The 13 Greatest Science Fiction Comedies Of All Time

On Friday, Guardians of the Galaxy hits theaters, with its unique blend of space-opera and insane comedy. Which classic films must Guardians defeat to take its place among the greatest science fiction comedies? Here are the 13 greatest (live-action) science fiction comedies of all time.

13. Mystery Men

The 13 Greatest Science Fiction Comedies Of All Time

The Particulars:

The film flopped on its initial release, providing yet more evidence that, as a general rule, big budget comedies just don't do very well at the box office. For all its pyrotechnics, Mystery Men is really just an alternative comedy with surprising insight into the superhero genre. If I'm being honest, Mystery Men probably does a better job deconstructing superhero conventions than the Watchmen movie does.

It helps that almost everyone is perfectly cast. It's hard to imagine anyone better suited than William H. Macy for the straightforward family man the Shoveler, Hank Azaria for the wannabe British fop the Blue Raja, Greg Kinnear for the narcissistic sellout Captain Amazing, Ben Stiller for the irritable asshole Mr. Furious, or Geoffrey Rush for the ludicrously over-the-top supervillain Casanova Frankenstein. The only real misstep is Paul Reubens as the Spleen, but I suppose that's because he's just a little too convincingly creepy.

Better than any other superhero movie I've seen, Mystery Men captures what it means to have a city full of costumed heroes and villains, a concept it exploits to hilarious effect. The superhero tryouts really hit upon the absurdity of D-list superheroes, the discussions of whether Captain Amazing is really Lance Hunt (which is impossible, because Lance Hunt wears glasses and Captain Amazing doesn't) make it difficult to ever take the Clark Kent concept seriously ever again, and the climactic fight sequence manages to brilliantly use every last one of the heroes' lame powers. Plus, Michael Bay cameos as a douche bag henchman. Sounds about right.

Also worth checking out:

The Specials, starring the always awesome Thomas Haden Church and Paget Brewster, came out around the same time as Mystery Men and is its low-budget equivalent. It may lack the action of Mystery Men, but that just allows the film more time to develop its oddball cast of characters. The recent Sky High is actually a pretty decent movie, grafting a lot of good jokes onto what could have been a lame kid's movie (supporting turns from the likes of Kurt Russell, Lynda Carter, and Bruce Campbell certainly help). And of course there's always The Incredibles, which isn't exactly a comedy but is always worth watching.

12. Safety Not Guaranteed

The 13 Greatest Science Fiction Comedies Of All Time

The Particulars:

A small-budget film about a group of journalists from a local magazine who go to investigate a newspaper ad seeking a willing time traveler, this movie caused a huge sensation and earned director Colin Trevorrow the chance to direct Jurassic World. And it's a brilliantly funny movie about a weirdo (Mark Duplass) and the woman who's drawn to him — there's a lot of loss and pathos here, but the movie keeps a kind of indie-comedy vibe going throughout that actually helps you bond with the characters.

Also worth checking out:

Another weird time-travel movie that hit big around the same time is Hot Tub Time Machine, in which a group of middle-aged losers (and one younger guy) travel back to the 1980s at a ski resort. It's much more of a standard gross-out comedy, but has some really nice character bits as well. And is pretty much stolen by Rob Corddry as the one jerk who doesn't accept that you should just leave history the way it was. There are some clever uses of time travel in Hot Tub, and Chevy Chase is perfect as the hot-tub maintenance guy who knows what's going on.

11. This Is The End/The World's End

The 13 Greatest Science Fiction Comedies Of All Time

The Particulars:

Two apocalyptic comedies came out around the same time, on opposite ends of the Atlantic Ocean. And they're both funny and kind of thought-provoking, in different ways. Which one of these you prefer probably says a lot about you.

In The World's End, a group of middle-aged dudes decide to recreate the massive pub crawl they did when they were teenagers. But it turns out the small town they grew up in has gotten a bit more cosmopolitan since they left. It's looking a lot more like any town, anywhere, with very generic furnishings and boring people — and maybe that's a sign of something more sinister. It's a weird mashup of midlife-crisis-drinking and apocalyptic silliness, which drives towards a really dark ending.

