Josh Shaffer’s 7 of the Best: A Fantasy And Sci-Fi Smorgasbord
Written by Josh Shaffer
Hello there, fellow film nerds! This is Josh Shaffer – registered nurse, writer, voice actor, and per diem superhero. Choosing seven of the best films is akin to naming seven of the best slices of pizza (we all know that even the worst ones are still pretty good.) Nonetheless, I shall proceed. Hope you enjoy, and please feel free to respond with agreements, criticisms, and inevitable trollings.
Can anyone deny the genius of Guillermo Del Toro? I mean, every artist marches to the beat of their own drum, but the attention to detail and exquisite visual beauty on display results in a brilliantly unique rhythm and style. Pan’s Labyrinth is his reigning champion. Combining soft and earthy colors, textures, and stunning imagination, Del Toro tells an incredible tale of courage and sacrifice which seamlessly blends a world of fantasy with the horrific reality of Spain during WWII. There are plenty of impressive scenes, including the quest involving the gigantic toad, the terrifying monster with eyes in its hands, and a pure evil which inhabits not a magical creature but a human architect of war.
Star Trek 2 – The Wrath of Khan
“I have been, and always will be…” Are your eyes welling up? I can’t even think about that classic line without getting all teary. (It’s right up there with Mickey’s death scene in Rocky III.) Now, visual effects have come a long way since Khan made its debut, but that battle sequence between hero and villain still impresses. And what’s equally memorable (for better or for worse) are Khan’s Ceti eels and Paul Winfield‘s disintegration. Great pacing, intriguing evolutionary theories, and solid performances seal the deal. For Trekkies seeking a little extra background, check out his son’s documentary, “For the Love of Spock.” Nimoy wanted out after the first film, but was finally persuaded when he was promised he would have “the greatest death scene in motion pictures.” It sure as hell ranks up there!
Star Trek 4 – The Journey Home
To this day, I can’t decide which is more amusing – Kirk’s reaction when he takes a sip of beer, or his suggestion that Spock’s eccentric personality is a result of too much “LSD.” Then again, there’s also McCoy describing dialysis therapy as “the dark ages,” and Spock’s fascination with earthling profanity. This Trek is nothing short of wonderful with its tribute to “fish out of water” plotting, witty dialogue, and a strong environmental message. Some loyalists regard its generous dose of humor as pandering, since the film is just as enjoyable for non-Trekkies, but they’re in the minority. It’s fun, plain and simple. Try and say “nuclear wessel” without laughing. Leonard Nimoy’s work as a director is seriously underrated and deserves recognition. Oh, and the Vulcan nerve pinch on the bus is hilarious.
The Dark Crystal
J.J Abrams must have been inspired by this odd, sometimes frightening, and always inspiring piece by Jim Henson and Frank Oz. The themes are hardly original (good versus evil, the last of a species on a perilous quest) and many believe the film is a muppet tribute to Lord of the Rings. But much like Abrams, Henson and Oz took the source material and made it their own without disrespecting the original themes. The sets are amazing, and the voice work is phenomenal. What’s truly impressive is the labor involved with each character’s design. To this day, the garthim are seriously creepy even with the knowledge there was a guy under there hopping and twisting around. Fizzgig provides dog-like charm, Aughra is Yoda-esque with her knowledge and sarcasm, and the zen-like mystics are lovable. But the real credit goes to the designers and puppeteers behind the withered, craggly, snarling skeksis; all repulsive and yet each unique in appearance and mindset. The fact that a prequel series is in the works speaks volumes about its longevity. A must-see for lovers of classic effects and puppetry.
Terminator 2 – Judgment Day
Much of this film’s acclaim is focused on the deservedly award-winning effects and spectacular action sequences. But within its harsh exterior beats a strong theme of motherly love and bravery, the importance of trust and bonding, and the timeless, passionate message of hope for humanity. My favorite sequences are the T-1000 creeping up from the checkerboard floor, the head-split shotgun blast in the elevator, the helicopter chase sequence, and the T-800 defeating the police without taking a single life. Everyone enjoys the awesome explosions, morphing metal, great catchphrases, and well-timed humor. But Sarah Connor‘s final line represents the film’s true theme. But you know what confuses me to this day? Kyle Reese in the first Terminator. He goes back in time to save Sarah Connor so she can get pregnant with humanity’s savior, but Kyle does the impregnating. How was she pregnant with John Connor before Kyle went back in time? Did he do it as an excuse to knock Sarah up twice? Me confused.
The Star Wars Trilogy
George Lucas was just a kid when he put pen to paper and approached studio execs for funding. These execs were so convinced A New Hope would bomb, they granted him 100% of all creative licensing. With the exception of Jaws, Lucas set the standard for blockbusters. Star Wars remains unchallenged in sci-fi imagination, special effects, and a sense of wonder.
Fast forward forty years and what we essentially have is a mixed blessing. Yes, Lucas deserves tons of respect and admiration for many accomplishments, from ILM to donating his Disney buyout cash to public education. But the prequels were pretty lame (with the exception of Revenge of the Sith), much in part due to the fact that Lucas has become such a cinematic titan that much of his creative input these days goes unchallenged (Jar-Jar et al.) Others describe the Star Wars as an outer space Akira Kurosawa film, which calls into question the originality of the films. Regardless, much like my earlier pizza reference, even the worst Star Wars is still somewhat enjoyable. But I strongly believe we should respect our elders, which is why I conclude with….
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Again, George Lucas is a genius and Star Wars is great, but did Lucas create his own language? J.R.R. Tolkien did, and his work predates Lucas by almost thirty years. The Lord of the Rings is in my estimation the ultimate fantasy war epic, which covers every base of the classic “good versus evil” theme, and Peter Jackson accomplished what most filmmakers would not even consider attempting: filming all three chapters simultaneously. The battle sequences are brilliantly executed and could actually serve as a separate movie if combined, but it’s the heart and soul of the heroes valiantly defying the evil of Sauron‘s orcs, goblins, and corrupt men which make the story so solid. Frodo and Bilbo’s suffering, Sam’s heroics, Merry and Pippin‘s sibling bond, and the eternal love between Arwen and Aragorn are as thrilling as every arrow launched or spell cast. The mistrust between Legolas and Gimli which eventually transitions into strong friendship is equally memorable. The pitiful Gollum‘s split personality is actually relatable since all of us have given in to temptation or been betrayed on some level. Much respect given to the ents, oliphants, and many other creatures that bring Middle Earth to life. The trilogy is a powerful, incredibly detailed, and loving tribute to Tolkien’s work, and this is why it has earned my number one spot.
Honorable Mention: Guardians of the Galaxy
Firstly, GOTG is considered by many to be a contemporary version of Star Wars, and it’s a fair assessment. After all, it focuses on a bunch of ragtag rogues with strong personalities who must put aside their differences to save the galaxy from pure evil.
Secondly, have you ever noticed that Drax the Destroyer is pretty much a big, gray Gimli? In the source material, both of these characters are complex, brooding, and very powerful (but in the movies they’ve both been reduced to comic relief.)
Hope you enjoyed my piece, and I look forward to hearing from you!