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Shitty Sci-Fi We Kinda Love Anyway

The best Flash Gordon is the 1980 Sam J. Jones Flash Gordon. Wanna fight us?

For decades, we’ve been gifted with iconic science-fiction franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, and incredible films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odyssey. But sometimes, we just like to indulge our jones for the cheap, tacky shit. Even a bad sci-fi film or TV show can be mighty entertaining; it taps into that childhood joy we had at being transported away from our humdrum lives into a cosmic story with robots, aliens, spaceships and other cool things. Deep down, we know they’re not exactly good, but we wouldn’t change a thing about them.

My personal guilty pleasure is The Black Hole, Disney’s 1979 live-action attempt to cash in on Star Wars’ success from a couple years earlier. It was directed by Gary Nelson, who previously helmed the original Freaky Friday, which isn’t exactly the kind of film that would be a good proving ground for making an outer-space adventure. And admittedly, The Black Hole is a junky, low-budget sci-fi drama. But that’s partly why I still have such fond feelings toward it.

Here’s the plot: A U.S. vessel is returning to Earth, its crew tired after a long interstellar mission. Well, their excitement isn’t over yet: On the way home, they stumble upon a black hole — and a mysterious spacecraft at its edge that’s inexplicably not getting sucked in. The crew investigates, discovering something sinister is happening aboard the ship. Cue action sequences, cheesy effects and a trippy stoner ending.

The Black Hole has an incredibly odd cast, including Ernest Borgnine, Robert Forster, Anthony Perkins and Maximilian Schell. (Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens play the voices of the crew’s loyal C-3PO and R2-D2-like robots, V.I.N.CENT and Old B.O.B.) Basically, Disney put their film together like it was one of those 1970s disaster movies and added ray-guns. It’s part action, part horror, part embarrassingly silly and completely delicious.

Do I expect any rational person to enjoy The Black Hole as much as I do? Of course not. But if you have a weakness for trashy sci-fi, it’s heaven.

In honor of this weekend’s Alita: Battle Angel, other members of the MEL staff offer their picks for the best bad sci-fi. Don’t judge us.

Flash Gordon

Thanks to Ted and others, it’s now a cliche to profess to love the camp glory that is the 1980 Flash Gordon movie. But I do love it — so much — and have since I first saw it as a small child. As one of the few VHS tapes in our house (like all the others, recorded off the telly and played until it was a grainy blur), I probably watched this at least once or twice a week for the majority of my childhood. Along with Ghostbusters and Temple of Doom (we got our first VCR in 1986), it’s a film I can pretty much quote verbatim, start to finish.

Now, there’s probably not much to recommend Flash Gordon once you take nostalgia out of the equation, but honestly, I can’t tell — the film is so ensconced in my brain that I can no longer parse the good from the bad. Certainly the performances of the film’s two leads, Sam J. Jones (as Flash) and Melody Anderson (as Dale Arden) haven’t exactly stood the test of time, but the supporting cast is legit incredible: A pre-Bond Timothy Dalton runs around in a mustache and green tights, taking things very, very seriously; Max von Sydow is horny evil incarnate as Ming the Merciless; and Brian Blessed is… well, Brian Blessed, as always, is everything. (I have a recording of Brian Blessed screaming, “Nick, you impetuous boy!” that a friend got for me while interviewing him. It is my most prized possession.)

Then there’s the music. It’s not a popular opinion, but I steadfastly maintain that the single best album Queen ever recorded was their soundtrack for this movie, a rollicking, absurd rocket crash of bombastic, synth-heavy space rock. Thanks to Freddie Mercury’s implausibly sincere vocals, no hero has ever had a theme song as good as Flash’s. That’s why I’m disappointed to report that Jones, who I had the pleasure of interviewing a few years back, does not work out to his own theme song, which is a constant source of mystified confusion to me — almost as much as the fact that I do work out to it was to him.

Do you really want to know how much I love this film? A couple years back, my wife came into the bedroom to find out why I was screeching in excitement. I proudly informed her that my interview with Jones had been used as a reference on the movie’s Wikipedia page (number 14, reference fans!). As I told her this, I was wearing my Flash Gordon T-shirt and listening to the Flash Gordon soundtrack’s “Battle Theme.” If you’ve ever wondered what a five-months pregnant woman looks like when she realizes for the first time that she may have made a giant mistake, well, that was it.

Ah well. Who wants to live forever? DIIIIIIIIIIVE!!!!! — Nick Leftley, Senior Editor

The Amory Wars: The Second Stage Turbine Blade

I fell in love with progressive rock band Coheed and Cambria immediately after discovering that frontman Claudio Sanchez moonlighted as a comic book writer… and that each album his band produces (with one exception) tells a part of the same story told by his sci-fi comic book series, The Amory Wars.

