This is a golden age of science fiction cinema. Wander into your local multiplex and you’re faced with limitless sci-fi movies featuring aliens and superheroes, giant robots and dystopian futures, all presented in shimmering 3D with top-of-the-line special effects. But how did this popular but critically frowned-upon genre go from cardboard spaceships on strings at the local drive-in to the world-conquering pinnacle of blockbuster success? To find out, we created ‘The 100 best sci-fi movies’, a definitive overview of the genre from the silent spectacle of 1927’s ‘Metropolis’ to the intimacy of 2013’s ‘Her’.
To make the list, we polled the leading lights of both science and science fiction, from physicists to authors, from Oscar-nominated filmmakers to the stars of film and TV. Where else can you find ‘Pacific Rim’ director Guillermo del Toro rubbing shoulders with ‘Game of Thrones’ creator George RR Martin, or C-3PO himself, Anthony Daniels, trading favourites with Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Sir Paul Nurse? The result is an epic feature that celebrates the established sci-fi movie masterpieces while also finding room for those small-scale oddities you might have missed. We hope it’ll serve not just as a fun read for fans of science fiction, but as an inspiration for directors, writers and budding scientists. Just look at the wonderful things you can create with a little imagination.
Produced by Alex Plim. Written by Geoff Andrew, Catherine Bray, Dave Calhoun, Cath Clarke, Alex Dudok de Wit, Eddy Frankel, Tom Huddleston, Trevor Johnston, Joshua Rothkopf, Anna Smith and Keith Uhlich.
The 100 best sci-fi movies: 100-91
Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman
Best quote: ‘Let’s kick the tires and light the fires, big daddy!’
The Big Idea: A reboot of the old ‘War of the Worlds’ plot as a soaring sci-fi spectacular, with tongue firmly in cheek.
Boom! Shake, shake, shake the room
Yes, it’s cheesy. Yes, it’s noisy. Yes, it’s about as subtle as a starship in the face. But good God, it’s so much fun. Emmerich may not be as bold or as crafty a sci-fi satirist as his fellow Euro-export Paul Verhoeven, and on first release there were many who took all the flag-waving and Presidential speechifying in ‘Independence Day’ at face value. But look again, and this is a sly little slice of myth-busting entertainment. Who else had the balls to blow up the White House, full frame, just for kicks? Who else depicted an American administration all too willing to use nuclear weapons – only to find they have no effect whatsoever?
Lest we forget, this is the first major summer blockbuster to feature a central black character who’s neither a sidekick, a comic aside or simply dead meat. Oh, and Jeff Goldblum’s final walk across the flaming desert might actually be the coolest thing ever. Tom Huddleston
Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski
Cast: Irène Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jean-Pierre Lorit
Best quote: ‘It’s your destiny’
The Big Idea: A film which – without getting all religious – evokes the mysterious, invisible forces that may shape individual lives.
If only we could live our lives a second time…
This was the final installment in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, a decidedly apolitical exploration of the relevance – or not – of the French Revolution’s ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity to everyday life in contemporary Europe. Set in Geneva, it tells of a fateful encounter between a sensitive young woman and a reclusive, misanthropic elderly judge. After initial disagreement, even hostility, they become friends – though had he been younger…
It’s difficult to regard the film as properly sci-fi, notwithstanding some minor ‘double’ characters (notably a young law student whose life is echoing the judge’s past) which introduce the notion of slips in time, and the judge’s almost godlike interventions into other people’s lives. Rather, it’s a form of speculative fiction, insistently muttering to us ‘what if…?’.
In this meticulously structured study of the relationship between chance, destiny and free will, the judge appears to have some mysterious influence over the fate of his new friend – as of course does the director himself, whose remarkable final scene also extends a miraculous generosity to the lead characters from this film’s predecessors, ‘Blue’ and ‘White’. Geoff Andrew
Director: Peter Hyams
Cast: Roy Scheider, Helen Mirren, John Lithgow
Best quote: ‘My God, it’s full of stars!’
The Big Idea: That there’s not just undiscovered life elsewhere in the universe, but right here in our solar system.
Down to earth
Take one look at the original reviews, and it’s clear that pedantic literalists were deeply annoyed by Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. What’s with that monolith? Why’s the computer going nuts? What are all these flashy lights for? And what’s up with the big space baby? Luckily, their prayers were answered by author Arthur C Clarke and writer-director Peter Hyams in the form of ‘2010’, a film that sets out to remove any trace of ambiguity from Kubrick’s universe and replace it with plain, unadorned facts. Which isn’t to imply that ‘2010’ is a bad movie – it’s just a very traditional one, with proper actors, creaky special effects, an ordinary score, a beginning, a middle and an end – all that square stuff the first movie managed without. Kubrick purists are going to hate it with a passion, and that’s fair enough. But this is rock-solid old-school sci-fi: thoughtful, intelligent and unfussy. Tom Huddleston
Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman
Best quote: ‘It’s too good to be true! He’s 6-4, has black hair, blue eyes, doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and tells the truth!’
The Big Idea: The Nietzschean übermensch ideal meets the all-American boy – and the superhero movie gets a whole new lease on life.
Look, up there in the sky…
If it seems like you can’t walk into a cinema these days without encountering the adventures of a keen young man in tights, blame Richard Donner. Fresh from the massive success of ‘The Omen’, the director turned his attentions to a script by ‘Godfather’ scribe Mario Puzo, inspired by an old comic strip most moviegoers had forgotten… and the rest is history. And present. And, seemingly, future.
If ‘Superman’ is low on this list, that has to be because most of our voters don’t really view it as science fiction: sure, it kicks off with the destruction of an alien planet, but the superhero movie has now become its own genre, largely divorced from those that bore it. But ‘Superman’ remains an absolute blast, at once celebrating and lampooning its patriotic roots and delivering one of the all-time great sass-talking heroines in Margot Kidder’s screwball Lois Lane. Tom Huddleston
Director: David Twohy
Cast: Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser
Best quote: ‘I absolutely believe in God. And I absolutely hate the fucker.’
The Big Idea: A planet where three suns light the sky – and a rare eclipse unleashes hordes of nocturnal flesh-eaters.
Movies like ‘Pitch Black’ are the bedrock of sci-fi: it may not have the vaulting ambition of a ‘2001’ or even an ‘Alien’, with which it shares DNA, but this is an efficient and highly entertaining intergalactic monster mash. The setup – a group of mismatched travellers must battle the elements, each other and an army of toothy beasts to survive on a hostile world – is far from original, a fact of which co-writer and first-time director David Twohy was doubtless aware. But it’s all in the execution: the effects are bare-bones but effective, the performances rock solid and it all moves along at a pleasing clip.
Best of all is the way Twohy toys with traditional sci-fi archetypes: the square-jawed cop turns out to be a drug-addict mercenary while the skinhead criminal – Vin Diesel’s growling Riddick – ends up the hero. A word of warning though: avoid the woeful sequels. Tom Huddleston
Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Gina Torres
Best quote: ‘We’re gonna explode? I don’t wanna explode!’
