Director: Roy Ward Baker
Cast: Andrew Keir, James Donald, Barbara Shelley
Best quote: ‘You realise what you’re implying? That we owe our human condition here to the intervention of insects?’
The Big Idea: Only a year before ‘2001’, here we find a less arty take on the notion that aliens influenced human evolution.
Panic on the streets of London
Okay, so the sixpence-ha’penny special effects have a rickety, homespun charm. But Hammer’s 1967 horror cult classic (released in America as ‘Five Million Years to Earth’) still has a few scares up its sleeve. Based on the popular 1950s BBC TV series, this is the third and best of the ‘Quatermass’ films.
It opens with engineering works at the fictional Hobbs End Underground station, where workers uncover the remains of early human ancestors. Excavation on the site reveals what the army believe is a massive, unexploded World War Two bomb. But not even the Nazis masterminded explosives containing insectoid alien dwarfs with horns…
The perfect meeting of sci-fi and horror, the ‘Quatermass’ series influenced everything from ‘2001’ to ‘Alien’. Cath ClarkeRead more
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Best quote: ‘Life in space is impossible.’
The Big Idea: Sci-fi with a heavy emphasis on the sci, resulting in perhaps the most realistic space movie ever made.
Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do
Chances are, most of us won’t get the chance to go into space. Sure, Virgin Galactic will end up dropping their prices eventually, but even that’d be just a momentary skip above the atmosphere rather than a full-throttle spacewalking adventure in the company of George Clooney.
So thank God for writer-director (and contributor to this poll) Alfonso Cuarón, whose Imax 3D extravaganza ‘Gravity’ offers anyone with the price of a movie ticket the chance to feel – as near as dammit – what it must be like to be loose and drifting in low earth orbit with your oxygen running out. The result is one of the great communal movie-going experiences of the modern age, and a gauntlet thrown down to all future sci-fi blockbuster directors: get real, or go home. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Director: Richard Kelly
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Patrick Swayze
Best quote: ‘What the hell kind of name is that? It’s like some sort of superhero or something.’
The Big Idea: Time travel and dimension-jumping as just another aspect of teen angst and isolation.
Here come the Gyllenhaals
Beloved for its perfectly evoked 1988 autumn and corresponding soundtrack (Echo and the Bunnymen, Tears for Fears, etc), Richard Kelly’s disturbing metaphysical thriller had to overcome the mood of its October 2001 release, when planes falling from the sky didn’t feel like a welcome dramatic device. Regardless, the film found a passionate audience, one that dug the lanky, thoughtful style of breakout newcomer Jake Gyllenhaal (and his equally appealing older sister Maggie).
The plot concerns alternate realities, personal sacrifice, a fateful Halloween party and, yes, Sparkle Motion. ‘Donnie Darko’ works best as a compendium of free-floating high-school anxieties; props to the cameoing Patrick Swayze for so thoroughly puncturing his cool for the sake of something so weird and visionary. Joshua RothkopfRead more
Director: David Lynch
Cast: Kyle MacLachlan, Francesca Annis, Kenneth McMillan
Best quote: ‘Mmmmm… Shai Hulud.’
The Big Idea: Too many to count – intergalactic empires, dimension-warping drugs, giant sandworms, sonic weapons, living computers, Kyle MacLachlan’s chin…
This worm’s not for turning
The most controversial film on this list? One of our contributors actually made a point of saying how much he loathed ‘Dune’, joining a chorus of haters that notably includes the director himself, who felt that his vision was compromised by budget problems and recuts. But still, there’s a hardcore fanbase who can’t get enough of David Lynch’s berserk, wayward adaptation of Frank Herbert’s genre-defining novel.
We love it for its globe-spanning cast of should-know-better Shakespearian talent; for its mixed bag of ideas (most originating in Herbert’s book, others, like the gratuitous heart plugs, from Lynch’s own warped mind); for its twisted wedding of ornate Euro-pudding epic, grotesque experimental horror flick and action blockbuster; for the stunning cinematography, immersive sets and beautiful costumes – and yes, even Sting’s black nappy. But most of all we love it for its ambition: how a movie this dense, allusive, thematically complex, ridiculously pricey and just downright weird ever got made is impossible to imagine, but thank the Maker that it did. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Director: George Pal
Cast: Rod Taylor, Yvette Mimieux, Alan Young
Best quote: ‘That’s the question to which I propose to find an answer. Can man control his destiny?’
The Big Idea: The machine itself – a wonder of mock-Victorian design, all gleaming dials and flashing fairground illuminations.
A man out of time
You can have millions of pixels at your disposal, but there’s something magically simple about time-lapse photography, which comes into its own when Rod Taylor’s Victorian scientist boards his self-designed contraption and heads straight for the future. Seasons pass and buildings rise and fall in producer-director George Pal’s perfect embrace of available-effects technology, while the curved brass and padded leather machine is a beauty.
Thankfully, the story’s prediction of nuclear war in 1966 proved awry, but it’s not all good news in the year 802,701, where passive surface-dwelling Eloi exist as fodder for scary subterranean Morlocks. It’s a film with passionate things to say about making the most of mankind’s gifts, but for anyone who first saw this as a little kid, the Morlocks’ dark eyes illuminated by pinpricks of light may have haunted your dreams ever since. Trevor JohnstonRead more
Director: Alex Cox
Cast: Emilio Estevez, Harry Dean Stanton, Tracey Walter
Best quote: ‘Ordinary fuckin’ people. I hate ‘em.’
The Big Idea: Cox’s immigrant vision of an America dominated by faceless product placement and greedy televangelists is uniquely prophetic.