In This is The End, Hollywood personalities play themselves at a party — where the Biblical apocalypse suddenly happens and everyone is screwed. Seth Rogen, James Franco and friends wind up cowering in a basement, being preyed upon by Emma Watson and strange monsters. And the whole thing gets more and more Biblical until it reaches an honest-to-God religious ending. For my money, World's End is funnier but This is the End is cleverer.

Also worth checking out:

Seeking a Friend at the End of the World is another apocalyptic comedy, which doesn't quite have the same bite as these other two but has some really neat moments and more of a focus on characters resigning themselves to the end of the world. Definitely worth watching. And Attack the Block isn't really a comedy, per se, but it does have an apocalyptic feeling and a lot of funny bits.

10. Spaceballs

The 13 Greatest Science Fiction Comedies Of All Time

The Particulars:

Mel Brooks's Star Wars parody is from his later, weaker period, and it lacks some of the wit and inspiration that made Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein classics. Neither Bill Pullman's Han Solo character nor Daphne Zuniga's Princess Leia are particularly memorable, placing most of the comedic responsibilities on the rest of the cast.

Luckily, the supporting players are more than up to the challenge. Brooks roped in two SCTV powerhouses, John Candy and Rick Moranis, to play the Chewbacca and Darth Vader roles, and these two are crucial to the film's success. Candy's Barf is about as lovable as any half-man/half-dog (he's his own best friend) possibly could be, providing Spaceballs with the bare minimum of emotional investment needed for it to be more than a string of hit-or-miss comedic setpieces.

Still, it's the villains, including Moranis's Dark Helmet, Brooks's President Skroob, and George Wyner's Colonel Sandurz, who consistently steal the show. Moranis is particularly inspired as the least likely person to play the galaxy's greatest villain, and the fact that he plays the part as though it's any other Rick Moranis role gets funnier with each passing scene. The film's constant willingness to break the fourth wall doesn't necessarily make for the most satisfying narrative, but it does provide some fantastic gags, as we'll see below.

Spaceballs is far from perfect, but it established many of the conventions that would dominate future space opera parodies, and it represents a comedy legend's one great attempt to take on the science fiction genre. For that alone, it earns a place on our list.

Also worth checking out:

If you're looking for an even sillier parody of Star Wars, look no further than Hardware Wars. If you're looking for something of the unintentionally hilarious variety, I'd recommend Starcrash, the highly unauthorized Italian remake of Star Wars that may or may not star Christopher Plummer and David Hasselhoff. (It totally does.)

9. Cabin in the Woods

The 13 Greatest Science Fiction Comedies Of All Time

The Particulars:

Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon teamed up to make a satire of classic horror movies where a group of teens spend the weekend at a cabin in the woods... but this movie takes some bizarre turns and winds up being a lot more than that. The whole thing is brilliantly, sardonically funny, and the characters are so pigeonholed as stereotypes that they wind up growing beyond that and becoming something more. And in the process of commenting on how horror movies serve our need for clichéd bloodshed and stereotyped characters, this film winds up saying something profound about storytelling and the human race.

Also worth checking out:

Joss Whedon's webseries Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is also screamingly funny and has a lot of dark observations about human nature. The two works have a sort of complimentary darkness and silliness to them, and you could almost imagine the Evil League of Evil being a consultant to the people organizing the mayhem in Cabin. Also, Whedon's Firefly movie, Serenity, is very funny, though not really a comedy.

8. Army of Darkness/Shaun of the Dead

The 13 Greatest Science Fiction Comedies Of All Time

The Particulars:

I'm probably stretching things a bit to consider these films science fiction. (I'll count Army of Darkness because there's time travel and a Day the Earth Stood Still reference, and Shaun of the Dead makes it, because the zombies might have been caused by a meteorite, which is sort of like science.) As such, I'll just combine these two brilliant horror comedies into one entry and say that, together, they just about add up to one science fiction comedy. And why not?

