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Before ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy’: 26 Gonzo, Offbeat Space Movies

Before 'Guardians Of The Galaxy': 26 Gonzo, Offbeat Space Movies

Guardians Of The Galaxy” has been in theaters for a whole week now, and finding enormous success everywhere it goes. Marvel‘s first attempt at the space opera, it keeps, as we discussed in our review, a little too close to the studio’s playbook at times, but is positively refreshing in the way that it looks and feels big, bold and different. These aren’t the sterile galaxies of the “Star Wars” prequels, or the Apple Store future of J.J. Abrams‘ “Star Trek,” this is a space that harkens back to messier visions: the Cantina Bar of the original “Star Wars,” and various other oddball sci-fi movies of times gone by.

Now that many of you have caught up with James Gunn‘s film, you know that it’s a detailed and lived-in world, full of colorful characters and strange creatures. And so, to mark the film’s success, we’ve hopped in our spaceships and looked back at a selection of oddball, gonzo takes on space and science-fiction, from classic B-movies to more recent freak-outs. Perhaps one of these might scratch a post-‘Guardians’ itch? Take a look at our list below, and let us know your favorites in the comments section.

Serenity” (2005)

When Joss Whedon encouraged James Gunn to make his “Guardians of the Galaxy” script “more James Gunn,” it wasn’t just as the director of the immensely successful “Avengers” that he spoke, but as a writer/director with a storied background in gonzo, space cowboy storytelling, first with TV series “Firefly,” then with its fan-demanded film “Serenity.” Despite being an early cautionary tale in the “can TV fan clamor translate to box office $$$” argument, barely making back its production budget (see also: “Veronica Mars”), “Serenity,” like the series that preceded it, is a blast, packed with lovable rogues trading Whedonesque quips. And whatever it lacks in cinematic grandeur it makes up for with clever storytelling flourishes, shocking deaths and a most unusual villain in Chiwetel Ejiofor.

“Robinson Crusoe On Mars” (1964)

Who knows how deeply buried this movie would be if it hadn’t been picked up by Criterion and restored for a gorgeous Blu-ray edition. Thankfully it’s been unearthed, and while it may feel a little more serious than some of the others on this list, this is still a good home for “Robinson Crusoe On Mars.” A retelling of the famous Daniel Defoe story from “War Of The Worlds” director Byron Haskin, instead of getting shipwrecked on an island, this guy gets spaceshipwrecked on Mars, which probably amuses a lot of scientists out there. Wait till they see how Paul Mantee’s ‘Crusoe’ walks about with his helmet open half the time, bathes in the water like he’s in a spa, and eats those nasty ass sausages that grow underwater. He also tries to teach a monkey, his only companion, to speak English. Welcome to the gonzo club, Robinson! Nothing gonzo about Winston C. Hoch’s cinematography, though, it’s just plain fantastic.

Galaxy Quest” (1999)

Do you know anyone who’s seen it who doesn’t love “Galaxy Quest”? Of course not, that shit is funny. And sweet and tenderhearted and affectionate toward the culture (obsessive “Star Trek” fandom) it sends up. And yet it’s a film that seldom gets the props it deserves on either science fiction lists or classic comedy lists, despite an awesome cast (and Tim Allen, who to be fair, does a pitch-perfect Shatner), all in top form. Alan Rickman gets to be funny, Sigourney Weaver brilliantly skewers Trekkie sexism, Sam Rockwell is his most Sam Rockwell and Enrico Colantoni makes an absolutely adorable alien. Oh and there is a great Tony Shalhoub turn, and Daryl Mitchell as an ex-child prodigy pilot. By Grabthar’s Hammer, we shall restore its reputation. “Galaxy Quest” is a totally cherishable sci-fi spoof, unless you’re George Takei who refers to it as “a chillingly realistic documentary.”

