The 8 Dumbest Alien Invasion Plans in Cinema

Look out, alien dude! It's water!

Any reasonable person must agree that there is life in space, even if we haven’t discovered any direct evidence for it yet. And speaking statistically (look up Drake’s Equation), there must be other intelligent, tool-using life forms with whom we could conceivably communicate.

If I were forced to place a bet, I’d say that the human race will never encounter another intelligent species, if only because they will be so remote in space and time. I’d like to be wrong, and I sincerely hope that SETI will identify an artificial radio signal before I die. That would be preferable to actual alien visitors, who may wish to invade, or exploit us, or force their culture on us, or accidentally kill us all off with alien viruses. Or anally probe us.

If the aliens do decide to invade our world, I hope they are as stupid as the aliens in many science fiction films. I guess if you postulate that a species that is technologically far superior to our own wants to kill or exploit us, humanity’s only hope is that the aliens are unaccountably stupid. Of course, a science fiction author can postulate intellectually inferior extraterrestrials who nonetheless make use of advanced space flight technology, a la Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Footfall. But the explanation for the aliens’ cretinousness must be compelling.

The actual explanation for why movie aliens are so dumb? Lazy writing, and/or film producers and studio execs who don’t understand science fiction. Instead of inventing plausible circumstances under which humans could defeat aliens, they cheat.

There is a second option, what I call the Robotech Option – let the aliens win. On Robotech, the scrappy crew of the SDF-1 must protect the Earth from the Zentraedi fleet. How can one ship defeat over a 4.8 million alien warships? The answer – it can’t. The Earth is destroyed. Humanity does eventually eliminate the Zentraedi threat through cultural imperialism (Chinese pop singers as deadly alien-slaying viruses), yet the damage to Earth is done.

But movie studios seem to feel uncomfortable with the Robotech Option, so they make the aliens idiots. Here are the 10 dumbest alien invasions from cinema.

The ground rules:

1.) I’m only doing movies. Stupid alien invasions from novels, television, video games, comic books and the works of Harry Turtledove will have to be dealt with another time.
2.) I’m not reviewing or criticizing the film itself. I am taking its depiction of alien invasion at face value, and mocking the foolishness of the aliens.
3.) The aliens must be invading; idiotic behavior from friendly or neutral aliens will not be covered.
4.) As always, please read the whole damn article before commenting.

That's great, stay in that position. The reception is perfect!

That's great, stay in that position. The reception is perfect!

8. Robot Monster, 1953

The Great Guidance, the leader of an alien world populated by large gorillas wearing diving helmets, decides that humanity must be destroyed. He sends Ro-Man, another large gorilla wearing a diving helmet, to Earth, armed with nothing but a Calcinator Death Ray device and a bubble-making machine.

Ro-Man uses the Calcinator Ray to kill every human being on Earth except for eight – six people hiding in a suburban tract house and two on board an orbiting space station. All eight are immune to the Calcinator Ray because they took a serum developed by the last living scientist. Yes, a serum that protects you from a death ray. Accepting this at face value, shouldn’t the aliens who invented the Calcinator have known it could be defeated with a serum? Instead of a weapon the operation of which depends on the blood chemistry of its targets, perhaps they should have just brought along nuclear warheads.

Anyway. Ro-Man tries to kill the last humans, but their tract house is defended by an invisible force field – so invisible in fact, that the filmmakers felt no need to represent it using special effects. The obvious question is, why does Ro-Man care that there are still six humans left on Earth? What could those six humans possibly do to harm him? They’re trapped behind their force field, stuck in a tract house!

In the end, Ro-Man falls in love with the last hot chick, despite the fact she’s a nearly hairless alien primate who doesn’t have the decency to wear a diving helmet. This is a common theme in stories about unsuccessful alien invasions – the aliens fall in love with humans because we’re so darned irresistible (see Robotech and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica). For some reason, it’s okay for Max to sleep with Miriya, or Helo to sleep with Athena, or Winona Ryder to sleep with Sarek – but if that guy in Clerks 2 bangs a donkey, it’s disgusting. Why is inter-species sex okay if it’s with aliens?

The Great Guidance is disgusted with this xenophilia, and destroys the Earth — humans, Ro-Man and all. This raises two questions. One, if you’re willing to destroy the Earth, why bother to selectively wipe out humans first? And second, if The Great Guidance can blow up the Earth from his throne room on the alien home world, then why send Ro-Man in the first place?

If you’ve seen this movie, you know that at the end it all turns out to have been a dream, Bobby Ewing/St. Elsewhere style, which cinema experts all agree if the worst possible way to end a movie. Well, except an ending where you gratuitously kill off Book and Wash.

No, I'm not too busy to flirt with you! I'm just running the whole damn Borg Collective!

No, I'm not too busy to flirt with you! I'm just running the whole damn Borg Collective!

7.) Star Trek: First Contact, 1996; Star Trek, 2009

While probably the best of the Next Generation films, First Contact is riddled with silly plot elements. The only one we’ll worry about here is the Borg plan to finally defeat humanity once and for all. (No other species had been able to withstand the Borg – humans are just that special.)

The Borg, apparently frustrated that resistance has in fact not been futile, decide to attack the Earth directly. There are millions, maybe billions of Borg Cubes out there, but the Borg are feeling economical and decide to send only one. Despite their far superior scientific and technical knowledge, the Borg have apparently forgotten that Jean-Luc Picard, the former Locutus of Borg, can psychically locate all the defensive weaknesses in a Borg Cube. (It was established in the first Borg episode that Borg Cubes are too undifferentiated to have defensive weaknesses, but whatever.)

