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Sci-Fi & Fantasy’s Most Overrated Movies?

The LA Times has posted the results of their poll to find 2012's most overrated film . The winner (or loser) was The Avenger s, which won by a landslide. Gasp! How did this happen?

But do you agree? Was Joss Whedon's blockbuster overrated? And how many other films out there are lauded by critics and beloved by audiences, yet leave you cold?

Dave Golder (10-9) and Jayne Nelson (8-1) play Devil's advocate* and round up more “classics” that could be considered overrated... Warning: unpopular opinions ahead!

Incidentally, feel free to add your own choices in the comments – but remember, they must be universally seen as classics by everybody except you...

(*By “Devil's advocate” they mean “Don't send us hate mail.”)

10 The Exorcist

What's right with it: It’s an elegant horror film that’s played for realism rather than cheap thrills, with an impressive cast who act like they’re doing Gandhi or All’s Quiet On The Western Front rather than a supernatural chiller. Although there is some visceral gore and a few shock moments it relies more on psychological terror, and manages to make “Tubular Bells” sound like the scariest music ever through association (whereas if “Tubular Bells” hadn’t been used in the film it would probably be as scary as lift muzak… oh, hang on…). When it was released in the ’70s it was accompanied by torrid tales of audiences passing out and/or throwing up into their popcorn. It was one of the first horror movies to be taken seriously by mainstream critics and has had a lasting effect on the genre ever since.

Why it's overrated: Right, let’s get this clear from the outset. We’re not saying The Exorcist is a bad movie, but it is an overrated one. Most viewers coming new to it today wonder what all the fuss was about – were those ’70s audiences all suffering from some mass psychosis? It’s not particularly scary, and the possession make-up on Linda Blair looks faintly silly. Even the famous head-twisting scene comes across like something out of a Punch & Jud show.

The counter argument is that you have to judge it in context: in the ’70s it was new and terrifying. But the mark of a great film is that it remains great even decades later. Stripped of its initial shock factor, The Exorcist remains a well-made horror movie, with some effective moments, but a fairly average one. No amount of po-faced acting can disguise the fact that it drags horrendously in places (all those scenes of scientists and their “logical explanation” pontificating, and priests having metaphysical angst), and feels like a lot of bloated build-up to a climax that can no longer pay off. Whereas films like the original The Haunting and Psycho still scare even today because they are pure psychological horror, The Exorcist was too reliant on effects and movie techniques that date it. For that reason, though it deserves its place in horror history for the phenomenon it became, it falls short of the classic status some would bestow upon it.

Overrated rating: 3/10

9 Silent Running

What's right with it: It’s a science fiction film with an environmental message, from an era when science fiction films were rarely any deeper than “nuclear bombs bad!” It’s as much a character-driven story as it is an ideas-driven one, about a scientist striving to save Earth’s last forest. One of a number contained in greenhouses orbiting Saturn, its existence is threatened when authorities on Earth demand that all the forests be destroyed. The others are, but Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) turns eco-warrior and kills the rest of the crew on the ship, then flies off with the greenhouse. The model work is gorgeous and there are some service robots – who Lowell renames Huey, Dewey and Louie – who are cute without being cheesy cute; the relationship between them and Lowell is so touching that a scene in which one of them is “killed” may seriously make you blub. It’s a great-looking SF film with real heart and something to say.

Why it's overrated: It’s insipid hippyshit. Yeah, the message is way ahead of its time, but it’s so rammed with knit-your-own-lentils, sandal-wearing, tree-hugging preachiness it’s difficult to take seriously. Lowell’s crewmates have to be portrayed as utter creeps so you don’t mind when he kills them – but hey, this guy’s a murderer. Bruce Dern’s bizarre portrayal of Lowell as some botanical messiah (complete with flowing white gown by film’s end) doesn’t help dispel the feeling that he’s three cashews short of a nut roast.

There’s also the not so slight problem that he’s a botanist who takes what seems like an eternity to work out why flying away from the sun seems to be killing his plants… There are ten year-olds screaming “Photosynthesis!” at the screen!

Overrated rating: 4/10

8 The Avengers

What's right with it: A hell of a lot, from the handling of the ensemble cast (everybody gets to shine, except possibly Hawkeye) to the action sequences (the Captain America/Thor/Iron Man fight is perfection). It was a tall order but we can't imagine anybody assembling the Avengers more effectively – and more crowd-pleasingly – than Joss Whedon did here.

Why it's overrated: Well, the readers of The LA Times certainly thought it was too full of itself, so let's try to discover why. Perhaps it's because so much prior knowledge was needed to understand the characters, most of whom had been introduced in their own films beforehand. If you hadn't seen any of those films and were watching this in a vacuum, you might have felt a little underwhelmed by them. (Then again, that's your own fault for missing out on so much movie goodness, so it's hard to take this complaint seriously.)

There's also the fact that the SHIELD carrier action sequence seems to go on forever – how long does it take for a ship to fall out of the bloody sky, anyway? Also, the alien attack at the end seems to come from nowhere via a shiny blue McGuffin, features villains we don't know, and destroys vast swathes of Manhattan so casually that it feels (ironically) too comic-booky to be taken seriously.