The Big Idea: The wild frontier meets the final frontier in a film which cleverly combines cowboy tropes with sci-fi spectacle.
The good, the bad and the shiny
How in hell did ‘Serenity’ ever get made? Its parent TV show, cowboys-in-space adventure ‘Firefly’, had been cancelled two years previously after a mere 11 episodes. Its creator, Joss Whedon, had never directed a feature film before, and his one small-screen success, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, had itself just been kicked off the air. Yet still, someone at Universal Pictures thought it’d be a good idea to give Whedon a free hand and a parcel of cash to resurrect his baby as a standalone feature.
It was a terrible economic decision, of course, as ‘Serenity’ predictably failed to recoup its budget. But it was a spectacular boon to those of us who adore Whedon’s idiosyncratic art: ‘Serenity’ is whip-smart, action-packed and wildly inventive. Following ‘The Avengers’, our Joss is now one of the most successful filmmakers in the world. We told you so. Tom Huddleston
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Akim Tamiroff
Best quote: ‘No one here knows the meaning of the word conscience anymore.’
The Big Idea: Aphaville itself – a modernist city where free will and individuality have been outlawed.
Town without pity
French New Wave mover and shaker Jean-Luc Godard seems an unlikely filmmaker to turn his hand to sci-fi, yet here he created one of his most accessible offerings by setting an affectionate piss-take of Gallic pulp cinema’s long running Lemmy Caution spy series in a ‘futuristic’ dystopia ruled by supercomputer Alpha 60.
With typical Godardian insouciance it’s all filmed in contrasty black-and-white, in and around contemporary Paris, but its enduring appeal is the combination of don’t-care larkishness, amiable big lug Eddie Constantine doing his tough-guy thing, and a profound underlying seriousness drawing cogent connections between the brutality of fascism and technology’s inhuman reasoning. Moreover, in a city where the illogicality of emotion is punishable by death, there’s no one better than winsome Anna Karina to make us believe that falling in love is well worth the risk. Trevor Johnston
Director: George Lucas
Cast: Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Maggie McOmie
Best quote: ‘If you feel you are not properly sedated, call 348-844 immediately. Failure to do so may result in prosecution for criminal drug evasion.’
The Big Idea: The logical end point of society’s dangerous dependence on mood-altering pharmaceuticals.
The drugs don’t work
George Lucas and his pal Francis Ford Coppola persuaded Warner Brothers to take a flyer on expanding George’s earlier student short into this Orwell and Huxley-influenced fable about free love and free will versus all-powerful totalitarianism. The studio hated the result and the subsequent box-office debacle almost killed both their careers.
Viewed today – the only version available is Lucas and co-writer Walter Murch’s digitally spruced-up 2004 ‘Director’s Cut’ – its shaven headed-cast, chillingly benign language intoning state propaganda and oppressive widescreen palette of glacial whites make for genuinely unnerving viewing. Young Lucas evidently believed in heroic individualism, fast cars and the possibility of escape, yet it’s the visualisation of an entire society shaped by universal surveillance, government-supplied sedatives and android police carrying very big sticks which rings darker and truer than the director’s subsequent, significantly more populist output. Trevor Johnston
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies
Best quote: ‘We are in a situation that is beyond morality.’
The Big Idea: That it is possible to deliver a more accessible version of an arthouse sci-fi classic without dumbing down its psychology complexity.
Memories are made of this
It’s hard to imagine a Hollywood exec even sitting through Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’ (1972), never mind stumping up for Steven Soderbergh’s US remake, but perhaps the presence of producer James Cameron facilitated this most introspective of space operas. As writer-director-editor and cinematographer, Soderbergh does a remarkable job of echoing the original’s Soviet-era look and solemnity, yet moves the story along without compromising its intriguing musings on the knowability of self and others.
Investigating a stricken space station orbiting the mysterious planet Solaris, shrink Clooney finds he has a ‘visitor’ – a spooky reincarnation of his late wife. Or rather, a reincarnation of his memories of her, which isn’t quite the same thing. Cliff Martinez’s seductive yet unsettling score sets the tone as we ponder the difference in this graceful, thought-provoking affair, where the never-better McElhone is heartbreaking as the woman discovering she’s not truly herself. Trevor Johnston
Director: Joe Cornish
Cast: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail
Best quote: ‘Allow it.’
The Big Idea: The plot may be a mishmash of alien invasion ideas, but it’s the amazing, untrained cast that make this Britcom soar.
Young guns of Brixton
When Joe Cornish’s scrappy, snappy, happy-slappy debut was first released, several notable British critics took umbrage with what they perceived as a tasteless tendency towards leftist hoodie-hugging. The film’s central characters weren’t heroes, they argued, they were little criminals, plain and simple.
And it’s true, ‘Attack the Block’ does open with a fairly vicious mugging scene, which we’re expected to forgive as the story unfolds. But surely this was Cornish’s point: by writing off our nation’s youth as a bunch of knife-wielding thugs, we not only criminalise an entire generation, we risk our own futures. Because who knows when we’ll need their help fending off an alien invasion?
So whatever you think about the film’s fuzzy, community-organising ethos, there’s no ignoring the technical skill on display here: the oh-so-London script crackles like a fistful of sparklers, and the direction is tight as hell. Tom Huddleston
The 100 best sci-fi movies: 90-81
Director: WD Richter
Cast: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin
Best quote: ‘No matter where you go, there you are.’
The Big Idea: That science is, or should be, the new rock ‘n’ roll. Or the new big-hair synth-rock, anyway.
Light years ahead of its time
Ground zero for a pervasive geek culture that was still years away from materialising, WD Richter’s unclassifiable whatsit would have to settle for being a cult film in the dark days of VHS. It should have been huger. A pre-‘RoboCop’ Peter Weller effortlessly embodies the title character: physicist, rock star, the leader of the Hong Kong Cavaliers, he was a comic book hero in his own time.
Working from a brilliantly Pynchon-esque script (writer Earl Mac Rauch took several passes at it, resulting in a 300-page ‘bible’), Richter helms the action with the confidence that his story is weirder and wilder than virtually anything else out there. All the better, then, to steer the great John Lithgow toward his deranged, Italian-accented villain, Dr Emilio Lizardo, whose every line is a keeper (‘Laugh while you can, monkey boy!’). Kevin Smith and Wes Anderson are superfans. We’re still waiting for the sequel promised in the euphoric final credits. Joshua Rothkopf
Director: Richard Fleischer
Cast: Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch, Donald Pleasence
Best quote: ‘Where are we? The corpuscles are blue.’
The Big Idea: An inner-space adventure that has a medical team miniaturised to perform a life-saving operation inside the brain.