The Enterprise-D destroys the Cube, so the Borg go to Plan B – travel back in time and assimilate Earth in the 21st Century. Time travel in the Star Trek universe is ridiculously easy, so one wonders why no one ever tried this before. Picard and his crew go back in time and, taking advantage of certain long-standing tactical weaknesses on the part of the Borg, save humanity.

What tactical weaknesses?

1.) Well, there’s the aforementioned only bringing one Cube, instead of two, or 20, or 10,000. That’s a biggie.

2.) The Borg ignore any individual alien who isn’t currently threatening them, which means you can beam onto a Borg Cube and walk around freely, as long as you don’t touch anything. This is a very poor security philosophy.

3.) The Borg need only to destroy Zephram Cochrane’s warp ship. Yet they waste time and resources invading the Enterprise and assimilating its crew, trying to assimilate Commander Data, and building a transmitter to phone home. Here’s a tip for the Borg Queen: blow up the Phoenix, blow up the Enterprise, and then spend the next 500 years leisurely doing whatever else you feel like.

This explains why Admiral Janeway is able to single-handedly destroy the Borg Collective in the last episode of Voyager. Apparently, one of the things the Borg assimilated from thousands of conquered races across the galaxy was the ubiquitous humanoid trait of bone-headedness.

Lots of starship captains have scepters!

Lots of starship captains have scepters!

Note: Star Trek (2009), Watchmen (2009) spoilers ahead!

On a side note, in J. J. Abrams’ generally excellent film Star Trek, the Romulan Nero takes advantage of an accidental time travel incident to try to destroy the Federation. He makes several idiotic errors that doom his scheme:

1.) He waits around for 25 years until Spock arrives from the future, as Nero wants Nimoy/Spock to witness the obliteration of the planet Vulcan. One assumes that Nimoy/Spock would have been just as unhappy with his home world’s destruction if Nero had destroyed it at once. Anyway, this is a common supervillain blunder, requiring the hero to be present at the moment of triumph. Nero should have taken notes from Ozymandius.

2.) Nero seems to think that you can’t destroy a planet with a black hole unless you drill a hole to the planet’s core first. Believe me, just toss a singularity in the general direction of a planet and a few minutes later, you won’t have a planet anymore. Compare Nero to Gran Moff Tarkin – when Tarkin wants a planet destroyed, he just destroys it. No gloating, no fuss.

John, you'd better check that e-meter...

John, you'd better check that e-meter...

6.) Battlefield Earth (2000)

I have already dissected and ridiculed Battlefield Earth in great detail here. But to recap – if you’re going to invade the Earth and enslave its population, don’t leave advanced alien military technology lying around unguarded. Also, if the atmosphere of your home world can be destroyed by a single nuclear explosion, don’t put warheads and interplanetary teleport devices where humans can get at them. Also, don’t put Vinnie Barbarino in charge.

Ziggy Stardust meets "V."

Ziggy Stardust meets"V."

5.) The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a funky 70s cult adaptation of Walter Tevis’ classic sci-fi novel. Although far, far better than Robot Monster, it follows the same idea that aliens would send a single individual to invade the Earth.

There are certainly differences. The alien, Thomas Jerome Newton, is attempting to bring to Earth the last remnants of his ancient race, which is just a few hundred people. The aliens don’t really intend to “invade” the Earth, except insofar as they want to colonize Earth secretly and without permission. Then they hope to live in peace with humanity.

Also, there is a good reason they only send one invader – they don’t have the ability to send anyone else, as their civilization has collapsed. Newton’s plan is to patent advanced alien technology, make a billion bucks, and then build a spaceship that can fly home, pick everyone up, and bring them back.

Unfortunately, Newton blows the whole scheme by letting his friends know he’s an alien. His girlfriend (inter-species sex again!) freaks out and dumps him, and his supposed best friend Judases him out to the Feds.

The government kidnaps Newton and “accidentally” blinds him, leaving him powerless to complete his mission. It was a weak and pathetic plan that fails weakly and pathetically.

I bring you a message from the White People of the galaxy!

I bring you a message from the White People of the galaxy!

4.) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Here’s another so-called classic that I have already eviscerated. But to recap: A single alien invader named Klaatu, accompanied only by his giant robot friend Gort, has a message to deliver to the nations of the world, preferably through the United Nations. So of course he lands in Washington, DC, which is not where the UN is located. The US government thinks he’s a Communist, and won’t listen to him. Nor has Klaatu apparently ever heard of television.

Instead of delivering his message, perhaps by flying around the world in his saucer and speaking to individual leaders, or by showing up at the actual UN, or by using television (did I mention that in 1951, people had television? They also had this advanced technology called radio. And telephones. And the US Postal Service…), Klaatu spends most of the movie hanging out with a widow and her young son. Why? I don’t know.

Klaatu gets killed and brought back to life, and at the very end of the movie delivers his message, which is that the Earth is to be monitored by giant alien robots, and will be destroyed if humans show any signs of hostility. Then he leaves. The end.

The invasion plan (send giant alien robots to rule over humanity) actually goes without a hitch, as there’s nothing humanity can do to stop it. But the rest of the plan is just stupid. Klaatu never had to land or leave his saucer. He could just broadcast a message, and then pull the whole “cancel all the Earth’s electricity” trick to prove he’s serious. No one gets hurt, and Patricia Neal gets to marry her evil dick boyfriend.

