As a five-part feature, I’ll be counting down the best science-fiction through the history of cinema. From dinosaurs to aliens, from Star Wars to Star Trek, from the depths of the ocean to the far reaches of outer space, these are
THE 50 GREATEST
10. E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)
Before E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, there weren’t many sci-fi movies aimed at kids. There were certainly age-appropriate sci-fi movies, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the first two Star Wars movies, but even those had adults as the main characters. By making the protagonist of his movie a child, Steven Spielberg found an alchemical mixture that others have been trying to replicate for over thirty years. The genius and power of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is that while it stars a child, the movie appeals to everyone. Kids enjoy it because they can relate to the point-of-view of Elliott (Henry Thomas), but adults love it because it has a magic in it that makes grown men and women feel like children again. No matter how old you are, when you sit down and watch the boy-and-his-dog story of a young alien accidentally left behind on Earth and the lonely boy who finds him, cares for him, and vows to help him get home, you can’t help but feel like a wide-eyed child, filled with wonder at the spectacular storytelling. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is one of the most emotionally powerful movies the science-fiction genre has given audiences.
9. JURASSIC PARK (1993)
Before Jurassic Park, dinosaurs never seemed truly real. Having died out millions of years before humans were on the scene, dinosaurs had only been depicted before in sculptures, drawings, and stop-motion animation, through the extrapolation of their fossils and the imaginations of artists and scientists. Jurassic Park’s breakthrough CGI made dinosaurs truly scary in a way that hadn’t been possible even a few years earlier. One of the best things about the effects is that it still holds up today (which certainly can’t be said for many other ‘90s movies with early CGI). Steven Spielberg used his masterful skill at building tension to inject thrilling action and suspense elements into the story of an island filled with genetically recreated dinosaurs that break loose and terrorize some visiting scientists and children. The movie is perfectly cast; Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, and a young Samuel L. Jackson were all just recognizable enough without distracting from the dinosaurs themselves. The clever script makes the complicated science of Michael Crichton’s novel comprehensible to both adults and children and makes the story, which had already been done somewhat in Them! and WestWorld, seem wholly original. Jurassic Park influenced many action and disaster movies of the last twenty years and is largely responsible for ushering in the modern popularity of science-based action movies.
8. INCEPTION (2010)
Even the most original movies have cliché elements that can expose themselves upon repeat viewings. Nowadays, it’s unrealistic to expect a completely original movie, because it can no longer be done. What matters these days isn’t if a movie is original, but how original it is. Inception is one of the most original of the last decade. Christopher Nolan, hot off The Dark Knight, brought his ten-years-in-the-making script for Inceptionto the big screen in 2010, shrouded in secrecy. The trailers looked cool, with Paris folding over on itself and Joseph Gordon-Levitt fighting in a rotating hallway, but it wasn’t until the actual movie began that we were properly introduced to Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio, in possibly a career-best performance) and his team of dream hackers. Hired to break into the mind of a businessman and make him decide to break up his father’s empire, the movie spends its first hour firmly establishing its premise and rules, before thrusting you into an intense and expertly made action thriller of dreams inside dreams. Yes, at its very heart, Inception is really just a fancy heist movie, but by the time the maddeningly debatable final shot arrives, all that matters is how amazingly well Nolan spins his tale.
7. BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985)
There are two types of time travel movies. There are hard science ones, like 12 Monkeys and the Terminator movies, that treat the plot device seriously and look at the realistic ramifications of time travel. Then there are fun, loosely scientific ones that are more interested in speeding past the time travel catalyst and getting to the antics that ensue from the premise. When it comes to the latter, Back to the Future is still the one to beat. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is a teenager who slacks off at school, skateboards around his hometown of Hill Valley, and hangs around with a crazy, old inventor, “Doc” Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd). One night, Doc Brown calls Marty out to a shopping mall parking lot to show him his latest invention: a plutonium-powered DeLorean capable of travelling through time. Soon, Marty finds himself stuck in 1955 and needing to convince a thirty-years-younger version of Doc Brown to help him get back to the future. (Get it?) Along the way, Marty also has to play Cupid with his parents, whose path together he inadvertently disrupts. With a great soundtrack, charming and memorable performances from everyone in the cast, a clever plot, and an excellent sense of humour, Back to the Future has become a timeless classic.
6. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
Movies that are ahead of their time are often underappreciated in their own. (Look at the change in the reputations of Blade Runner, The Shawshank Redemption, and Fight Club over the years.) When A Clockwork Orange was released in 1971, it told a story of a near-future when teenage hooligans freely roam the streets at night and terrorize upright citizens. Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is the leader of his gang of “droogs,” who spends his days giving into his base impulses of masturbation and Beethoven and spends his evenings assaulting unsuspecting people with his own disturbing brand of ultra-violence. When he is arrested and subjected to a brainwashing program to rid him of his evil impulses, Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian vision of the future goes from interesting to fascinatingly provocative, raising important questions about free will and choice while also leaving nightmarish images in your memory. The nearly unintelligible language the young protagonists sometimes speak is a quite original satire of the new slang every generation adapts, and the score selections of the soundtrack perfectly compliment the scenes. History has been very kind to the prophetic A Clockwork Orange, which has gone down as one of Stanley Kubrick’s purest masterpieces, if also one of his most dark and disturbing.
5. ALIENS (1986)
The very best sequels try to be substantially different from the original, to make a name of their own instead of falling back on their progenitors’ (like with the darker tone of The Empire Strikes Back or the altered protagonist in Terminator 2: Judgment Day). James Cameron’s Aliens is remarkably different from Ridley Scott’s Alienand its differences often let Alienssurpass the original as a movie. Instead of the creeping tension of the first one, Aliens loads up on skilfully bombastic action sequences and insanely tense ratchetings of suspense. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is the sole survivor of the Nostromo, the rest of its crew having been killed by the stowaway alien of the first movie. Discovered in cryo-sleep 57 years after the events of Alien, Ripley thaws out to find that not only is there no evidence of the alien existing but that the planet where the Nostromo crew picked up the alien has been colonized for 20 years. And then communications with the station on the planet go out. Ripley’s fury and desire to exterminate the creatures that killed her old crew drive her to join a rescue mission to the planet, but things go badly wrong. Weaver’s acting in Aliensearned her an Oscar nomination, as she took the character to even scarier places than in Alien, as well as showing a caring, maternal side that helped make Ellen Ripley such a well-rounded character in cinema. As with The Abyss, James Cameron’s director’s cut is a much better version of the film; the extra 17 minutes makes for a fuller experience, while not slowing the movie down at all. It’s rare for a really good movie to have an even better sequel, but as great a scary movie as Alienis, Aliens is an even better action movie.
4. MINORITY REPORT (2002)
One of the best things about science-fiction is how well it lends itself toward examining big ideas, through a different setting with all the right pieces exaggerated in just the right proportions to make a statement. These are the movies that often lead to long conversations in the parking lot of the theatre or around a living room. Minority Report, from the writer of Total Recall and Blade Runner and directed by Steven Spielberg, is one of the very best at causing such conversations. In 2054, the police department in Washington, D.C. has a controversial task force that deals in “pre-crime.” Imprisoned children with psychic abilities can predict murders and Det. John Anderson (Tom Cruise) and his team use them to stop crimes before they happen. Ah, but if a person is arrested before they do something, what’s to say it would have happened? That’s the crux of the movie, especially when Anderson himself is fingered in a murder prediction, causing him to go on the run from his own task force to clear his name. If that weren’t enough, the Pre-Crime Division is also under investigation by an auditor from the Department of Justice (Colin Farrell, showing how strong an actor he can really be) when Anderson runs, leading to complex cat-and-mouse chases as strong as the best scenes in The Fugitive or The Negotiator. Steven Spielberg and his team put an incredible amount of work into making the world of Minority Report seem real. The ingenious inventions that populate the film, from facial recognitionn advertisements to electronic paper, have influenced technological breakthroughs like tablet computers in the years since. More than anything, though, Minority Report is a thought-provoking and brilliant chase movie set in a time that doesn’t seem fictional so much as a peek into our actual future.