I’ve got you under my skin
The tension between its highly imaginative central conceit and the available special-effects technology struggling to put it on screen gives movies like Richard Fleischer’s intravenous thriller a special charm that no longer exists in the era of CGI. Rooted in Cold War paranoia, the story has a crack medical team miniaturised in a submarine to venture within the circulatory system of a comatose defecting scientist.
The production team – including legendary design wizard Harper Goff – bring a brightly-coloured tangibility to the recreation of a world that lies inside us all. Less impressive is the only-too-obvious back-projection, but the smart idea of an admittedly arbitrary 60-minute limit before the crew start growing back to normal size generates cumulatively effective tension as debut gal Raquel Welch provides the glam and ever-reliable Donald Pleasence offers more than a hint of twitchy menace. Trevor Johnston
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton
Best quote: ‘I’m placing you under arrest for the future murder of…’
The Big Idea: The creation of a crime-free society through the use of psychic technology. No way that could backfire.
He’ll do the crime, give him the time
In 2002, just when it was safe to assume Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise were both past their freshest, along came ‘Minority Report’ – a dark, heart-pounding futuristic film-noir whodunit adapted from a Philip K Dick story.
It’s 2054. Scientists haven’t found the cure for the common cold, but they have reduced the murder rate to zero in Washington, DC, with ‘Pre-crime’ – a police unit that taps into a trio of psychic ‘precogs’ to predict murders and arrest the perpetrators before they do anything wrong.
Cruise (properly acting as well as running around in a leather jacket) is the bureau chief fingered as a future murderer. Spielberg consulted leading scientists to furnish a plausible future world, and a decade later – from retina scanners to personalised advertising – he was spot on. ‘Minority Report’ is still creepy as hell. Cath Clarke
Director: Joseph Losey
Cast: MacDonald Carey, Shirley Anne Field, Oliver Reed
Best quote: ‘I’m strange, all right! I’ll show you just how strange I am!’
The Big Idea: Scientists prepare for the inevitable Armageddon by creating a race of radiation-proof superbeings.
He’s a rebel
One of the strangest and – we’re guessing – least seen films on our list is this British New Wave oddity from blacklisted American filmmaker Joseph Losey, who later the same year would go on to pick apart the English class system in his scalpel-sharp satire ‘The Servant’.
‘The Damned’ isn’t quite so cutting in its observations (it doesn’t have the benefit of a Harold Pinter screenplay, after all), but it is perhaps the more unusual and intriguing film, blending every strand of popular post-war paranoia – nuclear, sexual, social – into a murky, unpredictable psychodramatic stew.
In one of his earliest big-screen roles, an overbearing Oliver Reed is a grotesque parody of teen rebellion as King, the leather-clad mugger who stumbles upon a cave society of mutant children. A troubling film, and a deeply peculiar one. Tom Huddleston
Director: Roger Vadim
Cast: Jane Fonda, John Phillip Law, Anita Pallenberg
Best quote: ‘Make love? But no one’s done that for hundreds of centuries!’
The Big Idea: To reinvent the sci-fi movie as an ultra-camp psychedelic sex-romp aimed straight at the swinging modernist set.
How differently would ‘Barbarella’ have turned out if Jane Fonda had had her feminist eureka moment before filming? (‘I was totally clueless about the nascent women’s movement,’ she wrote in her autobiography). Directed by her then-husband Roger Vadim from an X-rated comic strip, ‘Barbarella’ stars Fonda as the space-hopping sex kitten who just can’t say no.
In 1968, critics slammed the film and it bombed at the box office. Now it’s a cult classic and a curio of groovy 1960s psychedelia. Yes, it’s bonkers and silly, but there are some brilliant details – like the creepy kids (who look like mini-Florence Welches) with their killer dolls. For all this, ‘Barbarella’ is possibly most impressive for the myriad ways the plot devises to part Fonda from her clothes. Cath Clarke
Director: Robert Wise
Cast: Arthur Hill, James Olson, David Wayne
Best quote: ‘Cure what? We don’t even know what it is!’
The Big Idea: That aliens might arrive not as bipedal conquerors, but as miniscule microbes.
They call it science fiction, but only too rarely does the cinematic genre tackle a subject which focuses primarily on the science. This screen adaptation of Michael Crichton’s first bestseller tackles the crisis that unfolds when a space probe falls to Earth carrying an extraterrestrial virus that instantly turns human blood to powder. Thankfully, the US authorities have just built a secret subterranean research facility for exactly such eventualities. But it’s by no means a given that the boffins will be able to isolate and neutralise the threat – and there’s a nuclear self-destruct option to prevent wider contamination.
Veteran director Robert Wise, still riding on the box-office bonanza of ‘The Sound of Music’, approaches it all with an austere documentary rigour that at first seems to underplay the drama, but builds an almost unbearable degree of claustrophobic anxiety. Trevor Johnston
Director: James Whale
Cast: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke
Best quote: ‘It’s alive! It’s alive! It’s alive! Now I know what it feels like to be God!’
The Big Idea: A monster as big as a house and as innocent as a puppy: the most sympathetic killer of them all.
Do the monster mash
With the heavy brow-line, cranial flat-top and bolts to the neck, the creature featured in Universal’s landmark retelling of the Mary Shelley tale is one of the true icons of fantasy cinema. It’s the deep pools of emotion in Boris Karloff’s eyes which make this a classic however, providing an extra element of humanity to the celluloid archetype of the brilliant but morally unhinged scientist who goes way too far.
Colin Clive brings fierce conviction to the role of re-animator Baron Frankenstein and the lab design remains a wonder. But it’s the combination of superhuman force and childlike vulnerability Karloff finds in the monster role which makes this a potent viewing experience even now. Kudos to English theatre director James Whale for highlighting this startling contradiction in a film with an incalculable influence on subsequent genre cinema. Trevor Johnston
Director: William Cameron Menzies
Cast: Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Edward Chapman
Best quote: ‘If we don’t end war, war will end us.’
The Big Idea: The alarming prescience of HG Wells’s fable, predicting a century of global destruction, regeneration and lunar ambitions.
Onwards and upwards
For good or for ill, producer Alexander Korda allowed HG Wells to have creative control over this future-gazing epic and adaptation of his own novel – marking a rare occasion when a literary sci-fi giant has guided their own work on celluloid. To start, he uncannily predicts the ravages of enemy air raids in 1940, then maps out decades of subsequent carnage and disease before a new breed of utopian technocrats put mankind back on track – at the expense of wiping out all resistance.
The remarkable effects work and the production design charts a twenty-first century shaped by an art-deco aesthetic, though it’s also clear that Wells was more interested in speechifying than engaging the audience’s emotions. His absolute certainty that science will provide a better tomorrow delivers an antiseptically dull fate for us. And counter to his intentions, it’s the scrappy, combative rebels who appear the most engagingly, if fallibly, human. Trevor Johnston
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba
Best quote: ‘Today, we are cancelling the apocalypse!’
The Big Idea: The Jaegers – man-made walking skyscrapers kitted out with all kinds of juicy hi-tech weaponry.