Which brings us to…

Dude, I was totally supposed to bring you this message, but now I totally forgot what it was. Are you holding?

Dude, I was totally supposed to bring you this message, but now I totally forgot what it was. Are you holding?

3.) The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

If there was any film that could benefit from a remake, it was The Day the Earth Stood Still. Unfortunately, the new version is just a dumb as the old one, albeit in different ways.

This time, Klaatu actually lands in New York, near the UN. He is kidnapped by the government, where he meets Jennifer Connelly. With her help, Klaatu escapes and meets with an alien spy. Gort gets locked in a missile silo. Grey goo threatens the world. Klaatu stops the goo and dies.

Um.. what?

The only part of the plan that makes sense is the hanging out with Jennifer Connelly part. Even a cloned space alien portrayed by a closeted gay actor would want to date Jennifer Connelly.

The alien plan is this: humans are destroying Earth’s precious ecosystem, and this upsets the aliens, so the aliens decide to annihilate the ecosystem — all of it, rendering Earth uninhabited. Yes, really.

Sure, afterward they will recreate Earth’s biosphere using samples collected by Klaatu. But seriously, kill every living thing on Earth in order to save every living thing on Earth (except humans)? Why not just kill the humans?

Once again, Earth is saved by human-alien bumpty-humpty. Well, not really — Klaatu and Jennifer Connelly never do it, because Keanu Reeves is no longer permitted to film sex scenes after Matrix Reloaded. But Klaatu decides to save humanity because Jennifer Connelly was so nice to him. And somehow, this failure to destroy the Earth is going to be accepted by the other aliens? But dudes, Jennifer Connelly is smoking hot! Whoa!

Hey, have you seen my contact lens?

Hey, have you seen my contact lens?

2.) The War of the Worlds (1953), The War of the Worlds (2005), Independence Day (1996)

When H.G. Wells published The War of the Worlds in 1898, the way in which the aliens were defeated was novel and clever. Now, not so much.

In the 1953 film, Martians send hundreds of their Tripod killing machines to Earth, and start systematically wiping out cities. Humanity tries nukes, but the Tripods have impenetrable force shields. That’s the whole plan, really.

Unfortunately, it never occurs to the Martians that they might be vulnerable to Earth diseases, so they fail to wear space suits, or seal the airlocks on their tripods, or filter their air, or get vaccinations; and all the aliens die from a virus. Through an incredible stroke of luck, the aliens don’t bring with them (intentionally or unintentionally) any Martian viruses, so humanity is saved. Hooray!

After falling in love with a human, the second most popular example of alien invader stupidity is forgetting to invent the space suit.

The film also suggests that prayer helped defeat the aliens, which is total bullshit.

Must... have... Nyquil Cold & Sinus...

Must... have... Nyquil Cold & Sinus...

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version, which I enjoyed quite a bit, is pretty much the same, which is why it doesn’t get its own entry on this list. This time the Martian tripods have been buried in the Earth’s crust for thousands of years. This weirdness is never explained, although I guess we could come up with a variety of ways to retcon it.

In this film the aliens bring along H.G. Wells’ Red Weed, although apparently this rapidly-growing plant requires human blood in order to grow. How amazing that something which evolved to feed on human blood did that evolving on Mars. (I know, it could have been genetically engineered. But when all the humans are dead, how will the Martians feed it?)

Again, the aliens forget to invent the space suit, and Earth viruses kill them and their Red Weeds. The film possibly hints at a reason – when we see the actual Martians, they look and act like children. Are the invaders the descendants of a once proud but fallen race, like Thomas Jerome Newton? Have they forgotten to wear space suits, or maybe they just can’t read the instructions? Or perhaps those were highly intelligent, adult Martians with giant eyes, who idiotically forgot about communicable diseases.

Now, when I say "go," you press Apple+Shift+V...

Now, when I say "go," you press Apple+Shift+V...

The 1996 alien invasion film Independence Day attempts a clever riff on the War of the Worlds’ defeat-by-virus theme, but in this case, instead of never inventing space suits (the aliens do have those), they never invent Norton Anti-Virus. Somehow, genius cable repairman Jeff Goldblum is able to create a computer virus that shuts down the aliens’ force shields. Yes, Goldblum had access to decades worth of alien research from Area 51, but still – infecting the alien computer system with a virus using a Mac Powerbook?

A note to all alien invaders – update your virus definitions and employ a decent firewall. A decent IT department is the key to any interplanetary invasion. And for chrissakes, get vaccinated!

I am sure glad God is going to save us from these evil aliens He created...

I am sure glad God is going to save us from these evil aliens He created...

1.) Signs (2002)

The alien invasion plan in M. Night Shyamalamahammy’s Signs is the granddaddy of all idiotic alien invasion plans. (No, I am not making fun of Indian people and their names. I am making fun of M. Night Shamalamadingdong and his stage name – his real name is Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan.)

Let me just say that I really enjoyed Signs. Seriously. I enjoyed it so thoroughly in fact, that I was out of the theater before I realized hey wait a minute – that made no sense whatsoever!

Here’s the alien plan:

Step 1: Communicate our plans for invasion by creating crop circles. Everyone knows that cerealogical communication is far superior to such primitive methods as radio waves.

Step 2: Jump around on people’s roofs, and disturb their birthday parties.

Step 3: Be completely unaware of how to open a door. Make sure you have no weapons, or other devices that might help you open a door. Breaking windows is also taboo.

