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.

Like the other films I’ve covered in this series (Battlefield Earth, Pluto NashThe Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Star Trek V, Alien3, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), Prometheus is not bad the way Plan 9 from Outer Space is bad. Prometheus is well produced, well shot, well designed, and as far as the script allows, well acted. But it is not well written. At all. And compared to what Prometheus could have and should have been, it is a very, very bad film.

This despite the fact that it stars Swedish/Icelandic actor Noomi Rapace, whom I like a lot; German Michael Fassbender, who gives a great performance; and the usually-reliable Charlize Theron who, despite a 17-year film career and an Academy Award™®© for Best Actress in a Film Where You’re Unrecognizable, I will always think of as Arrested Development’s Charlize Theron.

Mr. F!!!

We’ll discuss what went wrong after my patent-pending Bitingly-Sarcastic Plot Synopsis. But first, I will admit that I am breaking one of my original rules for this blog series — I am reviewing two films in the same franchise (Prometheus & Alien3). I know I said I would not do that, but I broke this rule for two reasons; first, I really wanted to write about Prometheus, and second, this frees me up to write about Star Trek: The Motionless Picture.

Ridley Scott has tried to play coy about whether Prometheus is actually a prequel to Alien, but please. The film is chock full of direct visual and thematic references to the earlier film.

And now, my BITINGLY-SARCASTIC PLOT SYNOPSIS (spoilers ahead):

The camera swoops over Iceland. Iceland is cool. I just realized why saying that is mildly humorous.

Ooh, there’s a giant shadow! It must be a spaceship! Yes, a giant disk is floating in the air! Except giant things can’t really “hang in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t,” as Douglas Adams put it. But whatever. It’s science fiction trope. A tired science fiction trope, but who cares? It’s a Ridley Scott sci-fi movie!

We meet our alien, a muscular albino with Betazed eyes. Normally, this would piss me off – aliens are not going to look like deformed Caucasians – but in this case it’s okay, because these Engineers are supposed to be the progenitors of humankind. We look like them. Of course, this is another tired sci-fi trope, but hey, it’s a Ridley Scott movie!

Whitey McSteroid drinks goop from a bowl as his spaceship takes off. He writhes in pain as mysterious black crap starts tearing apart his DNA. His body crumbles and he falls into the water. Somehow, apparently, this creates humanity, although we don’t know that yet, so I don’t know why I’m telling you now. I guess because the next two hours are going to be confusing, and I want to keep things as straight as I can.

Ridley Scott!

The origin of humankind! Or something.

Cut to the year 2089, according to the titles, although the characters are dressed exactly as they would be in 2012. Apparently, Patagonia’s not going to produce any new styles of winter wear for the next 77 years. Anyway, some archaeologist types are digging around in Scotland, which is over 800 miles from where Frosty O’Slammingbod killed himself with the goop, but okay. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (the real one, not the American one) and Some Actor Who Has Never Been In Anything You’ve Seen climb into a cave, where they come across a cave painting. Dragon Tattoo (fine, her character’s name is Shaw) has dated the painting as “thirty-five thousand years old, maybe older,” a number she seemingly pulled out of her otherwise admirable ass. They find a humanoid figure pointing at six dark splotches, which any reputable archaeologist would immediately recognize as a message from aliens. Like, duh!

No human being could possibly make splotches like that.

Cut to 2093, where the scientific exploration vessel Prometheus is making noise in space. It’s not like that’s a tired trope or anything. Ridley Scott! The ship is 3.27×1014 kilometers from Earth, which is 34.5 light years for the Google-impaired. The only star at this distance is Iota Persei, so if you’re looking for LV-223, there ya go.

The only person awake on board Prometheus is David the Robot, who looks like a Eurotrash mannequin in a Buck Rogers helmet. We know he’s a robot because he walks like he has Sir Ridley’s two Golden Globes stuck up his artificial anus. David spies on the sleeping Shaw who, like all cryogenically frozen people in the future, is dressed in Leeloo’s thermal bandages from The Fifth Element. He uses his Buck Rogers helmet to spy on Shaw’s dream, in which her father, the younger Nite Owl from Watchmen, tells her childhood self about death. What is the significance of this dream? You will have to answer this question in the multiple choice quiz at the end of this film review.

David the Robot wanders around the ship, which is one of those massive, office-building-like, gravity-at-right-angles-to-the-force-of-acceleration spacecraft that will never exist in the real world because they make no sense at all, and are a tired sci-fi trope. (Although, to be fair, it’s been long established in the Alien franchise that spaceships work that way. It’s still tired, though.)

David plays basketball on a bicycle, which is supposed to telegraph to the corn-fed Tea Party mouth-breathers in the audience who haven’t figured it out yet that he is a robot, although I doubt this works. He eats food for some unexplained reason (although I guess Ash, Bishop, and Annalee did too, so okay) and watches videos to learn to speak the Proto-Indo-European language; although as a robot, he should really be able to absorb this material through Bluetooth, but whatever. (I studied PIE in college, so I understood that this is what was going on. Avis akv?sas ka, bitches!!!)

He also watches 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, and apparently dyes his roots so he will look more like Peter O’Toole. What does this tell us about David’s character? You will have to explain this in the quiz at the end of this film review. Use the back of this page if you need more space.

Prometheus arrives at its destination, a moon orbiting a ringed gas giant. The moon is called LV-223, because the planet in the first two Alien films was called LV-426, and Sir Ridley wants all the fanboys in the audience to say, “ooh, I know what ‘LV’ means! This makes me feel special and loved and like I have a girlfriend!” This despite the fact that Alien franchise fans are just as likely to have a significant other as anyone else, excepting Twilight franchise fans, who are sad and alone and even their cats don’t love them.

All the other characters on the ship wake up. According to the titles there are supposed to be 17 of them, but a number of pedantic fan analyses on the Internet reveal there are actually 18, including David the Robot, but not including the Extra-Special Secret Character We’re Not Supposed to Know Is on the Ship. Perhaps the official crew manifest would not include David, because he is The Robot, and so a piece of equipment and not a member of the crew. But one wonders why the titles, which are not “in-universe” but put there by the screenwriter and director, would have such an anti-robot bias. Commander Data and Tom Servo demand answers, dammit!

The first person to wake up is Charlize Theron, who for unexplained reasons is soaking wet and doing push-ups. I don’t have any complaints about a soaking-wet Charlize Theron, I just want it to illuminate something about her character. This only illuminates something about my libido. Charlize Theron’s character has a name, but in this Bitingly Sarcastic Plot Synopsis, I am going to just call her Charlize Theron; because while there have been a number of films in which Charlize Theron gets lost in her role and you forget you are watching Charlize Theron, this is not one of them.

Everyone gets out of stasis and sits in the dining room drinking shakes, much as everyone did when they first woke up in Alien. For some reason, the ship’s computer describes what everyone is doing while they are doing it. I kept expecting Sigourney Weaver to show up, not as Ripley, but as her Galaxy Quest character, to repeat what the computer was saying.

It’s made clear at this point that the crew have never met each other, and must have been loaded onto Prometheus while still in status. This is weird. They didn’t train together, prepare for the mission together? Of course, the Sir Ridley could have “hung a lampshade” on this, maybe by having the characters mention how weird it was. He did not.

Look at me, I am SO old. So freaking old. I am an old guy.

Charlize Theron shows the crew a holographic video from Peter Weyland (and the fanboys say “ooh! Weyland! Like Weyland-Yutani! I am so cool because I am familiar with Alien franchise trivia! Watching the extended Blu-Ray of Aliens 53 times was so worth it!”) Weland is played by the Guy from Memento (get it? Guy from Memento? Guy???) in truly, genuinely terrible old man makeup. I mean, old man makeup that is just inexcusable for a big-budget feature film made in 2012. Supposedly, there is a reason Guy Pierce played the role in old man makeup, instead of maybe one of Hollywood’s several actors who are actually elderly. According to Pierce, it is because young Weyland was supposed to appear in a dream sequence; but the scene was never shot. This does not explain why young Weyland and old Weyland aren’t played by different actors – it worked great in Looper.

The Weyland hologram introduces Shaw and the other archaeologist, Holloway, to the rest of the crew. Holloway uses a magic Rubik’s cube to show everyone holograms of various artifacts found on Earth. He feeds the crew a pile of warmed-over von Däniken shit about giant aliens leaving messages across various civilizations. Apparently, the six dark splotches in the cave painting can only be interpreted as a map of one particular star system (presumably Iota Persei). Sure. I mean, the filmmakers could have put some actual thought into it; maybe had the ancient petroglyphs contain a code that translates into a particular star’s spectral signature – I dunno, I’ve only been thinking about it for 30 seconds, and they developed this film for ten freaking years.

Ridley Scott!

Shaw reveals that the aliens, whom she has dubbed “Engineers” even though Alien fanboys have been calling them “Space Jockeys” or “Pilots” since 1979, created humanity. When asked to support this assertion, she replies that “it’s what I choose to believe.” How very scientific. Neil deGrasse Tyson would be so proud. This is the first time a supposed scientist acts like an idiot in Prometheus, but it is far from the last.

I don’t know, maybe she just watched the first three minutes of the movie. Anyway, Shaw and Holloway are invited to Inara’s Charlize Theron’s beautifully-appointed lifeboat. Charlize is in full-on Ice Queen mode, even though any tall, blonde actress in Hollywood can play an Ice Queen, so there was no need to waste Charlize Theron’s time. Shaw discovers Charlize’s Med-Pod™, which will figure prominently later. Charlize establishes that she is in fact in charge of the mission, and that Shaw and Holloway are not to make contact with Blondie von Curlandrip if they happen to stumble across him.

The ship has been beaming friendly messages toward the moon, and David the Robot has been teaching himself ancient languages, which Holloway is certain the aliens will speak (although not so certain that he bothered to learn any himself – an archaeologist who speaks ancient languages? That’s unpossible!) The Captain, who is played by That Guy They Say Might Be the First Black James Bond, orders the ship into the moon’s atmosphere.

Out of the entire surface of this entire huge moon, Prometheus manages to immediately stumble upon the correct valley containing the Engineer’s temple. Do they discover this structure through extensive surface scans? Weeks of overflights? An ancient alien map? Nope, Holloway happens to spot it out a window.

I’d like to point something out here, in my capacity as a former archaeology student. Black James Bond lands Prometheus right on the temple site, with no objections from Shaw or Holloway. The spaceship’s engines blow up huge clouds of rock and dust as it lands – the rock and dust from the single most important archaeological site ever discovered. Sure, Idris – land that thing anywhere.

Everyone suits up in their Buck Rogers space gear. I’m not complaining that it’s Buck Rogers space gear; it’s nice to see an unusual design for once. (The original Alien had creative spacesuits as well.) They set out in one nice big logical space SUV — and two small, neon-colored, inexplicable space dune buggies. The same space dune buggies that were used to such beautiful effect in the Citizen Kane of Star Trek films, 2002’s Nemesis. (In case you’re the kind of mouth breather who needed it explained that David the Robot was a robot, that last bit was sarcasm.)

Holloway asks if the giant, hemispherical, hollow temple structure up ahead with the wide, flat paved road leading straight up to it and a circular wall around it is “natural, or did somebody put it there?” Archaeology! Everyone walks right into the structure, because the future doesn’t have these.

This is when the British Geologist Who Is Crazy Although We Don’t Know Why launches his “pups,” levitating neon map-making bowling balls. These balls fly through the alien structure, mapping every room and corridor, and transmitting this map back to Prometheus. This is going to be very important later on, when British Geologist gets lost in the alien structure. That’s right, the guy with an advanced automated 21st Century flying map-making system gets lost. I know that makes no sense at all, but that’s what happens.

I am not making this up.

Holloway notices that, unlike the air on the surface, the atmosphere in the alien temple is breathable by humans. So he takes off his helmet. The International Committee on Abject Stupidity in the Cinema, based out of Basel, Switzerland, has named this action the Dumbest Thing a Fictional Film Character Has Done in a Major Motion Picture since Qui-Gon Jinn invited Jar Jar Binks to hang out with the Jedi Scooby Gang. Do I really have to explain why?

