The 100 best sci-fi movies: 20-11
Leading sci-fi experts, filmmakers, science fiction writers, film critics and scientists pick the best sci-fi movies ever made
Tue Jul 22 2014
Director: Fred M Wilcox
Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen
Best quote: ‘Another one of them new worlds. No beer, no women, no pool parlours, nothin’.’
The Big Idea: The worrying suggestion that however smart a species gets, its own hang-ups will destroy it in the end.
Sci-fi meets psychology
So much snarky fun is made of the high-minded parallels between this pastel-shaded, slightly campy sci-fi classic and the plot of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ that it’s easy to overlook the film’s many original ideas.
No other sci-fi film up to this point had dealt with such powerful concepts: an entire race of alien telepaths brought low by their own vaulting ambition; a man so consumed by Freudian passion that he can’t bear to let his daughter out of his sight; a spaceship full of ordinary guys just bored to death of intergalactic travel. Add to this some still-impressive effects, a wonderful swooping electronic score and the dry, ironic presence of that mechanical icon Robbie the Robot, and the result is a film that stands up to modern scrutiny at every turn. Tom HuddlestonRead review
Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz
Best quote: ‘I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man, and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake.’
The Big Idea: The Telepod – the future of transportation, if its inventor can only work out a few niggling glitches…
What do you get if you cross a scientist with a fly?
Is there another film that leaves audiences as sick to the stomach as ‘The Fly’? David Cronenberg pulls a sly trick, lulling us with a sweet screwball comedy as journalist Geena Davis meets Jeff Goldblum’s eccentric scientist at a convention. He takes her home to show her his telepods (ahem), and it’s not long before romance blooms. But following a lover’s tiff, Goldblum drunkenly uses himself as a human guinea pig – not noticing the housefly that darts into the machine after him.
There are scenes in ‘The Fly’ – Davis’s dream of pupal birth, the arm-wrestling contest, Goldblum’s repulsive but somehow tragic mutations – that are impossible to forget. In the late ‘80s the film was read as an allegory of the AIDS crisis. But writer-director Cronenberg said in later interviews that its themes are more universal than that: ‘ageing and death – something all of us have to deal with.’ Cath ClarkeRead review
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Michael Caine
Best quote: ‘Your baby is the miracle the whole world has been waiting for.’
The Big Idea: That the entire human race could inexplicably become infertile – and what that would mean for civilisation.
Gone baby gone
You watch ‘Children of Men’ with a sinking feeling. Is this where we’re headed? Everything in this nightmare vision of the future is recognisable. London just looks like it’s been caught on a bad day – a little shabbier than usual, a little bleaker.
Ambitiously directed by Alfonso Cuarón, this adaptation of PD James’s novel is a socio-political thriller loaded with action scenes to give Jason Bourne a run for his money. What qualifies it as sci-fi is the 2027 setting and global infertility crisis – no child has been born since 2009. Like the city, Clive Owen, a pen-pusher at the Ministry of Energy, is a shell of a man, talked by his ex, the leader of a terrorist guerrilla group, into aiding an African refugee.
Cuarón shoots like a war reporter – the film’s justifiably famous one-shot battle sequence is so realistic and confrontational, we might be on the frontline in Homs or Baghdad. Cath ClarkeRead review
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Jüri Järvet
Best quote: ‘We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror.’
The Big Idea: Alien intelligence might not take the form we think, and its intentions may be beyond our comprehension.
Inner space in outer space
This is the moody, melancholic original that inspired Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake (see entry 92). Russian director Andrei Tarkovksy’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s futuristic novel is also a companion piece to Stanley Kubrick’s epochal ‘2001’, with which it is most often compared.
Our human protagonist is Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a grief-stricken scientist still mourning his long-dead wife, Hari. After an earthbound prologue that culminates in a mesmerising drive through an otherworldly metropolis, Kelvin journeys to a space station orbiting Solaris, a sentient planet that apparently has the power to resurrect dead beings. In the midst of investigating these claims, his spouse (Natalya Bondarchuk) miraculously reappears, and things only get stranger from there.
Tarkovsky is less concerned with genre trappings than he is with creating a profoundly suggestive atmosphere: the space station itself, with its run-down, echoing corridors, is like a haunted house where the inhabitants’ forlorn memories of love and the motherland come to literal life. Keith UhlichRead review
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong
Best quote: ‘The future’s not set. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.’
The Big Idea: That the past can affect the future, and vice versa – all of time is fluid, and we’re the ones who dictate our own lives.
Rage against the machines
In 1984, ‘The Terminator’ gave an Austrian man-mountain called Arnold Schwarzenegger his breakthrough role as a cyborg villain. He promised he’d be back. It took seven long years, but Arnie was true to his word. This time around his hulking cyborg bad guy was reformed (or reprogrammed) as a righteous protector, sent back to save scrappy John Connor (Edward Furlong) and therefore the planet from nuclear apocalypse.
