Recently the esteemed editor of this weblog asked if I wanted to contribute on behalf of SF Signal to Time Out London’s list of the 100 greatest science fiction movies ever made. Of course I said yes. As a chronic list maker, I always enjoy putting together what I consider among the best the genre has to offer, be it in print or on celluloid. (Or perhaps I should say in visual media, as few movies today actually use film today, either during production or in distribution.)
So I leapt at the challenge, offering a few notes on each, despite my often-stated pronouncement that only two or three genuine cinematic masterpieces actually fit well within the science fiction field. I don’t mean that few good movies exist within the genre—in composing my list I actually found so many good movies that I wound up composing an alternate list for those that left off of the initial 10—but when I think of how many movies within the genre approach the highest levels of cinematic art, especially when one considers the number of masterpieces in the mystery and thriller genre (which regularly births masterpieces like The Maltese Falcon to Pulp Fiction, sometimes within the same month) and in the pretty broad spectrum of romantic comedies (though the number of genuine masterpieces there dropped dramatically during the 1990s, if not sooner), I often found that I suggested movies that moved well outside of what we consider true quill sf. A number of my choices turned out to be hybrids, borrowing the DNA of other genres (film noir featured most prominently) to create their visions.
When I put together this list, I only restricted myself to a few criteria. They had to be science fiction, or obviously recognized as such; I allowed genre blending, on the provision that the science fiction elements made up a necessary part its story. This left out such personal favorites as Alex Cox’s Repo Man and Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me, Deadly, both of which use a few genre elements but are not, technically, science fiction. Additionally, no director could appear on these lists more than once. I easily could have included at least two other movies by Stanley Kubrick, a half dozen by David Cronenberg, and at least one other by Tarkovsky, but felt that doing so would be cheating. My own tastes tend toward the eclectic, my preferences, toward diversity of vision, so I decided to err on the side of inclusion.
Another factor I considered was seriousness of intent. By this, I simply mean that the movies I recommended either had to be made with some desire for enduring appeal (Woody Allen’s Sleeper may be of its time, but its satiric teeth lose none of their bite, even if contemporary audiences might not understand references to such figures as Howard Cosell) or that endured despite initially indifferent audiences or critical reception (Blade Runner suffered both), or met with studio interference (Blade Runner again, but also Metropolis and The Damned). Lastly, each movie had to be one I enjoyed, actually thought highly of personally. Some friend express puzzlement at seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey here, as opposed to other, more accessible fare, but it’s a movie I never tire of, and consistently enthralls me with each viewing.
And there are some I wish I could have included here, but didn’t make it because I ran out of space or because I don’t think them that good. In the case of Ken Russell’s Altered States, I simply hadn’t seen it (and had never heard of it) until I saw it in a theater a few weeks ago. It easily would have made the list.
With these things in mind, here are my top 10 science fiction movies, with a second list of near-misses. That should provide you with roughly 40 hours of pretty solid skiffy viewing.