Because he doesn’t know if there are deadly viruses or microbes in the air, that’s why!!! Idiot!!!

Don't take your helmet off on an alien planet!!! Idiot!!!

Well, at least nobody else – no, they all take off their helmets.

David the Robot finds some green CGI goop, on a wall-mounted control panel that the archaeologists completely fail to examine. Of course David touches and sniffs the goop, because that is how science is done. He also, somehow, we never learn how, figures out how to activate the control panel, and with it the temple’s full-immersion holographic system. It replays ancient events in the most convenient way possible – by forcing viewers to run around the ship chasing the holograms.

The holograms lead our protagonists to the corpse of an Engineer, which lost its head when a door closed on its neck. At this point, British Geologist demands to be allowed to return to the ship. Some Internet commentators have complained that no real scientist, even a geologist, would want to leave when presented with evidence of an alien civilization. I personally would not have had a problem with this, if there had eventually been some explanation of British Geologist’s decision, or if it had revealed something about his character.

No, what really, really bothers me is that she ship’s BIOLOGIST goes with him. Yes, a trained biologist, who traveled 35 light years and spent two years in suspended animation, is given the opportunity to be the first person to ever examine the body of an intelligent alien life form – and not only does he not do so, he decides to go back to the ship with the crazy geologist.

Ridley Scott!

David pulls a full-size ladder out of his ass, explaining his gait, and climbs up to look at a control panel, while Shaw and Holloway do their jobs and inspect the alien corpse. David opens the door, despite Shaw’s warning that they “don’t know what’s on the other side.” Well, that’s why you open the door, Dr. Shaw.

Inside they find two heads – the decapitated alien’s little head, and a giant stone humanoid head. The room is also filled with jars which, if you’re an Alien fan, you know is never a good sign. David discovers organic goo coming out of one of the jars, and bags the jar to bring it back to the ship.

The crew members on the Prometheus are surprised to learn that the valley is about to be overtaken by a storm. Just a few hours earlier they were in orbit around the planet, but now the weather is a surprise. Sure.

Shaw packs up the decapitated alien noggin, and she, Holloway, David and Linda Hunt from The Year of Living Dangerously head back to Prometheus in a forced action scene involving the dune buggies. They do not having a flying map machine, but they do not get lost.

British Geologist and The World’s Worst Biologist, who do have the map machine, get lost, as I promised. For some reason they blame Shaw and Holloway for getting lost, which, I mean, huh? They have to spend the night alone in the alien temple, and would have been fine, had they not done anything else stupid.

Shaw, David, Charlize Theron, Holloway (who is suddenly depressed for no reason and chugging liquor) and the ship’s Medic convene in the medical bay to examine the alien head. They figure out that the “Space Jockey” face is actually a helmet, and pull it off, revealing the head of Milky van der Huge. Shaw decides that by electrocuting the head, they can “trick the nervous system into thinking it’s still alive.” I don’t remember seeing that in Renfrew’s Archaeology.

Head go BOOM!!!

The head explodes. Good work, Dr. Shaw.

Later, David is wearing his Buck Rogers helmet and calling someone in a stasis unit “sir.” Who could it be? WHO COULD IT BE??? If you don’t know, you probably voted for Ron Paul and think Snooki is “so talented.”

David then has an altercation with Charlize Theron in the hallway. I would let you in on the point of this encounter if I thought it had one.

Granted, this film does have some very cool little details.

The robot opens the jar he found in the temple, and finds big clear containers of the Black Oil from The X-Files. Meanwhile, Shaw examines the alien DNA with what appears to be a regular optical microscope, and discovers that the alien had human genes – or rather, that humans have alien genes. We already knew this, because we saw the first three minutes of the movie.

David goes to have a chat with Holloway who, if you will remember, has suddenly become a drunk depressive for no logical reason. Oh, but it seems Holloway is upset because there are no living Engineers in the temple, so he cannot live his dream of finding out the answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe and Everything (it’s “42”). So, let me try to get this – Holloway has been on LV-223 for less than a day. He has explored one room in one building, and found one alien corpse. And now he has given up completely, without exploring the rest of the temple, or examining the aliens’ holographic record, or looking at Shaw’s genetic results, or maybe even checking out the entire rest of the goddamn planet.

Ridley Scott!

David slips Holloway a Black Oil roofie, for reasons that will presently become clear. I’m just kidding, no they won’t.

Meanwhile, Beavis and Butthead are still lost inside the temple, and are examining a giant pile of dead Engineer corpses when Captain James Bond, back on board Prometheus, detects some kind of life form in the temple. How does he detect the life form? With the British Geologist’s flying map-making system, of course. He asks World’s Worst Biologist for the duo’s current location, which makes no sense, since their current location is being displayed in the holographic display right in front of him. At this point, Laurel and Hardy make the only intelligent decision anyone in this film ever makes, and move away from the life form. (Although any real biologist would want to move toward the life form, even if it were possibly dangerous.)

Shaw and Holloway have a chat in their stateroom, the practical upshot of which is that Shaw is infertile. Then they have sex, although we do not get to see any interesting bits of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Captain James Bond and Charlize Theron have a bizarre conversation, in which the Captain comes on to Charlize, she shoots him down, he accuses her of being a robot, and she then changes her mind and decides to have sex with him. We do not get to see the sex scene, or any interesting bits of Charlize Theron. Or Idris Elba, if that’s your thing.

Hey there, buddy! How's it going? Would you let a Penis Snake Creature break your arm and then crawl down your throat? I'm asking for a friend.

Freebie and the Bean end up back in the Head Chamber, where all the jars are now leaking black goo. They discover some kind of Penis Snake Creature swimming through the goo. Some commenters on the World Wide Web have complained that World’s Worst Biologist’s resulting enthusiastic treatment of the Penis Snake Creature makes no sense. This is true in that he’s been fleeing from every sign of alien life up until this point – and now he suddenly wants to do his job? But at least he’s acting like a scientist. You don’t think scientists get all excited by a living thing that promptly kills them? Ask Bindi Irwin about that.

Inevitably, because this is an Alien movie, the Penis Snake attacks the Biologist, wrapping around his arm and snapping it. British Geologist slices its head off, and gets molecular acid all over his helmet for his trouble. The thing grows a new head and climbs down the Biologist’s throat, while the Geologist gets melted helmet glass all over his face.

The next morning, Holloway notices a tiny alien worm crawling around in his eye. He immediately runs to the medical bay and informs everyone – except, of course, he doesn’t. Why would he, except that he’s a trained astronaut and it’s what anyone would do.

Everyone heads back out to the temple to look for Itchy and Scratchy – except David, who has his own sinister agenda, I guess? With Charlize Theron watching from the ship, David goes to a door that one of the flying map-makers found. Beyond the door he finds a giant chamber just jam-packed with goo jars. Beyond this is a control chamber containing four Engineers in suspended animation. (See, Holloway? Maybe you should try a door before you give up exploring.) David cuts the feed to Charlize Theron. If only there were some way she could see the room for herself, maybe by putting on a damn spacesuit and driving a dune buggy a quarter of a mile…

Everyone else is in the Head Chamber, where they have discovered all the leaking goo. No one puts their helmet back on, despite the fact that they don’t know what the goo does. They find the Geologist, who appears dead – and a snake creature bursts out of his throat! Meanwhile, Holloway has gotten sick, and Shaw wants to take him back to the ship.

Somehow David can operate the Engineers’ technology, which is controlled by a series of glowing silicon breast implants. The holograms come to life, and David learns that the alien spacecraft’s systems are controlled via flute. No really, a flute. The kind you blow into and make music with. A flute.

Ridley Scott!

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

There’s a cool scene with a gigantic CGI armillary sphere, which is very pretty but doesn’t answer any of our nagging questions. Then, one of the Engineers begins to wake up.

Everyone else arrives back at Prometheus to find Charlize Theron guarding the door with a flamethrower. (I’m pretty sure all spaceships have a flamethrower. Doesn’t the International Space Station have a flamethrower?) Guy, who is monstering-out into some kind of space zombie (that looks suspiciously like Old Man Guy Pierce – must be the same makeup guy), forces Charlize Theron to kill him. Shaw is very upset about this; it’s refreshing at this point to see someone other than Michael Fassbender actually acting.

Shaw wakes up in the medical bay, where David informs her that she is “pregnant.” What he means to say is that she “has a parasitic alien life form living in her lower abdomen,” but he decides to say “pregnant.” David is such a wag. Shaw freaks out, and David tries a tactic directly from the Carter Burke playbook, suggesting that Shaw go back into stasis so they can solve the issue back on Earth. Shaw is not down with this, so David drugs her.

Later, two crew members try to take Shaw to stasis – she whacks them both on the head with a giant wrench someone left lying around on the medical table, and takes off to Charlize Theron’s lifepod. She turns on the Med-Pod™, which informs Shaw that it is “calibrated for male patients only,” which makes no sense, but is supposed to be a clue that there’s someone else on the ship.

Aww, look at the little fella! I think it's a boy!

Shaw gets in anyway and gives herself a xeno-abortion. This is supposed to be a very intense, very graphic, and quite shocking scene – and I’m sure in 1979, or even 1989, it would have been. But after 30 years of David Cronenberg movies, well, I’m afraid we’ve seen all this before, Sir Ridley. Sorry.

Anyway, Shaw gets the Space Squid out of her belly (I liked the bit with the staples), and escapes.

Please note that Shaw will spend the rest of the film walking, running, climbing, and jumping with a major surgical incision and with her abdominal muscles cut. Because science.

Hi there. I hope you enjoyed my performance as Johnny Utah's partner in 'Point Break.'

At this point the dead corpse of British Engineer shows up at the ship, all zombied-out and acting like that kid in The Grudge. Was British Engineer ever exposed to the goo? I guess he could have been when he was dead in the Head Room, but we never saw this happen.

Let’s take a moment here to examine the Engineers’ Black Alien Goo Technology, shall we?

When black goo is spilled on the ground, it creates Penis Snake Creatures that burrow into your esophagus and kill you. When someone drinks black goo, it gives them eye worms and turns them into a Space Zombie. When someone female has sex with someone who drank black goo, they get “pregnant” with a Space Squid (even if they are infertile). When a corpse is introduced to black goo, it comes back to life.

I’d like to see that marketing meeting back on the Engineer home world. “Black Goo™! It’s multipurpose! If your interplanetary business concern is in need of large quantities of Penis Snakes, Space Squids, or Space Zombies, then Black Goo™ is for you! Looking for violent animated corpses? Give Black Goo™ a try! Leaky jars of Black Goo™ are ready to be shipped to your planet. Purchase Black Goo™ today!”

Shaw, stumbling and covered in blood, stumbles on a tremendous surprise, one worthy of M. Night Shyamalan back in the years when M. Night Shyamalan was making good movies (you know, 1999-2000). I know there is no way to have predicted this – we weren’t given any clues – but Old Man Guy Pierce is on the Prometheus! I know!

David reveals that Ghosty McLargeHuge is waking up in the temple, and he and Guy are off to see him. Turns out Weyland thinks the Engineers can provide him with immortality; which is a strange thing to think, since the temple is piled high with Engineer corpses.

Shaw insists that the Prometheus leave the moon. Now granted, we have had a bunch of deaths and a Space Squid pregnancy; and Shaw’s boyfriend looks like an overdone s’more. But I really don’t think, even after everything that has happened, that an archaeologist would want to actually leave. Perhaps some kind of “don’t touch the black goo, take your helmet off, or bring alien heads into the ship” policy could be instigated; then the temple could be explored in relative safety. Anyway, when Guy insists that they stay and try to discover answers, he actually sounds like the reasonable one.

