Science fiction and martial arts totally belong together. After all, they both involve a deep introspection and awestruck contemplation of our place in the universe. Oh, and nothing improves a story about robots and aliens more than people kicking each other in the head. Yet, shockingly enough, scifi and kung-fu only really found each other pretty recently. What took so long? We investigate — with our fists of blood.
Note: I mention kung fu above, but I'm also going to touch on other martial arts in this post. I hope that's OK.
Totally random factoid: as a young reporter, I wrote a story about Sir Run Run Shaw, the legendary Hong Kong movie producer responsible for Five Fingers Of Death, and actually met him and shook his hand. I am still excited.
Bruce Lee co-stars in The Green Hornet, a scifi-ish Shadow ripoff about a newspaper publisher and his Asian valet, who team up to fight crime as the Green Hornet and Kato.
The Legion Of Superheroes introduces Karate Kid, whose superpower should be pretty obvious, in Adventure Comics #346, published in 1966. Karate Kid is the son of Black Dragon, a 30th century Japanese supervillain, who gets defeated by Japan's main superhero Sensei, who raises him to be a good guy and appreciate painting and sculpture. And he's been playing a major starring role in the recent Legion cartoon, as well as Brad Meltzer's revival of the Justice League comic. In his first appearance, Karate Kid was one of four teen heroes who applied to join the Legion — but one of them was secretly a villanous infiltrator. (Shockingly, it was the one named "Nemesis Kid.") (And check out this fantastic Legion cover gallery.)
Sonny Chiba starred in a number of classic science fiction films, including Message From Space, a Star Wars-inspired film about the peaceful planet Jillucia under threat from the evil space Emperor. Sonny Chiba has to rescue a set of "holy seeds" that can save the planet somehow.
A volcano opens up and the evil Princess Dragon Mom emerges, in Hong Kong's Infra Man (1976). A scientist named Rayma volunteers to be implanted with electronics so he can become the unstoppable martial arts fighting machine Infra Man. Besides super strength and amazing martial arts skill, he also gains X-ray vision, plus ray beams and rockets coming out of his body. We have the original trailer above.
Doctor Who suddenly starts featuring a lot of martial arts, with Jon Pertwee's version of the Doctor claiming to be an expert in "Venusian Aikido" and "Venusian Karate." (Supposedly the producers preferred aikido because it's mostly a defensive art, and fit in with their vision of the Doctor as a pacifist.) Here's someone's compilation of the Doctor's greatest smackdowns:
In 1983, director Kirk Wong puts out Flash-Future Kung Fu, a mash-up of Blade Runner and old-school martial arts melodrama. In a grungy neon-lit future, Eddy Ko, the star pupil of a martial arts school, secretly takes part in underground "black boxing" bouts. And a group of Neo-Nazi punks wants to take care of Ko and his friends using an army of mind-controlled zombies.
Just a year after Robocop hits in the U.S., Hong Kong puts out Roboforce, a comedy version featuring a robot dominatrix who shoots missiles out of her arm.
Japan creates the Super Sentai Series, about a team of super-soldiers in color-coded outfits who use martial arts and super-advanced weapons to fight monsters. They also join their robotic vehicles together to form a giant robot to fight giant monsters. In the 1990s, the Super Sentai Series got redubbed in English and mixed in with new footage of American actors, to create the Power Rangers series. The most awesome version of Power Rangers is Power Rangers In Space, in which they have to fight a villainess with the amazing name of Divatox.
Hong Kong puts out a few awesome science fiction films, chief among them Tsui Hark's Wicked City, which features Yuen Wo-Ping in a supporting role. It's been a while since I've seen this film, but I don't remember it having much martial arts, despite Yuen's involvement. Hark also produced Black Mask, starring Jet Li as a super-soldier engineered not to feel any pain, who goes AWOL and tries to lead a quiet life as a librarian — until his old squad starts killing innocent people. And then he dons the eponymous black mask to bring down his former comrades. Hark also directed a sequel, Black Mask II. Here's the masked Jet Li kicking a guy about 20 times, and then dealing with rollerskating machine-gun thugs, using only a couple of compact disks (Kenny G is deadly!) And meanwhile, some crazy dominatrix turns out to have a razor blade in her mouth, which might make this scene not entirely work safe.
Plus, director Nam Lai Choi put out one of the strangest martial arts movies of all time — The Cat (Lao Mao), about an alien entity that goes around possessing people and creatures. The movie's setpiece, a giant martial arts smackdown between a dog and an alien-possessed cat, uses all of the cliches of martial arts movies, including the slow-mo wire work and the instant replay. (But no naming of the moves as you're doing them, sadly.) Here's a clip:
Meanwhile, Jean-Claude Van Damme puts out two of the greatest science fiction movies of all time: Universal Soldier and Timecop. He's an unstoppable cyber-zombie, or he's a windmill-kicking law-enforcement master from the distant year 2004. He kicks you so hard, your arm shatters. There's also 1995's Virtual Combat, in which a virtual character from a fighting video game somehow gets into the real world and kicks people in the head. A lot. Oh, and Milla Jovovich first starts smacking weird creatures around in 1997's The Fifth Element.
Yuen Wo-Ping arranges the fight sequences for The Matrix, the movie which proves virtual worlds feature more awesome flying head-kicks than real ones. The wire work is gorgeous, plus it's put together with a new "bullet time" special effect that makes all of the soaring and kicking look even more impressive.
The Matrix trilogy gives rise to a ton of kicking, smacking, chopping imitators, including Kurt Wimmer's Equilibrium and Ultraviolet, which introduce the new and amazing martial art of gun-kata. Now at last people can use guns to create a graceful battle tableau, instead of having to fight with fists or feet. Plus the Resident Evil movies and a host of other video-gamey films.
Jet Li also stars in the mega-awesome The One, in which alternate universes are real, and you can gain awesome superpowers by killing all of your alternate selves. There are only two Jet Lis left, and only one of them has cool hair. Which one will smack the other one into oblivion and become a dimension spanning god? And then of course there's Jackie Chan's The Tuxedo, where a super-suit gives him amazing martial arts skills... and the ability to channel James Brown.