The Avengers is filled with lovely, funny, poignant, clever and witty moments, and it's heavily steeped in the language and visuals of the original comics. Perhaps it just didn't relate to some viewers, who simply saw a gigantic superhero rumble featuring a bunch of strangers and a lot of squabbling. Or did something else let it down? Feel free to tell us in the comments...

Overrated rating: 4/10

7 The Matrix

(Original film only: the sequels definitely aren't overrated!)

What's right with it: Stylish visuals, cracking pace, excellent fight sequences with FX that have been endlessly imitated since and so much “cool” factor it still freezes up in your Blu-ray player when you watch it.

Why it's overrated: It may have seemed original at the time but when it burst into cinemas in 1999, The Matrix was merely riding on the coat-tails of William Gibson's cyberpunk books and a whole heap of Japanese anime (which the Wachowskis did at least have the grace to acknowledge). So while it seemed fresh, really The Matrix was simply recycling things with a Propellerheads soundtrack.

If that doesn't bother you, and there's probably no reason why it should, there's the fact that Keanu Reeves is a plank of wood from beginning to end. This means that The Matrix isn't about one guy trying to fight for his individuality because hell, a plank of wood can't be that original. No, the film's about that guy's really awesome coat and sunglasses and how great he looks while he's wearing them. If Neo had worn a pair of skinny jeans and a bogey-green jumper in every scene, The Matrix would have fallen apart faster than the world became tired of bullet-time. This isn't a sci-fi film – it's a fashion show.

It also has some of the most pompous dialogue in cinema history, although it ended up sounding absolutely fine compared to the following two films...

Overrated rating: 5/10

6 Brazil

What's right with it: Terry Gilliam's incredible visuals coupled with a tangible sense of chaos make this a glorious piece of science-fiction anarchy. Brilliant twist ending, too.

Why it's overrated: Brazil is good, make no mistake, but good lord, does it go on! What starts out as a delight becomes a chore. By the time you get to the sequence with the truck, you're praying it's going to end soon. After all, there's only so much grubby dystopia that you can take. But still it goes on... and on... and on... Go on, watch it again and experience it for yourself. Everything you remember being brilliant is still brilliant, but there's a lot more you've forgotten – and for good reason!

Brazil is best watched with a remote control in one hand so you can forward through the endless scenes of Jonathan Pryce looking harried to get to the good bits. Of which there are many, thankfully.

Overrated rating: 6/10

5 Akira

What's right with it: It's the film that almost single-handedly made the western world take Japanese anime seriously, with stunning, gorgeously soundtracked visuals. As far as design goes, it's streets ahead of anything else from the time, and has been endlessly copied since.

Why it's overrated: Do a Google image search for “Akira” and you'll see one image coming up again and again: a gleaming, blood-red motorbike – surely the coolest vehicle in cartoon history. If you Google “Akira” inside your brain, you'll also conjure up an image of that bike, because it's all you can remember about the film. And that's because Akira is about kids riding bikes through the streets of Neo-Tokyo while breathlessly cool music plays, isn't it?

No, it's not. You get a little bit of that – enough to make it iconic – but Akira is actually a bunch of whining teenagers being messed about by a government project while frowning at each other and having the odd horrifying hallucination. There's some bizarre stuff at the end which you might like if you don't mind a bit of surrealism, and then that's it. There aren't half as many bikes as you think there are, and it's only while they're on the screen that the film comes to life – you might as well be watching TRON with subtitles.

Overrated rating: 7/10

4 Donnie Darko

What's right with it: Richard Kelly's tale of a young man who's convinced the world is going to end in a matter of days is highly unusual, deeply original and occasionally disturbing. A curiosity when it came out in 2001, it's been acclaimed by critics and has become a dark cult classic, revered mainly for its scary-as-hell giant rabbit... and an ending the writers of Lost may just have snaffled for themselves.

Why it's overrated: Donnie Darko is, at its core, nothing more than the story of an emo kid having a really good brood. Jake Gyllenhaal may be tremendously watchable but he's still basically a sulking teenager all the way through this film – and that may be interesting if you're a teenager yourself, but if you're past those years of self-reflection, general misery and listening to The Smiths, who gives a damn?

Okay, so we don't know if Donnie's crazy and there are all sorts of things going on in the background that are interesting (the best of them being the subplot about Patrick Swayze's character, and of course Frank the rabbit). But when a film is as wilfully grumpy as this one, and also has absolutely no point that we can determine to make a viewing worthwhile, you do have to wonder if we've all been the victim of a giant, bunny-shaped practical joke.

Overrated rating: 7/10

3 2001: A Space Odyssey

What's right with it: Arthur C Clarke's clinical yet spiritual storytelling and Stanley Kubrick's eye for drama make this a sweeping epic which tells the history of the entire human race. Great if you're off your head on drugs (er, apparently...) but even better if you're in a sombre mood and fancy watching some hard sci-fi with a possibly mystical edge.

