The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Of All Time – Part 1

In my recent review of Star Trek: Into Darkness, Hey Look A Writer Fellow commented:

This was a wonderfully geektastic review.

But as for the best sci-film of all time, I would respectfully counter with 2001.

I began to reply to this, but then realized it was already several paragraphs.  So, instead, I decided to write 2 posts about it.

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Thar Be Spoilers

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Defining the greatest of anything is always a dangerous prospect.  In Sci-fi, there are so many sub-genres and debates over what is ‘really’ sci-fi, it makes it even more challenging.

As we venture into these murky waters, let me put up a few sign posts for what I consider great sci-fi:

A. Does it tell a good story?  Is it interesting from beginning to end?  Do we care about the characters?

B. Do the special-effects/make-up, etc. hold-up over the course of time?  In other words, if the dated effects detract from the story, then it doesn’t qualify for this list.  These films avoid “Look!  Shiny!” moments that have nothing to do with the plot or theme.

C. Does it bring up deeper, more philosophical questions about reality, the human condition, the meaning of life, etc.?

D. Is it groundbreaking?  This can include ideas, special effects, and story-telling.

E. Is it still talked about today?

Each film selected below is stronger in some areas than others.  I also selected films to represent various cross-sections of sci-fi.

So, in chronological order, here’s my list of:

The 10 Greatest Sci-Fi Films Of All Time

(Imagine A Reverb Sound On ‘Time’)

1. Trip To The Moon (1902) – (Genre: Steampunk, Space Travel)

Trip To The Moon, directed by George Melies, is one of several films that introduced the science fiction genre to the the cinema.  It is an entertaining, light-hearted journey involving bopping aliens on the heads with umbrellas and turning them to dust.  Similar to Melies’ other works, it has a sense of innocent wonder and whimsy we often lose today in our CG saturated blockbusters.

I state it is Steampunk, because it was made in the era where Steampunk takes place, and uses a giant cannon to shoot a spaceship to the moon, among other elements.

A. Does it tell a good story?  Yes.  Who doesn’t want to explore the moon and its wonders?

B. Do the special-effects/make-up, etc. hold-up over the course of time?  Obviously, the effects are dated, but still impressive.  There is a hand-craftedness to the whole film which keeps the wonder alive.

C. Does it bring up deeper, more philosophical questions about reality, the human condition, the meaning of life, etc.?  Not as much as other works.  However, in a world before space-travel, I think visiting the moon had more of an allure for the imagination.  We’ve been there now, and I think we’re a little jaded.

D. Is it groundbreaking?  Absolutely.  Did I mention it is one of the films which began the science-fiction genre on film?

E. Is it still talked about today?  In film classes? Yes.  It is also featured in the book and movie Hugo, which focuses on Melies (the book is better than the movie).  Also, in the late 90’s the Smashing Pumpkins made a homage in their video for “Tonight, Tonight”, and we can thank this film for the first Wallace and Gromit short: A Day Out.

2. Metropolis (1929) – (Genre: Robots!, Dystopia)

Metropolis is one of my favorite films due to the mix of aesthetic with epic, sweeping story.

A. Does it tell a good story?  Mostly, and I only say mostly because part of the film is missing.  Much of it has been found and restored, but there are still a few pieces missing.

The story itself is a combination of son rebelling against the father, a forbidden love affair, a revolution of the masses, and a madman’s quest for revenge, all mixed up in a dystopian world.

B. Do the special-effects/make-up, etc. hold-up over the course of time?  Part of the magic of this film is the German Expressionist style of the set and buildings.  The set is incredible – from the machine that transforms into the sacrificial god Moloch, to the miniatures used to create the city, to the vast underground where the workers live.  The most incredible scene is when a robot is transformed to look like Maria, the main female character.  In a world of CG, it is still difficult how to tell they accomplished the sequence.

C. Does it bring up deeper, more philosophical questions about reality, the human condition, the meaning of life, etc.?  The themes of the film are extremely ham-fisted and clear, but questions of workers rights, and defining ones own destiny are just some of the themes addressed in the epic scope of the film.

D. Is it groundbreaking?  See: Robot transformation sequence, in addition to all of the special-effects and sets made for this film.

E. Is it still talked about today? This is another film class standard.

The film flopped upon its release due to the release of The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolsen, and a sudden demand for “talking pictures.”  However, over the course of the decades, it has been resurrected and many films have paid homage to it.  C3-PO and other robots are based on the humanoid robot in this film.  Small nods to the overall design and aesthetic are dropped into current films.

 3. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) – (Genre: Alien Visitation, Space Travel)

While less influential than other films on this list, this film is an important piece of sci-fi cinematic history.