The plot, which I’m going to paste from Wikipedia (because they do a solid job of summarizing it), is sci-fi to the max:

“The Amory Wars is set in Heaven’s Fence, a collection of 78 planets held in place by interconnecting beams of energy, known as the Keywork. The first half of the story narrates Coheed Kilgannon and Cambria Kilgannon’s struggle against Wilhelm Ryan, the Supreme Tri-Mage (later referred to as the Archmage). The second half of the story focuses on the heroic journey of their son, messianic Claudio Kilgannon. Over the course of the story, Claudio assumes the mantle of The Crowing, foretold savior of Heaven’s Fence. In the end, he will face the Archmage, absolute ruler of Heaven’s Fence and the one ultimately responsible for the death of Claudio’s family.”

Okay, yeah, I’m nerdy as fuck.

Now, I’m not convinced that I’ve read (or watched, for that matter) enough sci-fi to call this comic “shitty.” In fact, I binge-read the first volume, The Second Stage Turbine Blade, in a matter of several hours, because I thought it was pretty damn good. But as several Amazon reviews mention, anyone who isn’t a fan of Coheed and Cambria — and who doesn’t have a thorough understanding of their backstory — might find this comic to be extremely hard to follow.

Which actually brings me to the real reason I love it: I can listen (via Coheed and Cambria), read (via the comic books) and watch (via the imagery in the comic books) the story told by one of my absolute favorite bands, which is fuckin’ awesome.

What more can a progressive rock fan who loves concept albums ask for? — Ian Lecklitner, Staff Writer

They Live

On a random Friday night in 1990, when I was both 10 years old and at the peak of my pro wrestling fandom (They Live stars “Rowdy” Roddy Piper), my mom rented three VHS tapes from the now defunct Sound Warehouse. It was her normal babysitting ritual — “rent three movies, and they should be sleep by the third one.”

But once I read the the back of the white VHS case — “…‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper blah blah blah aliens” — there would be no sleep for me. As a tween black kid in the Houston suburbs, I had no idea about the social commentary director John Carpenter was making with the film. I did know, however, that “Rowdy” Roddy put on these cool sunglasses and could see that some people were really aliens, and frankly, that’s cool as shit. He also had to convince his black friend that he wasn’t crazy, and having a white best friend at the time (shout out to Michael Wolfe), I could relate.

Honestly, this movie gave me so many things to wish for as a kid, but if I had to pick one, it would have to be the ability to say weird catch phrases like, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum.” At 40, I still have issues with the logic behind those words, but they remain a cool thing to say, especially to aliens who don’t know you can see them while wearing Ray-Bans.

So imagine my surprise when I saw the movie again at 31 and realized it was a social commentary on the yuppies of the 1980s. GTFOH. Who knew? I immediately had a whole new respect for the film. Better yet, the awful acting of “Rowdy” Roddy was no less awful (and by awful, I mean perfect, of course). — Ernest Crosby, Video Editor


When the futuristic/retro Michael Crichton film The Looker came out in 1981, featuring Albert Finney (RIP) and Susan Dey, about a plastic surgeon who “corrects” the features of a series of models such as Dey down to the millimeter, the New York Times called it a “a slick-looking, paranoid nightmare about our society’s increasing dependency on computers.” They also noted that it was drawn from Crichton’s “original, stupefyingly nonsensical screenplay.”

This is all incredibly accurate. Its heavily stylized shots and imagery feels like 1970s Cosmo mated with Tron. It’s one of those films that feels more like a music video or style piece than a movie, like everything by Sofia Coppola. That, however, isn’t a knock in the slightest.

Looker is basically about an evil, perfectly named ad agency called Digital Matrix that forces its models to get surgery to become mathematically “perfect,” then films them to capture their perfectly contoured bodies and faces permanently, and then… well, something evil (no spoilers here). Finney’s character gets drawn in, as does Dey’s, and together they try to take on Big Advertising.

It gets pretty convoluted, and ultimately, it’s a silly film that borders on camp, with mustachioed bad guys, an incredible laser stun gun and magazine-perfect women lounging about in primo wet-lipgloss late-1970s swimsuits and nightgowns, all in wall-to-wall Barbie pink high-rise penthouses. There are ridiculous (read: amazing) stun gun sequences and caricatured plots of evil subliminal messaging.

But what it gets right stays with you:

  • Again, that stun gun.
  • Finney, who had such a grounding gravity in whatever he did.
  • The headset Finney is outfitted with by the ad agency that tracks his every eye movement as he watches commercials, all to nefariously document exactly where the eye lingers.
  • The look and feel of the movie, which seems to so perfectly capture the era’s aesthetic.

And then, as if that weren’t enough, there’s this terrific theme song by Sue Saad that I always think is Kim Carnes at first. For all it gets wrong, it’s full of cheesy sci-fi wins that won’t disappoint. — Tracy Moore, Staff Writer