Shaw pops some painkillers and suits up to follow Guy and David to the temple. Captain James Bond, who hasn’t bothered to have an actual opinion the whole movie, is suddenly convinced that the temple is a military installation, and the black goo is a “weapon of mass destruction.” I dunno, Idris – while I too fear the Penis Snake/Space Squid/Space Zombie-Industrial Complex, I don’t know that it rises to the level of nuclear bombs or weaponized ebola.

Charlize Theron visits Guy, and we learn to our shock, amazement, astonishment, astoundment, bewilderment, shock, stupefaction, and wonderment that she is his daughter! Gosh! This is such an important revelation, because… I got nothing. Although I must admit this scene gives Charlize an opportunity to actually emote for the first time in the film.

One of 'Prometheus'' many, many driving-between-the-ship-and-the-temple scenes.

Guy, David, Shaw, and some redshirts head back to the temple and into the control room; while back on Prometheus, Captain James Bond figures out that the area the group is entering is actually a ship (the same kind of ship the Nostromo crew found in Alien! And the fanboys stain their pants!).

Somehow David has figured out that 2,000 years ago, when the Engineers on the ship were killed by… well, we never find out, they had been on the verge of visiting Earth, where they planned to use the black oil to destroy humanity. David leads Guy to the living Engineer, and uses his supernatural powers of knowing-how-alien-technology-works to bring the alien out of stasis.

Dude -- who are you, and what are you doing in my bedroom?

Powder McHardPeck rises out of his sleeping pod and takes a look at the motley crew of humans, robots, and unconvincingly made-up old men standing around him. Shaw demands of the alien to know why the Engineers wanted to annihilate humanity – but Guy doesn’t care about that. He just wants learn the secret of immortality.

Davids speaks to the alien in Proto-Indo-European, because obviously this alien guy was hanging around in Neolithic Anatolia, right? Some people on the ‘Tubes have tried to work out what David says to the alien; I’ve got it narrowed down to three possibilities:

“This man is here because he does not want to die. He believes you can give him more life.”

or

“Can you recommend a better agent? I’m firing the guy who put me in this unholy mess. I was in Inglourious Basterds, verdammt noch mal!

or

“Is Alien vs. Predator canonical?”

Whatever David says, Cracker von ManMuscle responds by ripping the robot’s head off and smacking Guy across the face with it. (Boy, the Alien franchise sure has a thing about ripping robot heads off – first Ash, then Bishop, now David.) While the alien kills everyone else, Shaw hoofs it. Guy Pierce dies; watching from the ship, Charlize Theron orders the ship to take off.

Pasty Beefcakestein climbs into a giant spaceship control doohickey, which looks exactly like the giant spaceship control doohickey the dead Space Jockey was sitting in from Alien. He starts up the Space Donut’s engines, which blow Shaw bodily out onto the surface.

A colossal dilating door over the Space Donut begins to open, and Shaw, who you will remember has an unhealed 15cm incision in her belly, deftly runs back toward Prometheus, leaping gracefully over the opening door’s segments.

Shaw warns Captain James Bond that if the Space Donut makes it to Earth, humanity will be destroyed. She knows that the Space Donut’s destination is Earth because… um… something David said, I guess?

The Captain orders Charlize Theron to get to the escape pod – he’s decided to kill himself by flying Prometheus into the Space Donut, based on something Shaw told him over the radio that she heard from David, who may or may not have known what he was talking about. This type of bravery and sacrifice is exactly what we’ve come to expect from such a rich and deeply drawn character. He orders his two bridge buddies to go with Charlize, but for absolutely no reason whatsoever they decide to stay with the Captain and die.

Good thing that Alien Space Donuts don't have shields, or defenses, or anything.

Charlize Theron ejects and safely reaches the surface, while the Captain flies Prometheus slam-bang into the Space Donut. The alien ship falls, and starts rolling along the moon’s surface like a hula hoop, directly towards Shaw and Charlize Theron. The two ladies start running – not left, not right, but in a straight line right ahead of the rolling Space Donut. Many Internet commenters have identified this as the Dumbest Thing in a Pretty Dumb Film, Prometheus’ “nuke the fridge” moment.

Shaw trips, but manages to somehow roll out of the way of the Space Donut; Charlize Theron gets squashed flatter than a pannekoek. (Because Charlize Theron is South African. Jesus, people, do I have to explain all the jokes?)

Shaw only has two minutes of oxygen remaining (why? She wasn’t in the temple that long!) so she heads to Charlize’s downed lifepod. She hears a noise, so she grabs an axe – doesn’t every spaceship have an axe? Peering into the Med-Pod™ chamber, she discovers that the adorable baby Space Squid she tried to abort has been getting on fine without Mommy. Indeed, it has grown to enormous size, despite the fact that there is nothing in the Med-Pod™ chamber for it to eat. (If you’ll remember, the newborn xenomorph in Alien pulled the same trick, growing to monstrous size before it had a chance to eat anyone.)

Do not want!!!

Shaw gets a Bluetooth call from David’s decapitated head, who warns her that Chalky O’Proteinshake survived the crash and is on his way. Just then the alien rushes in – Shaw screams “die!!!!” (no, really), and opens the door to the Med-Pod™ chamber. Her tentacled crotchfruit seizes the Engineer by the neck and starts making sweet, sweet squid love to him.

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.

Leaping from the lifepod without ripping open her massive surgical wound, somehow, Shaw rolls to safety. The Space Squid opens its Lovecraftian maw (very nice creature design, quite impressive), and X-Ray McJackLaLanne gets an ovipositor rammed down his throat.

David raises Shaw on Skype, and informs her that there are other, working Space Donuts, a fact that he conveniently pulls out of his ass despite the fact that his ass is on the other side of the control chamber. She rejoins David, and informs him they will not be flying to Earth – they will be seeking out the Engineer homeworld, although why she’s expecting a better reception there is anyone’s guess.

Shaw and David fly off into the unknown, and we want two hours of our lives back.

Maybe it's named after the brother in 'Bill & Ted?'

But wait! There’s more! Pasty von NordicTrack is lying on the floor of the lifepod, writhing, his chest about to pop. Out of his tummy comes – well, it’s not the standard xenomorph, that’s for sure. It even has an umbilical cord and afterbirth, ewwww. Fanboys on the Internet call it the “Deacon,” I don’t know why.

It screams, even though in space, no one can hear it.

End of Bitingly Sarcastic Plot Synopsis.

Yikes.

Most online critics of Prometheus blame the screenplay; and they primarily point to writer Damon “Nash Bridges” Lindelof, who also wrote the disappointing Cowboys & Aliens. Wait, they’re letting this guy write Star Trek Into Darkness and Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland? Shit.

A lot of Internet commenters defend this film. The general gist of this defense is that Prometheus is neither incomprehensible nor badly written — it’s deep, see, full of mysteries and grand themes, and the only reason you don’t understand it is because you’re not smart enough.

This reminds me of Objectivists’ defense of Ayn Rand. It’s not that Rand’s ideas are childish, absurd, and vaguely reprehensible — it’s that you’re not smart enough to understand her! Yes, I just compared Prometheus to Atlas Shrugged. Deal with it.

If you are one of these people who thinks that Prometheus is the most intellectually challenging film since The Seventh Seal, I would like you to take the following quiz. Indeed, let’s all play along, and see how many questions we can answer. Show your work, keep your eyes on your own paper, you have 30 minutes starting now.

  1. Why does the Engineer at the beginning of the film have to die to seed the Earth with alien DNA? Wouldn’t a tissue sample work just as well? Can you really “seed” a biosphere by pouring DNA into a waterfall?
  2. How does Prometheus explore the theme of creation?  The Engineers create mankind, and mankind creates the Synthetics. Does the way David behaves towards humans echo the way humans behave toward the Engineers? It doesn’t? Well, shouldn’t it have? How about the other way around? No? Then what were Scott and Lindelof trying to say? Explain like I’m five.
  3. Explain Charlize Theron’s character’s purpose in the story. No really, because I have no idea — she complains a lot and then gets smushed. Also, why is it significant that she is Weyland’s daughter? How does this tie into themes of creation? It doesn’t? Then what was the point?
  4. David seems to have been acting under Weyland’s orders. So why does Weyland want Holloway infected with the black goo? Did he know what would happen? Weyland is terrified of his own death — wouldn’t performing unauthorized human experiments involving alien weapons of mass destruction, on the very same ship Weyland is on, place Weyland’s life in danger? What did Weyland and David learn from infecting Holloway? Nothing? Then what was the point? Also, if Weyland is afraid of dying, why does he go on a dangerous space mission? Why not stay in stasis on Earth, and wait for David to bring back the secret? Also also, why does Weyland keep his presence on Prometheus secret? What’s the point?
  5. The Engineers build a military installation on a distant moon, staff it with lots of Engineers, and equip it with a bunch of alien spacecraft. Something goes wrong, a bunch of Engineers die, and the last one goes into hypersleep for 2,000 years. Wait, what? Where is the rest of the Engineer race? Why doesn’t a rescue party ever show up? Why don’t they at least recover the expensive spaceships? If it was so important that the black goo get to Earth, why didn’t anyone ever take it there?
  6. How did David know how to operate all the alien technology? How did David know that the Engineers planned to use the black goo on humans? How did he know that the surviving alien planned to take the spaceship to Earth, rather than somewhere else, like his homeworld? Is basing major plot points on characters knowing things they couldn’t possibly know a statement on Western mores in a post-modern sociopolitical milieu, or is it just shitty writing?
  7. Shaw, Holloway, and Weyland share one attribute: they all believe that the Engineers created humanity, and can therefore answer of all humanity’s fundamental questions about the meaning of life and the nature of the universe. Yet this belief is just a given — no one ever explains or defends it. Explain or defend the idea that if aliens exist, they must know all the answers to the uniquely human philosophical questions we all ask. What do you mean, you can’t? Do it anyway!
  8. Apparently, Charlize Theron’s character and the Captain have sex. How does this development comment on modern sexual politics? It doesn’t? Then what does it tell us about the characters? Nothing? Then how does it propel the story forward? It doesn’t? Then explain why Charlize Theron and the Captain have sex. Also, explain why we don’t get to see it.
  9. After his ship crashes, the awakened alien goes to the lifepod to try to kill Shaw. How does he know Shaw is there? And why does he care? Why doesn’t he just go to another ship and fly wherever he was going?
  10. When the party from Prometheus first encounters the Head Chamber, the murals start dissolving and the jars start leaking goo. Why? It was established that the atmosphere in the temple was safe for humans (and presumably, Engineers). Was the atmosphere in the Head Room different? Why? Why didn’t the jars in the Cargo Hold leak when David breached that room? Wouldn’t jars designed to hold dangerous alien goo be designed to not leak? Nobody in the temple was expecting humans to show up, right?
  11. In order to get anything approaching a xenomorph, you have to feed black goo to a human; that human has to have sex with a human female; that female has to give birth to a space squid; that squid has to impregnate an Engineer. So why was there a carving of a xenomorph in the Head Chamber?
  12. What killed the Engineers, and why didn’t it show up on the holographic record? Or leave behind a corpse? When the last Engineer woke up, why wasn’t he concerned that there might be some kind of deadly creature around? Why wasn’t he prepared to run into the space squid? The Prometheus was full of weapons; what about the alien ship? Weren’t there any alien weapons, or armor?
  13. Why would the Engineers leave behind clues on Earth that would lead a spacefaring humanity to their bioweapons testing facility; especially when, 2,000 years before humanity could develop spaceflight, they decided to destroy humanity anyway?
  14. Are ancient-Earth-vising humanoid aliens with a scheme to destroy humanity, round alien spaceships stored underground, black alien goo, a sinister and secretive older man who runs a shadowy cabal, and a male-female pair of investigators a tribute to The X-Files, or just plagiarism? Describe the lawsuit you would file if you were Chris Carter.
  15. What was the green goo that David found on the control panel? How does it relate to the black goo? Why is the Captain a fan of a musician from the 1960s? I’m not a fan of any musicians from the 1860s. When Shaw stumbles upon Weyland on Prometheus, why doesn’t anyone ask her why she’s naked and covered in blood with giant wound in her belly? What does the fact that Shaw’s father died of ebola tell us about her character? What does the fact that the alien’s head blew up tell us about the aliens? Why does the last Engineer just attack everyone, instead of first trying to find out why there are humans on his ship, or how long he has been asleep, or whether the dangerous creature that killed all the other Engineers is still around, or what the heck is going on? When a dead crew member shows up outside Prometheus looking like Pizza the Hut, why isn’t anyone alarmed? What does David’s Lawrence of Arabia obsession tell us about him? If Weyland thought his daughter wasn’t going to be coming on the mission, then how were the lavishly-appointed lifepod and Med-Pod going to be explained? Why would that console at the front of Prometheus’ bridge require its operator to stand? Why was the alien spaceship covered by a dilating door, when iris-style doors are really inefficient? If Prometheus’ ATV could detect that the temple was hollow, why couldn’t it detect the hollow space below the ground where the spaceship was hidden? Why was David able to go right to the door to the spaceship, but the two lost scientists never came across it? Why does the alien spacecraft’s piloting seat look like a giant gun? If Prometheus has artificial gravity, why does it need rockets to fly? If Shaw wants to locate the Engineer homeworld, why go there with only a homicidal robot for company? Why not go to Earth, get some help, and then go?
  16. Some people on the Internet think Prometheus is some sort of “space Jesus” parable. Are these people crazy, or stupid? Defend your diagnosis.

