With Star Trek’s twelfth feature film coming to cinema’s tomorrow, this is as good a time as any to review what I consider to be the top twenty Science Fiction movies of all time. This genre is too large to truly cover in such a small feature but here are my top movies so read the list and let the debates begin…
- FORBIDDEN PLANET 1956 (Fred M. Wilcox) MGM’s attempt at bringing their epic formula to the less successful genre of Science Fiction, Forbidden Planet was the inspiration for Star Trek ten years later. It experimented with an electronic score, with mixed results and brought in the animators from Walt Disney to create some ground-breaking effects. But it’s the story, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and it’s brilliantly cerebral execution which surly secures this a the best Science Fiction film of all time.
- THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE 1961 (Val Guest) is more of an environmental film than pure Sci-Fi but this movie, which through the eyes of a real British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, complete with its editor, tough a cast of fictional characters, this is an adult and grim take on how nuclear testing could spell global destruction. Less about Nuclear war than the sheer power of the nature defying technology, the Earth’s tilt is shifted and its orbit changed to spell doom for the planet. This is hard-edged stuff, told with sharp and believable characters which sends a clear message as to what it’s beliefs are. Clever and powerful stuff.
- THE PLANET OF THE APES 1968 (Franklin J. Schaffner) Known more for it’s perfectly executed plot twist, this is allegorical Sci-Fi as its very best. The film is about so many things, philosophy, imperial truth, doctrines and the need to kill in order to maintain them. Animal rights and the prospects of mankind’s future; All told through the mist of a man landing his space ship on a planet of the apes! This is The Twilight Zone at it’s very best, only timelessly etched onto the pearl screen for all time.
- STAR WARS: EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK 1980 (Irvin Kershner) The template for sequels everywhere, the dark chapter, the serious expansion of a universe into areas unknown and unexpected. The Empire Strikes Back is not just great Science Fiction/Fantasy, it is one of the greatest movie of all time, again building to a chilling plot twist as well as pushing the visual effects envelope to a whole new level.
- METROPOLIS 1927 (Fritz Lang) One of the most expensive European films of its era, the original 1927 version of Metropolis took film making and Sci-Fi to a new level in the 1920’s, with grand and epic visual effects and melodramatic and metaphorical elements make this one of the boldest and most enduring silent era films, as well as serving as inspiration for so many movies which would follow.
- 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY 1968 (Stanley Kubrick) This might as well have been a silent film and many ways, it was. 2001: A Space Odyssey is an epic existential journey, loosely following the concept of Homer’s Odyssey, this is a cold and meticulous film, made with more passion that first appears, and in its own small way, serves to inspire and awe in equal measure. Opening with the Dawn Of Man, this was truly the dawn of the modern Science Fiction epic era.
- GOJIRA (GODZILLA) 1954 (Ishirô Honda) The beginning of the Godzilla franchise was more than just a monster flick. It was a complex metaphor for the Japan’s nuclear holocaust, with serious moral and ethical questions being raised throughout and a screenplay which was insurmountably better that the ten-a-penny special effects. Gojira was and still is, a masterpiece of Science Fiction. It created an enduring character too who will be returning to theatres next summer…
- THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL 1951 (Robert Wise) was this the beginning of the end of the “little green men” martian craze. This was when aliens began to be taken seriously and the idea that in order to travel from another planet you might need to be advanced in both technology and intelligence and that this would result in a higher moral consciousness that humans. Iconic imagery for the nuclear age.
- GATTACA 1997 (Andrew Nichols) Invalid and invalid are spelled the same? Obvious when you think about it but this masterpiece of the genre drew that point with chilling effect. Men in suits simply stroll onto a commercial space rocket and fly to Saturn. The images are retro but the ideas are far from it. The stylised Science Fiction plays a part in telling a story of genetic engineering and the prejudice in which would undoubtedly ensue. A beautifully crafted film, with as much emotion as there is poignancy.
- STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN 1982 (Nicholas Meyer) Star Trek’s first REAL movie, after The Motion Picture failed to capture the magic of the show, Star Trek II is as influential as The Empire Strikes Back in sequel terms. A simple storyline relying on meta knowledge and melodrama, this may not work well in its own right but as a franchise movie, this is one of the benchmarks. “Khaaaaaaaaaan!“
- CAPRICORN ONE 1974 (Peter Hyams) Did Apollo 11 really land on the moon in 1969? Well, who was really asking that question until Capricorn One hit cinema screens?. The story of a ficticious Marian mission which uses the same technology as the Apollo programme, this a subversive conspiracy movie in which after a technical failure, the mission is faked. But as they are using the Apollo technology, the imagery is clearly implying that the real missions could have been done like this too and the Apollo conspiracies were born. Brilliant conspiracy thriller accompanied by a top-notch Jerry Goldsmith score.