Step 4: Knock humans unconscious with the gas our alien bodies produce, and drag them to our invisible saucers, presumably to eat them. Or probe them anally. Or suck out their blood and feed it to the Red Weed. Whatever.

Step 5: ???

Step 6: Profit!

But the most important part of the aliens’ plan is this: Our bodies react to water as if it were acid. So when invading a planet which is 70% covered with water, the atmosphere of which contains water, so much so that the water forms clouds and precipitation, absolutely do not wear any protective clothing or gear whatsoever. I’m sure that if humans ever visited a planet with methane seas and a methane atmosphere, they’d just run around naked like we’re doing.

Be sure to check out my series on the Ten Worst Sci-Fi Films of All Time!

The Ten Worst Sci-Fi Films of All Time: Battlefield Earth

Battlefield Earth

The science fiction genre really is not all that hard to understand. One does not have to be a basement-dwelling nerd to grok what sci-fi is, how it works, and what are its basic tropes.

But for decades, those in the film industry who decide what movies get made have shown a strong, widespread bias against science fiction. They do not “get” sci-fi, and assume that the mainstream movie audience does not either; this despite powerful evidence to the contrary (for instance, nine of the ten top grossing films of all time are science fiction or fantasy).

Because of this, even the best sci-fi movies are relentlessly “dumbed-down” for mass consumption. Two cogent examples are both very good films – Back to the Future and The Matrix. The former is polluted with relentless visual cues and obnoxious spot-on dialogue designed to explain, and then re-explain, the film’s basic sci-fi premises to even the dullest and least-attentive moviegoer.  The latter spends the entire first half of the film explaining the basic premise, which can be smartly summed up in six words – “the world is a computer simulation.”

I have personal experience with this dumbing-down process, through my own long (and to-date fruitless) attempts to sell screenplays. And I believe it is this bias against smart sci-fi, and not budgetary or technical concerns, which explains why so many Hollywood sci-fi films are relentlessly dreadful.

Which is all by way of introducing this, the first in my series on the worst Sci-Fi films ever made. It will be an arduous undertaking, as I must actually sit through the various contenders before I can decide which are bad enough to qualify. But I am willing to do it for you, loyal reader.

Some ground rules:

  • The film is a mainstream Hollywood picture, or had sufficient money and backing that a quality film was to be expected. While not all independent and “B” movies are bad (some are excellent), permitting them on this list would quickly fill it with tokosatsu, Ed Wood and Bert I. Gordon flicks. Such movies may be entertainingly bad, but their limitations are self-evident – criticizing them is too easy, and not very illuminating. I would rather analyze a film that could have or should have been good, and try to figure out where talented people went wrong.
  • The film is undeniably science-fiction. It must be a movie that any reasonable person would peg as sci-fi, and not a mainstream, fantasy or horror film with sci-fi elements. I don’t want to clutter up the list with What Women Want or Multiplicity. (Of course, making this determination is not easy. Is The Prestige sci-fi, or a historical thriller with sci-fi elements? Fortunately, I do not have to decide – it is a good movie.)
  • No superhero films. Most superhero and comic book films are science fiction; and many of them are very, very bad. Dreck like X-Men: The Last Stand, The Fantastic Four (1994) and The Fantastic Four (2005) would take up the whole list.
  • Films from a series will be represented by one example. I think you see where I am going with this.

I will not be reviewing these ten films in any order of “badness.” I plan to watch them, and write about them, in whatever order they interest me. I have identified my Worst Sci-Fi Film of All Time, however, and I am saving it for last.

For the first installment in this series, I have chosen Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000, Roger Christian’s 2000 adaptation of the first half of L. Ron Hubbard’s 1982 novel.

Battlefield Earth posterBattlefield Earth (2000)

I do not think that Battlefield Earth is, by any stretch of the imagination, the worst Sci-Fi flick ever made.  It is bad, painfully so. So bad it should have ended the careers of anyone involved with it. But there are many worse films cluttering up the shelves of the “Sci-Fi/Horror” section of your favorite soon-to-be-shut-down video rental store.

Yet the corps of professional movie reviewers disagrees with me. Read some of the reviews from the time of Battlefield Earth’s release, and it is hard to believe any Hollywood film was ever trashed so thoroughly in the mainstream press.

Battlefield Earth may well turn out to be the worst movie of [the 21st] century.” – The New York Times
Battlefield Earth is like taking a bus trip with someone who has needed a bath for a long time. It’s not merely bad; it’s unpleasant in a hostile way.” – Roger Ebert
“Sitting through the summer’s first monolithic monstrosity, Battlefield Earth, was one of the most painfully excruciating experiences of my life.” – Sacramento Bee

Those are just three samples chosen at random. The film’s Rotten Tomatoes score is 3%.

I chose Battlefield Earth first because the mainstream press hated it so much. I had never seen it – now I have sat through it twice, once with the blessed relief of RiffTrax playing over it.

First, I am not going to criticize Battlefield Earth for having a Scientology agenda. (For those of you lacking basic knowledge of popular culture, the novel Battlefield Earth was (probably) written by L. Ron Hubbard, hack pulp novelist of the 1940s and founder of the pseudo-religious Scientology self-help cult. Producer and star John Travolta is a member of this cult.)  Most if not all the Scientology elements in the novel are not present in the film. For instance, in the novel, the evil Psychlos are ruled over by an eviler caste of psychotherapists, who control their minions through mind control and brain surgery. Scientologists believe this is true of modern America, that we are subjugated by cognitive scientists with totalitarian intentions. But this subplot is not in the movie.

