Inspired by the recent spate of “top ten monsters” posts around the blogs, I thought I might post one of my own. Being a contrarian by nature, however, I decided that I’d take a stab at listing my favorite genre films (which includes science fiction, fantasy, and horror). Some of these have had an overt influence on my gaming over the years, but most have not. I was originally going to post a top ten list, but in compiling it, I discovered that all the Usual Suspects* were there, and that what I had to say about them had been said a million times before. So here I present my top genre films of all time, numbers 11-20, which I think are actually a more interesting and varied list than the top ten.
20. Rollerball. This is perhaps one of the most thoughtful social-commentary science fiction films ever made, and yet the brains were mostly overlooked because of the spectacle of the violent game itself. The idea that the nations of the world are bankrupt and no more, and the planet is run solely by a group of large corporations (Food, Energy, Communications, Transportation, Luxury, etc.) is a powerful one, and one which could have some bearing on contemporary events, come to think of it. The social implications of such a world order are artfully explored here, from the naming conventions (executives are always addressed as “Mr.”, while non-execs only seem to have a first name, with the sole exception being “Jonathan E.”, who exists in his own in-between world, above the level of the common proles by virtue of his skill at Rollerball, while still under the thumb of the executive class, one of whom took Jonathan’s wife from him) to the fact that knowledge itself is under assault because the executives don’t care about anything except running their businesses. “Poor old thirteenth century” indeed.
19. Forbidden Planet. One of the all-time classics of the genre, and one of the early “serious” science fiction films, plus the one that introduces Robby the Robot (who would then go on to appear in dozens of science fiction movies and TV shows, including the original Twilight Zone and Lost in Space), plus Leslie Neilson in a wonderful non-comedic role. Even setting aside the special effects (which still stand up pretty well even today) and the very fetching eye candy (Anne Francis with a habit of not wearing a whole helluva lot), this film has a very important theme at its core. No matter how sophisticated we become, no matter how urbane and rational on the outside, deep within our cores we are still animals, with the passions and needs of animals. In the case of the Krell, they had forgotten this simple truth, to their doom.
18. Beneath the Planet of the Apes. This is actually my favorite of all the ‘Apes films, probably because it seems to me to be the most science-fictiony. What strikes me is that the natural reaction of the mutants beneath the ruins of New York should be to see the astronauts from the past (Brent and Taylor) as allies. After all, they’ve all got a mutual enemy in the apes, and even if the astronauts don’t have the mental powers of the mutants, they’re still fellow humans, right? WRONG! The mutants treat Taylor and Brent as completely inferior, no better than the feral humans who populate the land and raid the apes’ crops. They aren’t “Children of the Bomb”, so they’re not worth dealing with on any sort of an equal basis. For all their veneer of civility, the mutants are just as haughtily unconcerned with humans as the apes are. That realization comes as a punch to the gut that the nightmare just won’t get any better– you think you’ve found some allies? Oh, boy, did you think wrong…
17. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. I am a sucker for these Ray Harrihausen movies, and this is my pick of the litter. It edges out Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger only because I think Prince Kura (played by Tom Baker of Dr. Who fame) is a stronger villain than Queen Zenobia, and so often these sorts of films are defined by their bad-guy. This one doesn’t have any subtle meaning or deeper purpose; it’s flat-out adventure and a showcase for amazing stop-motion photography. I can’t help but think that this would have made a great adventure module, perhaps for Al Qadim. The quest, complete with puzzles to be solved, the monsters, some controlled by the villain and others a danger for both sides, and of course the great treasures to be won at the end. Textbook.
16. Westworld. I am not, as a rule, a fan of Michael Creighton. As a technophile myself, I find his attitude of scare-mongering about every possible technological advance to be not only tedious but downright dangerous. However, this is a terrific movie, and a terrific concept. An immersive amusement park with period role-playing for adults? I am so there. (And for the record, put me down for Medieval World, with Roman World a close second.) Between this and Dream Park, my head still swims with the possibilities. I think I like the first half of the film better, when the park is actually running as it should, and we not only see it from the POV of the guests, but also the behind-the-scenes action when the park closes down at night and the robots are taken underground to be repaired and otherwise fixed up. The last part of the movie, when the robots go on an unexplained killing spree, is less cool in my estimation, but it’s a fair treatment of the “humanity wins because the human spirit is unbowed” theme. It also has, as far as I know, one of the earliest “he’s-not-dead-yet” endings, which we see used to such great effect in Friday the 13th and The Terminator. Skip the entirely dreadful sequel, Futureworld, though.
