The Ten Worst Science Fiction Films of All Time: ‘Prometheus’

I feel pretty, and witty, and gay!!!

Ridley Scott's 'Prometheus'

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, British filmmaker Ridley Scott made two of the ten best — hell, two of the five best science fiction films of all time: 1979’s Alien and 1982’s Blade Runner.

In the intervening 30 years, Ridley (now Sir Ridley) made movies about giant-horned devils, suicidal feminists, lady SEALs, historically inaccurate gladiators, charming brain-eating serial killers, and homeless archers. But he did not make another science fiction film.

During those years, I always said I hoped Scott would return to sci-fi. And when I heard that Scott had decided to helm a sequel reboot remake prequel to Alien, I was absolutely thrilled.

Then I saw it. Continue reading

The 50 Laws of Science Fiction Physics

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Inspired by such mainstays of geek humor as The Laws of Cartoon Physics and The Laws of Anime Physics, I have assembled the following 50 Laws of Science Fiction Physics.

This list was in part inspired by my previous post, Tired Sci-Fi Tropes That Must Be Retired.

Law of Selective Gravitation: All artificial bodies in space generate an internal gravitational field, equal to one gee, with “down” defined as the “bottom” of the body; this gravitational field somehow terminates exactly at the outer hull of the body, even if it is irregularly shaped.

First Law of Gravitational Irrelevance: a spacecraft may travel from a planet’s surface into space in the same manner in which an airplane gains altitude, ignoring the need to achieve escape velocity.

Second Law of Gravitational Irrelevance: a spacecraft may fly directly towards or away from a planet or other large celestial body, ignoring the fact that objects in space must describe elliptical orbits about each other.

Law of Inertial Dampening: No matter how much kinetic energy is directed at an inhabited body (in space or on a planet), the resulting disruption will be enough to jostle the inhabitants and cause minor structural damage – nothing more or less.

Law of User Interface Equivalence: When a spacecraft or space station takes damage to any structural component, the computer screen or workstation used to monitor that structure from the bridge or engineering center will explode.

Law of Ethical Xenopolymorphism: While malevolent aliens come in many forms, beneficent aliens are always humanoid.

Law of Sexual Xenopolymorphism: Humanoid alien females will always have mammalian secondary sexual characteristics (breasts, wide hips, full sensual lips), even if they are non-mammalian (lizard, avian, piscine, insectoid, etc.).

Newton’s Fourth Law of Motion: In space, constant thrust equals constant velocity.

Kubrick’s Law of Motion in Microgravity: all motion in a “zero gravity” or microgravity environment will take place at 22% of the speed it would occur at sea level; this applies to animate persons as well as inanimate objects.

Exception to Kubrick’s Law of Motion in Microgravity: persons in a “zero gravity” or microgravity environment may speak at normal speed.

Allen’s Law of Motion in Microgravity: objects freely floating in a “zero gravity” or microgravity environment will behave as if suspended from a transparent thread within a full gravity environment.

Law of Sound in a Vacuum: Despite the lack of a medium for transmission, sound will travel in a vacuum, with precisely the same properties as in the Earth’s atmosphere at sea level.

First Law of Combustibility: Anything important – spaceships, planets, robots – explodes when it is critically damaged, whether any combustible material is present or not.

Second Law of Combustibility: When anything explodes, the mass of the resulting ejecta will be less than 2% of the object’s original mass; the remainder of the mass ceases to exist.

Third Law of Combustibility: When objects explode in space, all matter that makes up the object comes to a complete stop relative to the observer, whatever its previous velocity. The explosion will then expand in an equal sphere away from the point where the object stopped.

Fourth Law of Combustibility: All objects that explode in space produce a discrete ring that expands ahead of the main shock wave; this is a fundamental principle of Aesthetic Physics.

Fifth Law of Combustibility: The shock wave of an explosion is confined to the visible fiery ball of the explosion; and both will move at 98% of the speed of anyone attempting to fly, drive or run from the explosion. After a certain distance, the speed of the shock wave will quickly drop off for no apparent reason.

Sixth Law of Combustibility: The destructive force of a nuclear warhead, and the resulting deadly radiation, cannot penetrate the skin of a typical 1950s consumer-grade kitchen refrigerator.

First Law of Practical Stellar Physics: as an observer approaches a star, the brightness of the visible light it gives off diminishes proportionally.

Second Law of Practical Stellar Physics: a star will produce no radiation except for (1) visible light and (2) a variety of heat that behaves identically to heat convection in an atmosphere, despite the lack of a transmission medium.

