The Irony of Negative Reviews: Creating SF Cult Classics
Guest blogger John L. Flynn, Ph.D.
What do “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), “Blade Runner” (1982), “This Island Earth” (1955), “Invaders from Mars” (1953), “The Abyss” (1989), “Snowpiercer” (2013), “Tenet” (2020), and “Battlefield Earth” (2000) all share in common? Each film showcases the innovative genius and groundbreaking strides of special effects technicians working in the industry at the time when the films were released. Each film draws upon a single literary source or a plethora of sources to tell compelling stories that transcend the pulp origins of the genre. Each of these classic science fiction movies was panned universally by critics when they first opened in theaters. In the case of films which were released only a few years ago, or even just last year (like “Tenet”), the delicious irony is that, despite the strongly negative and often hostile reviews, each has gained a considerable reputation in the ensuing years, and they are all recognized as the most influential science fiction films of their day. In the case of “Battlefield Earth,” a film unjustly harangued by critics in 2000, the passage of twenty-one years has begun to move the needle towards “respectability,” as well as assigned it cult movie status. Critics who were initially disparaging about the budget have begun to reassess their opinions of the Roger Christian film, giving him props for making such an expensive-looking film with the creative genius of his production team. The movie looks like it was made by an A-list studio despite its modest budget. Even the late Roger Ebert, who won a Pulitzer for his film criticism, had a change of thought, suggesting that “Battlefield Earth” would eventually join the ranks of those other, largely misunderstood works of true genius.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) is regarded as one of the finest, most influential science fiction films of all time and was listed at Number 22 among the 100 Best American Movies by the American Film Institute. However, when it premiered in Washington, D.C., on April 2, 1968, most film critics found the movie slow-moving, dull, and completely bereft of a discernable plot. For some reason, their unfavorable reviews were particularly vitriolic, as if the majority of critics had somehow been personally offended or duped by auteur Stanley Kubrick with his artistic rendering of the year 2001. Renata Adler in The New York Times said that “the movie is so completely absorbed in its own problems…that it is somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring.” Judith Christ writing in New York suggested that “2001” be “cut in half” in order to “preclude our wondering why exactly Kubrick has brought us into outer space.” Variety remarked the film was “big, beautiful, but plodding and confusing.” Even science fiction author Lester del Rey stated the film was a “disaster” and likely to “set major science fiction movie-making back another ten years.” Science fiction films in 1968 were represented by a few clever efforts, like Fox’s “Planet of the Apes” or AIP’s “Wild in the Streets,” but mostly they were low budget quickies like “The Green Slime,” “Mission Mars,” “The Illustrated Man,” and “Night of the Living Dead.” Quite simply, the critics had never been exposed to a truly literate work of science fiction and found it difficult, according to Kubrik, to confront “the grandeur of space and the myriad mysteries of cosmic intelligence anathema.” Okay, so what has happened? The film itself hasn’t changed; no additional footage was added, and the special effects are still the same; the answer is simple. Today, audiences are far more intelligent and have come to regard “2001” as a masterpiece of cinematic science fiction because they themselves have grown up, become more sophisticated, and can now—only now—appreciate the kind of thought processes that went into making such a great film.
Little Regarded Movies
Little regarded at the time when they were released, both “Invaders from Mars” (1953) and “This Island Earth” (1955) have gradually acquired a cult following among science fiction fans that recognize the virtues of each production. In the early 1950s, science fiction films were plentiful and ranged in quality from A-list productions like “Destination Moon” (1950) and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) to B-list pictures like “Rocketship X-M” (1950) and “The Man From Planet X” (1951). The A-list productions were greeted with great fanfare and survived or perished based upon critical reaction; B-list pictures were almost always treated with contempt and relegated to double-feature status at the drive-ins. Moviegoers and critics alike often took for granted that big studio productions were somehow better than low-budget ones. So, when National Pictures’ “Invaders from Mars” attempted to attract the same audience as Paramount’s “The War of the Worlds,” critical reaction to the film was strongly negative. The New York Times called it “a funny-book, full of impossible action and childish imaginings,” while Films in Review simply referred to it as a “much inferior copy of ‘The War of the Worlds.’” Similarly, “This Island Earth” was also not warmly received; in fact, critics bashed the Universal production for trying to be something more than a B-grade space opera. They lumped the imaginative and groundbreaking film into a category that included other low-budget, clearly inferior Universal productions like “Tarantula” and “Revenge of the Creature.” A few months later, when the great “Forbidden Planet” (1956) debuted, “This Island Earth” was long since forgotten. In an era before DVRs, Blu-Ray discs, and the various streaming services we take for granted today, it would take science fiction fans years to discover the truly remarkable and imaginative quality of both films on the late-late show.