- THE MATRIX 1999 (The Wachowski Brothers) Science Fiction and films on the whole never looked the same after this. The innovation was huge, with the Wachowski’s inventing new techniques which would resonate for years after and herald in new century of a brash film making style. Unfortunately, this would be by and far, their best work to date.
- THIS ISLAND EARTH 1956 (Joseph M. Newman) Not the smartest Science Fiction but defiantly one of the most kinetic and intellectually based of the old crop of Technicolor Sci-Fi classics. With iconic spacecraft and alien monsters, this has both flamboyant action and a plot which bears a resemblance to the 1997 entry, Contact.
- CONTACT 1997 (Robert Zemekis) Based on Carl Saigon’s novel, Robert Zemekis courted controversy with his 1997 adoption, after manipulting footage of the then President Clinton to use within the narrative. Jodie Foster is a S.E.T.I. scientist whose obsession with making contact with aliens eventually pays off. This is the by far the most well conceived, and to me, the go to film on what it may actually be like to live in a world were alien contact had happened. It’s still a film and it plays out in the usual manner, complete with the melodramatic tropes and the scale of religious and political upheaval resulting from the knowledge that we are no longer alone in the universe has rarely been handled so well. A forgotten classic.
- ROBOCOP 1987 (Paul Verhoven) Brutal and over the top, but Robocop’s satirical take on the dystopian future and the 1980’s in which it was made, helped to make this a classic.
- MOON 2009 (Duncan Jones) Clever and existential. This has “Inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey“ written all over it. First rate performances, deep plotting and an interesting take on the future, it is derivative but it picks and chooses all the right elements to plunder.
- 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT 1984 (Peter Hyams) 2001: A Space Odyssey is finally and controversially explained. 2001 didn’t need an explanation and 2010 managed to turn its predecessor into a 5 minute prologue which says a lot about the plotting of 2001, but as a science fiction film, 2010 is much more accessible and still top-notch. Its biggest problem is that it will always be compared to 2001 and besides being set in the same universe, they shouldn’t really be compared. Both are at the top of their respective sub-genres.
- FAHRENHEIT 451 1966 (François Truffaut) Art house Sci- Fi which apparently bears little resemblance to Ray Bradbury’s original story. But the story about burning books and a form of addictive reality TV taking over a world in which literature is outlawed is strikingly poignant, even and especially 50 years later!
- WAR OF THE WORLDS 1956 (Byron Haskin) George Pal was a the man responsible for adapting the legendary H.G. Well’s and bringing his work to the pearl screen in the 1950’s and 60’s. War Of The Worlds, updated to the Nuclear age and The Time Machine (1960) were two of his best, with innovative special effects and as for this film, some of the most iconic.
- TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY 1991 (James Cameron) We’ve touched on sequels already, with The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Trek II (1982) but this is not an example of a landmark sequel, just one of the best examples so of a great one. This is well written and directed, taking the concepts of the Tech Noir original and exploding them to epic proportions. The characters are not just retreads and Sarah Connor has evolved, quite rightly, into a dislikable but captivating lead. This is a film which was not afraid to go where the story demanded rather than were the bean counters would have pushed it. And in the end, with have a Science Fiction actioner, with epic scope and iconic visuals.
And here are the ones which didn’t make the final list… Avatar (2009) (James Cameron) simply isn’t in the league of what I would call best science fiction. It’s at the top of the 3D tree but that’s about it. Alien (1979) (Ridley Scott) and Aliens (1986) (James Cameron) are right up there but there’s just not enough room for everything and then there is Star Wars (1977) (George Lucas). Whilst Star Wars is seen as the pinnacle of Sci-Fi/Fantasy, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) offers more. War Of The Worlds (2006) (Steven Spielberg) is a poignant post 9/11 drama, and as George Pal updated Well’s novel for his 1956 version, Spielberg has done the same here, but the effect isn’t as strong as I’d have liked. David Cronenberg’s The Fly 1986 is also a great choice, but again, even though the sci-fi is first-rate, this would be more suited for a Horror movie list. Jurassic Park (1993) was an option, as was Inception (2010), but neither strike me as been science fiction, even though they both defiantly are.
And the less about E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) (Steven Spielberg), the better!
An honourable mention…
- This week sees the release of the latest of Star Trek movie, Into Darkness, but unless the trailers lie, this is still more blockbuster than pure Science Fiction, but the best example of movie Star Trek being bold enough to go down that road was on their first cinema outing back in 1979, with Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Robert Wise). The film was flawed, as it failed as a Star Trek film but viewed as a Science Fiction movie by the same director as classics such as The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Andromeda Strain (1974), then it holds up really well. A product of its time, cold, slow and methodical, this shows the U.S.S. Enterprise working as a futuristic science vessel who discover that a fictional Voyager probe which was or would be sent out in the late 20th century, could return. As well conceived as Contact (1997) with epic scope and scale, this is an unfairly maligned Star Trek film and even more so, dismissed Science Fiction classic.