Welcome to Part 2, where we present #6-10 of The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Of All Time!
As a quick reminder, here are the criteria I’m using for selecting films:
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?
Get on your SCUBA gear, because we’re about to dive back in.
6. Empire Strikes Back (1980) – (Genre: Space Opera, Star Wars – yes, that’s a genre by itself)
While it would be easy to mark the entire original Star Wars Trilogy as a “Greatest Film”, each movie stands alone as good story-telling. I’ve chosen Empire Strikes Back to represent because it takes what Star Wars: A New Hope introduced and builds on it to expand to a grander mythology.
Empire Strikes Back introduces Yoda and the details of the force, a more athletic lightsaber battle, greater signs of Darth Vader’s villainy, a super-star destroyer, Boba Fett, the constant breaking-down of the Millennium Falcon, and the sense everyone is in real, mortal danger.
In modern times, people attempt to excuse the Prequel Trilogy by saying, “Well, the Original Trilogy was made for kids.” Were the following made for kids: The Cave on Dagobah sequence where Luke slashes Darth Vader, only to see his own decapitated head? Luke getting his hand cut off? Darth Vader torturing Han Solo? Han Solo being frozen into carbonite?
While not as bleak, frightening, and bloody as other, more “adult” sci-fi fare (i.e. Brazil, Blade Runner, Terminator), I would argue that The Empire Strikes Back brings up questions and emotions that are in the adult range. Children can enjoy it, but it wasn’t made for children.
A. Does it tell a good story? Story is the greatest element for this epic and exciting film. In Episode IV: A New Hope, Luke steps out into a broader world. In Episode V: Empire Strikes Back, Luke is forced to truly grow up, and he fails. Meanwhile, Han Solo, Leia, Chewbacca, and the robots are constantly attempting to outrun the entire Imperial fleet in the most awesome bucket of bolts ever, only to be betrayed by Lando Calrissian once they think they are safe. All of this culminates in several escape sequences, with Han Solo frozen in carbonite, Luke learning the worst news ever (if you don’t know what it is… you probably aren’t reading this post), along with losing his hand, only to end up dangling over an abyss about to fall to his death.
This is a good story.
B. Do the special-effects/make-up, etc. hold-up over the course of time? This film was less-abused by the “Special” Editions, despite the adding in of the Wampa monster and it weighing down the pacing, and Darth Sidious. However, in all versions, the AT-AT’s are still intimidating, the Executor (that super big star destroyer) intimidating, the lightsaber battle awesome, and Yoda a believable, real-feeling character.
C. Does it bring up deeper, more philosophical questions about reality, the human condition, the meaning of life, etc.? While Episode IV introduced the general idea of the Force, it wouldn’t have lasted into such a broad and studied topic without Episode V. In England, “Jedi” is its own religion (according to census data). Yes ,the Force is a quasi-Buddhist/Oriental religion, but aren’t all ideas in sci-fi versions of those in reality?
D. Is it groundbreaking? Combined with Jaws, the Star Wars Trilogy inducted the Summer Movie Blockbuster season. In addition, how many modern directors discuss Star Wars’ influence on their own work today?
E. Is it still talked about today? Go to Comic Con. Count Star Wars costumes. Done.
Even without the Prequels and the upcoming Episode VII, Star Wars would be a part of today’s culture. The Original Trilogy, particularly Empire Strikes Back, is an important moment in the timeline of movie history.
7. Wrath of Khan (1982) – (Genre: Space Opera, Sea Voyage In Space!, Star Trek Movie – to be fair, if Star Wars is a genre, so is Star Trek)
Any list of Sci-Fi movies, needs to include something from the Star Trek franchise. While some films are lackluster (Star Trek 1), some films silly (A Voyage Home), the whole franchise has served to keep the Star Trek world alive and vibrant.
(The second best Star Trek film, in my opinion, is actually First Contact – but that is a debate for another post.)
A. Does it tell a good story? In many ways, this is Moby Dick in space. Khan is understandably mad and ruthless, while Kirk is continually dealing with issues of aging and getting older. It is a well-paced film with fantastic dialogue that matches the characters of the Original Series. Without this, the culminating moment as Spock dies would not have its power.
B. Do the special-effects/make-up, etc. hold-up over the course of time? While some elements do not hold up as well as others (i.e. some of the hair and make-up has a strong 80’s feeling), the overall special effects are strong enough to carry the film.
C. Does it bring up deeper, more philosophical questions about reality, the human condition, the meaning of life, etc.? As mentioned before, much of this story is on aging and deciding the course of one’s life. Also, there are questions of whether Kirk was right to abandon Khan on a planet deep in space.
D. Is it groundbreaking? While not as groundbreaking as other films – Star Trek movies probably wouldn’t exist without Star Wars – it is still a large influence on modern sci-fi. It successfully takes of intellectual ideas and philosophies and mixes them in with the action, which is the heart of good Star Trek.
