Director: Irvin Kershner
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Best quote: ‘Never tell me the odds!’
The Big Idea: The force – Buddhist philosophy meets sci-fi mysticism, as delivered by the universe’s tiniest sage.
Fathers for justice
This first ‘Star Wars’ sequel was recently voted the greatest movie of all time – all time! – by the readers of Empire magazine. Our contributors haven’t gone quite that far, but we can all agree that ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is truly wonderful: a textbook example of how to take a successful but fairly simplistic sci-fi formula and transform it into something emotionally absorbing, philosophically rich and – most importantly – deliriously enjoyable.
For perhaps the only time in the entire six-film sequence, George Lucas’s stated ambition to marry ’40s-style derring-do with modern-day SFX really reaches fruition: ‘Big Sleep’ writer Leigh Brackett’s script may have been all but junked by Lucas and rewriter Lawrence Kasdan, but her old-world sensibilities are all over the finished movie. Nowhere is this more true than in the feisty Bogart-Bacall interactions between rakish rogue Harrison Ford and ice princess Carrie Fisher: their on-set dust-ups may be legendary, but their on-screen chemistry is unmistakable.
It’s a film that strikes a perfect balance between spectacle, character, humour and sentiment. It barrels through land battles and asteroid impacts, spiritual awakenings and romantic entanglements, all on the way to a truly operatic climax, the one-two punch of Han Solo’s noble sacrifice followed by Darth Vader’s shocking admission – still one of the great twists in cinema. Maybe those Empire readers had a point after all… Tom HuddlestonRead more
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn
Best quote: ‘I’ll be back.’
The Big Idea: The Terminator himself – unstoppable, unreasonable and terrifying, even in the buff.
Woman versus machine
Let’s head back in time to the days when James Cameron’s only feature film credit was 1981’s ‘Piranha Part Two: The Spawning’. While promoting that quickie horror sequel, a dream of a metallic torso pulling itself from an explosion sparked his imagination. He translated his nightmare into this iconic sci-fi feature, made mostly under the radar for $6.4 million and released (by an initially indifferent Orion Pictures) to strong reviews and stellar box office.
The story is blissfully pulpy: a killer robot in synthetic skin (Schwarzenegger, then best known for playing a sword-wielding comic-book barbarian) is sent back in time from a ruined Earth to the present day. His task is to murder Sarah Connor (Hamilton), the mother of the future saviour of humanity. Her protector is Kyle Reese (Biehn), a soldier in the post-apocalyptic war yet to come, who also time-travels back to convince the sceptical Sarah of the danger she’s in.
Both humans are eminently likeable, especially Sarah, whose arc from dorky, beleaguered waitress to tough-as-nails fighter (‘You’re terminated, fucker!’) is giddily satisfying. But it’s Arnold’s show: even with a bare minimum of dialogue (only 18 lines, one of which is the endlessly quoted catchphrase above), he’s a terrifying presence as the near-unstoppable man-machine – a crystalline vision of technology lethally turning on its creators. Keith UhlichRead more
Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich
Best quote: ‘There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.’
The Big Idea: The mothership of all sci-fi – a masterpiece that set the template for robots, mad scientists, megacities and dystopian nightmares.
A tale of two cities
‘I have recently seen the silliest film,’ wrote HG Wells in the New York Times in 1927. He wasn’t alone – critics hated Fritz Lang’s ambitious epic when it was first released. But over time it has become perhaps the most imitated sci-fi film ever. In a densely packed and towering city of the future, Freder, the son of a wealthy industrialist, falls in love with a girl from the hellish underground slum where workers toil to fuel the lives of those above.
It’s impossible to overstate the influence of ‘Metropolis’: the evil-twin robot of Freder’s lover Maria inspired C-3PO and the Replicants in ‘Blade Runner’, while Lang’s vision of a city of skyscrapers and elevated highways set the blueprint for futuristic cityscapes. Wells mocked the film’s underclass of workers, naively believing that technology would eliminate ‘the hopeless drudge stage’ of civilisation. But nearly 90 years on, the film’s depiction of slave labour has never seemed more relevant. Cath ClarkeRead more
Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Michael Palin
Best quote: ‘Sorry, I’m a bit of a stickler for paperwork. Where would we be if we didn’t follow the correct procedures?’
The Big Idea: Bureaucracy has developed from being a nuisance into a full-on, uncontrollable behemoth.
When you’re filing, the whole world files with you
Jonathan Pryce plays Sam Lowry, an unexceptional everyman who dreams big but lives as a tiny cog in a bewildering machine in Terry Gilliam’s farcical but biting dystopian nightmare – a film he originally struggled to get to screen when executives bristled at its length and bleak ending.
The ex-Python and ‘Time Bandits’ and ‘12 Monkeys’ director conjures up a discomforting retro-futuristic world, setting much of his story in vast warehouse-like offices and cathedral-like industrial spaces. Yes, it’s the future (sort of), but the costumes and movie references (from ‘Casablanca’ to ‘Metropolis’) are a nod to the past, and there’s something of the 1940s and George Orwell to the whole thing. Whatever the period, at the film’s heart is the eternal battle between free will and society, alongside a slap-to-the-head conception of what today’s reliance on technology and bureaucracy says about what the future might hold.
