50 essential sci-fi films
With JJ Abrams's 'Star Trek' already making waves and McG's 'Terminator Salvation' peeking up over the horizon, Time Out thought it would be a perfect time to select 50 essential sci-fi films, some of them classics, some not so classic, but all need to be seen...
1-10 | 11-20 | 21-30 | 31-40 | 41-50
Writers' Note: In order to restrict ourselves to 50 films, we opted to dismiss speculative films which deal with dystopian futures: as a result, great films like 'Blade Runner', 'Fahrenheit 451' and 'Hardware' will not be found in this list. We'll get around to those at a later date...
Additional note: The list below is in alphabetical order. We do not think 'The Abyss' is the greatest sci-fi movie ever made.
1. The Abyss (1989)
Directed by James CameronIronically, it’s the sci-fi elements that almost sink Big Jim Cameron’s over-budget underwater adventure. The first two hours are a breathless, bulwark-crushing ride through the reinforced steel corridors of a deep-sea salvage platform precariously balanced on the lip of the eponymous crevasse. But the last act – whether it’s the original (interfered with by the studio) version, or the ‘Day the Earth Stood Still’ special edition cut – drags the film into starry-eyed space-cadet territory, and the less said about that giant pink rubber spaceship, the better… TH
Click here for the trailer of 'The Abyss'
2. Alien (1979)Directed by Ridley ScottIt will be argued elsewhere on this list that David Lynch’s ‘Dune’ remains the most persuasively imagined space opera of them all. While that film might well enjoy all the production values of the galaxy’s most elaborate Ferrero Rocher advert, it’s a stuffy, unwieldy goliath compared to Sir Ridley’s tambourine-tight space-trucking yarn. Superior man-in-a-suit scares may occasionally threaten to overshadow the elegant concepts, logical rigour and sheer majesty on show, but at the time ‘Alien’ offered sci-fi fans an alternative playground after George Lucas had bullied everyone off the swings. ALDClick here for the trailer of 'Alien'
3. *Batteries Not Included (1987)Directed by Matthew Robbins
+ Cocoon (1985)Directed by Ron HowardWhile you could easily pair up the former with the liquid awfulness of Robin Williams’s soppy robo epic ‘Bicentennial Man’, and the latter – with its benign aliens landing on earth looking for peaceful co-existence – with something like ‘K-Pax’ or ‘Starman’, ‘*Batteries Not Included’ and ‘Cocoon’ make for the perfect partnership. Both films address the effect that extra terrestrials have on OAPs, sometimes imbuing them with a newfound joie de vivre, other times sending them to an early grave (but, of course, with the promise of rejuvenation). You could replace the aliens in both of these films with kittens and they would be no different. Both films star Jessica Tandy and involve crying. DJClick here for the trailer of 'Cocoon'
4. Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)Directed by Jimmy T MurakamiB-movie queen Sybil Danning smouldered from the poster as a space-Valkyrie Page 3 stunnah, but schoolboys expecting ‘Star Wars’ with special sauce were in for a disappointment. Animator Jimmy Murakami’s sole live action effort is a crash-and-burn interstellar re-working of ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (or ‘Seven Samurai’, cine-purists) that unwisely dabbles in comedy asides and Hollywood in-jokes. Neither casting nor script push the imaginative envelope, with Richard Thomas (John-Boy Walton) as the obligatory farmboy naïf on the receiving end of questions like ‘Does your race have… kiss?’. Somehow, the movie managed to pull big names like Robert Vaughn and George Peppard into its orbit, with the latter looking particularly ill at ease in the kind of cowboy ensemble that inspired Steve Martin’s party scene in ‘Parenthood’. Even the then industry-standard decision to blow the special effects budget on grey paint and hundreds of Airfix kits (resulting in the bustiest spaceship in cinema) can’t rescue ‘Battle…’ from the bargain-bin of ‘Star Wars’ knock-offs. PFClick here for the trailer of 'Battle Beyond the Stars'
5. The Black Hole (1979)Directed by Gary NelsonStagebound, plasticky and trading in ideas ranging from the tired to the flat-out preposterous, this megabucks Disney effort treats its audience with something like contempt. The assumption seems to be that sc-fi is kids’ stuff and that kids will lap up anything shiny and zappy, so let’s not concern ourselves that we have characters breathing in the vacuum of space or the fact that the script is as dull as ditchwater and as leaky as a giant sieve. A ghastly and woefully miscalculated attempt to cash-in on the post-‘Star Wars’ space craze (ditto for the same year’s Bond film ’Moonraker’) from the producer of sci-fi cornerstones ‘The Shaggy DA’ (1976) and ‘The Cat From Outer Space’ (1978). ALD Click here for the trailer of 'The Black Hole'