Dōmo arigatō, Mr Roboto
The placing of ‘Pacific Rim’ on this list is a vindication for writer-director Guillermo del Toro. The worldwide box office receipts for ‘Pacific Rim’ were astronomical, but many commentators wondered how this beloved Mexican filmmaker – so artful and idiosyncratic in movies like ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and ‘Hellboy 2’ – could produce such a blunt, mainstream action blockbuster.
While it’s true that the script could definitely use some work, and the performances are universally rotten, this may be missing the point: ‘Pacific Rim’ is a visual spectacular, and all other considerations must be secondary. The vast robotic Jaegers are digitally rendered down to the last bolt, their slimy, reptilian adversaries could eat Godzilla for breakfast and the relentless, punishing knock-down, drag-out action sequences are like nothing else in cinema. Tom Huddleston
Director: Brad Bird
Cast (voices): Eli Marienthal, Jennifer Aniston, Vin Diesel
Best quote: ‘You’re made of metal, but you have feelings, and you think about things, and that means you have a soul. And souls don’t die.’
The Big Idea: Foreign technology isn’t necessarily evil – even if it looks like it wants your bones for breakfast.
The friendly face of the Cold War
In the wake of the Sputnik launch in 1957, a towering metal robot crash-lands in a small Maine community (relocated from the rural England of Ted Hughes’s source novel), inadvertently scaring the bejesus out of everyone it encounters. In fact it’s a benign, selfless giant, intent only on munching scrap metal and protecting a young boy who saves its ‘life’.
To adults, Brad Bird’s animated classic is a well-observed evocation of the anti-communist paranoia that permeated life in the 1950s – the golden age of sci-fi. To kids, it’s a universal tale of tolerance and trusting friendship; you could replace the giant with ET or Totoro and you’d have much the same film. It may be voiced by Vin Diesel, but the giant itself is a thing of beauty: a distant relative of the robots in ‘Castle in the Sky’ or ‘The King and the Mockingbird’, it conveys a wealth of emotions despite not saying or doing much at all. Alex Dudok de Wit
The 100 best sci-fi movies: 80-71
Director: JJ Abrams
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Bruce Greenwood
Best quote: ‘I would cite regulation, but I know you will simply ignore it.’
The Big Idea: A reboot which finds clever reasons to diverge from its source material by simply rerouting the space-time continuum.
Who likes fun?
In its later years, both on the large and small screen, the ‘Star Trek’ franchise had grown awfully po-faced – the final TV series, ‘Enterprise’, was unbearably dull and pompous, while the last two ‘Next Generation’ movies were tedious extended-episode trudges lacking any real emotion, freshness or – to quote James T Kirk’s dying words: ‘fun’. Of course, the hardcore Trekkers made an almighty fuss when TV mogul JJ Abrams came along and transformed their precious franchise into something the wider movie-going audience might actually enjoy, but it’s their loss.
This ‘Star Trek’ is a blistering rollercoaster of a film, rocketing from set-piece to set-piece and having a barrel of in-jokey laughs reinventing the iconic characters we know and love. The sequel, ‘Into Darkness’, was a crass, fan-baiting mess, but we still hold out hope for the forthcoming part three, now that Abrams has jumped starship for a whole different galaxy. Tom Huddleston
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Cast (voices): Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Otsuka
Best quote: ‘Have you ever actually seen your own brain?’
The Big Idea: Humans are connected to a vast electronic network via the backs of their necks (we’re looking at you, Wachowskis).
Tech and the city
It’s the year 2029, and humanity exists in a society managed by an electronic network that takes possession of their consciousness (‘ghost’) when they don a special cybernetic suit (‘shell’). But beneath the layers of hi-tech delirium and political intrigue lies a fairly simple idea: that human identity is a function of memory, and so in theory indistinguishable from a digital hard drive.
Far from a run-of-the-mill slice of millennial angst, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ abounds in mysteries and paradoxes. The film is Japanese, but the world appears to be a version of Hong Kong; the setting is futuristic, but the soundtrack features ancient Japanese chant; the main characters are robots, yet they can’t relinquish certain human obsessions. A strange and subtle work of anime. Alex Dudok de Wit
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cast: Klaus Löwitsch, Barbara Valentin, Mascha Rabben
Best quote: ‘Is it true you've created an artificial world?’ ‘“World” is an exaggeration.’
The Big Idea: Years before ‘The Matrix’ or ‘Second Life’, a German filmmaker explored the idea of a computer-simulated reality.
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‘World on a Wire’ was the first, last and only foray into speculative science fiction for New Wave maestro Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The result is an opulent and elaborate epic – though it was first shown as a three-part TV serial which plays like ‘Chinatown’, if that film’s hero Jake Gittes had traded his cream linen suit for a bank of old-school computers and a sparkly crash helmet.
Loosely adapted from Daniel F Galouye’s 1964 pulp sci-fi novella, ‘Simulacron-3’, this staggering work (which triumphantly resurfaced in 2010 after years in the distribution doldrums) prefigures pretty much any film that deals with the concept of concentric realities (‘Inception’, ‘Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace’ et al), and does so with economy, rigour and style. So, so much style. David Jenkins
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
Best quote: ‘I was a warrior who dreamed he could bring peace. Sooner or later, though, you always have to wake up.’
The Big Idea: A litany against eco-imperialism with groundbreaking visual effects and stereoscopic filmmaking.
Director James Cameron has acknowledged that ‘Avatar’ has many influences, from the jungles of ‘Tarzan’ to the themes of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter series. But, typically, Cameron went and did it bigger and better than anyone else. Having come up with the idea in his ‘Titanic’ days, he literally waited for technology to catch up, requiring seriously sophisticated motion-capture photography and effects to plunge us into planet Pandora, along with the avatar of earthly soldier Jake Sully (Worthington).
The results are awe-inspiring, especially in 3D, and scored the film Oscars for Cinematography, Visual Effects and Art Direction. ‘Avatar’ is more than just a spectacle however: it’s a familiar yet heart-warming story of a military man who switches sides after integrating with a peaceful people. Anna Smith
Director: Peter Weir
Cast: Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney
Best quote: ‘Good morning, and in case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening and good night!’
The Big Idea: Eerily pre-empting the reality TV boom, the film imagines someone’s life as a form of mass entertainment.
You can do that on television
Jim Carrey leaves his low-comic roots behind in this superb satire of our TV-obsessed culture. The former Ace Ventura is terrific as Truman Burbank, a seemingly normal everyman with a wife (Linney), a house and a white picket fence. In truth, he’s the unwitting star of a 24-hour blockbuster television show that airs worldwide.
