The Star Wars Effect (2007)

The Films and TV that were influenced and shaped by George Lucas’ classic sci-fi adventure

Originally published as a separate book with the May 2007 issue of DVD Review

(A brief note: This article was written to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the original Star Wars – and the idea was to explore the 30 films and TV shows that were directly (or indirectly) influenced by ‘A New Hope’. The book was co-written by Jayne Nelson, and we essentially wrote half each – what’s printed below is my half, and fifteen movies worth. Enjoy!)

Year Released: 1987
Director: Mel Brooks
Starring: Mel Brooks, Rick Moranis, Bill Pullman, Daphne Zuniga, John Candy

Modern films are mocked and parodied almost as soon as they’ve hit the silver screen – but despite Star Wars changing the face of cinema, a decade had to pass before a filmmaker finally took comical pot-shots at it. Mel Brooks’ gleefully silly, hit-and-miss satire Spaceballs hi-jacks enough of the story and look of Episode IV to be recognisable, while still throwing in his own brand of goof-ball comedy and some fantastically groan-worthy gags.

It’s the saga of the evil Spaceballs, led by the diminutive Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis in over-sized Darth Vader-style headgear) and President Skroob (Brooks), who are out to steal the atmosphere of neighbouring planet Druidia. To do this, they’ve got to kidnap Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga), but standing in their way are the spoof versions of Han and Chewie- Lone Star (Bill Pullman), and his half-man, half-dog sidekick Barf (John Candy).

Add a bewigged C3PO-esque robot voiced by Joan Rivers, a space-fairing Winnebago with wings, and gags targeting everything from Star Trek and Alien to Planet of the Apes, and you’ve got a deliriously silly space-age spoof. It doesn’t quite equal Brooks’ brilliant Western satire Blazing Saddles, but still offers plenty of daft giggles, as well as more affection for its target than you’d expect. The jokes range from the groaningly obvious- a corpulent alien gangster called Pizza the Hutt, a short mystic called Yoghurt who teaches Lone Star the ways of “The Schwartz”- to the brilliantly left-field, where a lightsabre fight accidentally kills one of the film crew, and the movie is gradually invaded by its own fake merchandise (“Spaceballs: The Flame Thrower!”).

Brooks also understood the importance of a spoof being accurate, and the effects work is surprisingly good for the time, as well as featuring plenty of gags (such as the opening shot of a gigantic, Star Destroyer-like craft cruising endlessly past the camera, finally revealing a bumper sticker: WE BRAKE FOR NOBODY). Knockabout enough for kids and with enough loopy left-field humour for adults, Spaceballs is trademark Brooks lunacy with the kind of light-hearted goofiness that many modern-day spoofs could learn from. May the Schwartz be with you…


1: Brooks asked George Lucas’ permission before going ahead and spoofing Star Wars- and was told he could, as long as there wasn’t any merchandise generated from the film.

2: The lightsabres used in the climactic duel between Lone Star and Dark Helmet were actually constructed by Lucas’ special effects company Industrial Light and Magic.

3: One of the apes in the Planet of the Apes gag is voiced by Michael York, an actor who’s been in everything from Austin Powers to 70s sci-fi spectacular Logan’s Run.

4: While playing the part of ‘Schwartz’ master Yoghurt, Brooks had a major allergic reaction to the make-up, meaning all of the scenes had to be shot out of sequence.

Year Released: 1996
Director: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Bill Pullman, Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch        

Movie sci-fi might have fallen into a rut in the early Nineties, but by 1996 it was back in full force, and there was ironclad proof thanks to the first major SF blockbuster in years to truly rule the box-office. Delivering the kind of daffy, escapist thrills that up until then had been the realm of Spielberg and Lucas, producer/director team Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich brought the Fifties-style Alien invasion flick kicking and screaming into the present day, and set off a tidal wave of sci-fi epics and copycats in the process.

The story, summed up succinctly in the trailers- “Day 1: They Arrive, Day 2: They Attack, Day 3: We Fight Back…”- is simplicity itself, as fifteen-mile-wide flying saucers appear across the planet, and are soon blowing the living hell out of every famous landmark in sight, from the Empire State Building to the White House. Demolishing entire cities, it’s up to a gang of plucky survivors, led by heroic President Bill Pullman, pilot Will Smith and techno-genius Jeff Goldbum, to counter-attack the evil tentacled hordes, and also sort out their tangled personal lives in the process.

From the thrilling dogfights between the US jets and the enemy fighters, to the final journey into the aliens’ colossal, Death Star-sized mothership, the film wears its Star Wars influences proudly, but also references Spielberg’s moviemaking (especially with Randy Quaid channelling John Belushi’s nutty pilot from 1941). It even uses the same casting method Spielberg employed with Jurassic Park, populating the film with decent B-level actors (Yes- there was a time when Will Smith wasn’t a star…) and therefore freeing up most of the budget on the all-important special effects.

There are obvious nods to Fifties sci-fi, with the sequence showing an attempted nuclear attack on one of the Saucers being a direct lift from 1953’s The War of the Worlds- but Independence Day’s biggest storytelling debt is to cheesy Seventies Disaster movies, especially the actor-stuffed epics of producer Irwin Allen, such as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure.

So, even with a death toll in the millions, we’re more worried about whether Goldblum will make up with his estranged wife and White House press secretary Margaret Colin, or if Will Smith will be reunited with his stripper girlfriend Vivacia A. Fox. Astutely keeping most of the death offscreen (especially when First Lady (and future Galactica President) Mary McDonnell expires), it’s the kind of film where a towering wall of fiery destruction can be out-run by a plucky golden retriever, and where the Aliens’ computer system is so fiendishly constructed that anyone with a laptop can tap into it.

Realism is an early casualty, and decent dialogue is fairly close behind (with even the much-spoofed disaster movie line “I picked a hell of a day to quit drinking” making an appearance), but who cares when you’ve got New York, Washington and L.A. being pulverised into rubble? Painting fiery apocalyptic destruction on a level that simply hadn’t been seen before, what’s most surprising is that Independence Day is actually one of the last blockbusters to achieve most of its effects through the traditional means created by ILM for Star Wars. CGI was used for the saucer’s destruction beams, but everything else was done with detailed models, using digital effects only to paste the multiple layers together, and resulting in a level of scale and realism CGI simply wasn’t up to achieving in 1997.

Not only did Independence Day clean up at the box office, but it also turned out to be massively influential, with cinemas soon crammed full of CGI-enhanced updates of old fashioned disaster movie formats. Everything from tidal waves to volcanoes and asteroids was unleashed upon unsuspecting audiences, but most of these carbon copies didn’t get close to Independence Day’s success- including Devlin and Emmerich’s deeply unwise attempt to turn Japanese monster icon Godzilla into a big-chinned CGI lizard. After the events of September 11, 2001, the appetite for watching cities being trashed at the cinema understandably reduced, but while the Big Dumb Disaster movie may be out of fashion, Independence Day is still a shamelessly entertaining, nonsensically patriotic mix of thrills, effects, and good old-fashioned Hollywood cheese.


