Every month, our contributors submit lists of ten films fitting certain topics. Each month, we feature an alphabetical list of films along with commentary explaining our selections. There will also be an itemized list at the end of each of our individual selections.
When we originally scheduled this list’s release, we were not looking at the impending release of Blade Runner 2049 as a tie-in. However, the timing is perfect for that. Although the original Blade Runner did not make any individual lists, it is no less an astute influence on the genre of science fiction, which is the theme of this month’s list.
There are myriad sci-fi features out there dating all the way back to 1902 when Georges Méliès released his futuristic fantasy A Trip to the Moon. Since then, countless directors have tackled the genre from dystopian futures to idyllic ones and a wide array in between. Cross-genre films have also been frequently manufactured from sci-fi comedies to sci-fi horror films. We celebrate the very best of science fiction with this list, but admit freely that there are countless others each of us could have cited on any given day.
Looking over our lists, we have a lot of agreement. All four of our contributors put a single film on the list: Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror classic Alien. It is the epitome of everything the genre had offered up to that point and could be distilled into many future productions. The science fantasy film Star Wars, the biggest blockbuster in history, made three lists while 1977’s other major sci-fi property, Close Encounters of the Third Kind led the list of films with two citations. That list also includes The Day the Earth Stood Still, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park,
One director makes an appearance with three different films on the list. No other than Steven Spielberg, whose varied history includes a number of different sci-fi spectacles received mention for his films Close Encounters, E.T., and Jurassic Park. Two others directors are represented on the list for two film each. James Cameron has both his first and second Terminator films cited on separate individual lists, and Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future and Contact are also mentioned.
This isn’t the definitive list of our members as we each agree that on any given day and with different criteria, an entirely different set of films could have been referenced. After the break, dig into our setups and follow that by reading about each film.
Wesley Lovell: There are so many types of science fiction films that it was incredibly difficult to narrow my list down to ten. I tried to pull in choices from throughout film history as well as across genres including horror, dystopian, and more. I could easily expand this list to twenty and still feel like I left some off.
Peter J. Patrick: Although the genres of fantasy and horror often intertwine with science-fiction, I tried to limit my choices to films where the emphasis of the narrative is on the latter. Although the genre has been around for as long as film itself, my selections don’t begin until 1951, the decade in which science-fiction first dominated the box-office. Four of my selections are from that decade, with three from the late 1970s when the genre again dominated, with one each from the 1980s, the 2000s and the 2010s.
Tripp Burton: I found this list difficult to make because science fiction seems so broad and hard to pin down. There were a lot of films I struggled with putting on the list because I wasn’t sure if they fit into the genre. In the end, I focused on films that contain something fantastic — whether it be aliens, robots, technology, or a bending of the rules of the natural world — that teach us something about who we are as human beings today.
Thomas LaTourrette: When I first sat down to work on this top ten list, I did not think it would be easy to name ten science fiction films that I highly esteemed. I was surprised by the number of them that came to mind. My final list is more modern than I originally guessed it would be, the oldest film being from 1968. It probably helps that I would have seen them on the big screen rather than on television. A number of the movies from the 1950s came close. The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers came close but just did not make the cut. Some of the slightly more recent dystopian ones like District 9 and Children of Men similarly were close, but not quite there. I tended towards slightly lighter fare for the most part, but the list does cut a reasonably wide swath of styles. One that may surprise people by not being on my list is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which tops many lists. It boasts some striking effects and HAL makes a superb villain at the end, but it is just not my favorite film. Some may view it as blasphemy that Galaxy Quest and Westworld made the list when it did not, but, as always, this is a subjective list and I went with films that I enjoyed more.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
(dir. Stanley Kubrick) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Stanley Kubrick’s most celebrated work is handily one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. Exploring numerous heady topics, the film is striking, a visual panoply that earned Kubrick his only Oscar for Best Visual Effects. It’s a film to which all other modern sci-fi owes its existence. Not only was it influential on science fiction films, it was also influential to a number of filmmakers in other genres with its universality of theme, form, and function. It’s enigmatic, engaging, and endlessly enticing.
(dir. Ridley Scott) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Ridley Scott gave sci-fi a facelift in 1979 with his spaceship-bound horror drama about an alien lifeform terrorizing the crew of a deep-space exploration vessel. Not only does it feature some amazingly talented actors, each given plenty of material to excel on, but it helped turn Sigourney Weaver into a star. This is a film that is densely atmospheric and claustrophobically frightening. There have been countless imitators, but none as great as this.
Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – This one kind of belies my premise that I would concentrate more on science fiction than horror, but without the science fiction, there would be no horror in this white-knuckle thriller set on a space science vessel. Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, and Yaphet Kotto are the humans trapped in outer space with the decidedly non-human villain.
