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Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer (2013).
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The 10 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time

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Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer (2013).
© 2013 - RADiUS/TWC

How do you narrow down the entire history of science fiction cinema into a list of only the 10 best movies? Help us, Mental Floss! You’re our only hope! (That Star Wars movie isn’t included, but another one is. Let us use the quote.)

1. METROPOLIS (1927)

Director Fritz Lang delivered one of film history’s earliest dystopias with Metropolis, in which the eponymous city’s wealthy ruler (Alfred Abel) and a mad scientist (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) attempt to use the robot doppelgänger of a beloved worker (Brigitte Helm) to incite open rebellion. Metropolis was famously subject to substantial cuts to its initial 153-minute running time, as a result of negative reviews following its 1927 Berlin premiere. (H.G. Wells called it “the silliest film” and “already as a possibility a third of a century out of date.”) In 2008, cinephiles rejoiced when a 16mm negative was found in a Buenos Aires film museum that included the bulk of the missing footage.

2. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)

One of the few movie sequels that improves upon its already excellent predecessor, The Bride of Frankenstein reunited director James Whale with actors Colin Clive (Frankenstein) and Boris Karloff (Frankenstein’s Monster). New to the mix was Elsa Lanchester as the Bride and (in a prologue) Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Whale originally balked at the idea of making a sequel to Frankenstein, telling a friend that the original script “stinks to heaven.” Ten or more writers later, and Whale had an acceptable script—in which Frankenstein attempts to create a mate for his monster—to work with. Earlier drafts of the script involved death rays and circus lions.

3. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)

The long and storied career of Stanley Kubrick netted the legendary director only one Oscar: Best Visual Effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey. The famous “Star Gate” scene gave 2001 the edge over its competitors … or should we say “competitor,” as only one other film was nominated in that category, John Sturges’s mostly forgotten Ice Station Zebra. Known to 2001’s crew as the “Manhattan Project,” the Star Gate sequence—which utilized various photography methods, including “slit-scan” photographywas shot in secret at a former corset factory in Manhattan on Broadway and 72nd Street.

4. ALIEN (1979)

If any director is deserving of two movies on this list, it’s Ridley Scott. (More on that later.) Three years before Blade Runner, Scott introduced one of cinema history’s most famous monsters in Alien, which was famously pitched to studios as “Jaws in space.” The creature was designed by surrealist painter H.R. Giger, who was handpicked by scriptwriter Dan O’Bannon. As O’Bannon later recalled, upon being introduced, Giger immediately offered him opium.

5. STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

It’s hard to pick one Star Wars movie to be on sci-fi’s “best of” list … but not that hard, as the second installment in the original trilogy is generally regarded to be the best one. (What, were we going to choose The Phantom Menace?) The Empire Strikes Back gives the franchise its most memorable (and oft-misquoted) line in Darth Vader’s “No, I am your father.” Keeping the twist a secret was so important that, at the time that scene was shot, only a handful of people knew about it: George Lucas, Empire’s producers, director Irvin Kershner, and Mark Hamill, who got the heads-up only seconds before he was to deliver his reaction shot. Not even David Prowse, the man in the Darth Vader suit, knew about his character’s true identity. He delivered the line “Obi-Wan killed your father,” which was later dubbed (along with the rest of his dialogue) by James Earl Jones.

6. BLADE RUNNER (1982)

The work of author Philip K. Dick has been like catnip to directors over the years, with Minority Report, Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau, A Scanner Darkly, Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle and more all pulling from his work. The most famous Dick adaptation, however, is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford as an L.A. cop tasked with hunting down rogue androids, or “replicants.” (The original book is titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) Preview screenings went so poorly that an infamous voiceover was added to make the plot easier to follow. (In Ford’s words: “[A] f*cking nightmare.”) Eventually Scott got his way, and the voiceover was chopped from 1992’s “Director’s Cut” and 2007’s “Final Cut” home video releases.

7. BRAZIL (1985)

The old chestnut returns: dystopias that were subject to major attempted—and in some cases successful—studio interference. Universal refused to release Brazil in the U.S. with Gilliam’s original ending, wherein mild-mannered government cog Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is driven insane by torture, instead preferring an alternate cut where he gets the girl and drives off into the sunset. Gilliam organized secret (and forbidden) screenings of his cut for members of the Los Angeles press, who subsequently awarded the film L.A. Critics's awards for Best Film, Best Screenplay, and Best Director. Universal, whose hand had been well and truly forced according to Gilliam, “immediately released it in New York and Los Angeles, [even though] they had no posters. They had nothing—they had a Xeroxed copy of the artwork they were going to eventually make a poster of … And it did proceed to do the most business per theater of any film at that time.”

