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03.30.11

George R.R. Martin Picks His Favorite Science-Fiction Films of All Time

Game of Thrones, HBO's adaptation of George R.R. Martin's first book in his bestselling series, premieres April 17. Here, the writer curates his 10 favorite science-fiction films, from The Road Warrior to Blade Runner.

Game of Thrones, HBO's adaptation of George R.R. Martin's first book in his bestselling series, premieres April 17. Here, the writer curates his 10 favorite science-fiction films, from The Road Warrior to Blade Runner. In another Curator feature, Martin picked his favorite fantasy movies. For Jace Lacob's interview with Martin; the show's creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss; and Sue Naegle, the entertainment president of HBO, read this feature. Fans of the books should also read "10 Secrets of HBO's Game of Thrones," to find out about casting direwolves, forging the Iron Throne, creating the Dothraki language, and many other behind-the-scenes details.

1. Forbidden Planet (1956)

The Tempest on Altair IV. The only science-fiction film that William Shakespeare ever wrote (admittedly with some help from screenwriter Cyril Hume). The Bard of Avon and Robby the Robot make a combination that has still yet to be surpassed. Leslie Nielsen plays Captain Kirk a decade before William Shatner, and does it better. In fact, the C-57-D and its command trio of captain, first officer, and doctor are clear forerunners of the Enterprise and its Kirk/Spock/Bones triad, though none of Kirk’s myriad love interests could hold a candle to Anne Francis as the sexy yet innocent Altaira. It’s Walter Pidgeon who steals the film, however. His layered portrayal of the tormented Morbius is almost… well… Shakespearean. And did I mention Robby the Robot? Forbidden Planet was his first film role, but Robby went on to make numerous appearances in other movies and television episodes, a career that R2D2, C3PO, and Robocop can only envy. Forbidden Planet’s visuals and special effects were state of the art in their day, and still hold up pretty well… especially the sequence where the invisible Id monster gets caught in the disintegrator beams. The score was also amazing and unique, done in electronic tonalities that remain as unsettling as they were revolutionary. I hear rumors that they are going to remake this. Please, no.

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2. Aliens (1986)

Once upon a time, Robert A. Heinlein wrote a classic (and controversial) science-fiction novel called Starship Troopers, which is still being read and argued about today. Many years later, director Paul Verhoeven and writer Edward Neumeier made a very bad film called Starship Troopers. Fortunately RAH was dead by then and never had to see it. In between, James Cameron made Aliens. According to Hollywood legend, when Cameron heard that they were going to film Starship Troopers, he said, “Why bother? I’ve done it.” And, you know, he had. His film was not based on the novel Starship Troopers, of course, but his Colonial Marines come a lot closer to the spirit and feel of Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry than anything in the Verhoeven movie, while still remaining true to the Alien franchise. Aliens is one of the rare cases of a sequel that was actually better than the original (no mean trick here, since the original was pretty damned good). This is probably Sigourney Weaver’s best turn as Ripley, though all of them were good. Her supporting cast was great as well: Hicks (Michael Biehn), Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), the heroic android Bishop (Lance Henriksen), and especially Newt, as played by Carrie Henn. “Will I dream?” Newt asks Ripley in the last scene of the film, just before they settle down into their capsules for a long, cold sleep. “Yes” would be my answer. If they ever put me in charge of the franchise, the next Alien film will open with Newt waking up safe on Earth, having dreamed all those later, awful Alien movies.

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3. Blade Runner (1982)

Poor Philip K. Dick. One of the true geniuses of science fiction, he struggled all his life to find an audience, and never had two nickels to rub together. Then, after he dies, he gets discovered by Hollywood, and film after film after film follows. Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, and more on the way. But Blade Runner was the first Dick film and remains the best. Based on Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, with a title borrowed from an unrelated novel by Alan Nourse, Blade Runner gave film audiences an entirely new vision of what the future might hold, very different from the sterile universe of Star Trek and its ilk. This was a gritty, dirty, dark tomorrow where it seemed to rain day and night, brought to vivid life by Ridley Scott’s superb direction, Syd Mead’s amazing production designs, and a script by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples that even Dick might have liked. Forget the theatrical release, with its hokey voice-overs and tacked-on happy ending. To get the true impact of this one, the director’s cut is the only way to go. I still get a chill listening to Rutger Hauer’s final speech. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.”