1: The effect of the flames travelling down the streets was achieved by tilting a model on its side- the camera was at the top, and explosives were placed at the bottom.

2: The line “Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!” from the President’s speech wasn’t in the script, and was put in to hopefully avoid a legal battle over the title.

3: Friends star Matthew Perry was originally supposed to play the part of Jimmy “Raven” Wilder, but dropped out just before filming began, and the part was taken by Harry Connick Jr.

4: Another budgetary saving was made thanks to the sets of the White House, the submarine and the Stealth Bombers actually being re-used from The American President, Crimson Tide, and Broken Arrow.

5: Production designer Patrick Tatopoulos came up with two designs for the aliens- and Roland Emmerich liked them so much he used both, as the alien and the biomechanical suit the aliens wear.

6: Originally Randy Quaid’s character was supposed to fly his crop duster in the final battle with the aliens, but the resulting footage was laughed at by test audiences, and quickly reshot.

7: In a similar move to The Lord of the Rings movies years later, the miniatures were constructed on a gigantic scale, with the alien saucer model being a massive 65 feet wide.

8: Due to budgetary limitations, only one Jet fighter model was built- and multiple explosions were created by blowing it up, and filming the explosion from a number of different angles.

Year Released: 1984
Director: Peter Hyams
Starring: Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Helen Mirren, Bob Balaban, Keir Dullea

Sequels are hard enough at the best of times- but trying to follow up one of the most notoriously impenetrable sci-fi movies of all time is downright dangerous. It’s just as well, then, that director Peter Hyams’ follow-up to Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1968 brain-bender 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t try replicating the original’s trippy nature, instead adapting Odyssey co-writer Arthur C. Clarke’s novel sequel into an engaging mix of hard sci-fi and nuts-and-bolts space adventure.

Science fiction in 1984 was still coasting on Star Wars’ success, and Hyams had a whole selection of special effects techniques to play with, meaning 2010 placed as much emphasis on funky techno-spectacle as on the ideas behind it. The story picks up nine years after 2001, with Doctor Heywood Floyd (a minor character in the first film, here played by Jaws star Roy Scheider) finally making the journey to Jupiter and the abandoned spacecraft Discovery to try and find out the truth behind the murder spree of supercomputer HAL 9000, and the mysterious disappearance of astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea).

This being a pre-Glasnost version of the future, Floyd hitches a ride through space with a gang of imperious Russians (headed by our own future Dame Helen Mirren, no less), and the Yanks and Ruskies naturally have to eventually set aside their differences and work together in order to survive. The politics may have dated, but the central ideas of 2010 are strong, and it’s still rare to see a sci-fi flick trying hard to stick to genuine scientific fact. Hyams does his best to weld Kubrick’s rigorous detail with a Star Wars-style sense of wonder at the hugeness and potential of deep space, and for the most part manages to pull it off. He even tips a nod at the weirder elements of 2001 as a ghost-like Dullea returns with a warning, and all the Discovery sets from the original film are perfectly recreated. Add Third Rock From The Sun’s John Lithgow on top form as a grumpy Engineer, and you’ve got an impressive space adventure right the way through to its cosmic, planet-busting climax.


1: Arthur C. Clarke makes a cameo appearance in the film, feeding bread to some pigeons outside the White House, while Floyd is planning his mission to the Discovery.

2: One of the first Internet lines outside the academic community was set up so that Peter Hyams could communicate with the Sri Lanka-based Arthur C. Clarke during the screenwriting process.

3: On one of the fake covers for Time Magazine shown in the film, the picture of the Soviet premier is actually 2001: A Space Oddyssey director Stanley Kubrick.

4: The film’s music was originally supposed to be written by Tony Banks from rock band Genesis, but his soundtrack was dropped, and David Shire was brought in to score the film.

Year Released: 1999
Directors: Larry and Andy Wachowski
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano

It was the end of the second millennium, and sci-fi geeks across the world were waiting for one thing- a film that would redefine onscreen SF, thrill them beyond measure, and take them back to the sheer excitement Episode IV had created back in 1977. As it turned out, they got exactly what they expected- except the name of the film wasn’t The Phantom Menace. The jury may still be out on whether Episode I is frothy fun or a galactic, Jar-Jar-afflicted bore, but what can’t be denied is 1999 was the most seismic year in onscreen sci-fi since Star Wars erupted onto the scene, and it was all thanks to The Matrix.

Created by a pair of screenwriter brothers whose only previous directing work was lesbian-chic noir thriller Bound, The Matrix was a film nobody expected to like- especially since Keanu Reeves’ last dabble in ‘virtual reality’ thrillers had been the disastrous cyberpunk adaptation Johnny Mnemonic (1995). As it turned out, however, the Wachowskis had created a dense and multi-layered philosophical action saga so extravagantly exciting, nobody seemed to mind that they’d hi-jacked massive chunks of their dark apocalyptic saga from Japanese animation, The Terminator, the works of Blade Runner author Phillip K. Dick, old kung-fu flicks, and a dozen other sources.

A story where the ‘real world’ is an illusion perpetrated by evil insectoid machines, and where only a small number of super-powered freedom fighters know the truth, it’s a thrilling, imaginative adventure that melds Jean-Paul Sartre with John Woo, and left cinema audiences reeling with astonishment. As Reeves’ Neo peels back the layers of reality, learns the truth about his machine-controlled existence and says ‘Whoah’ a lot, the film also ends up owing much of its mythic structure to the same pattern followed by the original Star Wars trilogy.

Like Luke Skywalker, Neo is plucked out of a dull life into a world of adventure, trained up by a wise mentor, ends up battling against the bad guys, and is presented with a choice where he has to put himself in danger for the greater good. Admittedly, Luke didn’t deal with his problems in Episode V by strolling into Cloud City dressed in a trenchcoat and blowing the crap out of everyone within range, but the principle’s the same, and it’s the classic storytelling at the heart of The Matrix that makes it such an engaging, universal story.

It also helped that The Matrix featured one of the best villains since Vader wheezed his way onscreen. With the moves of Bruce Lee and the voice of a Fifties Newscaster, sentient program Agent Smith is an incredible adversary who, thanks to Hugo Weaving’s stony-faced performance, almost hi-jacks the movie away from the stunning visuals. That he doesn’t quite manage it is a testament to the still jaw-dropping special effects, and while the classic ‘Bullet-Time’ sequences may now have been parodied to death, in 1999, they were the epoch-shaking equivalent of  Episode IV’s opening Star Destroyer shot, and made it seem like we were entering a saga where anything was possible.