E. Is it still talked about today? If you have seen Star Trek: Into Darkness, you know the answer to this question.
8. Back To The Future (1985) – (Genre: Time Travel, Sci-fi Comedy)
A. Does it tell a good story? This story makes me go, “Great Scott!”
This movie has the best blend of comedy, heart, science-fiction, and solid plotting. We care about Marty McFly as he attempts to remedy shifts in time and bring his parents back together. We admire George McFly in all his teenage awkwardness, especially as he stands up to Biff. We giggle as Marty’s mother crushes over ‘Calvin Klein.’ Tension builds as we realized Marty has to return to the future, only to watch Doc Brown die. All of this climaxes in an epic guitar sequence and intense race against a lightning bolt to go ‘Back to the Future’!
B. Do the special-effects/make-up, etc. hold-up over the course of time? I’m still waiting for a Deloreon to fly down my street and pick me up for some adventures.
C. Does it bring up deeper, more philosophical questions about reality, the human condition, the meaning of life, etc.? The entire premise of the movie is ‘what would happen if you met your parents when they were your age.’ Other questions, such as the ethics of time travel, and potentially changing time, how does one event change your life, how would you blend in during a different time period, and more, are brought up.
D. Is it groundbreaking? No film has blended comedy with science-fiction so well, in such a heart-felt way. Also, (I know this is from Back to the Future 2) we’re still looking for our flying cars and hoverboards. We already have clothes that look like they are inside out.
E. Is it still talked about today? While not discussed as much as other films, this is one of various movies that is essential to anyone’s DVD/Blu-ray/digital movie collection.
Not too long ago on Facebook, the trend was: This is the day Marty McFly comes to the future.
9. The Matrix (1999) – (Genre: Cyberpunk, Live-Action Anime)
Do you want the red pill or the blue pill?
The Matrix combines philosophy on existentialism with heart-thumping action, all in a mind-bending, cinema-changing journey to becoming “The One.”
A. Does it tell a good story? The Matrix strings along the first-time viewer as we follow Neo into what appears a conspiracy-theory place. Then, we are dumped into ‘reality,’ with all its harshness. We return to the Matrix, everything goes wrong, and Neo and Agent Smith ( a great, cruel, malevolent, and unpredictable villain) go up against each other in a series of awesome martial arts sequences. All of this builds to Neo breaking the video game, and becoming, “The One.” It is a great story, with strong supporting characters in Trinity and Morpheus.
B. Do the special-effects/make-up, etc. hold-up over the course of time? Black leather and sunglasses never go out of style.
Also, while we live in an age jaded by the over-use of “bullet-time” over the last 14 years, it is still an awesome moment within the film. We still believe Neo has done the impossible (besides making Keanu Reeves look like a good actor).
C. Does it bring up deeper, more philosophical questions about reality, the human condition, the meaning of life, etc.?
What is reality?
Would you follow Morpheus into what he claims is the real world?
Is it better to wake up in goo and realize everything you knew was a lie, or to stay plugged into the system, ignorant of the post-apoctalyptic state of the world?
How many guns can a virtual world generate?
D. Is it groundbreaking? Once again, we return to ‘bullet time,’ the over-abused technique developed for this film. Over the last 14 years, there have been clear moments mimicking the Matrix, as well as using its special effects technology. The Matrix introduced and popularized the use of action-acrobatics to allow the hero to do impossible things and be in impossible places that is now extremely common in the plethora of comic book and other action movies of today. Without the Matrix, I’m unsure we would be able to handle the final entry on this list.
E. Is it still talked about today? Not as much as other films, but it also is only 14 years old, and just reaching the point of standing the test of time. I think it would have aged better without the empty and over-done sequels which followed, and ruined the vibrant simplicity of the original film – despite bending your mind, its still a relatively simple example of the Hero’s Journey. That being said, I think this film alone still comes up in conversation and has its devout fans.
10. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) – (Sci-Fi Comedy, Time-Travel, Radical History Projects and Presentations)
Keanu Reeves acting has never been better than in The Matrix and in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. What would the world be like without this pair of garage-band-wannabe teenagers and their radical adventures through time with George Carlin and a telephone booth? A. Does it tell a good story? Bill and Ted get to to time-travel, meet Napoleon, and hook up with some hot medieval babes, all in an effort so they can pass history, start a band, and bring about world peace. B. Do the special-effects/make-up, etc. hold-up over the course of time? The lightning effects are amazing. C. Does it bring up deeper, more philosophical questions about reality, the human condition, the meaning of life, etc.? How much of an impact does passing your high school classes have on your destiny? Was George Carlin really from the future? Would you rather time-travel in an 80’s phone booth or a blue police phone box? What would historical figures do if they visited a modern city? D. Is it groundbreaking? There are few films that bring up such deep questions of time-travel and destiny combined with a history project. E. Is it still talked about today? My teenage sister has this movie memorized. Much of the modern generation has been influenced by the depth and quality of this film.
