Saturday, July 20, 2013

Reader Top Ten Greatest Science Fiction Film Endings: Robert of Hornak Watchlist

Reader and blogger Robert of Hornak Watchlist gives us a great list to think about this afternoon.

Robert writes:

No idea if my list is true to the spirit of the lists that came before (which I’ve enjoyed reading and learning from) – or any rule on long-windedness and self-indulgence.  Rather than list endings that I know, in my wise old age, are great, I’ve listed endings that rocked and imprinted my unsuspecting pre-pubescent amygdala in real time and for all time before I ever had the words to interpret the reaction.  I’m only including movies that I saw before my 12th birthday, effectively snubbing movies that would otherwise make the cut, like The Incredible Shrinking Man, 2001, Alien, Back to the Future (“Roads?  Where we’re going we don’t need roads!”), and 12 Monkeys.  The list isn’t necessarily all movies that are great for sci-fi or cinema history (though some obviously are), but they fit the bill for movies with endings that helped shape my internal world, and every entry still has the power to rattle me to my core.

10. FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH – I only understood what was actually going on in this movie when I saw it again later in my teens, but I was hooked as a kid by the Brit palate of the film stock before I even knew what that was – a kind of muted yet clear and sharp-edged gray; like a darkly adult version of a live-action Wonderful World of Disney episode (guess it could’ve just been our old console television) – enough so that I watched to the end, when the walls came tumbling down, fire leapt, men burned, women screamed, and from out of the split ground rose what to my Southern Baptist, Sunday school addled imagination was no one less than the devil himself.  I was terrified – and still tremble a little when I see that warbling, weirdly-horned silhouette.

9. SOYLENT GREEN – Being the young sci-fi nerd I was, I’d already heard the famous phrase, but I never knew the backstory.  So when the movie digs deep into the melancholy of Robinson as dying father figure/roomie, and Heston finally outs the true nature of the offending wafer, the literal translation of the line – or a kind of secular transubstantiation – could be “Soylent Green is my friend!”  And the line that was co-opted by culture as a punch line is reclaimed as tragedy.

8. X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES – Only obliquely a science fiction story, and another one whose ending yanked hard on my well-churched sensibility.  When our hero, running the gamut from benevolent to cursed, finally teeters on the edge of his own sanity, and stumbles into potential redemption at a tent revival – the preacher quotes a line I’d heard many times in the pew, “If thine eye offends thee, pluck it out!”  Watching Milland resort to the most fundamentalist interpretation for relief from his encroaching madness, and then rising back into frame with those empty, red sockets, I had an image that was burned onto my own retinas for eternity.

7. THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS – Harryhausen movies were always an event, awaited on any given Saturday afternoon when “Screaming Meemies Flicks” opted to play one.  A lot like his younger Venusian-Italian cousin, the Ymir of “20 Million Miles To Earth”, the Rhedosaur is really just a sci-fi incarnation of the King Kong myth – the gargantuan fish out of water, too big to be contained, too frightened to be held responsible for his angry-tourist rampage.  But as much as I worshiped King Kong (as a kid, I’d climb to the top of the empire state fire hydrant on my block and swat at imaginary bi-planes), somehow The Beast was more my own – I’d never seen a jungle island or NYC with my own eyes, but I’d been to Six Flags Over Texas and seen the Judge Roy Scream with my own eyes; and I’d never felt bullets penetrate my leathery hide, but I’d felt the hot stovetop on the palm of my hand.  So seeing that innocent reptile, coughed up by a radioactive blast (like my other hero, Godzilla), swallowed by a blazing rollercoaster, and ultimately taking those patented-by-Harryhausen last giant gasps of earthly air, I felt his death more than any other monster.

6. THE THING (1951) – I didn’t see Carpenter’s update till my mid teens (remember my semi-sheltered upbringing), so I couldn’t yet know the joys of severed heads sliding off tables and sprouting spider legs.  But that was okay – ignorance, and Howard Hawks, is bliss.  While the low-budget humans in most 50s sci-fi, even the ones in the fast-forwardable previous entry, were often just shy of animatronics, the budding cineaste in me soaked up the fast, overlapping relations of these adults, enough so that keeping the intellectual carrot at bay didn’t seem so bad – and the creepiness edging up into the picture was soon an enjoyable thing in itself.  Then, finally, when you’re jolted by the sheer unstoppable force of the visitor, finally stoppable only with a jolt or two or three of straight up electricity, you feel the catharsis of those characters you’ve grown to know and like… Until, the catharsis is abruptly truncated with that nervous newsman’s repeated imperative, “Watch the skies… Keep looking…!”  As a kid given to a perverse mixture of fear of invasion and hope for contact of any kind, this was more than Lederer’s dialogue, it was a dispatch from my own imagination.

5. FRANKENSTEIN (1931) – I honestly don’t know if this movie/story is science fiction or not.  To my eyes it is, given it’s one man testing God’s law via bold scientific experimentation.  But the pathos given the monster by Karloff’s portrayal makes the story too human to strap with any one genre label.  The movie (and later, the book, which became and still is in my top five or six favorite novels) treats the monster, perhaps unwittingly, with more humanity than the humans, and the sight of the poor brute lurching toward safety – mostly mute in the film, making it even more tragic – kept it from becoming something frightening, but instead stamped the whole, beautiful black-and-white tragedy as an experience too entirely relatable to a kid who feels left alone.  The lit torches ascending to the monster’s final roost were, to me, not unlike the kids I was convinced truly did not like me.  (I suppose now it could’ve been the bolts in my neck.)

4. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – I was only 6 when Star Wars was out, so I didn’t quite grasp the fullness of that movie, as story or effects watershed.  But by the time its sequel came out, I’d absorbed enough to feel something like real love for the characters.  So stop-motion kangaroo-horses, mystic muppets, and laser-spitting dinosaur-tanks were more than enough to keep a 9-year-old boy enthralled for an entire summer.  But the juice of any mythology is how much more deeply it can penetrate your dreams than your parents’ Christmas present budget.  And the REM-fuel of Empire is in the final wallop, wherein the bad guy gets cleaved forever to the good guy, scraping hard against every rule your little kid brain’s ever known about family and fathers and defeating what is dark so that light can win, and something unnamable in you gets broken – nothing you’d ever be able to label till tenth grade psychology class – something that gets stroked again later in life every time you let pass into your ears “The Rebel Fleet” from the soundtrack, swooning as it does from longing to wonder to peril to hope.

3. PLANET OF THE APES – There I was, nine years old, flat on my stomach, staring up at the tv, allowed to stay up for the 10:30 movie, my parents dozing somewhere behind me – they’d seen it, and wanted me to know the joys of the big reveal.  Of course, the talking apes were all I really needed, and a story that felt so much like the Twilight Zone episodes I’d just started gobbling up – it’d be many years before I put POTA’s partial screenplay attribution with that show’s genius creator-soul.  When Heston slams the wet surf with his fist, crying out in tv-safe, sound-dropped blasphemies, I knew something was up.  Then the eerie, music-free pull back that still sends the tingler up my spine, and the reveal of that iconic destruction...  I had to ask what exactly it meant, and of course I didn’t really get it until I had a few social studies classes under my belt.  Later, the entire Ape series lit the fire for me on any and all time travel movies – for my money, the millennia-wide vicious loop is still the king of the sub-genre.

2. STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – I was eleven, sitting in the movie theater, watching those characters that’d become my friends in the old tv reruns, now giant, now loud, now in real, exploding, one hundred percent danger instead of just tv danger.  I’m still stunned when Spock takes that short moment to let his salvation plan get 3D in his brain, then leaps up to make it happen.  I want to tell him to stop, find another way! – but somehow I know this is how it’s got to be.  And the palm-to-palm farewell.  I admit I still get choked up.  Today, it’s not just that a friend is gone; I know full well there’s Star Trek III and beyond.  Today, it’s that my age makes me relate less to Spock’s singular act of sacrifice, and more the deep-down-in-the-screenplay meditation on the pangs of getting older, and the changes that hit that don’t have automatically built-in sequels.  What moves me most now is watching Shatner’s humbled Kirk, God bless ‘im, pondering his own regrets, coming face to face with old mistakes, and embracing the opportunities that come so rarely to renew an old lost love.  The movie, for all its audience-friendly action and its fairly simple black hat/white hat schemes, is deeply philosophical, mature and completely satisfying.

1. E.T. – The summer of 1982 was an emotional one.  Spock died… and so did E.T., only to come back and then leave again right away.  I went to see E.T. with my family, my father paying for the entire brood.  The next four times I saw it, that same summer, I was on my own, five bucks a pop, down at the Eastgate Cinema, alone with my thoughts and my hopes and my tears – that moment when the final image of Elliott fades to black and the music fades to silence… that three seconds before the tinkling end credits piano ramps up… and you can hear nothing but semi-embarrassed sniffs… I can still hear that in the silence when I’m watching the DVD.  I wanted to see it that first time because I thought it would be like all the stuff I’d been absorbing my whole life – aliens, spaceships, outer space, monsters, the unknown.  What I got was something that transcended science fiction, transcended movies.  It was nothing short of the bridge from my childhood to my young adulthood in terms of understanding my own feeling of isolation and in terms of being able to grope toward more adult-themed movies.  Maybe that’s a little too informed by my adult reflection; at the time, all the repeat viewings were more that I just couldn’t take it – maybe this time he’ll stay, but every time, he’s got to go.  I obviously couldn’t have known it then, but maybe it was some kind of foreshadowing in my life, and the life of everyone else who’s a human being, that nothing we have will necessarily stay.  The little bit of dialogue between Elliott and E.T. before final lift-off and timpani is absolutely the stuff of our lives – our constant separation from the things we love – family, friends, our own childhoods – and it’s the very stuff that can still make me cry so unashamedly, that it cannot be anything other than my favorite ending to any movie of any genre.  I’ll stop there, now that everyone thinks I’m a hopeless, weepy sentimentalist."

Robert: I love this list.  You do a great job of explaining why you love these movie endings so much.  E.T. (1982) has started placing in the last few days, and man, I get weepy just thinking about it. But also, you've got some great nods to an earlier generation of sf films, including The Thing and Frankenstein.  I really enjoyed this, and thanks for sharing it. 


  1. A fine list, brilliantly written.
    Great to see Five Million Years to Earth in there (or Quatermass and the Pit, as we know it in the UK). I love that film.

  2. Great list Robert and I love all the reflections you shared along with it. I haven't seen "E.T." in years, but I think I need to pick it up. I was probably about the same age when I saw it in the theater and it made a huge impact.


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