There is evidence that the Scientology organization intended to use the film as a recruitment tool. But that is not relevant to how bad the film is. The only way I can see in which the film’s Scientology connection affected its awfulness, is that it was religious piety that convinced the otherwise talented John Travolta that Battlefield Earth was a filmable novel in the first place. More on this in a moment.

I will take a paragraph or two, before getting to the meat of the matter, to point out that British director Roger Christian needs his DGA card taken away and ceremoniously burned. Almost the entire film is shot in Dutch angles, something most directors save for special occasions and even the 1960’s TV show Batman only used for villains’ lairs. There are so many oblique shots in Battlefield Earth that the Wikipedia page for Dutch angle uses a screenshot from the film as the example!

Christian also employs bizarre filter and color effects to give the film a grimy, otherworldly feel – something that might make sense except the movie takes place on Earth. The production design is uninspired, which is surprising as director Christian was set decorator for Star Wars; and the costumes are not so much ridiculous as they are just dull. When the most memorable visual in an entire film is a nose plug, you know you have a problem.

Many reviewers criticized Travolta’s “over-the-top” performance, but I think this paled in importance besides the film’s other issues. In a good movie, Travolta’s hammy acting might have been entertaining. I was more disappointed in Forest Whitaker, an otherwise fine actor who clearly sat through this shoot for the paycheck.

The film plods along, without any discernible pacing or plot structure, marching grimly from a dull, formulaic opening to a dull, preposterous end. This I do not lay at the director’s feet, however. The source of these problems is, I think, the source of all the movie’s problems.

Battlefield Earth, the novelBattlefield Earth is not a terrible movie. It is a movie of a terrible book.

I read an L. Ron Hubbard book once. Once. It was Mission Earth, and I made it through three volumes of this “dekalogy” before I became disgusted and gave up. I used to think Piers Anthony was the very archetype of the hack writer, a skilled typist with marginal writing talent who churns out banal prose at pennies-per-word. But Anthony has the ability to be entertaining and original, when he tries. Hubbard was the worst kind of hack – dull, derivative and trite, but successful.

Many of science fiction’s éminences grises, from Robert A. Heinlein to Harlan Ellison, counted Hubbard as a friend and colleague. But I challenge anyone to find a wholeheartedly positive appraisal of Hubbard’s work from these friends. The closest I could find is a story by Ellison, told with admiration, that Hubbard mounted a roll of butchers’ paper above his desk, which fed directly into his typewriter, so he could churn out stories without having to change paper. This should be the image on the Wikipedia page for hack.

What frustrated me so much about Mission Earth was my realization, after three volumes, that Hubbard had taken a story suitable for one volume and s-t-r-e-e-e-e-e-t-c-h-e-d it into ten. I have not read Battlefield Earth, nor do I intend to. But so much of Battlefield reminds me directly of Mission that I am certain the film’s plot, structure and story problems stem from the original novel.

Read the reviews and you’ll see that, apart from the bad acting and poor direction, everyone agrees that the film’s story was uninspired in its conception and incredible in its resolution. Not “incredible” as in “great” – incredible as in not credible. I believe it is the film’s climax, wherein the scrappy human resistance defeats the evil Psychlo overlords, that makes an otherwise bad movie into a disaster. And this story comes from the book, from the mind of ur-hack L. Ron Hubbard.

As briefly as possible: corrupt alien Psychlo overlord Terl (Travolta) wants to use enslaved human resistance fighter Jonnie Goodboy Tyler to mine gold. Whatever gas the Psychlos breathe combusts when exposed to “radiation,” which makes you wonder how the atmosphere of their homeworld could exist in the first place. The gold is located near uranium deposits, so Terl wants to send Jonnie and his friends.

Terl has to give Jonnie orders, so he decides to teach the human the Psychlo language. He does this by hooking Jonnie up to a “teaching machine,” which proceeds to teach Jonnie everything – not just language, but logic, science, mathematics, and the secrets of Psychlo technology (or, at least, enough that Jonnie is afterwards able to unlock the secrets of Psychlo technology). If I remember correctly, Confederate slave owners taught their slaves English. They did not send them to MIT, however.

This is silly, but not fatal. Maybe Terl did not understand how the teaching machine worked (although establishing this would be nice). It is what Jonnie does with this new knowledge that strains credulity past the breaking point. While single-handedly teaching his human friends how to fly aircraft (how hard could that be?) and appropriating Psychlo technology, Jonnie has been neglecting his gold-mining duties. So, right under Terl’s nose, Jonnie flies to Fort Knox and steals a few tons of gold.

Sure. Right.

Eventually, Jonnie and his loin-clothed pals perform an exquisitely-timed international operation, involving nuclear technology and lots of alien aircraft, that destroys the entire Psychlo homeworld and forces Forest Whitaker to join their side. (You know, if Earth was indeed enslaved by aliens, and the only way to secure our freedom was to commit genocide against the aliens, I would do it. But it is decidedly not heroic. It is genocide. The movie does not address this. Maybe the book does.)

Let me stress that this plot involves human slaves traveling all over the world, in alien aircraft no one is keeping track of, using fuel no one misses, to collect weapons, including nuclear devices, that no one is guarding or monitoring.