Commentary By Tripp Burton – The best science fiction often blends with other genres, playing on tropes that seem new in a foreign setting. Alien, a horror film that happens to be set on a blue collar spaceship, remains to this day one of the scariest (or at least most anxiety-inducing) films in Hollywood history. It does that by making the futuristic space setting feel so lived in and familiar — each of the characters are given time to breathe and although their setting may seem exotic, we also feel like we have met each of them here on Earth playing a similar role. It also is smart enough to know that the unknown is always the scariest, so it keeps its answers and mythology to a minimum (the following films in the series would undo this) and instead reminds us that there could be some frightening foes out there that we have never met.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Ridley Scott directed this frightening film and introduced us to a powerhouse actress named Sigourney Weaver. A commercial spacecraft crew is returning to earth when they detect what they assume is a distress call. Landing on a small planet they explore a derelict space craft and discover a chamber containing hundreds of eggs, a wonderfully eerie set piece. One crew member touches a pod and is attacked by something that latches onto his face. This eventually leads to the birth of an alien that was both scary and funny. But as it grows and kills more of the crew, they try desperately to hunt it. Weaver only had two films under her belt before Alien, but proved a strong and striking lead and became a highly respected actress. The movie spawned sequels and prequels of varying quality, but the original has always stayed in my mind.
(dir. Denis Villenueve) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – A lovely film based on a 1998 science fiction novella, this throwback to the original 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still mixed with the best modern effects that money can buy, is a pleasure to behold from start to finish as it keeps you on the edge of your seat trying to figure out what is going on. The low-key performances of Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and others set just the right tone.
Back to the Future (1985)
(dir. Robert Zemeckis) Commentary By Tripp Burton – I’m a sucker for time travel movies, a specific subgenre of science fiction that will come up on my list a few times, and Back to the Future does time travel as well as it has ever been done. It smartly starts in the present day, so that the science fiction tropes that we get feel natural to us. When we move backwards in time, it keeps us in a real, tactile world that is familiar to us. In the sequel, when we move into the future, the film feels more ridiculous than honest — in the original, the emotional honesty of our world is the most important value of the film, and is what makes us care.
Children of Men (2006)
(dir. Alfonso Cuaron) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Cuaron’s most satisfying film, from the 1992 novel by mystery writer extraordinaire P.D. James, is that rare dystopian film with a hopeful ending, albeit not as profoundly hopeful as that of the novel in which the ending is not left to interpretation. That misgiving aside, the film is a riveting one from start to finish as we follow Clive Owen as the everyman hero who accompanies a pregnant woman to not only her own safety, but that of the future of the entire human race as well.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
(dir. Steven Spielberg) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Although 1977’s other major science fiction film gets all the attention, it’s Steven Spielberg’s smaller sci-fi blockbuster that stands out most. The film takes a long time to introduce its aliens, but on the way, it evokes a sense of mystery, family, and obsession. From opening to close, Spielberg solidified many of his greatest talents as a filmmaker and delivered a compelling and mesmerizing film that also features one of the most iconic closing sequences in history paired with an equally iconic score.
Commentary By Tripp Burton – Hollywood has made a lot of gigantic, cold science fiction, but it is rare that they make something big that feels personal. Close Encounters may be the most intimate and personal they have ever made. By focusing on how the aliens affect one man (who feels awfully close to Spielberg himself) rather than all of humanity, we come to understand our own humanity in a way most science fiction doesn’t reach for. This is a film about inner turmoil, family dynamics, and our own connection to the world around us disguised in a tale about aliens coming to Earth with flashy effects and tense set pieces.
(dir. Robert Zemeckis) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – One of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century was Carl Sagan, a giant of both the publishing and television worlds with his sci-fi novels and his PBS series Cosmos. The adaptation of his novel Contact poses numerous compelling questions about the nature of belief, the desire of government protection of the status quo, and so much more. It’s a film of immeasurable creativity, philosophy, and pensivity. Contact is a film that you can discuss and debate for hours and that’s what makes it the best kind of science fiction.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
(dir. Robert Wise) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – While fear of alien invasion has been a staple of film for some time, The Day the Earth Stood Still marks a turning point in the genre. A thinly veiled political allegory, The Day the Earth Stood Still explores human nature in two important ways: knee-jerk reactionism that leads to military responses to potentially peaceful interactions; and the human capacity to see beyond the fear and bluster and provide aid and comfort where it is necessary. There are myriad layers to this film, most of which weren’t fully understood at the time of its release, nor even today, and might be a key tool in bridging the gap between today’s citizens and yesterday’s.
Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – It’s a shame that prolific essayist and short-story writer Harry Bates’ only work to be made into a film was his 1940 short story, “Farewell to the Master,” but what a story it was, bringing hope and humanity to the world in a way that readers on the verge of World War II and filmgoers during the midst of the Korean war didn’t expect. The Day the Earth Stood Still remains a hopeful sign of things to come.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
(dir. Steven Spielberg) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – It’s hard to believe that Spielberg’s tribute to the wonder of childhood imagination is now 35 years old and child stars Henry Thomas, Robert McNaughton, and Drew Barrymore are 46, 50, and 42 respectively, but time marches on for all of us. The adorable frightened alien that they named E.T. that made one Halloween in their lives so special has made many holidays for several generations special ever since, and will likely continue to do that for many more to come.
Commentary By Tripp Burton – Science fiction is more often than not about warning us against the harm humanity is capable of; E.T., one of the biggest blockbusters of all time, is a celebration of the good that humanity is most capable of. There may be bad people (i.e. the government), but there are also children whose ability to love and accept trumps all evil and can make the impossible possible. That love makes bicycles soar, plants return to life, and friendships blossom. It is a love letter to humanity, written from the perspective of a tiny, wrinkly, big-eyed, brown alien.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
(dir. Michel Gondry) Commentary By Tripp Burton – I don’t often think of science fiction films being great romances, but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a film that is in no way similar to anything else ever made. Its vision of a very near future, where a technology that lets us erase our memories means that nothing bad in life has to stay with us. The film is a warning, though, not a celebration, and is ultimately about the power of love and humanity over any technology we can try to create.
The Fly (1958)
(dir. Kurt Neumann) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – The film that answers the question as to what would have happened if Dr. Frankenstein and his monster had changed places, George Langelaan’s compelling 1957 short story was the basis for this sci-fi classic in which inventor Al Hedison has a terrible accident while experimenting with his teleportation machine in which his head and that of a fruit fly become interchanged. The story was just as compelling, if not more so, in the 1986 remake with Jeff Goldblum.
Galaxy Quest (1999)
(dir. Dean Parisot) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – A Star Trek-style television show gets mistaken for reality and the actors end up helping some aliens in distress. It is a spoof, but a well written and acted one, with great turns by Alan Rickman as a frustrated actor and Enrico Colantoni as the main alien. It plays out nicely with how people need to come together as a team, like they appeared to be on television. It is a fun movie, nothing more, made better by the references to Star Trek and the actors suddenly having to deal with a working starship when they were used to only cardboard props.
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
(dir. Jack Arnold) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Based on the 1956 novel by prolific science fiction writer Richard Matheson, whose multiple works were filmed for both TV and the big screen, this highly successful film was a stunner in more ways than one. It was not only a compelling sci-fi drama, but a cautionary tale about the harmful effects of radiation, insecticide, and the mix of the two that startled audiences of the day and continues to do so sixty years later.
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)
(dir. Henry Levin) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – Called the “Father of Science Fiction,” Jules Verne’s works have managed 186 films and TV shows to date. Journey to the Center of the Earth from Verne’s 1864 novel has been filmed several times, most recently in 2008, but this gorgeously filmed 1959 version with James Mason, Pat Boone, Diane Baker, and Arlene Dahl, remains the most compelling. It was nominated for 3 Academy Awards, a rare achievement for a sci-fi film in those days.
Jurassic Park (1993)
(dir. Steven Spielberg) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – The book on which the film is based, by Michael Crichton, has numerous problems in terms of its approach towards scientific exploration being inherently dangerous, but it also features some of the most compelling and stirring imagery that would have made fitting additions to the film adaptation by Steven Spielberg. Yet, Spielberg chose to look at the material more optimistically, not a wholesale repudiation of scientific exploration, but as an examination how science can have great ideas at heart, but through the corruption of man, they can be tarnished. It is also a thrilling adventure that only someone like Spielberg could have created.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Reanimating dinosaurs from blood found in amber, what could possibly go wrong? It turns out that a lot can. The first shots of dinosaurs eating on the plain were breathtaking as they did seem so real. Then they took a frightening turn with attacks from a tyrannosaurus rex and a pack of velociraptors. Director Steven Spielberg proved a master with shots like a water glass moving from the force of the t-rex’s footsteps. Chilling chase scenes showed that this was really not a movie for children, but a tense and scary film. There have been sequels, but none as good as the original.
