In this week's installment, in honor of comedy month here at SYFY WIRE, we're giving shout-outs to the best sci-fi spoofs.
The best science fiction movies are full of awe or terror at the majesty, mystery, and vastness of the cosmos. Which, you know, can make them seem awfully serious. A well-done spoof punctures that sanctimony, bringing some much-needed irreverence to the genre.
Also, let's be honest: sci-fi movies are often unintentionally funny, what with their silly high-tech gadgets, super-futuristic clothes, and ponderous metaphors about The Way We Live Today. So let's lighten up and enjoy this list of our five favorite sci-fi satires.
Amazon Women on the Moon (1987)
Technically speaking, Amazon Women on the Moon isn't so much a spoof of sci-fi films as it is a spoof of everything, including some truly bizarre business involving B.B. King doing a telethon for Don 'No Soul' Simmons and a man who gets roasted by Henny Youngman at his own funeral. But the core conceit of the film is that you are watching a late-night schlock horror movie called Amazon Women on the Moon and then clicking through channels during commercial breaks and to get past technical difficulties. It is worth noting that that in-world "Amazon Women on the Moon" looks really fun! Captain Nelson and his crew — including a monkey — fight massive spiders, evade volcanos (on the moon!) and deal with hoary '50s sci-fi clichés in a way that's knowing, lovely, and eerily accurate. You haven't seen this movie before, but it sure does feel like it.
Westerns, Hitchcock thrillers, silent movies: There's no beloved genre that Oscar-winning filmmaker Mel Brooks hasn't giddily roasted. With Spaceballs, the master took on Star Wars in particular but also laid waste to classics like Alien and Planet of the Apes. Starring Bill Pullman as the Solo-ish Lone Starr and John Candy as his Chewie-like sidekick Barf, the movie enjoys making fun of sci-fi conventions, but it's more pointed in its criticism of the blockbuster mindset that was overtaking Hollywood at that time. (Bad news for Brooks: The blockbusters won.)
Amidst wonderfully juvenile gags about Dark Helmet and "I hate when I get my Schwartz twisted," Spaceballs is actually pretty annoyed at how merchandising and spectacle have dumbed down movies — which is even more damning coming from Brooks, who knew the value of an expertly executed crass joke.
Galaxy Quest (1999)
This is probably a little lower in the ranking than you'd like it to be, but it's here because we love the two movies above it so much, not because we love Galaxy Quest any less. The movie's premise remains inspired: What if aliens thought a cheesy television show about a space crew was real, and got the fictional crew itself to help them win their real battles? It's basically Star Trek and William Shatner in outer space, and the movie is consistently funny and clever as it both sets up and knocks down science fiction conventions. The movie is chock-full of loving send-ups, including the poor 'Redshirt' (Sam Rockwell) who finally gets his day, and it is the rare satire spoof that has some real emotional resonance. You root for this fake crew, in spite of yourself.
Mars Attacks! (1996)
The overriding principle in any alien-invasion movie is that the audience ought to be cheering for the human race. Then came Tim Burton's gleefully nihilistic adaptation of a series of 1960s trading cards.
It shouldn't be a surprise that a filmmaker who's always championed outsiders and malcontents would want to turn Mars Attacks! into a volcanic satire of humanity's stupidity. From this movie's perspective, if Jack Nicholson is America's bug-eyed president and the media is only driven by sensation, maybe Earth would be better off ruled by Martians. (The aliens, by the way, are kinda scary while also being really funny. Oh, and they're way smarter than all the humans they come across.) Burton sets fire to all the clichés of 1950s sci-fi/horror movies while relishing the Martians' takeover of his home planet. Mars Attacks! was the last time he was this burn-it-all-down inspired.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996)
The television show — both original and revived — was a riot, but we've always been impressed how, after making so many of those shows, they still found a way to save their best gags for the movie. The movie Tom Servo and the gang are watching this time around is This Island Earth, and the jokes explode from the very beginning, starting with the Universal Pictures logo. ("Doesn't the fact that it's Universal make it international?") It’s pretty uproarious all the way through — and even features some now-dated jokes about the Cubs — and, at 75 minutes, you're in and out of there before the conceit grows weary. You can watch all the shows, old and new, and they're still great. But this remains the peak.