Sadly, of course, it all went rather wrong. After riding the crest of the Phantom Menace backlash in 1999, the Wachowskis got a taste of their own medicine when, in 2003, their hugely anticipated back-to-back sequels Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions turned out to be pretentious messes. Yes, there was plenty of groundbreaking action, but both movies were also far too ambitious for their own good, introducing dozens of characters nobody cared about, and cranking the philosophy up to brain-aching levels. Worst offender for this was the infamous ‘Architect’ sequence, which was supposed to explain the secret behind the Matrix, and instead left audiences worldwide scratching their heads in confusion.

Without the classic structure of the original movie, the Wachowskis were lost, and thanks to the spectacular but underwhelming climax, the Matrix ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. What it didn’t do, however, was take away from the first movie’s achievement, and while the trilogy might be a mess, The Matrix itself can still hold its head up proudly as one of Episode IV’s only true rivals, and a film that truly expanded the limits of what cinematic sci-fi could achieve.


1: The Matrix actually bears a strong resemblance to anarchic comic book saga The Invisibles, to the extent that the comic’s writer, Grant Morrison, was seriously considering legal action.

2: A number of sets from sci-fi thriller Dark City (which shares certain themes with The Matrix) were re-used in the film, including the rooftops that Trinity runs across in the opening sequence.

3: The film’s casting went through plenty of changes – Johnny Depp was the Wachowski’s first choice for Neo, while both Val Kilmer and Sean Connery were offered Morpheus, but turned it down.

4: The ‘Bullet Time’ effect wasn’t actually invented for The Matrix- it had been used several years previously in adverts by director Michel Gondry, and was refined by the Matrix F/X team.

5: All the maps shown in the film, most of the signage and the street names suggest that the city setting (at least in the first movie) is Chicago, the Wachowski’s home town.

6: The ‘Woman in Red’ sequence- where Morpheus takes Neo through a simulation of the Matrix- features a massive number of identical twins, to suggest the idea of a repeating program.

7: The film was nearly shut-down as a result of the sequence with Neo and Morpheus dangling from a helicopter, because the copter accidentally strayed into restricted airspace.

8: The bizarre footage seen on a TV during the film of giant rabbits bounding along a road is a genuine sci-fi B-movie made in 1972 called Night of the Lepus.

Year Released: 1979
Director: Gary Nelson
Starring: Robert Foster, Maximillian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgenine, Roddy McDowell

The biggest sign of sci-fi’s explosive popularity in the late Seventies was when the Walt Disney company looked at Star Wars’ success and said “Hmmm- maybe we’ll have some of that!” What they eventually served up to the general public was a loose SF remake of their fifties live-action classic 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, but hurled into the darkness of outer space with all the cute robots, killer droids and stately special effects you could ever wish for.

It’s the story of the crew of the good ship Palomino as they encounter the gigantic, long-lost spacecraft USS Cygnus parked on the edge of a Black Hole in space. Investigating the colossal ship, they find that the only human onboard is the eminently potty scientist Reinhardt (Schell), who’s been there for twenty years, with his own evil Vader-esque pet robot named Maximillian, and a ship full of droid servants. Already doing well in the evil genius stakes, Reinhardt welcomes the new arrivals, and is soon politely suggesting the Palomino crew accompany him for a journey into the gravity-defying Black Hole- or else.

Played with the determined seriousness of 2001, and occasionally livened up by comic relief from flying robot Vincent (a combination of R2-D2 and C3PO, voiced by Roddy McDowell), it’s a gloriously po-faced film that almost completely misses out on the sense of frothy fun that Lucas captured in Star Wars. Even the impressive cast, featuring Ernest Borgenine and ex-Psycho Anthony Perkins, are on the seriously stiff side, but if The Black Hole doesn’t deliver in terms of story, it’s still a surprisingly impressive spectacle. There’s a thrilling, graceful music score from classic Bond composer John Barry that rivals anything John Williams has done, and the effects work is fantastic, featuring pioneering matte work for the time, along with a whole selection of sweeping model shots and funky design. All the way through to the fabulously perplexing, psychedelic climax, it’s beautifully designed sci-fi eye candy- although someone should have told the director that making a Black Hole look more dramatic by painting it red was bending the laws of physics a little too far…


1: As with many other films, The Black Hole had to be retitled when released in some foreign countries- especially Russia, where the title is actually an obscene phrase…

2: In the original script, the whole film was supposed to take place in a weightless, zero-gravity environment, but budgetary restrictions meant that idea had to be swiftly dropped.

3: Dr. Strangelove star Slim Pickens is responsible for voicing the battered droid Old Bob – and neither he nor Roddy McDowell are listed on the film’s opening or closing credits.

4: The wireframe graphics shown over the movie’s title sequence may be rather basic, but  are also the longest computer graphics sequence ever seen in a movie at that time.

Year Released: 1984
Director: Nick Castle
Starring: Lance Guest, Dan O’Herlihy, Catherine Mary Stewart, Robert Preston, Norman Snow 

There wasn’t a teenager in the early Eighties who didn’t dream at least once of getting to do a Luke Skywalker, escape their dull lives, and adventure off into a world of intergalactic action- but, for all those dreamers, there was an answer in the form of The Last Starfighter. Combining two win-win concepts- space fantasy and video games- it’s a gleeful comic strip that’s a Star Wars for the arcade generation, as well as the first film to truly point the way towards the CGI-heavy blockbusters of today.

Plot-wise, things are fairly thin- Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is desperate to escape his mundane trailer-park life, and the only relief he finds is playing the Starfighter arcade game. Then, he’s abruptly whisked off into outer space, and discovers the game is actually a training device designed to find pilots to fight in a major intergalactic war. He might initially balk at being called up to kick the arse of the villainous Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada, but eventually, with a single ship available to stand against the oncoming hordes, he’s the only one who can save the galaxy.

It’s the kind of daft, cheesy space adventure that highlights how well George Lucas did this kind of fairy-tale fantasy by not being anywhere near as good, and the design has a ludicrously dated Buck Rogers feel, with no computer being complete without rows and rows of flashing light. At the least, it’s good-natured, comic-strip fun with a couple of surprisingly gruesome shocks but the main draw is the use of computer graphics. CGI had made its first cinematic appearance two years earlier in Tron (ironically, another computer game-themed movie), but it was The Last Starfighter that first used digital images to achieve the spacecraft, the landscapes- in fact, every special effect aside from make-up and the numerous explosions. The graphics may now be stunningly quaint, but they give the film the sense of big-scale comic strip action it desperately needs- and also points the way towards Lucas finally embracing the digital revolution seventeen years later with The Phantom Menace.


1: The four-gun design of the Gun-Star ships was a big influence on the Star Fury fighters in the TV series Babylon 5, which were also realised via CGI.