A. Does it tell a good story?  The story and the theme are what makes this film great.  Where so many other films focus on aliens seeking to destroy us, this film focuses on an alien seeking to protect us from a police-robot set on destroying the Earth for its violent history.  The story and characters are all strong in this film which focuses on ideas rather than explosions.

B. Do the special-effects/make-up, etc. hold-up over the course of time?  The filmmakers went with a simple aesthetic which, despite clearly being from the 1950’s, is still believable.

C. Does it bring up deeper, more philosophical questions about reality, the human condition, the meaning of life, etc.?  As mentioned before, this is the film’s strength.  Is the Earth really worth saving if we are so violent towards each other?  How would we treat real extra-terrestrial visitors?

D. Is it groundbreaking?  Once again, the seeking of peace by Klaatu is a revolutionary and interesting idea only matched at the time by The Twilight Zone.

E. Is it still talked about today?  Not as much as it should be, despite a lackluster 2008 re-make with Neo Keanu Reeves.  Although, there are brief homages to it and to flying saucers sprinkled throughout sci-fi.

4. 2001: A Space Odyssey(1968) – (Genre: Hard Sci-Fi i.e. Science-Question Based)

I will repeat 2001 is arguably the most important sci-film of all time, but not the best/greatest.  It has weaknesses many people seem to omit for the sake of arguing for its brilliance.

A. Does it tell a good story?  Yes, but for roughly 1/3 of the overall film.

While the portion with the HAL 9000 debilitating the ship and killing off crew members is interesting and exciting, the rest of the movie is a philosophical head-trip which easily puts me to sleep. I have seen 2001 a number of times in order to introduce it to friends, and can barely sit through the endless minutes of men in monkey suits jumping up and down and screeching to each other, nor the portion on the moon that ends abruptly and moderately makes sense, let alone the very end when Dave ends up a “Star-Child,” at the peak of evolution.

This is a really weird movie.

Which fits the source material.

It’s okay for a film to be weird as long as it 1. makes some sort of sense, and, 2. is interesting its weirdness.  2001 barely fits into 1 – as long as you remember the film is about evolution, and lacks 2 for most of the film.

Without the context of the book, these sections do not make sense. With the book, they are interesting, but still drag on.

B. Do the special-effects/make-up, etc. hold-up over the course of time?  This is 2001’s strongest element (even the monkey suits).  It takes the real spaceships of the 1960’s space age and extrapolates what they would look like decades later as the exploration of space develops.  Everything in the movie feels real and possible, including the HAL – 9000.

C. Does it bring up deeper, more philosophical questions about reality, the human condition, the meaning of life, etc.?  This is also a strong-suit for 2001.  The entire movie is a philosophical question of evolution and the destiny of mankind. The sequence with HAL begins endless debates of Artificial Intelligence and where it places living, breathing human beings.

D. Is it groundbreaking?  This film has some of the first, realistic portrayals of space-travel among other important elements.

E. Is it still talked about today?  Throughout animation and film, there are countless nods and homages, some blatant, some more subtle, to 2001.  The movie is necessary viewing for this reason alone.  Once you see it, so many jokes and gags will make sense.

5. Alien (1979) – (Genre: Horror Sci-Fi, Space Travel)

I don’t like horror and getting the pants scared off me, which is why I’ve only watched Alien once… on cable… and have never seen Aliens.  That being said, this is a great movie, and (prepare for sacrilege) a more modern take on space than Star Wars.  (I know.  Absolute sacrilege.)

A. Does it tell a good story?  This film’s tightly wound plot includes betrayal, moral quandaries, thriller elements, and culminates in a suspense-filled, heart-pounding finale where you believe Ripley could really die.  All with only one monster hiding within the ship.

B. Do the special-effects/make-up, etc. hold-up over the course of time?  Similar to 2001, the spaceship looks like the natural evolution of modern space travel.  The alien is completely foreign to our world, and works within the shadows of the ship.  Everything here is gritty and real.

C. Does it bring up deeper, more philosophical questions about reality, the human condition, the meaning of life, etc.?  All problems on the ship begin with the dilemma of following the directive to leave contaminated crew members off the ship, potentially to die, or letting them on the ship and potentially destroying everyone.  This seems a real proposition as the world of space travel opens up.

D. Is it groundbreaking?  Modern sci-fi and monster movies would not look the same without Alien’s heart-pounding suspense.  Also, Sigourney Weaver as Ripley is a tough, strong women who could as easily be a man.  Gender, for once, doesn’t matter.  All that matters is to survive.

E. Is it still talked about today?  Considering all the hubbub over Prometheus and the potential of it being a prequel to the Alien series, I think this film is alive and well.

Tune in later this week for Part 2 (1980-Today).

Would you replace or add anything on this list (the Star Wars universe is coming in part 2)?  What makes a great sci-fi movie?  What is your favorite homage to a great sci-fi movie?