8. THE FLY (1986)

With his offbeat sensibility and love of body horror, David Cronenberg isn’t exactly the Oscar “type.” It’s his 1986 film The Fly, in which an eccentric scientist (Jeff Goldblum) accidentally genetically splices himself with the insect of the title, that earned Cronenberg’s filmography its only Academy Award to date. Fittingly, the Oscar was for Best Makeup, awarded to Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis. In an early cut of the film, there was even more makeup-enhanced grossness; Cronenberg cut a scene where Goldblum’s character beats a genetically mutated half-cat/half-baboon to death because “If you beat an animal, even a cat-monkey, to death with a lead pipe, your audience is no longer interested in your problems."

9. JURASSIC PARK (1993)

Director Steven Spielberg has a lot of successful films under his belt, but nothing has quite measured up to Jurassic Park (at least if we’re talking financials). With a $1.029 billion worldwide gross, the dino caper remains the highest earner of Spielberg’s career and one of only three pre-2000 films to pass the billion-dollar mark. (The other two are Titanic and Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace.) The film’s impressive box office haul isn’t the only thing that’s aged well; the effects, too, still look remarkably realistic, nearly a quarter-century later—the result of Spielberg insisting on the use of practical effects (including giant animatronic puppets) augmented by CGI.

10. SNOWPIERCER (2013)

Behind-the-scenes interference dogged the most recent film on this list, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, which found itself at the mercy of Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein. Like Metropolis, Snowpiercer is a dystopian drama that centers heavily on class conflict. In the case of Snowpiercer, the remnants of humanity live on a train, with the inhabitants getting richer and richer the further toward the front of the train you go. The Weinstein Company wanted to cut 20 minutes from Snowpiercer for its North American release. Bong Joon-ho refused, and after two years a full version of Snowpiercer was eventually released … into just eight theaters. In the wake of overwhelming critical acclaim, the screen count was eventually upped to more than 350. The movie is currently being adapted into a television series for TNT.

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10 Witty Facts About The Marx Brothers
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Talented as individuals and magnificent as a team, the Marx Brothers conquered every medium from the vaudeville stage to the silver screen. Today, we’re tipping our hats (and tooting our horns) to Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo—on the 50th anniversary of Groucho's passing.

1. A RUNAWAY MULE INSPIRED THEM TO TAKE A STAB AT COMEDY.

Julius, Milton, and Arthur Marx originally aspired to be professional singers. In 1907, the boys joined a group called “The Three Nightingales.” Managed by their mother, Minnie, the ensemble performed covers of popular songs in theaters all over the country. As Nightingales, the brothers enjoyed some moderate success, but they might never have found their true calling if it weren’t for an unruly equid. During a 1907 gig at the Nacogdoches Opera House in East Texas, someone interrupted the performance by barging in and shouting “Mule’s loose!” Immediately, the crowd raced out to watch the newly-liberated animal. Back inside, Julius seethed. Furious at having lost the spotlight, he skewered his audience upon their return. “The jackass is the finest flower of Tex-ass!” he shouted, among many other ad-libbed jabs. Rather than boo, the patrons roared with laughter. Word of his wit soon spread and demand for these Marx brothers grew.

2. THEY RECEIVED THEIR STAGE NAMES DURING A POKER GAME.

In May of 1914, the five Marxes were playing cards with standup comedian Art Fisher. Inspired by a popular comic strip character known as “Sherlocko the Monk,” he decided that the boys could use some new nicknames. Leonard’s was a no-brainer. Given his girl-crazy, “chick-chasing” lifestyle, Fisher dubbed him “Chicko” (later, this was shortened to “Chico”). Arthur loved playing the harp and thus became “Harpo.” An affinity for soft gumshoes earned Milton the alias “Gummo.” Finally, Julius was both cynical and often seen wearing a “grouch bag”—wherein he’d store small objects like marbles and candy—around his neck. Thus, “Groucho” was born. For the record, nobody knows how Herbert Marx came to be known as “Zeppo.”

3. GROUCHO WORE HIS TRADEMARK GREASEPAINT MUSTACHE BECAUSE HE HATED MORE REALISTIC MODELS.

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Phony, glue-on facial hair can be a pain to remove and reapply, so Groucho would simply paint a ‘stache and some exaggerated eyebrows onto his face. However, the mustache he later rocked as the host of his famous quiz show You Bet Your Life was 100 percent real.

4. HARPO WAS A SELF-TAUGHT HARPIST.

Without any formal training (or the ability to read sheet music), the second-oldest Marx brother developed a unique style that he never stopped improving upon. “Dad really loved playing the harp, and he did it constantly,” his son, Bill Marx, wrote. “Maybe the first multi-tasker ever, he even had a harp in the bathroom so he could play when he sat on the toilet!”

5. THE VERY FIRST MARX BROTHERS MOVIE WAS NEVER RELEASED.

Financed by Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and a handful of other investors, Humor Risk was filmed in 1921. Accounts differ, but most scholars agree that the silent picture—which would have served as the family’s cinematic debut—never saw completion. Despite this, an early screening of the work-in-progress was reportedly held in the Bronx. When Humor Risk failed to impress there, production halted. By Marx Brothers standards, it would’ve been an unusual flick, with Harpo playing a heroic detective opposite a villainous Groucho character.

