Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in 'Sleeper'

Last weekend we were inundated with new comedies at the multiplex -- Lottery Ticket, The Switch,and Vampires Suck -- ranging in quality from mediocre (the first two) to genuinely rank (the latter). I suspect that most of our readers gravitated towards Piranha 3D, which was so over the top that it provoked plenty of laughter. In any event, it inspired me to compile a list of the best sci-fi comedies ever made.

Smooshing together the two genres requires: (1) that the filmmakers treasure and appreciate science fiction, (2) that the filmmakers understand how well sci-fi lends itself to humor, and (3) that the filmmakers have a sense of humor about themselves. The filmmakers also need a keen sense of balance, or else you end up with a lumbering mess like Ivan Reitman's Evolution. Here are ten that got it right.

1. Sleeper
Woody Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman transfer mild-mannered Miles Monroe to the future, and set the neurotic Jew loose to explore. Allen had been played the same basic character for years, first in his stand-up routine and then in his "early, funny" films (Take the Money and Run, Bananas, Every Thing You Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask), so America 200 years in the future provided a fresh setting and allowed Allen to rain down commentary about the inanities of urban living in 1973. Add to that great production design by Dale Hennesy, costumes designed by future director Joel Schumacher, and the delights of the ditzy Diane Keaton. Sleeper was also Allen's love letter to the great silent comedians, and the best bits are nearly all visual gags.
2. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
The only question mark: Is this movie really science fiction? I'd answer yes, because it portrays a nightmare scenario that can't possibly come true. Or can it? The documentary-style sequences -- the flight of the death-dealing aircraft, the invasion of an Army base -- are unnerving precisely because they stand in such stark contrast to the wickedly funny War Room discussions.

3. Save the Green Planet!
Crazy and very, very dark, this Korean entry is worth seeking out. A beekeeper kidnaps a businessman, believing him to be an alien in disguise, and tortures him in an attempt to call off an alien invasion. It's much funnier, and more touching, than it sounds.

4. Spaceballs
Admittedly, Mel Brooks was a few years late to the game with his sci-fi comedy, but to my mind it was worth the wait. I remember well watching this movie with a good friend -- who'd seen Star Wars 37 times in theaters -- on a Saturday afternoon, laughing our heads off. Rick Moranis as Lord Dark Helmet, Joan Rivers as the voice of the robotic Dot Matrix, and John Candy as Barf the Mawg are my favorites. "May the Schwartz be with you."

5. A Boy and His Dog
As far as black dystopian comedies go, you can't go any darker than the source material, a novella by Harlan Ellison. The movie version, directed by L.Q. Jones, changes things up a bit to make it a rousing, enjoyable adventure, though still with an acid tongue and a bleak vision of the future.

6. Galaxy Quest
This feel-good entry falls this low in the Top Ten only because of its gentleness. It's so kind that it misses almost as many opportunities as it embraces. Still, blunted edges and all, it's a loving tribute to Star Trek and sci-fi fandom itself.

7. Dark Star
John Carpenter and friends made this for a few dollars and it shows. A beach ball masquerading as an alien? Yup. Yet the same goofy aesthetic that would inform all their later work is present here, in unadulterated form, as simple an expression of movie love, combined with a sincere appreciation for the endless wonder of science fiction, that you'll ever find.

8. Mars Attacks!
When I first saw this, I thought the tone was all over the place, but repeat viewings have convinced me to embrace the "trading cards come to life" and the gleeful audacity of A-list actors giving their B-level best. Plus Tom Jones and Jim freakin' Brown! The mere thought of the aliens and their ray-guns and head exploding inside their bubble helmets make me smile.

9. Amazon Women on the Moon
It's not as funny as it thinks it is, but the multi-episode, blackout sketches and extended sequences do work in fits and starts, and the effort is much appreciated.

10. Night of the Creeps / Slither / Undead
These three come together to represent all the "weird alien lands on Earth and inhabits the bodies of humans and man is it icky" sub-genre of science fiction, with the bonus that they're all, in different ways, take-offs on 50s movie tropes.

categories Sci-Fi