Is there any genre of film as infinitely creative as sci-fi? From that giant (creepy) space baby in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ to the predictive powers of technology in ‘Minority Report’, ideas have no limits when science collides with the great minds of filmmaking.
All of which makes selecting the 100 best sci-fi films as tricky as fending off the new robot overlords. To help us with the job, we enlisted a turbocharged team of experts including the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Sir Paul Nurse, fantasy film director Guillermo del Toro and ‘Game of Thrones’ writer George RR Martin. Then, we threw the expertise of some Time Out writers into the mix, too.
The result? A definitive selection of all-time classics like ‘Alien’ and relative newbies such as ‘Black Panther’. It’s such a good list, you’ll want to clone it.
Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman
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. TH
Director: Richard Donner
Cast: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman
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. TH
Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Oscar Isaac
A sci-fi-horror hybrid with more grey matter than your average movie, 'Annihilation' has grand concepts in mind, ideas about self-destruction and rebirth. The film follows cellular biologist Lena (Portman) as she ventures into the Shimmer, an anomalous electromagnetic field that looks a bit like a jellyfish screensaver. There, she discovers the truth about what happened to her husband Kane (Isaac), who visited the Shimmer and returned in poor health and with his memory missing.
Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s Nebula-winning 2014 novel, the film might borrow some tricks from out of the Ridley Scott playbook, but this is a visually rapturous and sometimes unsettling movie. Garland’s creeping pace lulls you on an almost molecular level; he’s made something akin to an end-of-the-world film, but one in which the changes afoot might not be wholly bad. AK
Director: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
Cast: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
Two brothers (played by actor-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead) return to the remote cult they fled many years ago. The group’s leader, Hal (Tate Ellington) is preternaturally calm, but there are warning signs all around that things are not quite as peaceful as they seem. Gradually transcending its low-budget indie constraints, ‘The Endless’ builds into a clever piece of sci-fi with some pleasingly bizarre and jarringly violent moments.
Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Gina Torres
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. TH
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Akim Tamiroff
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. TJ
Director: Gareth Edwards
Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendlelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen and Forest Whitaker.
Directed by a childhood uber-fan of the franchise, Gareth Edwards’s prequel (the action’s set sometime before the first ‘Star Wars’ film) is a punchy standalone action tale about a spunky resistance group within the Rebel Alliance. Okay, it’s a little baffling in parts, but it can’t be faulted for its energy levels or commitment to being constantly fun. It also explains how Princess Leia ends up with the plans for the Death Star in the 1977 movie, and fleshes out the rebels with compelling individual backstories.
Director: George Lucas
Cast: Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Maggie McOmie
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. TJ
Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Chadwick Boesman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright
With its killer Kendrick Lamar soundtrack, eye-popping Afrofuturist world and some stupidly charismatic performances, ‘Black Panther’ is sleek, fast-moving and tons of fun. We walked away wanting to see Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, and Londoners Letitia Wright and Daniel Kaluuya in another superhero movie as soon as possible – which thanks to the epic Wakandan bits of ‘Avengers: Infinity War’, we shortly did.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies
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. TJ
Director: Joe Cornish
Cast: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail
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. TH
Director: WD Richter
Cast: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin
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. JR
Director: Richard Fleischer
Cast: Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch, Donald Pleasence
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. TJ
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Cruise, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton
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. CC
Director: Claire Denis
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliet Binoche
Robert Pattinson further cemented his post-’Twilight’ career with this elusive, elliptical sci-fi film. Directed by Claire Denis (making her English-language debut), the action takes place on a drifting spaceship occupied by the survivors of a previous mission involving death row convicts who volunteered to help investigate black holes in exchange for commuted sentences. It’s also quite possibly the only sci-fi film out there to involve a ‘fuckbox’ and a ‘shaman of semen’ (as played by Juliette Binoche).
