Everyone has their own opinion on what the best science fiction movies of all time are. Names like The Empire Strikes Back, Blade Runner, 2001, and The Wrath of Khan get thrown around as people debate the merits of these sweeping interstellar epics full of love, war, betrayal, friendship, and intense meditations on the human condition. But greatness gets boring after a while. After all, sci-fi isn’t the most fitting genre for self-serious emotional studies, and sometimes, unadulterated cheesiness wins the day. As the legendary science fiction critic Theodore Sturgeon once put it, ninety percent of everything is crap, including sci-fi–but there’s bad sci-fi, and then there’s inspiringly bad sci-fi, the kind of unintentionally funny comic masterpieces that will live forever.
Plan Nine from Outer Space
There’s no questioning that Ed Wood is the number-one hero to all aficionados of bad cinema. The mustachioed, angora-obsessed former Marine made movies that are consistently counted among the worst of all time, and Plan Nine is easily the most horrifically bad of his work. Wood had the good luck of being friends with giant Swedish pro wrestler Tor Johnson, 50s camp-horror icon Maila “Vampira” Nurmi, and Bela “Yes, as in Dracula” Lugosi, whom he recruited to star in his story of aliens raising a zombie army to stop nuclear war. Besides containing some of the most implausible technobabble ever committed to celluloid (the corpses are returned to life by, uh, stimulating their pineal glands), the flying saucers were literally pie plates suspended by visible string, and when Bela Lugosi died mid-filming Wood hired his wife’s chiropractor as a stand-in. Since the man looked nothing like Lugosi, Wood remedied the problem by having the character hold his cape in front of his face in all further scenes. The creation of Plan Nine forms the latter part of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood biopic, which memorably features Martin Landau as the ailing Lugosi.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
It’s easy to forget, once you’re in the thick of the bizarrely catchy songs, embarrassed early-career appearances by Susan Sarandon and a fabulously costumed and boyishly thin Tim Curry, and laughably cheap production values, but Richard O’Brien’s raunchy film musical is actually a sci-fi sendup. This was sort of a hard inclusion because at least some of the badness here was intentional, but in the end it seemed obligatory to put such a perfect example on a list like this. Rocky Horror is the story of a newlywed couple and their former science teacher falling in with a bisexual transvestite alien mad scientist and his quest to artificially create the perfect man (with blond hair and a tan), and it’s actually weirder than that sounds. Full of gratuitous violence, incest, cannibalism, kinky sex, overly long elevator scenes, and Meat Loaf, this is the movie so bad that people have been coming to see it in theaters for 40 years just so they can make fun of it.
Perhaps the only monster movie that Communist North Korea’s state-controlled film studios ever produced, the story of the production of this melodramatic kaiju saga is just as full of blazing lunacy as the movie itself. The late dictator Kim Jong-Il, so the story goes, was a big fan of the Godzilla movies and wanted to make his own. The logical course of action was naturally to have a prominent South Korean filmmaker named Shin Sang-ok and his estranged wife Choi Eun-hee kidnapped and force them to respectively direct and star in the nutty monster flick. All in all, Shin and Choi had to make seven films for the North Korean government, of which this one is the most notable for its overly earnest fever dream of a plot, in which a blacksmith makes a metal-eating rice monster and animates it with a drop of his daughter’s blood in order to overthrow a corrupt king. Toho Studios, the creators of the actual Godzilla, assisted with the special effects on Shin’s request, and stuntman/guy-in-the-Godzilla-suit Kenpachiro Satsuma once jested that Pulgasari was at least better than the 1998 American-made Godzilla.
Starcrash Beyond the Third Dimension
This Italian film, intended as a Star Wars ripoff, wound up becoming so, so much more than that thanks to its baffling production decisions. It has many names in its English dubbed form but was originally known as “Scontri stellari oltre la terza dimensione” and stars former child preacher Marjoe Gortner as a Jedi with the serial numbers filed off, David Hasselhoff as a space prince, and Oscar, Emmy, and Tony-winner Christopher freaking Plummer as the benevolent Emperor of the Universe. The flick had a $4 million budget, and judging by how bad the special effects look $3.9 million of that must have gone towards getting Plummer drunk enough on Italian wine to agree to act in this insane movie. There’s plenty of wooden dialogue, plot points that appear and disappear out of nowhere, a giant robot Amazon woman that tries to kill our heroes with a thrown sword, and the main villain’s spaceship is shaped like a giant hand that clenches into a fist when he gets angry. Did I mention the ending is predicated on the Emperor’s suddenly revealed ability to stop time, and that Plummer said years later that he was proud of his work and thought the Emperor was a great role?
The Final Sacrifice
Let’s say you’re a Canadian film student with the third-rate-Star-Trek-character-like name of Tjardus Gredianus. You want to make an Indiana Jones-inspired sci-fi epic for your senior project, but have no money, sets, props, or trained actors. Thankfully you’re friends with the wimpiest-looking young man on the planet, a ginger-haired hobo-looking male nurse, a lady who looks like George Costanza’s mom, and a James Earl Jones-voiced dark-haired gent with a massive jaw, all of whom apparently own bafflingly bad cars. As the hosts of Comedy Central’s classic show Mystery Science Theater 3000 put it, this is, “if one can measure these things, the worst thing ever to come out of Canada.” (It was a pre-Justin Bieber and pre-Rob Ford era.) It’s the story of a deeply unlikeable boy who follows the trail of his deceased archaeologist father (who’s a dead ringer for football great Larry Csonka) with the help of drunk, stupidly-named drifter Zapp Rowsdower and his terrible pickup truck and uncovers an ancient space cult (or something like that) led by booming-voiced snappy dresser Satoris. Many bombastic pronouncements, dumb plot twists, and low-speed chases ensue, culminating in a facepalm-worthy ending eerily foreshadowing that of the real fourth Indiana Jones movie.