Lowry dreams of soaring high like a mechanical bird and sweeping a beautiful mystery woman (Greist) off her feet. In reality, he finds himself at the heart of a confusing scandal involving presumed terrorists and a case of mistaken identity, reluctantly taking up a job at a government department called Information Retrieval so he can seek answers.
The presence of Michael Palin and a sense of Britishness about the whole thing inevitably make ‘Brazil’ feel like an offshoot of Gilliam’s ‘Monty Python’ days. But this is something altogether more majestic, ambitious and troubling. For every visual gag about being stuck in an absurd lift, there’s the sight of a government apparatchik in a baby mask or an older woman (Lowry’s mother) having her face stretched to combat ageing. It’s Gilliam’s finest hour. Dave CalhounRead more
Director: George Lucas
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Best quote: ‘Use the force.’
The Big Idea: In a film crammed with great concepts (droids, hyperdrives, planet-destroying superstations), it’s those multi-purpose lightsabers that stand out.
A galaxy that’s closer to home than you think
A pop masterpiece that redefined an industry, ‘Star Wars’ updated sci-fi with unfashionable positivity, taking home a massive global haul that had studio execs salivating. It’s impossible to imagine what that game-changing summer must have felt like for teenagers accustomed to ‘Rollerball’ or ‘Logan’s Run’. Suffice it to say, the stakes were raised and the space blockbuster was born.
Creator George Lucas was the same guy who made 1973’s ‘American Graffiti’: keenly attuned to car culture and nostalgia, in love with the horizon, a tinkerer with gears. It’s no surprise that these elements translated so beautifully to the distant planet of Tatooine, where a young man, stranded in a dead-end town and only hoping to head to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters, rises to a life of mythic grandeur.
The movie’s technical innovations were seismic, from Ben Burtt’s imaginative sound design to the ingenious creatures and model effects. But chiefly, this was a film that launched a million toys – and, not insignificantly, a million dreams. Harrison Ford became a megastar overnight; ditto the black-masked Darth Vader, whose synthesised breathing noises entered the lexicon.
It’s easy to forget, in the wake of so many inferior sequels, prequels and one awful Christmas special, how fresh Lucas’s vision was. He’s since become synonymous with trilogy glut, but the soft-spoken director will always have this first foray, a glorious reinvention of the magic of movies. Joshua RothkopfRead more
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton
Best quote: ‘Game over, man. Game over!’
The Big Idea: The pneumatic loader, which allows Weaver to go toe-to-toe with a pissed-off 30-foot alien queen.
Two bad mothers
Almost three decades on, ‘Aliens’ still looks like some kind of miracle. How did James Cameron, the veteran of precisely two films (one of which was unwatchable) manage to match, some would say improve upon, one of the most inventive sci-fi movies ever made? Where did that script spring from, so streamlined and propulsive yet at the same time so sharp and quotable? And how, on a budget that would barely have covered the on-set sandwich trolley for ‘Avatar’, did he manage to create such an all-encompassing world, such dangerously droolsome hardware, such repulsively believable xenomorphic monsters?
Admittedly, there are a lot of borrowed ideas in ‘Aliens’: the creatures, corridors, corporations and kick-ass heroine from the first movie, the sympathetic android from ‘Blade Runner’, militaristic dialogue straight from a Vietnam flick, costumes and weapons torn from the pages of countless comic books. But Cameron doesn’t just use these tropes, he develops them at every turn: Weaver’s Ripley becomes a maternal figure grappling with loss; Bishop the android is glassy and self-mocking, comfortable with his artificial existence; the hapless grunts are more than just meat, they’re fully-fleshed characters.
Cameron has never managed to repeat the trick. There are great moments in his later movies, but like his ‘Alien’ antecedent Ridley Scott, Jim did his best work in his second and third films. If all he’d left us was ‘Aliens’, he’d still be a legend: here is one of the most effortlessly entertaining, endlessly rewatchable movies of all time, the work of a filmmaker blazing like rocket fuel. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Melinda Dillon
Best quote: ‘This means something. This is important.’
The Big Idea: Tension without threat, spectacle without violence – Spielberg pulls a trick no other filmmaker has managed in the past fifty years.
The power and the glory
For those of us who don’t bow down to any big, bearded spirits in the sky, the discovery of alien life might be the closest we’ll ever come to having a religious experience. And if that’s the case, then ‘Close Encounters’ might be our Old Testament.
Steven Spielberg’s film manages to get its point across without resorting to intimidation or cheap scare tactics. This is one of the few movies in history to appeal almost exclusively to what Abraham Lincoln called, ‘the better angels of our nature’: creativity, community, discovery and the capacity for wonder.
With the arguable exception of ‘ET’, this tale of benevolent alien contact is Spielberg’s most personal statement. It’s the heartfelt cry of a boyish 31-year-old who can’t rationalise his own self-centred ambitions with the demands of family and responsibility.