2: Lance Guest’s film career never really took off- his only other role was as Michael Brody in the spectacularly awful Jaws: The Revenge, and he now works mainly in television.

3: Wil Wheaton, aka Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation played one of the kids at the trailer park, but his role was cut from the final edit.

4: In what’s possibly the most unexpected theatrical adaptation of recent years, The Last Starfighter was turned into an off-Broadway musical in 2004, and played to some suprirsingly good reviews.

Year Released: 1980
Director: Stanley Donen
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett, Harvey Keitel   

Take the stars of Spartacus, the Charlie’s Angels TV series, and Reservoir Dogs, throw them together with the director of Singin’ in the Rain, and what you end up with is possibly the oddest of all the movies to emerge from the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom. A British space psycho-thriller with a screenplay from novelist Martin Amis, the Lucas influences are obvious right from the opening shot of a very big spacecraft passing ultra-slowly across the screen, although the kinkier aspects of both the script and the design owe a bigger debt to Ridley Scott’s Alien.

It’s the tale of two researchers on the third moon of Saturn, played by Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett, who spend their lives researching hydroponics and wearing suspect fashions, until the arrival of military officer Harvey Keitel. He’s there to deliver the latest robot in the ‘Demi-God’ series- an eight-foot tall hydraulic humanoid called Hector, who’ll be taking over the management of the station once he’s fully programmed. Unfortunately, Keitel is both an imposter and a dangerous psycho, who’s soon obsessing over Fawcett, and then makes the mistake of imprinting his brain-patterns onto Hector’s blank slate of a mind.

The end result is one seriously deranged and desire-crazed robot, who’s soon causing a surprising amount of mayhem and gore, as well as one scene of gratuitous nudity from the then-64 year old Douglas the world could easily have done without. Plenty of Saturn 3 qualifies for the ‘so bad it’s good’ rating, and yet there’s also lots to admire, from the kooky design, to the lush soundtrack from Elmer Bernstein that fuses John Williams with electro-funk, and especially its mechanical villain. A world away from the blocky dustbins and men-in-suit droids of Episode IV, Hector is a realistically clunky mass of hydraulic pipes, wires and circuits that exudes a considerable amount of menace. Achieved in the pre-CGI days by a mixture of camera tricks and puppetry, it’s a precursor to the mechanical effects in The Terminator, and Hector scores as one of cinema’s more distinctive robots- even if he never accelerates beyond a brisk stroll…


1: Anyone watching Saturn 3 who thinks that Harvey Keitel sounds peculiar with an English accent would be right- all of his dialogue was actually dubbed by English actor Roy Dotrice.

2: Saturn 3 was to be the directorial debut of John Barry (no relation to the composer), the production designer of Episode IV and Superman, but he was replaced early into filming by Donen.

3: The robotic form of Hector was dreamed up by Special Effects designer Colin Chilvers, and its organic structure was heavily modelled on an anatomical drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci.

4: A fantasy sequence that involved Farrah Fawcett being put in a skimpy PVC jumpsuit- for tasteful, artistic reasons, of course- was shot, but eventually left out of the film’s final edit.

Year Released: 1988-1999
Director: Various
Starring: Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Danny John-Jules, Robert Llewellyn, Norman Lovett

Plenty of post-Star Wars sci-fi has been influenced by the Original Trilogy if only by reacting against it- and there’s little better to counter Lucas’ fairy tale optimism than the downbeat lunacy of surreal sitcom Red Dwarf. Building a long-running sci-fi franchise around a concept described as “Steptoe and Son in Space” wasn’t easy, and nobody who saw the show’s first low-budget run back in 1988 would ever have predicted the eight-season saga that was going to follow.

Largely co-written and overseen by writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, the late-Eighties BBC show began as a small-scale, character based slice of nuttiness set on the massive mining craft Red Dwarf. The story follows Dave Lister (Craig Charles), who wakes from suspended animation to find that three million years have passed, the rest of the crew is dead, and the only company he now has is a hologram of his deceased bunkmate Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie), a creature who evolved from the Ship’s cat (Danny John-Jules), and the semi-senile supercomputer Holly (Norman Lovett).

For two seasons, Red Dwarf ploughed it’s own distinctive furrow, building a small but loyal cult audience, and centering most of its humour around the clash between everyman slob Lister and the terminally neurotic Rimmer. Lacking a hefty budget, most of the adventures were like a blue-collar cross between Star Wars, Alien and anarchic sitcom The Young Ones, with the crew voyaging into virtual realities, encountering manifestations of their own Confidence and Paranoia, or entering a parallel universe and meeting their own female alter-egos (resulting in Lister inadvertently making himself pregnant…)

The third season in 1989, however, saw a steep increase in the budget, and suddenly the special effects improved, the all-grey sets were swapped for funkier, more technological environments, and cleaning mech Kryten- who originally appeared at the beginning of season 2, played by David Ross- was added permanently to the cast in the form of actor Robert Llewellyn. With shape-changing, emotion-devouring mutants, body-swaps, shuttle crashes and a visit to a backwards reality, this was where the popularity of the boys from the Dwarf began to sky-rocket- and also, arguably, the point where the show reached its creative peak.

The fourth and fifth seasons got ever-more ambitious, imaginative and spectacular, but also started to prove, in the same way as the Star Wars prequel trilogy, that bigger budgets and improved special effects don’t always equal better. The show was never less than entertaining, featuring plenty of classics like the appearance of Rimmer’s heroic, Top Gun-style alter-ego Ace, and the episode where the characters were all apparently killed, only to discover that their lives up until then had been an immersive computer game. However, the ratio of great episodes to less memorable began to decrease, the ideas started to get repetitive, and some episodes were even given tidy moral messages, particularly the clumsy anti-war fourth season adventure ‘Meltdown’.

From there onwards, the show went into a serious decline, with co-creator Rob Grant leaving the series, and star Chris Barrie briefly jumping ship in Season 7, although he was persuaded back for the largely forgettable Season 8. Left on a flat cliffhanger, the story was potentially going to be continued or reworked in a big-budget film – but despite plenty of rumours, the Red Dwarf movie is still firmly stuck in the bowels of Development Hell.

At the peak of its popularity in the early Nineties, however, the show was arguably the most successful (and virtually the only) British sci-fi show on TV, eclipsing the then-dormant Doctor Who, and generally being hip and cool enough to be the SF series it was okay to like. Along with this, there was a torrent of merchandise, a sequence of novels written by Grant and Naylor that did a fine job of expanding the show’s universe, and even an unwise Lucas-style ‘remastering’ of early episodes with new CGI effects, which proved so unpopular that they’ve been buried since and left off the recent DVD releases. In short, Red Dwarf kept the SF flag flying even when everybody else seemed to have given up the ghost, as well as coming up with more creative uses of the word “Smeg” than the mind can comfortably contemplate…


1: Before being recast in seasons 7 and 8 as Chloe Annet, the character of Kristine Kochanski was originally played by Claire Grogan, ex-lead singer from Scottish pop band Altered Images.