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29 thoughts on “The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Of All Time – Part 1

    • That sounds really fun. Could be really cool.
      The Cirque du Soleil show Iris, which is in L.A. is partially based on Melies’ work as well. It’s always fun.

  1. One of my favorite viewing experiences was seeing “Metropolis” with a live performance of the Alloy Orchestra for its soundtrack.

    I tried to put together my own list, and realized (sigh) there are still far too many movies I haven’t seen but should, such as “The Quartermass Experiment.” I can think of two “classics” that probably won’t make your list, but were worthy candidates: “Things To Come” and “The Andromeda Strain.”

    And then there are the films that made an impact, but . . . eh, well, you’ll see:
    “Barbarella” Yes, I know. But this IS how Jane Fonda will be remembered. And Duran Duran swiped their name from this film.
    “Dark Star” “Bomb, how do you know you have true data?”
    “Scanners” Set the standard: telepathy leads to nose bleeds.
    “A Scanner Darkly” Semi-animated Philip K. Dick story about drugs.

    • That would be a cool way to watch Metropolis.
      I haven’t seen, or heard of, “Things To Come”, and haven’t seen “The Andromeda Strain.”
      I never thought of A Scanner Darkly as sci-fi, but that does make sense. It cracked me up when I was reading a blurb on it which said, “Uses a new technique called rotoscoping.” Rotoscoping, or painting directly onto the film slide (how lightsabers were done in the Original Star Wars Trilogy) has been around at least since the 1920’s, if not earlier.

      • Do track down and watch “Things to Come.” It doesn’t have quite the style of “Metropolis,” but it’s future history with drama and a vision.
        And since you mention it, Philip. K. Dicks’s original story for “A Scanner Darkly” did feel more like sci-fi than the movie did.

  2. I’d nominate Rollerball, the original one with James Caan and John Houseman. It introduced a lot of concepts that have become Sci-Fi tropes. Plus, the soundtrack is awesome. I own it on DVD and it actually aged fairly well, the plot holds up and the action sequences are still good.

  3. I loved this post (and am honored and delighted that my comment inspired it)! I also think your criteria for a great sci-fi film beautifully thought out. By the standards you outlined I am now firmly in the Alien camp.

    I can’t wait to read your next post on this topic!

  4. I would have said that I love sci-fi….but I haven’t watched any of these. Now I feel like a noob. Currently, my favorite sci-fi is probably Serenity, but that that might be because I just finished watching Firefly for the first time.

  5. I’ve seen some of these (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001, Alien). I would add Blade Runner to that list. I think it still holds up. I’d give honorable mention to the first three Star Wars movies as a whole, because they’re pretty groundbreaking.

  6. I have not seen Alien 😦 I am too scared. I can’t stand thriller or suspense or horror movies and the older I get, the less likely I am to sit through any of those kind of movies. Everyone keeps saying i have to see Alien, but I can’t. I was also pleased to see your parenthetical note in the last paragraph about my little obsession.

  7. This was a pretty brave undertaking, and nicely handled! I agree with some of your choices, a couple I haven’t seen, and I disagree with a couple. We DO agree on 2001 though. I have such a love/hate thing with Kubrick in general. Such complete brilliance coupled with moments of wtf was he thinking. (I think I’m still bitter about his, in my opinion, poor handling of A Clockwork Orange) Also, you’ve made me want to watch Aliens again. Maybe even tonight!

    I’m a huge Firefly fan so my list of top sci-fi films HAS to include Serenity….just cus!

  8. I had a hard time choosing between Metropolis and Alien, but I went with Metropolis as best of this list in the end, since it served as an inspiration for so many things. But all of these are great choices. 🙂

    • Glad to see a vote for Metropolis. I’ve been a little surprised by Alien’s popularity on the list. However, we wouldn’t have much of sci-fi without Metropolis.

  9. I’m happy to say, I’ve seen all of these except for 2001. Yes, I’m idiot. But I’ll hopefully watch it soon. I just watched a Trip to the Moon on youtube a month ago, and reading Vernes Mysterious Island now. Great stuff.

    • When I show 2001 to others, especially non-sci-fi fans, I usually have a finger on the fast-forward button – sacrilege, I know. Buckle yourself in for a looooooong, but interesting night.

      • Yeah that was the main reason it was put off for so long. I love Kubrick, but I remember hearing it’s longer than the Bible. I’ve watched a lot of movies since those days, so I feel like I’ll love it now.

  10. I LOVE Metropolis! Such a fun, great movie! My mother (a woman with infinitely good taste) introduced me to Metropolis years ago. Of course, my mother was also a fan of many B-rated movies, but how can I fault her taste in this respect?

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