As ye repo, so shall ye sow-o
So few films stand entirely alone. But British expat Alex Cox’s debut – a tale of heroic but slovenly debt collectors, crazed suburban punks, alien corpses, secret government organisations, one-legged women and glowing green Chevy Novas – fits the bill. Funded by Monkee Mike Nesmith and shot by Cox when he was fresh out of UCLA film school, ‘Repo Man’ is outsider art at its most accessible, comedy at its most unusual and science fiction at its most absurd.
Emilio Estevez’s preening teen tearaway Otto and Harry Dean Stanton’s disheveled old-timer Bud make for a perfect central double act. But it’s the supporting characters that really bring the movie together: Walter’s conspiracy-theorist junkman, the hairnet-wearing Rosato Brothers, Otto’s mohicanned criminal buddies. One piece of advice, though: if you can, watch ‘Repo Man’ in its extended, censored for TV version: the Cox-approved ‘flip you melonfarmer’ dialogue is priceless, and the extra scenes are some of the best in the movie. Tom HuddlestonRead more
Director: Richard Fleischer
Cast: Charlton Heston, Leigh Taylor-Young, Edward G Robinson
Best quote: ‘Soylent Green is people!’
The Big Idea: With cities spilling over and the world dying of starvation, it’s only a matter of time before someone gets creative.
We are what we eat
On paper, the elements of this eco-horror sensation seemed nourishing enough: Harry Harrison’s inspired 1966 novel, ‘Make Room! Make Room!’, about population overload; the earthy presence of noir legend Edward G Robinson (who died 12 days after shooting wrapped); sci-fi beefcake Charlton Heston as a future gumshoe. But in many aspects, it doesn’t really hang together.
The sleuthing isn’t deep and the female roles – especially concubine and ‘furniture’ Shirl (Taylor-Young) – are atrocious. But there’s a real reason why it’s on our list, and it’s that stunner of an ending, one that gave the world a shudder of revulsion during its early-’70s moment of instant coffee and rocketing fast-food profits. Where our food comes from today is more shady and dystopian than ever. Show this one to an organics-only freak you love. Joshua RothkopfRead more
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Cast (voices): Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki
Best quote: ‘He’s not your friend, he’s ours! If somebody’s gonna kill him, it should be us!’
The Big Idea: The Espers: psychic humans artificially preserved in an eternal childhood as part of a creepy government plot to harness their powers.
Pandemonium in dystopia
The most renowned anime film made outside Studio Ghibli opens with an apparent nuclear explosion in Tokyo, ends with a Big Bang and hardly lets up in between. The plot is far too unwieldy to be summarised here; suffice to say that it involves biker gangs, wrinkled little children and psychokinetic mutants wreaking havoc in a post-apocalyptic Japan.
The cityscape, stunningly animated in mostly nocturnal scenes (a notorious challenge to animators), reimagines post-war Hiroshima in a ‘Blade Runner’ guise, all crumbling skyscrapers and mutated life forms. The mood of psychotic fear is bolstered by a pulsating soundtrack that weaves together heightened sound effects and Geinoh Yamashirogumi’s percussive score. But for all its technical bravura, ‘Akira’ works because it presents a nasty vision of what military experiments might inflict on mankind, and remains frighteningly plausible even in its wildest moments. Alex Dudok de WitRead more
Director: John McTiernan
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Kevin Peter Hall
Best quote: ‘If it bleeds, we can kill it.’
The Big Idea: The creature itself, with its shimmering invisible armour, slimy mandibles and Rastafarian hairdo.
Long before ‘Snakes on a Plane’, ‘Predator’ was one of the first movies to be directly inspired by a Hollywood in-joke. The gag doing the rounds after ‘Rocky IV’ was that, having battered an earthly opponent, next time around Sly would have to fight an alien. All of which gave screenwriting brothers Jim and John Thomas an idea…
With Sly tied up with 'Rocky V', Arnie stepped in to play Dutch, the military tough guy who takes his top team of wisecracking mercenaries into the Latin American jungle to rescue American hostages, before terrorists turn out to be the least of their problems.
Tense and pacey, ‘Predator’ delivers an intravenous shot of testosterone as a trophy-collecting game hunter from outer space picks off the platoon one by one. But of course the climax sees Old Ironballs taking the creature on single-handed, duking it out in the mud, mano-a-mano. Cath ClarkeRead more
Director: René Laloux
Cast (voices): Eric Baugin, Jennifer Drake
Best quote: ‘Neither the Oms nor the Draags want to destroy themselves. We must somehow make peace.’
The Big Idea: The colonial wars of old are recast as a struggle between human savages and a race of poker-faced blue aliens.
Alien versus prey
‘Fantastic Planet’ examines what happens when a civilised people tries to subdue and tame a savage one – an allegory of colonialism, if you will. That the savages are depicted as humans (Oms) and the civilised people as unblinking blue aliens (Draags) makes it clear where René Laloux’s sympathies lie, and plot-wise the film is rather flimsy polemical stuff. But what drives ‘Fantastic Planet’ isn’t story, but rather the mad visual imagination of Laloux’s team, which included renowned surrealist artist Roland Topor.
The world that the characters inhabit, at once futuristic and primordial, looks like a cross between Tatooine and a Dali dreamscape: dinosaurs mingle with tentacled aliens while headless humanoid statues abruptly spring to life. The film is very much of its time – it has as much in common with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s hypnagogic universe as with today’s sci-fi – yet it remains disarmingly fresh. Alex Dudok de WitRead more