It is the absurd implausibility of the plot that elevates (or de-elevates) Battlefield Earth past other, merely bad science fiction films. Audiences were laughing out loud at the absurdity of the last half of the film. Any goodwill the audience might have had for the characters, any concern for the seriousness of their predicament, is washed away when viewers realize Hubbard could not be bothered to invent a clever or believable outcome. Hubbard had a thousand pages to fill, so he filled them with the first thing that came to mind.

Travolta piously decided to remain relatively true to the original story. And that was the downfall of Battlefield Earth. (It should be noted that, while Travolta’s career arc was relatively unaffected by this flop, and Roger Christian went on to direct some movies you have never heard of, production company Franchise Pictures was eventually bankrupted by the Battlefield Earth deal.)

Next: Pluto Nash

The 20 Best & Worst Villains of All Time — Part 1: The Worst

I care about villains. I used to run a web site about villains. (And I’m working on resurrecting it.) The villain is often the most interesting character in a story. I like it when they win.

This is my own personal list of the 10 worst villains of all time — not “worst” as in most evil, “worst” as in dumbest. These are the villains that failed.

Of course I must have heard of a villain to include it on this list. So if there’s some obscure villain from Croatian soap opera fanfic I didn’t include, mention it in the comments below. But don’t flame me for it.

And if you’re a big fan of one of these losers, well, there’s no accounting for taste. Especially where Star Wars fanboys are concerned.

Arise my wifes. Give ear to the words of Manos. Arise my wifes! And hear the will of Manos!10. The Master (Manos: The Hands of Fate)

Plan for world domination: Step 1, buy a tiny ranch house outside Barstow. Step 2, enslave a bevy of moderately attractive women. Step 3: Hire a retarded “satyr” as your groundskeeper. Step 4: Kidnap a bland Midwestern couple, a la Rocky Horror Picture Show. Step 5: Profit!

Apparently, The Master learned about an evil god called Manos while attending a Frank Zappa look-alike convention. He wears an oversize black robe with giant red hands on it, and totters around making grave pronouncements and threats. He’s about as scary as a mall security guard.

Why do The Master’s wives fight over him? They should be fighting over who gets to swallow the last bottle of sleeping pills.

Even worse is The Master’s menagerie. He has a couple of “hell hounds” that look suspiciously like sweet, untrained Dobermans. And I watched this movie 20 times on MST3K before I figured out that Torgo was supposed to be a satyr — I just thought he had big knees.

Many terrible movies have been saved by a great villain — I’m talking to you, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But Manos: The Hands of Fate is not one of those movies.

Ro-Man, with his advanced alien vacuum tube technology.9. Robot Monster (Robot Monster)

Alright, lemme give ya the pitch. This alien comes to Earth and kills everybody, see, except 8 guys. They hide out in this tract house, guarded by some kind of force beam or somethin’, it’s science, I don’t understand this stuff. So this alien, this Ro-Man, has to kill the last 8 humans or he gets it from his boss, see? He’s got his Calcinator, which turns people into calcium or something, I dunno — and the Billion Bubble Machine, which — well, it looks great. But this Ro-Man, he falls in love with the cute girl, and that’s his downfall. Ya get it?

Budget? Sixteen grand, with four days to shoot.

How are we gonna afford the alien? Aw, that’s easy. I know this guy George who owns a monkey suit. We just stick a diving helmet on it, and voila, instant alien!

Yes, the villain in 1953’s Robot Monster is a guy in a gorilla suit with an old-fashioned diving helmet on it. In fact, Ro-Man’s entire race consisted of guys in gorilla suits with old-fashioned diving helmets. And although he has access to space travel, vacuum tubes, and the Billion Bubble Machine, he doesn’t have a single weapon that could destroy a tract house.

Should I mention that at the end, the whole movie turns out to be a little boy’s dream? I hate that St. Elsewhere shit.

Mr. Mxl-whatever.8. Mister Mxyzptlk (DC Comics)

You’ve got to be kidding me. Superman was never a good comic. DC never produced a decent title until Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman came along. Matter-Eater Lad my ass. And Superman was always full of stupid bullshit.

Such as Mister Mxyzptlk, who was to Superman what The Great Gazoo was to Fred Flintstone. Here’s this little extradimensional imp who can do absolutely anything, and lives to torture Supes. (For those who don’t know, it’s pronounced “Mxyzptlk.”)

He’s an example of the Villain Who Can Do Anything. I guess he’s the perfect foil for the Hero Who Can Do Anything, but they’re both stupid concepts. Sometimes the Villain Who Can Do Anything is charming and funny enough to get away with it — Q from Star Trek is an example. Mister Mxyzptlk is not charming, and is decidedly unfunny.

Or the Villain Who Can Do Anything might be particularly well thought-out and well written, like Galactus from The Fantastic Four. Mister Mxyzptlk… well, no.

Alan Moore took a stab at making Mxyzptlk dark and sinsiter; and if Moore can’t make something interesting, no one can.

Comics writers need to stop taking lame old concepts some hack invented in the 60s, and trying to make them canon. Just let it die. Superman once had an adventure with the Quik Bunny — are we going to introduce a brand mascot as the latest DC character?

Darth Fett.7. Boba Fett & Darth Maul (tie) (Star Wars Universe)

Geroge, George, George. What the hell is wrong with you?

Boba Fett and Darth Maul both fall into a very important category of bad villain: The Great Villain Killed Off Perfunctorily.

Star Wars fans loved Boba Fett from the first moment he appeared — he was so mysterious, so cool, so entirely armored. We just knew that when Return of the Jedi came around, we were gonna see some great Boba Fett ass-kicking action.

