Science fiction has a rough reputation for being written off as escapist entertainment and as such has always struggled with being taken seriously. But what’s so great about being taken seriously, anyway? Science fiction can be wonderful escapist entertainment and is occasionally at its best when not being serious. Comedy can be a close friend to sci-fi, and some films which have combined comedy with science fiction have often gone on to be some of the most beloved and watched movies in cultural memory.
Here are 10 of the greatest comedic science fiction films according to me. Like comedy itself, this list is by no means comprehensive, nor objective.
10. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
Though derided for its deviation from the Douglas Adams book, this version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy attempted to do the impossible: turn a very funny book with thin-ish characters into a movie which a mainstream audience could get invested in. Though I personally feel the movie falls apart once the plot really becomes different than the novel, the first 45 minutes of this film are delightful. Martin Freeman was and still is the obvious choice for Arthur Dent, Mos Def is charming as Ford Prefect, and Sam Rockwell is out-of-control funny as Zaphod Beeblebrox. You can be a snob about the source material changes all you want, but if you aren’t smiling at some point in this film, you’re just being unhappy on purpose. On a side note: it can’t be an accident that both Alan Rickman and Sam Rockwell are in this movie, and are equally funny in Galaxy Quest.
Best line: “Curiously the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias, as it fell, was, ‘Oh no, not again.’ Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now.”
9. Batman (1966)
The 1960s Batman TV show was intentionally written as a comedy. If that offends Batman “purists” then so be it. But in the same way George Lazenby played James Bond and Colin Baker played the Doctor, Adam West is Batman too. Deal with it.
But why does this version of Batman deserve to be on a list of comedic science fiction movies? Well, most of the conflicts in this movie are derived from science fiction tropes. The major Gotham City villains team up in order to use a special ray gun on the all the representatives from the United Nations. The Penguin has an outrageous submarine. Batman uses something called Bat-Shark-Repellent. Most everything in the utility belt is some kind of sci-fi gizmo. So, I’m pretty sure it’s science fiction.
The movie holds up as being super funny if you can accept that it’s intentionally trying to be tongue-in-cheek. This brand of humor is certainly not for everyone, but there’s never really been anything quite like it, and there never will be again.
Best line: “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.”
8. Young Frankenstein (1974)
We’re you expecting Spaceballs? Sorry, but Young Frankenstein is Mel Brooks’ best contribution to comedic science fiction. The original novel Frankenstein was so formative to the existence of science fiction to begin with, that the notion of doing a comedy version of it was begging to happen for ages. Yes, Abbott and Costello met Frankenstein, but Mel Brooks did it better. From Gene Wilder to Madeline Kahn, to Gene Hackman to Teri Garr you can’t ask for a better cast. Marty Feldman’s “Igor” probably did more to solidify the notion of the hunchback character more than any other adaptation. (Recall the character is actually named “Fritz” in the 1931 movie.) All in all, the gags are great, the writing is spot on and you can watch this movie a billion times and laugh at something new upon each viewing.
Best Line: [In reference to Igor’s hump] “Didn’t you use to have that on the other side?”
7. Sleeper (1973)
Woody Allen’s dystopian slapstick is notable for a lot of reasons, but in terms of science fiction milestones it carries an interesting distinction. Prior to Sleeper there hadn’t been a large, mainstream film which actually explored the concept of cloning. In fact, there’s a long sequence in the movie explaining what cloning is in order to set up the conflict which occupies the latter half of the film. But beyond this, Sleeper is an odd mix of a Buck Rogers and 1984. A man from the past wakes up in the future to find a Big Brother-style figure controlling everything. Sleeper isn’t exactly a spoof of either Buck Rogers or 1984, but instead a science fiction environment designed for Woody Allen to tell jokes with a slightly different flavor than he had before.
The slapstick element of Sleeper also helps to elevate it out of the realm of simply mocking other dystopian SF concepts. Visually, Sleeper has a lot in common with the film version of Logan’s Run, which came out three years later. But Sleeper won the Hugo. Logan’s Run didn’t.
Best line: “Look, you gotta be kidding. I wanna go back to sleep! If I don’t get at least 600 years, I’m grouchy all day.”
6. Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Movie (1996)
Is this fair to include this one on the list? Is this sort of like when Return of the King won the Oscar for best picture even though everyone knew it was representative of the whole series? Possibly. But I know it would be unfair to list comedic science fiction films without including a mention of MST3K. Yes, most of their comedy in both the show and this film relies on mocking existing genre films, but the style which they did it was groundbreaking and wonderful. The movie they watch in this one, This Island Earth, is chock full of so much iconic SF imagery that it’s almost like a two-for-one deal. If you’ve never had the pleasure of hanging out with Mike (or Joel) Tom Servo, Crow, and Gypsy, this is a great place to start.
Best line: “Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of Babylon 5.”
5. Galaxy Quest (1999)
Star Trek changed everything, not just the way science fiction in TV and film was written, but also the way fan communities were perceived. We can’t conceive of the basic structure of most space adventure shows without thinking of the Star Trek model. But what if real-life aliens saw Star Trek and thought it was totally real? What if those aliens then created a starship and visited us in our said fictional spaceship? This is the wonderful and brilliant premise of Galaxy Quest. More than a Star Trek spoof, Galaxy Quest is an original, hilarious science fiction premise, which leans heavily on the culture of sci-fi fans who love Star Trek. But, the movie is great because it has its own internal fictional universe, which is unique and also inherently funny. Though a mostly irritating and forgettable actor; Tim Allen gives the performance of his life here, and is the perfect homage to a Shatner-esque dumpy action hero. With Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver and Sam Rockwell along for the ride, you really can’t help but grinning from the first scene of this film.
