The genre of Science Fiction has been a mainstay in cinema for the last century, yet I don’t find myself versed enough in the category to handle such a monumental task of compiling the best of the best….but I know someone who is…
I’m going to be completely honest for a second: If I wrote this list, it would consist of a guaranteed 3 Star Wars films (a possible 4th), Guardians of the Galaxy (a possibly 2nd) Signs, some Star Trek movies for good measure, and the Fly. I will fully admit, that’s some bulls—, and you deserve much better. So, I give you my friend, Pete Herr, the Grumpiest Geek I know, but the only man I’d trust a Science Fiction list of such epic proportions to.
<Pete> I always get nervous when Lou turns over the keys to the kingdom to me. I don’t want to screw it up. This list is the hardest one I have ever had to write. There are so many great sci-fi films to choose from, both classics and modern releases. No way I can cover them all, so I expanded the list a tiny bit. This will be the Top 15 films. Now there are two films that need to be mentioned in any list of great sci-fi films. The problem is that I don’t like either of them, from a sit down and watch them point of view. I am not sure I have ever finished the first one, and the second one, only reluctantly so. These two films have undoubtedly been HUGE ground breakers in the genre, and many films and filmmakers owe them a huge debt of gratitude. These films are like the “Stairway to Heaven”‘s of the sci-fi film genre, meaning they are always on the top of someone’s list, just not mine. So, they get this award….it’s like the lifetime achievement award or the Congressional Medal of Honor – HUGE, but not on my list of films that I actually enjoy. Can you put your hands together for the two of the greatest films ever made that I don’t like – Metropolis and 2001: A Space Odyssey . Everyone says they love them, except for me. (I imagine my virtual house gets burned down over this) Sadly, I don’t like cheesecake either, so I am a big fail in foodie circles too. On with the Top 15 Sci-fi Films of All Times (for Pete).
#15 – Ex Machina (2014)
Every time I see Google or some other mega tech company talking about AI, I get the shivers after watching this film. We are all doomed. This independently produced film, written and directed by Alex Garland was one of the most chilling stories I have ever watched. The film was relatively small in scope, with a small cast and a budget of only $15 million. Can you say that? ONLY $15 million budget? Despite that, it featured some big star power in Issac Oscar and Alicia Vikander, both of which were outstanding, by the way. It also won an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, which I totally agree with. A visually incredible film, about AI that are far, far worse than we could ever imagined. Stephen Hawking was right.
#14 Jurassic Park (1993)
I am a huge Michael Crichton fan, and few of his books translate super well to film. The book is always better than….aww shut up, Pete. Jurassic Park did, for a number of reasons. First, the story. The idea of cloning a long dead species is so cool. The idea of then exploiting it in a PT Barnum-esque theme park fashion is just so American. It totally cracked me up. And the fact that it, of course, all went kaplooey is just good storytelling. I enjoyed the qwirkiness of Jeff Goldblum, and the childlike excitement of Richard Attenborough’s character about his not so well thought out plan. In addition to a good story and some great actors, Jurrasic Park also ushered CGI into the mainstream. Director Steven Spielberg gave it a go. He had some experience working with big rubber prop animals, (See also: Jaws, 1975) and the dinosaurs loaned themselves well to the industry changing new technology. Home run for Crichton and Spielberg. This is one of the films on this list that I will watch almost anytime I see it on a movie channel on a Saturday afternoon.
#13 RoboCop (1987)
This film falls right into my personal belief system – dystopia, steampunk, privatization gone wrong, out of control technology. Everything that is wrong with the world, rolled into one film. OK, so I am a bit overdramatic. I am aware. Peter Weller plays the unfortunate Detroit cop, Alex Murphy who is executed in the most gruesome way by a gang leader. He is then taken Omni Consumer Products (great name for a malevolent corporation) where he is turned into the cyborg RoboCop, as part of a new program to populate the Detroit PD with robotic officers. Some great themes and a well made movie by Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who also directed some other sci-fi cult classics like Starship Troopers and Total Recall (which it pained me to leave off this list – The Arnold one, not the lame-o Colin Farrell one) RoboCop helped usher in a new generation of dystopian themed films as technology for visual effects got better.
