Jetpacks, lazers, walking eyes — Is there any genre of film as infinitely creative as sci-fi? Since most films within the genre deal with non-existent technology, filmmakers are limited only by their imagination and because of this, we’re gifted with a wide assortment of different stories. From time-traveling to robots to alien invasions and even the occasional space opera, sci-fi is the epitome of cinematic freedom. Science fiction is what happens when the real meets the almost real and in the middle of that lies boundless opportunities. This list is the definitive ranking of films that best represent both halves of the equation.
This is The 100 Greatest Sci-fi Films Of All Time.
70. Logan’s Run (1976)
“Runner!” One of the classic dystopian sci-fi films, Logan’s Run is the pop-culture version of Brave New World, employing beautiful people, fantastic sets, and an action-movie tempo to make the utopia/dystopia and contemporary political commentary easier to swallow. The concept for the film – that an idealized, hedonistic future society manages overpopulation by requiring the deaths of its citizens once they reach the age of thirty – exemplifies the quote from Willard Motley’s Knock on Any Door, “Life fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse.” It’s not quite that straightforward, of course – nobody KNOWS they’re going to die. One of the set pieces is the ritual of “Carousel” in which the doomed float upwards to be ‘renewed.’ That this resembles nothing so much as an elaborate ‘bug zapper’ is lost on the cheering crowds.
Michael York’s Sandman, Logan 5, and Jenny Agutter’s Jessica 6 have great chemistry and pull us along through flashing red gems in palms, a city that looks like a shopping mall, food-preservation robots, a ruined Washington D.C. and a cat-loving Peter Ustinov. Whether you’re in it for the social commentary (about youth culture, free love, consumerism, ageism) or just happy to go along with the 70’s action and Jenny Agutter’s costumes, Logan’s Run is never too didactic and always entertaining.
–Bob Cram Jr.
69. Men in Black (1997)
Will Smith, aliens, and a holiday release in July–what could possibly go wrong? Apparently nothing. Men in Black is a sci-fi comedy that smashed the box office and was a critical success as well. The combination of newly crowned megastar Will Smith and old grumpy Tommy Lee Jones is pitch-perfect as they try thwarting an intergalactic threat. Hilarious and entertaining characters/creatures along with a catchy hit song and spectacular special effects by Rick Baker and David LeRoy Anderson solidified this film as a hit. Most of the time sci-fi is deep and thought-provoking, but when done right, it can be a goofy and action-packed thrill ride that leans into its absurdity. Director Barry Sonnenfeld was able to do just that back in 1997.
68. Flash Gordon (1980)
Flash! Ah-ah! Savior of the universe! Featuring one of the coolest music scores of all-time by Queen, dazzling costume and set designs, and Brian Blessed with wings, Flash Gordon has understandably become a celebrated cult classic since its release in 1980. This fabulously over-the-top intergalactic space opera is a movie either you love or you don’t. And if you are the latter then you are just plain wrong. An NFL quarterback transported to another galaxy who battles the evil emperor Ming played by the great Max Von Sydow through space football, winged warriors, tree people, and Timothy Dalton, oh my!
Director Todd Hodges delivers a treat for the eyes and ears with its stylish technicolor look, spectacular and comic strip camera angles. Have I mentioned the Queen score yet? It’s a mashup of Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz that never imitates either and honestly, I love it more than both. Flash! Ah-ah!
67. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
“No matter where you go, there you are.” One of the great, under-appreciated sci-fi gems, the story of a non-existent pulp hero from an alternate version of reality is also one of my favorite films. Peter Weller’s Buckaroo is an 80’s, New Wave version of Doc Savage – supremely capable of almost anything (except singing, let’s be honest) and with a cadre of ALMOST equally talented specialists (including Clancy Brown and Jeff Goldblum), The Hong Kong Cavaliers. That this film – the first and only – is presented as the latest in what we can only assume is a series of similar adventures – is one of the things I love about it, and probably one of the things that led to it being dismissed as “strange” and “unintelligible.”
The plot involves John Lithgow (hilariously over the top as Dr. Emilio Lizardo/Lord John Whorfin) trying to steal a dimension-spanning device of Buckaroo’s design called the “oscillation overthruster” to free the “Red Lectroids” and set off a nuclear war. There are “Black Lectroids,” Ellen Barkin as Penny Pretty (a ringer for Buckaroo’s dead wife), Blue Blazer Irregulars, Christopher Lloyd as John Big-booty (“Bigbooté!”), and even a jam sequence with Buckaroo and his band. (Yes, the requisite 80’s saxophone is present.) It’s hard to talk coherently about a movie that is so on the edge of incoherence, but it’s a joyous, riotous film and I’m still sad we never got to see that Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League film.
–Bob Cram Jr.
66. Starship Troopers (1997)
Starship Troopers was always a favorite of mine growing up. Aliens, explosions, brainless entertainment, and Denise Richards. What’s not to like. It wasn’t until I watched it again a few years ago that I saw it as a completely different movie. Through slightly more mature eyes I picked up on the fact that it has a huge chunk of political satire hiding beneath the sci-fi action. But that didn’t make the viewing experience any less enjoyable. The basic story involves a group of young soldiers enlisted to fight in the ‘bug war’. It starts off as a kooky high school drama with love triangles and other tropes. But once the troops go to war it’s all-out action, with lots of great set pieces and some fun characters to invest in. The original went on to spawn a number of sequels but none of them came close to matching the balance of cheesy goodness and bombastic action that the original achieved.