15. The Incredibles. I’m not quite an Objectivist, but boy do I agree with the main point of this movie. If people aren’t allowed to excel using their innate talents, then the world is doomed to banal mediocrity. Or, as the film’s villain puts is oh-so-well; “Because when everybody’s super… nobody will be.” It is the story of the straining of the super-able against the constraints imposed upon them by the world at large. They are not content to simply keep their heads down and conform. Even among the supers we never see, we are told by inference that they all jump at the chance to use their powers once again and help defeat Syndrome’s robot (of course, they didn’t know it was a trick and a trap, but that’s not the point; they still agreed to go). Dash, the super-speedy pre-teen, is the voice of that theme; he chafes at not being allowed to go out for the track team, even if he promises to “only win by a little”. At the end, though, the supers come through and the populace seems to finally have gotten over their fear and need to constrain them, so there’s a happy ending.
14. Soylent Green. Looked at purely in terms of story, this is a pretty straightforward police-detective story, with the twist revealing a corporate conspiracy to deceive the public. But neither the story nor the characters are what shine in this film; it is the setting itself. The unimaginably crowded city of New York (which has grown so much that it has completely overwhelmed New Jersey and now shares a border with Philadelphia!) and the exquisitely-crafted vision of a planet in the final throws of an ecological and economic crisis. Unemployment is the norm, greenhouse effect warming is in full effect (a rarity, considering this was made in the early 1970’s, way before the global warming scare, and indeed at a time when the same folks now complaining about warming were worried about global cooling!), food is rationed for the masses and even barely available for the topmost echelons of society (a former member of the board of directors of the largest corporation in the world can barely get a piece of what we would consider raggedy beef) and assisted suicide is free and tacitly encouraged. The whole effect bears down with an oppressive feel, and that is the point. The viewer feels tired at the end, weary in the way the inhabitants of this world must feel. Once the terrible secret is revealed, nobody in the church really seems to care all that much, and you get the impression that “going home” is about the only thing left to do.
13. Halloween. This is one of the scariest damn movies ever made, and one of the least gory. It’s a very Hitchcockian piece of work; you, the audience, know that Michael Meyers is out there, in the stolen station wagon and in his old house, but WHY DON’T ANY OF THE PEOPLE SEEM TO NOTICE!? Can’t they hear that terrifically spooky music playing in the background? They’re just going about their ordinary, hum-drum lives. Going to school. Babysitting. Watching scary movies on TV. Trick-or-treating. Pumpkin carving. Unprotected underage sex. Normal everyday stuff. The film does a great job of ratcheting up the tension, keeping you going because you know something is going to happen and you just don’t know exactly when it’s going to happen. And then their normality is shattered, particularly that of Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), when a psychotic killing machine shows up apparently at random. They make an attempt to tie Michael and Laurie closer together in the sequel, but it’s both unconvincing and unnecessary; I think the random angle makes him all the scarier, because it could happen to you even if you aren’t the long-lost sister of a psycho. The fact that the grown-ups are either Keystone Kops-level incompetents (like the sheriff) or actively refuse to help (the house that Laurie goes to after Michael takes his first stab at killing her (pun intended) turns their lights out when she bangs on the door).
12. A Nightmare on Elm Street. Freddie Krueger is one of the great villain characters of all time. He’s completely unstoppable in a supernatural sense, but never just goes ahead and kills his victims. He takes the time to make elaborate set-ups specifically to maximize the terror of his victims. That his attacks all occur during the one time our species is both absolutely helpless and absolutely cannot avoid– sleep– makes him all the more horrific. His penchant for pithy one-liners adds a dimension of humor to the character that is absolutely essential. A Freddy without the comedic undertones (but which deftly avoids straight-out comedy, at least in the first film) would be a much less interesting character, perhaps critically so. The teenagers that do populate the film are only there for the slaughter; no amount of heroism on their part will save the day (unlike in Halloween, where Laurie is able to fight off Michael). The shock ending of the film, which reveals the dream-within-a-dream recursive presumably to infinity, demonstrates that Freddy always gets the last laugh.
11. Alien. Perhaps one of the more obvious selections on the list, this is still a film I will stop channel-surfing for and watch all the way through. It’s a sort of “anti-Star Trek”; everything is grimy and worn, only the most tight-assed crewman even bothers to wear a uniform (and even that turns out to be a subtle cue that something-ain’t-quite-right-with-Ash). Volumes have been written on just how cool the alien itself is, and how effective the technique of never actually showing the beast except in the briefest, shadow-gloomed glimpses. It’s a very Lovecraftian way of approaching things, leaving the rest to the imagination, which will always– always– be worse than anything you could possibly show on the screen. As the crew of the Nostromo gets picked off one by one, you really feel the loss, because the characters are so well-written. Every piece of dialog is packed with meaning and character; whether its as foreshadowing or simply to engender empathy. I personally find the “director’s cut” to be somewhat lessened in its effect than the theatrical release, and so, apparently, does Ridley Scott. If you have a chance to choose when watching the DVD, skip the director’s cut.
* For the record, the top ten were, in reverse order, The Terminator, Spiderman 2, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Aliens, Jurassic Park, The Dark Knight, LotR: The Two Towers, The Matrix, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Ho-hum.