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4. Alien (1979)

Some purists will argue that Alien is really a horror film in science-fiction drag, and maybe they have a point. But it’s a great horror film in science-fiction drag. The look of the film was unique; we had never seen a spaceship like the Nostromo before, though you have to wonder about all those dripping pipes—did this starship run on steam? H.R. Giger’s alien designs made “Gigeresque” an adjective. The blue-collar down-and-dirty crew seemed like real people. The chest-burster scene is strong stuff even today, and those who saw it in the theaters without knowing what was coming, like me, will never forget it. Tom Skerritt’s death packed almost as much punch (a chorus of “Wait a minute, I thought Dallas was the hero” was heard across the land). After that, you knew that no one was safe. And then there was the life-pod scene, Ripley in her underwear and the Alien in the pipes, sex and horror mashed together. From where I sit, Ripley is the defining role of Sigourney Weaver’s career. The fact that she never won an Oscar for Ripley just underlines the sad truth that the Academy does not honor actors for roles in science-fiction or fantasy films, no matter how good they are. (The single conspicuous exception will be dealt with when I get to my Honorable Mentions.)

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5. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

There have been four versions of this story filmed to date, all deriving from the original Jack Finney novel, though I doubt the makers of the three remakes are familiar with anything beyond the original film. Every time they remake it, it gets worse. The second film, the 1978 Philip Kaufman version with Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, and Jeff Goldblum, is not half bad. Let’s be kind and pretend that Body Snatchers (1993) and The Invasion (2007) do not exist. It’s only the 1956 original that belongs on this list. A classic tale of creeping Red Scare paranoia and alien invasion, full of fathers who aren’t fathers, husbands who aren’t husbands, wives who aren’t wives, director Don Siegel’s film made a whole generation afraid to go to sleep, and contributed the phrase “pod people” to the idiom. The ending, with a crazed Kevin McCarthy standing on the highway shouting, “You’re next,” at passing cars, came as a real shock to the filmgoers of the 1950s, who expected happy endings in their monster movies.

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6. The Road Warrior (1981)

The second of the three Mad Max films is by far the best. The original Mad Max was utterly forgettable, and while Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome has some great parts—the Thunderdome itself, Master/Blaster, Tina Turner’s turn as Queen of Bartertown, and the wonderful language of the tribe of lost children—it also recycles some of the best bits of The Road Warrior rather shamelessly. But The Road Warrior has it all. Mel Gibson is perfect as the reluctant hero, but much of the film’s juice comes from its supporting characters: Wez and the Humungous (“the Ayatollah of Rocknrollah!”), the Feral Kid, Pappagallo, the Mechanic, the Warrior Woman (played by Virginia Hey, who would later sign aboard Farscape)… and best of all, the Gyro Captain, masterfully played by Bruce Spence (“Remember lingerie?”). You have to love the end, where the embittered loner Max remains an embittered loner, while the lecherous cigar-chomping Gyro Captain becomes the new leader of the tribe. Maybe if he’d known that Thunderdome, Tina Turner, and all those pigs were waiting in his future, Max would have made a different decision.

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7. Dark Star (1974)

Some indie films are made on low budgets. Dark Star looks as though it was made with whatever loose change John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon found under their couch cushions. The alien is a beach ball. Half the videos on YouTube have better SFX. Never mind, it is still the funniest science-fiction film ever made. Pinback’s video diary, the whole “Time to Feed the Alien” sequence, “Let’s Have Some Music in Here, Boiler,” Lt. Doolittle’s climactic conversation with Bomb 20—any of those segments would be worth the price of admission all by themselves. And then the end, Doolittle on his improvised surfboard, flaming into the atmosphere as “Benson, Arizona” comes up once again …perfect.

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8. The War of the Worlds (1953)

The George Pal version, if you please. Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake hews closer to the H.G. Wells novel (and even blows up my hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey!) but loses points for having its aliens (no longer Martians) riding down on lightning bolts to activate tripods they buried thousands of years ago. Excuse me? Whose bright idea was that? In the 1953 version, produced by Pal and directed by Byron Haskin, the Martians (yay!) crash to earth in flaming cylinders, the way God and H.G. Wells intended it. Pal could not do realistic tripods with the special-effects technology available to him in 1953, but the floating “manta ray” war machines he offered us instead were elegant, ominous, and unforgettable. And the scene where the Flying Wing lifts off to drop the H-bomb on the Martians thrilled and chilled every kid in America. I’ll grant you that the Pal film ends with the biggest deus ex machina in cinematic history, but so does the Spielberg film and every other version. (There have been six to date, but only the Pal and the Spielberg are worth watching.) Can’t be helped. That’s the way H.G. ended the book, too. Now if only someone (Billy Bob Thornton, maybe?) would film Howard Waldrop’s irreverent coda, Night of the Cooters.

