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The Best Guilty Pleasure Sci-Fi Movies

In the modern world of infinite options that cater to every taste, the concept of a "guilty pleasure" can be hard to pin down. Taken literally, it's something we enjoy but feel bad about doing so. The question of whether we have a good reason to feel bad, or whether that's just some sort of internalized snobbery, is even harder to establish with certainty. In putting together a list of guilty pleasure sci-fi movies, we've tried to avoid movies that are merely considered bad. If a bad movie gives you pleasure, after all, why is that something to feel guilty about?

Instead, these are movies that make heavy use of some sort of exploitative element. Movies that either don't quite reflect modern values, or deliberately eschew those values in the pursuit of something stranger and more complicated. That's not to say we judge anyone for enjoying these movies, or suggest that you should. But if you feel a bit guilty about them, we certainly understand and even relate.

Barbarella (1968)

In its way, Barbarella is a classic of late 1960s filmmaking. Directed by French master Roger Vadim and starring a young Jane Fonda, it tells the story of a free-spirited space traveler 2,000 years in the future who journeys to a dangerous planet in search of a missing Earth scientist. Adapted from the risqué French comics by Jean-Claude Forest, it's got amazing costumes, a spaceship with shag carpeting, and a theme song that memorably rhymes "Barbarella" with "psychedela."

Unfortunately Barbarella isn't quite the movie you want it to be when you watch it in our own 21st century. Barbarella comes off less like a sexually empowered independent woman and more like a naive ditz who submits to any man who wants to sleep with her. It doesn't help that Fonda, although she might be at her physical peak, still seems to have a lot to learn about acting.

It's not that the movie isn't fun — it's a lot of fun! It's just that taking pleasure in it makes you feel a little dirty. Even if you're not watching just to see Jane Fonda running around in revealing costumes, and often losing them along the way, so much of that is being served up to you that it's impossible to overlook. And if Fonda does nothing for you, the muscular John Phillip Law as a scantily clad angel is around to make sure nobody gets out of this movie without feeling like they might need a cold shower.

Galaxy of Terror (1981)

Produced by schlockmaster Roger Corman, Galaxy of Terror is a sci-fi horror film that was directly inspired by the success of Alien. Lacking that film's budget or behind-the-scenes talent, however, left the filmmakers with no hope of creating such an effective monster. So rather than facing a single physical foe, the crew of the starship Quest find themselves on a planet that brings their worst fears to deadly life. That turns out to be a pretty solid premise, and it's helped by a very strong cast. The troubled captain of the Quest is played by Grace Zabriskie, who would go on to play Sarah Palmer in Twin Peaks. Also on the crew are Robert Englund, who would soon become famous as Freddy Krueger, and genre legend Sid Haig, who we think of today as the wicked clown Captain Spaulding in House of 1000 Corpses and its sequels. Rounding out the cast are TV stars Erin Moran, of Happy Days, and Ray Walston, of My Favorite Martian.

The unique premise, strong cast, and distinctly grimy aesthetic all make Galaxy of Terror a sci-fi movie worth watching. However, it's an exploitation film at heart, and that means the male filmmakers inevitably decided that one female crewmember's worst fear is her own sexuality. And how does that get dramatized by the nightmare planet? She's sexually assaulted by a giant worm, of course. Galaxy of Terror may be remembered today, which is a feat for a movie of its small scale, but it's mostly remembered for this particular scene, which is a fairly ignominious distinction.

Forbidden World (1982)

Forbidden World is also inspired by Alien and produced by Roger Corman, but its view of sex is much less dark. In this future, everybody seems to like sex a lot. They have plenty of it, with pretty much whoever, and those who aren't having it are probably watching somebody else having it over security cameras.

In Forbidden World, a science colony on an alien planet is threatened by a constantly mutating monster created in a genetics lab. The creature barely moves, it usually just sits there like a big black garbage bag with a toothy mouth. It does, however, produce lots of slime, and it mutates the people it attacks so they turn into piles of slime too. So by the end of the movie, the whole settlement is pretty much covered in slime. Just slime, sex, women showering together, abbreviated bathrobes, and a manly hero from Earth who's doing his best to save the day without slipping and falling down. Of course if he did slip and fall, he'd probably land on a beautiful naked woman. He just seems to be lucky that way.

Xtro (1982)

Reviewing Xtro upon its release, TV Guide called it "a vile exercise in grotesque special effects" as well as "an excuse to parade all manner of perversities across the screen." Even most people who enjoy the film for what it is would be hard-pressed to disagree. The plot of Xtro makes no sense, and seems to be driven not by narrative logic, but by a desire to see what gross thing can next be accomplished with special effects.

Basically, a young husband and father named Sam is abducted by aliens at the beginning of the film. He returns to Earth three years later, but he's apparently become an alien himself (or maybe he secretly always was one?) and his morality is just as inhuman as his biology. Sam first reappears as a backwards-legged alien monster, which assaults and impregnates a woman, who then gives birth to a full-grown man who turns out to be Sam himself in human form. He seeks out his wife and son, drinks some blood, gives his son the power to bring toys to life and have them do violence, kills his wife's new boyfriend, turns back into an alien, and takes his son to space.

If you're into practical special effects and body horror, Xtro isn't a bad watch despite the convoluted plot. Just prepare yourself to watch a woman give birth to an adult man, because that's an image you won't soon forget.

Lifeforce (1985)

Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce is an adaptation of the novel The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson. Cannon Films, who were backing the project, changed the title to sound more respectable — which is ironic because Lifeforce is absolutely a movie about space vampires. Naked space vampires.

Lifeforce opens with a space shuttle approaching Halley's Comet and finding a weird alien ship within it. They investigate and find three human-looking bodies preserved in glass coffins. The three coffins find their way to a research center in London, where the trio wake up and begin sucking the "lifeforce" out of people, leaving behind desiccated husks that then wake up and must steal other people's lifeforces in turn to restore themselves.

The lead space vampire is played by French beauty Mathilda May, and she's completely nude in almost all of her scenes. The sequence in which she wakes up in he British science facility and makes her escape is famous both for its gratuitous views of her body, and for the sheer weirdness of a naked lady effortlessly taking down every guard and soldier that stands in her way.

The movie calms down after that, and spends quite a few scenes on a bunch of British guys (including Patrick Stewart) discussing what to do about these nude models from space. Just as they're starting to come up with ideas, London descends into zombie movie chaos thanks to the aliens' soul-sucking contagion, and the movie builds to an ending as inexplicable as most of what's come before.

Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988)

Pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper was no great actor, but his charisma and physical ability made him a pretty great action star, as he proved in John Carpenter's They Live. That wasn't the only sci-fi movie that starred Piper in 1988, however, and the other one isn't remembered with quite the same nostalgic glow.

In Hell Comes to Frogtown, Piper plays Sam Hell, one of the last virile men left in a post-apocalyptic world of Amazonian women and mutant frog people. He's captured by a group of warrior nurses, who send him on a mission to rescue a group of fertile women from frog territory. They fit him with a high-tech codpiece that will explode if he doesn't follow their orders. That's all fine, as these things go. Piper is charismatic as always and the frog costumes look pretty great.

What makes the whole movie feel a little gross is its obsession with Sam Hell's sexual prowess. He's told that the warrior nurses were able to find him by following the trail of pregnant women he left in his wake. As soon as they leave on their mission, his female guard attempts to seduce him, and from that point on no woman — human or frog — is able to resist his charms. It's a straight guy's "last man on Earth" fantasy mixed with an impregnation fetish, and it can be a little distracting from the purer joy of a pro wrestler fighting mutant frog people.

Society (1989)

Society is at heart a class satire, skewering the obscenely wealthy upper crust and their inability to respect the humanity of the "regular folks" they consider beneath them. How it gets at this message, however, is really something else.

Beverly Hills teen Bill Whitney belongs to a rich family, but he suspects that he was adopted because he feels alienated from his sister and parents. It turns out he's right about the adoption, but the circumstances are far more bizarre than he could have suspected. He begins to suspect that his family and the other people in their community are part of a perverse cult that holds incestuous orgies, but even that doesn't approach how weird the truth turns out to be.

Bill's family and all their rich friends aren't even human, it turns out. They belong to an entirely different species, and consider themselves superior to humanity. As Bill suspected, they're taking part in big orgies, but as part of these rituals their bodies melt and stretch and fuse together until the whole group is one big blob. They also feed on human sacrifices, which is the sole purpose Bill has been raised for all along. The movie climaxes with one such alien orgy, and it's one of the most bizarre things you'll ever see in a movie. It's so gross it basically kept anyone from seeing Society for years, making it an almost forgotten cult classic.

Species (1995)

Species offers a unique take on an alien invasion film. Instead of arriving from space, the aliens send Earth scientists all the info they need to genetically create an alien-human hybrid, which of course a scientist immediately does. The alien turns out to be a lovely blonde girl named Sil who grows up from birth into a young Michelle Williams and then an adult Natasha Henstridge incredibly quickly. Being the only one of her species on Earth, her immediate goal is to reproduce. Having realized she's dangerous, the scientists' immediate goal is to stop her.

On one level, Species is a sci-fi blockbuster with a respectable cast featuring Ben Kingsley and Forrest Whitaker, and creature designs by H.R. Giger, the artist responsible for Alien's unique look. On another level, it was an excuse for Natasha Henstridge to take her clothes off a lot as she attempts multiple seductions, including one in a hot tub, and then to turn into a slimy tentacle monster when things don't go her way. To really enjoy the movie, you sort of have to be able to appreciate it from both angles.

Tokyo Gore Police (2008)

If you're watching a movie called Tokyo Gore Police, you pretty much know what you're getting into. One of the best of Japan's particular brand of action splatter films, this directorial debut by special effects artist Yoshihiro Nishimura takes place in a near future Tokyo where a manmade virus is transforming people into grotesque mutants called Engineers, who sprout weapons from their bodies anytime they're injured. The film's protagonist, Ruka, is a young woman with a special skill for hunting down and killing Engineers, but she soon finds herself on the path to becoming one herself.

Not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, Tokyo Gore Police features heads exploding, countless limbs (and other members) being severed, and one person who's drawn and quartered. There's a girl whose legs mutate into an alligator-like mouth, and a quadruple amputee in a bondage mask who walks on four katana blades that she can also attack with. There's also a chair that pees on people. By now you're already thinking either "that sounds disgusting" or "I should see this movie," and that ought to tell you a lot about yourself.

Wizards (1977)

In the 1970s, animator Ralph Bakshi was best known for his X-rated adaptation of R. Crumb's Fritz the Cat, which got a lot of attention for bringing adult sensibilities to animated movies. With his 1977 film Wizards, however, Bakshi's goal was to create a more family-friendly fairytale. As he explains on the bonus features of the Wizards Blu-ray, he felt like his innovative style would lead to a family film that would prove superior to Disney's output. And it's certainly true that Wizards is more innovative than what Disney was putting out at the time — innovation isn't where Bakshi fell short of his goal. Taking out the sex was the thing that didn't come naturally for him.

The fantasy world of Wizards is one that features buxom fairies, goblin sex workers, and even outright nudity. The female lead is a teenage fairy named Elinore, who spends the entire movie in a skimpy white bikini and turns out to be the the love interest of the 50ish white-bearded heroic Wizard Avatar. There's a lot of great stuff in Wizards, which on balance makes it well worth a watch, but in general the treatment of women has not aged well at all.

Splice (2009)

Splice is a thoughtful movie about the moral implications of creating a human/animal hybrid through gene-splicing. A scientist couple played by Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody pursue forbidden knowledge by creating an intelligent but not fully human creature named Dren. At first she's just an experiment, but in time she becomes like a daughter to them. Then as Dren matures and deals with confusing instincts and limited contact with similar creatures, she uses pheromones to seduce Brody's character. Then she transforms unexpectedly into a male form and assaults Sarah Polley's character in turn. It's a pretty shocking turn for the film to take, even if you expected something unsettling going in.

Still, the film is far from shallow and mostly avoids being outright exploitative. Delphine Chanéac gives a beautiful and complex performance as Dren, aided by digital effects that give her a semi-human lower body and eyes that are unsettlingly far apart. And ultimately, avoiding questions of sex and consent in this story of the line between human and animal behavior wouldn't have made much sense.

That's the thing about a lot of the movies on this list. The things that make us a bit embarrassed to enjoy them — that make them "guilty pleasures" — are often inextricably tied to the things that make them interesting and worth watching at all. We're forced to contend with these films as complex wholes, in which the weird and exploitative aspects are part of our enjoyment whether we're comfortable with that or not.

Flesh Gordon (1974)

If Barbarella is a film designed to titillate, Flesh Gordon is literal pornography. However, filmmakers Michael Benveniste and Howard Ziehm injected it with so much clever humor and fun that it's worth checking out today, even if 1970s porn isn't your usual bag. Benviste and Ziehm drew heavily on the Flash Gordon cliffhanger serials of the 1930s, as well as the original Alex Raymond comic strips, and then made everything much sillier (and more naked).

The almost beside-the-point plot involves Flesh Gordon, his girlfriend Dale Ardor, and their scientist friend Dr. Flexi Jerkoff traveling in a very phallic rocket to the planet Porno to stop the evil Emperor Wang the Perverted from inflicting his Sex Ray on Earth. There they encounter all manner of seductions, as well as Penisauruses (you can imagine what those look like) and a sardonic stop-motion giant hilariously voiced by future TV star Craig T. Nelson. If that all sounds ridiculous, it very much is, but the special effects are pretty legit, and it served as a memorable homage to 1930s sci-fi that presaged Star Wars and the 1980 Flash Gordon movie. Just, you know, don't watch it while your parents (or your kids) are in the house.