Sci-fi specialist Andrew Niccol (‘Gattaca’) wrote the prescient script, anticipating reality television’s Big Brother ubiquity. But it’s thanks to the great Aussie director Peter Weir – keeping the surface light and the undercurrents dark – that the story is so pointed. Everything Truman experiences is cheerily alien; it consistently sends chills up the spine (why does his spouse keep talking about her home-care products like she’s shilling for them?). By the time the show’s man-behind-the-curtain Christof (Ed Harris, all wily benevolence) comes to the fore, the spooky surreality has reached a fever pitch. Keith Uhlich
Director: Richard Marquand
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Best quote: ‘I have a bad feeling about this...’
The Big Idea: Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the Ewoks fulfilled George Lucas’s long-held desire to depict a primitive people going up against a technological army.
Third time wookiee
The last and, our voters agree, least of the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy may have its problems, but it’s one heck of a ride. Detractors may quibble about the cuddly-toy Ewoks, the wimpy depiction of Princess Leia (not just the gold bikini incident, but her general reluctance to play the blaster-wielding badass) and the writers’ lazy decision to revive the Death Star from the first movie rather than going for a full-on assault against the heart of Imperial power. But so much of the movie really does work: the sail barge escape is pell-mell swashbuckling action at its finest, the speeder bike chase is full-throttle fun and the monumental three-way climax is a Wagnerian crescendo that caps the series in fine style. Best of all, it really whets the appetite for Episode VII… Tom Huddleston
Director: Mike Hodges
Cast: Sam J Jones, Max von Sydow, Brian Blessed
Best quote: ‘Gordon’s alive!’
The Big Idea: Just as sci-fi was starting to take itself seriously again, along came the campest movie ever made to puncture that black balloon.
Watching ‘Flash Gordon’, you can only wonder whether someone thought there was an as-yet untapped audience of sci-fi fans who were also, as the wonderful original Time Out review puts it, ‘gentlemen who prefer blonds’? Of course, once it was out in the world the whole thing made some kind of twisted, outrageous sense, and it still does.
It’s not exactly funny – the humour’s too broad and ridiculous. And it’s not exactly exciting – the special effects are knowingly daft, and the action scenes feel haphazardly glued together. And yet somehow this Technicolor tale of heroic muscle-bound lunks, preening goateed villains, boisterous bird-men (Blessed sealed his reputation here), hapless maidens and doomed Blue Peter presenters works like a charm. Queen’s operatic, whammy-whanging soundtrack doesn’t hurt a bit. Tom Huddleston
Director: Cory McAbee
Cast: Cory McAbee, Gregory Russell Cook, Joshua Taylor
Best quote: ‘Is it just me, or do my balls itch?’
The Big Idea: That just about anyone with a few dollars can create their own interplanetary spectacular – it just takes a little ingenuity.
In space, no one can hear you sing
No money? No problem. Writer-director-star Cory McAbee used imaginative dodges – such as action sequences filmed as musical numbers in silhouette – to make up for a relatively small budget of between one and two million dollars (the exact figure remains sketchy).
The film’s premise suggests high camp, ‘Barbarella’-style, but in fact this 35mm black-and-white effort combines kitschy elements with the roughneck machismo of a Western – imagine a tumbler of neat Jack Daniels with a cocktail umbrella perched inexplicably on the rim.
McAbee's charmingly ramshackle antics slightly run out of steam by the end of a wisely brief 91 minute runtime, but this idiosyncratic yarn’s inspired highlights make it a must-see passion project for anyone who enjoys combing science fiction’s farthest shores for the weirder pieces of flotsam and jetsam. Catherine Bray
Director: John Frankenheimer
Cast: Rock Hudson, John Randolph, Salome Jens
Best quote: ‘This may hurt a little.’
The Big Idea: The premise of inhabiting another’s body may not be new, but no other film has explored so fully the nightmarish possibilities.
What major Hollywood star would have felt more at home with the idea of total self-transformation than Rock Hudson? The macho matinee idol who was secretly gay, the serious artist trapped, by the mid-’60s, in a roundelay of outdated, featherweight romcoms, Hudson must have been desperate for an escape route.
As with so much great sci-fi, the concept of ‘Seconds’ is perfectly simple: an ageing, downtrodden salary man pays to be surgically transformed into a chiselled hunk, but life among the beautiful people isn’t quite as he’d dreamed it would be.
Drawing equally on post-war film noir, countercultural me-generation wish fulfilment and pre-Watergate paranoia, ‘Seconds’ is one of the most radical, disturbing and downright terrifying thrillers ever released by a major Hollywood studio. It also benefits from arguably the greatest opening title sequence in film history: a warped kaleidoscope of malformed flesh – directed, of course, by the legendary Saul Bass. Tom Huddleston
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine
Best quote: ‘You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.’
The Big Idea: Science as a sideshow – cleverly exploring the links between discovery and old-fashioned magical trickery.
Abracadabra, it’s Batman v Wolverine
Late 1800s London is the perfect setting for Christopher Nolan’s twisty tale of rival magicians. The Victorian age was an unprecedented time of scientific discovery, where the impossible was being made possible with every new invention – just like magic.
A puzzle of a film, ‘The Prestige’ opens with a murder and unfolds in flashback. Alfred Bordern (Bale) and Robert Angier (Jackman) meet as young magicians’ apprentices. Driven by rivalry, for years they steal each other’s tricks, finally coming to blows over Bordern’s ‘The Transported Man’ illusion. Angier can’t figure it out, and insane with jealousy, asks the (real) inventor Nikola Tesla to build him a machine to compete with Bordern. But at what cost? Christopher Nolan pulls a rabbit out of the hat with a gripping, suspenseful ta-da finish. Cath Clarke
The 100 best sci-fi movies: 70-61
Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges
Best quote: ‘Trying to rid the world of weapons, you gave it its best one ever. And now, I’m going to kill you with it!’
The Big Idea: Comic books aren’t just for nerds – they’re America’s gift to the world. Well, that and military hardware.
Heavy metal thunder
It all started here. The sprawling multimedia soap opera that is the Marvel movie series now dominates our summer viewing and our end-of-year box office charts – with no signs of slowing. Oddly, their record-shattering crowning achievement, 2012’s heavily sci-fi flavoured ‘The Avengers’, didn’t place in this list, with our voters preferring to go back to the source. And as a statement of intent, ‘Iron Man’ is pretty near unbeatable.
Here, fully formed, is the template for all future Marvel movies: wisecracking heroes, world-threatening villains, explosive action sequences, throwaway gags and just a hint of a social conscience (the movie could probably have leant harder on the weapons-industry-is-bad subtext, but we’ll let it go). Robert Downey Jr has now officially shuffled off the iron suit (next year’s ‘Avengers 2’ notwithstanding), but he leaves a pretty feisty legacy behind him. Tom Huddleston
Director: Michael Anderson
Cast: Michael York, Jenny Agutter, Peter Ustinov
Best quote: ‘No one has to die at 30! You could live! LIVE! Live, and grow old!’
The Big Idea: A story of radicalism and questioning authority, as well as a critique of a society that values youth over wisdom.
