Blogs > Liberty and Power > Let Him Through, He's A Scientist!

Aug 27, 2004 2:57 pm

Let Him Through, He's A Scientist!

According to a “group of international scientists,” the following are the top ten science-fiction films:

1. Blade Runner

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey

3. Star Wars+ The Empire Strikes Back

4. Alien

5. Solaris (1972 version)

6. The Terminator+T2:Judgement Day

7. The Day The Earth Stood Still

8. War of the Worlds

9. The Matrix

10. CE3K

I guess the group of scientists didn’t include any mathematicians, since that’s 12, not 10. But this list is seriously flawed in more significant ways. (I will not comment at all on #5, since I confess I’ve never seen that one –the others I’ve all seen multiple times.) First of all, can we please stop using the expression “science fiction” as a synonym for “has laser battles in space”? I was under the impression that, as a genre-defining term, science fiction was that branch of literature (and by extension films) which dealt with the effects of science or technology on the human condition, or which explores the human condition via science. I’m willing to interpret that pretty generously and include looks at future societies and so on. But much as I loved the original Star Wars, that’s clearly not science fiction – it’s a fantasy film with an interplanetary setting. Ok, that’s one. Next, as to the low position of The Day the Earth Stood Still: if you’re going to tell me that The Empire Strikes Back is better science fiction than Day, I’m going to have to ask you to step outside. Day (with hardly any laser battles, or FX of any kind) has so much more to say about people, society, the ethical ramifications of technology, etc. than most FX blockbusters that it really ought to rank higher. War of the Worlds, on the other hand, which I like very much, really doesn’t. (The screenplay bears almost no resemblance to Wells’ novel, which does.) It’s got many virtues, including the 50s Hollywood “scientists,” but as far as talking about anything serious via science/technology? No [Spoilers follow]: the Martians come, we can’t do anything about it, they virtually annihilate us, but they get sick from our microbes and all die, ergo God is great for creating microbes. That’s it?? Please. Here are some candidates the scientists probably ought to have included instead:

Forbidden Planet

Frankenstein (1931 version mostly, but I won’t quibble)

Things to Come (1936)

3 or 4 episodes of “The Outer Limits”, esp. Expanding Human, Demon with a Glass Hand, Soldier, The Inheritors, maybe one or two more. I’m sure there are other great films which are slipping my mind this moment, but the main point here is that there are at least a half-dozen better selections than 4 or 5 of the scientists’ top-10. By the way, I realize that I probably have violated some blogger ettiqute by not making hyperlinks to every title mentioned above. But look, you can go to IMDB as easily as I can.

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Aeon J. Skoble - 9/27/2004

It's not ridiculous - their physical appearance, right down to the hook nose, is classic caricature, centuries old, and to combine that with avaricious money-grubbing is too obvious to ignore. This doesn't necessarily mean that the writers were consciously expressing anti-semitism; hack writers often unconsciously fall into cliches and stereotypes.
Nice sarcasm RE Roddenberry, but perhaps you didn't realize that he wasn't writing much of the spin-off shows, and there were no Ferengi in the old show (and all the actors you mention were TOS actors).
That web page proves nothing. That the Ferengi are a classic antisemitic caricature doesn't mean that the whole show is deliberately anti-semitic, it just means it's offensive, and as I said, it's doubly offensive, in that besides the ancient anti-semitic tropes, it gets capitalism wrong too.

Bret Feinblatt - 9/25/2004

<<"I've never been sufficiently convinced that that the Ferengi were intended to be Jewish Capitalists (certainly not to the extent that I think the early DS9 Cardassians are intended to be Israelis; and by extension, the Bajorans are clearly Palestinian analogues) to be more bothered by the Ferengi than by the absurdly shallow racial formulations of the nerdy Vulcans, primitivist Klingons, prideful Romulans, or any of the other monocultural societies they encounter.">>

Funny how different people see things. I never saw the Cardassian/Bajoran thing as Israel/Palestine; more Soviets/Afghanistan in the 80s.

Bret Feinblatt - 9/25/2004

I've heard the old "Ferengis are code for Jews" bull for a while. This is a ridiculous argument. As far as I can tell, they're not a slam against Jews or capitalism, but more against those whose greed outweighs any sense of ethics or good.