2: Red Dwarf came very close to being cancelled only two days into the initial rehearsals of the first series, thanks to a threatened electricians strike at the BBC.

3: The first choices for the roles of Lister and Rimmer were- rather bizarrely- Alfred Molina and Alan Rickman, and were only discounted because they were unlikely to commit to further series.

4: The casting for the show still could have gone very differently- Chris Barrie originally auditioned for the role of Lister, while Norman Lovett originally auditioned as Rimmer.

5: Two pilot episodes for an American TV remake of Red Dwarf were made in 1992, still featuring Robert Llewellyn, along with Frasier star Jane Leeves, but never got commissioned for a full series.

6: The BBC effects department destroyed their only model of Red Dwarf for the Fifth season episode ‘Demons and Angels’. In subsequent appearances, either archive footage or a CGI Red Dwarf was used.

7: Kryten was actually named after the title character from Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie’s play ‘The Admirable Crichton’, about an incredibly efficient butler to a Victorian family.

8: The seventh series of Red Dwarf was the only season not to be filmed in front of a live studio audience, in order to give greater freedom for lighting and camera set-ups.

Year Released: 1997
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, Denise Richards, Michael Ironside      

One of the unsung heroes of the original Star Wars trilogy, Special Effects expert Phil Tippet was the man responsible for the AT-AT walkers, the Taun-Tauns, and the Gamorrean-munching Rancor Beast. Virtually anything involving old-fashioned Stop-Motion animation in Episodes IV-VI was supervised by him, and he’s widely renowned as an expert in bringing weird and wonderful creatures to life- meaning Robocop director Paul Verhoeven knew exactly who to call when he signed to direct this gleefully insane, satirical sci-fi monster mash.

Based on a novel by Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers is a Fifties-style explosion of pulp future SF that pitches humanity against giant marauding alien bugs from the planet Klendathnu. As Earth comes under attack, and a gigantic military fleet heads out into deep space to kick some insect bottom, the film charts the journey of square-jawed beefcake Johnny Rico (Van Dien) from wide-eyed rookie to rugged veteran, and throws in every military ‘coming of age’ cliché under the sun.

It also, courtesy of Tippet’s brilliant creature effects and the rise of CGI, stars the most impressively gruesome collection of aliens to hit the cinema screens in years. From the spiky Warrior bugs to the flame-spewing Tank bugs and the gigantic, mind-sucking ‘Brain Bugs’, they’re a jaw-dropping symphony of effects that leaves gallons of ketchup, torn-off limbs and decapitated corpses in its wake. What’s more, they’re even more impressive for the fact that instead of lurking in shadowy ducts like the Xenomorphs from the Alien films, most of the ultraviolence in Starship Troopers happens in broad daylight, leading up to a gob-smacking homage to classic Brit war movie Zulu, where a small band of marines hold an outpost against a tidal wave of thousands of Warrior bugs.

Hilariously gory, and with Paul Verhoeven’s usual ‘anything goes’ attitude to violence, swearing and nudity, it’s a brutal, relentlessly action-packed space war saga – but what singles it out from simply being Aliens on a bigger budget is the way it takes the traditions of comic-strip style sci-fi set down from Star Wars onwards, and completely up-ends them.

Before Starship Troopers, we knew that the good guys generally wore white, behaved nobly, and were almost always American, while the bad guys lurked in the background wearing black leather, throttling their subordinates and speaking in rascally English accents. Starship Troopers uses the same manipulative, fairy-tale like devices to tell its story- but while the ‘good guys’ in Starship Troopers might be handsome, blue-eyed and American, they’re also representing an oppressive, brutal, pro-violence Fascist state where only those who serve in the Armed Forces get the vote.

Verhoeven has a history of cramming films like Robocop with off-beat, subversive subtexts, and here he goes even further, loading Starship Troopers with spoof patriotic newscasts, and turning it into a sly satire of American Imperialism. “It’s looking at the potential for fascism, even in American society,” said Verhoeven at the time,  “because the film’s saying, ‘Yes, you might get a more puritanical state, and abolish crime and racism, but are you aware how that can be achieved?’ Its there as an idea, but it doesn’t get in the way of the story.” With elite officers striding around in replica Gestapo uniforms and a ‘kill first, ask questions later’ ethic, along with the gradual realisation that the repellent, brain-sucking bugs may be smarter and more sympathetic than we thought, it’s Star Wars recast with the evil Empire as the heroes- and naturally, most of the film’s audience didn’t get the joke.

In fact, plenty of critics accused the film of being pro-fascist, and while the subtle satire is present, it’s also combined with a streak of outrageous, ironic camp, and a cast seemingly assembled from Beverly Hills 90210 cast-offs. With oaken hunk Casper Van Dien caught between lusting after Denise Richards and being lusted over by Dina Meyer, all the while spouting hilarious dialogue like; “I’m from Buenos Aires, and I say- kill ’em all!”, it’s not a film to be taken too seriously. Starship Troopers may not have set the box-office alight, but it still proved that SF can be lurid, outrageous fun, as well as having something important to say…


1: While not a box office smash, the film was successful enough to spawn a straight-to-DVD sequel, plus a 37-episode computer animated TV spin-off entitled Roughnecks.

2: On a dare from actress Dina Meyer, Verhoeven and his cinematographer Jost Vacano shot a take of the nudity-heavy communal shower scene in the nude themselves.

3: Most of the rifles used by the Mobile Infantry in Starship Troopers are actually redressed Pulse Rifle props that had been originally created for James Cameron’s Aliens.

4: In 1997, Starship Troopers managed to break the record for the amount of ammunition used during the making of a movie (although it’s undoubtedly been broken since…)

5: The graduation party sequence features a version of the David Bowie song “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town”, with reworked lyrics, and sung by Zoe Poledouris, daughter of film composer Basil Poledouris.

6: The film’s producer Jon Davison has a cameo in the ‘media breaks’ as a dog owner who shouts “The only good bug is a dead bug!”, while writer Ed Neumeier appears briefly as a criminal.

7: The footage seen in the film involving the explosions and fire after the destruction of Buenos Aires is actually video of the fires that occurred in Oakland, California in October, 1991.

8: Paul Verhoeven says he never actually made it more than a few chapters into Heinlen’s original novel, claiming he gave up after finding it “boring and depressing”.