Putting the youth in euthanasia
Life ends at 30 in this sci-fi that presents a typically ’60s/’70s vision of the future: a doomed society that’s outwardly bright, white and polite yet with a heart as black as night.
Loosely based on the novel by William F Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, it stars a chiseled Michael York as Logan 5, a Sandman who processes inhabitants for ‘renewal’ at the age of 30. Of course, they’re actually killed. Jessica 6 (Agutter) suspects as much and soon Logan’s joining her on the run.
While not unanimously well received at the time, ‘Logan’s Run’ has become a cult classic, much beloved for its style, stars and themes. Talk of a remake – possibly overseen by ‘Drive’ director Nicolas Winding Refn – rumbles on. Anna Smith
Director: Michael Crichton
Cast: Yul Brynner, James Brolin, Richard Benjamin
Best quote: ‘Delos is the vacation of the future – today.’
The Big Idea: The theme park where you can experience historical periods in flawless robotic detail – why isn’t anyone building it?
Have a cool Yul
Twenty-four years before creating ‘Jurassic Park’, Michael Crichton directed his own screenplay for the first time with this cautionary tale about another fail-safe theme park attraction going seriously awry. In so doing, he tapped into America’s most secret desires – shooting people in Westworld, playing out power games in Medievalworld and enjoying Romanworld’s guilt-free sexual indulgence.
Clearly though, the movie is most interested in going way out west, exploring the ingrained story tropes of B-Westerns on faded MGM’s remaining back lot. Its ace card is a genuine celluloid icon in ‘Magnificent Seven’ alpha male Yul Brynner, delivering a perfectly judged turn as the black-clad android gunslinger who turns from malleable playmate into deadly foe when the park’s circuits get crossed. Hard not to imagine the genesis of James Cameron’s ‘Terminator’ in his determined walk and steely, cold-eyed gaze. Trevor Johnston
Director: Christian Nyby
Cast: Margaret Sheridan, Kenneth Tobey, Douglas Spencer
Best quote: ‘An intellectual carrot. The mind boggles.’
The Big Idea: That a creature from outer space might not be humanoid or even mammalian – but a giant marauding plant.
Clean-up in the frozen veg aisle
Admittedly, this loose adaptation of sci-fi legend John W Campbell’s novella ‘Who Goes There’ hasn’t entirely escaped the ravages of time: the effects are clunky, the action a little tame and the creature, when it arrives, really does look like a big carrot with fangs. But let’s focus on the positives, of which there are many.
The setup – Arctic scientists find something vast and otherworldly buried in the ice – is magical, and the script (doctored by an uncredited Howard Hawks, king of the masculine-archetypes-in-peril movie) fizzes with invention. Best of all, director Christian Nyby creates a genuinely irksome sense of impending dread, keeping the creature in shadow for much of the film.
Our voters agree that John Carpenter’s 1982 remake, ‘The Thing’, which drew more heavily on Campbell’s story, is the superior film – but there’s plenty here to chill the blood and spark the imagination. Tom Huddleston
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn
Best quote: ‘It’s a bottomless pit, baby. Two-and-a-half miles, straight down.’
The Big Idea: The ‘water snake’ sequence was the first time many of us had come face-to-face with digital special effects.
Down down, deeper and down
Fresh off the massive success of ‘Aliens’, James Cameron spent three years and a boatload of studio cash bringing this daunting pet project to the screen. A lifelong deep-sea obsessive, Cameron’s dedication to the nuts-and-bolts reality of life on the ocean floor makes for a uniquely gritty, tactile experience, even as his midlife swing towards sentimentality begins to undermine the toughness of his vision.
It’s that old chestnut of the civilian team hauled in to help out the military, as Ed Harris and his oil-drilling roughnecks come to the aid of a downed nuclear sub and find themselves facing something altogether more otherworldly. The action sequences are relentless, and if the film is somewhat let down by its gushy ending (improved but not entirely sorted out in the Special Edition recut), it’s a small price to pay for greatness elsewhere. Tom Huddleston
Director: Byron Haskin
Cast: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne
Best quote: ‘Once they begin to move, no more news comes out of that area.’
The Big Idea: HG Wells provides the template for every alien invasion movie to come.
But still they come
Orson Welles had already terrified America with his radio adaptation, and producer George Pal first brought HG Wells’s 1898 novel to cinema screens in this still-bracing account of a full-scale Martian attack. Spielberg’s post-9/11 remake from 2005 certainly upped the destructive spectacle, but here there’s something insidiously chilling about the design of the invaders’ death-ray-spewing craft and the eerie electronic pulsing which accompanies their progress from fiery landing to global onslaught.
The notion of a truly implacable, remorseless alien foe is a key element of every similar celluloid invasion story which has followed, and though the religious certainties on display here certainly date the film, the fears it reveals – annihilation of home and family, breakdown of social order – are extremely telling for being played out in news footage that’s obviously documentary material capturing the real-life carnage of World War Two. Trevor Johnston
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton
Best quote: ‘I haven’t seen my analyst in 200 years. He was a strict Freudian. If I’d been going all this time, I’d probably almost be cured by now.’
The Big Idea: Two centuries in deep freeze fails to kill the relevance of Woody’s unique brand of humour.
Kvetch to the future
Sci-fi and Woody Allen aren’t words you’d normally expect in the same sentence, but the Brooklyn-born filmmaker’s fifth feature saw Woody playing a vegetarian store owner who wakes up from a cryogenically frozen state in 2173, 200 years after dying during a routine operation (the ultimate hypochondriac’s nightmare?). The sci-fi set-up is mostly an excuse for Woody to indulge some fairly slapstick physical comedy revolving around a man quite literally out of time and place.
Woody’s madcap vision of the future is an autocratic regime where an organisation called the Underground struggles against the government and decadent members of high society get their rocks off by rolling a metal ball in their hands or stepping into a machine called the Orgasmatron. But this is still very much a Woody Allen film, complete with a pair of bickering Jewish tailors, Ginsberg & Cohen, who measure up Miles for a new suit. The only difference is they’re robots. Dave Calhoun
Director: Alain Resnais
Cast: Claude Rich, Olga Georges-Picot, Anouk Ferjac
Best quote: ‘And now I’m dead. I’m cold. I hear my words. It’s the drug...’
The Big Idea: Arthouse and sci-fi find common ground in the tale of a suicidal man unstuck in time.
A la recherche du temps perdu
1968 was a helluva year for science fiction. As Vietnam raged and global revolution beckoned, a small group of filmmakers found solace in other worlds, whether the chilly future of ‘2001’ or the satirical apocalypse of ‘Planet of the Apes’. But with his often overlooked ‘Je t’aime je t’aime’, French filmmaker Alain Resnais chose to use sci-fi to look within.
It’s the tale of suicidal author Claude Ridder (Rich), who’s asked to take part in a government experiment employing a vast papier-mâché brain sculpture and a number of confused-looking mice. But when the project goes awry, Ridder finds himself lost in time, reliving the breakdown of his relationship with early-model Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Catrine (Georges-Picot).
