Director Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer, which didn't even crack the top ten movies last weekend, is being called the best sci-fi film of the year, and possibly the best film of the year period, with a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. A number of excellent science fiction films have hit the screens recently, from the comic book fun of The Avengers to the hard sci-fi realism of Gravity.
Of the 20 top-grossing films of all time, 19 are science fiction or fantasy films. Only Titanic breaks the mold. Science fiction films have been making accurate predictions about the future for decades; Jules Verne predicted the moon landing and nuclear submarines, Star Trek predicted smartphones & tablets and 3D printing, and Minority Report predicted ubiquitous personalized advertising. But predictions are't what sci-fi is all about — from 1984 and 2001: A Space Odyssey to Elysium and Prometheus, sci-fi has always been about Big Ideas: philosophy, politics, and society.
Here are my ten favorite science fiction films, many of which you can watch streaming online. I've generally managed to avoid spoilers, but there might be one or two.
10.) Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
If you've never heard of this British gem from Hammer Film Productions, maybe that's because it was released in the United States as Five Million Years to Earth. It stars veteran actor Andrew Keir as the titular Professor Bernard Quatermass, the rocket scientist protagonist of a series of 1950s serials on the BBC, and a kind of proto-Indiana Jones adventurer-scientist. When construction workers repairing a tube station happen upon a buried alien spacecraft, Prof. Quatermass is brought in to investigate; and soon racial memories of a primordial Martian genocide are being broadcast all over London, driving the inhabitants insane. Critics loved the film when it first came out (it has an 80% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes), and it has become a minor sci-fi classic. Even with all that, I consider it underrated. Amazon.
If you find that you enjoy Quatermass and the Pit, then I also strongly recommend Tobe Hooper's 1985 sci-fi horror epic Lifeforce, featuring a pre-Star Trek Patrick Stewart. This is another criminally underrated masterpiece, that almost made it onto this list. This time, it's the discovery of an alien ship full of space vampires, hidden in Halley's Comet, that leads to disastrous consequences for the city of London. Plus, actress Mathilda May spends the whole movie walking around stark naked, which doesn't really advance the plot, but has kept the film a favorite of middle school-age boys.
9.) The Fly (1986)
Kurt Neumann's original, black & white 1958 The Fly is a rather dull affair, made bearable only by yet another great performance by Vincent Price, that famous fly-head mask, and the unforgettable "help meeeee!!!" scene at the end. When Canadian avant-garde "body horror" filmmaker David Cronenberg wanted to direct a remake, comedy legend Mel Brooks was the only producer in town who would touch it.
In the remake, Jeff Goldblum's Dr. Seth Brundle doesn't instantly get a fly's head in the teleporter accident; the machine combines his DNA with the fly's, and he slowly transforms into a monstrous human-insect hybrid. But it's not a film about the horror of being turned into a fly — it's about the horror of dying of cancer, of having your own body betray you and change who you are. The practical effects, which were ground-breaking in the 80s (and more gruesome that anything seen in a studio picture up to that point), still hold up. A filmmaker today would use computer animation to represent Brundle's transformation into Brundlefly; the physical makeup effects are much more disturbing and compelling.
8.) Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise (1987)
This is the first of two anime films on this list; if there's one thing Japanese animators understand, it's science fiction, as evinced by the popularity of classic like Macross, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Cowboy Bebop. But if you've never heard of Wings of Honnêamise, and you probably haven't, it's because it is hardly known outside of anime fandom, despite being one of the most ambitious and popular films ever produced in Japan.
The film takes place in an alternate timeline, in which modern science and technology developed in East Asia rather than in the West. The fictional kingdom of Honnêamise has a space program, intent on placing the first man in orbit; but political machinations and an impending war with a Western power derail its efforts. That is, until shiftless, lazy astronaut trainee Shirotsugh (intentionally modeled on Treat Williams) meets the beautiful and deeply religious Riquinni (modeled on Tatum O'Neal), and she inspires him to try to do something with his life. Soon, assassins are after Shirotsugh, as the Royal Space Force races to launch their orbiting rocket before invading Western forces can destroy it.
Roger Ebert called Wings of Honnêamise "a visually sensational two-hour extravaganza," and it's the film's gorgeous art and production design, depicting an Earth almost, but not entirely, unlike our own, that truly make this film special. Amazon. Warning: it may be animated, but don't watch this with young children. You'll see why.
7. The Fifth Element (1997)
There is no other science fiction film like The Fifth Element, and here's why. A lot of European movies make it to America, but never reach beyond a small audience of cinéastes. That's because European filmmakers tend not to care about the expectations of American audiences, and don't conform to them.