Director: Joseph Losey
Cast: MacDonald Carey, Shirley Anne Field, Oliver Reed
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. TH
Director: Robert Wise
Cast: Arthur Hill, James Olson, David Wayne
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. TJ
Director: James Whale
Cast: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke
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. TJ
Director: William Cameron Menzies
Cast: Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Edward Chapman
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. TJ
Director: Pete Docter
Cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black
Celebrated for its animation and approach to the complex themes of mental health and growing up, ‘Inside Out’ is one of Disney/Pixar’s most original and emotional creations. The concept-heavy film takes us quite literally inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley. It’s here that we’re introduced to Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear and Disgust, who control Riley’s life and actions via a computer-like control centre in her brain. Things go awry, however, when Joy attempts to delete a core sad memory, accidentally deactivating the ‘personality islands’ and throwing Riley’s emotions into disarray. Along with Sadness, Joy becomes lost in the long-term memory storage area as the pair attempt to fix the damage they’ve caused. It might not necessarily sound accessible, especially for a film aimed at kids, but ‘Inside Out’ deftly handles the world-building required to make the inside of Riley’s head feel realistic. But where the film truly shines is with its portrayal of the crumbling of Riley’s personality and the impact that an imbalance in feelings can cause. It’s proof that science fiction can still be inventive while retaining real emotion. AK
Director: Brad Bird
Cast (voices): Eli Marienthal, Jennifer Aniston, Vin Diesel
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. ADDW
Director: JJ Abrams
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Bruce Greenwood
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 new interation of ‘Star Trek’ is a kneecracking rollercoaster of a film, rocketing from set-piece to set-piece and having a barrel of in-jokey laughs that all help reinvent the now iconic characters we know and love. Chris Pine is perfectly broody as Captain Kirk, while Zachary Quinto adds an added layer of pathos to his interpretation of Spock. The sequels, ‘Into Darkness’ and 'Beyond', have both divided critics and fans alike, but it'd be unfair to discount this reboot as just another money-making cog in the Hollywood machine. TH
Director: Mamoru Oshii
Cast (voices): Atsuko Tanaka, Akio Otsuka
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. ADDW
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cast: Klaus Löwitsch, Barbara Valentin, Mascha Rabben
‘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. DJ
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver
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, bagging the film Oscars for Cinematography, Visual Effects and Art Direction, as well as helping it claim the title of the highest grossing movie of all time at the box office. This, of course, helped Cameron realise that there should be numerous sequels (there are four more movies currently being worked on). Nonetheless, ‘Avatar’ is more than just a spectacle and box office juggernaut: it’s a familiar yet heart-warming story of a military man who switches sides after integrating with a peaceful people. AS
Director: Denis Villeneuve Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Best quote: 'We don't know if they understand the difference between a weapon and a tool.
Big-scale moviemaking embroidered with small human moments and done on 'Avatar's canteen budget, 'Arrival' is the kind of cerebral sci-fi moviemaking that scores its director a gig like, say, 'Blade Runner 2049' or 'Dune'. Director Denis Villeneuve that marries the cool intellectualism of Kubrick and the heart of Spielberg in a deceptively simple story of communication, family and the need to find common ground in the face of catastrophe. As the world wonders if giant, oddly-iPod-speaker-shaped alien craft are going to unleash hellfire or not, Amy Adams’ linguist sets to work understanding their true purpose. She begs for less fear and anger, and more calmness and understanding from the world’s leaders. Can’t think how that would be a message for our times. PDS
Director: Richard Marquand
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
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. Sure, detractors might argue about the cuddly-Ewoks, the surprisingly whimpish depiction of Princess Leia (not just the gold bikini incident, but her general reluctance to play the blaster-wielding badass) and the writers’ lacklustre plot 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 there's still so much of the movie that really does work: the sail barge escape from Jabba the Hut is glorious swashbuckling action at its finest, the speeder bike chase through the forests of Endor is full-throttle fun and the monumental three-way climax is a Wagnerian crescendo that caps this trilogoy of the series in fine style. TH
Director: Mike Hodges
Cast: Sam J Jones, Max von Sydow, Brian Blessed
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. TH
Director: Cory McAbee
Cast: Cory McAbee, Gregory Russell Cook, Joshua Taylor
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. CB
Director: John Frankenheimer
Cast: Rock Hudson, John Randolph, Salome Jens
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. TH
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine
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. CC
Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges
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. TH
Director: Michael Anderson
Cast: Michael York, Jenny Agutter, Peter Ustinov
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. AS
Director: Michael Crichton
Cast: Yul Brynner, James Brolin, Richard Benjamin
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. TJ
Director: Christian Nyby
Cast: Margaret Sheridan, Kenneth Tobey, Douglas Spencer
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. TH
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn
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. TH
Director: Byron Haskin
Cast: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne
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. TJ
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton
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. DC
Director: Alain Resnais
Cast: Claude Rich, Olga Georges-Picot, Anouk Ferjac
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. TH
Director: Alex Proyas
Cast: Rufus Sewell, Jennifer Connelly, Kiefer Sutherland
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. TH
Director: George Miller
Cast: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence
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. TH
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Cast: Andrew Keir, James Donald, Barbara Shelley
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’. CC
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
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. TH
Director: Richard Kelly
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Patrick Swayze
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. JR
Director: George Pal
Cast: Rod Taylor, Yvette Mimieux, Alan Young
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. TJ
Director: Alex Cox
Cast: Emilio Estevez, Harry Dean Stanton, Tracey Walter
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. TH
Director: Richard Fleischer
Cast: Charlton Heston, Leigh Taylor-Young, Edward G Robinson
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. JR
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
Cast (voices): Mitsuo Iwata, Nozomu Sasaki
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. ADDW
Director: John McTiernan
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Kevin Peter Hall
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. CC
Director: René Laloux
Cast (voices): Eric Baugin, Jennifer Drake
‘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. ADDW
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson
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. DC
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Caspar Van Dien, Denise Richards, Michael Ironside
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. TH
Director: Ivan Reitman
Cast: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis
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. TH
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, John Hurt
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. TH
Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams
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. DC
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt
No one saw this one coming. ‘District 9’ was a moderately budgeted directorial debut shot in South Africa; it featured no recognisable stars; the accents were impenetrable and the cultural reference points obscure; it was politically aware, brutally violent and filled with extreme body horror. It raked in over $200 million and was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
The story of an obnoxious middle-manager – played to the smirking hilt by the magnificent Copley – who becomes infected with an alien spore, ‘District 9’ revels in its cutting-edge effects, grotty township realism and the Afrikaans accent. It’s not perfect – its treatment of a group of Nigerian gangsters is highly dubious – but it is viciously entertaining, bleakly funny and completely unafraid to be different. TH
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Ricardo Montalban
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. TH
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside
Existential philosophy meets madcap mutant mayhem in ‘Robocop’ genius Paul Verhoeven’s insanely entertaining blockbuster brain-scrambler. Arnie is the regular blue-collar guy (um, sure) who discovers he’s actually a ruthless double agent (that’s more like it) working to uncover a conspiracy on Mars. But is it all just a dream, a memory, a Messianic vision – or all of the above?
The script is bursting at the seams with wild ideas. Verhoeven is one of the all-time great action directors and the film is just crammed with indelible imagery: the detachable old-lady disguise; the mutant telepathic baby-thing (‘open your miiiiiiind…’); the universe’s freakiest whorehouse; and most of all that nutzoid rubber-head asphyxiation sequence, as Big Arn’s eyes literally start to pop out of his skull. Watch it and you’ll know how he feels. TH
Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman
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. TJ
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster
It may have been written and shot in the Reagan era, but God does ‘They Live’ feel relevant now. A story about a homeless drifter who discovers that the world is being run by shape-shifting aliens disguised as rich people, John Carpenter’s furious sideswipe at conformity and capitalism covers everything from mass inequality to media manipulation, fake news to conspiracy theories. The film’s imagery of skull-faced creatures in human wigs was widely shared during the 2016 US elections, on both sides.