Okay, pencils down.

Unfortunately, after years of waiting, we got another Ridley Scott science fiction film, and it kind of sucked. Apparently there is the possibility there will be a sequel to Prometheus; and yes, I will go see it, just like I’m going to go see Star Wars: Episode VII — I mean, it has to be better, right?

I think what this comes back to, though, is something I’ve said multiple times in multiple venues: leave old franchises alone. Let Alien die; let Star Trek die; let Indiana Jones die; let Star Wars die. I love all these franchises, but let’s get some new ideas, fresh characters, and original stories. Are you out of ideas, Hollywood? I have plenty. Email me.

Next time: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).

Disagree with me? (Sigh. Of course you do.) Leave your reasoned and non-trolly comment below!

The Ten Worst Science Fiction Films of All Time: ‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’

Jesus Fucking Christ, you must be joking.

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

Here’s a science fiction story for you: some time after the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, George Lucas was replaced by an untalented clone duplicate.

How else to explain the crap that has come out of Lucasfilm in the intervening years? Christ, this is the man who wrote and directed Star Wars, likely the best science fiction film ever made. Of course that was well before Star Wars became Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope: Special Edition: Guinness Book of World Records’ Film Title with the Most Colons in It Edition.

Lucas was also responsible, along with his best friend the more reliably talented Steven Spielberg, for the original three Indiana Jones films. The first, entitled only Raiders of the Lost Ark (not, as it would be later styled, I kid you not, The Adventures of Indiana Jones: Episode 29: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) was just freaking brilliant, a perfect pastiche of 1930s movie serials, scientific romances and WWII spy capers.

When the second film, the prequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, came out three years later in 1984, I didn’t like it.  I realize now why – I have always said I hate sequels that are fundamentally remakes of the original, and yet I disliked IJToD precisely because it was so different from its predecessor. Watching it now, I realize it’s really an incredibly fun film.

The third film, Last Crusade, was similar in structure and tone to RotLA; but it was still a very enjoyable movie. (Spielberg and I are both Jewish; and RotLA featured Jewish mythology. Irrationally, the Hindu magic in IJToD did not bother me one bit; but the Christian magic in IJatLC, coming from a Jewish director, raised my hackles. As I said, this was perfectly irrational of me – all religions are equally superstitious and mythological.)

The Indiana Jones trilogy ranked second only to the original Star Wars trilogy in terms of pop culture touchstones for Generation X. While the Baby Boomers had John Wayne as The Ringo Kid and… um… Genghis Kahn, I guess, we had Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Indiana Jones.

When I first heard there would be a new Indiana Jones after a 19-year hiatus, I was skeptical. I have seen Harrison Ford in interviews, and he could easily get the role as the Cryptkeeper in Tales from the Crypt: The Movie. Even that stickpin of a wife can barely prop him up. Then I heard that a son was going to be introduced. Didn’t we get enough of the Jones family in IJatLC and Young Indiana Jones Chronicles?

Still, I was hopeful. It certainly did not occur to me the movie would be such a total clusterfuck.

Is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull terrible in the Ed Wood sense? Of course not. Like other films discussed in this series, its awfulness comes not from what it is, but what it should have and could have been.

Is IJKCS a science fiction film, or is it fantasy? With Indy living in the UFO-obsessed, paranoid 1950s, Lucas specifically wanted to create a science fiction film – Indiana Jones and the Moon Men essentially. He even said the “aliens” in the film were explained with string theory, somehow. Right, like George Lucas understands string theory.

Before I get into my Bitingly Sarcastic Plot Synopsis and tear this film apart, some things I liked:

  • I don’t know if it’s digital makeup, or prosthetics, or yoga, but Harrison Ford looks great. Indy is supposed to be 58 in the film, and the then-66-year-old Ford pulls it off fine.
  • I was thrilled when the return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood was announced at Comic-Con in 2007, and she was fine in the film.
  • It was a bit heavy-handed; but in an era when Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are lauding the destructive and (ironically) un-American legacy of Joe McCarthy, it’s great to see a summer popcorn picture reminding audiences what a terrible time the 1950s were in US history.
  • And that’s it.

And now: my Bitingly Sarcastic Plot Synopsis!

Dear George and Steven. Please give us a very cool opening, involving a car chase between typical 50s teens and a mysterious convoy of US army vehicles, that sets the period and tone of the film. Then ruin it with constant interruptions by bad CGI groundhogs. Thanks, Kunochan.

The army convoy arrives at a desert military base and the soldiers, who are really Russian spies, murder the guards at the gate. This will be important later, when Spielberg forgets that it happened.

Zeez are not zee droidz you are lookink vor.

So here we are at Area 51, which is apparently guarded by the five guys at the gate and no one else. Good work, Ike. Here’s Beowulf, except now he’s British and fat. And look! Here’s Galadriel!  Oh, except with a bowl haircut. And she lost 80 pounds. And she sounds like Chekhov from Star Trek.

Galadriel is looking for the remains from the Roswell crash. It seems that Indy was one of the experts flown in to examine the remains back in ’47; and that means he will somehow have mastered the special Dewey Decimal System they use at Area 51 (which seems to be “hey, put it anywhere”).

This is “magnetism” like Scientology is “scientific.”

Indy remembers that the remains were highly “magnetic,” and uses this knowledge to locate the crate. This is important to why this movie sucks so hard, so let’s examine it for a moment. The “magnetism” displayed by the alien artifacts in the film betrays almost no relationship to actual magnetism. Indeed, several characters remark on this. Of itself, this is okay – we can imagine that the Inter-Dimensional Beings from Beyond the 11th Dimension have some weird technology that makes their crystals behave in a way that seems like “magnetism” to the uneducated Earthling.

See, the buckshot is attracted by the “magnetism,” but the guns? Nada.

But in a science fiction story, the weirdness must be internally consistent. The storyteller must establish rules and stick to them, otherwise the audience cannot believe in the reality of the story. Spielberg’s alien crystals needed to have the same effect on metal at all times; but they do not. The “magnetism” is inconsistent with scenes, even within shots.

I don’t know why Spielberg forgot this. While Lucas may have directed the best sci-fi film ever, Spielberg made several of the other top nine. (Those don’t include this one. Or A.I.)

Look everybody, the Lost Ark! It’s right there! No, there! In that box! No, the broken box!

Anyway. Galadriel gets the remains; Beowulf betrays Indy; and we get an obvious, close-up look at the Lost Ark. Yeah, we already figured out this was the warehouse from the end of RotLA. Thanks for telegraphing the joke, Steve. You know what would have been cool? Burying the Ark in the back of a shot, so that fans had to look for it.

Indy and the Main Soviet Thug crash through into a fully-operational, fully-powered-up rocket lab. Why isn’t anyone here working in the fully-operational, fully-powered-up rocket lab? Is it Labor Day?

The Thug (the character’s name is Colonel Dovchenko, but how the hell would we know that?) and Indy blast across the desert in a rocket car, and Indy escapes. By the way, it’s night now. I don’t know why it’s night now, but it is. And there are more CGI groundhogs.

Jesus Fucking Christ, you must be joking.

Now we come to nuking the fridge. Like the magnetism issue, this requires an aside. It’s when they nuked the fridge that I knew this movie sucked. And there is a perfectly good reason why “nuking the fridge” has entered the English lexicon to replace “jumping the shark” (funny, both phrases involve greasers).

Let’s not nitpick. We won’t ask why the government went ahead with a highly sensitive nuclear test when five gate guards had been killed the day before. We won’t ask why the refrigerator traveled faster than the shock wave. We won’t even complain that there was ANOTHER GODDAMN GROUNDHOG.

No, we’ll just deal with the fundamental problem that even in a universe where men can ride halfway across the ocean on top of a submarine, where Lost Arks melt the faces of Nazis, where sacred stones burn through backpacks and priests can pull beating hearts out of the chests of living victims, where medieval knights who speak modern English live in caves for centuries protecting carpenters’ cups; even in that universe, you can’t survive a nuclear blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator.

Look, at first I loved this scene. I figured out at once this was one of those fake towns the military used to nuke to supposedly figure out the effect of blasts on civilian targets. I was amazed and agog that Indy was in such an impossible situation, and I had no idea how he was going to get out of it. I guess the child inside of me still had enough faith in Spielberg and Lucas that they would somehow solve this insoluble problem.

I was wrong. Instead, they cheated. They betrayed the audience’s trust.

Wheeeeeeeeeee!

I’ve argued online with members of the Stupid-American community who say there’s nothing wrong with this scene. They either believe you can survive a nuclear attack in a fridge (in which case, I have nothing but pity for them); or they think because this film is science fiction, facts don’t matter. This gets science fiction completely wrong – hell, it even gets fantasy and occult/horror wrong, because even though those genres don’t have to conform to the laws of physics and to reality, they do have to be internally consistent. Even Gandalf the Grey can’t survive a nuke by hiding in a refrigerator.

No, Indiana Jones would have been liquefied when the blast wave hit the house containing the fridge. Then, even if the fridge had remained in one piece (with the unlatched door inexplicably shut), his liquefied remains would have been atomized when the fridge hit the ground again. And finally, those atoms would be highly radioactive for several thousand years.

All we would have left of Dr. Henry Jones Jr. would be a pile of melted lead slag and a radioactive fedora.

Hey Indy, you might want to have your lymph nodes looked at.

I have to admit, the closing shot in the sequence, of Indy watching the mushroom cloud, kicks ass. But Indy will not live to be an ancient one-eyed centenarian of YIJC. He’ll be dead of lymphoma within five years.

Now we learn how Indy spent the last two decades. Having temporarily turned aside from archaeology, he fought in WWII and then joined the OSS.

Indy is interrogated by a couple of federal agents, who impugn his loyalty to his country. When he describes Galadriel, he says she “carried a sword of some kind – a rapier, I think.” You think? You’re Indiana freaking Jones. You would recognize various types of swords, dude, just like you know your Greek amphorae and your Tocharian B. It’s your thing.

AAAAAUGH! Indy just said “new-kew-lar!” He’s a frickin’ university professor! Maybe that’s why the FBI gets Indy blacklisted from the University. Henry Sr. and Marcus Brody are dead, and Indy is going to have to take a teaching position in Europe. Funny, in the real world that’s an honor – but in Hollywood movies it’s a journey of shame and regret.

Enter “Mutt,” the world’s cleanest greaser. His stepfather, Oxley, used to hunt crystal skulls with Indy. He found one, and tried to return it to El Dorado. Blah blah blah exposition exposition backstory exposition motivation. I don’t care – I’m still reeling in astonishment and disappointment from the nuking of the fridge.