Naysaying and Sarcasm
Naysaying and sarcasm greeted both “Blade Runner” (1982) and “The Abyss” (1989) when they were initially released, but in retrospect, both films have garnered great praise and established a cult following among science fiction fans that are almost the most loyal and vocal in the Hollywood community. Directors Ridley Scott and James Cameron had made their reputations making smaller budget films look like A-list productions, and few critics or moviegoers will dispute the impact of Scott’s “Alien” (1979) or Cameron’s “The Terminator” (1984) on the genre of science fiction films. Yet when “Alien” was first released, The Washington Post announced, “If you think you would be thrilled and horrified and excited by seeing a particularly vicious order of seafood, you could go to the space’n’horror film ‘Alien.’ ” And when “Blade Runner” and “The Abyss” appeared in 1982 and 1989, respectively, both films were not only panned but strongly negated by the critics. Janet Maslin in The New York Times wrote that “Blade Runner” was a “muddled…gruesome…mess.” People magazine called it “a slothful movie, dim both literally and figuratively…. Better you should go down to your local foreign car garage and watch them repair a Porsche, if you want to see something really exotic.” Sheila Benson referred to the film as “blade crawler” in the LA Times, and Pat Berman in a Southern review called it “SF pornography.” Roger Ebert gave it “a thumbs” down, explaining “the movie’s weakness is that it allows the special effects technology to overwhelm its story.” “The Abyss” was also savaged by critics. While many conceded the extraordinary special effects, all wrote hostile reviews. Leonard Maltin complained the film had a “couple of crises too many” and would have been better as “an underwater adventure than a sci-fi film.” David Chute wrote that the film was “meticulously crafted” but also decried that it was “ponderous and predictable.”
Ironically, both films later went on to win SF fandom’s Hugo awards for Best Dramatic Presentation, and both Ridley Scott and James Cameron have been given a chance to make other big blockbusters, including Scott’s “Prometheus” (2012) and “The Martian” (2015), and Cameron’s “Titanic” (1997) and “Avatar” (2009). Today, science fiction fans regard “Blade Runner” and “The Abyss” as high-water marks—among the most influential of the genre. In fact, this change in response to “Blade Runner” has resulted in the much-coveted green light from the studio for a big-budget sequel to “Blade Runner,” with Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford in the titular lead roles. Box office failures, like the original “Blade Runner,” rarely rate big-budget sequels unless critics have a change in thought and realize just how wrong they were when they wrote their initial reviews. “Blade Runner 2049” was indeed green-lighted, directed by Denis Villeneuve, and released in 2017, and faired better than Ridley Scott’s original, as did “2036: Nexus Dawn,” a six-minute short from Scott’s son Luke. Similarly, James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009) may have lost out from winning 2009’s Best Picture Academy Award, but with three to five sequels to “Avatar” on their way, Cameron will have multiple opportunities to cash-in at the box office and possibly take home his much deserved Oscar.
