Top 50 greatest sci-fi films
JEP film critic Tom Ogg selects his top 50 favourite sci-fi films
ONLINE streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon UK have made it easier than ever to access thousands of films with the click of a few buttons.
And with some Covid-19 restrictions ongoing, and Cineworld Jersey temporarily closed (although hopefully due to reopen ASAP), there has never been a better time to indulge in watching films in the comfort of your own home.
As such, I’ve been running a series on the JEP's weekly film pages in which, every Saturday, I pick my top 50 must-see films from a particular genre – not necessarily the greatest ever made (although many of them certainly qualify as such), but the ones that I personally most recommend watching.
To date, I have covered crime, comedy, sci-fi, war, romance, horror, action/adventure, film noir, drama, westerns, children’s films, musicals and so-bad-they're-good films, and you can read my Top 50 Sci-fi Films list below.
For reasons more to do with OCD than anything else, I never allow the same film to appear in more than one list, thus ET is absent from my top 50 children's films list because it already appears in my top 50 sci-fi films list, and so on.
All films are listed in order of personal preference, and all feedback is welcome, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with my choices: firstname.lastname@example.org
TOP 50 SCI-FI FILMS
A FEW things worth pointing out before we boldly go where no JEP writer has gone before...
When I first put this write-up together for the JEP in early May, there were no Star Wars films featured in the list at all, and I explained why thus:
As you'll soon discover, Star Wars films are rather thin on the ground in my top 50 sci-fi films list. Sure, the first three films are good, by which I mean the first three films to be released (I'm not sure where they belong in the whole convoluted Episode VIII Part 23 shebang), but everything from The Phantom Menace onwards has been at best average, and more often than not awful, and even the original trilogy has now been ruined by George Lucas’s incessant CGI tinkering. Find me an unsullied version of The Empire Strikes Back minus Lucas’s modern-day additions and I’ll perhaps reconsider my stance, but until then Star Wars can do one.
Well, an obliging reader contacted me within a week of publication to inform me that they did indeed possess the original, untarnished Star Wars films on VHS and, better yet, they offered to lend me them for viewing, an offer I gladly accepted.
And what a revelation it proved to be. After so many years spent enduring George Lucas' needless CGI additions, it was truly refreshing to finally watch the films in their original form again, and be reminded of just how good they were before Lucas took it upon himself to desecrate his own legacy.
As a result, I have duly inserted all three films into my formerly Star Wars-free list, albeit with an 'original version only' caveat (I still hate the 'special editions').
The addition of the Star Wars trilogy has sadly resulted in a handful of other films disappearing from the list, so apologises to Strange Days (1995, Kathryn Bigelow), Primer (2004, Shane Carruth) and Ex-Machina (2014, Alex Garland), all of which are superb sci-fi films and well worth your time.
Elsewhere, both John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Alien are absent from the list, but this isn't because they’re not brilliant films (they are); it's because they have already appeared in my top 50 horror movies list (at two and ten, respectively).
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
FOR some, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a slow-paced, pretentious, impenetrable snooze-fest. For others, however, it is a mesmerising, mind-bending, groundbreaking masterpiece.
As I’m sure you can surmise from its placing on this list, I personally fall very much into the latter category. In fact, for me Stanley Kubrick’s genre-defining epic isn’t just the greatest sci-fi film ever made – it’s one of the greatest films in the history of cinema, period.
Opening with the dawn of mankind, ending with the birth of an all-seeing Star Child, and neatly summarising the entirety of evolution along the way (in one extraordinary jump-cut), 2001 is nothing if not ambitious. It is also famously enigmatic, showing but rarely telling, and leaving audiences to unravel its mysteries themselves, which many have been enthusiastically trying to do for over five decades.
If you’ve never seen it, then I advise getting hold of a copy ASAP, then closing the curtains, turning out the lights and sitting yourself down in front of the largest widescreen TV available, with any potential distractions out of sight and out of mind (laptop closed, phone off, children in separate sound-proofed room, etc).