Um, not so much. Fifteen minutes into the damn movie, Han Solo accidentally — accidentally — knocks Boba Fett into the Sarlacc pit. How delightfully wacky! Except not. One potentially great villain, wasted.

But it’s okay! Because in Phantom Menace, we were introduced to Darth Maul, Palpatine’s original apprentice. The costume was great — the long black robes, the demonic face, the double-bladed lightsaber. Sweet. And granted, Darth Maul gets to be in the single greatest lightsaber battle in the entire Star Wars series. How incredibly cool that Darth Maul will be Obi-Wan’s nemesis through all three prequels!

Except not. Obi-Wan, hanging off the edge of one of those unnecessary bottomless pits, telepathically retrieves Qui-Gon’s lightsaber and chops the guy in half. Might I point out, a la Revenge of the Sith, that Darth Maul had the “high ground,” and should have been the victor?

But it was okay, or so I thought. Darth Maul would be back in Clones, wearing the Darth Vader suit! Nope. Despite efforts to resurrect a great villain in some of the Expanded Universe nonsense, Darth Maul was dead. Leaving us with no decent villains for the rest of the prequel trilogy.

And although he didn’t make this list, let me take a moment to mention Count Dooku. How is it even possible to waste as great an actor as Christopher Lee? How do you suck all the presence out of that man? Was it the green screens? The dialogue? Working opposite Hayden Christensen? Dooku, indeed.

I hate those Smurfs!6. Gargamel (The Smurfs)

So let me get this straight. You’re an impoverished old alchemist who lives alone in the forest. You have access to countless potions and spells, and even have the ability to create new lifeforms. Yet the only way you can think of to get rich is to capture little blue mushroom-dwelling dandiprats and turn them into gold. Is this the missing ingredient Isaac Newton needed to find the Philosopher’s Stone? Little PVC figurines?

Gargamel is the archetype of the hapless villain, and no one likes a hapless villain. If your bad guy is bound to fail due to his own stupidity, timidity, or clumsiness, then what’s the point? Even in a kids’ show, we should have some small concern for the safety of the good guys. Disney gets this — their villains are often too scary for kids.

I loved The Smurfs as a kid, but didn’t care at all about Gargamel. I always thought Azrael the cat was kind of scary though. I imagine that without Gargamel to hold him back, I think Azrael could have brought us Deady Smurf, Corpsy Smurf, and Smurf-left-on-your-porch-as-a-gift-y Smurf.

5. Darth Vader (Star Wars prequels)

Why is Darth Vader so pouty?Oh, don’t get your panties in a bunch. Darth Vader is on BOTH the Best and Worst Villain lists. Original Trilogy Vader is on the Best list. Here we’re talking about Prequel Vader.

Where to begin? We can’t consider the brief existence of pre-black-suit Darth Vader without examining the ignominious career of Anakin Skywalker; annoying brat child, whiny adolescent, puerile Jedi Knight. The cool thing about Original Trilogy Vader was his mysterious back story, and fans waited two decades to finally see how good, noble Anakin Skywalker was seduced to the Dark Side. Well, this Anakin was neither good nor noble. And he wasn’t so much seduced as molested by a creepy older man.

I always got the impression that Original Trilogy Vader loved his work. Sure, he was mean and short-tempered; but I think he got off on blowing up peaceful planets, slaughtering moisture farmers and force-choking admirals. As soon as Prequel Vader defenestrates Samuel L. Jackson and turns all dark and moody, his attitude seems to be “well, it’s in the script, I guess I’d better bear down and kill the younglings.” Hayden Christensen’s idea of being evil is peering out from under his eyebrows and sneering. Prequel Vader is just as whiny about the responsibilities and consequences of being a Sith Lord as he was about being a Jedi Knight. Isn’t there any way to please this guy?

Complaining about the Star Wars prequels is a common geek pasttime, so I’ll let it be. But George Lucas had a wonderful opportunity to flesh out one of the great screen villains, and he blew it on every single level. “Do not want” indeed.

Oh yeah, the up-lighting really makes you scary. 4. Count Baltar (Battlestar Galactica 1978)

A villain should be three things: charismatic, scary and sympathetic. The original Battlestar Galactica’s Baltar was 0 for 3.

John Colicos’ Baltar was doughy and unlikeable. He whined, he vamped, he chewed his lines. You wanted to hate him for betraying humanity, but you just couldn’t. He was too much of a loser. You could not believe for a second that the Cylons, particularly Lucifer, would put up with this asshole. Why eradicate practically the entire human species, just to preserve the sorriest specimen?

Let’s edify ourselves by comparing him to the re-imagined Dr. Gaius Baltar. James Callis’ Baltar is very charismatic. He’s not really scary, because he’s not really the villain. He’s a total coward who will do whatever is necessary to survive and to feel better about himself. You don’t feel sympathy for him, because he’s so reprehensible. But unlike Callis’ Baltar, the viewer is interested in Gaius’ motivations. You want to know how the hell he’s going to get out of the latest jam into which he got himself.

The original BSG had one or two interesting heroes, particularly Starbuck. But as for villains, the Cylons were faceless machines — scary, but not really characters. That put the onus on Baltar to put a human face on the enemy. He failed.

By the way, I don’t mean to slam Colicos. He was a perfectly good Klingon. I blame the original BSG writers.