‘They Live’ isn’t perfect – the effects are a bit shoddy, and these ideas would take an entire series of films (or a couple of TV seasons, eh, Netflix?) to fully explore. It does, however, contain two of the great moments in ’80s cinema: ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper delivering the finest kiss-off line of all time (see above), followed by the longest, weirdest, funniest fight scene ever shot, as buddies Piper and Keith David batter the hell out of each other in an alley for no particularly good reason. TH
Director: Andrew Stanton
Cast (voices): Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight
Three years before ‘The Artist’ reminded audiences that silent films exist, Pixar played the neater trick of channelling the pre-talkie era into a luscious computer-animated 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, after encountering and falling for fellow robot EVE, joins the humans (read: Americans) on their spaceship (reportedly modelled on Dubai and Shanghai). Still, it's critique of consumerism and commentary on mankind's impact on the environment means it remains Pixar’s boldest work by far. ADDW
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Dan O’Bannon, Dre Pahich, Brian Narelle
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. KU
Director: Philip Kaufman
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum
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. TH
Director: Shane Carruth
Cast: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden
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? TJ
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy
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. DC
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Cast: David Bowie, Candy Clark, Rip Torn
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. JR
Director: Dean Parisot
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tim Allen, Alan Rickman
‘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… TH
Director: Douglas Trumbull
Cast: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts
‘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. EF
Director: Andrew Niccol
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, Uma Thurman
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. TJ
Director: Robert Wise
Cast: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe
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. TJ
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum
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 failsis tampered with and a 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 knows how to build a nail-biter of a set-piece, like the now iconic but ever so tense velociraptor kitchen sequence or the central tyrannosaurus attack that was a landmark showcase for then-nascent CGI technology (and which, over 25 years later, still looks pretty impressive). While the film's numerous sequels hagve varied in quality — definitely avoid the third outing — 'Jurassic Park' remains a gold standard when it comes to huge Hollywood blockbusters. KU
Director: Franklin J Schaffner
Cast: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter
‘Beware the beast Man, for he is the devil’s pawn.’ Yes, this searingly effective sci-fi adventure may take place in a world of simians, but the focus of its withering satire remains squarely on their hairless cousins. Effectively, the film splits society into three species: warlike gorillas, intellectual orangutans and cautious chimpanzees (what happened to the gibbons?), none of whom know what to do with Charlton Heston’s heroic space traveller when he crash-lands in their pseudo-medieval society. The make-up is dated but still great, Jerry Goldsmith’s blooping electronic score still sounds genuinely weird, and the ending is an absolute killer. A recent run of entertaining prequels have only served to enrich the original. TH
Director: Chris Marker
Cast: Étienne Becker, Jean Négroni, Hélène Chatelain
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. JH
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Warren Clarke
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. DC
Director: Don Siegel
Cast: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, King Donovan
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’. TJ
Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, Madeleine Stowe
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. EF
Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
Many of the greatest science-fiction films aren’t really about technological advancements or the great unknown, but rather about how mankind interacts and utilises it. This makes the moral and ethical questions that sci-fi raises the genre’s best and most thought-provoking weapon, and one ‘Ex Machina’ uses expertly. Writer and director Alex Garland allows for the film’s biggers questions to inhabit the space that other genre movies might fill with action sequences, allowing for a slow sinking horror as the film unfolds.
Oscar Isaac chills as Nathan, the psychopathic yet charismatic billionaire founder of the search engine company that protagonist Caleb, played by Domhnall Gleeson, works for. The camerawork, sound and setting all heighten the film’s intensity, as well as the intensity of the situation that Caleb finds himself in once he’s confronted with Ava, the humanoid robot that Nathan has created. It’s thrilling because the audience is never quite sure whose side to be on. Ava’s consciousness (or lack thereof?) is tricky to ascertain, while Nathan’s intentions are never truly clear. Likewise, Caleb leaves you questioning just how he could be so naïve. The three of them dance around ambiguously until the film’s bloody conclusion, which helps cement this film as one of the best techno-thrillers of all time. AK
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, Frances O’Connor
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. KU
Director: Michel Gondry
Cast: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst
Michael Gondry’s romance takes science fiction and elevates it with sophistication and a neurotic sheen. Gondry became more capable than his usual craftsy music videos, and Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter, proved himself deeper than his reputation suggested.
The biggest revelation comes in the shape of Jim Carrey and his turn as the squirmingly uncomfortable Joel. It’s a standout performance for his career, the moment where his grasping for dramatic depth actually succeeds. Meanwhile, Kate Winslet plays Clementine, one of the great sphinxes in modern movies: voluminous, punkish, soulful, cherishable. She would be hard to forget after a breakup. The inevitability of the scientist’s failure to successfully erase love, or at least the memory of love, is pertinent: Joel’s mind has too many corners and nooks, much like life itself. JR
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson
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. JR
Director: Fred M Wilcox
Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen
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. TH
Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz
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.’ CC
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Michael Caine
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. CC
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Jüri Järvet
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. KU