‘The greatest adventure awaits’ proclaimed the film’s poster back in 1968 – and that remains true over half a century later.
Film fact: 2001 was also advertised as ‘the ultimate trip’ upon release. This led many of the counterculture’s more adventurous denizens to sneak potent hallucinogens into cinemas and then consume them while watching the film. Under no circumstances try this at home: trust me, the film is trippy enough without the need for any illicit substances.
2. Aliens (1986, James Cameron)
A RARE sequel that arguably improves on its predecessor (no mean feat given that Ridley Scott’s Alien is itself a classic), Aliens sees writer-director James Cameron upping the ante by having Sigourney Weaver’s Lieutenant Ripley teaming up with an elite squadron of US marines and then venturing down to a planet which, they soon discover, is swarming with deadly acid-blooded extra-terrestrials (once again designed by eccentric Swiss artist H R Giger).
The resultant film is by turns action-packed, scary, surprising and heart-poundingly intense, while Ripley is firmly established as one of the great feminist icons of cinema: courageous, principled, often braver and smarter than the surrounding marines, but also caring and motherly when required, such as when dealing with orphaned child Newt. (Take not, modern-day Hollywood: THIS is what a powerful female role model should look like, not those unlikable, mean-spirited, humourless dullards found in Terminator: Dark Fate, Charlie’s Angels 2019, anything starring Brie Larson, etc.)
Film fact: James Cameron wrote the screenplay for Aliens in a matter of days. Given that he subsequently spent years working on Avatar and the result was total pants, perhaps he should consider adopting his earlier working methods more often.
3. Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)
4. The Terminator (1984, James Cameron)
5. A Clockwork Orange (1971, Stanley Kubrick)
6. Predator (1987, John McTiernan)
IS there a more quotable movie in sci-fi cinema than Predator? Among the film’s many famous lines are ‘I ain’t got time to bleed’, ‘Stick around’, ‘Something’s got Billy spooked’, ‘If it bleeds, we can kill it’ and, of course, the immortal ‘Runnnn, get to da chopper!!’ (not to mention numerous others that can’t be reproduced in a family newspaper).
In addition to its endlessly quotable screenplay (written by Shane Black, who plays joke-loving radioman Hawkins), Predator also boasts intelligent direction from the ever-underrated John McTiernan (despite being set almost entirely outside, the film frequently feels suffocatingly claustrophobic), a memorable score courtesy of composer Alan Silvestri, and universally strong performances from its cast of muscle-bound 1980s actor stars (Arnold Schwarzenegger is often mocked for his thespian skills, or lack thereof, but he is excellent here).
And, of course, there is the title character itself, a deadly extra-terrestrial with dreadlocks to rival any rastafarian and an arsenal of hi-tech weapons and cloaking devices. Designed by FX wizard Stan Winston, the predator remains a genuinely menacing presence all these years later, despite the endless slew of sub-par sequels and lazy spin-offs.
Film fact: The predator was originally going to be played by Jean Claude Van Damme, but the erstwhile Muscles from Brussels failed to endear himself to the cast and crew with his demanding behaviour, and the role ultimately went to Kevin Peter Hall instead (Hall also played Bigfoot in Harry and the Hendersons).
7. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991, James Cameron)
8. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Steven Spielberg)
9. Silent Running (1972, Douglas Trumbull)
10. Trancers (1984, Charles Band)
THE 1980s is rightly considered a terrific era for big-screen science-fiction, although one of the very best sci-fi films of the decade remains perpetually under-rated: Trancers.
Released in 1984, and directed by B-movie mogul Charles Band, the film centres on Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson), a no-nonsense 23rd-century cop who hunts and ‘singes’ (vaporises) ‘trancers’. A trancer is a weak-willed human who has been transformed into a foam-mouthed savage by Michael Stefani’s psychic bad guy Martin Whistler (hence Deth’s unforgettable line: ‘I finally singed Whistler out on one of the rim planets’ – oo-er, missus!).