Year Released: 1997
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker

Based on a story dreamed up when he was a teenager, French action director Luc Besson’s deliciously barmy sci-fi romp stormed onto the scene in the wake of Independence Day, and tapped straight into the bright escapism that was Star Wars’ stock-in-trade. The Blade Runner-style flying car sequences and the presence of Bruce Willis had plenty of people expecting a larger, more polished version of edgy, violent blockbusters like Total Recall or Demolition Man. In fact, Besson’s approach to the SF shenanigans is part fantasy adventure, part demented comedy, and heavily influenced by European comic books by artists like Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud.

The shambolic plot follows 22nd-century cab driver Korbin Dallas (Willis) as he unexpectedly rescues a mystery girl (Jovovich) from the police, only to discover she’s the mythical ‘fifth element’- part of a weapon that’s the only defence against an incoming ball of intergalactic evil about to envelop the Earth. Nefarious mastermind Gary Oldman, wise priest Ian Holm and a gang of shape-changing aliens are also involved, but really it’s just a blatant excuse for Besson and his design team (including fashion designer Jean Paul-Gautier on costume duties) to go wild and produce the nuttiest, most colourful version of the future possible. One of the first digital blockbusters to truly display how much scale and spectacle CGI could accomplish in sci-fi, it’s packed with all kinds of surreal gags and inventive gadgets, as well as providing breathtaking future landscapes that still look downright impressive a decade later.

Transforming kooky supermodel Jovovich into an arse-kicking action heroine, it also properly introduced cinema audiences to the helium-voiced motormouth named Chris Tucker. Singled out as the worst aspect of the film by countless reviews, Tucker’s staggeringly camp DJ Ruby Rhod (heavily modelled on rock star Prince) is actually one of the film’s most shamelessly enjoyable elements, hitting the exact level of outrageous comic-strip insanity that Besson was aiming for. The Fifth Element is sci-fi letting its hair down and simply having fun, and there aren’t many recent SF blockbusters that have come close to its blend of lurid, brightly-coloured mayhem.


1: The explosion at the end of the main action sequence in Fhloston’s Paradise was the biggest indoor explosion ever filmed, and the resulting fire almost got out of control.

2: The language spoken by Milla Jovovich’s character was invented by Besson, and refined by the actress to the extent that she and Besson could converse in it by the end of the shoot.

3: The sequences in the future New York are actually full of in-jokes and references from the Digital Domain effects technicians who created the sequences, including e-mail disputes and real pizza company logos.

4: Not only was the role of camp DJ Ruby Rhod inspired by Prince, but the rock star was considered to play the role, as was fellow rocker Lenny Kravitz.

Year Released: 2000
Director: Don Bluth, Gary Goldman
Starring: (Voices) Matt Damon, Drew Barrymore, Bill Pullman, Janeanne Garofolo 

Sci-fi and animation should be a marriage made in heaven. Stories only limited by the imagination of the artists? No need for gigantic sets? No troublesome actors refusing to leave their trailers? Logistically, it’s a slam-dunk- and yet, while Japanese animation has embraced SF for decades, Hollywood’s cartoon scene is a trickier proposition, and only one animated movie has genuinely tried to follow in George Lucas’ footsteps.

Helmed by ex-Disney animators turned independent directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman (Anastasia), Titan A.E. is a manga-influenced space adventure set in the thirty-first century, where Earth has been destroyed by evil energy beings called the Drej, and the few remaining humans have been scattered across the galaxy. The only hope for the human race is finding the mythical Titan project, a ship which escaped Earth just before destruction, and the only map showing the way is in the hands of Cale Tucker (Damon).

Naturally, Cale is a blonde, rugged hero type with father-related issues, while there’s a sassy Princess Leia substitute in the curvaceous form of Akima (Barrymore), and a more cynical version of Han Solo named Corso (Pullman, in a very different role from his Spaceballs hero). With plenty of escapes, explosions, weird aliens and unexpected reversals (including one plot-twist that’s straight from The Empire Strikes Back), it’s a colourful adventure with lots of impressive set-pieces, including a Star Trek II-style stealth pursuit through a field of colossal ice crystals.

Despite all the spectacle, the story is a little too indebted to Star Wars, while the soft-rock soundtrack eventually gets deeply wearying. Added to this, it’s too dark and apocalyptic for the usual Disney audience, while it also doesn’t have enough edge to capture the teenage geek crowd. The box-office failure of Titan A.E. and the subsequent poor turn-out for Disney’s SF-themed Treasure Planet means intergalactic adventures are likely to remain off-limits for most US animation. At the least, however, Titan A.E. gave co-screenwriter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon a chance to explore his ideas about gritty space frontier life, which he’d later spin into the short-lived Firefly and its big-screen spin-off Serenity…


1: Titan A.E.’s poor showing at the U.S. box office resulted in Twentieth Century Fox closing down its in-house animation production company after only two movies (The first was Don Bluth’s Anastasia).

2: Don Bluth was responsible for designing and animating a short fantasy sequence for the pop band Scissor Sisters, which was featured in the music video to their track “Mary.”

3: Titan A.E. was the first film to be shown in a preview screening using a completely digital system that eliminated the need for any kind of film print to be made.

4: Almost 90% of the film is generated using CGI, including all the scenes involving the Drej, with traditional animation only used for the characters and occasional painted backgrounds.

Year Released: 1980
Director: Mike Hodges
Starring: Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Topol, Max Von Sydow, Brian Blessed

The original Star Wars faced plenty of production problems- but if it wasn’t for one little decision relating to the rights to an old comic book character, we’d never even have gotten to that galaxy far, far away. When George Lucas thought of telling a light, fairy-tale space adventure, what he wanted to make was an updated version of classic sci-fi action hero Flash Gordon, who adventured his way through countless Saturday morning serial adventures in the 1930s- but he couldn’t afford to get permission to use the character. As a result, Lucas went back to the drawing board, and dreamed up a universe of Wookies, Sith Lords and weird hairstyles, while three years after his ‘little sci-fi movie’ made science fiction into the latest hot property, Flash finally made it to the screen accompanied by a shower of special effects and a title song proclaiming that “he’ll save every one of us…”

Redefining the phrase ‘over the top’, Flash Gordon comes from producer Dino De Laurentis, the man behind Barbarella and the dodgy Seventies King Kong remake, and hurls its American Football star hero (Sam J. Jones) along with reporter Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) onto the planet Mongo for a confrontation with evil intergalactic overlord Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow). There’s a countdown to Earth’s destruction, a saucy alien princess with an eye for Flash, and a selection of weird and fearlessly camp alien creatures to contend with, all told via a selection of bright colours, kooky camera angles and psychedelic cloud effects. Embracing the source material’s 1930s retro vibe in both design and tone, it’s the polar opposite of Star Wars, banishing grime and sprinting towards the camper, sillier aspects of SF like they’re going out of style.