Incidentally, Roddenberry (you've heard of him, right?) was Jewish as I recall; so are Nimoy and either Shatner or Koenig, I forget which one. (So am I, BTW)

Either way, it's unlikely that Roddenberry would have created a character that was intended to slam Jews, given (1) his being Jewish and (2) the intended message of Star Trek about diversity and mutual acceptance. This sort of anti-semitism charge is at best specious, and at worst just another example of people seeing anti-semitism behind every other word. I don't deny it exists - a quick check for hate groups on the web will show that - but to point at anything and everything and claim anti-semitism is just stupid, and in my book dilutes accusations when it actually exists.

Reminds me of a scene from a Woody Allen flick where Allen's character thinks someone from a music store is anti-semitic because the guy asked him if he'd like some Wagner.

Oh, I happened to come across this page; you may find it interesting:

Have a look, then get a grip.

Roderick T. Long - 9/1/2004

Case in point:

"This machine ... has access to the Congressional Library St. Louis Annex, does it not? ...

Certainly. Hooked into the Interlibrary Net, rather, though you can restrict a query to just one library."

-- conversation in Robert Heinlein's sf novel _I Will Fear No Evil_, published in *1970*.

Dan Schmutter - 9/1/2004

Actually, now that I think about it, the Star Trek communicators more closely resemble Nextel-like phones, rather than traditional cell phones. Not only do the Nextel phones have the walkie-talkie feature, like the communicators, but they also make that cool beep beep sound when someone's calling you in walkie-talkie mode.


Dan Schmutter - 9/1/2004

Aeon omits possibly one of the most significant objections to ST:TNG, which is the elevation of techno-babble script writing to an art form at the expense of actual drama.

It's amazing how easily a catasptrophic threat from a temporal anomaly can be resolved by a simple phase reversal on the holodeck's plasma calibration receptors. ;-)


Aeon J. Skoble - 9/1/2004

The first time Trek used time travel, they concluded by saying "hey, now we can go back in time whenever we want!" Fortunately, the writers had the good sense to do so very rarely.

Aeon J. Skoble - 9/1/2004

Another example is Trek: flip-phones, laptop computers, palm pilots, 3.5" floppies, laser surgery, etc.

Aeon J. Skoble - 9/1/2004

>Early on in ST:TNG, Picard mentions that the Federation >no longer uses money

Whereas in TOS, they do use money. It's some undefined "credits" but it's clearly some manner of exchange. See, e.g., the episodes with Harry Mudd, or The Trouble with Tribbles.

>Don't forget in ST IV, the original cast also talked >about how "oh, they still use money" in 1980s San
>Francisco, so it was hardly just TNG.

But it's still all post-1969 rethinks. ST IV takes place in the TOS world, but was the product of different writers and a different mindset, one I would argue is _more_ hostile to libertarian ideas than the 66-69 mindset.

Aeon J. Skoble - 9/1/2004

Sorry about that. David Gerrold's influential 1973 book _The World of Star Trek_ includes a lengthy discussion of what, in his view, was a stupidity in the show, viz., that Kirk and Spock were the main explorers. He argued that this is analogous to an Army colonel doing recon work, and therefore stupid. He's wrong about that; the better analogy is to age-of-exploration ship captains, not the captains of modern-day aircraf carriers. (Part of) Kirk's job _is_ to be the explorer. Anyway, Gerrold argues that what they should have done was have the Captain stay on the ship, and have some sort of "Away Team" do all the beaming down to strange new worlds. So when TNG first came on and made a big deal out of doing it that way, almost with a tone of superiority, I took it as a repudiation of the original vision of the show, which as a fan of the show, was off-putting. It was as if TNG was saying to fans of TOS "ok, grow up, we read Gerrold, now here's some _real_ sci-fi." They repudiated the old show in another off-putting way: the explicit mention of a nuclear holocaust on Earth in the pre-Starfleet days. In TOS they make it very clear that humans found the wisdom to avoid that. There's mention of a WWIII, but it was non-nuclear. This isn't just nit-picking geekery, it's thematically central -- finding the wisdom to avoid self-annihilation was a key element of Roddenberry's optimism about the human condition. Seeing out future as the result of "learning from" nuclear devastation (or worse, from paternalistic Vulcans) is a repudiation of the entire spirit of the old show. So there's that also.
And that's on top of the anti-semitism thing, and the capitalism-bashing, both of which I address elsewhere.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/1/2004