Enemy Mine” (1985)

The tagline—”Enemies because they were taught to be, allies because they had to be, brothers because they dared to be”—basically sums up this movie’s strange, racism-is-bad arc. What it doesn’t do, is give any sense of the weird shit that goes down in between those big plot points. Wolfgang Petersen took over for Richard Loncraine after weeks of shooting, scrapped all of the footage, moved the production to Munich, and the budget plus marketing doubled to more than $40 million in the process. Earning less than half that, it was a failure and Petersen didn’t make another film for six years. None of this gets to why it’s worth digging this one up, despite its general cheesiness and vacillating quality of special effects, but this should: Louis Gosset, Jr. plays an alien who, after befriending his enemy Dennis Quaid on a planet where they both crashed (and can miraculously breath the air), gets frickin’ pregnant spontaneously! There’s more, check it out.

Dark Star” (1974)

If there was an award for goofiest student film set in space, John Carpenter’s “Dark Star” would surely make the shortlist, if not walk away the winner. The film plays out as if a bunch of dudes didn’t get invited to a frat party, and instead of going home, got stoned and went off to space to look for new planets. Never mind that the guys in the genre master’s debut feature are in their early 30s, and their characters have been doing the space gig for 20 years. So, they were like 12 when they started? Most of the theatrical cut features sci-fi legend Dan O’Bannon chasing a giant beachball with claws that sound like a distressed dolphin. Based on that alone, it was obviously making this list. There’s plenty more creativity in the craziness, however, so we’ve got a soft spot for this one. Also, the beachball/spacehopper-alien went on to inspire O’Bannon to write “Alien.” 

Space Station 76” (2014)

Set in a future envisioned from a 1970s vantage point, Jack Plotnick’s debut “Space Station 76” follows a space crew as they travel and, well, bitch at each other more than discuss any kind of mission. This is no intellectual, mind-probing sci-fi film; this is about sexually repressed and miserable individuals who have to co-exist in a small space, but would rather jack off, smoke a doob, pop a Valium, or attempt suicide. The film is a cocktail of daft ’70s notions mixed with a pastiche of so-awful-they’re-actually-awesome futuristic products. Patrick Wilson as the closeted Captain Glenn and Marisa Coughlan as the cantankerous Misty almost steal the show from a toy robot therapist called Mr. Bot. Almost. Also starring Liv Tyler and Matt Bomer, the SXSW film, which got mixed reviews, should be released later this year, so it’s hard to say what the future holds, but once you see it, you’ll know we had no choice but to include it.

Dune” (1984)

It’s been written on these hallowed pages before, but David Lynch’s famous catastrophe “Dune” is the worst film you might love. Something about the cronky grandeur of the folly that it is, the deep self-seriousness of its stilted messiah storyline and the odd flashes of genuinely inspired world-building (the grotesque, boil-ridden Vladimir Harkonnen with his nightmarish “heart plugs” is a villain for the ages) is captivating, even when if it feels so, so wrong alongside the terrible effects, amateurish storytelling and wooden acting. Jodorowsky’s version of “Dune” not getting made is a shame, but it did leave us with this bonkers version of Frank Herbert’s colossal vision.

“Forbidden Planet” (1956)

As the first sci-fi to be set entirely on a different planet, “Forbidden Planet” is the granddaddy of space movies. Featuring Leslie Nielson back when his inexpressive seriousness was taken seriously, this is classic ’50s cinema. It’s “Mad Men” chic dressed in “Doctor Who” inspiration, with a robot called Robby who looks like the Michelin Man with a slot machine for a head, and can make gallons of bourbon after analyzing a sample. Seriously though, there are so many reasons to love this outlandish space fantasy besides Robby; the sweetly outdated special effects, the experimental and atmospheric electronic music and the technical wizardry from the design and decorations departments. Best of all, it’s got smarts to go along with its looks, which puts it above a bunch of modern space movies.

“Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” (2005)

Wow, next year “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” is going to turn 10 years old — that’s mildly depressing. The popular series about mismatched space hijackers didn’t get the greatest reception on film, but any movie that depicts the destruction of Earth by poetry-loving pig-like aliens, has a melancholic robot voiced by Alan Rickman, and boasts John Malkovich and Sam Rockwell playing aliens, is good company in our books. While plenty of the nonsense and bells and whistles made the translation, what the film misses is the undercurrent of crackling intelligence we get from the books, which work as brainy, curious sci-fi, as well as out-there humor. Still, the off-offbeat space comedy is worth your time, if for no other reason than as a portal into the Douglas Adams‘ book, which is one of the few indisputable proofs of genius that exist on planet Earth.