Why it's overrated: There are two camps when it comes to 2001: A Space Odyssey – those who “get” it, and those who don't. Those who do “get” it love the beginning (apes!) and the end (apeshit!) but even they tend to get bored by the middle, which features two men on a spaceship wandering around like soulless robots. (And if they say they aren't bored, they're fibbing.)

There's barely an ounce of emotion displayed by Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood in the entire runtime, leaving all the emoting to HAL 9000, a computer who somehow acts them both off the screen despite being nothing more than a red bulb. This was probably intentional but it doesn't make for good drama; after all, if you can't empathise with the humans on your screen, who can you empathise with?

The film is mind-numbingly slow as well, and then there's that ending, which is deliberately baffling from the moment astronaut Dave Bowman leaves his ship until he's “reborn” (apparently) as a giant Star Child. “It's about mankind transcending his body to enter the next phase of evolution!” say those in the know. Most of us don't see that, however. To use a phrase common with the kidz on the internet these days, all we're thinking is: “Dafuq did I just watch?”

And hey, these days we’re always criticising films for being CG porn, but honestly, so much of 2001 is model porn. Just because the FX aren’t about space battles it doesn’t make them any less gratuitous.

Overrated rating: 8/10

2 Avatar

What's right with it: You certainly get your money's worth with this blockbuster, a film that famously took James Cameron years to get underway because he had to wait for technology to catch up with his vision. And his vision was amazing: you can't fault the FX, production design or the cinematography. Avatar has to be one of the most beautiful films ever made, as well as the most lucrative.

Why it's overrated: Its beauty may be undeniable, but oh dear, what a shame about the plot. While your eyeballs are bathed in a luxurious blue glow, your brain is sitting there thinking, “Hang on a minute, if those guys weren't giant turquoise aliens this film would essentially be Dances With Wolves .” And it's true: Avatar is the story of mean and nasty Americans invading a new land and wiping out the peaceful inhabitants to sate their own greed. This effectively means that Sam Worthington's Jake Sully is nothing more than Kevin Costner in a Smurf suit.

But that's not all! Avatar is also Aliens without the Xenomorphs (even James Horner's score mimics his work on Aliens in some kind of sonic echo), contains shades of the Pocahantas legend, and the scenery evokes Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa . It may look original, but underneath all the sheen it's anything but.

Some may argue that just because it's not original, that doesn't make it bad. Yes, true enough, and the fact it's stolen bits and pieces from other movies isn't a crime. But the sad fact is that Avatar suffers from a story so overly familiar that it ends up hurting the film; for all the wonder and imagination in the visuals, there's none in the plot. You know exactly where the film is going – from A to B to C – and at no point does it surprise you. So while Avatar is a masterpiece if you're coming to it fresh, with no knowledge of cinema history behind you, it's a pile of predictable big blue balls for everybody else.

(Some people also have political issues with a film that’s supposed to show the nobility of a native race, but who need a human to help them out of a pickle…)

Overrated rating: 8/10

1 Blade Runner

What's right with it: Blade Runner is the perfect combination of film noir and dark science fiction. It wasn't much of a hit upon its release but since then it's influenced countless movies and TV shows and is the equivalent of the Bible for some sci-fi fans, something to be worshipped as holy. Sorry, true believers: we're about to get sacrilegious...

Why it's overrated: Before I wrote this piece, I wasn't intending to include Blade Runner (despite never being a big fan of it myself). As far as sci-fi goes, it really does seem to be sacrosanct. But when I mentioned it on Twitter so many people replied to say that they thought it was overrated that it's won its place here, fair and square. (The best comment came from @angelblue212: “I've not yet managed to sit through a complete showing. Every time I try again, they release a new one.”)

So why is Blade Runner overrated? Here's one theory: Harrison Ford's performance is dull. It's as though he's turned off every ounce of the charisma we know he possesses. The last time a cop was this boring, it was Dixon Of Dock Green. He has more chemistry with his gun than he does with Sean Young's Rachael; in fact, at times his gun acts him off the screen.

Then there's Rutger Hauer's bad guy, who gets a monologue at the end that people claim is beautiful and sensitive and proves that Replicants are more human than the humans... but whiffs very strongly of that rambling, bizarre speech Marlon Brando gives at the end of Apocalypse Now (you know, the bit you always forward through when you watch it). Roy Batty talks about spaceships on fire and tears in the rain, and while some think it's an exquisite speech, others are looking at our watches and thinking, “Oh, just die already!”

Blade Runner is teeth-grindingly slow. The visuals may be impressive but making a sci-fi film look like Tokyo on a rainy Tuesday night isn't really that much of a stretch, is it? And all the different versions don't bring this plodding movie to life, either. It doesn't matter if there's one with a narration, one with a unicorn or one with a bleedin' sperm whale riding a unicycle – it's still a film that's too in love with setting a mood, rather than telling a story. And a pretty slight story it is too, ignoring the most interesting aspects of Philip K Dick’s novel (or sidelining them to mumbled mentions).

When you boil it down, Blade Runner (along with 2001 ) is the kind of film people say you “have” to watch, and if you do and you don't like it, then they say that it's because you clearly don't understand “real” sci-fi. To which we say: poohsticks. It's a load of pretty, pretentious arse.

Overrated rating: 9/10

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