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Don’t Mistake Campy for Crummy When It Comes to Sci-fi Classics Like The Day the Earth Stood Still

Once I heard someone describe The Day the Earth Stood Still as schlock. Did my ears deceive me? Nope. Did someone just disrespect one of my all-time favorite films? Yes. Turns out the assessment was based on the quality of the special effects — and no wonder. It seems like last week’s revolutionary visuals are already outdated. (Welcome to your future, Avatar.) So when looking at an older movie, don’t
be shocked to literally see the seams of the effects — wires, painted backdrops, the works. Of course, dated effects don’t mean a movie’s bad and neither does the presence of
that quirky cousin of datedness, campiness, the absurdly exaggerated
style that lends itself so well to sci-fi. Camp is an artistic
expression, a choice in storytelling that (hopefully) fits the story and adds to the overall flavor of the film. So don’t dismiss all movies that are camp as crap. Here are five that are wrongly accused of being inferior because of schlock or campy appearances.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Writer-director Kerry Conran is a huge sci-fi fan who wanted to pay homage to genre flicks of a bygone era. Hence the camp of Sky Captain, which
includes classic sci-fi tropes like evil scientists bent on world
domination, giant flying robots, and heroes that exhibit derring-do. Oh,
and Angelina Jolie wears an eye patch. How’s that for
camp? And what Sky Captain lacks in up-to-date special effects
it makes up for in historical romanticism. Far from hurting the
quality of the movie, Conran’s retro future is a great backdrop for an
exciting adventure.

Galaxy Quest

The rare movie that’s great for both sci-fi fans and sci-fi haters, Galaxy Quest caters to both crowds with its camp, poking fun at sci-fi in the same way that Shaun of the Dead pokes fun at horror. Sci-fi nerds love the adventure, the Star Trek references, and Sigourney Weaver’s low-cut unitard. Mainstream viewers love the jabs at sci-fi fans. That’s what’s called a win-win for geeks and non-geeks alike — and not in spite of the campy special effects and tropes but because those effects and tropes are employed in mockery. How very meta for a Tim Allen movie.

The Fifth Element
Whenever someone says you can have too much of a good thing, I point to The Fifth Element and say, “Not true!” Luc Besson’s oversize space adventure is a ton of fun precisely because every single character, every single scene, and every single line is over-the-top. Gary Oldman is outrageous as scenery-chewing megalomaniacal Zorg, as is Chris Tucker’s flamboyant Ruby Rhod, Bruce Willis’s Über-gruff Korben, and Milla Jovovich’s scantily clad Leeloo. The colors are bright, the explosions are big, and the characters are crazy. And it works.

If you look up “camp” in the dictionary, you probably get a picture of Adam West in very tight tights. Playing off the hugely popular television series, the first big-screen appearance of the Caped Crusader pulls out all of the camp stops, inviting not just one special-guest villain but four of the most popular — Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Frank Gorshin, who seem to relish playing over-the-top super-fiends — and rehashing every TV-show joke, reference, and popular effect, all so bad they’re good. The fact that Batman appeals to children and adults is a testament to its wonderful conception. If you haven’t seen it, all I can say is, “Holy long overdue, Batman!”

The Day the Earth Stood Still
Forget the outdated special effects and take a very close look at the story. You might be surprised to find one that is as socially relevant today as it was when it was released, just six years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. When the alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) visits Washington, D.C., to deliver a stern warning to humanity, the film hits home as a perfect example of what science fiction does best: providing a mirror in which we see ourselves. As a bonus, The Day the Earth Stood Still also works in some religious allegory to chew over. Not bad for what simpler minds consider schlock, eh?

Check out AMC Celebrates: The Day the Earth Stood Still, with the premiere of the fully restored HD version, airing Fri., Jan. 14, at 8PM | 7C and 10PM | 9C.

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