There’s another car chase, as “Mutt” and Indy flee from some hulking Soviet agents. I’m sorry, I can’t type “Mutt” without the quotation marks. It’s ridiculous. Yes, we get it, he’s named after the dog too. Great.

After more pseudo-archaeological hoo-ha, Indy and the kid we’re not supposed to know is his son but of course we do because we’re not stupid fly to Peru. Good thing Indy has an unlimited grant from the Traveling Around the World Destroying Archaeological Sites and Stealing Artifacts Foundation.

In Peru, Indy discovers that Oxley left a Room Full of Clues, which is a great way to get the plot moving without actually figuring out what the plot is. Then we teleport to the first actual archaeological site in the movie.

I majored in Archaeology in college – no, really. So while we all loved Indiana Jones, we also understood that he was the worst archaeologist ever. Here’s the breakdown for the Henry Jones, Jr. School of Archaeology:

  1. Locate a site of great archaeological interest. Don’t bother contacting the local government, or getting permits.
  2. Use whatever force is necessary to break in, no matter how much damage you do.
  3. Improvise as far as equipment. For instance, wrap a rag around a human shinbone and use it as a torch.
  4. Show no respect for human remains (see #3).
  5. Don’t take notes, or make drawings, or take photos. Who needs all that?
  6. Find the single most valuable artifact, and steal it.
  7. Escape while the entire rest of the site collapses around you.

Here, after handily defeating the racially sensitive Mesoamerican Monkey People, Indy and “Mutt” just break into the tomb and start slicing open priceless mummies with a switchblade. I don’t remember seeing that in Renfrew’s Archaeology.

As “Mutt” and Indy escape from the tomb (we don’t see this, but it undoubtedly collapses), the Commies are waiting for them, in a scene I liked a lot better when it was in RotLA.

Later in the jungle, in the desert tent from RotLA, Galadriel forces Indy to look into the eyes of the Alien Space Skull from Space, the very thing that drove Oxley mad. This is meant to be dramatic but isn’t, because a.) Indy isn’t driven mad, and doesn’t even pretend to go mad for Galadriel’s benefit, and b.) I’m still upset about nuking the fridge.

The Commies are holding Oxley and Marion Ravenwood hostage, which is a great way to get all the main characters together without developing the plot. “Mutt” instigates an escape, and soon Marion and Indy are trapped in a sand pit. While the others go for help, Marion tells Indy what everyone else on Earth already knew, that “Mutt” is his son. “Mutt” returns and uses a giant snake to pull his parents out of the sand pit, which is hilarious because Indy is afraid of snakes, except it isn’t. And Oxley returns with “help” in the form of the Commies, which actually is hilarious, maybe the only joke in the movie that works. (And anyway, where else was Oxley supposed to go for help? They’re in the middle of the South American jungle, and the Soviets are the only people around.)

For some reason Galadriel and her men have a giant weed whacker-cum-tank, and they’re using it to create a road through the jungle. Indy escapes and blows up the tank, but from this point on a road magically appears, because why should our characters’ actions have consequences? That would be called a “plot,” and this movie doesn’t want one of those.

The ensuing car chase is very exciting, very clever, and would not even have been ruined by the on-again, off-again nature of the crystal skull’s “magnetism.” Wouldn’t it have been cool if the “magnetism” had been worked into the chase, if Indy or some other character had used it to his or her advantage? Oh well.

Watch for that — AaaaaAAAAaaaaAAAAAaaaa — TREEEE!!!!

No, that’s not what ruins the very exciting, very clever car chase. That’s not what had the audience in my theater groaning the first time I saw this. No, the very exciting, very clever car chase was ruined when “Mutt” swings through the jungle vines like Tarzan. And to think, I was just beginning to get over nuking the fridge.

Fuck you, Lucas. You too, Spielberg.

Then, the army ants. God, are there any decent CG animals in this flick? By the way, I have a question. By this point, Beowulf has convinced Indy that he’s a double-agent, still working for the CIA. Okay, so now Indy trusts him. But why do “Mutt” and Marion?

Look out, Indy! There are no spinning propellers this time!

Indy gets his big fistfight with the Main Soviet Thug, Colonel Whassisname. He looks like the plane mechanic on RotLA, and his Soviet uniform looks like a Nazi uniform. You know, Steve, there’s self-referencing, and then there’s self-plagiarism.

Boba? Boba Fett? Is that you down there, buddy?

Oops! Colonel Whassisname goes down the Sarlacc pit. You know, George, there’s self-referencing, and then there’s self-plagiarism.

Off our heroes go, down three consecutive giant waterfalls. This kind of thing is standard in an Indiana Jones movie, but would Oxley really have the strength to survive all this, while hanging onto a crystal skull with an iron grip?  He didn’t have to be written as old and weak, you know.

So we come, through Indy’s interpretation of Oxley’s cryptic mumblings, to El Dorado. But – oh no! – someone is dropping homing devices so Galadriel and her Soviet Elves can follow! And since Spielberg was afraid the average American moviegoer was too stupid to understand that a little metal thingy with a flashing red light was a homing device, he added a loud beeping sound that somehow Indy, Marion and “Mutt” are too deaf to hear.

Anyway, we get more ethnic sensitivity with an attack of barbaric, primitive South American monkey-men all tarted up in the ceremonial gear that natives only wear for tourists and National Geographic film crews. I’m pretty sure that by 1957 most native tribes had been disrupted, their members conscripted into working on clear-cut factory farms, or in oil refineries. But whatever. Lucas also gave us the all-white Star Wars, and the ethnically offensive aliens in Phantom Menace.

Steven, Mommy says you’re not allowed to play with that naughty little Georgie anymore. Now go to your room and work on Tintin.

Yes, yes, we get it already.

Oxley, who left behind all the clues so Indy didn’t have to do any work, has also figured out how to get into the city and find the aliens. In fact, the only time Indy has actually done anything in this whole film is when he used the gunpower to find the Roswell remains. And that was an hour and forty minutes ago.

Alright, let’s discuss the climax; because except for the “magnetism,” and “nuking the fridge,” and the CG groundhogs, and “new-kew-lar,” and “Mutt,” and “Mutt” as Tarzan, this is the worst part of the movie.

Hey Shia, you getting any of this shit? Cuz I sure ain’t!

Let’s break this down. Thousands of years ago, a flying saucer full of inter-dimensional grays with crystal skeletons arrives on Earth. As inter-dimensional archaeologists, they gather up priceless artifacts from cultures around the world; although taking artifacts from living cultures sounds like stealing, not archaeology. (Someone should inform the Vatican of this.)

These aliens also teach the native South Americans about agriculture, astronomy, 2012 — all that Von Daniken stuff. They bury their saucer under the city of El Dorado, and create a wonderful center of learning.

Then for some reason the aliens shed their skins and go sit in a circle, on thrones, in the form of crystal skeletons. Are they artificial lifeforms? Are they communing psychically? Are they exploring the Earth with their minds? Did they die? WTF?

Hey Steven. I’m here to drop off Richard Dreyfuss and get my royalty check.

Then one day a conquistador comes along and steals one of the skulls. Why did the aliens allow this, unless they are dead? How does there come to be a legend of a great reward if the skull is returned? How is it that the throne chamber is resealed with a puzzle door that can only be opened by someone holding the skull?

Then Indy and Oxley bring back the skull, although it’s Galadriel who actually returns it to its proper place, hoping to get the reward of infinite knowledge. Now with the skull returned, the aliens prepare to leave, and all the good guys run for it. The aliens kill, or at least atomize, Galadriel. Why did they do that? Are they Mensheviks?

All the aliens did was show her Phantom Menace.

In a scene stolen right from IJatLC, Beowulf refuses to leave without some treasure, and gets sucked into the alien ship. Indy, Marion, “Mutt” and Oxley escape just in time to watch the city of El Dorado be destroyed and the alien saucer take off for the 11th Dimension or what-the-hell ever.

What?

Okay I love you buh-bye.

I have no problem with the aliens being mysterious, but we have to have some clue as to what they are doing. Why would uber-powerful aliens sit around and wait for someone to return the skull? Why not go get it themselves? They have a spaceship. Or they could psychically induce someone to fetch it. Hell, they could have prevented it from being stolen in the first place!

And if the aliens are inter-dimensional archaeologists, why do they destroy all the artifacts they collected, and the entire city of El Dorado, as they leave?

Spielberg knows how to do aliens – E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, War of the Worlds. (No, those weren’t aliens at the end of A.I., and if you thought they were, go buy yourself a helmet and a drool cup.) How could he fuck up these aliens so badly?

Oh yeah. George.

A few last questions. How did Indy get his job back, much less a promotion? Did the FBI believe his story about the Soviets getting atomized by Inter-Dimensional Beings from Beyond the 11th Dimension?

And how does Indy lose his eye???

End of Bitingly Sarcastic Plot Synopsis

Listen, George and Steven, and let me tell you something you should have already known. Some things are good just as they are, and don’t need to be improved or expanded. CE3K did not need a Special Edition – it was fine the way it was.  Indiana Jones did not need more adventures – he was fine the way he was. E.T. does not need its government agents carrying flashlights, it was fine the way it was. Star Wars did not need Greedo shooting first or a terrible GC Jabba, it was fine the way it was.

There’s even a saying: “don’t fix what’s not broken.” Steven, concentrate on new projects, new ideas. We’d love to see them.

George, go count your money. By hand. That should keep you occupied until you drop dead.

Next time: Prometheus (2012)

The Ten Worst Sci-Fi Films of All Time: Alien3

Hey baby, want a kiss?

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

Long long ago, in the before time, during the Carter administration, a plucky young filmmaker named Ridley Scott made a little film called Alien.

Scott would direct Blade Runner three years later. This means one man directed two of the ten best sci-fi films ever made, one after the other. Unfortunately, from there he went on to make movies about women driving off cliffs and painstakingly detailed, painstakingly dull films about gladiators. Please, Sir Ridley, make another sci-fi film before you die. And finish it yourself — don’t let Spielberg get at it.

But I digress. Alien was a science fiction film, but it was more properly a horror film. The Nostromo was the haunted house; Ripley and the crew were the horny young teenagers camping out at the lake; the Xenomorph was Jason/Freddy/Leatherface; and the evil Weyland-Yutani Corporation was… well, the evil Weyland-Yutani Corporation.

Alien was well acted, well scripted, and very well directed. The Xenomorph, designed by Swiss painter Hans Ruedi Giger, was unlike anything the average movie-goer had ever seen. Penny Robinson was in it, as were Bilbo Baggins, Trevor Bruttenholm, and the sheriff from Picket Fences. The actors were older and more experienced that the typical horror film cast, able to lend reality to their characters without too much wordy exposition. And Sigourney Weaver was super-sexy when she stripped down to her underwear.

In 1986, James Cameron followed up his excellent low budget sci-fi action film The Terminator with Aliens, the sequel to Alien. Cameron would go on to direct The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, two very good sci-fi films.

Aliens was not a horror film – it was an action movie. Yet it somehow managed to seamlessly develop out of the first film, despite the difference in genre. This time there were lots of xenomorphs, and lots of heavily armed marines to blow them to bits. But ultimately it’s up to Lt. Ripley to save the day — and when she shows up at the climax in the power loader, it’s one of the greatest moments in any action film.

Get away from her, you BITCH!

Plus it was all, like, feminist and junk.

After Aliens cleaned up at the box office, 20th Century Fox decided they wanted a third film. Before we get into the clusterfuck that was the development process for Alien3, let’s first get through our Bitingly Sarcastic Plot Synopsis, shall we?

By the way, I must point out here that I am working from the 2003 “Assembly Cut,” which is a half hour longer and contains changes to about three-quarters of the scenes. It’s a vast improvement over the theatrical cut.

