton got his clout. And RoboCop is a guilty pleasure from that dedicated purveyor of such, Paul Verhoeven. It's constructed with great precision, and always seems to know what it's doing—two things that can't be said for some of his other genre efforts like Starship Troopers or more mainstream efforts like Black Book. The two non-list items, The Quiet Earth and The Brother from Another Planet, were made with no budget to speak of, and suffer from a few flaws (for example, I'm never quite sure what to make of a few racial issues in either film). But they'll still stay with you long after viewing, unlike current blockbusters which seem to be desperate to be disposable and succeed admirably at the task.

Fantasy

At least a few items on the fantasy list are ones that I would build a time machine to go back in time and erase from existence if I could. Van Helsing is the worst monster movie in the history of the universe (or at least, the worst that I've seen personally), while the aforementioned Willow is a close second as a target for banishment from the cultural timeline. And those were just the ones I knew about! As I mentioned, there were more than a few items on the fantasy side that I hadn't seen. I'll get to those in a moment, after a brief side trip to Middle Earth.

The Fellowship of the Ring

I'll admit right up front that the Peter Jackson adaptations of the famous Tolkien trilogy are littered with problems, the largest of which is the issue of turning a relatively sedate literary idyll that came complete with travelling songs and miles of history into an ADHD-addled action carousel, a kind of cross between Jerry Bruckheimer and a brainless monster movie. Having said that, the first movie in the trilogy is still a revelation. Everything from the casting to the visual design is excellent, and the showdown in Balin's tomb, one of the two great scenes in the trilogy, is dead on to the version in my head. The second and third movies got bogged down in their rather endless battle showpieces; they also wobbled in their portrayal of the source, with the exception of really nailing the fight between Eowyn, Merry, and the head Nazgul (the other great scene). I find it mostly bizarre that The Return of the King won a raft of Oscars, but I have to agree with the sentiment: even with the flaws in mind, this movie trilogy still leaves other fantasy movies choking on its magical, elven dust.

Other items I would give honorable mention to: Pan's Labyrinth, a fairy tale with a healthy dose of old-school grimness that suited the material; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a fabulous film which is a baffling inclusion on this list; Princess Mononoke, a movie which I wrote about here on Strange Horizons a few years ago; Amelie, also fabulous, also baffling that it's on this list; and King Kong, the 1930s version, which is still one of the best monster movies. In terms of movies for kids, Babe and Ratatouille are stellar picks.

The movies that I tracked down because of this list were either giant disappointments or passable at best. I thought that The 13th Warrior was fine but a very minor movie, like an episode of Xena that didn't make the cut. Three other movies were almost completely unwatchable: Dragonslayer, now known in my head as the movie where "that guy from Ally McBeal" drags down the tiniest epic ever filmed, and the one-two combo of The Last Unicorn and The Secret of NIMH, two animated movies of a certain style that died out in popularity not long after. I've always wondered at the nostalgia for animated movies of this era (let's call it pre-Aladdin); I'm stumped, frankly, since if you watch any of these as a grown-up, you'll be startled at the lack of quality and the rote manner in which the material is handled. I don't claim that more modern movies in the style of Shrek are a notably interesting replacement, but the computer animation era has at least produced a few classics, mostly from Pixar. Of all the movies I watched, only Watership Down passed the grade, and that one was because it was a more mature movie in animated form before such things were popular.

That's a wrap on the fantasy side, folks! Please let me know if I've missed any significant movies, either science fiction or fantasy.




James Schellenberg lives and writes in Ottawa. This column will be his last for Strange Horizons.
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27 Jul 2020

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