Media Targeting Movies
Page after page of newspaper, magazine, and Internet copy have also targeted films like “Star Wars” (1977), “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), “Contact” (1997), and “The Matrix” (1999). While these films did not suffer the indignity of a total barrage of negative reviews like “2001” and “Blade Runner,” many influential critics panned them nonetheless. The New Yorker claimed that “Star Wars” was “an epic without a dream…leaping comic book hedonism. Lucas has the tone of bad movies down pat; you never catch the actors deliberately acting badly; they just seem to be bad actors.” Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was labeled “pretentious” by the Toronto Globe and Mail, adding the film “is all flash with no flesh, so if you see it, park your disbelief in a snowbank along with your car.” The Washington Post called “Contact” “another Hollywood vehicle spinning aimlessly in space” with “so many creative black holes that you’ll have to weigh the entertainment odds before making this journey.” Even the wonderfully original and imaginative film, “The Matrix,” did not escape the wrath of the worldwide consortium of film critics. The Tampa Tribune wrote it was “tediously silly and way too long” and stated, “this defiantly deadening cyber-fantasy is too illogical to be science fiction, too dark to amuse photography buffs, and too dreary to entertain special-effects fanatics.” “Star Wars”…comic book hedonism? “CE3K”…pretentious? “The Matrix” tediously silly? While the critics’ words and phrases may well have greeted the premieres of our most famous science fiction films, they didn’t have much of an impact on the take at the box office, which was huge. Not all movies which become blockbusters are critic-proof.
SF and Political Satire
For example, critics of “Snowpiercer” (2013), an early effort by Director Bong Joon Ho, didn’t seem to understand the movie was meant as a political satire that subverts the expectations of Hollywood genre films and were very cynical about its themes. Why do you think Chris Evans, who was playing the all-American superhero Captain America in the Marvel films, was chosen to lead the revolution onboard the train “Snowpiercer”? But most critics totally missed Joon Ho’s social commentary. Science fiction has always employed subversive ideas to parody political and social themes. Similarly, Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” (2020) faired poorly at the box office, with critics calling it a “messy” film, full of ideas and amazingly-realized set pieces that still confound audiences with Nolan’s own notion of time travel. This critic saw the movie twice and even had the opportunity to run it backward, then start it anew through Nolan’s treatise on quantum physics and traveling in time, and I still don’t understand a word of it. Maybe, like Star Trek’s “gobbledygook,” in place of an actual explanation, it’s all just bullshit anyway, full of “sound and fury,” signifying “nothing.”
Prior to its release in 2000, “Battlefield Earth” was subjected to a similar barrage of bad publicity as the media speculated about every aspect of the film’s production, which was kept tight naturally under its own security. This tight security gave rise to every kind of falsehood and lie the media could imagine; most of it was not true, but the bad buzz made the production appear troubled to audiences at large. Well before “Battlefield Earth” was ever released, critics were lining up to cast negative aspersions on the film, using the ubiquitous medium of the Internet to write their hateful and largely anonymous reviews, based almost entirely on the unauthorized release of an early version of the script. The film simply did not deserve the vitriol. Most of the negative criticism ignored the true artistry of the production to focus on other, totally unrelated agendas, while other online critics used their fifteen minutes of fame to denigrate the involvement of superstar John Travolta in shepherding L. Ron Hubbard’s best-selling novel to the screen. They complained about Travolta injecting his own money into the production in order to complete a much-needed special effects sequence and totally ignored Roger Christian’s deft use of genre conventions to provide social commentary, as he saw it, and the whole notion of a self-serving upper class and its dominance over an ignorant servant class referred to as “man-animals.” For instance, Psychlo security chief Terl shows one of his men a photo of a dog riding in the back seat of a car and speculates the dog must be a member of a superior race because the human driving the car is acting like a chauffeur for the dog. There are satirical comments that should have been far more interesting than quibbling about the human’s use of “Harrier jets” in their battle against their alien captors. Given the limitations of his special effects budget, Christian cleverly substitutes off-the-shelf model kits of the “Harrier jet” for the Psychlo, single-stage craft in the climactic battle. In the original novel, humans learn how to fly the single-stage craft from the learning machine and steal several craft to fight against the Psychlos. The money just wasn’t there to film the air battle as written by L. Ron Hubbard, so Christian’s modest revision adds a level of suspense that may not have otherwise been there. When the “Harrier jets” appear in the skies and engage the Psychlo craft, you can’t help but feel exhilaration and cheer on the boys as they shoot down the enemy craft. All throughout the production, Roger makes good use of the film’s minimal budget and creates a world populated by fascinating characters, visually striking imagery of Earth under a 1000-year alien occupation, rich symbolism and satire, and a whole lot of old-fashioned action and fun.