The debate as to whether Evil Dead 2 or Army of Darkness is the better film will likely rage on into eternity, but I think it's fairly clear where I stand. Casting aside the last shreds of seriousness seen in Evil Dead 2, Army of Darkness is nonstop badass quips and undead slapstick. That's a winning combination right there, and Bruce Campbell has never been better than he is here.

Meanwhile, nobody puts more time and effort into their comedies these days than Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz might be the most intricately constructed comedy I've ever seen). Shaun of the Dead is no exception, taking the relatively mundane idea of a zombie comedy and adding onto it a dense web of callbacks and subtle visual gags that demand repeat viewings. It's also just a funny, eminently quotable movie, with Nick Frost's Ed getting all the best lines. Although I still don't see the point of owning a car in London.

Also worth checking out:

For more Bruce Campbell goodness, look no further than Evil Dead 2. If you must look slightly further, then check out Bubba Ho-Tep, where Campbell plays an aging Elvis Presley in a nursing home who teams up with a black JFK to fight a mummy. It's as awesome as it sounds. Fans of Shaun of the Dead should definitely give Wright and Pegg's series Spaced a try. It's not science fiction, but it's one of the most proudly geeky series ever made.

7. Groundhog Day

The 13 Greatest Science Fiction Comedies Of All Time

The Particulars:

It's easy to forget how committed this film is to its time loop premise. Bill Murray is funny enough that I'd gladly watch a film about him as an asshole weatherman even if he wasn't trapped reliving the same day for an unspecified span of time. (Director Harold Ramis once said it was thousands of years, but the official word now seems to favor about ten years.) The fact that the film keeps coming up with new takes on its premise is what elevates it to the heights of science fiction comedy.

Murray's repeated attempts to woo Andie MacDowell, each day slightly modifying his behavior so that he can give her exactly what she wants, is one of the best examples of what makes Groundhog Day so good. On the one hand, it's simply a funny idea, as the callbacks and repetition mount and build up comic momentum. But the film also wonders about what it really means to live a life without consequences, as by his hundredth attempt Murray isn't even bothering to hide his preparations for his next attempt, fully aware no one will remember his sleaziness.

The film is also refreshingly willing to tackle darker territory. Murray's attempt to save a homeless man are positively heartbreaking, and there's real pathos in a nurse's observation that this is simply his time. His ultimate despair and repeated attempts to kill himself are funny in the bleakest, grimmest way possible, but they're part of the reason the film's eventual happy ending feels so richly deserved.

Also worth checking out:

There's at least one other Bill Murray/Harold Ramis science fiction collaboration I can think of that's worth watching, but I can't quite remember the name. Maybe it'll occur to me later in the list.

6. Tremors

The 13 Greatest Science Fiction Comedies Of All Time

The Particulars:

Of all the homages to fifties monster movies, Tremors was one of the first and it's still the best. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward make a wonderfully stupid, profane pair as they try to evade the massive earthworms that have come to devour their desert town. The other twelve residents of Perfection, Nevada, are just as fun to watch, with the survivalist couple and their well-armored rec room a particular highlight.

The film reverently captures the charm of old monster movies without resorting to cheap parody for laughs. Instead, the humor comes from exploring how actual people might react to being attacked by fifty-foot earthworms, and the results are pretty damn hilarious. The gloriously terrible special effects are also part of the appeal of Tremors - if, as is sadly inevitable, they ever remake Tremors, I can only hope the Graboids don't make the leap to CGI. Some things really ought to be sacred.

Also worth checking out:

Slither is a much more recent homage to this kind of movie, and it has the added advantage of starring Nathan Fillion. For more cult eighties movies, there's always The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The Eighth Dimension, which is sort of paying homage to every film ever made.