Bradbury predicted a lot more than that. My wife recently reread the book, and I summarized her findings:

Dan Schmutter - 9/1/2004

Speaking of good sci-fi and prescience, I am always impressed at how good science fiction can predict actual scientific or technological developments many years laters.

For example, in Farenheit 451 (1953) Ray Bradbury predicted the development of 24 hour access to bank accounts through ATMs.


Steven Horwitz - 8/31/2004

Watching "Demolition Man" right now, and I forgot about the bit about the "Schwartzenegger Library," so named after Arnold became president (once the 61st amendment was passed...). That's near-prescience and the sort of thing that good sci-fi gets right: the evolution of *culture,* which is much more difficult to imagine than the evolution of technology.

Steven Horwitz - 8/31/2004

Don't forget in ST IV, the original cast also talked about how "oh, they still use money" in 1980s San Francisco, so it was hardly just TNG. In any case, I am willing to forgive TNG these sorts of sins for the absolute beauty of episodes like "The Inner Light," or the thoughtfulness of "Whose Watching the Watchers?" or, yes, the libertarian themes of "The Offspring" where Picard's defense of Data's rights as a parent against the state/Starfleet is excellent.

Dan Schmutter - 8/31/2004

Star Trek also got the instantaneous-change thing right in City on the Edge of Forever


Dan Schmutter - 8/31/2004

Right. Sorry. I hate it when that happens.

Roderick T. Long - 8/31/2004

Early on in ST:TNG, Picard mentions that the Federation no longer uses money. I guess they solved that calculation problem somehow ....

A brighter moment: in ST:DS9, one time when one of the humans is off on the usual sanctimonious tirade against the greedy, profit-loving Ferengi, Quark (the show's main Ferengi character) responds by saying something like "Criticise us all you want, but at least there are no death camps in my planet's history; we prefer trading with people rather than killing them."

Trivia item: libertarian sf writer Melinda Snodgrass was chief story editor on ST:TNG for two seasons. I forget which two.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/30/2004

I would agree that the economics of Star Trek is sloppy, contradictory, undeveloped (also that Stewart and Burton were the best of the ensemble and that the technology 'start-value' promoted an escalation of problems and conflicts that was detrimental to drama). It's not entirely clear that capitalism is unappreciated, as there is a great deal of exchange and trade going on. It's just not explained well. I would argue that members of a paramilitary organization like StarFleet, much as members of our own military, are not trained in, responsible for or particularly interested in economic matters, and that their needs are sufficiently provided for by the institution (and the overboard technology) that it just didn't come up much.

I would also point out that the entire concept of race and culture in the ST system is highly essentialized, stereotyped, shallow.

The Ferengi are no different. They are given a culture with a single dimension, from which only very, very rare individuals diverge. But, and I'm as sensitive to anti-Semitic portrayal as any Jew, I've never been sufficiently convinced that that the Ferengi were intended to be Jewish Capitalists (certainly not to the extent that I think the early DS9 Cardassians are intended to be Israelis; and by extension, the Bajorans are clearly Palestinian analogues) to be more bothered by the Ferengi than by the absurdly shallow racial formulations of the nerdy Vulcans, primitivist Klingons, prideful Romulans, or any of the other monocultural societies they encounter.

By the way, I'm not familiar with the 'Gerrold Critique': could you clarify?