Spaceballs” (1987)

Most Mel Brooks films qualify as oddball, to be sure, but perhaps none more than this 1987 “Star Wars” spoof. Though infused with the comic director’s’ typical anachronistic, hodgepodge buffoonery and plenty of other reference points—“Alien,” “Star Trek” and “Planet of the Apes”, hell even “Blazing Saddles”—there was something almost immediately dated about the movie, what with its release some four years after “Return of the Jedi.” Regardless, “Spaceballs,” by no means Brooks’ finest hour, is still a lot of fun. Rick Moranis, as Dark Helmet, reaches even more hilarious nerdy heights than his work in “Ghostbusters.” It did solid box office despite divided critical opinion, but there are enough memorable quotes and solid gags to recommend giving it a shot, either for nostalgia purposes or as a first go-round.

Starship Troopers” (1997)

It may not star any wacky talking plant life, but Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 box-office disappointment could be the weirdest film on this list, in that it’s hardly even an actual film, more a bunch of stuff that happens, almost panel by panel, like a cartoon comic strip. The bland 2D handsomeness of the soap opera B-list cast, and the almost complete absence of plot, characterization or coherent subtext, made the teenaged us feel, back in the day, like “Starship Troopers” might just be a very bad movie. But time has changed that. There’s a slyness running through the film that suggests it’s closer to pastiche than satire, and is getting off on the knowledge that people are going to tie themselves in knots figuring out its satirical intent when actually it’s a plasticky cartoon featuring a bunch of tremendous bisections (which haven’t aged a day.)

The Ice Pirates” (1984)

If anyone was unconvinced by our “Ranking the Summer of 1984” feature that we do not, contrary to the nostalgists, live in a newly desolate age for moviemaking–there has always been crap, and a lot of it–just compare ‘Guardians’ with 1984’s nearest equivalent “The Ice Pirates.” This is a terminally unfunny send-up of “Star Wars” that marries sword-wielding bandits, unconvincing robots and uncomfortable sexual comedy (including a subplot about castration). Even the cast, which criminally wastes Ron Perlman and an outlandishly-costumed Anjelica Huston, don’t get to have much fun, and main hero Robert Urich looks like Han Solo by way of Ernest Borgnine. A flop back in the day, the shoddy production values and poor dialogue and plot were written off as “entertaining for very small kids,” but we were never young enough to enjoy this.

“Fantastic Planet” (1973)

With a sophisticated storyline and visuals that combine German expressionism with Salvador Dali, it’s not surprising that Rene Laloux‘s “Fantastic Planet” won the Jury Prize at Cannes. This French stop-motion animated space feature is a seductive, irresistible trip and a half. The praise Roland Topar’s designs get is not undeserved: the gigantic Draags with their seashell ears and bulbous red eyes are no doubt an instant classic (let us not forget the guy who wears a squid on his head). But Alain Goraguer’s bonkers jazzy score and Stefan Wul’s original story of humans as animals, domesticated and wild, on a cruel and harsh planet, are the top reasons for loving this absorbing and strange little thing of a film. The visuals will hook you, the sound and the story will make you stay.

The Fifth Element” (1997)

Luc Besson began writing “The Fifth Element” when he was only 16 years old, and when it finally reached theaters, it underperformed in the U.S. but made more than twice its budget overseas. It’s infused with such a goofy, often-nonsensical spirit, and mashed-up from so many disparate pieces, that it’s clear Besson was collecting influences as he wrote it over a 22 year period. There’s a little “Heavy Metal” mixed with a generous helping of “Star Wars, and even some “Koyaanisqatsi” to name a few. It’s an enjoyable, though sometimes trying, pastiche–the contributions from game cast members Gary Oldman and Chris Tucker go big and bold here, and it mostly works. And comic book writers Jean Giraud and Jean-Claude Mézières (their works were another huge influence on the film) contribute beautifully crafted production design, which, alongside the awesomely bizarre costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier, make for a memorably weird mainstream summer movie.

