Friday, March 18th, 2011

Five Great Sci-Fi Comedies (and Three Awful Ones, Too)

Yesterday, we published a review of Paul, the new film from Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and how much of its humor comes from Pegg and Frost’s obsession with science fiction. Comedy and sci-fi, I’d argue, are the two genres with the most passionate fanbases, and to combine them is tricky, but potentially rewarding. Below are five of the finest sci-fi comedies and three of the worst.

#5. WALL-E
Science fiction films often portray a dystopian future, one where humans of the present (that’s us!) destroy the world for humans of the future. That’s basically the plot of WALL-E, but it’s not the first thing you think of when you think of Pixar’s second great sci-fi film (the other being The Incredibles); you think, “It’s so funny when WALL-E puts the bra over his eyes!” The first 30 minutes of the film are about as gorgeous, funny, and sci-fi as it gets, and because there’s hardly any dialogue, all the more impressive.

#4. Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie
This Island Earth, the film that Mike, Crow, and Tom lampoon in MST3K’s only theatrical release, made between the show’s sixth and seventh seasons, isn’t that awful of a movie — which makes MST3K: The Movie even more notable. It’s easy to make a fun of a bad movie, but to trash an average one is tougher, because you have to prove that it stinks to the audience. The Satellite of Love crew did just that (after watching The Movie for the first time, I remember thinking, “This Island Earth is fucking terrible”), and it functions both as everything a long-time fan looks for and a good introduction to newcomers.

#3. Galaxy Quest
A cult hit making fun of cult fans, Galaxy Quest’s biggest success is that it realized and exploited Tim Allen’s Kirk-like persona, which, to the actor’s credit, he was more than willing to go along with. Even Star Trek’s Sulu, George Takei, praised its realistic-yet-hilarious spoofing of fandom and the show that made him famous: “I think it's a chillingly realistic documentary…I was rolling in the aisles. And Allen had that Shatner-esque swagger down pat. I roared when the shirt came off, and Sigourney [Weaver] rolls her eyes and says, ‘There goes that shirt again’ How often did we hear that on the set?”

#2. Ghostbusters
You know how writers like to utter, “What’s left to say?” about a movie or TV show, and then spend 100 words opining about how great something is, even though they really admitted that literally everything about the subject has already been exclaimed. Well, to Ghostbusters, I’ll just declare one thing: “What’s left to say?”

#1. Back to the Future
In most cases, a film can only be considered great in one genre. For instance, Animal House is a great comedy, not a great comedy and thriller, while Citizen Kane’s a fantastic dramatic film, but not much of a thriller. Back to the Future is not only one of the greatest comedies of all-time, it’s also an amazing science fiction film (why else would thousands of words be written on its science?). Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd both have great comedic timing and wonderfully manic personas, and Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s script stays remarkably consistent. It’s also just as quotable (“You’re gonna see some serious shit,” “You know that new sound you’re looking for…”) as any more traditional comedy.

And the Worst…

#3. Purple People Eater
Maybe I should go easy on Purple People Eater because it’s meant to be a film for children, but so is WALL-E, so my wrath feels justified. A movie based on a novelty song is never a wise idea, especially when the song came out 30 years before the film was released, and not even Neil Patrick Harris and Ned Beatty can compensate for a script that really has nothing in common with said song. Plus, the song was sung by Jimmy Buffett in the unintentionally funny Contact, so this selection has LAYERS.

#2. Men in Black II
Everything that the first film did well, Men in Black II, in typical sequel fashion, made bigger and louder. Frank the Pug and the Worm Guys were very funny, briefly seen creatures in the original, but took on a much bigger role for MIB II, and they grew quickly tiresome. It almost feels that Barry Sonnenfeld & Co. tried to remake MIB, rather than make a sequel. There might be other worse sci-fi comedies, but none as disappointing as Men in Black II — can’t wait for the third!