BEGIN BITINGLY SARCASTIC PLOT SYNOPSIS (spoilers)

Something is wrong aboard the Space Marines ship U.S.S. Sulaco — and I don’t just mean a terrible rewrite. Look — there’s a xenomorph egg on board! Because God knows Ripley and Hicks wouldn’t have bothered to search the ship before taking off for home! That’s just crazy talk!

How the hell do you miss that???

The Sulaco is passing right by a planet called Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161, because (a) it needs to slingshot around Fury 161 to get to Earth, (b) the Sulaco has drifted off course dangerously close to a star, or (c) the plot demands it and who gives a crap about science?

The Sulaco ejects an escape pod, which happens to land right next to the Fury 161 penal colony, and not anywhere else on the whole friggin’ planet. The inmates of the penal colony all suffer from XYY aneuploidy, the symptoms of which, according to the film, appear to include being working class, loud and British.

Actually, the film operates under the conceit that men with double-Y syndrome are more violent than the rest of us. This isn’t true — the actual symptoms of double-Y syndrome are learning disabilities and acne. But the filmmakers can be forgiven — Wikipedia didn’t exist in 1992.

Ripley is taken to the infirmary by the prison doctor, who is played by the guy who was the villain with the fake eye in The Last Action Hero. You don’t remember that movie? Lucky you. Think The Purple Rose of Cairo, but starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Scary, I know.

Ripley learns that Hicks and Newt are both dead, thereby rendering the entire 154 minutes of the previous film entirely moot. (More on this below.) Ripley is initially very upset about this, but manages to get over it pretty quickly. Please note that, at this point, nobody performs a simple medical exam of Ripley. This is because (a) the doctor is incompetent, (b) the infirmary is not properly equipped, or (c) the plot demands it.

The Warden of the penal colony, played by a guy who seems to be Bob Hoskins but isn’t, demands that Ripley be confined to the infirmary to protect her from the prisoners, some of whom view violent rape as a kind of gentle foreplay. Ripley of course does the logical thing — and wanders freely all over the place. This is because (a) Ripley is retarded, (b) — oh, we all know the answer is (c).

Meanwhile, one of the facehuggers from the Sulaco impregnates a space yak with a chestburster. (In the theatrical release, it was a dog. The space yaks are cooler.) The chestburster bursts from the space yak’s chest, and grows into a quadrupedal variant of the usual anthropomorphic xenomorph.

Ripley demands an autopsy on Newt, to make sure the little girl wasn’t impregnated by a facehugger. She wasn’t. This would naturally lead to the question of whether Ripley was impregnated, yet this never comes up (c). Ripley doesn’t tell anyone about the xenomorphs, even after inmates start getting killed.

It’s somewhere around this point that a bunch of inmates try to rape Ripley, who only escapes because a messianic religious leader, played by that guy who starred the TV series Roc, schools the would-be rapists with a lead pipe. What, you don’t remember Roc? It lasted three seasons on FOX!

Stop rape -- consent!

Ripley decides to jump-start the damaged android Bishop, who reveals that yes, there was a facehugger on the Sulaco. Bishop asks to be deactivated, since he’s too damaged to be top-of-the-line anymore. What is he, an Apple product?

Ripley tells everyone about the aliens, but no one believes her, except maybe the doctor, whom she had sex with, although we didn’t get to see anything. This makes it all the more poignant when the doctor is torn to bits by the xeno-yak, who sniffs at Ripley but doesn’t kill her. The reason for this is obvious to anyone who’s not a character in the movie.

Snausages! Do you have Snausages?

Our heroine returns to the smashed escape pod, which nonetheless has better medical facilities than the prison, and discovers — GASP! — she has a chestburster in her chest. What a surprise! It’s a twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan — in that the audience figured it out 90 minutes ago.

Using her five dots in xenobiology, she determines it’s an Alien Queen chestburster. Ripley asks the messiah guy to kill her, but he refuses because his religion forbids killing. Not maiming people with a lead pipe, just killing.

In the mess hall, Ripley tries to get everyone interested in killing the xeno-yak, or at least in not getting killed by the xeno-yak. The Warden gives a speech trying to calm everyone down, but the xeno-yak pops out of the ceiling and eats him. This is very much like the scene in Deep Blue Sea where Samuel L. Jackson gets eaten by the smart shark in the middle of his speech, except Deep Blue Sea was supposed to be kind of cheesy (I hope), while Alien3 wasn’t. (The only reason to watch Deep Blue Sea is to check out Saffron Burrows before she stopped eating.)

Wait -- this isn't Alien 3. It's motherfucking Samuel L. Jackson being eaten by a motherfucking shark.

Anyway… Ripley works out a convoluted scheme, whereby a planet’s worth of chromosomally-damaged murderous religious nutjobs will coat the insides of the steam tunnels with an explosive chemical. It doesn’t matter why she suggests this, because it goes as badly as you’d expect — one of the nutjobs gets attacked by the xeno-yak, drops his torch, and half the prison blows up.

Still, they manage to get the xeno-yak trapped inside a toxic waste containment unit, which features a giant sign that says “toxic waste” in a wacky font, just in case you forgot what it was. If the xeno-yak had seen Alien: Resurrection, it would have known to just bleed on the floor and use its “molecular acid” blood to escape (isn’t all acid made of molecules?). But alas, like most moviegoers, it hadn’t seen Alien: Resurrection, even though it had Winona Ryder in it, and she’s incredibly cool.

Now for some reason the Eighth Doctor is in this movie, playing the craziest and nutjobbiest of the crazy nutjobs. He helps the xeno-yak to escape, but never once explains that whole “half-human, half-Gallifreyan” thing.

With the xeno-yak back on the loose, Ripley and Messiah Guy work out their most convoluted plan yet — in fact, it’s pretty much impossible for those of us in the audience to figure out what the plan actually entails. Basically, if enough religious wackjobs run around through an inexplicable maze of tunnels, randomly shutting doors, the xeno-yak will somehow die in a pool of hot lead. The fact that the prison has a giant betunneled lead smelter is something it might have been good to establish earlier, rather than having Messiah Guy pull this important information out of his ass.

This is when a group of Weyland-Yutani scientists dressed in plastic trash bags arrives on the planet. The exciting footage of religious nutjobs being chased by a xeno-yak through tunnels is intercut numerous times with exciting footage of scientists walking. Jesus, why didn’t they just park closer to the prison?

Somehow the plan comes together, and Messiah Guy and the xeno-yak are buried in molten lead. Unfortunately, the xeno-yak makes his saving throw versus liquid metal, and pops out of the smelter, now totally pissed off. Only Ripley and a minor character we never paid attention to before are left alive. Hmnn — I’d better give him a name: Minor Character We Never Paid Attention to Before. He’s played by that guy who was in that one episode of Doctor Who where Satan lived inside a planet orbiting a black hole.

So Minor Character We Never Paid Attention to Before tells Ripley to spray cold water on the xeno-yak, which is the first smart suggestion made by any character in this entire movie. The water cools the molten lead on the xeno-yak’s exoskeleton, and the alien explodes. Conveniently, the giant cloud of molecular acid this releases doesn’t hurt anyone or destroy anything.

Now the scientists show up. One of them is played by Lance Henriksen, and claims to be the creator of the Bishop android. (Apparently he went to the Noonien Soong school of robotics.) He says he was sent by the company so Ripley would see a familiar face.

This makes no sense, and here’s why. Weyland-Yutani knows that Ripley was betrayed by the Ash android in Alien, leaving her with a deep bias against androids. They can’t possibly know that Ripley developed a friendship with the Bishop android in Aliens —  she was still on her way back when this movie started.

Anyway, Lance tries to convince Ripley to let them remove the chestburster from her body, promising not to use it for military research. Ripley knows he’s lying — and takes a double-gainer into the furnace, killing herself.

So Ripley is totally, completely dead — until Alien: Resurrection, when Bones returns her katra to her reincarnated body from the Genesis Planet.

END BITINGLY SARCASTIC PLOT SYNOPSIS

Alien3 isn’t aggressively terrible, just long, dull and pointless. It’s on this list because expectations were so high after Alien and Aliens.

So what went wrong? So horribly, horribly wrong?

First, the producers hired famed cyberpunk author William Gibson to write the screenplay. Handed 110 pages of sheer sci-fi gold, the producers then shat all over it by hiring one team of writers after another, doctoring the script until nothing from Gibson remained. Seriously, why hire talented people if you’re just going to ignore what they give you?

Then Sigourney Weaver, previously committed to never appearing in an Alien film again, finally accepted enough cash (reportedly $4 million) and came on as star and as a producer. She insisted that Ripley die in this one, so she wouldn’t have to star in another one. I guess she should have talked to Leonard Nimoy first.

The incredibly talented David Fincher was brought on board, very late in development, to direct Alien3 as his first feature. Fincher decided to become a filmmaker when he saw Alien as a kid, so this was his dream gig. Unfortunately, the studio and the producers and the star wouldn’t let him just direct the damn thing, and Alien3 turned into one of those typical Hollywood “too many cooks in the kitchen” clusterfucks. The 27-year-old Fincher didn’t even have a finalized script from which to work.

To this day, Fincher hates hates hates Alien3, won’t talk about it, and wouldn’t contribute to the special edition DVD features. (The 2003 Quadrilogy set even edited out part of an old documentary in which Fincher blasted the studio.) That’s okay, he made Fight Club, a film they’ll still be teaching in film school 100 years from now.

But people don’t just dislike Alien3, they despise it. And I can tell you why.

Aliens was a great film. It was fun, exciting. and action-packed. The plot gave us plenty of heavily armed people running around, trading quips, and getting torn apart by aliens. But the story is what mattered — and the story was about Ripley overcoming her fears and building a family unit with Newt and Hicks. By the end of the film we’re happy and relieved that the survivors are going to make it home.

Now obviously, any sequel starring Sigourney Weaver has to involve Ripley getting chased by aliens again. What the sequel did not need was Newt and Hicks slaughtered unnecessarily, offscreen, during the opening credits.

That’s right, moviegoers — screw Aliens, and screw you too. We just offhandedly killed your favorite characters. And we won’t even show it to you. It’s not even in the movie. It’s like The Empire Strikes Back, where we find out Han and Leia were killed off during the credits roll. Or Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in which Bones, Scotty and Uhura get killed during the Paramount Pictures flying logo. Oh wait — that doesn’t happen!

Jesus Christ, if you have to kill off Newt and Hicks (which you don’t), then make it part of the movie! This might be difficult, since Carrie Henn selfishly insisted on growing up — so how about just not doing it at all?

In fact, a number of cast and crew from the series, including Aliens actor Michael Biehn and director James Cameron, expressed disappointment with the film’s story. Cameron said the decision to kill off the characters of Bishop, Newt, and Hicks was “a slap in the face” to him and to fans of the previous film. Biehn, upon learning of Corporal Hicks’ demise, demanded and received almost as much money for the use of his likeness in one scene as he had been paid for his role in Aliens.

Then there’s the setting, which is basically just the Nostromo with crazy religious people instead of space truck drivers. None of the prison inmates are compelling or interesting characters. We feel a slight emotional twinge when the doctor gets killed, but that’s only because he slept with Ripley. The other characters are just a bunch of asshole cyphers — even with the extra half hour of character development edited in.

After upping the ante in Aliens, going from one alien to hundreds, Alien3 tries to shake things up by going back to just one xenomorph. One small, quadropedal xenomorph. A small, quadropedal xenomorph that was shot as a puppet against a blue screen, and optically composited into the film. This was so we could see the xeno-yak running at high speed. Unfortunately, the composite effects are really, really poor.

We don’t see very much of the xeno-yak, and even when we do, each shot is identical to one we’ve already seen in Alien or Aliens. There’s nothing new. Even Alien: Resurrection has some original visual ideas, as crazy Ripley/Xeno clone interacts directly with the xenomorphs.

Unfortunately, what Alien3 boils down to is a poor remake of Alien. Which is too bad, because there was so much possibility there.

