A long long time ago, I can still remember how that sci-fi comedy made me smile.
It’s May 11, 2001.
A man rests quietly, having just completed a workout on his treadmill, he’s been trying to get back into fighting trim before he hits 50. He’s the dad to a daughter named Polly, a couple million books sold under his belt. In two years, production will begin on a largely flawed adaptation of his seminal work, “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”, but, against all that is right and holy, the man will not be there to cajole that particular project into the light.
Because on this day, the legend, the named Douglas, has a heart attack and passes away – at the far too young age of 49. Four months before the world got entirely too serious, Douglas Adams headed off to that big Total Perspective Vortex in the sky; where we can hope he learned to fly by accidentally forgetting to hit the ground (while absentmindedly wondering where his lost luggage went off to). I maintain this was the day, the very moment, where the comedy sci-fi died.
But, third-act twist, did this weekend prove it has a chance again? Could our long dark tea-time of the soul be over?
There’s conflicting information both ways. On one hand, you have decades of evidence that point to a genre in a slow decline. However, late breaking news, third-act plot twist, Marvel’s newest franchise entree, Guardians of the Galaxy pulled down a healthy $90+ million this weekend, perhaps ingratiating an entirely new audience to the concept of more screwball sci-fi. To be fair, Guardians is right on the line, perhaps tilting toward the windmill that is the Marvel template slightly more than “true” jokey filmmaking. A contrarian could argue the genre isn’t the same, and perhaps I’m reading too much hope into a style that may have gone the way of the musical category at The Academy Awards. The way of the Dodo, which would be an excellent alternatively-pronounced first name for a porn thespian.
Still, with projects like Game of Thrones tackling long-form, standing like a towering beacon on a hill, it’s a shame we can’t get the five Hitchhiker books brought to HBO. It would come off a bit like The BBC Office meets Dr. Who meets True Blood. It would be stellar. Putting that dream aside, let’s take a brief foray into yesteryear, partly to prove my point, but more so I can get into a list, my natural writing habitat.
From high to low, Sci-Fi Comedies Ranked – EXTRA DEFINITIVE AND BOLD
It’s not that we don’t get sci-fi comedies anymore, it’s more that the gag is broad and action-y, and not really fully based in space comedy. Not appearing on the list: Paul and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Both have tragic flaws. Trust me. TRAGIC. Let’s get it on, got to get it on, with the rest of ’em.
10. Howard the Duck (1986)
This movie is either ranked first or tenth, depending on your world view. It is funny, and cosmically weird, but there’s some huge question marks as to intent. It seems as though they were trying to make a family film, it’s rated PG, but somewhere along the way they figured alien bestiality might be a nice route to take. So it’s funny, but only ironically, and contextually. A real quagmire. The trailer is amazing, though. You can almost feel the marketing department giving up.
9. Airplane 2 (1982)
I almost want to disqualify this title based on the space sci-fi part playing a minimal role. This is more a chance to make similar jokes in a sequel. But the jokes are solid, so at least it has the comedy part down. I can’t get enough of the Airplane franchise. Let’s start remaking those instead of Hercules.
8. The Watch (2012)
Nobody but myself and my humble family saw this in theaters, but it should be watched for the chemistry between Vaughn, Stiller, Jonah Hill, and relative newcomer Richard Ayoade, who is the best of the bunch. Love that guy. This is a movie that wasn’t afraid to use alien schlong as a gimmick. We need that kind of courage in the workplace!
7. Galaxy Quest (1999)
Everyone has forgotten this one now, but not this guy. It’s a funny film, and it pokes fun, with love, at the craziness of sci-fi fans. In a way, the old Star Trek geeks have wrought a new generation of comic book / superhero geeks, but without the public sense of isolation around the enterprise (Ha!). Now you’re far more likely to run into a comic book “geek” than one who ridicules the idea, even the older generation has become resigned to the idea that The Avengers is mainstream. This version of Galaxy Quest couldn’t be done today, and 1999 could be seen as the beginning of that transition. Historical relevance ftw!
6. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Surprisingly charming and watchable, this harkens back to a little film called Star Wars mixed with an actual little film called Serenity. It’s about half an hour too long, but it’s still a great step for Marvel because it doesn’t feel so rote. Things were getting pretty booooring around the Marvel universe. Now if they could just somehow hire Edgar Wright back …
5. Men in Black (1997, 2002, 2012)
I’m combining them all into one giant movie. If I had to rank them, a list within a larger list, then I’d go first, third, then second, which is the exact order you high schoolers should be shooting for at ol’ make out point. Does that even still exist?
4. Earth Girls are Easy (1988)
Find me another movie starring Jeff Goldblum, Damon Wayans, and Jim Carrey and I’ll tell you something something, don’t call me late for dinner. Carrey is about a teenager here, but you can already see the burgeoning face-related comedy gift. That weird moment in time when Geena Davis was “hot” as opposed to “an archery fiend”. This is science fiction to the max, but it’s the rare sex comedy as well. Besides Howard the Duck that is.
3. Attack the Block (2011)
This is a toughie, because it’s not technically a “comedy”. Oh, it has ha-ha moments, but it’s a comedy in the same way that Die Hard and Snatch are, meaning it’s more cool than jocular. But a nine-movie list was stupid, and this movie rules extremely hard. So I’m putting it on. Only God and Kanye West can judge me.
2. Mars Attacks! (1996)
“Do not run! We mean you no harm!” Laser noise, laser noise. A classic joke from a classic film. I’m not saying we will be invaded by aliens in the near future, but if we are, I’m pretty sure they will be little jerky bastards in the vein of the Mars Attacks goons. We’ve been preparing for serious and somber interactions. We’re more likely to get space douches.
1. Spaceballs (1987)
The best of the bunch, clearly in the comedy realm, while the sci-fi is still used to optimal effect. “Ludicrous Speed” is still awesome. Spaceballs: The Flamethrower is still my jam. This is Rick Moranis at the peak of his powers, an alive John Candy, and Bill Pullman before he did serious sci-fi (well, sorta serious, Independence Day).
Man, I miss Mel Brooks. He was the tits.
In conclusion, yeah, overall the glory days are gone, but you could say the same about almost anything. The glory days of my quad muscles are gone too, but you don’t here me complaining from behind a root beer Sunday. Dark and gritty is the new buzz, along with superheroes who aren’t all that comically inclined other than throwaway taglines such as “Shoot at the bad guys!”. That said, at least this weekend we got a little nod. A nudge toward space ‘n’ laughs.
Laremy is a guy who has read the “Hitchhikers” series four times. He’s probably a little biased.