6. GUMMO AND ZEPPO BECAME TALENT AGENTS.

World War I forced Gummo to quit the stage. Following his return, the veteran decided that performing was no longer for him and instead started a raincoat business. Zeppo—the youngest brother—then assumed Gummo’s role as the troupe’s straight-talking foil. A brilliant businessman, Zeppo eventually break away to found the talent agency Zeppo Marx Inc., which grew into Hollywood’s third-largest, representing superstars like Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, and—of course—the other three Marx Brothers. Gummo, who joined the company in 1935, was charged with handling Groucho, Harpo, and Chico’s needs.

7. CHICO ONCE LAUNCHED A BIG BAND GROUP.

Chico took advantage of an extended break between Marx brothers movies to realize a lifelong dream. A few months before The Big Store hit cinemas in 1941, he co-founded the Chico Marx Orchestra: a swinging jazz band that lasted until July of 1943. Short-lived as the group was, however, it still managed to recruit some amazing talent—including singer/composer Mel Tormé, who would go on to help write the “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” in 1945.

8. THEY TESTED OUT NEW MATERIAL FOR A NIGHT AT THE OPERA IN FRONT OF LIVE AUDIENCES.

With the script still being drafted, MGM made the inspired choice to let the brothers perform key scenes in such places as Seattle, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. Once a given joke was made, the Marxes meticulously timed the ensuing laughter, which let them know exactly how much silence to leave after repeating the gag on film. According to Harpo, this had the added benefit of shortening A Night at the Opera’s production period. “We didn’t have to rehearse,” he explained. “[We just] got onto the set and let the cameras roll.”

9. GROUCHO TEMPORARILY HOSTED THE TONIGHT SHOW.

Jack Paar bid the job farewell on March 29, 1962. Months before their star’s departure, NBC offered Paar’s Tonight Show seat to Groucho, who had established himself as a razor-sharp, well-liked host during You Bet Your Life’s 14-year run. Though Marx turned the network down, he later served as a guest host for two weeks while Johnny Carson prepared to take over the gig. When Carson finally made his Tonight Show debut on October 1, it was Groucho who introduced him.

10. SPY MAGAZINE USED A MARX BROTHERS MOVIE TO PRANK U.S. CONGRESSMEN.

Duck Soup takes place in Freedonia, a fictional country over which the eccentric Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) presides. In 1993, 60 years after the movie’s release, this imaginary nation made headlines by embarrassing some real-life politicians. Staffers from Spy got in touch with around 20 freshmen in the House of Representatives, asking some variation on the question “Do you approve of what we’re doing to stop ethnic cleansing in Freedonia?” A few lawmakers took the bait. Representative Corrine Brown (D-Florida) professed to approve of America’s presence in Freedonia, saying “I think all of those situations are very, very sad, and I just think we need to take action to assist the people.” Across the aisle, Steve Buyer (R-Indiana) concurred. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s a different situation than the Middle East.”

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‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ Could Have Been a Meat Loaf Song
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Imagine a world in which Bonnie Tyler was not the star performer on the Royal Caribbean Total Eclipse Cruise. Imagine if, instead, as the moon crossed in front of the sun in the path of totality on August 21, 2017, the performer belting out the 1983 hit for cruise ship stargazers was Meat Loaf?

It could have been. Because yes, as Atlas Obscura informs us, the song was originally written for the bestselling rocker (and actor) of Bat Out of Hell fame, not the husky-voiced Welsh singer. Meat Loaf had worked on his 1977 record Bat Out of Hell with Jim Steinman, the composer and producer who would go on to work with the likes of Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand (oddly enough, he also composed Hulk Hogan’s theme song on an album released by the WWE). “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was meant for Meat Loaf’s follow-up album to Bat Out of Hell.

But Meat Loaf’s fruitful collaboration with Steinman was about to end. In the wake of his bestselling record, the artist was going through a rough patch, mentally, financially, and in terms of his singing ability. And the composer wasn’t about to stick around. As Steinman would tell CD Review magazine in 1989 (an article he has since posted on his personal website), "Basically I only stopped working with him because he lost his voice as far as I was concerned. It was his voice I was friends with really.” Harsh, Jim, harsh.

Steinman began working with Bonnie Tyler in 1982, and in 1983, she released her fifth album, Faster Than the Speed of Night, including “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It sold 6 million copies.

Tyler and Steinman both dispute that the song was written specifically for Meat Loaf. “Meat Loaf was apparently very annoyed that Jim gave that to me,” she told The Irish Times in 2014. “But Jim said he didn’t write it for Meat Loaf, that he only finished it after meeting me.”

There isn’t a whole lot of bad blood between the two singers, though. In 1989, they released a joint compilation album: Heaven and Hell.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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