When the actual movie was released—and science fiction fans had the opportunity to watch “Battlefield Earth” on the big screen, separate and apart from the media, the response was not nearly as bad as the early critics had made it out to be. Genre fans reacted positively to the movie, especially mentioning their enthusiastic response to the special effects and Roger Christian’s outstanding direction. George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino, and a whole contingent of Christian’s fellow filmmakers saw the movie and thought it was a great piece of science fiction. Reviews from many contemporary critics were equally positive. Bob Graham of the San Francisco Chronicle stated the film “effectively presented” the “wary, uncomprehending relationship between the humans and the Psychos.” Luke Thompson of the New Times LA suggested, “Think ‘Independence Day’ without the ponderous build-up or self-importance. Imagine how much more enjoyable the other blockbuster-of-the-moment, ‘Gladiator,’ might have been if Joaquin Phoenix had addressed every one of his rivals as ‘Rat brain.’” Berge Garabedian said in JoBlo’s Movie Reviews, “Despite starting off like a bad ‘Star Trek’ episode, this film eventually graduates to a higher level with great special effects, some really slick bad-ass aliens, an intriguing premise, and a good flow of loud campy fun.” Hap Erstein of The Palm Beach Post argued: “…production designer Patrick Tatopoulos contributes some good work, imagining the ruins of Denver and Washington, D.C., with echoes of ‘Planet of the Apes.’” In her fun and thoroughly-entertaining book I Love Geeks: The Official Handbook, Carrie Tucker was the first to call “Battlefield Earth” “a cult classic” which reflected Roger Christian’s goal to make the first “pulp science fiction” movie (akin to Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” 1994). Sadly, certain critics totally missed Christian’s send-up of “pulp science fiction,” but now have a chance to re-discover “Battlefield Earth,” along with science fiction fans, on this new, special Blu-Ray edition. It is only a matter of time before the film’s virtues emerge and it gains a huge cult following of its own.
Why Do Critics Write Negative Reviews of Creative Efforts?
So, just why do critics frequently write such negative reviews of genuinely creative efforts? Simply put, most film critics do not seem to understand science fiction films. They may be good in critiquing love stories, grading action-adventure films, or analyzing war movies, but time and again, film critics have proven they just don’t get the subtleties and complexities of the genre of science fiction. Clearly, it takes someone who knows science fiction as both a literary art form and a visual medium of constant change and experimentation to understand the cinema of the fantastic. The myriad of metaphors and mysteries in science fiction that raise important questions about the nature of man and his place in the universe are far more complex than those which ask whether Tom Hanks will fall in love with Meg Ryan or save the embattled Private Ryan before the end of the film. Even more mainstream efforts like Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) or Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), both of which incorporated elements of the fantastic into their complex storylines, seem to baffle most critics and require subsequent generations to discover their true worth. Thankfully, critics are frequently proven wrong. What would the world cinema be like without the imaginative efforts of “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “Blade Runner” or “Battlefield Earth”?
Gunden, Kenneth Von and Stuart H. Stock. Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films, New York: Arlington House, 1982.
Hardy, Phil. The Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1984
Sammon, Paul M. Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner: New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
John L. Flynn was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1954. He has a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree from the University of South Florida and a Ph.D. from Southern California University. John is a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America and the Mystery Writers of America and has written twenty books, countless articles, reviews, and short stories. His books include Future Prime: The Top 10 Science Fiction Films, Cinematic Vampires, Phantoms of the Opera, The Films of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Dissecting Aliens, among others. Flynn’s 20th book is a biography of Angelique Pettyjohn: The Sci-Fi Siren Who Dared Love Elvis and Other Stars. His reviews and commentaries about science fiction films have appeared in Starlog, Sci-Fi Universe, Cinescape, Media History Digest, SFMovieland, Retrovision, SFTV, Enterprise, and The Annapolis Review. Dr. Flynn has spoken about science fiction films on radio and television (notably the Sci-Fi Channel) and is a regular guest speaker at science fiction conventions. Today, John is retired but continues to work eight hours a day as a professional writer.