Third Law of Practical Stellar Physics: the dangerous or destructive region of a stellar body ends abruptly at the outer termination of its photosphere, except for the heat and light described in the Second Law.

Law of Teleportation: the amount of energy produced when converting matter to energy for the purpose of teleporting that matter to a distant location is an insignificant fraction of the amount predicted by Einstein’s mass–energy equivalence equation; this is a fundamental principle of Convenience Physics.

Law of Technological Complexity: No matter how advanced a technology, anyone who needs to use it will be able to deduce its basic functioning within a few minutes – even if the person belongs to an alien or less-developed culture, or comes from the distant past.

First Law of Aerodynamic Irrelevance: Objects designed to travel solely in space may nonetheless be designed with aerodynamic properties.

Second Law of Aerodynamic Irrelevance: objects designed to travel in solely in space, and which therefore are highly non-aerodynamic, may still travel in an atmosphere as if they were perfectly aerodynamic.

Corollary to the Laws of Aerodynamic Irrelevance (The O’Brien Rule): any object in space that is not designed to alter its velocity, vector or location, such as a space station, may alter its velocity, vector or location through a minor, previously unrealized engineering trick.

First Corollary to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: Einstein’s Theory of Relativity may be ignored at any time, for any reason; this is a fundamental principle of Convenience Physics.

Second Corollary to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: when light, or any form of electromagnetic radiation, is employed as a weapon (such as with a laser or blaster), its speed is reduced to approximately 35 miles per hour.

Personal Equivalency Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: alternate universes and timelines do not follow the standard laws of contingency – rather, the same individuals will be born in the alternate universe as are born in ours, although their life paths may diverge; this is irrespective of any other changes, major or minor, to historical outcomes.

Ethical Determinism Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: alternate universes and timelines do not follow the standard laws of contingency – rather, historical outcomes are determined by the moral choices of the identical version of the visitor from our universe.

Abrams’ Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: in an alternate universe or timeline, events will conspire to place equivalent persons into the same social groups they occupy in our universe.

The McFly Rule: If a time traveler prevents a key historical event from occurring, he or she has one week to arrange an equivalent event that will restore the timeline.

First Law of Convergent Evolution: any alien species, regardless of the environment in which it evolved, will morphologically resemble an extant Earth species, albeit with changes in size, color, bodily features and level of intelligence; aliens may also resemble chimera of multiple Earth morphologies.

Second Law of Convergent Evolution: despite the fact that closely-related species from the same planet cannot produce viable offspring, any two humanoid species from different worlds may produce viable offspring that will bear blended traits from both species.

Law of Convergent Visemes: when a technological device is used to translate the speech of a humanoid alien, that alien’s lips and mouth movements will nonetheless appear to match the English speech of the translation.

Omegan Law of Convergent Social Evolution: a humanoid species on a distant planet is likely to pass through exactly the same historical eras, and evolve precisely the same social institutions, as the human civilizations of Earth.

Law of Extraterrestrial Euhemerism: any primitive human superstition is the result of contact with advanced alien technology; this includes psychic powers, magicians, ghosts, angels, fairies, vampires, werewolves, demons, dragons, messiahs and gods.

Law of Technological Trajectory: the more hyper-advanced an alien or future technological artifact, the more likely that it will resemble a large, illuminated crystal.

Law of Irradiated Macrofauna: due to mutations triggered by artificial radiation, animals may grow to enormous sizes normally ruled out by the surface-area-to-volume ratio.

Corollary to the Law of Irradiated Macrofauna: irradiated macrofauna will invariably seek out large human population centers and battle each other.

Influence/Malevolence Relationship in Science: the greater a scientific or technological achievement, the greater the probability that the scientist responsible for it suffers from a mental illness and/or ethical deficit.

Diamond’s Law: an advanced spacefaring species will always oppress, absorb or destroy any less advanced, non-spacefaring species with which it makes contact.

Anthropocentric Exception to Diamond’s Law: an advanced spacefaring species will always oppress, absorb or destroy any less advanced, non-spacefaring species with which it makes contact, unless that species is humanity.

Roddenberry’s Law of Cybernetic Omniscience: any sufficiently advanced computer system will contain the sum all of human knowledge down to the most inconsequential detail, even if the computer was constructed by and for aliens.

Gill’s Law of Alien Impressionability: any humanoid alien species will, upon being introduced to some detail of human history or culture, reconfigure its entire society based solely upon the human example; also known as the Iotian Law.