The Fifth Element is a genuine American summer sci-fi blockbuster, with bankable American stars (Bruce Willis and the then-unknown Milla Jovovich), a traditional three-act structure, and cutting-edge special effects. But French director Luc Besson (The Professional, Taken) imbues every scene with an undeniably European sensibility; and whether you appreciate European sensibilities or not, he created a summer blockbuster that doesn't resemble any summer blockbuster made before or since.
In 2263, an evil, planet-sized force threatens to destroy the Earth. Only the Fifth Element, an ancient alien being that turns out to be a beautiful young girl named Leeloo, can stop it; and it's up to an ex-special forces cab driver, played by Willis, to protect her from the forces arrayed against her. The always-wonderful Gary Oldman (a regular Besson villain) plays the Southern-accented weapons manufacturer in the plastic cap intent on preventing Leeloo from destroying evil. Also, watch for Chris Tucker as an annoying metrosexual radio personality, who will either have you rolling in the floor laughing, or reaching for the remote. Amazon.
6. Brazil (1985)
When former Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam wanted to film a follow-up to his memorable independent time travel fantasy Time Bandits, it took him over three hours to explain the plot to executives at Universal. In truth, Brazil isn't that complicated: somewhere in a fantastical, Orwellian version of 20th Century Britain, a timid functionary in a totalitarian government agency risks everything to meet the woman of his dreams, who may or may not be an anti-government terrorist. If Monty Python wrote 1984, that would be Brazil.
Jonathan Pryce stars as the hapless bureaucrat, along with Michael Palin, Katherine Helmond, Bob Hoskins, and Ian Holm — and Robert De Niro as a swashbuckling, subversive air conditioning repairman. The visual look of the film is stunning, with styles and technologies from throughout the 20th Century jumbled together — this is what I imagine a film about the modern era made 500 years from now will look like.
Like the other two films in Gilliam's "Trilogy of Imagination," Time Bandits (1981) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989), it's sometimes hard to tell what scenes in Brazil are supposed to be actually happening, and which ones are dreams or fantasy sequences. And the ending — well, the ending is justifiably famous, and Universal executives hated it so much they tried to force an absurd "Love Conquers All" ending on Gilliam, which is sometimes used on televised versions. Don't watch televised versions. Amazon.
5. Akira (1988)
The other anime feature on this list, Akira is undoubtedly the most famous and most beloved Japanese animated film ever (take that, Spirited Away), and unlike Wings of Honnêamise, it regularly appears on lists of classic science fiction films. Based on the massive manga (comic book) by Katsuhiro Otomo, who directs, Akira is a masterpiece of the dystopian and cyberpunk genres, and is one of the most beautiful animated films ever produced.
On July 16th, 1988 (the day the film opened in Japanese theaters), Tokyo is destroyed by a mysterious black mushroom cloud, leading to World War III. Thirty-one years later, the rebuilt Neo-Tokyo is a high-tech nightmare of totalitarian military forces struggling to control a disaffected and largely criminal population. A shadowy military agency discovers that a troubled teen member of a motorcycle gang possesses powerful psychic abilities, linking him to the government-caused disaster that destroyed the city three decades earlier.
Hollywood keeps promising us a live-action remake of Akira (at one point it was going to star Keanu Reeves). Such a remake is certainly doable (see this beautiful, expensive trailer produced by a group of fans), but unnecessary. Akira is a beloved classic as it is, and the film has held up over the years. It will be 2019 in just five years, and we likely won't live in a totalitarian dystopia. But we will still have Akira to enjoy. Amazon.
4. Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott's masterpiece Alien is special in part because it manages to be one of the best films in two genres; it's widely acknowledged as one of the best science fiction films, but also as one of the best horror films, and it masters the tropes of both. In the 22nd Century, a commercial mining spacecraft responds to an emergency signal, and discovers a derelict alien craft. But the thing that killed the alien crew is only sleeping; and soon, John Hurt has horrific things bursting out of his chest.
There were many things about Alien that made it fresh and original in 1979. By 1989, the grungy, high-tech but low-class cyberpunk future was old hat; but in the 70s, audiences were unprepared for astronauts who were really just glorified truck drivers, and evil megacorporations willing to kill employees to make a profit. Horror and sci-fi had been combined before (see the 1958 The Fly, above, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers), but never so seamlessly. In previous films, robots were silver-skinned automata who served their human masters faithfully, not amoral killers that looked just like us (remember, Blade Runner was three years away, The Terminator five years).
