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Monday, August 18, 2008

Funny Futures (originally published 5/05)

Science fiction has traditionally been the literature of wonder and imagination, designed to appeal to our sense of awe at the marvels the future might hold. Motion pictures and television play into this sense of the fantastic exceptionally well, using special effects technology to show us what it might be like to float in the rings of Saturn or to navigate a spacecraft deftly through an asteroid belt.

Occasionally, however, science fiction cinema lets its hair down, choosing to appeal more to our sense of humor than to our sense of wonder. That's the idea behind "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," a newly-released big-screen adaptation of the popular BBC radio series by Douglas Adams. The idea of turning a science fiction premise on its ear for a laugh is fun, but by no means new. To see how earlier films have played such material for comedy, look for these titles on home video.

"Sleeper" (1973). Woody Allen's science fiction variation on the Rip Van Winkle theme finds health food store owner Miles Munroe (Allen) being roused from two centuries of cryogenically frozen slumber into a brave new world. Allen uses this premise to satirize everything from fast food to Howard Cosell. This practice of using an alternate world to ridicule the real world is one of the traditional hallmarks of good science fiction and fantasy, going all the way back to "Gulliver's Travels." Reproduced below is the original promotional trailer for "Sleeper," courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

"Dark Star" (1974). Before he hit it big with "Halloween" (1978), John Carpenter was just another aspiring filmmaker looking for a way to catch the eye of studio executives. He did it with this student film, a parody of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). With some modest funding from a small distributor he was able to expand his original short subject into a low budget feature. The production values are minimal, to be sure, but the story of a bored crew of astronauts on an extended mission is funny and imaginative.

"The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension" (1984). This astonishing picture landed with a thud at the box office when it was originally released, due in part to the fact that the studio simply had no idea how to promote it. It's a one of a kind original that defies attempts at synopsis or pigeonholing. Peter Weller stars as Buckaroo Banzai, a kind of latter day Doc Savage who is, among other things, a skilled neurosurgeon, particle physicist, and rock musician, and who represents the best hope of Earth in the face of an alien invasion from the eighth dimension. Earl MacRauch's script crackles with wit while playfully challenging the viewer to keep up. Since its initial box office failure, this quirky comedy has become a revered cult classic, with a following every bit as devoted as the famously rabid fans of "Star Trek."

"Repo Man" (1984). The Orwellian year of 1984 produced one other enduring science fiction comedy cult classic, this one from the delightfully demented mind of writer-director Alex Cox. The setup is straightforward enough: a Los Angeles slacker named Otto (Emilio Estevez) falls in with an automobile repossession man (Harry Dean Stanton) and becomes his protégé. The story takes a bizarre left turn into the realm of science fiction when the two repo men join the hunt for a very special 1964 Chevy Malibu, for which a $20,000 reward is being offered. What makes the Malibu special is that it is being driven by a mad scientist who has the bodies of three aliens stashed in the trunk. Unfortunately, the bodies are highly radioactive, causing anyone who is foolish enough to open the trunk to be vaporized on the spot by the intense radiation. As Allen did in "Sleeper," Cox uses the lens of science fiction to satirize human folly, from religious cults to UFO cults.

Ironically, each of these futuristic films can now be obtained on a small silver disc, playable through a TV or, with the appropriate hardware, through a computer monitor. A couple of them are available in "special edition" formats, including alternate versions and/or commentary by the filmmakers. History, it seems, has overtaken science fiction. In many ways, we're living in the future that science fiction warned us about. And that in itself is pretty funny.

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