Possessed by a creative compulsion he can’t understand, everyman hero Roy Neary (Dreyfuss) alienates his wife and comes close to mental breakdown before discovering the source of the visions in his head. Spielberg has said that if he made the film today he wouldn’t allow Roy to abandon his loved ones at the end – and yet this final, painfully human act of selfishness is what gives the film its aching power.
Well, that and the breathtaking special effects. The appearance of the mothership over the mountain is one of the great visual punches in cinema. And the gloriously unflashy performances – Truffaut and Bob Balaban make a perfect nerdy double-act. Oh, and let’s not forget John Williams’s pounding, experimental soundtrack. How many non-musicals feature their score so prominently? The result is pure joy distilled onto celluloid. Maybe God does have a beard, after all. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Ian Holm
Best quote: ‘I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.’
The Big Idea: The crew themselves, a grouchy gang of blue-collar workers in crumpled old jumpsuits bickering about their bonuses.
Creature from the Id
Space isn’t all about glamorously cavorting across the galaxy, swashbuckling your way around undiscovered planets and canoodling with saucy green-skinned, many-breasted alien females. Space can also be a bleak, functional hellscape – just another workplace. And so it is in Ridley Scott’s gruesome horror epic, which pits a team of disgruntled space jockeys against a single, drooling, utterly vicious and single-minded critter.
‘Alien’ was the film that turned the ‘Star Wars’ template on its head, keeping the cutting-edge effects and sense of a used universe, but making it so much more real, gritty and, ironically, more human. The result is a grey, sombre affair filled with grotesque, uncomfortably Freudian imagery – phallic creatures, pulsating eggs, a computer named MUTHUR, that nightmarish birth scene… But it’s also a masterclass in cinematic tension. Artist HR Giger’s creature is a gothic nightmare of a foe, kept hidden for most of the film, leaving audiences to scour the corridors of the starship Nostromo themselves, constantly waiting for ol’ two-mouths to come leaping out.
It’s a grim haunted-house movie that has rarely been equalled, so filthy and industrial that we feel like we’re stuck on this hulking rust bucket too, surrounded by panicky engineers, backstabbing androids and a monster from the very depths of our nightmares. Eddy FrankelRead more
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young
Best quote: ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…’
The Big Idea: Through artificial eyes, Scott explores what it means to be human. The flying cars are pretty cool too…
I think therefore I am… but what am I?
We’re so accustomed to cinema being behind the political and cultural curve, that when a truly groundbreaking work arrives, no one’s sure how to deal with it. ‘Blade Runner’ was viewed as a disaster upon first release: here was a glum, grimy, neon-in-the-rain vision of the near future, complete with a taciturn anti-hero whose own moral compass seemed marginally less functional than the Replicant ‘villains’ he was assigned to hunt down.
It’s a film that, upon first viewing, feels almost unbearably harsh and claustrophobic, lingering on images of cruelty, decay and exploitation. It was only years later – abetted enormously by the film’s ‘Director’s Cut’ reissue, stripped of its clunky voiceover and crass happy ending – that we began to realise exactly what ‘Blade Runner’ was offering alongside its spectacular visuals. This wasn’t just a grim dystopian action flick, but a meditation on the meaning of life, morality, memory, creation, procreation, nature, nurture – the whole shebang.
If Harrison Ford’s Deckard is himself a Replicant – and the film strongly implies that he is – then how do any of us know which aspects of our psyche are ‘real’ and which ‘created’? If the robots are programmed with more soul and compassion than the humans, how do you tell the difference? And does it matter? ‘Blade Runner’ is the kind of spectacle that science fiction was invented for: immersive other worlds that can be explored to reflect our own fears, doubts and disturbances. And it succeeds flawlessly. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester
Best quote: ‘I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.’
The Big Idea: In a movie exploding at the seams with fascinating new ideas, the image of a computer driven mad by its own programming stands out.
From simians to supercomputers, the whole span of human ambition
And so we reach the top of our list (by a galactic margin), a film that scrapes the farthest edge of cinematic achievement. By 1963 and his fearsomely brilliant ‘Dr. Strangelove’, Stanley Kubrick was already the most scientific mind to ever step behind a camera. It made sense, then, that he would dive into an unprecedented four-year production process to bring sci-fi up to his exacting standards.
The results were staggering: a poetic yet brainy conception by legendary author Arthur C Clarke, who bridged the ‘dawn of man’ to the brink of the unknowable; sets and designs that outdid NASA for realism; and a waltzing mood that inspired awe and mass sales of Johann Strauss. Secretly, ‘2001’ is also the subtlest of dark comedies, one that pits grand human ambitions against HAL 9000’s murderous automated impulses. (Douglas Rain’s placid voice performance as the supercomputer is Kubrick’s craftiest piece of direction.)
The film was impressively open-ended for a mass entertainment, allowing for plenty of speculation. In a cultural moment when the future seemed impressively at hand, Kubrick dared to suggest that we weren’t ready for it as a species. The way ahead is full of stars – we only need the minds to take in the view. Joshua RothkopfRead more