The Matrix (1999)
(dir. The Wachowskis) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – This was the tenth movie on my list, and finally beat out The Andromeda Strain and Back to the Future, two wildly different films in style, for that final spot. The effects are superb, and even Keanu Reeves does a decent acting job, though he is outshone by Hugo Weaving as the malevolent Agent Smith. In a future where sentient machines use captive and sedated humans’ heat and bioelectricity for power, Neo is offered a chance to learn the truth about the Matrix and to join a rebellion against the machines. It created a fascinating and disturbing world, and deservedly won four Oscars. Unfortunately, its sequels were not up to the original, but it was a fascinating film.
(dir. Fritz Lang) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece was a marvel upon its release. With a fascinating story at its core about the unequal living conditions between the working class and the city’s planners, the film was a visual spectacle featuring now-familiar cinematic concepts that established science fiction early on as a compelling cinematic art form that could provide a glimpse at our own society through a lens of the future, making the material both timely and foreign.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
(dir. Franklin J. Schaffner) Commentary By Tripp Burton – Entertainment and political statement don’t always have to be exclusive to each other. The original Planet of the Apes, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and co-written by Twilight Zone scribe Rod Serling, is the perfect example of that. Here is a film that does what great science fiction does: confront meaningful world problems in a political way, while also being a thrilling story with memorable characters (and a good sense of humor). Planet of the Apes works as allegory and amusement, and for that reason, it is a film I never get tired of revisiting. It was also one of the first major films to employ a twist ending that reconfigures everything you thought you knew about the story you just saw, a trope that science fiction has since beaten to death.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – The original does not boast the amazing special effects of the recent reboot and its sequels, but it also has more heart than them too. An astronaut crew land on a planet run by apes and with a primitive human population. Friendships and enemies are made after astronaut Charlton Heston is captured by the apes and they come to realize that he might be intelligent. Striking makeup by Justin Chambers allowed the actors playing the apes to show emotions with their faces and deservedly won an honorary Oscar. Like the other Heston film in my list, it does refer to a world that has been destroyed or is in the process of being destroyed. The final images of the film are not easily forgotten.
(dir. Shane Carruth) Commentary By Tripp Burton – Great science fiction doesn’t need special effects, aliens, splash, or even a budget. Made for only $7,000, Shane Carruth’s mindbender is a warning on the dangers of the threat of technology: not how it can harm us, but how it can cause a change in us that makes us harm ourselves. The story can seem impenetrable the first time through (I had to watch it twice in a row to feel like I had even started to grasp it), but it remains a fascinating lesson in economic storytelling and how science fiction and reality can sometimes feel frighteningly similar.
(dir. Joon-ho Bong) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – In the near-future, human activity has resulted in a globe-spanning ice age, the only survivors of which live aboard a bullet train perpetually circumnavigating the globe. The train is split between the lower class, originally stowaways, and the wealthy who control the rest of the train. Through an uprising, the poor folk soldier forward through successively fascinating compartments fighting their way towards freedom at the front of the train. A look at class struggles in a brilliant and visually dazzling way, it is one of the reasons why science-fiction can help shine a light on modern problems, both class-based and science-based.
(dir. Andrei Tarkovsky) Commentary By Tripp Burton – Andrei Tarkovsky supposedly saw Kubrick’s 2001 and found it cold and too obsessed with the science, so he went and made his own variation on the themes of the film. Tarkovsky’s film is a powerful anomaly on the biggest questions of our universe. It is an extraterrestrial film that is more interested in the terrestrial wonders of our planet and a science fiction film that is more interested in art and ambivalence than science. It is also an overwhelmingly moving experience to take in and one that pushes the limits of a genre in a way that makes it art.
Soylent Green (1973)
(dir. Richard Fleischer) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – The envisioned dystopian world of Soylent Green is now only 5 years away, but New York City looks better than it did back in 1973 when this was filmed. In an overcrowded world suffering from the greenhouse effect, it has become harder to feed the populace. Luckily a big company has found a way to produce food from plankton. Or has it? Cop Charlton Heston is investigating a murder which leads to many more grim discoveries in a world gone wrong. It’s a fascinating, and still surprisingly relevant, treatise on how we treat the world. It also boasts a fine performance from legendary actor Edward G. Robinson in his final film.
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
(dir. Jonathan Frakes) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – More so than Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, First Contact evokes all of the themes of science fiction with startling ease. Employing one of the most ruthless and compelling species in all of Trek history, Captain Picard and company must stop the Borg from assimilating earth and destroying human history in the process. In the Next Generation crew’s second outing, this film established itself as one of the greatest features in the Trek canon while delivering an exciting exploration of humanity and its desire and ability to succeed against all odds.