Law of Atmospheric Inexhaustibility: on a spacecraft, space station or other artificial habitat in a vacuum or near-vacuum, no matter how much air is lost when an airlock is opened or the hull is breached, after the air loss is terminated there will still be sufficient atmosphere to comfortably support the survivors.

Doctrine of Human Psychological Infortitude: any human gifted with transhuman abilities by an alien or future intelligence will initially attempt to perform good works with his or her new-found powers, but will be eventually driven insane and commit destructive acts; also known as the Mitchell Effect.

Doctrine of Hostile Alien Tourism: when technologically advanced spacefaring aliens initiate a war or invasion against the Earth, their first strategic maneuver will be to destroy a number of famous human landmarks, usually ones with no strategic or defensive value.

The ForbinCameronWachowski Corollary to Turing’s Test of Machine Intelligence: it is possible to demonstrate that a machine has achieved genuine intelligence or sentience, as its first act upon gaining self-awareness will be to attempt the annihilation of humanity.

The Lucas-Asimov-Herbert Model of Human Galactic Societal Development: any vast, galaxy-spanning interstellar human civilization will resemble in many or all respects the empires of the species’ ancient pre-technological past.

And… number 51:

Even’s Revision to Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from lazy writing.

Feel free to add your own Laws of Sci-Fi Physics in the comments below.

Quiz: Can You Identify These Geek Icons?

Originally posted in 9/06. Images restored 9/14/09.

Can you identify all 12 of these sci-fi, fantasy and geek-culture-related symbols? Anime, comics, gaming and computers have not been overlooked.

Some of them are very easy — others, I hope, are pretty hard. If you’re unfortunate enough to be using Internet Explorer, you can mouse-over the pics for a hint.

Answers follow. Good luck!

Hint:  Kaneda! Tetsuo! Hint: John Smallberries!
1. ____________ 2. ____________ 3. ____________
Hint: Can you form some sort of rudimentary lathe? Hint: Don't say the P-word. Hint: 64.
4. ____________ 5. ____________ 6. ____________
Hint: Waaagh! Hint: Burn the land and boil the sea, you can't take the sky from me. Hint: JRRT
7. ____________ 8. ____________ 9. ____________
Hint: I'd like A Better Tomorrow on VHS, please. Hint: In space, no one can hear you scream. Hint: First great graphic novel?
10. ____________ 11. ____________ 12. ____________

Select the following invisible text for the answers:

1. The design on the back of Kaneda’s jacket, “Akira” (1988). 2. Sheeta’s necklace bearing the Laputa crest, Miyazaki Hayao’s “Laputa” aka “Castle in the Sky” (1986). 3. The symbol on the side of Buckaroo Banzai’s jet car, “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” (1984). 4. The logo of the NSEA Protector, “Galaxy Quest” (1999). 5. The logo for Network 23, Edison Carter’s evil employer, “Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future” (1985). 6. The Commodore Business Machines “chickenhead” logo; Commodore manufactured the PET and Commodore 64 personal computers. 7. The banner of the Imperium of Man from Games Workshops’ “Warhammer 40,000” series of science-fantasy tabletop wargames, RPGs, and computer games. 8. Logo of the evil Blue Sun Corporation from Joss Whedon’s sci-fi western “Firefly” (2002-03). 9. Runic symbol devised by fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien as a form of signature; formed from the letters “JRRT.” 10. Logo of Tai Seng Video Marketing, major distributors of East Asian cinema in the United States; brought the films of Chow-Yun Fat, John Woo, Jackie Chan and Jet Li to the U.S. 11. Logo patch of the USCSS Nostromo, “Alien” (1979). 12. Blood-spattered “happy-face” pin of the murdered Comedian, Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” (1986-87).

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: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Day the Earth Stood Still poster

For more on how I am choosing these films, see my post on Battlefield Earth.

Yes, yes, I know what the comments will be before I even begin.

How can you call the original Day the Earth Stood Still one of the worst sci-fi films of all time? It’s a masterpiece! A classic! I own it on Blu-Ray, DVD, VHS, Betamax, Laserdisc and an original 35mm print! I named my daughter Helen and my son Klaatu! You’re an idiot who doesn’t understand sci-fi and you should burn in Hell forever!

Except the comments will be riddled with typos and make less sense.

The world is full of things that the general public considers to be brilliant, which are at best mediocre. Like The Eagles. Babylon 5. And Isaac Asimov.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of those things. It’s not really one of the worst sci-fi films of all time. But it is such a colossal disappointment in comparison to its reputation that I have no problem placing it on this list.