Sadly, despite Deth’s best rim-singeing efforts, Whistler is far from dead and when the evil mastermind travels back through time to 1980s Los Angeles, Deth must follow suit. Once there, Deth takes up residency in the body of his ancestor – journalist Phil Dethton – and teams up with a perky young punk rocker, Leena (a pre-fame Helen Hunt), in order to track down the wicked Whistler.
As with all Charles Band films, Trancers was made at a fraction of the cost of a typical Hollywood production, and the cut-price special effects probably looked dated even back in 1984 – yet when the script and dialogue are this clever, witty and packed full of invention, who cares?
Certainly, Empire critic Kim Newman is a fan, saying of the film in his book Nightmare Movies: ‘Trancers has more ideas and invention in its 73 minutes than you’ll find in Ridley Scott’s entire filmography’.
Film fact: Trancers unexpectedly spawned a franchise. To date, there have been five sequels of varying quality, the first two of which see Thomerson and Hunt gamely reprising their roles.
11. Brazil (1985, Terry Gilliam)
12. The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Irvin Kershner) [original version only]
13. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel)
14. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, Nicholas Meyer)
15. Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)
IT doesn’t take a Voight-Kampff machine to confirm that Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 is one of the finest sci-fi sequels ever made. Hell, not even Jared Leto’s hammy over-acting can spoil it.
Here are six reasons why it's so damn good:
1) It's a Hollywood blockbuster – for adults!
Unlike so many big-budget modern-day releases, Blade Runner 2049 refuses to pander to the patience-free sensibilities of social media-addicted audiences and instead offers viewers a multi-layered narrative, a lengthy running time and a stately sense of pace, with scenes that unfold slowly and carefully and character arcs that rarely conform to type.
Working from Michael Green and Hampton Fancher's intelligent screenplay, Villeneuve serves up an expansive futuristic universe into which you are invited to completely and unconditionally immerse yourself for close to three hours, while still leaving several important questions tantalisingly unanswered (the film will disappoint anyone hoping for conclusive proof as to whether or not Deckard is a replicant).
2) Ryan Gosling doing what he does best
As anyone who has seen his quietly smouldering turns in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) and Only God Forgives (2013) will know, nobody does deceptively-strong-and-silent-yet-emotionally-conflicted quite like Ryan Gosling. And as Officer K, the Canadian actor gives his best deceptively-strong-and-silent-yet-emotionally-conflicted performance to date.
A replicant (or is he?) and ‘blade runner’, K makes his living tracking down and terminating rogue replicants for the LAPD. Trouble arises, however, when Robin Wright’s Lieutenant Joshi orders him to find and destroy a missing – and, it seems, miraculously conceived – replicant child, an assignment that leads him to question everything he previously held true.
On screen for almost all of the film’s vast running time, Gosling perfectly conveys K’s mounting inner turmoil, often with little more than a glance of his sad eyes (the sole occasion when K’s restrained demeanour falters is powerfully effective). It’s the sort of performance that Gosling makes look easy, but which requires considerable acting talent – and more than a little charisma – to pull off.
3) Harrison Ford on career-best form
Harrison Ford has made a habit of resurrecting iconic characters in recent years, with Indiana Jones returning for Steven Spielberg’s disappointing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and Han Solo enjoying an ill-fated homecoming in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).
The return of Rick Deckard, however, represents the elderly actor’s most accomplished comeback to date, with Ford’s expertly judged performance a welcome reminder that beneath the superstar status lies a very fine actor indeed.
Despite arriving fairly late in proceedings, Deckard’s presence hangs over Blade Runner 2049 like the holographic figures that tower above the futuristic Los Angeles skyline. When he does eventually appear, Ford is required to do far more than merely coast through an assortment of familiar character tics, with Deckard made to grapple with the enormous sacrifices he has made since the events of the first film (he is forced to grapple with K a fair bit, too).