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9. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The original version, of course. That thing with Keanu Reaves could not make a list of the top 100 science-fiction films. How do you remake The Day the Earth Stood Still and turn “Klaatu Barada Nikto” into a mumbled throwaway aside? That’s like remaking Citizen Kane and leaving out Rosebud. Jennifer Connelly, while lovely to look upon, is no Patricia Neal, and Keanu Reaves is certainly no Michael Rennie. Keanu’s acting range more closely approximates that of Gort from the first film. Edmund North’s script for the 1951 original actually improves on its source material, the Harry Bates short story “Farewell to the Master,” and Robert Wise’s direction is sure-handed and impeccable. There’s a certain sentimentality to the ’51 film that may come across as hokey to modern audiences, but I find that infinitely preferable to the sour misanthropy of the remake. And the original is intelligent from start to finish, where the remake is relentlessly stupid.

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10. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

If you have to have a Star Wars film on the list, this is the one. The original Star Wars—I refuse to call it A New Hope—changed the face of movies and science fiction both, though not always in good ways. It has dated rather badly, though. Empire holds up better, perhaps because of the Leigh Brackett script. She was the best writer ever to work on the franchise. The second film gives us more of Han Solo and Darth Vader and less of Luke, which is all to the good. Alec Guinness is missed, but we get Yoda. R2D2 and C3PO are still fun, not yet the annoyances they become in the prequel trilogy. Lucas has yet to conceive of Jar Jar Binks, thank God, and those cuddly cute Ewoks remain a film in the future. The ice planet and the swamp planet and the floating city were all familiar staples of print science fiction, and had been since the heyday of the pulps, but it was a thrill to see them realized on screen for the first time.

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HONORABLE MENTIONS

Well, there’s Avatar (2009). Amazing special effects, a feast for the eyes, but I liked the story better when they called it Dances With Wolves. Then you have Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), if you like watching Richard Dreyfuss playing with his mashed potatoes. I want to see the movie that starts where Close Encounters ends, the one about the people boarding that starship. Serenity (2005) has a lot to recommend it, but ultimately comes across as what is: the last episode of the ill-fated and much-mourned TV series Firefly. For those who never watched the show, the film has far less impact. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) was the best of the Trek films, but that still doesn’t earn it a place on the list. Maybe if I was doing the Top 20 instead of the Top 10. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is certainly a landmark, a film that students of the cinema, Kubrick fans, and French critics love to analyze and ponder. If only it wasn’t so bloody dull. The only memorable character in the film is the HAL 9000.

Galaxy Quest… ah, Galaxy Quest (1999). Maybe I should have put that one in the No. 10 slot, in place of Empire. It’s a Star Trek parody that’s better than any of the Star Trek films. “This episode was very badly written!” Maybe, but the film was not. A near-miss. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) had an amazing array of talent behind it. A script by Ian Watson, based on a story by Brian Aldiss, directed by Steven Spielberg, working with material that Stanley Kubrick had developed for years. They produced a brilliant, haunting, gorgeous, but ultimately flawed masterpiece. This one came close, too. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) is… what? Science fiction? Horror? Musical comedy? Cult film? Act along? It is certainly in the Top 10 of whatever the hell it is, once we find a category for it.

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Galaxy Quest, 1999

The only science-fiction film ever to win an Academy Award for acting—science fiction and fantasy have won plenty of Oscars for special effects, makeup, etc.—was Charly (1968). Cliff Robertson took home the Oscar for his performance as Charly Gordon, a role he’d originally performed in a television adaptation of the same story, called The Two Worlds of Charly Gordon. The TV version was based on Flowers for Algernon, the classic short story by Daniel Keyes, the film version (script by Stirling Silliphant) of the novel Keyes made by expanding that story. In both cases, shorter was better.

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Charly, 1968

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Author George R.R. Martin—born September 20, 1948 in Bayonne, New Jersey—has written numerous novels, short-story collections, and television shows. His bestselling series of books, A Song of Ice and Fire , is the basis for HBO's new show Game of Thrones . Martin's present home is Santa Fe, New Mexico.