Certainly the film contains some good ideas, and its failures may have more to do with the era in which it was filmed than with any lack of talent by the people responsible for it.

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SPOILERS FOLLOW (Warning: plot elements from the 1951 film may appear in the 2008 film, so if you plan to see that, be careful.)

The Day the Earth Stood Still is the story of Klaatu, an Anglo-Saxon alien from an unnamed planet 250 million miles from Earth. He lands in front of the White House in his silver classic saucer that glows and makes electrical noises in flight.

Emerging from the saucer in front of a crowd of soldiers and onlookers, Klaatu announces that he has come “in peace and with goodwill.” He offers a sex toy to a soldier, who promptly shoots him.

An 8-foot tall silver being called Gort, which everyone immediately knows is a robot despite the fact it looks just like Klaatu, emerges from the saucer and and destroys all the soldiers’ weapons with some kind of Prop Removal Beam.

Klaatu is taken to a hospital, where he is examined by one scientist and no one takes his picture. He is also visited by the President’s secretary, because apparently the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, the President’s Chief Science Adviser and the President’s hair stylist were all too busy to meet a freakin’ alien from another freakin’ planet.

Klaatu explains that he has an important message for the whole world, and not just for the United States, so he wants to address the United Nations. He fails to explain why he landed in Washington, DC, instead of New York where the actual UN is located. It doesn’t matter — the President’s secretary tells Klaatu that the world’s leaders will never gather together to hear his message. The half of the world that misinterprets Karl Marx is too angry at the half of the world that misinterprets Adam Smith.

No one suggests that Klaatu individually visit world leaders in his space ship, or that he just go on television.

Klaatu escapes from the hospital. I applaud the filmmakers for assuming that an alien from an advanced space-faring civilization would be able to defeat a Kwikset lock, but not the idea that human officials would be surprised by this.

Klaatu then spends the entire second act of the movie in a dull subplot about a secretary, her son and her asshat of a boyfriend.

The second act ends when Klaatu sneaks past the two guards — TWO GUARDS — guarding his saucer, goes to the control room and presses the button marked “Turn Off All Electrical Devices On Earth For A Half-Hour.” This is where the movie gets it almost, but not entirely inaccurate title.

In the third act, Klaatu has convinced the world’s greatest scientist, a frizzy-haired Jew who for copyright purposes in not Albert Einstein, to collect all the world’s other greatest scientists to meet at the saucer. Unfortunately, the US government is afraid that the escaped alien is some kind of communist (he’s not — he’s a fascist, see below). So they kill him.

Fortunately, Klaatu has taught the secretary a phrase, “Klaatu barada nikto,” which translates as “Hey Gort, Klaatu is dead. Go to the police station where they’re holding the body, blast through the wall with your Scenery Removal Ray, pick up Klaatu and carry him — through the streets of Washington, unnoticed — back to the saucer, where you will use the Main Character Resurrection Device to resurrect him.”

The aliens speak a very economical language.

The secretary finds Gort, and actress Patricia Neal gets to speak the most famous line she’ll ever speak in a career spanning six decades.

Gort succeeds in barading Klaatu’s nikto, and Klaatu and the secretary step out of the saucer to speak to the assembled scientists. Klaatu finally conveys his Message to the Earth, which takes about 90 seconds and makes you wonder why he took 90 minutes of movie to get around to it.

It seems that the “other planets” — the ones within 250 million miles — are concerned that humans will build nuclear rockets. Klaatu offers humanity two choices. In the first, humanity will be lorded over by robots like Gort, who will destroy the Earth if humans exhibit any aggressive behavior toward other planets.

The other choice? The robots will destroy Earth right now.

Klaatu does not wait for a response, since any response but “we’ll take door number one” would be pretty silly. He also does not have sex with the secretary. He gets in the saucer and flies back to his planet. The end.

(By the way, I called Klaatu a fascist, not a communist. Communists establish a totalitarian police force, then kill all the rich people. Fascists establish a totalitarian police force, with the cooperation of all the rich people. Klaatu’s Peace Through Robot Annihilation regime seems closer to the latter.)

END OF BITINGLY SARCASTIC PLOT SYNOPSIS

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Now, apart from the plot elements I lampooned in my bitingly sarcastic plot synopsis, what bothers me about this movie? Let me check my notes (no, really, I have notes).

“Two hundred and fifty million miles.” This is a ridiculously short distance astronomically, yet Klaatu uses this figure several times to impress us with how incredibly far he’s traveled. But this puts his homeworld well within the Solar System.

