The 100 best sci-fi movies: 30-21
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: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum
Best quote: ‘Must go faster.’
The Big Idea: That however much science mucks about with the building blocks of nature, life will always seek its own path.
The lost world, found
Everybody loves dinosaurs – as long as they’re just bones in a museum. Steven Spielberg’s rollercoaster thriller, adapted from Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel, brings these prehistoric beasts back to life with a clever conceit: scientists have discovered how to harness dino DNA from fossilised amber and billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has created an island zoo where spectators pay top dollar to view the cretaceous giants. All well and good until the security system fails and T-Rex and friends go on a chomping rampage.
The cast, led by Sam Neill as a gruff, kid-hating paleontologist and Jeff Goldblum as a chaos-theory rockstar, is an absolute delight. And Spielberg still knows how to build a nail-biter of a set-piece, like the tense velociraptor kitchen sequence or the central tyrannosaurus attack that was a landmark showcase for then-nascent CGI technology. Keith UhlichRead review
Director: Franklin J Schaffner
Cast: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter
Best quote: ‘Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!’
The Big Idea: Sentient apes are used as an analogy for man, the most destructive animal of all.
People say we monkey around
Rod Serling worked on an early draft of the script (inspired by French author Pierre Boulle’s novel ‘Monkey Planet’), and, indeed, the setup is pure ‘Twilight Zone’: cynical American astronaut George Taylor (Heston) lands on a planet where apes are the dominant species and humans are the dumb animals. Taylor connects with chimp scientists Cornelius (McDowall) and Zira (Hunter) who initially study him and eventually help him escape into the Forbidden Zone, where a bigger surprise awaits.
The film’s influence is legion, from multiple sequels and merchandise to a ‘Simpsons’ musical parody (‘I hate every ape I see / From Chimpan-A to Chimpanzee’). And it stands as a powerful time capsule of the tensions of its era, a provocative address (in fantasy garb) of race relations, nuclear disarmament and other cultural bugaboos. Keith UhlichRead review
Director: Chris Marker
Cast: Étienne Becker, Jean Négroni, Hélène Chatelain
Best quote: ‘This is the story of a man marked by an image from his childhood.’
The Big Idea: Using still photos to explore ideas of memory, regret and nostalgia is an aesthetic and emotional masterstroke.
Post-apocalyptic poetry on the cheap
Don't despair, struggling filmmakers: you can make your sci-fi classic without a James Cameron-sized budget (or any budget, really). Nor do you need a feature-length running time or, amazingly, a motion-picture camera. Inspired by Hitchcock's hypnotically romantic ‘Vertigo’, French New Waver Chris Marker created this 28-minute photo-roman composed (almost) solely of black-and-white stills, coupled with haunted narration.
In it, Paris is reduced to radioactive rubble, but scientists living underground hope to send a dreamer back in time via his strong memories of an alluring woman. The guy sees her in his mind, they begin to flirt and fall in love, and who can blame him if he never wants to return?
Marker lived long enough to see his fatalistic vision become a Bruce Willis movie, ‘12 Monkeys’, but the original can't be beat for sheer elegance. It’s a perfect thing. Joshua RothkopfRead review
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Warren Clarke
Best quote: ‘Viddy well, little brother. Viddy well.’
The Big Idea: Extreme aversion therapy, as violent youth Alex is brainwashed into a life of pitiful obedience.
The war on droogs
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel gives us a future version of Britain where the modernist fabric of the 1960s is exaggerated just enough for it to feel both strange and familiar. But this world’s sense of justice is all awry.
Alex (McDowell) and his fellow ‘droogs’ speak Nadsat (a fictional amalgam of English, Russian and nonsense) and commit rape for fun. But when Alex is arrested, it’s the state which now appears menacing: he becomes a tool for venal politicians and is subjected to a form of therapy meant to banish his criminal tendencies. That therapy and its effects are some of the most conspicuous sci-fi elements here (along with the futuristic sets and costumes) – Alex’s eyes are held open while he watches repellent imagery; later, when inspired to be physically or sexually violent, he starts to wretch.
Yet perhaps this wasn’t so fictional after all. Kubrick and Burgess were satirising new forms of psychotherapy, while Cold War totalitarianism was also on their minds. Sci-fi fans will also appreciate that a minor character, Julian, is played by Dave Prowse, aka Darth Vader. Dave CalhounRead review
Director: Don Siegel
Cast: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan
Best quote: ‘They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!’
The Big Idea: Is the quintessential ’50s red scare shocker actually a satire on McCarthyite conformity?
Sleeping with the enemy
Establishment scaremongering about the communist threat against American freedom of conscience seemingly underpins this drumhead-tight B-thriller about sinister extraterrestrial pods taking over small-town California in its sleep. The insidious loss of personality and emotion is briskly but chillingly conveyed in the original screen incarnation of a much-filmed Jack Finney story, as Kevin McCarthy’s suave local doctor fights encroaching submission to an alien power which could yet spell curtains for the US of A.