Next: Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

The Ten Worst Sci-Fi Films of All Time: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Why does God need a starship?

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

Ah, Star Trek. Star Trek, Star Trek, Star Trek. Whatever are we going to do with you?

I was ten years, five months old exactly on 5/25/77, the day Star Wars came out. I was the perfect age, and the precise demographic: a ten-year-old suburban boy raised on The Lord of the Rings and Bob HeinleinStar Wars was the greatest thing I had ever seen.

Unfortunately, that meant I spent the next ten years dissing Star Trek. The show was stupid. The acting was bad. (Imagine a Star Wars fan complaining about acting.) The sets and effects were cheap. Everyone looked like an escapee from Laugh In. It was as if one couldn’t be a Star Wars and a Star Trek fan at the same time – a common delusion, but one I shared.

In 1979 I went to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture, because it was a science fiction movie and I went to see every science fiction movie. It did not change my opinion about Star Trek. Wrath of Kahn was much better, and I was excited for Search for Spock — more disappointment there. Voyage Home seemed like the best of the bunch, but I still wasn’t a fan.

During this period, I briefly encountered Gene Roddenberry at a comic book convention. I didn’t think I liked Star Trek, so I didn’t care, and didn’t speak to him. Idiot!

A few months before Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, my friends and I went to an anime convention in Burbank. Next door was a Trek convention, and you could get in on the same ticket, so we stopped by. It was the first, and last, time I set foot in a Trek-specific con. I thought everything was stupid. There was already a Brent Spiner fan club. What losers.

Then Next Generation premiered, and I realized something. I had been a Star Trek fan, and not a Star Wars fan, the whole time.

I fell in love with Star Trek. I got caught up on the original 1960s series, and discovered that it was, at times, brilliant. It was possibly the most uneven show ever made, as far as writing quality, but the best episodes were classics in the true sense.

Star Wars was not a science fiction franchise. It was about knights and samurai, noblesse oblige and “hokey religions.” It was loud and cool and pretty, but it wasn’t about the future.

Star Trek was about the Cold War; the Chinese (Romulans), Russians (Klingons) and Americans (Federation). It was about racism (the Cherons), sexism (Janice Lester), hippies (Dr. Sevrin) and the nuclear arms race (Gary Seven).

But it was also about the future, while Star Wars was about the past. The Star Trek universe was something of a hodge-podge of conflicting ideas until Next Generation ironed things out. But basically, future humans lived in peace and mutual understanding within a large federation of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations. They possessed free energy, faster-than-light travel, wonderful technology, and a socialist economy that had eradicated money and poverty. Outside enemies were held at bay by a dedicated quasi-military Starfleet composed of highly trained, highly principled men and women of all races and species who were more interested in exploration than fighting.

Star Trek may be a silly space opera, but it’s not as silly as Star Wars. And it’s (often) thoughtful, (sometimes) brilliant and (occasionally) transcendent. Star Wars is rarely any of those things.

And yes, I became a Brent Spiner fan.

The question is, when should Star Trek have ended? When did the franchise jump the shark, or as the new idiom goes, nuke the fridge? Should Paramount have called it quits at the end of Next Generation? Then we would have missed Deep Space Nine finding itself in its excellent final three seasons. There were also some wonderful moments in the last couple of seasons of Voyager. The Next Generation films were never great, but contrary to popular belief, never terrible. First Contact was the best; Nemesis the most disappointing, but not impossible to enjoy.

Enterprise was… well, almost unwatchable. Certainly, the franchise should have ended, proud and whole, before Enterprise ever assaulted the world with its power ballad opening theme. And as far as the Abrams Trek film goes, well, I don’t have enough information to form an opinion. It sounds terrible. Then again, I loved Cloverfield.

Some people would argue that Trek never has to end. They’re wrong – The Star Wars prequel trilogy proved that. If the wrong people get hold of an intellectual property (Braga *cough cough* Berman *cough*), if they lose respect for it, if they wring every possible plot line and permutation out of it, if they let it migrate too far from it’s core principles, then the franchise is ruined. Like Star Wars. Like the X-Men films.

Like Star Trek.

So when should Star Trek have ended? I don’t know. But I know when it hit its low point. And it was not the Next Generation episode where everyone “devolved” into animals (although that was close). It wasn’t even Enterprise, because Enterprise had Jolene Blalock, so it can’t be all bad.

The low point of the franchise occurred on June 9th, 1989, when Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, William Shatner’s directorial debut, hit theaters in the US.

BEGIN BITINGLY SARCASTIC PLOT SYNOPSIS (spoilers)

Just working off a few pounds.

We open on Nimbus III, the Planet of Galactic Peace. No, really, “Nimbus III.” Might as well be Nimrod XII or Dorkwad XC. Or Naboo.

Anyway, Nimbus III. The funny-looking guy who played Wyatt Earp’s brother on the Original Series is digging holes in the desert and filling them with dry ice. No motive is given for this. He’s interrupted by Spock’s brother on horseback, a Vulcan who is supposed to shock us by laughing. There’s a name for Vulcans who laugh – Romulans.

Meanwhile, some fat guy is free-climbing El Capitan. This is Captain James T. Kirk, a man whom we can easily believe would be climbing 3,000 foot rocks without a harness, even in his old age. But Captain James T. Kirk would never have allowed himself to get fat. Or have worn a toupee.

Spock arrives wearing levitation boots, a nifty little gizmo that would have been really useful the dozens of times the crews of the Enterprise-D, Deep Space Nine and Voyager had to climb up and down non-functioning turbolifts. He inexplicably goads Kirk until the man falls off the rock, and in one of the worst visual effects since Jason of Star Command, catches Kirk just before impact.

This is hilarious.

What an excellent special effect!

Kirk, Spock and McCoy spend some time bonding over marshmellons and old camp songs. Kirk says that he expects to die alone, with no one at hand but a Frenchman with a British accent and that guy from A Clockwork Orange. Amazingly, this turns out to be true.

Some other hilarious things happen, involving Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov, which I won’t ruin for you. Hilarious.

Meanwhile on Nimbus III, a fat old Klingon, a sexy Romulan who can’t deliver a line read, and David Warner are hanging out together in a third-rate reproduction of the Mos Eisley Cantina. I’ll point out here that David Warner is the only actor in this movie, and he’s given absolutely nothing to do except suck on an anachronistic cigarette. Why doesn’t he pinch snuff or chew opium, fer crissakes? It’s the 23rd Century!

Spock’s brother invades the cantina and takes all three characters hostage, which would be exciting if we cared about them at all. Okay, we care about David Warner, a little, but only because we’re expecting him to sic a Recognizer on Spock’s brother so we can be spared the rest of this movie.

Starfleet orders Kirk to Nimbus III to handle the situation, despite the fact that the Enterprise-A, gloriously gifted to Kirk at the end of Star Trek IV, is a total piece of shit. Why the Enterprise-A is a total piece of shit, or why the much-lauded shipyards of Utopia Planitia would produce a piece of shit, is not explained. But it’s hilarious.

The usual, gratuitious USS Enterprise porn shot. There's one in every Original Series film.

The Klingons send a Bird of Prey to Nimbus III, because the Bird of Prey interiors from Star Trek IV were just sitting around and didn’t cost anything. It’s commanded by that old Trek staple, the maniacally villainous captain who ignores the sensible advice of his sage First Officer. This one is a smooth-foreheaded Klingon with skin the color of baby poo. I’m sure he has a name. It’s here we learn that while every other species targets enemy ships with computers, Klingons use a ginormous shoulder-mounted periscope. Yes, I said “shoulder-mounted periscope.”

Kirk takes his good ol’ time getting around to heading to Nimbus III. When the original, thin, full-head-of-hair 1960s Kirk heard about a crisis in the Neutral Zone, he was off in a flash. Fat Kirk dilly-dallies. Anyway, after much hilarity of a most hilarious nature, they arrive at Nimbus III, which in typical Trek fashion takes about 10 minutes. The Enterprise-A has no transporters, and no one at Starfleet thinks to have a working ship meet Kirk to help out. Oh well. So everyone flies down in a shuttlecraft. Then they steal horses, because this is Shatner’s movie, so there have to be horses (see Generations).

How do they steal the horses? Get out the eye bleach — Uhura performs a strip tease for the men guarding the animals. No offense to Nichelle Nichols, but this is the second lowest point in the worst Star Trek film. Yes, lower is on the way.

Ewww. This is the opposite of sexy.

The Enterprise crew defeats Spock’s brother’s army, but is captured by the fat Klingon, the sexy Romulan who can’t give a line read, and David Warner, who are now working for Spock’s brother. We still don’t know that Spock’s brother is Spock’s brother, because Spock has never seen fit to mention it. Neither, at this point, does Spock’s brother. Both men seem to understand that they can’t mention this incredibly pertinent fact, otherwise the upcoming scene in the Enterprise-A shuttle bay won’t make any sense.

Spock’s brother’s name is Sybak or Spibok or Spigot or something, so we’ll just call him Spock’s brother. He forces Kirk to take everyone who has so far had a speaking part back to the Enterprise-A on the shuttle. Just then, the Klingon warbird attacks, because this is how the Klingons avoid open war with the Federation and the Romulans — by attacking them every chance they get.

Allow me to mention the first of two glaring logical inconsistencies I have noticed in the Star Trek universe. If the Klingons are so obsessed with honor and glory in battle, why do they employ cowardly cloaking devices?

Kirk orders an emergency crash landing in the shuttle bay, which has never been done before except for all the times it’s been done before. Once the shuttle’s in the bay, Chekov orders the room filled with a harmless neuralizing gas. Kirk, Spock and Bones are rescued, and Spock’s brother and all his little buddies are locked up in sickbay until the situation can be ironed out.

No, not really. Kirk attacks Spock’s brother, and Spock picks up a rifle. Kirk orders Spock to kill Spock’s brother, but he does not, because Spock’s brother is his brother (gasp!). Instead he wounds his brother, incapacitating him until this whole situation can be ironed out.

Didn't I see you at the family reunion?

Not really. Spock hands the rifle to his brother, who invites him to join his cause and come to the bridge. Spock does so, because he knows he can do more to help Kirk and Bones from the bridge than from the brig.

Not really. Spock goes with Kirk and McCoy to the brig.

The brig is apparently the only part of the Enterprise-A that works. This is because the plot calls for it. Kirk is mad at Spock, even after he learns that Spock’s brother is Spock’s brother.

Scotty, who has gotten so fat he looks like he has two William Shatners stuffed down his shirt, rescues our heroes from the brig. He refers to the Klingons as “Klingon devils,” which is really racist or species-ist and I think it would really hurt Worf’s feelings. Then Scotty heads off on his own, and for reasons I’ll get into below, bangs his head on a girder and drops unconscious.

This is the lowest point in the worst movie in the Star Trek franchise.

Boink. I know this ship like the back of my hand, but I bumped into this thing anyway. Hilarious!

Now Spock, Kirk and McCoy are running from Sulu, who works for Spock’s brother, and they end up climbing up a – wait for it — non-functioning turbolift. Spock produces his levitation boots from his ass and rescues his two friends. This is hilarious.

Seriously, the boots weren’t anywhere nearby. It wasn’t even established that they were on the Enterprise-A. Maybe Spock had rented them at the levitation boot concession at Yosemite, who knows? He just suddenly produces them, light years away, in a Jeffries tube, while on the run from armed men. But it’s hilarious.

Well, they get to the observation deck, which inexplicably has an emergency transmitter hidden in the floor. But Spock’s brother is on to them, probably because he read the script in advance. Wait, this thing has a script?

Spock’s brother chooses to reveal how he has brainwashed the Nimbus III folks and the Enterprise crew. It involves the victim standing very still for a complex, extended hallucination, instead of doing the obvious thing and running away, or hitting Spock’s brother in the nuts.

Spock’s brother reveals that McCoy administered euthanasia on his own father, just weeks before a cure for his disease was found. This is what makes McCoy experience the most emotional pain, and not the whole thing with Edith Keeler. Or the whole thing with Nancy Crater. Or the whole thing with Spock’s ghost living in his head.