I have worked out, based on the orbit of the Earth and the orbits of the other seven — seven — planets, the minimum and maximum distances between Earth and those planets for all positions throughout time, adjusting for Mercury’s 7° deviation from the plane of solar rotation. Okay, no I haven’t. I’m spitballing. But it seems to me a limit of 250,000 miles means Klaatu must come from Mercury, Venus, or Mars. (At the outside, traveling at the closest distance, maybe he could originate from a moon of Jupiter. But Klaatu said “other planets,” and I’m taking him at his word.)

Scientists knew in 1951 that, like a McDonald’s McDLT, Mercury is a blasted cinder on one side and a frozen wasteland on the other. There had yet to be any radar observations of Venus, and astronomers did not yet even know that the planet’s rotation is retrograde — but they knew it was an uninhabitable swamp of hot gas. And as for Mars, well, even scientists who thought nuclear radiation was safe and beneficial understood that Mars was an uninhabited rock.

Sci-fi writers, when putting astronomical distances into the mouths of aliens, never say “miles.” Use “light years.” But don’t use “parsecs” — that’s a unit of time.

Let’s see, what else bugged me? Oh — did anyone else notice that NORAD was located in a Chinese restaurant? Or that foreign language news shows had English-language signs so you’d know what country they were in?

Speaking of foreign languages, the alien word for “follow me” is “meringue.” Seriously, watch the movie. I’m not kidding.

Here are some script notes for Klaatu. First of all — SIT DOWN. In almost every scene, Klaatu stands, even when everyone else is sitting. Is this an alien thing, like Mork sitting on his head? Also, Klaatu, a “train without tracks” is not a train. It’s a bus.

The score was recorded using not one but two theremins, proving for all time that one theremin is enough.

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But let’s get beyond the nitpicking. I think this movie fails primarily because of when it was made — the early 1950’s, when sex, race and free speech were still stuck in the 40’s but everyone was afraid of the Reds.

The film was directed by Robert Wise, who would go on to direct such other sci-fi classics as The Andromeda Strain and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which means he’s one for three. (I’ll note here that Star Trek: The Motionless Picture is not on this list of worst sci-fi films only because I want to limit myself to one Star Trek film, and there is one worse. Maybe two.)

Wise is not exactly considered an auteur, although for TDTESS he seems to have borrowed two ideas from Citizen Kane — use extreme shadows for dramatic effect, and employ a semi-documentary style to pull the audience into the film.

The documentary feel of the film was apparently considered quite impressive in 1951, and would be copied by many later films. Wise wanted the audience to accept that this science fiction scenario was something that conceivably could happen in real life (Caucasian Martians notwithstanding), so there are lots of shots of random humans from throughout the world responding to the arrival of the saucer, the suppression of electrical devices, and the panic over an alien on the loose.

Way, waaaaay too many shots. Almost as many as there are of military vehicles patrolling Washington looking for giant silver robots and tall Englishmen who can’t sit down.

The entire film is fundamentally composed of (Act One) reaction shots, (Act Two) talking, and (Act Three) a speech. Kind of like Atlas Shrugged, except the speech is 1/10,000th the length. And interesting.

Act Two sucks because it adheres to a 1950s style of filmmaking. I can hear the producer now: “Hey Bob, this flick’s got too many spacemen. We need something people can relate to. A family. Maybe they live in a boarding house. And the wife’s a widow, see, with a kid. The kid can hang out with the alien, and the wife can fall in love with him. And there’s no bad guy in the script, so give the wife a cad of a boyfriend who betrays the alien. And have a cast of nutty characters in the boarding house who talk about the alien. Oh – is there a dog?”

Great.

Also, the original script called for Klaatu to be brought back from the dead, but the censors didn’t like this. They didn’t want Klaatu to meddle in the domain of the Christian god; so Klaatu’s resurrection became temporary, and he says this:

Helen: You mean… he has the power of life and death?
Klaatu: No. That power is reserved to the Almighty Spirit.

Gack. My problem with religious space aliens deserves its own post. Let’s just say that, unless you’re David Brin, you’re doing it wrong.

Robert Wise was a leftist who wanted to make a powerful film about the dangers of the Cold War, and the necessity of the United Nations and the international cooperation it represents (at least theoretically). Even the film as released was considered “subversive” by some, probably because it suggested that the issues of contention in the Cold War did not merit mutually assured destruction.

Unfortunately, The Day the Earth Stood Still is not that film.

Next: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

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