Controversy continues to surround the studio-imposed framing device, which softens much of the impact from the rising levels of panic, but doesn’t entirely erase the film’s fascinating ambiguity. Indeed, it’s equally readable as both a ‘reds under the bed’ nightmare, and the polar opposite – a warning that swallowing the official ideological line without question was turning ordinary Americans into what director Don Siegel termed ‘pod people’. Trevor JohnstonRead review
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Kurtwood Smith
Best quote: ‘Dead or alive, you’re coming with me!’
The Big Idea: That technology will eventually find its way into every aspect of human existence, including law enforcement.
Bobby on the beat
We all know what the future’s going to be like: vicious, crime-ridden and impoverished. The rich are going to hide themselves away in big shiny high-rises while the rest of us plebs duke it out on the mean streets, roasting rats over a fire in a metal bin. We can only dream that someone invents a law enforcement machine as efficient as RoboCop, who single-handedly cleans the scum from Detroit’s streets in Paul Verhoeven’s relentlessly satirical dystopian nightmare.
This 1987 film is not only still very funny, but more importantly it still speaks volumes about power-hungry governments and city-wide corruption all these years later. The combination of dark wit and despicable, stomach-churning violence makes for a near-perfect look at the bleakest possible future. Your move, creep. Eddy FrankelRead review
Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, Madeleine Stowe
Best quote: ‘There’s no right, there’s no wrong, there’s only popular opinion.’
The Big Idea: It’s not an original one, but the concept of time as a fixed, unchangeable entity has never been more disturbingly explored.
What you talkin’ about, Willis?
Our voters may agree that Terry Gilliam’s second sci-fi masterwork doesn’t quite hit the heights of his first, the excellent ‘Brazil’, but ‘12 Monkeys’ is a disorientating trip all of its own. Bruce Willis plays a low-level criminal in a future earth destroyed by disease, sent back in time to trace the roots of the plague. In the process he manages to fall in love with Madeleine Stowe (fair enough) and gets banged up in a mental institution where he stumbles upon Brad Pitt in one of his first and finest roles as a demented, jittery environmental terrorist.
The plot, directly inspired by Chris Marker’s photo-roman short ‘La Jetée’ (see number 28) is crammed with temporal twists and surreal turns, disguising the fact that fairly little actually happens. But this is such a bizarre mind-fuck of a film that it hardly matters. Plus, you get to see our Bruce wearing a blonde wig and Hawaiian shirt, which is a huge bonus. Eddy FrankelRead review
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O’Connor
Best quote: ‘Mommy… I’m sorry I broke myself.’
The Big Idea: An exploration of the morality behind creating artificial life – and a critique of our disposable culture.
Put away childish things
Initially it was a dream project for Stanley Kubrick – a near-future tale, based on Brian Aldiss’ short story, of a robot boy programmed with the ability to love. Eventually Kubrick decided the tale was a better fit for the sensibilities of his colleague Steven Spielberg, who embarked on the film as a tribute after the visionary director’s death in 1999.
Mechanical David (Osment) is a quintessential Spielberg protagonist, a perpetual adolescent doomed to forever long for the needy surrogate mother (O’Connor) who adopts and then abandons him. Circumstances send David on a dangerous journey to discover his maker, a nightmarish trek (with many allusions to that other lost boy, Pinocchio) that includes a sinister mechanical gigolo (Law), a tech-phobic Flesh Fair, a visit to a half-submerged Manhattan and a controversial, highly emotional climax that lingers in the heart and the mind. Keith UhlichRead review
Director: Michel Gondry
Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst
Best quote: ‘I can’t remember anything without you.’
The Big Idea: If you could excise all the memories of a failed relationship, would you?
The persistence of memory
Science fiction elevated to a sophisticated, neurotic sheen, Michael Gondry’s romance brought out the best in all its collaborators. Suddenly, its French director seemed capable of more than arts-and-craftsy music videos, while the screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman (‘Being John Malkovich’), proved himself deeper than his reputation suggested.
The biggest surprises are left to the screen itself: Jim Carrey's squirmingly uncomfortable Joel is the revelation of his career, the point at which his grasping for dramatic depth actually became it. Meanwhile, Kate Winslet’s Clementine is one of the great sphinxes in modern movies: voluminous, punkish, soulful, cherishable. She would be hard to forget after a breakup.
While the film’s bumbling scientists have a problem delivering on their promise of total erasure, it’s partially because Joel’s mind has so many corners and nooks, much like life itself. Joshua RothkopfRead review
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson
Best quote: ‘Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.’
The Big Idea: The DeLorean – the world’s coolest (and least successful) car becomes cinema’s most iconic time machine.
Parental guidance suggested
Let it be stressed: at the root of every great sci-fi film is a killer script, not special effects or lasers. Working with writer Bob Gale, director Robert Zemeckis built so many dazzling curlicues into this ’80s-to-’50s time-travel adventure, audiences were turned on by their minds as well as the flux capacitor. It helps when your star is Michael J Fox, captured at the peak of his youthful heroism.
Marty McFly’s personal ambitions are thwarted by economic reality, and ‘Back to the Future’ is subversive enough to suggest that life’s achievements – indeed a whole family’s happiness – come from boldness, confidence and a swift punch outside the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. Crazy professor Christopher Lloyd steals all of his moments, but the movie’s most exquisite creation may be Crispin Glover’s painfully defeated George McFly, a mouse in need of a lion’s courage. Joshua RothkopfRead review
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