Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Top 5 SF Road Trip Movies

First off, let me appologize for the lack of weakly lists over the past couple of weeks. I was travelling at the beginning of the month and last week I was too busy to give it enough thought. (Not that, admittedly, these lists demonstrate much in the way of thought anyway, but I try. Kind of.)

At any rate, this time out I thought I'd delve into the exploration in SF movies of that age-old summer tradition of the road trip. The signature of the road trip movie's plot is a trip (sometimes by an individual, but usually by a group - or a group that's assembled along the way) from point A to point B, usually for a fairly normal reason (to pick something up, to drop something off, to meet somebody, to get to work, etc). It's important to make the distinction though between the road trip movie and the quest movie. The quest movie is also about getting from one location to another, but it's very definitely for a higher purpose - to defeat the ultimate force of darkness (as in Frodo's trip to drop The Ring into Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings) or to rescue an important person (like Snake Plissken going after the president in Escape from New York). The road trip doesn't have such lofty goals, at least not in the final analysis. What makes this type of film enjoyable isn't usually the otherwise banal plot of going from one place to another, rather it's the characters met on the road and the adventures that crop up along the way.

And so here are the Top 5 SF Road Trip Movies:

5) Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
The title says it all, folks: the central purpose of the entire flight that the movie follows was to drive some Klingon rustbucket home. Oh sure, along the way the gang from the recently-destroyed Enterprise travelled through time, saved an extinct species from extinction (huh?), saved the Earth, introduced the newly-regenerated Spock to profanity, and gave Kirk the chance to hook-up. Substitute the bird-of-prey for a Volkswagon, the Earth for a friend's grandmother's house, and the cetacean specialist for a sorority girl, and you'd have a disposable teen road movie.

4) 2001 - A Space Odyssey
Again, fairly simple plot here: Dave Bowman is on a long drive to get to a job and runs into some trouble along the way. You may argue that in addition to being a pilot, Dave is a scientist off to explore another world and that's far from banal. But the fact that this is his job, rather than something he was abruptly catapulted into, is what gives this journey enough semblance of normalicy that it can be classified as a road trip. The murders, the alien artifact, the trippy interstellar travel, and the apotheosis all just kinda happen along the way.

3) Star Wars - Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Okay, I know some of you have got your hackles up just having read no farther than the title of this nomination, 'cause I'm treading on holy ground here, but just bear with me. What is the first and essential task that the bulk of this movie really revolves around? The Rebel techie says it best during the retreat at Hoth: "Good luck, Luke! See you at the rendezvous point!" The same holds true for Han & Leia and the rest of the gang: the whole point of the movie is to leave Hoth and meet up with the Rebel fleet. Everything else is a distraction. Sure, Luke is secretly plotting to pay a visit to Dagobah, but that's like Fanboys where the guys make a detour just to piss off some Trekkies. Sure it's a whole adventure in itself, and Luke's training is ultimately of vital importance to the fate of the galaxy, but it's a side trip and a side trip only because he always intends to get back on track when he's done his training and meet up with his friends. The gang on the 'Falcon may have caused a sinus infection in an overgrown tube worm, and sure they dropped in to visit an old poker-buddy-turned-sellout-millionaire, but that was all just something that happened on the way to the fleet. Yeah, Han didn't make it, but that's like Curly dying on the cattle drive in City Slickers - doesn't change the purpose of the journey. The next question, of course, is why doesn't Empire rank higher on the list, given that it is such an amazingly good film? Keep reading.

2) The Muppet Movie
Talking frogs and other anthropomorphized animals, and scientists living lives of hermits in secret locations perfecting titanic growth serums are ideas that are pretty firmly within the realm of science fiction and fantasy, so let's get the debate about the appropriateness of this film for an SF list out of the way right now. Why does The Muppet Movie rate number 2 though? Because of all the films here (including those on the Honourable Mentions list to come) this one actually takes place in a car, on the road. As with Dave Bowman's trek across the solar system, the fact that Kermit is answering an ad offering to make him rich and famous is secondary to the fact what he's doing in the most fundamental sense is going for a job interview - something fairly typical. Along the way he makes some great friends, meets the rather problematic and pudgy love of his life, evades an overzealous restauranteur, and gains some insights about life. Another reason why this film ranks so high on the list is that after 30 years (and I can still vaguely remember my parents taking me to see it in the theatre) this is still a very, very entertaining story for people of all ages. Henson & co were geniuses.

1) Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope
The ultimate SF road movie: a teen and his friends hit the road because they have to drop something off at someone else's place. Along the way they rescue a hot (if foul-tempered) girl and save the galaxy. Now, there are some who argue that Empire is the best of the holy trilogy, and they might assert (if they're not too busy hopping up and down frothing at the mouth in rage because I've soiled The Trilogy by alleging that two of its installments are mega-scale road movies) that it should hold the number one spot, rather than ANH. But I think ANH gets first place because, firstly, it was the FIRST of the movies, and thus Empire could have been titled Yet Another Road Trip. My other reason for giving ANH the number one spot though is because it ends on a high note. Sure, bad things can happen in road trip movies, but the stories tend to resolve themselves along some kind of positive lines. Empire doesn't. Han gets freezer burn. Luke has to make a large health insurance claim. Lando gets squeezed out of his business in a hostile takeover and winds up poor and on the run. Leia loses the love of her life and has to live with the guilt of knowing that most of the time she treated him like shit. C3P0 got blown up real good. R2D2 saves the day yet again but is still generally ignored and unappreciated. And Chewie's still the dog. ANH, on the other hand (no reference intended to Luke's prosthetic-enabled condition), ends on just about as high a note as you can get: Luke's found his place in the universe, Leia is free from Imperial imprisonment, Han & Chewie (okay, probably mostly just Han) are rich, the droids are shiny, and the galaxy has been saved from the terror of the Death Star. Best of all, they have fulfilled their road trip reason for existence: they have successfully transported the goods (R2) from point A (Tatootine) to point B (the Rebel headquarters in lieu of Alderaan). What more could you ask for in a road movie?


Honourable Mentions:

The Fountain - at least 1/3 of it is a road movie (getting to that star) anyway.

Macross - forget fighting the Zentradi, it's all about driving the SDF1 home.

Fanboys - not an SF film itself, rather it's about people who love SF. Great road movie.

Red Dwarf - not a movie, but a TV show that's all about cruising across the galaxy to get home.

Doctor Who (some episodes anyway) - again, a TV show, not a movie (although some movies have been made) taking a trip from one place to another and getting into trouble along the way. The problem is there's very little emphasis on the trip and a lot on the stuff that happens along the way.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - lots of on-the-road, but only very loose direction.

belated addition:
Damnation Alley - how could I have forgot? Landmasters - the winnebagos of SF road-tripping!
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