#12 Back to the Future (1985)
Time travel pieces are often heady. There is no real reason for that, and in the 198o’s when music was fun, and fashion was questionable, Back to the Future proves you can have great fun with a serious topic. Popular Mechanics even rated BTTF as it’s number one time travel film. I would have to agree. It is totally fun, with a great cast of characters played by Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson, and, of course, Christopher Lloyd, who, without a doubt, gave this film the personality that propelled it to the top. The two subsequent sequels were nowhere near as good as the original, but as a body of work, they really explored the major perils of time travel, like the paradox of meeting your past or future self, the problems with the ripples created by small changes in the timeline, and even the tribulations created when a bully, billionaire rises to great power. And they did it with great humor. Without a doubt, Back to the Future changed the timeline on time travel films.
#11 Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Two things were really different about sci-fi films in the 1970’s. First was budgets. Unlike the hundreds of millions spent today on incredible CGI effects, films were made for tens of millions of dollars. Close Encounters had a $20 million budget. The second thing was that two of the world’s best known sci-fi directors we really kicking things off. Close Encounters was directed by Steven Spielberg, (his second, but not last entry on this list, and we are only at #11). The other low budget sci-fi that came out this year was the $13 million Star Wars, directed by George Lucas, also a definitive force in the sci-fi genre. One of the things I loved about this movie is that it was a street level kind of thing. It tells the story of an everyday guy whose life was dramatically changed after encountering with a UFO. Roy Neary (played by the legendary Richard Dreyfuss) is a blue collar guy from Indiana. He isn’t a scientist or an astronaut or a super hero. He’s just a guy. And who can forget the scene with the mashed potatoes? Great film.
#10 The Road Warrior (1982)
After watching Mad Max, I am not sure why anyone went on to see The Road Warrior. There is not one redeeming quality to the first film that would lead you to spend money to see the second. This film set the bar for the post-apocalyptic genre, and the film that launched Mel Gibson’s successful but strange roller coaster of a career. This thing was made on a ridiculously low budget of $4 million (Australian), which converts to $3.18 million USD today. It checked all of the boxes for a good post-apoc. Scarcity of resources so everyone fought everyone, vehicles that were patched together out of whatever materials could be found or taken, scary costumed villains, and a hero forged out of brutality in the name of survival.
#9 E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Spielberg’s THIRD entry on this list. One thing that can certainly add to the appeal of a film is an unlikely set of heroes, like a bunch of kids who find an alien and try to help him get home, while hiding him from mom and government. Just a typical day. It was a different kind of film, that tugged at the heart strings, and it was immediately successful. Revenues jumped quickly and E.T. surpassed Star Wars as the number one grossing film of all-times, and held the record until Jurrasic Park surpassed it in 1993. The words “cute” and “science fiction” don’t often go together, and this one did it, making it a timeless family favorite that made everyone teary-eyed at the end. This film was remarkably not the first for then 7 year old Drew Barrymore, but certainly it helped launch her career. It is a feel good story, about kids, wrapped in a sci-fi. Groundbreaking to be sure.
#8 Terminator/T2 (1984 & 1991)
Two movies under one heading???? Well, maybe. And it won’t be the last time. Sometimes it is not so definitive which was the groundbreaker in a franchise. In this case, The Terminator broke the ground, but T2 was the better film, and then it all went downhill from there. The first two films were co-written and directed by James Cameron, of Titanic and Avatar fame, and apparently, the rights revert back to him in 2019 and he is slated to be involved in the next installment. These films really defined the man vs. machine conflict, with great backstory about Cyberdyne’s Skynet and the day it became self-aware and started to kill off humans in a much less subtle way than in Ex Machina. Throw in cybernetics, and time travel, and a whopper of a paradox, and you’ve got yourself an epic. Linda Hamilton really did her part to hold up the role of Sarah Connor, and the visuals were pretty darn cool for 1984 & 1991.
#7 The Matrix (1999)
In other cases, it is pretty clear which film in a franchise deserves the recognition, like this case. When I posted on Facebook that I was doing this article on the greatest sci-fi films and asked for suggestions, one poster went so far as to say that there was actually only one Matrix film. Apparently, the other two are dead to him. No doubt the first is best in this case. This film was certainly groundbreaking. The concept, the visuals, the costuming, all very well thought out and this world was so well developed. This is, arguably, Keanu Reeves best film. (IGN agrees, and I agree with their top 3 – The Matrix, Speed (love that film) and Point Break – Swayze, we miss you, man.) With Lawrence Fishburne as Morpheus and Carrie-Ann Moss as Trinity, this cast was perfectly chosen. Overall, a great job doing “the chosen one” trope… at least in the first film.