The result is a truly outstanding performance – I would argue the finest of Ford’s career – with Deckard’s decades-long anguish etched across the 75-year-old actor’s weathered face. The scene in which K and Deckard engage in faltering conversation at the latter’s homemade bar is a masterclass in understated acting, with both characters saying little but revealing a lot, each wary of the other.
4) The powerful female characters
Upon release, a few critics complained about the portrayal of women in Blade Runner 2049, with Charlotte Gush at vice.com calling the film ‘eye-gougingly sexist’ and a ‘misogynistic mess’.
Personally, I think Villeneuve has form in giving terrific roles to quality actresses (Emily Blunt in Sicario, Amy Adams in Arrival) and I would argue that he does much the same here, with strong female characters such as Wright’s no-nonsense Lieutenant Joshi and Hiam Abbass’s one-eyed freedom fighter.
The film also gives a long-overdue decent role to Ana de Armas, who play K’s holographic ‘companion’, Joi. The Cuban actress gives a startlingly affectionate performance, infusing the artificial Joi with more depth than many of the film’s human characters. The result is the most affecting depiction of a piece of mass-produced computer software since Scarlett Johansson voiced a flirtatious operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013).
The most unforgettable female character, however, is Sylvia Hoeks’ Luv, a misleadingly-named replicant with a disconcerting penchant for shedding tortured tears as she offs those who get in her way.
5) The awesome soundtrack
Greek composer Vangelis’s ground-breaking electronic score for Blade Runner is widely considered one of the finest original soundtracks in cinema. Yet incredibly, the synth-filled soundscape that composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch assembled for Villeneuve’s sequel is almost as memorable.
Created using the same Yamaha synthesizers as favoured by Vangelis, the soundtrack is a goosebump-inducing meld of ambient electronica, swooshing synths and grinding industrial stabs that suggest, but never outright mimic, Vangelis’s original score (save for one key track).
Heard in the cinema, the music was at times almost overwhelming, especially during the nail-biting finale when the synth-driven Sea Wall blasted across the auditorium at eardrum-pounding volume.
6) The equally awesome special effects
As with the soundtrack, Blade Runner 2049’s jaw-dropping visuals pay homage to the original film, while simultaneously veering off in fascinating new directions.
From vertigo-inducing shots that sweep across the illuminated LA rooftops to K and Deckard’s punch-up amid holographic images of a crooning Elvis Presley, the film packs more ideas and invention into single scenes than many sci-fi films manage across their entire running time.
Among the highlights are an extraordinary sequence in which Joi assimilates with Mackenzie Davis’s pleasure model to make love to K and a how-did-they-do-that? moment when Sean Young’s still-young Rachel makes a brief but significant appearance.
Sadly, the one thing Villeneuve’s film wasn’t was a box-office success. Despite ecstatic reviews from critics (Charlotte Gush excepted), Blade Runner 2049 seriously underperformed in cinemas across the globe and, financially at least, fell far short of pre-release expectations. As a result, we’re unlikely to see many more such daring and visionary big-budget movies coming out of Hollywood anytime soon. After all, the original Blade Runner similarly failed at the box office and it took 35 years for the follow-up to arrive.
Here’s to Blade Runner 2079!
16. Total Recall (1990, Paul Verhoeven)
17. Westworld (1973, Michael Crichton)
18. Planet of the Apes (1968, Franklin J Schaffner)
19. Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis)
20. Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang)
21. Forbidden Planet (1956, Fred M Wilcox)
22. Videodrome (1983, David Cronenberg)
23. Solaris (1972, Andrei Tarkovsky)
24. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982, Steven Spielberg)
25. Star Wars (1977, George Lucas) [original version only]
26. Robocop (1987, Paul Verhoeven)
27. The Invisible Man (1933, James Whale)
NO, not the surprisingly decent 2020 remake of the same name, nor Paul Verhoeven’s enjoyably seedy 2000 interpretation (Hollow Man), but rather James Whale’s iconic original, the invisibility effects of which remain genuinely impressive 87 years on from the film’s release.