Aeon J. Skoble - 8/30/2004

I've never watched Babylon 5, so I can't comment on it's qualities. I was not, however, impressed with ST:TNG, but to be fair, it's possible I missed something, as I only watched regularly for the first, oh, year and a half before tuing out, and some say it did get better. I though it (a) was derivative, sometimes to the point of plagiarism, (b) was too PC, (c) was more poorly acted than old Trek (with the exception of Patrick Stewart, who is terrific, and LeVar Burton, who is quite good also), (d) had worse FX than the original show, the lame CGI actually looking worse than the old models/blue screen technology, (e) suffered too much from anything-goes-itis, what with the Q and the Borg, the souped-up replicators, the souped-up holodeck, etc., (f) implicitly disrespected the old show by instantiating the Gerrold critique, which was wrong to begin with, and perhaps worst of all, (g) traded on the worst anti-semitic caricatures to bash capitalism in the form of the avaricious, money-grubbing, deceitful jews, I mean Ferengi. Even if I'm off-base on points a-f above, no lover of Jews or capitalism should tolerate a show that is so blatanly anti-semitic and anti-capitalism.

Aeon J. Skoble - 8/30/2004

Roderick, it's true of course that big business "is often in league with government and eager to advance itself through force and government favouritism [sic] rather than through peaceful trade and commerce," but Lucas hardly seems to be advancing that line. He's just recycling the generic trade-is-bad line that is all too familiar in Hollywood. Note how, in the first movie, Tatooine's seemingly laissez-faire society is dominated by thugs and criminals - Mos Eisly is a wretched hive of scum and vilainy. By the time we get to the fourth film, it's a slave society! Lucas thinks that unfettered capitalism = domination by criminal gangs and the enslavement of others. Is that "consistent with the libertarian vision"?

Aeon J. Skoble - 8/30/2004

Dan, Reese isn't Sarah Connor's son. He's the father of John. I'm sure that's what you meant to say ;-)

I agree that 12 Monkeys does an excellent job handling the time-travel paradox. Not sure it would make my ten-best list. I'll have to give that some thought. I'd be interested in seeing the top-10 list of the pariticipants in this thread.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/29/2004

Babylon 5 is the reason I stopped enjoying the ST series, to be honest. It was so much better.... As an historian, I particularly appreciated the care and attention which went into the backstory, future, and forces active in the present, not to mention contemporary analogies. And the characters..... G'Kar and Londo's parallel development ranks up there with some of the finest novelistic writing.

Joe C Maurone - 8/29/2004

I have read Chris's post on Yoda, fear, hate and the dark side years ago, but was recently reminded of it while recently reading James Hillman's THE DREAM AND THE UNDERWORLD. He brings up some very interesting relations between hate and the hero that I don't think Lucas was aware of (but maybe Yoda was?) but does certainly have some relation to what Yoda says:

"The convertability of underworld figures into upperworld actions nowhere shows better than in the image complex of Styx. The frigid river Styx (whose name, 'hateful,' or 'hatred,' derives from stygeo, 'to hate') is the deepest source of the God's morality, for on its water they swear their oaths, implying that hatred plays an essential part in the universal order of things. Besides such originating and ordering principles as Eros, and Strife…and Necessity…and Reason…we must also make a place for Hatred in the scheme of things. Styx's children are called Zellus (zeal), Nike (victory), Bia (force), and Cratos (strength). Their mother's cold hatefulness is converted by them into those implacable traits we have come to accept as virtues. Her children provide the prototypes for that crusading morality which accompanies the ego on its righteous task of destroying in order to maintain itself. (57-58)
"Hateful mother Styx and her hyperactive children did not escape the notice of Freud, who puts them into the conceptual language of hate and ego. First he distinguishes between hate and love, saying that hate is older than love (CP 5:82) and that they 'did not originate in a cleavage of any common primal element, but sprang from different sources' (ibid, p.81). Hate, in other words, derives from its own ground and serves a distinct purpose in 'the ego':'The ego hates, abhors, and pursues with intent to destroy all objects which are for it a source of painful feelings…the true prototypes of the hate-relation are derived not from the sexual life but from the struggle of the ego for self-preservation and self-maintenance.'
"Freud's fantasy that the ego must preserve itself by struggle (for which strength, force, zeal, and victory become requirements), and the moral justification with which these qualities support the fantasy, is a Stygian enactment in the upperworld. The ego has become Styx's instrument, a Child of Hatred, icily preserving itself against all enemies, the greatest of which will be warmth, hence our usual notion that hate and love are contraries. Actually, hate has the same objective as love, according to Freud. Both seek pleasure, for which hatred used the ego to destroy pain. Each of us becomes a child of Styx when we embark on the pain-killing course, justifying our victories and zeal in destruction in terms of 'self-preservation' and 'ego-development.'"(59-59)
"The dissolution of these attitudes would mean reconverting the zeal and force of our ego-strength back into the hatred that is its source. Then we would see the hatred in our heroics." (59)

