The 100 best sci-fi movies: 40-31
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: Andrew Stanton
Cast (voices): Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight
Best quote: ‘Wait, that doesn’t look like Earth. Where’s the blue sky?’
The Big Idea: WALL-E himself, aka the Waste Allocation Load Lifter.
Trash of the titans
Three years before ‘The Artist’ reminded audiences that silent films exist, Pixar played the neater trick of channelling the pre-talkie era into a cartoon. Having found fame with a string of films that featured garrulous, wisecracking characters, the studio returned to the mute critters of their early shorts: there’s as much ‘Luxo Jr.’ in ‘WALL-E’ as there is R2-D2.
Unable to manage their waste output, humans have evacuated Earth, leaving robots behind to clean up the mess. The film’s wonderfully atmospheric opening act follows the last remaining drone, WALL-E, as he silently goes about his Sisyphean task in this blasted, Chernobyl-inspired landscape – and the first line of dialogue only arrives 45 minutes in. The film sags somewhat when WALL-E joins the humans (read: Americans) on their spaceship (reportedly modelled on Dubai and Shanghai), but it remains Pixar’s boldest work by far. Alex Dudok de WitRead review
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Dan O’Bannon, Dre Pahich, Brian Narelle
Best quote: ‘Hello, bomb?’
The Big Idea: A sentient bomb that can argue with its creators and have second thoughts about exploding.
A spaced-out odyssey
Eventually both of the key creators behind ‘Dark Star’ would be involved in significantly scarier movies – one directed ‘Halloween’ (1978), the other wrote ‘Alien’ (1979). But in the early 1970s, USC film-school friends John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon tried their hand at comic satire, resulting in this mordantly hilarious ‘Dr Strangelove’-meets-‘2001’ parody.
A stir-crazy spaceship crew – more pot-addled dorm-room philosophers than scientists – is on the twentieth year of its mission to blow up ‘unstable’ planets. They constantly get on each other’s nerves. O’Bannon himself plays the practical joker of the group, who has a penchant for rubber-chicken gags. Soon enough, though, they have other problems to worry about, like the bouncy alien – who looks like a beach ball with claws – wandering the corridors, or the malfunctioning talking bomb that tries to existentially justify its need to explode and kill everyone onboard.
The initial version of the film was such a big hit on the festival circuit that Carpenter and O’Bannon got the money to expand it to feature-length – an auspicious start for two terrific talents. Keith UhlichRead review
Director: Philip Kaufman
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum
Best quote: ‘Why do we always expect metal ships?’
The Big Idea: That personal freedom and self-expression are just a new kind of conformity.
Yes, we’re all individuals
The next time you hear a friend bemoaning the Hollywood remake factory, send them a link to this list. ‘The Fly’ and ‘The Thing’ may be better known, but ‘The Right Stuff’ director Philip Kaufman’s wry, self-aware reboot of the 1956 classic about alien pod people deserves to be mentioned in the same breath.
Set in 1970s San Francisco – the mecca for inner-child botherers and lentil-knitting crystal worshippers of all stripes – the film takes a sardonic look at the post-hippy dream and dares to ask the question: what’s so great about free will, anyway?
Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams make for a wonderfully droll and believable central couple, and they’re ably backed by Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright as his long-suffering wife and Leonard Nimoy as a shifty self-help guru. As the film progresses, the clammy hand of paranoia tightens its grip – and the final shot is a sucker-punch like no other. Tom HuddlestonRead review
Director: Shane Carruth
Cast: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden
Best quote: ‘If you ditch work this afternoon… I will in return show you the single most important thing that any living organism has ever witnessed.’
The Big Idea: That two geeks in their garage can create a new, earth-shattering technology. Well, it’s happened before…
Living in a box
Reportedly shot for a mere $7000, writer-director-star Shane Carruth’s deliciously confounding debut shows that great ideas cost next to nothing. When the box of tricks they’ve knocked together in their garage starts behaving in ways they neither expect nor understand, so begins an escalating series of conundrums for Aaron (Carruth) and his best buddy co-creator Abe (Sullivan).
The film admirably credits the audience with the intelligence to decipher the clues in its elliptical narrative, gradually picking its way towards a state somewhere between paranoid anxiety and head-spinning dizziness. We’re drawn in because we half-understand and want to know more, and the editing is teasing in this suburban chamber drama of a film that asks questions others never even conceived: so, your time-travelling double is on the other side of town and your wife calls, whose cell phone rings first? Trevor JohnstonRead review
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy
Best quote: ‘If you can steal an idea, why can’t you plant one there instead?’
The Big Idea: Dream specialists are able to pilfer – and insert – ideas while their victims sleep.
You snooze, you lose
There’s a mashup video online that cuts together every moment when Ellen Page asks a story-clarifying question in this brain-aching near-future yarn which Christopher Nolan spun between his last two ‘Batman’ films. Page is one of a team of experts, headed by Leonardo DiCaprio, whose expertise is to steal material – facts, ideas, memories – from people’s minds while they sleep. For this story, Page and co are employed on an upping-the-ante mission: to insert (rather than remove) an idea into the head of a corporate bigwig (Cillian Murphy) in order to sate the ambitions of a business rival (Ken Watanabe).
Most memorable are some jaw-dropping set pieces where Nolan and his team ostentatiously flex their special-effects muscles, most notably a scene that sees Page and DiCaprio walk through Paris as the streets appear to fold up and over before their eyes. C’est magnifique. Dave CalhounRead review
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Cast: David Bowie, Candy Clark, Rip Torn
Best quote: ‘You know, Tommy, you’re a freak. I don’t mean that unkindly.’