Krull” (1983)
Whenever we dare to suggest that Peter Yates 1983 science fiction/fantasy hybrid is anything but a classic, we get roundly heckled. So load up your rotten vegetables again, as we place our heads humbly in the stocks–“Krull” has some spectacular production design and some decent supporting performances (Robbie Coltrane, Liam Neeson, Francesca Annis, Freddie Jones–the latter two were also in “Dune”), but in the main it’s just too self-serious and dull. The bland leads (Ken Marshall and Lysette Anthony) stumble around and look winsome, respectively, in an uninvolving, quasi-Arthurian plot is based on a threadbare and only partially explained mythology. This does feature one truly exceptional element: James Horner’s score, one of his very best, and worthy of a much better film. It was Yates’ only foray into this genre, and polyglot though he was, we’re glad he didn’t revisit it.

The Black Hole” (1979)

Everyone wanted in on space adventure after the success of “Star Wars,” but you’d be forgiven for expecting Disney’s attempt to cash-in to be warmer and cuddlier than “The Black Hole.” The surprisingly dark and nihilistic space adventure sees a spaceship captained by Robert Forster approaching a black hole, where they encounter a long-lost ship full of robots led by scientist madman Maximilian Schell. Directed by “Freaky Friday” helmer Gary Nelson, it brushes against some interesting ideas, but ends up incredibly uneven, coming off as half “2001”-ish sci-fi horror, half pandering, campy kids’ adventure. Some of the effects were pioneering at the time, but much of the production value looks ’70s-”Doctor Who” level these days, down to tin-foil costumes, though John Barry’s score is phenomenal. “Oblivion” director Joseph Kosinski has been developing a remake of this at Disney for a while, though word has been mostly quiet of late.

Masters of the Universe” (1987)

Who would’ve thunk Frank Langella, Courteney Cox and Dolph Lundgren would make a cinematic “He-Man” adaptation together? Well, Cannon Films bet a lot on their participation giving rise to a new franchise. But it was not to be, as “Masters of the Universe” failed at the box office, and along with the poor performance of “Superman IV” and “Lifeforce,” effectively shut Cannon down for good. But if you, grew up with this as a VHS staple in your home, chances are there’s some fond memories of watching the Mattel action figure come to life buried deep in your nostalgia cortex. It is pretty damn goofy and weird, but Langella gives his all as Skeletor, Billy Barty is fun as the hobbity Gwildor (a performance enhanced by great makeup work and unfairly given a Razzie nomination for worst supporting actor) and the rogue’s gallery of bad guys is a blast, even if the super cool, lizardy Saurod dies way too soon. [for an alternate “reading” of ‘MOTU’ co-signed by more of the Playlist staff, check out Worst Summer Blockbusters Ever -ed]

Barbarella” (1968)

A strong contender for being the swingingest of all the Swinging Sixties movies, Roger Vadim’s love-letter to then-wife Jane Fonda is psychedelic, kind of gorgeous, funny (sometimes even intentionally so), and about as deep as a puddle. Based on a series of French comics, it sees Fonda’s title character being sent to save Doctor Durand Durand (Milo O’Shea) from the Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg). Along the way she has adventures with a doll-planet, winged angels, and an orgasm machine, while romping with various men, including John Phillip Law, David Hemmings and the gloriously hirsute Ugo Tognazzi. It’s borderline incomprehensible stuff, but there is a hint of sly subversion thanks to script work by “Dr. Strangelove” scribe Terry Southern, and Claude Renoir’s photography and the remarkable production design make it feel instantly iconic. The film was dated as soon as the credits rolled, but that’s part of the charm to some degree: it serves as a bonkers little time capsule of an era in which you could actually get this made.

