The great movies of science fiction: The movies that changed the genre — changed film history — and may have even had a significant impact on your own life.
Yeah, well, today, we’re not gonna talk about them.
Today I want to talk about the other science fiction movies: The cheap ones. The shoddily made ones. The ones (if you’re old enough to remember the time) you ignored while you did other things at the drive-in. The ones that had their debut in the “cheap rental” bin of your video store. The ones where you look at the actors on screen and wonder what act of financial desperation drove them to this.
In short: The B-movies. Whether a genuine “B” movie (the short, quickly-made feature that played before the “A” movie your grandparents actually paid to see) from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, a me-too exploitation flick from the cashing in on the success of a blockbuster from the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, or the modern era direct-to-video third or fourth sequel of a marginally successful theatrical release, the B-movie fills a unique role in the cinematic ecosystem: The movie you didn’t really want to see, but are going to watch anyway.
The B-movie knows — or more accurately, its makers know — where it sits in the grand scheme of things. It knows that it wasn’t your first choice at the video store, and that you got it just because the cool new release was already out, or because you’re simply congenitally unable to walk out of the store without five rentals. It knows that its primary audiences are the bored, the undiscriminating, and the stoned. It knows that you and your arch, hipster friends will perform your own home-grown version of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on it as soon as you pop it in the player. It knows all these things.
And, of course, that’s what makes it fun. Because, this is the defining characteristic of the B-movie: It’s not that it’s bad, it’s that it is freed from the requirement to be good. Why? Because no one actually cares if it’s good or not — indeed, there’s a certain segment of the audience (see: MST3K wannabes) actively hoping for bad. And freed from the usual expectations of quality, the B-movie is free to be entertaining by any means possible. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be art. Hell, they don’t even have to make sense. They just have to give your eyeballs something to do for 90 minutes.
In Praise of the B-Movie
I come not to mock the B-movie, but to praise it. Because, here’s
the thing: Every once in a while, you’ll find a B-movie that’s actually
really good. It’s still a B-movie — made for a few million bucks,
featuring TV stars and/or women with unrealistic body shapes, special
effects that would have been top of the line 15 years ago, trading off
the popularity of an unrelated blockbuster — but somewhere along the
line, someone actually paid attention and gave the flick something
special: A good script, maybe, or perhaps an actual credible
performance, or a visual look that implies the director actually paid
attention in his community college film classes. And when you find
that, you want to celebrate it.
I’ll give you an example. My favorite science fiction B-movie is 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars , a quickie cashing in on the Star Wars
craze, produced by B-movie king Roger Corman, and made for $2 million,
most of that going to stars Robert Vaughn and George Peppard. The hero
is played by Richard Thomas, best known to ’70s audiences as John-Boy
Walton. It is what it is: A space opera-y rehash of The Magnificent Seven, with just enough ooh-aah special effects to keep the kids entertained. And yet, it’s a lot better than it should be.
Part of the reason for that is that the filmmakers themselves were
unusually talented up-and-comers. The screenplay was by John Sayles,
who would later be nominated twice for screenwriting Oscars (for Lone Star and Passion Fish)
and who became a notable director himself. The score was written by
James Horner, future two-time Oscar winner. And the co-art director of
the film was some dude named James Cameron, whom you may have heard of.
All three of these folks would go on to do more and better work in the
field of science fiction movies (and movies in general), but it’s
clear even here that they were better than their budget, and their
Battle Beyond the Stars is not alone: There are other
science fiction B-movies that are better than you’d expect. I think
they deserve recognition. So here’s what I propose: We start, here in
this space, a Science Fiction B-Movie Hall of Fame, recognizing B-movies that, while still B-movies, are better than they had to be.
Here’s how it will work: You suggest a movie — just one,
be choosy — in the comment thread. In a couple of weeks, I will select
five to ten of those and put them into a poll, which everyone will vote
in. The top vote getters will then be the inaugural entrants into our
Hall of Fame. It’ll be a fun way to commemorate the flicks we enjoyed
more than we expected.
Got it? Excellent.
So, then, tell me: Which science fiction B-movie do you nominate?
Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. His column appears every Thursday.Read More