5. Ghostbusters

The 13 Greatest Science Fiction Comedies Of All Time

The Particulars:

Oh yeah, this is the Murray/Ramis film I was thinking of. The special effects in Ghostbusters haven't necessarily stood the test of time, but the movie's enduring themes of "Who you gonna call?" and not being afraid of no ghosts have kept it relevant well into the 21st century.

Day Aykroyd has always struck me in interviews as being far more interested in the paranormal than any normal person should be. (It's possible his claims that he sincerely believes we will soon be visited by ghosts are all part of an elaborate joke, but if so, that is some serious commitment to a bit.) Either way, his and Harold Ramis's complete belief in the seriousness of the ghostly threat lends the film some much-needed authenticity. The rest of the cast, including Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, and Ernie Hudson, all get their moments to bring the funny, and nobody wastes their opportunity.

Still, this is pretty much completely Bill Murray's movie. Legend once had it that he didn't even read the script, instead electing to ad-lib all of his lines. That's since been denied by pretty much everyone involved, but his hilariously natural, seemingly off-the-cuff readings make it easy to see why the rumor took hold in the first place. Besides, he really made me rethink the wisdom of strapping an unlicensed particle accelerator to my back, and that's really just a public service.

Also worth checking out:

Whatever you may have heard, Ghostbusters II is a pretty decent film and worth checking out, if only for Cheech Marin's random cameo (his one line is still stuck in my head years after I first saw the movie). The eighties was something of a golden age of science fiction comedies, and there are no shortage of other movies to check out, including Weird Science, Short Circuit, and Earth Girls Are Easy.

4. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

The 13 Greatest Science Fiction Comedies Of All Time

The Particulars:

It's the rare science fiction franchise that has the guts to make one of its big-budget movies into a fish-out-of-water comedy, but that's exactly what Star Trek does here. I'm not sure anyone would have guessed the series would have concluded the loose trilogy begun in Wrath of Khan with a lighthearted time travel story about saving humpback whales in eighties San Francisco, and I really doubt anyone would have guessed such a movie would end up being one of the best Star Trek movies.

It helps that the entire cast has so completely grown into their roles. William Shatner is legitimately good as Captain Kirk here, and he displays a newfound willingness to not take himself seriously that would serve him well in pretty much all of his future roles. Leonard Nimoy, who also directed the film, is appropriately spacey as the recently resurrected Spock (though that also might have something to do with all the LDS he took during the sixties). The always brilliant DeForrest Kelley adds another dimension to their adventures in the past as McCoy angrily surveys the state of 20th century medicine.

Then there's Uhura and Chekov's attempt to find the nuclear vessels in Alameda, which takes the form of an amusingly unrehearsed scene where they ask real passersby in San Francisco where the ships are. Speaking of nuclear vessels, it's quite possible that, without this film, Chekov's inability to pronounced his v's would never have taken on such legendary status. And there are few things quite as enjoyable as watching Scotty wrangle with a primitive Apple computer.

Also worth checking out:

The two Star Trek fans in Free Enterprise are way too insufferable for their own good, but the film is worthwhile if only because William Shatner takes his capacity for self-parody to its logical conclusion. In this case, that conclusion is a rap interpretation of Julius Caesar where he plays all the parts.

3. Sleeper

The 13 Greatest Science Fiction Comedies Of All Time

The Particulars:

Woody Allen only once turned his attention to the science fiction genre, but it was more than enough to show he knew what he was doing. Supposedly a "wildly distorted" adaptation of When the Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells, Allen's story hits upon pretty much every science fiction trope that doesn't involve space. From cryogenics to dystopias to changing sexual mores to slapstick robots - it's all here, and it's all hysterical.

The decision to freeze his character in 1973 and awaken him in the 22nd century was undoubtedly part of the movie's success, as it would have been impossible to believe such a staid, repressive future society could ever create an oddball like Allen's trademark character. Besides, Allen's unique status allows him to return to similar territory he tackled in Bananas, as he becomes the world's unlikeliest revolutionary.