Outland” (1981)

So large does the shadow of “Alien” loom over this Peter Hyams-directed, Sean Connery-starring sci-fi homage to “High Noon” that it’s hard to see it as anything but a pale imitation of the Ridley Scott classic, even though its killer-in-space is corporate greed, not a nasty chest-burster.The opening credits blatantly rip it off, as does Jerry Goldsmith with his too-familiar score and the overall grimy, lackeys-in-space vibe. Yet “Outland” is still a solid watch, if for nothing else than a few nice head explosions, a kinda-bored-looking Peter Boyle performance as a drug lord and pimp, and a paranoid, anti-corporate slant to go with all its Western genre allusions. Hyams has always been a strong technician (often acting as his own DP), but sadly here the lack of originality, and a frustrating protagonist in Connery’s federal marshal character, whose staunch moralism comes off as some kind of weird Aspergers-like affliction, keeps the film from really taking off.

Treasure Planet” (2002)

Given kids’ love for sci-fi, you’d think that animated space adventures would be huge money-makers, but from “Titan A.E.” to “Mars Needs Moms,” they’ve almost always been disastrous, “Wall-E” aside. “Treasure Planet,” one in a series of Disney attempts to make their animated features appeal more to boys, is actually fairly decent, but bombed just as hard as the rest. A passion project of “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid” helmers John Musker and Ron Clements, the film takes a sci-fi spin on Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” with young Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) heading on an intergalactic voyage seeking lost gold, and bonding with mutinous cyborg cook John Silver (Brian Murray) en route. The film hews a little close to formula in places (Martin Short’s wacky comic relief android is particularly surplus to requirements), and loses track of things in the third act, but it’s gorgeously designed, and surprisingly emotionally engaging stuff.

Total Recall” (1990)
Loosely adapted from Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember it For You Wholesale” and directed by Dutch madman Paul Verhoeven, this Arnold Shwarzenegger sci-fi action classic is probably weirder—and better—than you remember. Its twisty, open-ended narrative (is it all in his head, or did the adventure really happen?) is made even better by its many, consistent bursts of ultra-violence, oddball characters (from Debbie Lee Carrington opening fire on a bar full of cops to the alien with three boobs, an image forever burned into the memories of men who were probably too young to be watching back then) and Verhoeven’s sly and often pointed satire (though not as strong here as “Robocop”). If it’s been a while, and especially if you saw the lifeless, dull remake a few years ago, you should catch up. It’s likely even better than you remember, and far smarter than it appears on the surface, like most Verhoeven films.

Galaxy Of Terror” (1981)

Never let it be said that Roger Corman wasn’t thrifty. The B-movie king was fond of recycling sets, props and even footage between his movies, and with “Galaxy Of Terror,” essentially recycles the entire look and feel of a film. With hints of “Star Wars,” “Galaxy Of Terror” is basically an “Alien” rip-off from top to bottom, although with some far more batshit mythology in play. The film features various B-movie faves (including Sid Haig, Zalman King and Robert Englund) sent to investigate an alien pyramid on the distant planet Morganthus, where they’re plagued by a force that is able to make their worst fears come true. Despite the miniscule budget, Corman and director Bruce D. Clarke are able to get some occasionally impressive production value on screen, but this is a mostly rote, and sometimes baffling film (whenever it brings up a string-puller known as the Planet Master), that only passed into low-budget lore thanks to a sour scene in which a crewmember is raped by a giant worm.

Lost In Space” (1998)

Re-vamping old TV shows into movies was all the rage in the mid-1990s, and so it was only a matter of time before 1960s Irwin Allen family favorite “Lost In Space” made it to the big screen. It was just a shame that it got there in such weak, uneven, noisy form as Stephen Hopkins’ 1998 film. The film replicates the same Swiss Family-style set-up as the film–the Robinson family (William Hurt, Mimi Rogers, Heather Graham, Lacey Chabert and Jack Johnson) are stuck somewhere out in the galaxy with pilot Don West (Matt LeBlanc) and campy saboteur Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman)–and then needlessly overcomplicates it with intergalactic terrorists, spider-monsters and time travel. By the time Jared Harris turns up as an older version of the younger Robinson, and Oldman transforms into a spider, you’ve long since tuned out. Despite some nifty design work, the script (penned by Akiva Goldsman in the same summer he wrote “Batman & Robin”–how did no-one break his fingers that year?) is wretched and lifeless throughout.