Benefitting from a clanging score by legendary Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki and exploring many of the same themes of memory, regret and empathy as Resnais’s earlier ‘Last Year in Marienbad’, this is a dreamlike experiment that deserves wider attention. Tom Huddleston
Director: Alex Proyas
Cast: Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, Kiefer Sutherland
Best quote: ‘When was the last time you remember doing something during the day?’
The Big Idea: Tuning – the ability to control matter by the force of will alone, granting Godlike powers.
The night-time is the right time
Like science itself, sci-fi loves to probe the nature of what we call reality – in films as diverse as ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Solaris’, questions about subjective perception versus objective fact form the core of the story. But few dig as deep to find the answers as ‘Dark City’, Alex Proyas’s grimy slice of existential angst masquerading as a noir-inflected thriller.
In the unnamed urban sprawl of the title, a killer is on the loose. It might be John (Sewell), he’s not really sure. In fact, he’s not certain of much any more – what he does for a living, what he did yesterday, or if there even was a yesterday…
Starting from a simple murder mystery and building inexorably outwards from there, Proyas introduces us to a world where – in that overused but here entirely appropriate phrase – nothing is as it seems. The ending is a stone-cold brain-melter. Tom Huddleston
Director: George Miller
Cast: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence
Best quote: ‘Lingerie. Oh, remember lingerie?’
The Big Idea: Miller’s vision of a post-apocalyptic world as one long road to nowhere is both horrific and thrilling.
No blood for oil
The first ‘Mad Max’ had a faint whiff of sci-fi, but that could have been the desolation of the Aussie landscape conjuring up visions of post-nuclear hell. With his follow-up, writer-director George Miller went all out: the world is now a dustbowl populated by rampaging mutants, petrified normals and one brutal lawgiver, and they all have one thing in common – a lust for the black gold.
But ‘The Road Warrior’ isn’t just a prescient futuristic parable, it’s also perhaps the finest pedal-to-the-metal action movie ever made: no director before or since has made such a gladiatorial spectacle out of grinding gears, burning rubber and the screech of brakes. The film’s other great strength is its unabashed Aussie-ness: resisting the temptation to play Hollywood at its own game, ‘The Road Warrior’ is as gloriously Strine as Ned Kelly drinking Castlemaine tinnies in a ute. Tom Huddleston
The 100 best sci-fi movies: 60-51
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 Clarke
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 Huddleston
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 Rothkopf
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 Huddleston
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 Johnston
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 Huddleston
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 Rothkopf
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 Wit
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 Clarke
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 Wit
The 100 best sci-fi movies: 50-41
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson
Best quote: ‘When is the last time you touched someone?’
The Big Idea: What if a predatory and sexually hungry alien looked and sounded like Scarlett Johansson?
Watch out boy, she’ll chew you up
The set-up is fairly simple: an alien lands on Earth and tries to fit in while also having to sate an appetite for human flesh by assuming the form of a beautiful woman (Johansson) and luring keen men to their deaths. But the beauty of Jonathan Glazer’s film is how unfamiliar the whole sci-fi element feels (visually and sonically – Mica Levi’s score is excellent), while the setting of drab, rainy contemporary Scotland couldn’t feel more familiar.
Glazer’s use of special effects to depict the way in which Johansson’s alien gobbles up her victims – we see them walking into what looks like a lake of oil – is strange and mysterious. Like much superior sci-fi, the genre elements mainly exist to cast new light on our world as it is. Here, the most powerful moments are when Johansson interacts with the Scottish locals (some of them non-actors and filmed secretly) and when we’re pushed to reconsider the nature of sex, love, desire and attraction. Dave Calhoun
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Caspar Van Dien, Denise Richards, Michael Ironside
Best quote: ‘Naked force has resolved more conflicts throughout history than any other factor.’
The Big Idea: Verhoeven draws on his own World War Two childhood to create a crazed but totally convincing vision of a neo-fascist future.
Satire in science fiction is nothing new – but creating a perfect balance of entertainment and politics requires a particular set of skills. To date, the crown prince of ferocious action movies with blunt-as-a-brick subtext has to be Paul Verhoeven, whose three films on this list (‘RoboCop’, ‘Total Recall’ and this gem) are the work of an artist equally interested in thrilling his audience, offending their sensibilities and making them think.
In a future world where everyone is beautiful and only ‘citizens’ get to vote, Verhoeven imagines a war against an alien race whose hideous appearance makes them a perfect target for human aggression. The attacks against American imperialism and Hollywood shallowness come thick and fast, culminating in one of the most striking images in all of sci-fi as Neil Patrick Harris, in full Gestapo dress, prepares to send a platoon of terrified teenage boys into battle. Tom Huddleston
Director: Ivan Reitman
Cast: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis
Best quote: ‘Yes, it’s true. This man has no dick.’
The Big Idea: Nuclear accelerators, ghost containment grids – a whole world of cutting-edge technology that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
Saturday Night Dead
Another film that balances on the edge of science fiction – perhaps explaining its relatively low placing on this list. It doesn’t have anything to do with quality: ‘Ghostbusters’ is one of the great Hollywood films of the ’80s, a razor-sharp comedy with thunderous apocalyptic overtones which caught the public imagination in 1984 and hasn’t been shaken off since. Rumours of a reboot emerge on an almost daily basis.
This is one of those rare occasions where everything just clicks: the cast look like they’re having a whale of a time (Bill Murray, in particular, has never been more despicably loveable), the special effects still look spectacular and the pithy script is wall-to-wall quotable. In the wake of co-writer and star Harold Ramis’s untimely death, the film has taken on an even greater poignancy: this was his finest hour, and we hope he’s happily collecting spores, moulds and fungus on the other side. Tom Huddleston
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, John Hurt
Best quote: ‘If it is just us, seems like an awful waste of space.’
The Big Idea: Author and scientist Carl Sagan looked at first alien contact from all angles – and decided humanity probably wasn’t ready.
The sagacity of Sagan
Is Carl Sagan the unsung hero of modern science fiction? We often hear about the scientists who were inspired by his 1980 ‘Cosmos’ TV series. But it must be the same for authors and filmmakers seeing through Sagan’s wise eyes how vast, rich and strange our universe is. An occasional novelist, Sagan’s best known work is ‘Contact’, the story of a young astronomer – played with grave dignity by Jodie Foster in this movie version released barely a year after Sagan’s death – who receives a signal from outer space.
Robert Zemeckis’s film suffers from bouts of sentimentality and a tendency to play things a little safe. But it benefits from a handful of glorious visual moments unlike anything else in sci-fi – the stunning track-back through the universe at the film’s opening, the special effects bonanza that brings matters to a climax and a truly weird and unforgettable through-the-mirror long shot. Tom Huddleston
Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams
Best quote: ‘Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.’