Star Wars (1977)
(dir. George Lucas) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – I refuse to call a film that started a phenomenon something as ridiculous as Star Wars IV – A New Hope. It’s Star Wars, plain and simple. Everything that came later is either a sequel or a prequel. You don’t need to see the artistically trite prequels before seeing the original to appreciate the wonder and awe that it produced in audiences of the day as it continues to entrance audiences of all ages today.
Commentary By Tripp Burton – The original Star Wars, and George Lucas’ vision of a new yet nostalgic science fiction, has been imitated, copied, manipulated, revised, and reimagined so many times that it is easy to forget just how wonderful that original vision was. If the story is predictable, it is also thrilling, and if the characters are stock characters, they are also brought to life in their own loveable way. The sense of wonder and imagination on hand in the original Star Wars is unmatchable: Lucas fills every frame with fantastic aliens and miniscule details. This is a lived-in world that we feel we are only glimpsing a small fraction of and there is a reason we keep going back to that world to meet new creatures and have new adventures.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – I know many people view the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, as the better film, but I will always have a fondness for the original. On a big screen in a theater, when the star cruiser comes across the screen and continues and continues to appear was a breathtaking moment for me. The introduction of this enjoyable cast of characters and villains was a touchstone for a number of us. Darth Vader was a supreme villain and the robots R2-D2 and C-3PO were great comic relief. It did not hurt that veteran Alex Guinness lent gravitas to the film. It very much plays out as a western set in outer space, but the visual effects were amazing at the time and it created some wonderful new worlds.
The Terminator (1984)
(dir. James Cameron) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Arnold Schwarzenegger is perfect as the cyborg assassin sent to the past to kill the mother of the man who will rise against the machines. Waitress Linda Hamilton has no idea what is happening in her world when two other women named Sarah Connor are killed. She believes she is being followed by a killer, but it turns out to be a hero also from the future sent to rescue her from the terminator. The ensuing chase scenes are tensely done as they try to stay ahead of the killer robot. The effects of the endoskeleton near the end do not hold up well, but otherwise it is a bleak and stylish film.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
(dir. James Cameron) Commentary By Tripp Burton – Despite the killer robots, time travel, sentient computers, and astonishing special effects, James Cameron’s Terminator 2 is often more of a modern action film than a science fiction yarn. It blends both genres, giving us the intrigue of a science fiction film with the adrenaline rush of a great action film. The film feels seamless. It is as much about our own anxiety about when technology will finally outsmart its creator as it is about robots from the future, and that is an anxiety that still feels frighteningly relevant today.
Time After Time (1979)
(dir. Nicholas Meyer) Commentary By Peter J. Patrick – I haven’t seen the 2017 twelve-episode miniseries remake, so I can’t compare it to the original, but this engrossing tale in which Jack the Ripper (David Warner) steals H.G. Wells’ (Malcolm McDowall) time machine and lands in then contemporary San Francisco, pursued by Wells himself was both an edge of your seat thriller and a romantic charmer in which you could see McDowall and future wife Mary Steenburgen falling in love just as their characters do.
(dir. Andrew Stanton) Commentary By Wesley Lovell – For decades, animated films explored more fantastical themes, looking at life through the lens of fairytales, period dramas, and musical adventures. WALL-E was one of the few attempts to weave a science fiction story in the realm of animation. Looking at modern society through a futuristic environment where rampant consumerism had led both to environmental ruin and societal weakening, WALL-E told a simple love story against a pressing backdrop that shone a harsh light on our current society. That kind of attention to theme helped make WALL-E not only a successful animated feature, but also a formidable sci-fi event.
Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – The first third of the film is mostly silent as a robot goes about its duty of cleaning up the polluted earth. It wistfully wants to be human and live in its dream world of the film Hello, Dolly!, which it constantly plays on an old VCR tape. It even falls in love with another robot, which then mysteriously goes silent when presented with a small plant. Lovelorn, it still takes the unresponsive robot on its daily chores. The movie is not as good once overweight and overindulged humans are introduced, but it is still a charmer. And the use of two of Jerry Herman’s songs is great fun.
(dir. Michael Crichton) Commentary By Thomas La Tourrette – Richard Benjamin and James Brolin and many others visit an adult amusement park where realistic robots populate an old west town, a medieval castle, and a Roman city. They can live any fantasy they want, including shooting a robot to death in the western world. Things start to go wrong when the machines do not act totally the way they are supposed to. First it is little things like a rattlesnake biting one of the customers, then things go seriously wrong. A gunslinger, a perfectly cast Yul Brunner, kills Brolin and then implacably tracks Benjamin through the park. I have not seen the new HBO iteration of this which probably boasts superior effects and writing, but this is still a disturbing film.