Roderick T. Long - 8/29/2004

P.S. - Despite having a certain fondness for Star Wars, I think Babylon 5's portrayal of Londo's fall to the "dark side" is far more compelling and insightful than Star Wars' portrayal of Anakin's similar trajectory.

Roderick T. Long - 8/29/2004

As long as we're geeking, I'll add another $0.02:

I think that ST:DS9 was better than ST:TNG, and that Babylon 5 was better than both.

On Star Wars: the connection between the Republic-to-Empire transition in Star Wars and the Republic-to-Empire transition in Roman history has often been noted, but as a result of reading a lot of French history lately I think the transition from the 1848 Republic to the 1852 Empire may be an even closer analogy. The conservatives in the legislature embraced Louis Bonaparte's presidency because they saw him as the only figure who could quell the radicals. They thought he was safe because he had sworn a solemn oath to uphold the Constitution. Once he seized power and declared himself Emperor, he quelled the radicals all right, and the conservatives too, with mass arrests and mass murder. He had most of the legislature arrested. Napoleon III seems a closer model for Palpatine than does either Julius or Augustus Caesar.

PALPATINE: "It is with great reluctance that I have agreed to this calling. I love democracy, I love the Republic. The power you give me I will lay down when this crisis has abated. And as my first act with this new authority, I will create a grand army of the Republic to counter the increasing threats of the separatists." (Threats that Palpy himself has of course been secretly orchestrating.) You gotta cut some slack to any movie that contains that line ....

Roderick T. Long - 8/29/2004

What's wrong with bashing big business? There's a long and honourable libetarian tradition of doing so. Big business -- in the Star Wars universe and in the real universe -- is often in league with government and eager to advance itself through force and government favouritism rather than through peaceful trade and commerce, and is one of the main forces driving the expansion of the state.

I'm not suggesting that Lucas himself holds the libertarian rather than the socialist version of business-bashing; but as he tells the story in the movies it's perfectly consistent with the libertarian version.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/28/2004

Sorry, Flash Gordon....

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 8/28/2004

Well, let me add one more cent to this. I genuinely enjoyed the original "Star Wars" trilogy, whatever philosophical problems it had. As pure entertainment, the films were a thrilling romp. And, yes, the quality has deteriorated since then---but there is still much to enjoy in the series. That scene with Yoda taking on Christopher Lee in the last film is just classic beyond words.

And, believe it or not, I even find points of intersection between Yoda and... (drum roll): Ayn Rand. See here on the shared notion that there are reciprocal relationships among fear, anger, and hatred.

Okay, now let me go duck for cover.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/28/2004

Star Wars wasn't the first "laser battles in space" movie (think of the old Flash Armstrong stuff) by a long shot, so I can't, in good conscience, place the blame on Lucas for that genre.

2001 definitely deserves credit it doesn't usually get for the realism of its spaceflight, which set a standard rarely matched since.

And though Aeon might indeed get started when I say this, I agree that ST:TNG did a fantastic job of raising and examining a myriad of real scientific/moral issues. Was it fantastic television, in a technical sense? No. But it was very much in the thriving F/SF short-story tradition, where ideas can be played with on a small scale that might not work on a large scale.

Aeon J. Skoble - 8/28/2004

Steve, I have a long rant about why Empire is not an improvement, which I'll be happy to share with you on request.
RE point 2, I agree entirely. Note that that did _not_ have the same dumbing down effect as the FX in Star Wars did.
RE ST:TNG - don't get me started! ;-)

Aeon J. Skoble - 8/28/2004

I don't take Vader's dehumanization to be the result of technology. Going over to the Dark Side is a moral failing. He's not even that much if a tech head- he admonishes Tarkin not to be too proud of the technological marvel, reminding him them that it's no match for the force (which turns out to be correct). It's not clear that the technology is thematically central here at all - compare, e.g., Kurosawa's _Yojimbo_. The main bad guy introduces firearms into the sword culture -- that's technology-as-plot-point, but it's hardly sci-fi.