#1. The Adventures of Pluto Nash
Some fun facts about Pluto Nash: it cost $100 million to make but only grossed $7 million in theaters (figure goes up to $32 million if you include video sales); the guy who wrote it, Neil Cuthbert, also penned 1989’s The Return of the Swamp Thing; its Rotten Tomatoes percentage is 6% (4 fresh, 68 rotten); and the Razzies called it one of the five worst comedies of the past 25 years, although it did lose Gigli. On the plus side…actually, there is no plus side. Pluto Nash is an awful sci-fi comedy and just a plain ol’ awful movie.

Josh Kurp wants to go back to the future.

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  • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

    Great list! I love sci-fi and I love comedy. My list would have been nearly identical. Maybe with Galaxy Quest – which I quote all the time – a little higher.

    But Back to the Future is just a perfect movie. From its BBC review: "nobody says anything that doesn't become important to the plot later. Exactly.

  • http://eavoss.com Erik Voss

    Agreed with Galaxy Quest. Apparently the film is studied in a number of script analysis classes around the country as having nearly perfect structure. And what a cast!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Max-Boschert-Zielsdorf/1061137029 Max Boschert Zielsdorf

    Oh is Ghostbusters a good movie? Did Pluto Nash not do well? Hadn't heard. Thanks fo the informative article.

  • Momboman

    It should be noted that the Galaxy Quest DVD has the Thermian language audio track as well.

  • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

    OH! And I'm in the if-you-watch-Starship-Troopers-as-a-comedy-it's-really-great camp. So add that to my list.

  • http://www.patdavid.net Pat David

    To add insult to injury – "The Purple People Eater" was _actually_ a one-eyed, one-horned, giant eater of *purple people*. The creature was not, in fact, purple:

    "I said Mr. Purple People Eater, what's your line
    He said it's eatin' purple people and it sure is fine
    But that's not the reason that I came to land
    I wanna get a job in a rock and roll band"

  • Some Guy

    Let's face it – Ghostbusters and BTTF aren't even really science fiction. The science aspects of those movies are secondary, and practically irrelevant. They're a paranormal action comedy, and a time travel paradox adventure with a lot of laughs respectively. Then MST3K which is just (hilarious, uproarious, some of the best) televised snark that got a movie because they could fill 2 hours for dirt cheap.
    And Wall-e is just a boring choice. Pixar done good? Wow.
    So you have Galaxy Quest as a legitimate choice.

    I'll help you fill in a legitimate five great sci-fi comedies with some suggestions:
    A) The Computer Wore Tennish oes. Either Kurt Russell or Kirk Cameron version. I know the gut reaction is to say that they're corny Disney slop but this slipped under a lot of radars with its often bleak comic insights into the nature of true intelligence and game show ethics.

    B) Demolition Man. I know your instinct is to say that this futuristic action movie isn't a comedy or maybe even sci-fi, but I think you'll find everything from ironic delight in the ludicrously transparent evil Utopian society, along with sincere chuckles at the playful censorship jokes, the satire of marketing as entertainment and the mystery of "the three shells". With Rob Schneider and Dennis Leary supplementing surprisingly gifted comedic talents of Sly Stallone and the oft forgotten clown soul possessed by Wesley Snipes(Major League, White Men Can't Jump), this is definitely overlooked.

    C) Sleeper. Yeah, yeah, Woody Allen. You either know he's great and have seen this or you're know of him but never got into it or whatever bullshit people have. Fuck you, watch it.

    D) Tank Girl. bla bla bla This movie is funny as shit.

    • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

      I agree with Demolition Man…..

  • Snazster

    Yar, pure Sci-Fi Comedy goes to Galaxy Quest as number one. For the really bad you HAVE to include Ice Pirates (oh lordy it was bad). And agree Sleeper should be considered for somewhere on the list — oddly, it's the only good movie Woody Allen ever made imho. I've only ever walked out of a theater on two movies and Annie Hall was one — then it got best picture over Star Wars. Maybe the Oscars should be considered a comedy.