6. Cherry 2000 (1987)Directed by Steve De JarnattThe early Eighties were awash with films that bolted dubious bongo onto lo-fi sci-fi. Vaseline-lensed muckfest ‘Galaxina’ (1979), for example, was a tongue-in-cheek attempt at an interstellar stag movie, while ‘Inseminoid’ (1981) – which really is as nasty as it sounds – pandered to the gorehounds. None, however, were quite as polished, witty and effortlessly weird as this sexy satire starring Melanie Griffith as a shock-headed anarcha-feminist bounty hunter and no-budget genre mainstay Tim Thomerson as a despotic overlord addicted to cabana-wear. ALD
Click here for the trailer of 'Cherry 2000'
7. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) + ET: The Extra Terrestrial (1982)Directed by Steven Spielberg‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ isn’t just Steven Spielberg’s best work. It’s not just the greatest-ever sci-fi flick. In the opinion of some – a minority, admittedly, but a growing one – ‘Close Encounters’ is quite simply one of the finest movies ever made. As a work of populist science fiction, it’s one of the few films to create an atmosphere of monumental awe without resorting to scaremongering and wanton violence (even Kubrick couldn’t pull that off). But ‘Close Encounters’ is much more besides: a harrowing portrait of obsession and mounting insanity, a satire on the shattered nuclear family, and a stark (if admittedly slight) critique of American militarism, complete with a train car evacuation which directly anticipates ‘Schindler’s List’. Spielberg’s direction has never been more thrillingly inventive, John Williams’ wildly experimental score was an instant classic, and Richard Dreyfuss anchors the whole affair with his dumbstruck everyman central performance. Five years later, ‘ET’ all but repeated the same trick for younger viewers: funnier, more sympathetic and undoubtedly a masterpiece, it still doesn’t have quite the same quasi-religious impact as its predecessor. THClick here for the trailer of 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'
8. Contact (1997)Directed by Robert Zemeckis
+ Sphere (1998)Directed by Barry LevinsonExploration, doubt and clear-sighted investigations into man’s place in the universe mark out Zemeckis and Levinson’s diptych of sombre puzzlers – well, somber, that is, until ‘Sphere’ goes so heroically off the rails that all you can do is applaud. Ponderous talkathon ‘Contact’ was adapted from a blockbusting '70s door-stop by primetime cosmologist Carl Sagan while the lusty underwater thrills of ‘Sphere’ come direct from a lacklustre novel by Michael Crichton: Both honour their authors’ legacies with no little class. ALD
Click here for the trailer of 'Sphere'
9. Critters (1986)Directed by Stephen HerekOf the post-‘Gremlins’ wave of ‘our small town is being overrun by small angry creatures’ schlockers (see also ‘Ghoulies’, ‘Munchies’ and ‘Troll’), ‘Critters’ is the only one that stands up to modern scrutiny. Written and directed by ‘Bill & Ted’ mastermind Stephen Herek, the film succesfully eschews scares, characterization and narrative logic in favour of completely daft, occasionally bloody humour, with likeable, scattershot results. THClick here for the trailer of 'Critters'
10. Dark Star (1974)Directed by John CarpenterScripted by and starring ‘Alien’ creator Dan O’Bannon, this low budget masterpiece of light-speed torpor began life as a student film before being picked up for distribution. It’s the workaday story of four unkempt astronauts on an unending and ill-defined voyage to wipe out ‘unstable’ planets to make way for colonists. With these bored and beardy malcontents entrusted by an indifferent government with vastly powerful weaponry, the film's nod to the Vietnam war would not have been lost on contemporary audiences. Between brief bouts of destructive joy, life for theDark Star crew is characterised entirely by barely suppressed hostility, petty rivalry and childish territorial whining: anyone who’s ever been stuck in a flat share over a bank-holiday weekend will empathise. Fortunately for these long-haired planet killers, one of the ship’s intelligent bombs begins to develop consciousness, offering both the possibility of new and exciting conversation and an early end to their 9 to 5. All this plus 'Benson, Arizona', the theme penned by John Carpenter and Bill Taylor, remains one of the best country songs ever to address the emotional effects of faster-than-light travel. PF
Click here for a clip from 'Dark Star'
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