The Big Idea: Jonze doesn’t so much explore the obvious question, can you really fall in love with a computer?, as ask: how can technology lay bare our innate romantic flaws?
Press three for sex; four for a hug…
Spike Jonze’s fourth feature is set in an immediately recognisable near-future, a place where our personal relationships with technology have graduated to friendships and even long-running love affairs with the operating systems that drive our computers, mobiles and the like.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a middle-aged man who lives alone in an apartment overlooking a skyline of skyscrapers (the film was partly shot in Shanghai) and whose day job involves writing emotional handwritten letters on behalf of strangers. Theodore is going through a divorce and falls head over heels in love with an operating system, Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.
The film’s embrace of the future is subtle. Rather than go heavy on developments in technology, Jonze prefers to use them to explore more timeless ideas about love, relationships and what we expect from a partner. Dave Calhoun
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt
Best quote: ‘Get your fokkin’ tentacle out of my face!’
The Big Idea: The prawns are an immigrant alien underclass forced to live in squalor and offered little to no respect or dignity – a statement on race and class relations in South Africa.
Producer Peter Jackson called ‘District 9’ a ‘tiny’ film. Well, when it comes to budgets he’s got his own standards – but $30 million is a lot of loose change for an untried 29-year-old director. South African filmmaker Neil Blomkamp was a protégé of Jackson’s, and ‘District 9’ grew out of his short, ‘Alive in Joburg’, developing that film’s allegory of South Africa’s segregation mentality.
Twenty years after a spaceship became stranded over Johannesburg, the government is finally dealing with the fallout – 1.8 million crusty aliens living in a slum, District 9, on the outskirts of the city. With documentary authenticity, Blomkamp takes us into the refugee camp at the start of a mass deportation. This is smart, politically engaged sci-fi to sink your teeth into. Cath Clarke
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Ricardo Montalban
Best quote: ‘I have been and always shall be your friend.’
The Big Idea: The Genesis device, a machine with the power to bring life to a dead planet – or death to a living one.
To cosily go…
Only two ‘Star Trek’ adventures managed to crack our top 100 (though ‘First Contact’ missed out by the slimmest of margins), but then the series never did have quite the same broad appeal as their more easy-to-swallow ‘Star Wars’ rivals.
It’s widely accepted that ‘The Wrath of Khan’ is the best of the big-screen Trek adventures: the villain, Ricardo Montalban’s revenge-fuelled mutant powerhouse Khan, is an all-time great, the plot moves at warp speed and the climax is as unashamedly emotional as sci-fi gets. But what’s most pleasing is the warmth and camaraderie between the original cast: Shatner and Nimoy may not be actors of Shakespearean calibre, but these characters fit them – and the entire multi-racial, interspecies crew – like comfy, oversized spacesuit gloves. Tom Huddleston
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside
Best quote: ‘Consider that a divorce!’
The Big Idea: If memory can be constructed, how do we know which of our memories are real? And if that’s the case, who are we?
Dream a little dream of Mars
Loosely adapted from Philip K Dick’s 1966 short story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, this electrifying futuristic adventure casts hulking Arnold Schwarzenegger as 2084 Earthman Douglas Quaid, a construction worker whose life changes drastically after a botched memory implant. Suddenly, he’s a secret agent whose wife (a pre-‘Basic Instinct’ Sharon Stone) is trying to kill him and whose fate is inextricably tied up in a revolution brewing a planet away on Mars.
Director Paul Verhoeven has his usual perverse fun visualising the world to come: relentlessly cheery animatronic taxi drivers, full-body X-ray security machines and (hey, adolescent boys!) a three-breasted mutant prostitute. Arnie, unsurprisingly, is at his cocky, quippy best: just try stifling that giggle when he (literally) drills into a bad guy and shouts, ‘Screw you!’ Keith Uhlich
Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman
Best quote: ‘Time not important. Only life important.’
The Big Idea: A visual extravaganza à la française as Besson’s over-active imagination saves the universe.
The future’s bright. The future’s orange
Never a critical favourite, the French filmmaking magnate Luc Besson has resolutely persisted in following his own idiosyncratic taste, and this wayward fantasy has an individuality distinct from Hollywood formula. The plot involves ancient Egyptians, interplanetary invaders and the female embodiment of goodness – all suggestive of a youth misspent poring over Earth, Wind & Fire lyrics. But boy, did Besson assemble a crack team to visualise it.
From action-man Bruce Willis’s ribbed orange vest to supreme being Milla Jovovich’s bandage dress, the Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes are iconic in their way, while Dan Weil’s production design populates the screen with characterful hardware and gizmos. Given comic-relief Chris Tucker’s grating contribution, the film might be best enjoyed with the sound off, as Besson’s flair for memorable one-off images – Jovovich’s swan dive into the NYC skies, the blue alien diva – make ‘The Fifth Element’ the apotheosis of Le cinéma du look. Trevor Johnston
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster
Best quote: ‘I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.’
The Big Idea: That the alien takeover has already happened – and the world’s ordinary poor are its victims.
Wake up and smell the invasion
Hollywood loves to villainise itself on its own terms, yet it never met a rascal like John Carpenter, who snuck in through the side door with ‘Halloween’ and somehow held on to his libertarian streak. Inspired by a short story about mass alien hypnosis (but mainly fed up by all the commercials on TV), the writer-director unleashed his most potent subversion, a paranoid masterpiece in which a blue-collar drifter (Roddy Piper) dons a pair of special sunglasses and can suddenly see the hidden messages among us: OBEY, REPRODUCE, CONSUME. This is, of course, what our billboards really do say, in code.
‘They Live’ is a crash course in semiotics and media manipulation – an astounding accomplishment for a sci-fi B-flick that also contains the longest back-alley brawl in movie history. Joshua Rothkopf
The 100 best sci-fi movies: 40-31
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 Wit
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 Uhlich
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 Huddleston
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 Johnston
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 Calhoun
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 Rothkopf
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 Huddleston
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 Frankel
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 Johnston
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 Johnston
The 100 best sci-fi movies: 30-21
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 Uhlich
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 Uhlich
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 Rothkopf
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 Calhoun
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 Johnston
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 Frankel
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 Frankel
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 Uhlich
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 Rothkopf
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 Rothkopf
The 100 best sci-fi movies: 20-11
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 Huddleston
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 Clarke
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 Clarke
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 Uhlich
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 Clarke
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 Huddleston
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 Frankel
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 Huddleston
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 Clarke
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 Huddleston
The 100 best sci-fi movies: the top ten
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 Huddleston
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 Uhlich
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 Clarke
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 Calhoun
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 Rothkopf
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 Huddleston
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 Huddleston
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 Frankel
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 Huddleston
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 Rothkopf
How many sci-fi movies have you seen?
Think you’re a hardcore science fiction geek? Or are you just beginning to explore the galaxy of wonders that is sci-fi cinema? We reckon the average punter has seen about 28 of the films on our 100 best sci-fi movies list. Can you do better?