10. Inception (2010) – (Genre: Cerebral Thriller, Heist Film, Christopher Nolan Movie)
While many sci-fi films have come out since the Matrix, none has captured the modern imagination as strongly as Inception. Did I dream this movie was so good?
A. Does it tell a good story? Inception is a heist movie set in a mind-bending sci-fi conceit, with a through-line of Cobb’s grieving process and own psychological issues taking hold. The whole movie, we think we know what is reality, but are left in the end not knowing if they make it out or not. We sympathize with Cobb and his loss of Mal, while worrying what he is ethically capable of. Every moment, especially in the dream-state, is wrapped in tension, the possibility of failure, madness, and death looming. Do we want to enter this dream-world of the impossible, or do we want to hold onto the gray reality?
B. Do the special-effects/make-up, etc. hold-up over the course of time? Although Inception is only 3 years old, I think the effects and spectacular visuals will hold up for decades to come. How awesome is the sequence of Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) fighting in the rotating hallway, or the car falling slowly into the water?
C. Does it bring up deeper, more philosophical questions about reality, the human condition, the meaning of life, etc.? Similar to the Matrix, this movie questions what reality is, while also bringing up ethical and philosophical questions. What would you do if you had lived an entire lifetime in a dream-state, only to awaken and realize that vivid reality never existed? Could you stand to live in the real world?
D. Is it groundbreaking? In an age of reboots, franchises, and sequels, Inception was a grand, intelligent stand-alone film that both succeeded in the box-office, and blew our minds – without losing us. While this movie would not have been possible without Nolan’s Batman films, it’s great and rare to see a new, fresh idea and plot. Also, the dream-state is far better executed than many, many cerebral thrillers of the past.
E. Is it still talked about today? Once again, its unclear what Inception’s full impact will be, since it is so relatively young. However, this is a film which lingers in your mind and turns the wheels in your brain over, and over again. I think we’ll be talking about Inception for a long, long time.
Part I – (i.e. Movies Considered Great, But I’m Not As Into)
Groundbreaking in terms of world-building, but I get lost in the overall plot. When something is bending your mind, you should know where it went (See: Inception, Matrix).
Both of the first Terminators are groundbreaking in their heart-pumping action and impossible-to-destroy villains. They have a good story, and good characters. However, they are just past the tipping-point of violence I can handle in a movie. Good movies. Too violent for me.
*Terminator: Salvation had the potential to be great, if they had cut out the entire Terminator-related elements and focused solely on Sam Worthington’s character realizing he was an experimental cyborg
E.T. / Close Encounters of the Third Kind
I’m grouping these Spielberg thought-pieces on aliens and the unknown together. While there are some spectacular effects, and interesting questions posed, I have yet to sit through each movie in its entirety. E.T. terrified me as a child, and Close Encounters drags on and on. Once again, great movies, but not my personal taste.
I don’t recall ever watching Total Recall all the way through. From what I read, I can see its influence on other movies. I’ve seen bits and pieces, so my knowledge of the film is as reliable as Arnold Swarzenegger’s memory in the movie.
Planet of the Apes
How is this one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time? The only thing remarkable in this movie is the make-up. Decades after this movie came out, I can’t watch it without giggling. Perhaps it was better when it first arrived on the screen, but I can’t get past Charlton Heston shouting, “You damn, dirty apes!”
Part II: Movies I Like But I Wouldn’t Consider the “Greatest”
Minority Report/I-Robot/Tron: Legacy
While I enjoy both movies, both fall into a category of good and enjoyable, but not great. They all have great moments, and interesting concepts. However, there is something a bit formulaic and general about these movies, which leaves them behind in the dust of other movies. I am sure others can find many other films that fall within this list – especially in the last 10 years as CG has infinitely expanded the possibilities in the cinematic world.
Contact brings up some great sci-fi questions about aliens and ethics. However, it drags in some parts, and I personally find the ending a bit disappointing. There should always be questions left unanswered, but I think there are too many questions.
The first part of this film is beautiful, brilliant and fascinating, and an interesting vision of a post-apocalyptic future brought on by our own waste. The latter half of the film is also great and tells a good story. However, the underlying environmentalist tone, while important, detracts from the story. That being said, this film is the closest to being added to the list of Greatest Sci-Fi Movies of any, and would easily be on my list of Greatest Animated Films.
So, there it is. Agree? Disagree? What would you add or replace? What do you think is still missing from the cinematic world of sci-fi? What film from this year do you think will be the best example of a sci-fi universe? (I’m hopeful for Elysium)
Some interesting lists of Great Sci-Fi
Side Note: Congratulations to my sister Alexis! She’s graduating from high school and is stepping out to conquer the universe!