Ewww. I don't like humans. Unless they have tits.

Spock’s pain, it turns out, comes from the fact that his father was a racist anti-human asshat who inexplicably married several humans. But then, we already knew this.

We see in the hallucination that Spock was born in a cave. Now I get that Vulcan is a volcanic planet, hence the name. But Vulcans are hyper-logical scientists. They would not live in caves. They would live in gleaming white supercities, laid out in perfect grids or concentric circles. Spock would have been born in a sterile medical chamber, midwifed by robots, his every cell studied by experts in alien hybridization logically suppressing their thrill at witnessing the birth of the first human-Vulcan hybrid. Not in a cave.

Here’s the second glaring logical inconsistency I have noticed in the Star Trek universe. Supposedly, Spock has trouble achieving pure logic because of his dual Vulcan-human nature. But Vulcans pursue pure logic because they are naturally more illogical and emotional than humans, and they consider these super-strong emotions to be dangerous. Spock’s human descent should help him behave more logically than other Vulcans, not less.

Kirk turns down Spock’s brother’s offer to show him his pain, presumably because Merritt Butrick was unavailable.

Now successfully brainwashed, McCoy and Spock still resist the urge to aid Spock’s brother, raising the question of why Sulu and Chekov aren’t later court-martialed and shot. Seriously, it’s far too easy to get Chekov to turn on Kirk – all it takes is a crazy Vulcan, or a Ceti eel, or his ex-girlfriend Irina. The next thing you know, he’s stealing the ship, or starring on Babylon 5.

Hey, this image isn't from this movie!

Spock’s brother takes the Enterprise-A to the Great Barrier at the center of the galaxy, which is about as scientifically plausible as canals on Mars, Nazi planets or “fluidic space.” It is established that no ship can penetrate the Barrier. Everyone who has tried has died. It’s a long, dangerous, arduous journey no one in the history of the galaxy has ever, ever completed.

The Enterprise-A does it in about 13 seconds.

Just on the other side of the barrier is a planet that looks like an oversized blue Q-Tip. This is Sha Ka Ree, the mythical Vulcan heaven, where Spock’s brother expects to find “God.”

Spock’s brother betrays David Warner, hot chick, fat Klingon, his Nimbus III army, Chekov, Sulu and Uhura by leaving them behind, and taking only the three main characters down to the planet. The three main characters that want to throw him in the brig. Those three.

They arrive in the Mojave Desert down on the planet, but there’s no one there. Just when Spock is about to suggest they give up, giant stones burst out of the ground! Suddenly we’re on an indoor set with a flat floor, and the stones are sitting on that floor. What, the set dresser couldn’t afford any dirt?

I believe the original series had better (and more expensive) effects than this.

God actually appears, and has a chat with Spock’s brother. The deity demands use of the Enterprise-A. This raises Kirk’s hackles, and he asks incredulously, “What does God need with a starship?” Surprisingly, this line is one of the best and most memorable lines the entire 40-year Star Trek franchise, and Shatner delivers it so perfectly that you remember for one brief moment, in the midst of this turd of a film, that Kirk is THE MAN.

Spock’s brother immediately realizes the error of his ways, which you know is ridiculous if you have ever met an actual religious person. He tries out his Dr. Phil routine on God, giving the others time to escape. Scotty beams up Spock and Bones, but you know that piece of shit Enterprise-A is soooo unreliable, and Kirk is left behind.

God chases Kirk around the desert for a while, inspiring that great scene in Galaxy Quest with the rock creature. Meanwhile, the Klingon ship (remember that? the subplot?) reappears. Spock, taking his first sensible step in the whole film, asks fat Klingon to order the ship to stand down.

Look, in the background. David Warner is snogging the sexy Romulan! Go David Warner! Maybe he can teach her how to give a line read.

God is just about to kill Kirk, when the Klingon ship appears and kills God. The Klingons killed God! That is so cool.

What a great set. What did this cost, $10?

Kirk comes aboard the Klingon ship, thinking he’s a prisoner and that they’re going to read him their poetry. But fat Klingon forces baby poo Klingon to apologize – hilarious! – and then we see who’s manning the guns. For no reason whatsoever, it’s Spock!

Spock killed God! That actually makes sense.

Everyone has a party on the Enterprise-A observation deck. No, really, they all have a party. I’m not kidding. Even the Nimbus III rebels and the Klingons. An actual party. Rent the movie, I’m serious.

Also, they apparently have no trouble getting back across the Great Barrier. Nor do they perform a scientific survey of the Galactic Core.

Cut back to Yosemite, where our three heroes sit around a fire while Spock plays “Row Row Row Your Boat” very poorly on the Vulcan lute. Hilaaaaaaarious.

Row row row your... oh never mind.

END OF BITINGLY SARCASTIC PLOT SYNOPSIS

Why was Star Trek V so monstrously bad?

When William Shatner agreed to star in Star Trek IV, he demanded he be allowed to direct V. The only thing he’d directed before was eight episodes of TJ Hooker. (He never directed a major feature again; just a low-budget sci-fi crapfest called Groom Lake, starring himself and Dick Van Patten, in 2002.)

So Shatner’s feature director debut was a big-budget, effects-laden $30 million major studio release that Paramount hoped would knock Tim Burton’s Batman off the top of the summer blockbuster charts. Which was Star Trek V’s second strike – it was rushed through production to get into theaters two weeks before Batman.

As you might guess, this clever scheme on the part of the empty suits at Paramount did not go off as planned.

Shatner wrote the treatment, which is why it features KIRK free-climbing and KIRK riding horses and KIRK fighting God, although surprisingly only David Warner gets laid. Huh. Nicholas Meyer, who wrote the two best Trek films (II and IV), was busy. So the studio picked David Loughery, whose only writing credits at that time were the forgettable Dennis Quaid-as-a-psychic film Dreamscape and one episode of Hart to Hart. Whatever meager talents Loughery may have possessed, he was forced to do rewrites by Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley, which cannot have helped.

Then the 1988 WGA strike cut into production, and Industrial Light & Magic refused to do the effects, which showed. The VFX in Trek films have always been iffy, at least in the Original Series films. But the effects in Final Frontier are simply laughable, created by a company called Associates and Ferren that went out of business just after this film came out. I wonder why?

Furthermore the original script, in a ham-handed attempt to inject pathos, killed off Scotty for no particular reason (a la Joss Whedon’s unnecessary murders of Book and Wash in Serenity, but I digress). Test audiences hated this, so there were reshoots on dimly-lit rebuilt sets, and it shows. This is why Scotty hits his head on the girder. And it’s why that scene looks like it was shot without a cinematographer or a gaffer, as opposed to the very next scene, which is professionally lighted with the set properly dressed.

So the movie was inept in its conception, production, post-production and distribution. Did I forget anything?

Fortunately, it was followed up by Star Trek VI, which… Jesus, I know I saw Star Trek VI.

Nope. I’m drawing a blank.

Next: The Black Hole Actually I just watched The Black Hole, and although it’s really cheesy, and has the second dumbest ending of any sci-fi film (Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes is number one), it’s nowhere near bad enough to belong on this list. So…

Next: Red Planet. Okay, I remember not liking Red Planet when I first saw it. Well, I just watched it again, and while parts are silly, and it belongs to the “everything’s red on Mars” school of nonsense, and some of the science is bunk, it still wasn’t bad enough to belong on the same list as Pluto Nash. Also, it stars Carrie-Anne Moss, and no movie can totally suck if it has Carrie-Anne Moss in it. So…

Next: The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996). Not that bad. Some of Stan Winston’s creature effects are a bit disappointing, and the plot doesn’t always make sense. The guy who plays Professor Lupin is pretty good, and without Marlon Brando’s appealingly eccentric performance, we would never have had Mephisto & Kevin. I guess I’m having trouble finding movies bad enough for this list.

Next: Babylon AD. I liked this movie a lot better when it was called Children of Men, and was better acted, better written and better shot. Unmemorable, but not heinous.

Which takes us, finally, to: Alien3.

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.

_

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

_

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.

_

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: Pluto Nash

Pluto Nash
The second film I have chosen for my list of the Ten Worst Sci-Fi Films is The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Ron Underwood’s 2002 suck-fest.

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

Written by Neil Cuthbert, whose previous film Mystery Men is one of my all-time favorites, Pluto Nash is an attempt to fuse a 40’s film noir with a sci-fi comedy. The attempt fails on every single level, producing a film that is not so much unwatchably bad as it is unwatchably dull.

Eddie Murphy, who hasn’t carried top billing on a decent film since Coming to America in 1988, plays the eponymous hero, a nightclub owner who is muscled out by the local mob boss. Murphy spends the rest of the film trying to find out the mob boss’ identity, with the help of his bodyguard and a waitress from his club.

So how is this a science fiction film? It takes place on the Moon! Isn’t that clever?

The whole point of the science fiction genre is to explore how science and technology affect society. But in Pluto Nash the hard-boiled 1940’s film noir plot is transplanted whole and unchanged onto a lunar colony. The fact that the story takes place on the Moon bears almost no relation to the story – it just easily could have taken place in Chicago. Or on Madagascar.

Sure, Nash’s bodyguard is a robot. His robot taxicab is controlled by the holographic head of John Cleese. He has various adventures outside the dome, on the lunar surface. But none of these things affect the plot in any meaningful way.  Each sci-fi element just replaces an ordinary story component, without any real reasoning behind it.

The only sci-fi element that affects the story comes at the end. If I haven’t sufficiently warned you off watching this film, then you’d better stop reading.

SPOILER ALERT

It’s established during the film that Rex Crater, the mob boss, is a “clone.” I put “clone” in quotes because he’s not a real clone, he’s one of those ridiculous Xerox duplicates a la Multiplicity – an adult copy who possesses all of the original human’s memories. Think of all the technology this would require – successful human cloning, plus a method of force-growing the clone to adulthood that preserves all the original human’s ontogeny, plus (most importantly) a way to transfer the original human’s brain structure and chemistry to the new “clone.”

Could all this technology be developed by 2080? I would guess not, though I could easily be wrong. But these technologies would fundamentally change society, particularly the method of thought transfer. None of these changes are portrayed in Pluto Nash. Essentially, the cloning technology isn’t sci-fi, it’s magic.

Worse, Rex Crater turns out to be a clone of… Eddie Murphy. This is not foreshadowed anywhere in the film, and makes absolutely no sense. It’s as if the filmmakers wanted to surprise the audience just for the sake of surprising us. Also, it kind of a rip-off of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Total Recall, another film that thinks life in space is just like life on Earth; and at the end, Arnold Schwarzenegger  discovers he’s the bad guy.

There’s more to hate in Pluto Nash. The computer-generated effects are terrible, even for 2000 (the year it was shot). Although certainly more advanced, the CG reminded me of The Last Starfighter, circa 1984.

Costume design? What costume design? Lunar citizens of 2080 pretty much dress (and act) like people do today, except perhaps with a bit of 1940’s flair. The production design was ripped straight from Blade Runner, which may be a cinematic classic, but it’s also 26 years old.

Oh, and by the way – taking an ordinary gun, and adding that warm-up noise old-style camera flash units used to make, does not turn it into a futuristic super-gun.

America Online still exists in 2080? AOL doesn’t still exist in 2008!

Eddie Murphy was perfectly serviceable in the title role – the man has more than enough charisma to lug this film around on his back. And I’ll watch anything with Rosario Dawson. But the one performance that really stank up this movie was from the otherwise reliable Randy Quaid. In his attempt to portray a comical robot he evidently took his cues from Tiffany Brissette.

But Pluto Nash’s ultimate sin is that it’s just not funny. I didn’t laugh once, not even at John Cleese. And the film is entirely without charm. It’s no wonder Pluto Nash sat on the shelf for two years before someone decided to release it anyway; or that it’s considered one of the greatest box office bombs of all time.

Next: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)