Can I interest you in a variable rate mortgage?3. The Ferengi (Star Trek Universe)

Even after they stopped sucking quite so much, the Ferengi were always annoying. Whenever they popped up on Next Generation or Voyager, one was tempted to change the channel, maybe take in some Small Wonder*. And with Deep Space Nine, you couldn’t get away from the nasal-voiced, big-eared homunculi.

They weren’t even an intelligent statement on the evils of Capitalism. Star Trek’s writers always steered clear of the fact that the United Federation of Planets was clearly a Socialist utopia; maybe they didn’t want to piss off the network or the sponsors. Portraying the Ferengi as the Gnomes of Zurich was a social commentary the producers were clearly uncomfortable with; and I’m sure it pissed off the Helvetian Anti-Defamation League as well.

But I’m writing about the original Ferengi, the season one Ferengi, the animalistic, laser-whip-cracking, sniveling mealy-mouthed rat-men that the Enterprise encountered on the Tkon planet. Gene Roddenberry was a hero to many of us in the sci-fi fan community, and legitimately so – but boy, could he have some bad ideas.

The Ferengi were originally intended to replace the Klingons as the main Star Trek villains. Um… no. No one would care if the brilliant and heroic Jean-Luc Picard had to face off against little Anti-Semitic stereotypes every week. Fortunately, the producers realized this right away, sent Gene off to Kinkos, and created The Borg to be the new Star Trek über-villain.

*Small Wonder was the worst television show in the history of the medium. Hence, preferring it to the Ferengi is really saying something.

Would you rub a man’s foot?2. Terl (Battlefield Earth)

Those who have seen Battlefield Earth and ask themselves, “What the hell was John Travolta thinking,” need to remember this man believes that the ghosts of dead aliens cause all your psychological problems. (In his defense, however, I must point out that what Scientologists believe is slightly less absurd than what Christians believe.)

Still, this movie was a freaking mess, and Travolta’s eye-grating, cringe-inducing emetic of a performance is the center of the crap-storm. The former Vinnie Barbarino played Terl, the scene-chewing Psychlo security chief who lords it over the oppressed humans with all the nuance of Carson Kressley after too many appletinis.

Of course the worst thing about Terl is that we don’t care. His appearances don’t thrill or frighten us, they only annoy. Then again, if you’re sitting through this execrable film, a bad movie starring a bad actor and based on a bad novel by a bad writer, then you have other problems.

Read The Ten Worst Sci-Fi Films of All Time: Battlefield Earth

Oh god, I forgot about the bird and the bug.  The HORROR. 1. Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo (H.R. Pufnstuf)
I lived my childhood in terror. My parents had no idea. My teachers did not know. Social workers and Child Protective Services never came to my aid. In the 1970s, the horror that stalked me was ubiquitous, leering from every television screen.

The things I feared more than death, Disco and nuclear war were the television programs of Sid and Marty Krofft, the Lucifer and Beelzebub of children’s programming. Saturday morning, previously a bastion of joy and contentment for every little boy and girl, was transformed by these demonic siblings into a poisonous buffet of horrors. From the disturbing, drug-reference-laden haberdashical torture of Lidsville to the abhorrent, drug-reference-laden pelagic nightmare that was Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, my Saturday mornings were torture sessions to whet the envy of the most perverse Guantanamo interrogator.

The worst offender was… hold on. I have to go take some meds before I can continue. Maybe a shot of liquor, too. It’s hard to face these childhood demons, to reach back past years of post-traumatic stress and face the inky blackness that stains my soul. I weep as I type these words. The worst offender was… H.R. Pufnstuf.

Man-sized full-costume puppets, a la Pufnstuf and Barney, are like clowns. Everyone understands what they’re supposed to be, and that they’re meant to be entertaining. But they’re not, and no one can explain why they persist. We got rid of mimes, 80’s hair metal and ragtime jazz; why can’t we rid the world of these tick-infested felt-swaddled non-talents?

The titular “hero,” Mr. “Hand-Rolled” Pufnstuf, was bad enough; the crude googly-eyes, one stuck in position while the other roamed at random; his “speech,” which consisted of the puppeteer shaking the head up and down while writer Lennie Weinrib voiced the bipedal dragon as a mildly-retarded Andy Griffith; and the pantomime acting, too exaggerated even for a man in a lizard suit. Godzilla had more subtlety.

But the nightmare that still wakes me at 3am, drenched in flop sweat, clinging to my sheets as I scream for my mother, is the show’s so-called villain, Witchiepoo. Now don’t get me wrong – Darth Vader scared the pants off me as a kid, but he was a great villain. So did The Robot Gunslinger from Westworld, Box from Logan’s Run, and Willy freakin’ Wonka.

Witchiepoo didn’t frighten me because she was a scary villain. She frightened me because grown adults with their own television program would create such a thing and think kids would enjoy it. It threw my whole worldview out of whack. If grown-ups could be so completely and inexplicably wrong-headed as to create Witchiepoo, what other terrible mistakes were they making?

Growing older, of course, hasn’t changed my view of humanity, only solidified it. Maybe Sid and Marty did me a favor.

Witchiepoo was an idiot, so why would we care of she won or lost? Whiny, stupid, vain and childish. Her costume was okay, kind of a pre-Goth witch-meets-Alice-in-Wonderland thing. But that face makeup – oh god, I’m going to vomit!

I’m back. My hhands are ssshaaking, I ccan’t tttype. Suffice it to say that Witchiepoo ranks number one, as the Least Entertaining, Most Ill-Conceived, Worst Performed, Worst Everything WORST villain of all time.

And now for Part 2: The Greatest Villains of All Time