There’s distinct echoes of 1978’s Superman as well, with a brief appearance from an Otis-like tubby comedy sidekick, and the selection of the two unknowns in the lead roles goes to prove how easily the casting in Superman could have gone wrong. A far cry from Christopher Reeve’s instant success as the Man of Steel, blonde bombshell Sam J. Jones is an oaken, charisma-free zone, while Melody Anderson matches him in the woodenly unconvincing stakes- even though she does get to deliver the legendary line: “Flash! I love you! But we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!!!”

Bizarrely enough, Get Carter director Mike Hodges seems to have realised his two leads were going to be a problem, and surrounds them with one of the most loopy and eclectic supporting cast in cinema history. One scene alone features future Bond Timothy Dalton, Rocky Horror creator and star Richard O’Brien, respected playwright John Osborne and Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan. Elsewhere, there’s everyone from Fiddler on the Roof’s  Topol as the nutty Professor Zarkoff, The Exorcist’s Max Von Sydow sporting fantastic eyebrows, to the fearsomely bearded, god-like prescence of Brian Blessed as Vultan, King of the Hawkmen, who doesn’t so much chew the scenery as wolf it down in gigantic, movie-hijacking chunks.

The plot-twists get ever more ludicrous, the escapes get tighter and tighter, and by the time Flash is piloting a stolen war-rocket on a crash dive towards Mongo City, it’s almost impossible not to be swept along by the giddy comic-strip insanity of it all. It’s also possibly the kinkiest family SF film ever made, with plenty of bondage, whips, chains and suspiciously tight leather underpants on display, while the fabulously outrageous rock soundtrack cranks the ridiculousness level up to eleven (All together now- “Flash…. Aaaahhhhhhhh!!!”).

Perfectly complementing the barmy visuals, it’s impossible to imagine the film without Queen’s gleefully OTT score, and everything leads the film towards one of the most exuberantly enjoyable sci-fi action climaxes ever seen. Star Wars may be aiming to be a new myth for our times, but Flash Gordon just wants to dress up in daft colours and entertain us with the most wild, lurid and shameless nonsense it can possibly invent. The poor box-office showing might have denied us any further adventures from Flash and his mighty hair- but as far as the film’s enduring status as a cult classic goes, Gordon is most definitely alive.


1: The mind-bending psychedelic cloud effects used to create the ‘Imperial Vortex’ and the clouds around Mongo were generated by swirling multi-coloured dyes through a tank of water.

2: Dino De Laurentis originally wanted Federico Fellini to direct the film, while Nicolas Roeg was attached to direct for a time, but left the movie as a result of “creative differences’.

3: In two exceptionally bizarre casting alternatives, Kurt Russell auditioned for the central role of Flash, while Dennis Hopper was considered as a strong possibility for Dr. Hans Zarkoff.

4: Sam J. Jones was actually cast as a result of being spotted by Dino De Laurentis’ mother-in-law while appearing as a contestant on US game show ‘The Dating Game’.

5: Max Von Sydow’s flamboyant costume as Ming the Merciless weighed 70 pounds, and the actor could only manage to stand in it for a few minutes at a time.

6: Princess Aurora’s ‘pet’ Fellini is played by diminutive Nairobi-born actor Deep Roy, who’s best known for playing the Oompa-Loompas in Tim Burton’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

7: Mike Hodges considered getting prog-rock legends Pink Floyd to compose the film’s music, before eventually settling on the altogether camper choice of Queen, along with some orchestral material by Howard Blake.

8: Cracker’s Robbie Coltrane has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo appearance, as the man who closing a door on Flash and Dale’s plane just before it takes off at the beginning of the movie.

Year Released: 1994-1998
Director: Various
Starring: Bruce Boxleitner, Claudia Christian, Jerry Doyle, Mira Furlan, Andreas Katsulas 

One thing used to be certain – the only place you’d find Star Wars-style epic action and intergalactic intrigue was the big screen. Things have changed, however, and the one show that started it all off was Nineties SF saga Babylon 5. At first glance, it might have looked like a typical Star Trek rip-off, but series supremo J. Michael Straczynski had a masterplan. Structuring each season like chapters in a novel, it was going to be a series which wouldn’t simply hit the reset button at the end of each episode – alleigances would change, characters would evolve, and a gigantic, intricate plot was going to unfold over five years of television.

Years before story-arc heavy shows like Buffy, 24 and Lost, most people thought Straczynski was barking mad- but he went ahead and did it anyway, crafting a ferociously complex saga that’s less Star Trek, and more a combination of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, set around an interplanetary equivalent of the United Nations, where conflicts between aliens can hopefully be settled.

Featuring funky Tatooine Cantina-style aliens that were far from Trek’s usual humanoids-with-cornflakes-on-their-faces creations, Babylon 5’s rich blend of space opera built up momentum over each season, and by its third year was essential viewing for any SF fan. Plus, it also benefited massively from the growth of CGI effects, utilising computer graphics to render all the space sequences and many of the sets and locations (a technique George Lucas would perfect in the Star Wars prequels). Digital effects gave Babylon 5 a huge sense of scale on a TV budget, and meant it could produce thrilling space action sequences rivalling anything in Episode IV-VI.

Sadly, Straczynski’s ambitions got the better of him when a cancellation threat meant he had to wrap up the saga a year early- only to then unexpectedly get a fifth season after all, resulting in an aimless, overlong epilogue. While the show had its major ups and downs, it threw open the borders for what could be achieved on television, and left every serialised drama that followed seriously in its debt…


1: After completing the third season of Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski became the first writer in history to ever have written an entire 22-episode run of a TV show on his own.

2: Actress Claudia Christian, who played Commander Susan Ivanova in the show, auditioned for the role of female Borg and eventual crew member Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager.

3: During the show’s original run, the design of the Star Fury fighters was actually borrowed by NASA for potential use as a combined forklift/tug vehicle on the International Space Station.

4: Ex Star Trek star Walter Koenig, aka Pavel Chekov, appeared frequently on the show as psi-cop Alfred Bester, named after the famed sci-fi author of classic novel ‘The Stars My Destination’.

Year Released: 1981
Director: Alan J.W. Bell
Starring: Peter Jones, Simon Jones, David Dixon, Mark Wing-Davey, Sandra Dickinson

Star Wars’ success back in 1977 opened all kinds of doors for different forms of sci-fi- but one of the very strangest was unleashed in the head of a then-struggling radio scriptwriter named Douglas Adams. In 1979, he was able to take an idea he’d had years previously in a field in Innsbruck- namely, why wasn’t there a Hitch Hiker’s guide for the galaxy?- and turn it into one of the most memorably weird radio series ever recorded, which was then adapted for television by the BBC in 1981

The story follows the permanently annoyed Arthur Dent (Simon Jones), as he’s rescued from the demolition of the Earth by his unexpectedly alien friend Ford Prefect (David Dixon) and taken on a surreal adventure across the cosmos. Cramming in discoveries like the importance of Towels, and the Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything (which turns out to be 42), it’s a wildly unpredictable ride that uses most of the show’s original cast, and lets loose the full might of the BBC Special Effects department.

