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Watching the Future: The Top 10 Greatest Science Fiction Movies Ever Made

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.

The Top 10 Greatest Science Fiction Movies Ever Made
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey

1968, directed by Stanley Kubrick
Still the most visually breathtaking and intellectually challenging of all science fiction movies.

2. Solaris

1972, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Poetic and haunting, and as striking as Kubrick’s sf masterpiece.

3. Blade Runner

1982, directed by Ridley Scott
Film noir meets sf in this cyberpunk classic, influential more than 30 years since its release.

4. Forbidden Planet

1956, directed by Fred M. Wilcox
Shakespeare’s The Tempest in sf drag.

5. Planet of the Apes

1968, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Nixes Pierre Boulle’s satire for pulp adventure with outstanding results, and adds one of the greatest final shots in cinema history.

6. Dark City

1998, directed by Alex Proyas
German Expressionism meets Philip K. Dick. By turns thrilling and creepy.

7. The Day the Earth Stood Still

1951, directed by Robert Wise
An alien comes to earth to save us from ourselves. One of the most iconic of sf movies.

8. Her

2013, directed by Spike Jonze
A heartbreaking yet optimistic tale about loneliness, our devices, and falling in love with them.

9. Metropolis

1927, directed by Fritz Lang
Futuristic schism between the one percent and a populace inspired to revolt by a robot in female form.

10. Primer

2004, directed by Shane Carruth
Garage inventors turn the chrono-synclastic infundibulum into spaghetti in this understated time travel masterpiece.

1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

1982, directed by Nicholas Meyer
Patrick O’Brian in outer space.

2. Sleeper

1973, directed by Woody Allen
A health food–store owner finds himself in a totalitarian future, providing hilarious commentary on the present time.

3. The Empire Strikes Back

1980, directed by Irvin Kershner
Human emotions and existential ennui come to the Star Wars universe.

4. Monsters

2010, directed by Gareth Edwards
A pair of star-crossed lovers must make their way across an alien-invaded Central America. A small gem.

5. Videodrome

1983, directed by David Cronenberg
Marshall McLuhan meets William S. Burroughs as James Woods finds himself victim to video-induced hallucinations.

6. The Damned

1963, directed by James Losey
Teddy boys encounter children bred to survive nuclear holocaust. One of Hammer Studios’s few forays into sf.

7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers

1978, directed by Philip Kaufman
Remake of Don Siegel’s 1955 classic, in some ways even more paranoid and haunting than the original.

8. Akira

1988, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo
Hyperviolent anime involving street gangs and telepathic mutants. One of the best examples of science fiction in animation form.

9. Galaxy Quest

1999, directed by Dean Parisot
Sublime parody of Star Trek and sf fandom, with Tim Allen as a Shatner-esque television star who must defend an alien race.

10. Melancholia

2011, directed by Lars von Trier
A young woman copes with her sister’s catatonia as a rogue planet is set to collide with earth in this haunting, evocative drama.

5 Comments on Watching the Future: The Top 10 Greatest Science Fiction Movies Ever Made

  1. Scott Laz // May 7, 2014 at 3:15 pm //

    This is about as good as such a list can be. A couple of others that immediately came to mind that might be put in the same category: A Clockwork Orange & a Scanner Darkly… And a few I’m probably forgetting.

  2. Paul Weimer // May 7, 2014 at 7:52 pm //

    The original Solaris put me to sleep. This could be due to the cold medicine I was taking at the time. I may have to retry it someday.

  3. Tom A. // May 7, 2014 at 9:43 pm //

    Good, sensible list.
    Esp. good that Dark City is on the list, in my opinion a gem that is not known enough.

    Movies can always be added to such lists. I would add Alien, Terminator 2 and The Matrix (first one).

  4. I thought Monsters was great, and I’m glad to see Her on the list. I’ve heard great things about Primer, will have to catch it on Netflix one of these days…

  5. Black Deep // June 1, 2014 at 7:29 pm //

    Who makes up these list? For the most part they all seem pretty suggestive and should be titled. “My pick for the top 10 greatest science fiction.” Although, after looking through numerous sights, there seems to be a general trend. Blade Runner, 2001, and Star Wars seem to pop up quite often. I suppose if we went through all the sights made a list of all the movies, and then rated them by the number of times they pop up on a sight we could come up with a pretty honest top 10 list.

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