Aeon J. Skoble - 8/28/2004

Yes, good points - that's one reason I liked RoboCop- the social satire that this look at a near-future society afforded.

Steven Horwitz - 8/28/2004

Worst sci-fi film of recent vintage: The Fifth Element. What a freakin' mess that thing is. Even the gorgeous redhead in the band-aid outfit can't save it!

Underrated recent sci-fi film: <ducks> Demolition Man. Yes, it's a big shoot-em-up, but there are some interesting things in there. I love the way they took aspects of current culture and twisted them around to whole new uses (the commercial jingles as the staples of oldie pop radio, for example). Several good examples of the unpredictability of social evolution. And I still want to know how to use the three shells...

To me, that's where the best sci-fi works and the worst falls down: it can imagine a technological future, but it has no clue as to how that technology is mostly likely to appear in commercial and consumer forms. Imagine someone writing sci-fi about the Internet 50 years ago. Would they have imagined networked computers being used so heavily for commerce? For, uh, adult entertainment? The best would have, I would argue.

Aeon J. Skoble - 8/28/2004

Libertarian? The main villains are the "trade federation." Generic bashing of "business interests," of capitalism and globalization. It glorifies queens and princesses and lords. But you make an interesting point about Vader - I'll give that some thought.

Steven Horwitz - 8/28/2004

This conversation takes me back... As an undergrad econ/phil double major at Michigan, I took a "Philosophy of Space and Time" course from Larry Sklar, who I later learned is at the very top of the philosophy profession on these issues. I adored that course and Sklar, who was the model of the great scholar AND teacher, as we talked about a whole bunch of cool stuff, these sorts of paradoxes included. I wound up writing my term paper on "The Planet of the Apes" movies, raising just the sorts of issues we're raising here. When I got the paper back, I got a 98/100 from Sklar. I've done a lot of stuff to be proud of in the last 20 years, but that 98 ranks up there with any of them. :)

Steven Horwitz - 8/28/2004

Three comments, and I hate myself for finally breaking down and posting in this thread :)

1. I thought Empire Strikes Back was better than the first one, and a bit more thoughtful. Otherwise, I largely agree with both the benefits and costs of Star Wars.

2. 2001 does not get the credit it deserves for its FX. Some look cheesy today, but most still look great. And Kubrick did it all "low-tech." A woman walking upside down in a spacecraft would be easy to do with computers today, but to have thought to fix the camera to the set, and then rotate the set while she walked in place, was pure genius.

3. I may get hammered for this from many quarters, but I think some of the most intelligent, thoughtful sci-fi ever done is Star Trek: The Next Generation. There are several episodes of that show that rank among the best, most intellgient TV ever and can reasonably be compared to the best sci-fi films we've all been talking about.

Roderick T. Long - 8/28/2004

I think Aeon may be underestimating the extent to which Vader's character is about dehumanization via technology. The conflict between humanism and technology is a theme that runs through the original trilogy: e.g. Obi-wan's ghost telling Luke to turn off the remote and use his intuition instead, Obi-wan's telling Luke that Vader is now more machine than man, the super-duper tech powers of the Empire vs. low-tech Rebels and even lower-tech Ewoks ....

And in defense of the more recent movies, I'll point out that their central theme is a libertarian and timely one: how an apparently benevolent government manufactures crises and then uses those crises as an excuse to exapnd its powers "temporarily" -- a process that ends up converting a peaceful republic into a warmongering empire.

Aeon J. Skoble - 8/28/2004

Darth Vader isn't really "saying" anything - he's another iteration of the powerful-and-menacing-villain trope. His technology in the service of evil isn't significantly different, IMO, from a wild-west gunslinger or a nazi fighter plane.
OTOH, you're completely right about the original RoboCop.