Battle Beyond the Stars” (1980)

Hey, anyone seen that movie “Star Wars”? Pretty good, right? You know who else might have seen it? Roger Corman! The lovable rogue impresario never met a good idea he couldn’t recycle, but occasionally he happened across something a little better than the sum of its derivations. Considering George Lucas’ classic and “The Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven” are the background here, that would be pretty impossible, but still John Sayles’ script has some interesting flourishes, like a hive mind race and Valkyrie planet, and the production design, incorporating spaceships that appear to have boobs, is gorgeously cheesy. Casting John Boy Walton/Richard Thomas as their Luke Skywalker feels spot-on, and George Peppard as a literal cowboy is an arch reference to how daft it all is. Oh, and a certain J. Cameron heads up special effects. In all, there’s just enough invention shown here to nudge this unashamed rip off into “lovable homage” territory.

Space Truckers” (1997)

A famed box office flop from “Re-Animator” director Stuart Gordon, the campy B-movie “Space Truckers” is actually not nearly as unwatchable as its reputation, and alleged $1.6m take off a $25m budget, might suggest. Or maybe after “The Ice Pirates” anything seems ok. Kitsch aside, there are sparks of invention (the square pigs, Charles Dance’s half-cyborg outfit,; the jokily referential cardboardy set design) and the scantily clad duo of Debi Mazar and Stephen Dorff to please the eye. The most disappointing aspect, bizarrely, may be Dennis Hopper, who delivers an oddly restrained performances in exactly the kind of film that demands the over-the-top histrionics we know he could deliver. With some of the better jokes getting lost in this mild-mannered characterization, it’s not good, but nor is it a contender for Worst Film Ever. It’s not even the worst film on this list.

Explorers” (1985)

As the plethora of titles from that era here suggests, the 80s was the heyday of the family-friendly space movie, but even by 1985, people were starting to tire of the genre. And Joe Dante’s “Explorers” was a victim of that fatigue before it even limped from theaters having taken less than half its budget: the film was rushed to screens unfinished. Still, there’s charm to what’s there, not least from the babyfaces of Ethan Hawke and the still-missed River Phoenix, both in their first big-screen roles, as the dreamer and the boffin respectively, who build a spaceship. The alien design is very Dante–imagine a cantina creature bred with a Gremlin who gets all knowledge of humanity from gameshows and sitcoms–and the twist about who exactly summoned them is really very sweet. So there’s the framework for something decent with the mooted Paramount remake, but plenty of room for improvement too.

But what about X childhood favorite that I haven’t watched since I had measles at 10 but over which I’d happily stab a naysayer in the eye? Where is Y cult classic that I need to believe is a cult classic or I spent every stoned night in college watching a flat-out bad film? Where is Z obscure title that I got in a bargain bucket 2-for-$1 deal with “Sniper” starring Tom Berenger? Well, you’ll find some in our 20 Odd Sci-Fi Films Of The ’70s.  But, the above 26 titles no doubt miss out on some treasures that you can tell us about below, though we should point out we’ve deliberately excluded all the “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” films as being their own separate subcategories of space opera. Anything that had a serious bent, like “Moon,” “Sunshine,” and “Event Horizon,” as well as the sci-fi classics, were deemed inadmissable for a too-low wackiness quotient, as even were kids movies like “The Last Starfighter” and “Space Camp,” which have their charms but not nearly enough squidgy puppetry and comedy sidekicks to qualify.

Also, a couple of seeming no-brainers like “Mars Attacks!” and “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” have most of their action take place on Earth, or in the er, 8th Dimension, rather than space, and were left out. Similarly “Killer Clowns from Outer Space,” “Muppets From Space” and “Plan 9 From Outer Space” are (clue is in the title) mostly from space rather than in space, while films like “Logan’s Run” and “Zardoz” are set so far into post-apocalyptic futures that they may seem like other spandex/mankini-based planets, but they’re on Earth, too. Oh, and we simply couldn’t find “Abbott and Costello go to Mars,” which is no doubt the one over which every single one of you was all, like, what’s up with that? Where ‘Abbott and Costello’ at?

Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton, Nikola Grozdanic, Erik McClanahan

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