65. A Clockwork Orange (1976)
An absolute rollercoaster of violence and dark humor as we follow one of the greatest villains of all-time in Alex DeLarge and his fellow “droogs” who cause mayhem without remorse. It’s a car wreck of brutality where you simply can’t look away. The great Stanley Kubrick gives us a disturbing and thought-provoking look at a future British dystopia that is a stark study on a lack of culture with everything being filled with violence. Kubrick shooting with a wide lens shows this disconnect of people and things. The study of free will and conditioning makes this film as fascinating as any other and the only thing holding it back from being ranked higher on this list is the lack of science fiction compared to other films. However, once you see it, you will never look or hear Singin’ in the Rain the same again.
64. Fantastic Voyage (1966)
One of those classic sci-fi films I watched on TBS as a kid, Fantastic Voyage is a big-budget cold war science fiction film, postulating a miniaturization arms race between the US and the Soviet Union. When the scientist responsible for stabilizing miniaturization suffers an embolism during an assassination attempt, a group of scientists and military personnel are shrunk – along with a submarine-type craft – and sent inside him to try and remove the blockage.
Fantastic Voyage remains fantastic even 54 years after its’ initial release. Yeah, the special effects are dated, but still interesting and enjoyable. This was Raquel Welch’s first film for Fox, but it’s the sweaty, nervous Dr. Michaels, played by Donald Pleasance, that I remember the most. With a time limit of 60 minutes and a potential assassin on board, the film manages to balance science, action, suspense, and some incredible images of the interior of the human body to create a fun adventure movie.
For the longest time, I thought Fantastic Voyage was based on an Isaac Asimov novel, but it turns out that he simply wrote the novelization of the film. (One that helps paper over some of the plot holes – like what happens to the wrecked ship inside the patient when the effect wears off.) He also wrote an original sequel, Fantastic Voyage: Destination Brain, that features a team in the Soviet Union. While the film inspired a number of follow-up projects – including the Filmation cartoon of the same name and the Joe Dante film Innerspace – a sequel or remake remains elusive. I’d love to see an updated version with modern effects, though, so I remain hopeful!
–Bob Cram Jr.
63. Forbidden Planet (1956)
Forbidden Planet is a movie that features a number of firsts. It was the first science fiction film to show human beings traveling in their own faster-than-light ship, the first to be set entirely away from Earth, the first to feature a robot as a distinct supporting character (the instantly recognizable Robby the Robot), and the first film to have a completely electronic score (by Bebe and Louis Barron). On top of that, the film actually manages to be a great story, with a number of elements taken from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s an excellent, ground-breaking science fiction film – pretty remarkable from a director (Fred M. Wilcox) previously known mostly for the film Lassie Come Home.
In the late 23rd century the starship C-57D (not big on imaginative names, future humans) arrives at Altair-4 to discover the fate of an expedition sent decades earlier. They find Dr. Morbius and his daughter Altaira – the only survivors – and their robot servant, Robby. Plus something horrible, murderous, and invisible to the naked eye… Featuring some fantastic set design and special effects (the opening scenes with the C-57D and the planet remind me of sequences in the original Alien film) as well as good performances by Walter Pigeon as Morbius and Leslie Nielsen (yes, that Leslie Nielsen) as Commander Adams, Forbidden Planet remains as entertaining and interesting now as it was in 1956.
–Bob Cram Jr.
62. Solaris (1972)
Based on the novel of the same name that was released a decade earlier, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris isn’t your typical sci-fi space opera. He set out to bring emotional depth to the genre, after calling out Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as phony and lifeless. Shots fired. The plot centers around a crew of astronauts aboard a space station that’s orbiting the planet Solaris. A scientific project being carried out there has stalled due to the station’s three scientists falling into some sort of emotional crisis. Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) travels to the space station to investigate and encounters a number of strange and mysterious happenings. Nothing appears normal and everyone’s sanity is questioned. Yes it’s too long and we don’t even get to leave planet earth until around 45 minutes into the film, but Solaris is an ambitious and thought-provoking production that every fan of sci-fi should try at least once.
61. Silent Running (1972)
Douglas Trumbull is primarily known as a special effects artist for films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Andromeda Strain, and Blade Runner. He’s also directed two small, but interesting, science fiction films – 1983’s Brainstorm and this, 1971’s ecologically-minded character study, Silent Running. The movie is about Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), Earth’s last gardener, on the space ship USS Valley Forge. Freeman, when faced with an order to destroy the greenhouse domes containing the last of Earth’s biomes, instead chooses to kill the remaining human crew and flee into the orbit of Saturn with his three robot drones, Huey, Dewey, and Louie. (Who can be seen in some ways as prototypes of the cute-droid character exemplified by R2-D2.)
Silent Running is a deceptively simple film. Even Dern’s character is fairly straightforward. That doesn’t mean it’s shallow or preachy, though – it doesn’t beat you over the head with the message or make Freeman an unapologetically ‘good’ character. He murders people. He doesn’t understand much of the tech he uses (nor the inverse-square law, as Carl Sagan pointed out). Despite his actions, he misses people and begins to lose his mind (even more) in the absence of social interaction. It’s all handled relatively dispassionately, however, and in that distance, Dern’s performance becomes something transformational – giving weight and meaning to a film that could otherwise be cold and technical (especially with Trumbull’s excellent but stark special effects). It’s not an easy film to like, and often feels like it’s holding its emotions at arm’s length, but it’s a worthwhile and interesting entry in the field that is less bombastic and preachy than most of its contemporaries.
–Bob Cram Jr.
What are some of your favorite sci-fi films? Maybe they’ll show up later on in the list!