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What Makes a Scifi Film a Classic?


When you’ve been on a long trip and your brain is mush and you still have a column to write, it’s nice to look into your e-mail queue and find someone asking a question. Here it is:

My friend and I are arguing whether Rise of the Planet of the Apes is going to be considered a classic. I think so; he thinks not. Tell him I’m right.

Now, now. I don’t want to take sides here — that will wait until the end of the column — and in many ways the only thing that establishes a film as a classic is time. Lots and lots of time. That said, with films, there are a few factors one can look at to formulate their chances of achieving classic status, and obviously the more factors a film has, the better. These factors are:

1. Is the film exceptionally popular? A film everyone sees has a
leg up in the immortality sweepstakes because it has a wide base of
memory and cultural impact above and beyond its other inherent
cinematic qualities (or  lack thereof). It’s why, for example, Independence Day
— the Number One film of 1996, with an inflation-adjusted domestic
gross of more than $550 million — can make a legitimate argument for
being a classic of the genre despite being otherwise derivative and
silly. It’s also why, God help us, one day we might hear new filmmakers
citing the Transformers films as an influence.
Examples: Star Wars, E.T. the Extraterrestrial, Avatar

2. Is the film critically acclaimed?
Critics can’t kill a popular stupid film, but they can boost a smart
film that might have otherwise gotten lost in the crowd, and they can
talk about a film for years, keeping it in the consciousness of fans and
future filmmakers. As experts, they are often the first people to
introduce an argument for the classic status of a film — and to continue
making the argument, over and over and over again.
Examples: 28 Days Later, Alphaville, The Brother from Another Planet

3. Do filmmakers cite it as an influence?
In music, there’s the joke that only five thousand people bought the
first Velvet Underground album — but all five thousand of them
immediately formed bands. Likewise, there are films that — whether they
were originally popular or not — enthralled the people who would then go
on to make films. Those filmmakers then pointed back to those original
films, bringing them into the spotlight once more, and in some cases making
them more popular than they were when they came out.
Examples: Blade Runner, Metropolis, Solaris (1972)

4. Does the film feature a significant advance or refinement in cinematic film technology? Science
fiction is an effects- and technology-sensitive genre, and oftentimes
being the first to introduce a technology — or being the first to do it
spectacularly well — is an argument for classic status. Take the
original Tron. Terrible script, indifferent acting and directing,
and overall not a very good film, but also indisputably a classic of
the genre thanks to its groundbreaking (and, for the time, jaw-dropping)
computer-generated visual effects. Note that “technology” doesn’t just
mean visual effects — other disciplines like makeup and sound effects
are equally applicable.
Examples: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, Jurassic Park

5. Is the film notable in a subgenre of science fiction?
Sometimes a film that achieves classic status is already a classic,
just to a lot fewer people. Those people then act as ambassadors for the
film to the larger culture. A perfect example of this is Akira, the 1988 film that is to anime what Star Wars is
to science fiction film in general: an unignorable watershed of the
category. As the influence of anime and the anime fans has grown, so has
the influence and status of Akira within the genre as a whole.
Examples: Godzilla, Ghost in the Shell, The Thing

Again,
none of these things in itself guarantees classic status (nor is this
checklist exhaustive in what makes for a classic science fiction film).
But the more of these factors a film has, the better its odds
over time.

Now, let’s apply these to Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
The film is something of a surprise hit ($133 million so far
domestically) but not a huge hit. It’s pretty critically successful,
with an 83% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. It’s far too early for it to be
an influence on filmmakers. Its ape technology, while impressive,
follows both the groundbreaking CGI work of the 2005 King Kong, and of course the makeup work of the original 1968 Planet of the Apes.

Add it up and I suspect that Rise will probably not in time be considered a classic. This doesn’t mean it’s not a good film: It is, and it deserves its success. But “classic” is something different — and something more — than “good.”

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