Science fiction film-making is a fascinating genre, full of ideas about the past and the future. Sometimes bleak, sometimes adventurous, always intriguing, here are 15 essential sci-fi films everyone should see at some point…
15) Brazil – Terry Gilliam’s amalgamation of Orwell’s 1984, mixed with comedy and totalitarian fright, was quietly released in 1985. But it is one of the definitive cult classics, an elaborate and eye-popping look at a future world told through the darkly comedic lens of Gilliam’s Monty Python sensibilities. Starring Jonathan Pryce and a cameo from Robert De Niro, Brazil is a subversive modern classic in the sci-fi genre, though it most certainly is not for everyone.
14) The Matrix – The Wachowski’s sci-fi game changer was stifled a bit by two sequels loaded down with logic problems and monotony. But the original Matrix was unlike anything audiences have seen before, and the creativity behind the storyline matched the inventiveness of the camera work. The “bullet time” sequence, made famous here, was the most mimicked special effect in film history.
13) The Day The Earth Stood Still – The 1950s was the decade where science fiction filmmaking took off, due in part to the paranoia of nuclear war with the communists. There were several worthy entries during the decade, but none more lasting than The Day The Earth Stood Still. Transferring the fear of nuclear holocaust into a fear of foreign invaders from another planet, the film manages to transcend its 1951 release date and still feel relevant in the genre today.
12) Primer – Easily the least known film on this list is Primer, writer/director/star Shane Carruth’s minimalist, mind-bending drama about two ordinary engineers who invent time travel and store the device in a storage building. The story folds in on itself in challenging ways, so challenging that while you may be able to follow the events (barely) while they are happening, to try and explain what you just saw is almost impossible. Seek this one out if you are a fan of what people call “hard sci-fi,” which means a film dealing more with the technological side of the genre than the mystical side.
11) District 9 – It is rare that a sci-fi film can get a Best Picture nomination, but Neill Blomkamp broke the mold in 2009 with District 9. The film, about aliens who are pushed into South African ghettos, is a clear allegory for Apartheid in that country, and is both emotional an exhilarating in its ability to take familiar stories and make them feel fresh and new.
10) Children of Men – Alfonso Cuaron’s story about a world where women can no longer conceive children is part post-apocalypse, part chase film, and completely compelling. Clive Owen owns his role as a nihilistic man who is charged with saving humanity, and the camera work from Cuaron is transcendent at times. The future world looks not futuristic, but bleak and regressing.
9) Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn – Despite so many entries into the Star Trek film franchise, there is no other entry that is worthy of an essentials list. Star Trek II is a stand alone masterwork in the franchise, and was a strict departure from the regional film, which tried too hard to be 2001. The story truly develops the character of James T. Kirk, and has an emotional sendoff in the end that is crucial in science fiction films aspiring to be something more than simple entertainment.
8) Blade Runner – No film on this list has been more tweaked, more tinkered with, and more re-released that Ridley Scott’s moody sci-fi noir. The visionary look at a bleak future Los Angeles, where Replicants run rampant, was released and failed in 1984. But much like Brazil it has grown into an important entry into its genre. There are talks of a sequel, which would undercut and subsequently ruin everything this first film created thirty years ago. Most unnecessary.
7) Terminator 2: Judgment Day – This is a tricky one, because James Cameron’s original Terminator film is essential to truly understand and appreciate this superior sequel. The story of Terminator 2 is more elaborate, the budget much higher, the action more visceral, and the special effects were groundbreaking at the time. They still hold up.
6) Planet of The Apes – This 1968 classic shocked audiences, and the makeup effects were revolutionary for their time. Charlton Heston plays an astronaut who has been marooned on an island where apes rule the civilized world. The hierarchy of the ape culture is one of the more fascinating aspects of the film, where chimps are common society, orangutans the philosophers, and gorillas the grunts. Despite a cavalcade of poor sequels and a sloppy 2001 remake from Tim Burton, this origin entry is timeless and still effective almost fifty years later.
5) Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior – This sequel was more of an original film to American audiences, most of whom had not seen or heard of the original Mad Max. While the first film has its merits, The Road Warrior picks up in a future world where society has completely fallen apart. Mel Gibson’s Max is one of the best action heroes of all time, and The Road Warrior stands the test of time as one of the best action films ever made.
4) The Empire Strikes Back – True, the original Star Wars is essential viewing to see this film. But, much like Terminator 2, The Empire Strikes Back takes everything which worked so grandly in the first film and had layers upon layers. Empire also has one of the best twists in film history, and a bleak and textured storyline between the main components of the story. We get introduced to Yoda here, to Boba Fett, and we spend a great deal of time in the wonderful Cloud City.
3) Alien – Some may say James Cameron’s Aliens is their favorite film in the franchise. It is definitely a good film, and is loaded with great action and suspense, but the tension and the suspense doesn’t hold a candle to Ridley Scott’s original. The evolution of the creature as seen throughout the story is what keeps it so fresh and scary, and the claustrophobia of being trapped on a ship with this creature makes the tension practically unbearable at times. Not to mention the original idea of having a female hero in the lead role, something that was beyond rare in 1979.
2) 2001: A Space Odyssey – Stanley Kubrick defined the space opera with this patient and curious sci-fi masterpiece. Many people were confused when it first came out, and many critics hated it. They have since come around, no doubt, and 2001 is recognized as something that transcends filmmaking in a sense. It is something to experience more than actively watch, and trying to figure out things may come as a distraction. Just let the film exist, marvel in the visual wonderment, and appreciate the thrills as they come.
1) Metropolis – Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is the template for science fiction filmmaking. The “first” sci-fi film combines aspects of H.G. Welles dystopian visions, and German Expressionism, to define the genre. Every science fiction film to come after this one borrows an idea, a look, something, anything from Lang’s masterful vision. It is the essential film of the genre as it explains the entire history.