The Big Idea: The possibility that even aliens might not be immune to ‘human’ foibles like loneliness and the need for attention.
He did tell us his band were from Mars…
In a lot of ways this rambling, rich psychodrama feels like the last real sci-fi film of the ’70s, before the pendulum swung to heroic space opera and stuck. With his orange hair and a perceptible coked-up jitteriness, Bowie is perfect as the alien, Thomas Jerome Newton: spiky, awkward, uncomfortable in his own skin. But the real stranger in this strange land was cult director Nicolas Roeg, fascinated by the American Southwest – its listless nurses (the brilliant Candy Clark) and bored college professors (a fearless Rip Torn).
The movie is filled with daydreamers desperate for a sense of purpose. They instead find television, guns, alcohol and inertia. But even given the film’s sense of resignation, it allows for a romance to flourish, as improbable as water in the desert. Joshua RothkopfRead review
Director: Dean Parisot
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tim Allen, Alan Rickman
Best quote: ‘By Grabthar’s hammer, by the suns of Warvan, you shall be avenged!’
The Big Idea: That aliens might possess all the technological wonders of the galaxy but completely lack imagination.
‘Star Trek’ fandom was a phenomenon just begging to be lampooned, as that wonderfully dry, mismatched original cast grudgingly surrendered their lives to a legion of mega-nerds in jumpsuits with Plasticine stuck to their faces. An object lesson in the art of the affectionate pastiche, ‘Galaxy Quest’ rounds up the usual sci-fi serial suspects – the macho captain (Allen), the window-dressing female (Weaver), the Shakespearian thesp (Rickman) – and pulls the old ‘Three Amigos’ trick of plunging them into a real intergalactic war.
The cast is damn close to perfect (Rickman, in particular, shows previously unimagined comic chops), and the idea of a po-facedly literal extra-terrestrial race who haven’t figured out that the show isn’t a documentary is played for maximum laughs. The result is wickedly smart and knowingly in-jokey without ever (ahem) alienating the non-nerds. The fact that it placed higher on this list than any of the official ‘Trek’ movies speaks volumes, although we await the furious comments… Tom HuddlestonRead review
Director: Douglas Trumbull
Cast: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts
Best quote: ‘There is no more beauty, and there’s no more imagination. And there are no frontiers left to conquer.’
The Big Idea: That humanity will make such a mess of this planet that we’ll be forced to ship our last green spaces into outer space.
Don’t walk on the grass, save it
‘Silent Running’ proves beyond a doubt what many of us fear: even in space, you can’t escape hippies. In a future where plants have become extinct on earth, a handful of starships act as greenhouses, preserving the few remaining specimens in the hope of eventually reforesting the planet. But big business never sleeps, no matter what the century, and it’s not long before the vessels are ordered to destroy their cargo and return to commercial duty. Yet the fat cats didn’t bank on the power of peace ‘n’ love, as personified by Bruce Dern’s impressively and consistently angry pilot Freeman Lowell. He rebels, kills his co-workers and heads off to tend to his plants with a couple of trusty robots in tow.
The film may not have aged perfectly (we can live without those willowy Joan Baez numbers), and Lowell is a bit of a blowhard. But the message is eternal: whatever the risks, man must be his own saviour. Eddy FrankelRead review
Director: Andrew Niccol
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, Uma Thurman
Best quote: ‘We now have discrimination down to a science.’
The Big Idea: In a not-too-distant future where genetic imprints decide social status at test-tube birth, one natural-born upstart decides to buck the status quo.
Preparation is key if you’re going to make the leap to genetically perfect ‘Valid’ from inherently inferior ‘Invalid’. You’ll need fake fingertips loaded with A-grade blood, a urine pack filled with the right stuff, plus hair and skin samples to complete the illusion. Such is the daily lot of Ethan Hawke’s determined wannabe, dreaming of joining the astronaut elite in Andrew Niccol’s unsettling fantasy on a nature v nurture theme.
It posits a world where discrimination – or ‘genoism’ – is technically illegal, yet employers make hiring decisions based on blood samples. Niccol twists the language to startling effect – rebellious Hawke is dubbed a ‘de-generate’ – but the film succeeds so well because it’s not content simply to bask in its own ideas, escalating tension when an unrelated murder investigation threatens to unmask the protagonist’s existential masquerade. Trevor JohnstonRead review
Director: Robert Wise
Cast: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe
Best quote: ‘Klaatu barada nikto!’
The Big Idea: The towering and unstoppable robot Gort. Imagine a cold-steel Terminator, only with a caring side.
Nuclear power? No thanks
1950 clearly marked a new dawn in Hollywood sci-fi, with three keys films on the horizon: ‘Destination Moon’, ‘The Thing from Another World’ and this all-time classic. Robert Wise’s film defines the genre in so many ways, what with Bernard Herrmann’s theremin-heavy score, the extraterrestrial’s archetypal flying saucer, the iconic look of giant robot Gort and even the screen’s most famous snatch of alien dialogue.
However it’s the central dilemma of how mankind responds to alien visitors which is key: shoot-first proves our default mode even though humanoid arrival Klaatu has a warning message for our nuclear age and the threat it poses to the rest of the galaxy. This being Hollywood, suave Michael Rennie was perfectly cast as the angular alien – after all, he came from the distant galaxy of Bradford. Trevor JohnstonRead review
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