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One can find here the top 20 science fiction films of all time, as selected by WIRED Magazine.

I haven’t seen all of their picks, so I can’t judge the list entirely. In fact, I haven’t seen seven of their twenty films, though one — Akira — is on my shelf, still shrinkwrapped and waiting to be watched. (Viewing films like Akira is logistically difficult when one’s home includes a two-year-old.) The list purports to judge films by their “adrenaline rush” and by how well the films’ worlds are realized. World-building is, of course, of tantamount concern in SF and fantasy (and, to a lesser extent, horror), so judging films on those grounds is certainly understandable. I don’t understand their third criterion, though: Precision, or how well the science holds up. Quite frankly, some of their films are so scientifically implausible as to merit serious consideration as fantasy. Star Wars is not hard SF, and that is that. How can we approach the science of a film that gives us FTL-drives as standard equipment, super-laser beams that can obliterate entire planets, a space-station the size and configuration of the Death Star (where are its thrusters?), weapons comprised by a laser beam that stops in mid-air, et cetera? And for all the wonderful gee-whizzery of Jurassic Park, that film is on no better scientific ground. Splicing ancient DNA with frog DNA, and thus being able to create full-fledged organisms? And since when do we know anything about the visual acuity of a T-Rex? I am more inclined to judge the films on the basis of their influence, their storytelling, and their worldbuilding than in judging their science. On that basis I will gladly admit both Star Wars (which is, after all, in my opinion the finest film ever made — sorry, Citizen Kane) and Jurassic Park.

I would, though, omit a number of the films on this list. I have never liked Bladerunner much, and I wouldn’t call it a “Top 20” film, and I certainly wouldn’t rank it first. I find Bladerunner anemic on the adrenaline side; its story never draws me in and excites me. As for the worldbuilding, according to this film 2019 Los Angeles looks like a futuristic Tokyo….when, given the rapid ascent of the Latino population in California, would seem to imply a futuristic Mexico City. The acting always seems flat; how Rutger Hauer parlayed this role into a career playing basically the same part over and over again is beyond me. To be fair, I haven’t seen the much-praised Director’s Cut of the film. (Bladerunner‘s music score, by Vangelis, is wonderful.)

Likewise, I would omit Alien and I would not allow any of its sequels anywhere near The List. I found the original Alien to be a fairly effective horror-in-space movie, but I also find that it loses a great deal of its punch on repeat viewings. A scare-movie that depends on horrible beasts leaping out from behind things and general gross-out effect for its suspense doesn’t have that much to offer in a second go-round; as for the worldbuilding, it’s nothing spectacular — just a claustrophobic spaceship. As for Aliens, that film has never been one of my favorites either, mainly due to its predictability. The film had no surprises for me, and again its worldbuilding is basically a series of claustrophobic sets of mostly dank metal and smoke.

I also have to reluctantly omit The Matrix, a film which I liked immensely upon first seeing it but which has suffered on repeat viewings. The film’s pseudo-myth of “The One” seems hollow the more I examine it, and the idea of a “reality beyond the reality” is toyed with intriguingly only to be tossed aside in favor of a massive gunfight at the end. And I must admit to great difficulty believing Keanu Reeves as a martial-arts genius, or whatever it is he’s supposed to be.

Tron is a film that I actually like, but I wonder if it’s more of a cult-film than one of the standing greats. Nevertheless, I can excuse its presence here. Its worldbuilding is quite amazing, really, being steeped in the video-game culture of the early 1980s. As a cyber-thriller, I find Tron to be much more inventive — and effective — than The Matrix. The same objection — that it is more of a cult-film than one-for-the-ages — applies to Road Warrior, a fun bit of post-apocalyptic dystopia that isn’t really as good as WIRED seems to believe.

There are some glaring omissions, as there will be in any such list. Close Encounters of the Third Kind maybe suffers in the worldbuilding department, simply because it’s set in the real world and thus isn’t much subject to the same kind of flights of fancy that populate a film like Star Wars. But its storytelling is nothing short of amazing, and in this film we can see many of the tropes that would later surface in The X-Files and other “government paranoia” stories. Terminator 2: Judgement Day probably deserves recognition on the list even more than its predecessor, The Terminator. T2 is a masterpiece of adrenaline-pumping action, and it features one of the most menacing villains of all cinema, in the T-1000. The WIRED listmakers were right to include two James Cameron films; I just think they named the wrong ones. The Abyss is one of the most underrated films of all time. It is loaded with SF “sense of wonder”; it shows us a new world (one on our very doorstep); it is exciting and moving and touching; and it’s even highly influential, being one of the earliest examples of the “morphing” special effect that would later be used to such amazing effect in T2 and would later pave the way for Jurassic Park and the marvels in the Star Wars prequels. (NOTE: I prefer the Director’s Cut of The Abyss to the original, despite the fact that the Director’s Cut makes the film’s ending far more preachy than it should be.) And while I personally might want to make a case for all five (and probably the sixth, when it arrives in 2005) Star Wars films, certainly a case could be made for The Empire Strikes Back, the film which fleshes out the Star Wars universe and gives its mythology its soundest basis. Plus, it’s exciting as hell — pure adrenaline — and a wonder of worldbuilding.

I also think that a historical case could be possibly made for King Kong, Forbidden Planet, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

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