Admittedly, the end results of this are somewhat rickety, especially when it comes to two-headed, three-armed ex-President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox (Wing-Davey), whose animatronic second head spends most of the series lolling vacantly. While the sight of the early eighties Beeb trying to compete with Star Wars levels of spectacle is laughable at times, the show also fights back with plenty of inventive moments. Chief among these are the hilarious animated entries from the titular Guide, that are overloaded with the kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detail which left the pre-video audiences reeling in astonishment.

All the way through to the beautifully bleak finale, the show spins an absorbing spell, mainly thanks to Adams’ ceaseless imagination and utterly British world-view. The 2005 big-budget movie adaptation might easily trump it in the visual stakes, but it doesn’t quite capture the original’s stream-of-consciousness style, while the least said about the unnecessary romantic subplot, the better. For those wanting to sample Adams’ humour at 100% proof, the 1981 TV version is the way to go- just make certain you know exactly where your towel is…


1: The first episode was so expensive, the production was shut down for a time- resulting in a budget reduction, and the noticeable change in David Dixon’s hair from episode 2 onwards.

2: The Hitch-Hiker’s theme is a song called ‘The Journey of the Sorcerer” by Bernie Leadon. The radio series used a cover version by the Eagles, but it was re-recorded for television.

3: The character name Hotblack Desiato- used for the intergalactic rock star spending a year dead for tax reasons- is actually the name of a firm of Estate Agents in North London.

4: Douglas Adams appears several times during the series- in the pub near Arthur’s house, in several of the animations, and striding naked into the sea during one of the narration sequences.

Year Released: 1982
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Robert MacNaughton, Drew Barrymore, Peter Coyote

In 1982, two aliens arrived on Earth. One of them was a shape-changing monstrosity that impersonated whatever it ate, and chowed its way through an Antarctic research team. The other was a squat, ugly, yet strangely adorable creature whose tastes were no more exotic than chocolate, sweets and beer. Guess which one earned £700 million at the box office?

The showdown between John Carpenter’s gruesome remake of The Thing and Steven Spielberg’s warmly emotional E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial might seem like an obvious result now, but back in 1982, things weren’t so clean cut. For Spielberg, E.T. was a bit of a risk- he might have bounced back from the major flop of 1941 with the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he still wasn’t quite the cinematic titan we know today, and a quiet tale of a boy and his alien hardly had ‘guaranteed box office smash’ written all over it.

The film actually began development after Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s success in 1977, with Spielberg keen to explore the darker side of aliens (a desire he finally achieve in 2005’s War of the Worlds). Night Skies was going to be a creepy tale of a group of evil extra-terrestrials stranded on Earth, and how they affect a normal suburban family- but as the idea progressed, it became something very different from the blockbusters that had made his name. Small-scale, mostly set in one house, and with almost all the lead roles played by children, it was something he looked on as a change of pace- and which he doubted would make that much money.

In fact, E.T.’s small scale is its biggest advantage, as Spielberg brought the weird and limitless world of sci-fi down to earth, and into the home. When the pug-ugly alien botanist misses his flight off Earth thanks to the arrival of pesky government officials, he’s forced to hide out with an ordinary, everyday family, befriending the young, lonely Elliot (Thomas), and Spielberg keeps the whole film from the kids’ perspectives. The only adult face seen onscreen for the first two thirds of the story is Dee Wallace as Elliot’s mother- and otherwise, the adults are faceless, menacing figures, mainly represented by Peter Coyote’s sinister investigator and his ever-jangling set of keys.

Even more affecting is that, despite his reputation for sentimentality, Spielberg doesn’t sugar-coat the setting of a post-divorce family. The kids swear, play with their Star Wars figures, call each other ‘Penis breath!’ and occasionally act like complete sods in a way that’s totally realistic. It’s also thanks to their believable reactions that we never doubt a collection of weird-looking animatronics is actually a living, breathing alien.

Drew Barrymore is fantastic and adorable in the role that made her a star at only seven years old (and led to some worryingly swift teenage stints in rehab), but the real star is Henry Thomas, who at ten years old pulls off the friendship Elliot develops with E.T. without once descending into cuteness. It’s that central relationship that made the film work, and which opened the door to previously unheard of box-office receipts- as well as a torrent of merchandising which briefly eclipsed Star Wars for sheer volume, and wasn’t truly outdone until the dawning of the mega-blockbuster with Batman in 1989.

A film sequel called ‘Nocturnal Fears’ was rumoured, which would have revolved around Elliot and his friends being kidnapped by aliens, and rescued by E.T., but saner minds prevailed as Spielberg realised lightning was unlikely to strike twice. He couldn’t however restrain himself from pulling a Lucas with the 20th Anniversary re-release, and not only using CGI to tidy up some of the creakier moments of the E.T. puppet, but also controversially swapping the police’s guns in the final chase sequence for the more politically correct alternative of walkie talkies. Whether in the original version or the spruced-up remix, however, E.T. still remains the pinnacle of warm-hearted, optimistic early Eighties SF filmmaking for which Star Wars opened the way, and one of the few films that can still reduce even the most stone-hearted cynic to complaining that there’s ‘something in their eye.’


1: Harrison Ford filmed a cameo appearance for E.T, and would have been the Principal at Elliot’s school, but Spielberg thought his presence would be too distracting and cut the scene.

2: The girl Elliot kisses in the school sequence (which references a scene from John Wayne movie The Quiet Man) is Erika Eleniak, who later starred in jiggle-heavy beach saga Baywatch.

3: Unlike most movie shoots, Spielberg shot the film in chronological order, in order to get the right kind of emotional reactions from the kids when they finally said goodbye to E.T.

4: The design concept for E.T.’s bizarre, elongated face was created by combining several photographs together- including poet Carl Sandberg, Relativity genius Albert Einstien, and a pug dog.

5: E.T.’s spacecraft was designed by famed conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie, who was responsible for most of the pre-production art and visual designs on the original Star Wars trilogy.

6: The script was developed at Columbia Pictures, at the same time as another alien movie. Columbia wouldn’t make both, so they let E.T. go and made the considerably less successful Starman instead. Ooops…

7: Spielberg’s original idea for a family being terrorised by aliens ended up being recycled in the Spielberg produced Poltergeist, which was shot almost simultaneously with E.T.

8: E.T.’s voice was created by combining the voices of actresses Debra Winger (Terms of Endearment) and Pat Welsh, who’d been responsible for the voice of Boushh in Return of the Jedi.

Originally published in DVD Review magazine
©Future Publishing 2007