John G. Pappas - 8/28/2004

Aeon, why is not Darth Vader saying something about the human condition via technology or technological advancement - technology in the service of evil? In the opposite sense, what about the original Robo Cop? I thought that a good sci-fi film, if that meets your criteria? Oui?

John G. Pappas - 8/28/2004

Has anyone ever seen The Thirteenth Floor (or 13th Floor)? It's pretty good in my humble opinion and it begins philosophically enough with Descartes "I think, therefore, I am". I liked it. Saw the original Solaris and it was good but way way way too long and I've seen my share of long movies. But still worth watching.

Aeon J. Skoble - 8/28/2004

Yes, that sounds right.

Aeon J. Skoble - 8/28/2004

I agree that Star Wars deserves kudos for groundbreaking FX, but on my more cynical days I think that may have been a net bad for sci-fi. Now, FX trumps plot considerations, acting, etc. in the minds of studio heads, and intelligent, non-FX-oriented sci fi (think Day The Earth Stood Still) is rare. Plus, it's largely Star Wars (and moronic responses to it from film critics) that produced the false synonymy between "sci fi" and "laser battles in space." Lucas himself bears responsibility, since the sequels have been progressively worse and worse.

Aeon J. Skoble - 8/28/2004

I concur - shame on me for neglecting that. I'll have a look at the list Roderick linked to when I get a moment.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/28/2004

Actually, I would argue that Terminator is entirely based on a Grandfather paradox: the mission of the Terminator was to eliminate someone so annoying that they would send someone into the past (a huge effort) to target them, when success in the mission would imply the negation of the need for the mission, thus making the mission not happen so that Connor would, in fact become a problem.... it's still the same paradox.

You can add on the implausibility that a person could follow you back to stop you, since presumably any changes you make in the past happen, effectively, instantaneously in the present. (TimeCop got that right)

Joe C Maurone - 8/27/2004

Aeon, may I suggest that E.T. is less about the science fiction and more about mythology, in the same wau that Star Wars was based on the hero cycle? George Lucas, as you may know, modeled SW on the hero cycle as described in Joseph Campbell's THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, and Spielberg has a recurring theme similiar to Jung's theory of adolescent individuation.

Dan Schmutter - 8/27/2004

Honestly, how can a list which contains Waterworld be taken seriously?

Still, the list reminded me of Colossus - The Forbin Project, which is the original supercomputers-take-over-the-world film and still the best. That film belongs on the top ten list.


Dan Schmutter - 8/27/2004

One film which does a nearly perfect job with respect to time travel is Twelve Monkeys -- a highly underrated film in my view.

If you pay close attention to the various instances of time travel in the film (and there are quite a few), they only run into the paradox once. In every other instance it is done correctly.

That is why it is typically a good idea to simply avoid time travel in the first instance, unless the author is going to pay particularly close attention, which they almost never do, but which the author clearly did in Twelve Monkeys.

By the way, I disagree that The Terminator is especially bad in this regard (unless you mean T2 and T3 in which case I agree). The paradox presented in The Terminator is not an essential plot element. [Spoilers follow.] If the Reese-as-Sarah-Connor's-son thing is removed from the film, the story remains intact. It's annoying, but it is forgivable because the entire film doesn't depend on it. Its simply thrown in there for its twist appeal.

Remove it and the film is just as good, if not better.


Jonathan Dresner - 8/27/2004

The Time Travel Paradox is a plot line in which there is a single future (multiple branching futures don't have this problem, at least not if they're handled properly). If someone from the future affects the past in such a way as to substantially change the future, then it is unlikely that someone from that future would come back to make the change.

This is sometimes refered to as the "Grandfather Paradox": if you go back in time and kill your grandfather before your parent is born, then you would never exist, and could not, in fact, have come back into the past to kill your grandfather.

Terminator and TimeCop are the worst perpetrators of the paradox, but it's pretty common. Back to the Future has the virtue of being funny about it....

Star Trek's "City on the Edge of Forever" (by Harlan Ellison) skirted it by having them fix the changes, allowing the future to indeed unfold in their direction again, and subsequent Star Treks have (usually) adhered to the dictum that "if you end up in the past, don't change it!" (in later shows, it's called the Temporal Prime Directive, or something like that).

