[10 August 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Let’s get one thing out of the way right up front… Spaceballs is NOT on this list. Sorry all you Web Nation neophytes who think this Star War spoof is the second coming of Boba Fett. Mel Brooks made some classic comedies in his day, lampoons which legitimately stand as solid examples of his wit and work. But to champion this sloppy Schwartz stuff on a list such as this would be like suggesting that the Family Guy‘s takes on George Lucas’ life’s work were brilliant bits of satire. No, a sci-fi comedy should be more than joke names and pop culture riffs. It should stand on its own insular world weirdness instead of relying on the latest headline to elicit laughs… or worse, work the genre into a lame lather by employing it as part of dopey Three Stooges in Orbit dynamic.
As a result, a compendium of comedies revolving around the fanciful and the forward-thinking, the interplanetary and the interstellar can be tricky. Many will argue for standard movie with sci-fi elements (Groundhog Day) while others will suggest works that meet a different criteria (Mystery Men = superhero movie) that what we are dealing with here. As a matter of fact, a DVD released today (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s Paul) is a good example of the happy medium we are looking to achieve. On the one hand, it’s really a buddy flick with flying saucers. On the other, it’s an amazing comment on the hard to define world we’re working in. Many will argue with the choices. Some will suggest a stretching of the sci-fi definition. Whatever the case, the clear deciding factor is… are they funny?... and in this case, the answer is a resounding “YES!,” beginning with this beloved trequel of an equally adore franchise:
For the first Evil Dead, director Sam Raimi went for straight horror. For the sequel, he basically re-imagined the original film within a Hellsapoppin’ Moe, Larry and Curly conceit. Part Three involved our hero Ash traveling back in time and confronting a bunch of Deadite demons… as well as a few primitive medieval screwheads. As much a slight of sword and sorcery fantasy as a work of dedicated speculation, Raimi returned to his love of spectacle and slapstick, creating a clever combination of both that belies his true calling - that is, as the creator of genre busting bedlam that’s as scary as it is stupid, harrowing as it is hilarious.
If Harlan Ellison had a serious sense of humor, this is the kind of movie he would create (all A Boy and His Dog aside). The story of a group of deflated deep space astronauts out to destroy unstable planets that might threaten interplanetary colonization was the first film for then neophytes John Carpenter (co-writer/director) and Dan O’Bannon (co-writer/FX). With oddball elements like a spherical monster—often referred to as a ‘beach ball with claws’—and dead captain who can still communicate telepathically, it foreshadowed the famed director’s future endeavors (They Live, Escape from New York) while suggesting where his cohort would go next (can someone say Alien?).
Before he became a forgotten figure in American moviemaking, Joe Dante used to be the groovy uber geek reflection of pal Stephen Spielberg - more interested in fan favorites like Famous Monsters of Filmland than being taken seriously. One of his last great efforts of the Reagan Era remains this fascinating farce based on a certain Fantastic Voyage. Dennis Quaid is an alcohol prone astronaut who is miniaturized and then accidentally injected into the bloodstream of a nervous hypochondriac, played by Martin Short. While the former battles biological enemies, the latter tries to avoid villains hellbent on vivisecting him for his scientific secrets. Funny, and filled with fascinating practical F/X work.
When the United States finally falls, when it succumbs to its sense of pointless entitlement and becomes a bastion of bad ideas and even worse ways of addressing them, Mike Judge will be seen as a prophet. Indeed, his spot-on satire of a future America dumbed down to the point of noxious knuckle scraping is today so salient as to be scary. While stock markets tumble and politicians argue, the citizenry is swept up in reality show debauchery and ample Internet scatology—or as argued over here, sitcoms involving nothing but groin shots and crime and punishment filtered through wonky WWE ideals. Visionary—and scary/witty as Hell.
With Spaceballs, Mel Brooks tried to take on the entirety of Star-based sci-fi world (both Wars and Trek were targets). Here, it was all Roddenberry, and the results were far, far superior. Though highly fictionalized and supplemented by a standard high concept plotline (clueless extraterrestrials seek the help of a TV series version of space heroes), the nods to certain Enterprise elements were obvious—the serious actor sick of playing an alien, the egotistical lead who believe the lingering cult is all about him, etc. Toss in the terrific acting from a star studded cast and the wealth of material to mock and this should have been a franchise, not just a one-off treat.
The trio of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost had already proven their genre-busting mantle with the fantastic funny business of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. While their pal was off making the groundbreaking Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, the side-splitting duo decided to tackle all things Comic-Con and geek, with a potty-mouthed spaceman thrown in for good measure. The results, helmed by Adventureland‘s Greg Mottola, offer a surprisingly sincere take on fandom, as well as a wonderful meta-stranger in a strange land motif for both earthlings and ET alike. A riotous road movie with a lot to say about sci-fi and its followers.
Before he became enamored with all things motion capture (and as a result, mediocre), Robert Zemeckis was the next great popcorn moviemaker. He had already had success with his Beatles’ riff I Want to Hold Your Hand and then followed that up with the hilarious Used Cars and the action comedy Romancing the Stone. But few were prepared for the nutty nostalgia zip of this clever time travel comedy. It turned then TV star Michael J. Fox into a full-fledged box office draw and led to an extended mythos made up of sequels, cartoons, and theme park rides. Still, for many, the original movie is a milestone… and it is.
It’s a shame that the planned follow up - involving the notorious World Crime League—never came to fruition. With a cast that contained Peter Weller, Christopher Lloyd, Jeff Goldblum, John Lithgow, Clancy Brown, and Ellen Barkin in their pre-star prime and a storyline that just screams “multiple viewings,” this is the greatest unsung classic never to be given a chance by audiences. Those who’ve fallen under its weird, wicked spell have most of it memorized (“Laugh now, monkey boy!”) while the unconverted complain that they don’t see what’s so special. As a work of lunatic fringe fancy, it’s a major masterpiece.
Woody Allen’s catalog circa the early ‘70s will always supplant his later, more meandering efforts. Sure, several of the jokes here are so dated that it’s like watching an episode of Laugh-In, but the fact remains that this remains one of the comic auteur’s very best. The premise - about a revolution in a dictatorial future state and the unhappy, recently unfrozen health food store owner from 1973 suddenly swept up in all the intrigue - is that rare combination of intelligent humor and physical shtick that works together effortlessly. Allen is so good here, he easily draws comparisons to Chaplin and Keaton - and in post-modern comedy, that’s saying a lot!
One of the foundational elements of successful science fiction is the notion of future shock - the dystopian society which reflects our own in ways that make us uncomfortable and concerned. For his follow-up to the excellent Time Bandits (itself, a potential nominee in this category), director Terry Gilliam decides to explore the competing ideas of individual freedom and bureaucratic conformity within a dark comic concept of the shape of things to come. From torture to tightly wound co-workers, interfering relatives to the unsettling notion that we are never really ‘alone, ’ the film continually finds ways to make us breathe easier, if only to then squeeze the noose around our notion of existence even tighter.