10. Planet of the Apes 2001
At first, everyone marveled at the brilliant make-up job by Oscar winner Rick Baker, turning such recognizable actors as Paul Giamatti, Charlton Heston, and Tim Roth into walking, talking humanoid apes. Then, the reality of Tim Burton’s forced folly made its stench known, including a casting choice (Mark Wahlberg) and a final shot (monkey Lincoln?) that still has us homosapiens scratching our heads in disbelief. It could have been worse — it could have been the long rumored Oliver Stone/Arnold Schwarzenegger version that weaved its way through Hollywood before cooler heads, and a recall election, prevailed.
Kevin Costner could have claimed two spots on this list had The Postman not been such a non-futuristic bit of post-apocalyptic schlock. People riding around on horses through a barren US landscape does not a work of wonder make. Neither does a waterlogged look at a planet melted and measured out in beach bum production designs. Indeed, most of the cast looks like pissed off surfers surviving on regular raids of the local bait shop’s netting cast-offs. In a near three hour “epic”, there is only one moment that works, and it turns out that the video for Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” would do it better.
More submerged stupidity as a band of scientists, none of whom have much dive experience, submerge deep into the ocean to discover a plane from the future, or something like that. Featuring the title object, a perfect orb that tends to amplify people’s phobias and fears, what we wind up with is a lot of Moby Dick references, a zaftig female rapper under jellyfish attack, and Dustin Hoffman whining like a former Oscar winner after seeing the size of his popco9rn paycheck. Even the run of “based on a book by Michael Crichton” couldn’t salvage this aquatic atrocity.
7. Johnny Mnemonic
Before he would become Neo, Messiah for a virtual reality future world known as The Matrix, Keanu Reeves would star as a direct descendent of William Gibson’s noted Neuromancer. “Loosely” based on one of the author’s short storied, it was ahead of its time — by which we mean it gave computers and the Internet a bad name before people even knew what TMZ and Perez Hilton were. It’s not really the actor’s fault — artist turned director Robert Longo, noted for his music videos, was given the reigns of this big budget/big vision film… and proceeded to blow it. Big time. The results are laughable.
6. The Core
Perhaps you’re wondering when Roland Emmerich will make an appearance here. After all, nothing scream sci-fi cheese louder than The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, or 2012. Well, don’t hold your breath. We decided, instead, to celebrate (?) the foreign filmmaker’s cousin in creative carbuncles — Jon Amiel. How one goes from something as sensational as the miniseries The Singing Detective to the travails of this ridiculous disaster film will perhaps always remain a mystery. What’s crystal clear is that no one attached to the project had ever studied science… or screenwriting… or how to satisfy a genre audience.
5. Mission to Mars
It’s hard to say what’s worse here — the casting (Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle should all know better), the director (Brian DePalma, paying for all those ’70s Hitchcock rip-offs), or the fact that this was one of the first films partially based on a Disneyland attraction NOT named Pirates of the Caribbean. Whatever the case, we wind up with an excursion into the galaxy that would make us want to disappear into the vacuum of space as well. And before you start shouting for Red Planet, remember this. It had a first time filmmaker who never sat behind the lens again. DePalma was a post-modern icon — supposedly.
4. Bicentennial Man
Over the last 20 years, critics have come up with a few flawless truisms, and here is one of them — put Robin Williams in a narrative with knotty potential and he immediately sinks it with his shtick. What Dreams May Come would have been a masterpiece — that is, if Mork and his hirsute horribleness hadn’t stepped in to strip it of all its dignity. Similarly, Isaac Asimov’s tale of robotics and man playing God could have been terrific — that is, if Will Hunting’s halting therapist hadn’t shown up to still the waters. Playing an emotionless automaton should have been easy for the former funny man. Instead, Williams gave mechanized inertness a new, noxious name.
3. A Sound of Thunder
Ray Bradbury didn’t deserve this. His seminal short story, about a time travel excursion back to the age of dinosaurs gone horribly wrong, is a middle school English class staple. So to see dopey director Peter Hyams — he of Timecop, Outland, and the unnecessary 2001 sequel, 2010 — handed the potential project doomed it from the start. Then, the subtle shifts in Bradbury’s prose was replaced with unbelievably bad CG monsters, a collection of crappy actors, and more misguided scientific explanations than a group of PhD candidates defending their dissertations. A noted example of “the butterfly effect”… and celluloid as stinkbomb.
2. Battlefield: Earth
Ha! Fooled you, didn’t we. You probably thought we were going to reserve the number one slot on our list for this fool’s paradise production from reigning Tinseltown Scientologist John Travolta — and your assumption would be close to correct. We did contemplate placing this L. Ron reject at the very top, only to have our crazy cult “so bad, it’s good” meter kick in. Still, this is an incredibly awful movie, a combination of the worst kinds of speculative retrovision — failed future shock and paltry primitive gruntings. It’s hard to get a handle on what’s more appalling — the make-up job for the giant Psychlos or the caveman couture of the man-animals.
1. The Happening
If it wasn’t so pathetic, it would be laughable. Former wunderkind M. Night Shyamalan finally spent the last bit of his Sixth Sense/Next Spielberg credentials making a movie in which plants went on a rampage against mankind. No, not in a Day of the Triffids kind of carnage. No, our friendly neighborhood vegetation decided to release a neurotoxin which caused humans to kill themselves. Huh? Anyway, with questionable scripting and even more specious acting, this was a truly terrible attempt at terror. Leave it to the freefalling filmmaker to make things even more unintentionally hilarious by touting this as the scariest movie ever. Huh?
It’s perhaps the most potent grist in all movie millage… science fiction. No matter what you call it: sci-fi, syfy, speculative fiction, nerd nectar, it’s a ticking time bomb for the fledgling (or fully formed) filmmaker. Because of its outsized notions, its intricate ideas that initially skim the very surface of everyday society, only to dig deeper into realms unrealized and untapped, it’s a perfect set-up for failure. All you have to do is get one thing wrong — an acting choice, a production design, a F/X house — and your entire project becomes a legitimate laughing stock, a ridiculous bit of baffling creative conjecture. Like weak horror or unfunny comedy, bad science fiction can’t be salvaged. It just has to sit there, draining the life out of everything and everyone around it, until the running time puts us out of our misery.
So, picking the 10 worst examples of same should be a Klaatu cakewalk, right? Well, not really. There is such a broad spectrum of possible choices that we had to narrow the field a bit. We had to discount certain segments of the genre, less we end up sounding routine or repetitive. First off, we avoided anything with Star in the title — yes, that means no inclusion of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace or Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier. It’s just not fair to the rest of the non-franchise flops. Similarly, we steered clear of the true cheesy core of bad sci-fi — the 1950s. If we included all the lame schlock speculation that came out during the time, the list wouldn’t be ten but tenfold. Finally, there’s no direct to video titles present and accounted for. If we spent time on such Band-managed muck as Crash and Burn or Space Truckers, we’d never get to the real rottenness.
So, in celebration of another potential member of the list of lousiness (5 August’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes), we offer SE&L’s 10 Worst Sci-Fi Films of All Time, beginning with a similarly minded bit of simian suckage: