RECENT rumours about Space Jam II (purportedly to star Le Bron James…) serve as a good reminder that the science fiction cinema and the game of basketball are inextricably linked.
Well, not really.
But sci-fi and basketball at least have something of a common history.
It was James Naismith (1861 – 1939), the creator of the game, who once said that basketball’s invention was “not an accident.” Instead, in his words, basketball was developed to “fit a need.”
In movies of the genre variety, basketball has indeed fulfilled a very specific need.
When a sci-fi movie’s protagonist demonstrates a surprising skill in basketball he or she is not only hinting at unseen talents, but quite possibly, providing the key to the character’s very survival.
In some cases, in fact, a good game of basketball can save the world, or at least topple figures or authority and power.
Without further ado then, below are the five times that basketball figured prominently in the science fiction cinema…and the underdog won.
Deadly Friend (1986)
In this cinematic re-telling of Mary Shelleys Frankenstein story from Wes Craven, a teenage scientist named Paul (Matthew Laborteaux) sees his robot, BB, destroyed by a villainous next door neighbor, Elvira (Anne Ramsey).
In addition to pulping innocent robots, Elvira prides herself on being a bully, and making the life of neighborhood kids generally miserable. If any errant ball should land on her property, it’s gone forever.
After Paul’s girlfriend Samantha (Kristy Swanson) is killed by her alcoholic father, Paul revives her as a kind of robot zombie. Among Samantha’s first acts in this revived capacity is to take revenge upon Elvira…with a basketball.
In the film’s most outré and notorious scene, Samantha hurls the basketball at evil Elvira…and decapitates the old crone in one gratuitously bloody shot.
The moment is not only over-the-top, but Elvira’s punishment gloriously fits her crime. Samantha uses the treasure Elvira coveted to destroy her.
Cocoon: The Return (1988)
In this unnecessary and generally execrable sequel to the Ron Howard hit Cocoon (1985), the senior citizen brigade — Ben (Wilford Brimley), Joe (Hume Cronyn) and Art (Don Ameche) — return to Earth to help cheer up their old widower friend, Bernie (Jack Gilford) and aid the friendly Antareans in the retrieval of more cocoons from the ocean floor.
But after a group of 1980s punks accidentally splatter Bernie’s chili-dog with an errant basketball, it’s time for a decisive game of b-ball to determine generational dominance.
Although the old folks initially fall behind in this contest of physical prowess, and nearly lose 9 to 2, they come roaring back. Using their Antarean powers, the old men defeat their much-younger opponents.
Accordingly, the basketball match features a slow-motion Wilford Brimley leaping into action on defense, and a green-screened Don Ameche (on wires…) levitating several feet in the air…and sinking a basket. This shot wins the game.
But the point of this game is that the Greatest Generation still own the metaphorical court, even in old age. Bob, Art and Joe may be old, and their bodies weak, but they beat the Goliath here called “youth” (not to mention a youth-centric culture of break-dancing).
Escape from L.A. (1996)
John Carpenter’s return to the world of Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is actually a dedicated parody of the 1981 original, Escape from New York (1981), one that culminates with an attack on a Disneyland-like theme park.
In the first Escape film, Snake was captured by the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) and had to fight a villain to the death in a boxing arena. This gladiatorial contest was bread and circuses for the masses of the island prison.
But in this sequel a decade later, the world-famous criminal Snake — hobbled by a leg injury — has been captured by the island of L.A.’s dictator, Cuervo Jones (George Corraface).
Instead of fighting for his life in the ring, Snake must face his fate…on the basketball court. He must sink ten baskets in 100 seconds. It’s an impossible feat, designed to showcase Cuervo’s total power and control over Snake, and over the splintered Los Angeles Island.
But Snake moves into action, and the scene utilizes slow-motion photography, close-ups of the scoreboard — with the seconds counting down — and, finally, reaction shots from Steve Buscemi to sell the rousing nature of Snake’s victory.
In this case, Snake’s prowess is a reminder of the individual’s power over the state, even during a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
That’s actually one of the film’s core conceits. Although Snake says liberty and freedom died in America a long time ago, he represents those values, and his basketball victory suggests that fact.
Space Jam (1996)
In this film, villainous aliens called “Nerdlucks” absorb the basketball talents of professional players Charles Barkley, Shawn Bradley, Muggsy Bogues, Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson so as to defeat the beloved Looney Tunes characters (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and so on…) and take them back to their alien planet as a permanent amusement park attraction.
With their ill-gotten basketball skills, the Nerdlucks become the invincible “Monstars,” and the Looney Tunes characters don’t stand a chance. At least until Bugs and the others recruit Michael Jordan out of retirement…
After the Looney Tunes character and then Michael Jordan are jeopardized, however, Bill Murray unexpectedly arrives to save the day with a final, cartoon-centric basket.
The key to the comedian’s David over Goliath victory over the Nerdlucks/Monstars is his recognition of Looney Tunes Physics. The good guys win, then, when they “know” themselves, and play to their strengths.
Alien: Resurrection (1997)
In the final film of the original Alien line, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has been cloned, as has the alien queen. But in the cloning process, the two individuals have swapped some crucial DNA. The Queen Alien gains the capacity to give live birth, and Ripley is gifted with incredible reflexes and agility.
The deep extent of Ripley’s new abilities become evident…during an impromptu basketball-themed confrontation with the crew of mercenaries from a ship called the Betty.
Namely, Ripley clashes with the imposing, sarcastic Johner (Ron Perlman), a rough-and-tumble buffoon.
In the end, Ripley is victorious, effortlessly landing an impossible shot…without even looking at the basket. The mercenaries watch in awe, and the scene reinforces Johner’s question to her. “What are you?”
The audience isn’t certain, either…
In Alien: Resurrection, the miraculous basketball shot concerns Ripley’s new, inhuman instincts. On another level, however, the sequence is also about a female action hero and icon proving her superiority to the macho (male) doubters all around her. It’s not just that Ripley is part alien now, but it’s that she a baddest MF in the room, or the spaceship.
In real life, apparently, Sigourney Weaver is just as bad-ass, because she sunk the (impossible) basket on the first take.
In all these sci-fi -themed basketball scenarios, the under-dog wins.
The teenage girl beats the bullying neighbor. The old people beat the young punks. The wounded hero beats entrenched power and strikes a blow for freedom. The cartoons beat the professionals. And the alien woman proves her mettle….and mystery.
These basketball games in science fiction movies prove, in essence, Wilt Chamberlain’s words. “Everybody pulls for David, nobody roots for Goliath.”