Although Allen's turn as a robotic butler and the orgasmatron are justly famous, perhaps the film's best running gag is Allen's willingness to wildly fabricate 20th century history. He calmly agrees with a historian that sportscaster Howard Cosell was used to punish political prisoners, he tells Diane Keaton that giving guns to criminals was considered a public service, and he claims that Bela Lugosi was the mayor of New York. I wish I could get cryogenically frozen, if only so that I could get the chance to make up historical "facts" half as good as those.

Also worth checking out:

Mike Judge's Idiocracy tackles a lot of the same material, although the dystopian elements of Sleeper are replaced with a more straightforward brand of dumbassery.

2. Galaxy Quest

The 13 Greatest Science Fiction Comedies Of All Time

The Particulars:

Galaxy Quest is a rare trifecta: it's a great science fiction comedy, it's a brilliant comedy about science fiction, and it actually works as a pretty decent science fiction film in its own right. The film never loses sight of its parody of Star Trek's most cliched tropes or its affectionate skewering of the various neuroses of the has-been actors, and it's a tribute to Galaxy Quest's comic dexterity that it perfectly balances both threads. It's also about a million times better than any film starring Tim Allen should be.

Admittedly, some of that is down to his supporting cast. Alan Rickman long ago passed the point where he was even capable of turning in a bad performance, and here he actually has good material to work with as a seriously tortured British thespian who absolutely despises his catchphrase. The movie's deconstruction of science fiction wouldn't have seemed quite so definitive if Sigourney Weaver hadn't been involved, and she shows even more comedic chops here than she did in Ghostbusters. Tony Shalhoub and Sam Rockwell get tremendous comic mileage out of the latter's existential angst over whether he's the doomed extra or the plucky comic relief, maybe the film's best bit of sustained meta-comedy.

Even so, one shouldn't dismiss Tim Allen's contribution just because the rest of his filmography is so full of, well, total crap (the Toy Story movies excepted, of course). More than any other recent actor, Allen captures all that was so distinctive about William Shatner: the hamminess, the bravado, the willingness to turn in terrible performances in terrible films.

It's an open question whether a better actor could have so fully inhabited the Captain Kirk role; in fact, I might go so far as to say he was perfect for the role. Considering the stories that Allen "purposefully" tried to replicate Shatner's legendary dickishness and prima donna tendencies on set, I'd say he knew that too. Whatever works, I guess.

Also worth checking out:

There's plenty of other Star Trek parodies out there, but I don't think any will ever top the Futurama episode "Where No Fan Has Gone Before." Or, for that matter, any episode with Zapp Brannigan, who Matt Groening has described as 40% Kirk, 60% Shatner.

1. Back to the Future

The 13 Greatest Science Fiction Comedies Of All Time

The Particulars:

Quite simply, there's never been a more complete science fiction comedy. It's legitimately interested in the mechanics of time travel, placing a time paradox at the heart of the film's central conflict. The film never backs away from the admittedly creepy comedic potential of a mother unwittingly falling in love with her time traveling son, and the film's exploration of Marty McFly's culture shock and unwitting anachronisms hilariously climaxes in rocking out just a little too hard at his parents' dance. Back to the Future also respects the rest of the science fiction genre, as can be seen in Marty's brilliant disguise as Darth Vader, extraterrestrial from the planet Vulcan.

Michael J. Fox plays the kind of likable, active protagonist I still don't understand why we no longer see in comedies. Christopher Lloyd's Doc Brown might just be the definitive mad scientist in modern film, and it's hard to imagine a more perfect bully than Thomas F. Wilson's Biff. Lea Thompson is cute and hilarious as Marty's mom, and Crispin Glover dials down his total insanity to steal the film as George McFly.

I'd keep going, but I think I need to go rewatch Back to the Future now.

Also worth checking out:

Why, Back to the Future Part II and Part III, of course. The first sequel might be the best pure science fiction of the bunch (though it's not as funny as the original), while the third is basically a payoff for all the running gags set up in the first two movies by doing them all over again in the old West. Which is, to be honest, kind of brilliant.

A version of this article appeared in 2009.