‘Terminator 2’ is a darkly funny thrill ride, throwing up all sorts of temporal head-scratchers (if the computer chip is destroyed, how do the Terminators get invented?). But that’s nothing new for sci-fi. It was the most expensive movie ever made at the time, and even now you can see where James Cameron spent that $100 million – on Arnie’s CGI nemesis, the T-1000, a molten metal baddie who can transform at will. Almost a quarter of a century later, those state-of-the-art effects still hold up. Cath ClarkeRead review
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy, Anatoliy Solonitsyn, Nikolay Grinko
Best quote: ‘The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.’
The Big Idea: The Zone itself – a place where the laws of physics break down, and humanity can achieve its desires. Supposedly…
Be careful what you wish for…
It may have been loosely based on a science fiction novel – ‘Roadside Picnic’ by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky – but ‘Stalker’ pushes the definition further than just about any other film on this list. The story follows three men who enter the mysterious and guarded Zone, nursing dreams of wish-fulfillment, but that’s hardly what the movie is ‘about’. As with all of Tarkovsky’s work, ‘Stalker’ is concerned with mood, with mystery, with decay and sorrow, with creating a contemplative space in which the audience can explore and come to terms with their own reactions to the material on offer.
This is perhaps the darkest of the great director’s films – it’s impossible not to view the Zone, a promised land which turns out to be an abandoned industrial hellhole, as a savage comment on Soviet ambition – but at least there’s a glimmer of hope in the film’s heart-stopping final scene. Tom HuddlestonRead review
Director: Duncan Jones
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey
Best quote: ‘We’re not programs, Gerty, we’re people.’
The Big Idea: We don’t want to spoil the surprise… suffice it to say that the concept of cloning has never been as worryingly examined.
Giant steps are what you take
Duncan Jones’s directorial debut is a quiet, simple little film, filled with enough nods back to the classic sci-fi of the ‘70s to give it whiplash. In its broadest sense, this is a movie about the dehumanising impact of technology, as Sam Rockwell’s lone astronaut waits impatiently to head home from his mining base on the moon. But it also deals with the sheer overwhelming monotony of everyday life and the crushing depression of solitude.
Jones keeps everything simple, confining the film to a handful of rooms with a couple of outdoor scenes, and limiting the characters to two Sam Rockwells, plus Kevin Spacey’s voice-only turn as a controlling robot. It’s a visually beautiful film, unfolding tidily but with a sharp sting in its tail. We only wish that more contemporary sci-fi emphasised ideas over explosions. Eddy FrankelRead review
Director: Lana and Andy Wachowski
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss
Best quote: ‘There is no spoon.’
The Big Idea: That old existential chestnut – we’re all just constructs in a giant machine, and life is, as the song goes, but a dream…
Stop! Bullet time
That creaky old phrase ‘millennial angst’ was tossed around like so much confetti in the last few years of the twentieth century, but it fits ‘The Matrix’ like a black PVC glove. The ultimate expression of existential paranoia in sci-fi, the Wachowskis’s jet-speed cyber-action classic doesn’t just question the meaning of life, but its very existence.
That it also manages to weave in kung-fu, groundbreaking digital effects, fear of technology, pounding industrial techno and wraparound shades makes it perhaps the ultimate ’90s movie: a little dated now, to be sure, but still lots of fun to revisit. Those pitiful sequels may have gone and ruined it all with impenetrable cod-philosophising and crusty rave chic, but for a little while this really did feel like the future of film. Tom HuddlestonRead review
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, TK Carter
Best quote: ‘Trust is a tough thing to come by these days.’
The Big Idea: An alien that looks like one of us is nothing new – but it’s the creature’s method of transformation that makes this one stand out.
Coming in from the cold
The opening sequence of ‘The Thing’ is unbeatable – a relentless, ice-cold nerve-jangler. A helicopter flies in low over an American scientific research station in the Antarctic. Its crew of Norwegian scientists are hell-bent on shooting a dog, which bounds away from them in the snow like it’s a game of chase. The dog turns out to be a parasitic alien organism that can imitate any life form, and which proceeds to pick off the Yankees one by one.
John Carpenter prolongs this gut-twistingly tense paranoia throughout the whole film, and Kurt Russell leads an ensemble cast of totally believable, blue collar guys, bored to death and stir crazy. ‘The Thing’ is Carpenter’s favourite of his films, but it disappointed at the box office (the fact that it came out two weeks after ‘ET’ might explain why). ‘The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans,’ Carpenter later told Time Out. Not anymore. Cath ClarkeRead review
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Drew Barrymore
Best quote: ‘I just hope we don’t wake up on Mars or something surrounded by millions of little squashy guys.’
The Big Idea: The psychic connection between ET and Elliott allows for a level of emotional attachment lacking in most sci-fi.
Off the hook and over the moon
The legend goes that, on the set of ‘Close Encounters’, François Truffaut suggested to Spielberg that his next movie should be something personal and honest, ‘a little film about kids’. When the Frenchman found out that said family flick would also involve a stranded alien, he laughed out loud. We reckon he was laughing on the other side of his impish visage when ‘ET’ went on to become the most successful film of all time.
Arguably, it’s now the victim of its own box-office clout: all those cuddly toys and ‘phone home’ t-shirts have helped to disguise the fact that this is really an indie flick. Minute in scale, intimate in tone, it is one of the finest films ever made about how kids think and how families fit together. Tom HuddlestonRead review
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