Horror fans were shocked too, and not only by the wholly-original spaceship-as-haunted-house setting. Everyone expected that the heroic captain played by Tom Skerrit would survive at the end. Instead (spoiler alert for people who have never seen or heard of the Alien franchise), Sigourney Weaver's severe, killjoy warrant officer Ellen Ripley is the lone survivor. In horror movies, the female character never makes it, at least not before Alien. And most importantly, Swiss painter HR Giger's design for the murderous alien xenomorph was unlike anything anyone anywhere had ever seen, in a film or not. Amazon.
3. Blade Runner (1982)
A whole slew of movies has been produced based on the works of brilliant meth-fueled sci-fi author Philip L. Dick, despite the fact that his books are largely unfilmable. Scott threw out much of Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to make Blade Runner, creating a largely original dystopian universe. In 2019 Los Angeles, a former police officer is dragged back into service to hunt down and kill a gang of rogue replicants, hyper-realistic humanoid robots designed to explore space. Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard is soon forced to consider what it means to be human, and is faced with the possibility (in some cuts of the film) that he is a replicant himself.
Unfortunately, there are a number of versions of Blade Runner, and the original theatrical cut, with its unnecessary narration and tacked-on happy ending, is the weakest. I've seen every version; the 2007 Final Cut is the only version made entirely under Ridley Scott's direction. It keeps everything that was brilliant about the original, from the dark, proto-cyberpunk film noir aesthetic to the moving climax (with dialogue ad-libbed by Dutch actor Rutger Hauer), while preserving Scott's vision with a dark and ambiguous final ending that still manages to satisfy the viewer. Amazon.
2. Star Wars (1977)
So what can I possibly write about Star Wars, the film that created the single biggest popular culture phenomenon in world history? The film that by itself, without taking into account any other Star Wars film, has made $2.5 billion-with-a-"B" for George Lucas? The film that, more than any other single thing, defined my childhood, and the childhoods of most Generation Xers?
I can tell you that the movie's title is Star Wars, not Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope: Special Edition: Movie Title with the Most Colons in It Edition. I can tell you that Han shot first. I can tell you that this is the first and last perfect Star Wars film; The Empire Strikes Back was excellent but the cracks were beginning to show, and Return of the Jedi was when the luster really began to wear off. I was shocked and appalled when Phantom Menace turned out to be one of the worst science fiction films ever made, but I shouldn't have been.
I consider Star Wars to be an accidental masterpiece, because Lucas was never able to replicate it. But a masterpiece it remains, no matter how often Lucas tinkers with it. And a century from now, when transhuman children are looking for a movie to upload to their cerebral computers, and they accidentally stumble onto a list of old-timey "flat" movies from the 20th Century, they'll still squeal with delight when they see Star Wars on the list. Amazon.
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
This is a film that often makes it onto best-of sci-fi lists, but never in the number one spot. This is a mistake. CE3K, as the fans call it, is not just a perfect science fiction film, but a perfect film period. Unlike Steven Spielberg's more famous science fiction magnum opus, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Close Encounters has not aged in 37 years. It looks and feels as fresh and new as it did the day it was released, despite taking place in the groovy 70s — and that's especially surprising for an effects-driven film. But because of their unique nature, the special effects in CE3K look great today, and could have been produced by a modern SFX house on modern computers.
Richard Dreyfuss plays Roy Neary, an ordinary telephone repairman whose life is turned upside down when he sees a UFO — not in the night sky, but following his repair truck down a remote country road. He becomes convinced he has received a message from the aliens, and soon finds others who have shared the same experience. Then he runs up against an international government conspiracy to keep the alien contact secret.
There is much in Close Encounters that makes it different from anything that came before it. While the aliens turn out eventually to be benign, they appear for much of the movie as terrifying monsters, kidnapping a child and driving a permanent wedge between Roy and his own family. The government conspirators also turn out to be benign, but appear as villains because they don't understand the aliens' intent. The aliens themselves were brand new yet strangely familiar to 1977 audiences; the now-ubiquitous "alien grays" of UFO mythology were well known in the media, but had not been presented in a major motion picture before.
CE3K tells a genuinely human story about First Contact between flawed but well-intentioned humans, and aliens who may be flawed but well-intentioned themselves. Although hardly an obscure film, it is absolutely underrated. If you're going to watch or rewatch any one film on this list, make it Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Amazon.
Runners up: The Terminator (1984), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Aliens (1986), The Abyss: Special Edition (1989), Donnie Darko (2001), Contact (1997), Cloverfield (2008), Super 8 (2011), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), The Matrix (1999), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Back to the Future (1985), Battle Royale (2000), Looper (2012), Pacific Rim (2013), Godzilla (2014).
What are your favorite sci-fi films? Let us know in the comments below! Also check out our articles about the best country music movies, the best Baby Boomer movies, the best movies featuring actors over 50, and the best horror movies.