Saturday, March 30, 2019

Bad Sci-fi | A Discussion of the Worst Science Fiction Movies and Books

The Space Vampires

Not all science fiction is created equal. While works like Frankenstein forever loom over all else, other sci-fi haunts our bottom shelves, every bit as terrifying as a Frankensteinian ubermensch electrified into wakefulness. Funny enough, most really bad sci-fi is Frankensteinian, made up of pieces of good stuff from the genre but put together poorly, all the pieces forced to fit into a narrative as if the only thing it takes to create science fiction is a smattering of not-so-new novums and worn-out genric elements. And no matter how good some of the stuff is, when it's sewn unnaturally into a hulking whole, it just stinks. 



The Space Vampires


Let me groan for a little while. 


Okay, that's done. One of the worst sci-fi books I've ever read is The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson. This stinker was later turned into a movie called Life Force. It starts out cool enough, doing a Rendezvous with Rama big dumb object thing. An alien artifact enters the solar system, so, naturally, we have to check it out--duh. But, oops, this isn't the friendly sci-fi world of Arthur C. Clarke, where the entire point of the book is to create a joke around having a menage a trois. Nope, this is a world filled with energy vampires. Although, Rama is itself pretty bad for a sci-fi book hailed as a classic.

But back to The Space Vampires. The energy vampires are described as if they were Swedish porn stars--blonde babes with curvy curves--and they operate as if they were Swedish porn stars. Like any good vampire, the energy vampire likes seduction almost as much as they like gaining vitality from their mark. So, this sci-fi book is basically soft-core pornography, but the money shot is the moment the energy vampire sucks life away from their target. It's almost too convenient of a sexual metaphor. The story is forgettable and sure to steal your own vitality. So, watch out!



Highlander Endgame

Yes, I know that the Highlander series belongs to fantasy, but that is part of the reason this movie is one of the worst sci fi movies. The writers--drunk probably--converted the series to science fantasy, introducing a time-traveling plot. Time travel is such a great concept, people think, that if they only add time travel to their terrible plot, it will cover all the crap! Bad writers believe people won't notice the hunk of steaming nothing they've created because they'll be too busy enjoying time travel. 

Yeah, that's not how it works. H.G. Wells' The Time Machine could take time traveling out of the story and it would still be super interesting. In fact, since the book is in the public domain now, I plan on taking on that project, writing a story where the time traveler never gets his machine to work but he discovers the Eloi and the Morlocks in his own London. 

But back to Highlander. The time traveler runs real fast, so fast that he can sort of time travel. So, that makes him real hard to kill. But the hero holds his sword out at the right time in some weird desert and the time traveling immortal is killed. Yay! 

Largely, the movie had no point. The first Highlander was a musing on lost love, of the unending nature of life after the person that made life beautiful is gone. All the head chopping was extra fun built around the singular theme. Consider that when an immortal chops off someone's head, they take on the memories and powers of not only the immortal they killed but also all those that the now dead immortal had killed ad infinitum. That's a lot of memories to sort through, an infinity of sorrow to endure. Endgame, though, has no theme. The endgame here, chopping off an immortal's head, is the only thing we find in the story. The substantive element--taking on the sorrow of loss--has gone missing entirely.

Anything with Predators and Aliens + the Prometheus Thing

Alien vs Predator

If you walk into a movie theater and discover you're watching a movie about Aliens and/or Predators, you're probably in a fairly bad sci-fi movie, unless you've found your way to a classic showing of one of the originals.

With Aliens, you've got a franchise that began beautifully with the first two films, then butchered some great screenplays for the next couple movies, creating subpar movies out of excellent source material. After those first four, however, you've got some of the worst sci-fi out there. 

Movies like Prometheus would have been great had it not been part of the Aliens franchise. Had any other plot been created--some sort of alien anthropological study to reflect our understanding of proto-humanity, for instance--we might have had a great movie on our hands. But no, Prometheus is just another chance for the camera to get some killer zooms of alien spittle dripping off of alien incisors. Yech to spittle and yech to these movies.

Now, when you find predators and the aliens of H.R. Giger banding up together to fill 90+ minutes of screentime, you're in trouble. Nothing makes sense. No themes are available to back up empty plotting, except maybe that when it rains it pours . . . death-dealing aliens from awful worlds.

One reason that Aliens and Predators are kind of okay is that the source material is so strong. You've got themes of xenophobia, fear of the [always dirty and dangerous] outsider, juxtaposed reliance on and fear of technology, commentary on corporate-backed government research into biological warfare, a commentary on occupying foreign territory with militant hostiles ready to kill themselves if only to get the parasitical white man off the land. So, to be sure, the origins of these stories are amazing. But they've spawned yarn after yarn of bad sci-fi because they now operate as a cash cow.

In fact, let me list out some bad sci-fi that owes its existence to publishers and producers making unashamed cash grabs.

Bad Sci-fi as Part of a Series Resulting from Cash Grabs

Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving in The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

So, watching cash grab movies and reading cash grab books is a bit like getting punched in the face again and again by the same ham-handed fist. Rare is the sequel or seventhuel that provides anything new to the original. It's just more of the same fodder with a barcode and price tag on the back.

  • All the Ringworld books after the first one
  • All the Foundation books after the third for sure and maybe even after the first one--expecting a lot of hate for saying this
  • All the Dune books not written by Frank Herbert
  • All the Terminator movies after the second one--female terminators that look like runway models? Come on.
  • All the Matrix movies after the first one
  • All the Star Wars shlock after the 1970s
  • All the Harry Harrison books that aren't the first in the series
  • Cyberjunk -- that is, anything based off of cyberpunk, heavy on the imagery, lifestyle, and the cyberspatial and hacker elements, but usually missing commentary on, uh, anything at all other than incidentally commenting on corporate capitalism, multinational takeovers of society and governance, humans and especially human bodies as expendable, etc.


Bad Sci-fi that Actually isn't Bad at All


 The happening - M. Night Shyamalan

The Happening by M. Night Shyamalan was hailed as a pathetic movie with a frustrating non-plot. But it's a great mistake to wave off The Happening. Shyamalan had the right idea for a 21st-century description of environmental collapse--former arcadian green spaces are now toxic to humans. The symbolic threats in the film are radiation, agricultural chemicals, greenhouse gases--all kinds of things that go unseen but are extremely dangerous to humans.

Sure, nature gets anthropomorphized in the story, but what makes the story good is that nature will never need to gain some sort of consciousness to cause problems for humanity. The natural world doesn't promise anything to humans, and even if we do everything right, we're not assured that an astronomical event or geological event wouldn't still wipe out humanity, but isn't that a lot better than poisoning ourselves because the guys at the top are too greedy to create safeguards in the energy and industrial sectors?


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