#6 Star Wars Trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983)
As far as movies go, none of these are masterpieces of film. They are campy and filled with stereotypes. They were built in a time before CGI and the aliens were unapologetic in their goofy rubberiness. Again, I’ve lumped these together as one work, because it is a three-film story. The three films worked together to achieve their ultimate legacy, which was to elevate the space opera to a whole new level. Of the three The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite, actually of all the Star Wars films. We, as a staff, ranked them after The Force Awakens came out, and, as a staff, we agreed that ESB was the best of the group, but for the sake of this discussion, the group of films together broke the ground that has carried that franchise through 40 years.
#5 Planet of the Apes (1968)
No doubt this was a top 5 for me. A few reasons. First, another time travel movie, that is the big reveal twist in the end. Secondly, 19 freaking 68. No special effects, in the modern sense. Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter and all of the rest of the apes were in full practical make-up. Based on the 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle, the screenplay was written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame. This movie, which had a definitive ending, turned into another franchise that continues to deliver today. I loved the differences in ideas and behaviors between the chimpanzees and the gorillas. Thoughtful and action packed film from the 1960’s.
#4 The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
Foundational to the Sci-fi genre, as it was at the beginning of the “movies that included flying saucers” phase of science fiction. It joined movies like The Thing From Another World, and Plan 9 From Outer Space, which were all probably made in response to the Roswell, New Mexico Incident of 1947, and sparked a national interest/fear of flying saucers and UFOs. While not as action-packed as other films on this list, its charm lies in it’s black & white filming, very reminiscent of a documentary. There is a bit of message about nuclear armament, as the alien explains that, galactically speaking, the weapons and the rockets won’t be tolerated if they are offensive in nature. Hmm. Aliens that want to reason with us. If only they were all like that.
#3 Alien (1979)
Speaking of aliens that want to reason with us, there isn’t one in this film. Director Ridley Scott, brought home the quintessential evil alien. This Xenomorph has an attitude and Sigourney Weaver’s totally bad ass Ellen Ripley has remained an iconic science fiction character for almost 40 years, including 4 films, several video games and additional spin-off comics and novels. While other science fiction films had scary moments, the Alien franchise so successfully integrated both sci-fi and horror into several of the most frightening movies of all times. Pretty sure I had to change my boxers a couple of times watching the original. The design of the alien character is so good, it still holds up so many years later.
#2 War of the Worlds (1953)
The 1953 film is the first of 5 adaptations of the novel by H.G. Wells. The original novel was written in 1897 (whaaaaat?) and took place in Victorian Era England. The time period was shifted to Cold War America for the making of the film, and served as loose commentary on the escalating arms race between the Soviet Union and the US. One of the cool elements of the film was the beginning, which was done in black and white to look like the popular news reels of the day. The film did win an Academy Award for best visual effects, in a time of hand drawn backgrounds. That’s worth something, right?
#1 Blade Runner (1982)
1982 was a good year for sci-fi, as this film is the third entry from that year. It’s also the second from director Ridley Scott. I love this film. It was a noir detective story set in dystopian Los Angeles in 2019. Replicants or clones have become so good they are now indistinguishable from real humans. They are also against the law. Visually, this movie is incredible, with phenomenal use of light and shadows. The cast is so good, and super star Harrison Ford is not the best actor in this film. I loved Rutger Hauer’s antagonist, Roy, and character actor William Sanderson was so good as the eccentric genetic designer J.F. Sebastian, who Roy is searching out to reprogram his counting down genetic code, the countdown of which will end their lives at 4 years. Ford’s character, Rick Dekkard is a worn out hunter of replicants who has a pretty fatalistic view of humanity (a characteristic of noir films) The evil Tyrell Corporation headed by Dr. Eldon Tyrell (played by Joe Turkel) is the perfect villain for this dystopia. This is a film I can watch over and over again, and still find things I hadn’t seen before. Because of my love for the original, Blade Runner 2049 was one of my most anticipated films of 2017.
So, that’s it. There are so many more great Sci-fi films that deserve recognition – Brazil, Soylent Green, Wrath of Khan, Contact, and Matt Damon in The Martian, are all incredible films. There are even a few films that somehow, I haven’t seen, like Arrival and Event Horizon were mentioned by other sci-fi fans. As I said in the beginning, this is the hardest list I have had to write, and even if I had expanded it to 20, or 30, it would still be hard to choose. </Pete>
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this contentious subject. What did I miss? What shouldn’t be on the list? What honorable mentions do you have. Leave me a comment below.
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