Science fiction suffers too much from George Lucas syndrome, and the primary symptom is an endless barrage of silly names assigned to alien creatures and worlds. The cure is simple: Add a dose of humor, because it’s too difficult to swallow as serious. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is about as goofy as they come, but it shows far more wit than Lucas could imagine. It’s too bad there aren’t more good ones of its ilk. The blending of sci-fi and comedy is a risky undertaking, and more often than not it fails. Sometimes the result is a disaster of astronomical proportions. Howard the Duck (1986) and The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002) are among Hollywood’s most legendary bombs. Despite the inherent silliness of the genre, filmmakers generally try to play it straight. Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973) and Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs (1987) are rare examples of successful science-fiction comedies, but their makers are both skilled comedy writers. Most other efforts have been numbingly unfunny. Hitchhiker is another rare example of one that works, although general audiences may not appreciate its Monty Python-esque brand of humor.
Humor in sci-fi works best if it’s approached in a darker and more satirical manner. If the audience doesn’t realize that it’s watching a comedy, we have a winner. Terry Gilliam also has a strong background in comedy. He was the animator and a player on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but his elevation to world-class director could not have been predicted. Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) is a dementedly funny satire of George Orwell’s 1984 with a bit of Franz Kafka thrown in, and it manages to be darker than both overly somber straight film versions. Jonathan Pryce stars as a government bureaucrat who is hunted down as a terrorist after trying to correct a typo. Gilliam’s retro vision of a fascistic future may be too prophetic for comfort, though.
Starship Troopers (1997) also has more relevance today with its frighteningly dead-on depiction of American imperialism and war-mongering. Earth’s war against a planet of giant bugs is made clear to have been caused by Earth’s interference in their homeland, and it would seem that a nation at war often views the enemy as mere bugs. Starship Troopers is not only one of the most spectacular and exciting outer-space adventures but also one of the most misunderstood. Director Paul Verhoeven clearly intended the film to be a satire of nationalism and propaganda, but his purpose flew right over the heads of many in the audience. Watch an old 1940s war movie and then watch Starship Troopers again. You’ll see what I mean. For now, take in Hitchhiker as a little preventive medicine for that upcoming Sith bug that will be going around soon.
DVDs scheduled for release Tuesday (May 17):Kinsey, Team America: World Police, White Noise, Son of the Mask, and The Sea Inside.