All time best time travel story ever: Robert Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps", in which time travel is a closed circle of causality.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/27/2004

Yes, it's a space opera, and 'science' is hardly central to its plot (or particularly thought-provoking when it is). But the glory of the Star Wars films is in their landmark visual presentation.

For the first time, the special effects were used consistently and effectively to create palpably different environments, including (and quite a range of them, which was unusual) planets, spaceships, cultures and institutions.

The fact that we are having a discussion of 'best SF movies' owes a huge debt to the technological revolution created and popularized by Lucas' productions.

Roderick T. Long - 8/27/2004

Here's a nice list of some classics. I'm sure there are some good ones that aren't on there -- and Aeon with his cruelly high standards for what counts as science-fiction will probably want to kick some off that are on there -- but it's a good start:

Aeon J. Skoble - 8/27/2004

Dan, for the benefit of our many readers, please explain what you mean by "the time travel paradox."

Aeon J. Skoble - 8/27/2004

Planet of the Apes is clearly sci-fi - the technology in question is [spoilers!] a nuclear bomb, and in general the ape society offers food for thought w.r.t ours.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers - I guess not. The mere fact that the pods are from outer space doesn't make it science fiction, and indeed pods aren't technology, they're biology - it's like a disease film, I guess. If they used sci/tech to defeat them, then maybe - I'm thinking "The Andromeda Strain" or "Terminal Man" which are both med-thrillers _and_ sci fi (I guess there's an obvious sense in which sticklers could claim that all med-fi is sci-fi, but you get the distinction, no?).
Jurassic Park would have to qualify as sci-fi, although I don't think it's _great_ sci fi.
ET - tougher call. The visitor-from-another-world theme is clearly a subgenre of sci-fi - certainly the visitor uses technology! - so one could argue that it would count, even though it's got more in common with children's fantasy films. If the ET weren't from another planet, but, say, Atlantis, or some lost island of talking bears, no one would call it sci fi, so does it qualify as sci-fi _just_ because it's extraterrestrial? Maybe not.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 8/27/2004

How about movies like "Planet of the Apes" (the original), or "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"? How do you classify such films? Sci-fi? Horror? Monster movies? And what about Spielberg films like "ET" or "Jurassic Park"? The, uh, "interpenetration" of genres here is a bit astounding... just wondering how you'd classify them.

Aeon J. Skoble - 8/27/2004

Yes, the original War of the Worlds is terrific, don't get me wrong, but as top-10 sci fi, it can't hope to make the cut, for the reason I mentioned. The George Pal Time Machine is better in that regard - I'll have to think about whether that should be on a top-10 list. Whereas I _don't_ have to think about Forbidden Planet (should be) or Empire Strikes Back (shouldn't be).

Aeon J. Skoble - 8/27/2004

I mean "certainly" -- Chris, is there no way to edit comments?

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 8/27/2004

I didn't particularly care for it, to be honest. Truth is, I loved the original "War of the Worlds" and the original "Time Machine"---and it is no coincidence that they were both George Pal productions. Something about that classic 50s sci-fi that still gets me. :)

They were also immensely influential films in the sci-fi genre.

Aeon J. Skoble - 8/27/2004

Yes, I just learned about that. Be interesting to see what they make of it. I missed the recent remake of The Time Machine - was that any good?

Aeon J. Skoble - 8/27/2004

Dan has pointed out precisely one of the films I was referring to as having slipped my mind but which certaonly deserve mention - When Worlds Collide is interesting for exactly the reasons Dan cites.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 8/27/2004

Aeon, as always, very interesting! You might be surprised to learn that Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise are re-making the classic "War of the Worlds." Check it out here.

Dan Schmutter - 8/27/2004

Any film that so blatantly commits the time travel fallacy like Terminator 2 cannot possibly be on this list. (Terminator does it as well, but I don't consider it a critical plot element as it clearly is in T2.)

A film that I think needs to be on the list (and which nicely segues into this blog) is When Worlds Collide. The film has very interesting things to say about private efforts to preserve the human race from destruction in the face of failure by the government.