Unlike in H G Wells’ source novel, the Invisible Man – or rather Dr Jack Griffin to give him his official title – isn’t mad and bad to begin with, and only starts to lose his mind when the powers of invisibility take hold.
Yet whether sane or mad, the character remains fascinating to watch (or not watch, as the case may be) thanks to a supremely charismatic turn by Claude Rains, who commands our attention despite spending the majority of the film either wrapped in bandages or as a disembodied voice.
Film fact: For shots where Dr Griffin removes his bandages while fully clothed, the filmmakers shot Claude Rains against a black velvet background and had him wear black velvet over the parts of his body that were to appear invisible. The footage was then composited with footage of the rest of the scene, thus making the actor appear invisible.
28. Escape from New York (1981, John Carpenter)
29. Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly)
30. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001, Steven Spielberg)
31. The Truman Show (1998, Peter Weir)
32. Dredd (2012, Peter Travis)
33. Scanners (1981, David Cronenberg)
34. Distinct 9 (2009, Neill Blomkamp)
35. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957, Jack Arnold)
36. Galaxy Quest (1999, Dean Parisot)
37. Starman (1984, John Carpenter)
38. THX 1138 (1971, George Lucas)
39. Return of the Jedi (1983, Richard Marquand) [original version only]
40. The Stuff (1985, Larry Cohen)
‘ARE you eating it or is it eating YOU?’ – so ran the tagline for this lively sci-fi satire courtesy of writer-directer Larry Cohen.
The ‘it’ in question is ‘The Stuff’, a gooey substance that is discovered emerging from the earth and which is promptly mass-marketed by greedy corporations as a delicious edible snack, even when the deadly side effects of their best-selling new product come to light.
As always with the independent-minded Cohen, The Stuff is smartly written and highly inventive, with plenty of witty dialogue, oodles of cheap but (mostly) effective practical effects and spirited performances from all involved, in particular Cohen regular Michael Moriarty.
Film fact: A foamy blend of fish bones was often used for the scenes in which The Stuff chases after characters. The stench from the fishy pulp was so bad that after shooting cast and crew would bathe in a nearby river.
41. Starship Troopers (1997, Paul Verhoeven)
42. They Live (1988, John Carpenter)
43. Flight of the Navigator (1986, Randal Kleiser)
44. 12 Monkeys (1995, Terry Gilliam)
45. Night of the Comet (1984, Thom Eberhardt)
46. Predestination (2014, Michael and Peter Spierig)
47. Gattaca (1997, Andrew Niccol)
48. Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuarón)
49. Dark Star (1974, John Carpenter)
50. Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)
SEXY Beast director Jonathan Glazer didn’t so much take a left turn as shoot vertically into outer space with this unashamedly pretentious sci-fi oddity.
Shot on location using concealed cameras, Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as a mysterious and deadly alien seductress who drives around Scottish council estates in a tatty white van and a bad wig, searching for unsuspecting locals to feed on.
Most of the film’s extras were unaware that they were being filmed nor that they were speaking to one of the most famous movie stars on the planet (‘I think you’re gorgeous,’ says one wide-eyed individual, understandably).
Upon release, many male filmgoers – though not this writer, obviously – flocked to the cinema in the hope of catching sight of Johansson in the all-together (the film's nude scenes had been much publicised). Sadly for them, the plump-lipped megastar used several body doubles throughout the film, including Jersey resident Jo Dutton.
Film fact: Actor Adam Pearson – who plays the individual Johansson picks up towards the end of the film – isn't wearing prosthetics. The 35-year-old Brit suffers from neurofibromatosis type 1, a rare condition in which growths and tumours develop in the nervous system, resulting in severe physical disfigurement.
* If you enjoyed this list, be sure to read my other top 50 film lists on the Features page of the Jersey Evening Post website
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