Best line: “What is this thing? I mean, it serves no useful purpose for there to be a bunch of chompy, crushy things in the middle of a hallway. No, I mean we shouldn’t have to do this, it makes no logical sense, why is it here?”
4. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Prior to the release of the J.J. Abrams reboot, this Trek film was the most successful at the box office (when adjusted for inflation.) Yes, the Star Trek movie with the whales and the crew hanging out in 1986 San Francisco made the most money. And that’s because, in some ways, it is the best Star Trek movie. The original series relied heavily on humor, so much so that most episodes actually end with everyone yucking it up on the bridge of the Enterprise.
The dynamic between Kirk and Spock is truly perfect for comedy insofar as you’ve got a straight man and goof ball. But which one is which? It depends because at this point Kirk and Spock are actually fairly complicated characters. And in this story, they’re also fish out of water. Bones and the rest of the cast are great. Outside of “the big three” most of them never had much to do in previous Trek adventures. So, in this one Chekov, Sulu, Scotty, and Uhura get to do what it turns out they do best: be funny. (Though Uhura was arguably the most funny character in Star Trek III with her “get in the closet” bit.)
Best line: “No, I’m from Iowa. I only work in outer space.”
3. Back to the Future (1985)
Though the subsequent sequels are extremely entertaining, nothing can quite match the purity of this movie. The premise of going back in time and preventing your parents from meeting, thus putting your existence in jeopardy is funny enough on its own. But, then you’ve got to consider the snappy dialogue, hilarious performances, and speedy direction. The movie is highly watchable because it’s an adventure, but it’s touching and heartwarming because it’s hilarious. I always like the paradoxical references to existing science fiction inside of this film. The fact that George McFly becomes a science fiction writer, and his belief in the fantastic is what forces him to actually ask Lorraine out to the dance is the ultimate tribute to genre fans. But the jokes throughout are beautifully structured and would be funny in any context.
Best line: “Lorraine. My density has popped me to you.”
2. The Absent-Minded Professor (1961)
It might be hard to remember now, but the science fiction substance “flubber” was not invented by Robin Williams, instead it was Fred MacMurray’s portrayal Professor Ned Brainard. Don’t bother with the sequels or the colorized version of this one; instead watch the black and white original. It may seem clunky today, but when you get to the sequence where Brainard causes his Model-T to fly, you’ll see the origins of science fiction comedy. Even the sound-effect the flubber emits is funny. This movie deserves more respect and praise than it gets. It’s like a Twilight Zone premise turned into a slapstick film with a touch of romance.
Best line: The sound the flubber makes.
1. Ghostbusters (1984)
The primary reason why Ghostbusters works as a comedy is mostly because on paper, it shouldn’t. There are multiple premises, a lot of characters, confusing jargon and a bizarre climax which isn’t exactly earned by the set-up. But the originality of the concept, the aesthetic of the film, and the perfect performances from every single member of the cast make it a movie that is not only greater than the sum of it’s parts, but also a movie with parts which are pretty great. Making the Ghostbusters into guys who are slightly insane hacks at the beginning of the movie who lose their dubious grant from Columbia already puts the movie in interesting territory. Do we know anyone like this? Could these people even exist?
Why an abandoned firehouse? Why a hearse? Why a giant fictional marshmallow man? The answer in every single case seems to be: because it’s funny. Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray obviously keep the heart of this film going, but without everyone else, the universe of the movie would cease to be real, and oddly not as funny. Ghostbusters is one of the strangest movies ever because the stakes feel pretty real, and the audience if always concerned as to what is happening. And yet, some of the tension of the movie is built by an unending, relentless supply of jokes. As the movie gets funnier, the audience gets closer to the edge of their seat. Find me a person who doesn’t like Ghostbusters and I’ll show you an emotionless robot.
Best line: “Back off, man. I’m a scientist.”
The reasons Spaceballs was left off the list:
What, no Spaceballs you ask? Yeah, no Spaceballs. I like Mel Brooks, but I have to say Spaceballs just doesn’t do it for me because the humor in it is too referential. It relies on the zeitgeist of the time (Star Wars fever), and it doesn’t do anything more than lampoon. I’m not saying Spaceballs isn’t very funny in some areas, I just don’t find it to be overall clever or original. Galaxy Quest is a spoof too, but because it’s meta-fiction and uses a science fiction premise to justify its jokes, it’s light years smarter than Spaceballs. But wait, didn’t I include Young Frankenstein which is ALSO a spoof of a famous SF thing? Yes, but Young Frankenstein is funnier in every single way. I find Spaceballs to be a little pandering, coat-tailing on a trend. It’s like a live-action Mad Magazine send-up. Young Frankenstein feels more classic, Spaceballs feels like a “me too.” Spaceballs is funny, but not good. Lightsaber penis jokes? The word “balls” in the title? Really?
Now dear readers, I know I left off Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, and a bevy of other funny favorites. So go ahead, tell me which ones you like, and which ones you’ dont and which ones would be on your list!