3. TERMINATOR 2:
JUDGMENT DAY (1991)
When Arnold Schwarzenegger starred as the unstoppable killing machine T-800 in The Terminator, he gave the world one of the scariest movie villains of the ‘80s. James Cameron brilliantly flipped the tables for the sequel using one simple idea: since the T-800 was essentially just a reprogrammable machine, it didn’t have to necessarily remain an antagonist. After the events in The Terminator, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has been committed. (Any evidence of the first terminator somehow disappeared after its destruction.) Meanwhile, in the future, Sarah’s grown-up son, John – the leader of the human resistance fighting a war against self-aware computers and machines – learns of a plot the machines have to send a more advanced terminator, a T-1000 (Robert Patrick), back in time to assassinate John as a child (Edward Furlong). John’s militia have acquired a reformatted T-800 and send him back with instructions to protect John at all costs. Having Schwarzenegger return as a different T-800, now filling a heroic role instead of a villainous one, provided a fresh, radical change in tone. The CGI of the liquid metal T-1000 was revolutionary for its day and paved the way for Jurassic Park. Like many of Cameron’s movies, a slightly longer director’s cut exists, and like The Abyss and Aliens, the special edition is vastly improved just by the additional few minutes. James Cameron has made more amazing sci-fi movies than anyone, but this is his masterpiece. It does everything the original did and does it better, as well as turning two-dimensional characters in complex ones (even the inhuman T-800) while still saving room for a few huge explosions. Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a perfect sci-fi action movie.
2. STAR WARS (1977)
If you haven’t seen Star Wars, then what are you even doing reading this list? The original space opera from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars (or A New Hope, as it would later be rebranded) changed the face of cinema forever. The monomyth concept theorized by Joseph Campbell, which runs through everything from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to The Lion King and The Matrix, was retrofitted by George Lucas using an outer space motif. Hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) heads off on an adventure with the sage mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), the roguee captain Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Solo’s hairy sidekick Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and the comical robots C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker). Luke’s task: to master The Force (a life force that binds us all) and rescue the kidnapped princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) from the evil Darth Vader (David Prowse and James Earl Jones). Everything about the movie is ingrained into popular lexicon and our collective cultural memories, from lightsabers and “May the Force by with you” to the Death Star and “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” It’s no accident that Star Wars became the highest-grossing movie of all-time (twice, including the 1997 re-release that dethroned Jurassic Park). It fulfills every element needed of a classic movie, it has a family-friendly rating while still being entertaining for adults, and the connection it made with audiences the world over is felt in all the sequels, prequels, TV series, books, video games, toys, and conventions. Star Warsis the most beloved sci-fi movie of all time and deservedly so.
1. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
Leave it to the greatest film director to make the greatest science-fiction movie. Stanley Kubrick, the man behind such masterpieces as A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, became famous for always wanting to try different genres and never working in the same one twice. After the black dramedy Lolita and the war satire Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick set his sights on space. His vision of space travel and the future was so smartly prescient and clearly thought out, it led to rumours of NASA hiring Kubrick to fake the 1969 Moon landing that still persist to this day. 2001: A Space Odyssey opens audaciously, with the first twenty minutes taking place amongst apes, learning to use tools and weapons millions of years before modern man. The movie then makes the longest flash-forward in film history, jumping from prehistoric times to the year 2001, with a space shuttle heading to Jupiter. There are parallels between the two sections, not the least of which are black monoliths that cause inspiration or progress in any species that discover them. (It makes more sense in the movie.) During the trip to Jupiter, the film finds time to pit man against machine in a subplot with the self-aware spaceship computer system HAL 9000 deciding to eliminate the “unreliable” human element from the mission. By the mind-boggling final 40 minutes, even those who understood the bulk of the movie often get lost the first time around. 2001: A Space Odyssey is not a movie that makes complete sense the first time it’s seen, simply because it is so different from what other sci-fi movies settled for doing and because there is so much going on in it. Much like the best art, it takes time and reflection to appreciate everything the artist attempts. Kubrick dabbled in sci-fi again with A Clockwork Orange, but he never went back to space (unless, of course, you believe the Apollo hoax story). When you achieve perfection the first time, what need is there to try again? The titular year itself may have come and gone already, but 2001: A Space Odyssey remains the greatest science-fiction movie of all time.