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20 British sf films

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I had this really good idea for a post, a sort of companion piece to my British sf Masterworks. Films… Science fiction films… British science fiction films. How about a list of the best twenty-five sf films from the UK? Everyone likes lists.

Except… I couldn’t find twenty-five good British sf films – either that I’d seen or that I’d would be willing to hold up as good cinema. So I picked twenty. And, to be honest, there are a few on the list that stretch the definition of “good” somewhat. There are also a few that do the same with “British”… Kubrick was American, as are Gilliam and Hyams; and Truffaut is French. And some of the films were made with US money, requiring US actors in the starring roles – but they were British productions, so they count for this list.

No doubt I’ve forgotten lots of really good sf films from the UK, so feel free to leave a comment and suggest some. But here is my list, in order of year of release:

1 – Things To Come, dir. William Cameron Menzies (1936) – there’s not much you can say about this. It’s an astonishing piece of cinema, especially given when it was made.
2 – The Quatermass Xperiment, dir. Val Guest (1955) – Quatermass had a powerful impact on British sf, so one of the three films featuring him deserves to make this list.
3 – The Day The Earth Caught Fire, dir. Val Guest (1961) – not only a disaster film, caused by testing nuclear weapons, but also a post-apocalypse film. The shots of empty cities remain creepy even today.
4 – First Men In The Moon, dir. Nathan H Juran (1964) – the recent Gatiss adaptation on BBC4 was entertaining, but there’s a bonkers charm to Lionel Jeffries’ portrayal of Professor Cavor.
5 – Daleks Invasion Earth 2150AD, dir. Gordon Flemyng (1966) – back when Daleks were cool, they drilled a hole to the centre of the Earth so they could replace it with an engine and turn the whole planet into a spaceship. And they did it in Britain. Until Bernard Cribbins stopped them. With a bit of help from Dr Who.
6 – Fahrenheit 451, dir. François Truffaut (1966). The book is rubbish, but the film is excellent. Casting Julie Christie in two roles was inspired. And the monorail is really cool too.
7 – Frozen Alive, dir. Bernard Knowles (1966) – an Anglo-German production, set in Germany, in which a scientist, well, he freezes himself. But his wife is murdered while he is frozen, and he’s the chief suspect. It sounds daft, but it works.
8 – They Came From Beyond Space, dir. Freddie Francis (1967) – and the plot of this one seems even dafter: meteorites land throughout the UK and take over people, who subsequently build an armed camp in southern England. This is so they can send rockets to the Moon, launched from underneath a lake, to help repair the alien spaceship marooned there.
9 – A Clockwork Orange, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968) – Kubrick may have been an American but this film was as British as you can get – from Anthony Burgess’s source novel through to the cast and crew.
10 – Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun, dir. Robert Parrish (1969) – Gerry Anderson’s only live-action feature film, although some of the cast were as wooden as his puppets. The central conceit – a copy of the Earth on the other side of the Sun, where everything is reversed – is complete nonsense, but all those Meddings model shots make up for it.
11 – 2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1971) – Kubrick gets two films on this list because A Clockwork Orange is too British to leave off, and 2001: A Space Odyssey is too damn good to ignore.
12 – The Man Who Fell To Earth, dir. Nicolas Roeg (1976) – Bowie was perfectly cast. Any film that can say that deserves to be on this list.
13 – Flash Gordon, dir. Mike Hodges (1980) – it’s like a panto. In space. With Brian Blessed. Three reasons why it belongs on this list.
14 – Outland, dir. Peter Hyams (1981) – there’s not much that’s British about High Noon set on a moon of Jupiter (although without Grace Kelly). This was actually a British production, however.
15 – 1984, dir. Michael Radford (1984) – qualifies in the same way A Clockwork Orange does. It’s also an excellent adaptation of Orwell’s novel.
16 – Brazil, dir. Terry Gilliam (1985) – could be 1984 from an alternate Britain. It’s as British as Orwell’s novel, but… funny. Absurd, in fact. Which is the only other sane response to Nineteen Eighty-four.
17 – Sliding Doors, dir. Peter Hewitt (1997) – it’s about the Many Worlds Hypothesis… Well, sort of. It’s a romance, a fluffy version of Kieslowski’s Blind Chance, in which catching a train or not causes the story to split into two separate narratives.
18 – 28 Days Later, dir. Danny Boyle (2002) – zombies that can run. Enough said.
19 – Code 46, dir. Michael Winterbottom (2003) – is one of those films which seems to inhabit a near-future which already exists. It also asks some difficult questions about biotechnology.
20 – Moon, dir. Duncan Jones (2009) – I wrote about this here.

So, what films have I missed off?

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28 thoughts on “20 British sf films

  1. Well, you got good taste in films ian! There’s a few I’d not heard of which I will have to look for! But what about Who?, based on the Algys Budrys novel-was that british?

  2. Great list; I’ve been looking for “Journey to the Far Side of the Sun” for a while – remembered the plot but not the title.

    And Threads is a serious nuclear war movie, like The Day After but way darker. Worth seeing

  3. The War Game, 1965.

  4. Continuing the pattern – What about The Bed Sitting Room (1969) An absurdist comedy and probably more of a fantasy on the premise than SF but still… “God Save Mrs. Etheyl Shroake…”

    The Man in the White Suit (1951) – Another great Ealing comedy BUT Actually quite neat as SF, dealing with the social effects of a radical new fabeic that lasts forever and repels dirt.
    And what about the other Quatermass films? Quatermass and the Pit (1967) is a true classic and Quatermass 2 (1957 is pretty good.

  5. Moon Zero Two (1969) Classic !

    Quatermass and the Pit (1967) Excellent !

  6. I’d echo Steve’s suggestion of The man in the White Suit. It’s got more science in it than most of the others put together. Any other suggestions I’d have are borderline at best.

    Um… the Hammer Frankenstein might knock out one or two of the lower ones on the list, maybe. Or possibly Moonraker and one or two of the other Bonds?

    Would Deathwatch count, despite being a French production? he asks, thinking of the Glasgow angle.

    I have no idea if any of Lindsay Anderson’s films would count, but O Lucky Man! must have have a case at the very least. Then there’s Jubilee – Jarman’s post-apocalyptic punk nightmare. But I think you’re just fine-tuning your core list now.

    • I watched Moonraker only last night, and it’s crap.

      I looked up Deathwatch, and it counts as it was a partly British production. But I’ve never seen it – and I’d like to as I do like the novel from which it was adapted, DG Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe.

  7. Well I think you could add Sunshine, and It Happened Here to a list of great British SF movies and I’d second the suggestions of The Man in the White Suit and Threads

    There’s also things like Doomwatch, Hardware and Reign of Fire (mav be guilty pleasures, at least for me) and of course we shouldn’t forget the modern classics FAQ about Time Travel and Alien Autopsy (sorry).

    • I’ve never seen It Happened Here, but I did consider Sunshine. Then I decided that Sunshine is one of those supremely stupid sf films which seem to rely on looks rather than plot logic, so I decided not to choose it.

      I’ve not seen FAQ About Time Travel. I have seen Alien Autopsy, and that’s why it’s not on the list. Hardware I considered, but dropped. Is Reign of Fire sf?

      • We’ll have to agree to disagree over Sunshine (I’d make the same argument about 2001!).

        Reign of Fire is set in a post-apocalypse future (but dragons caused the apocalypse). It’s very silly and most people hated it but it made me laugh.

        For god’s sake don’t watch FAQ about Time Travel – I was joking about those last two…

  8. What about Who? Was that british? (Are my posts going thru?)

    • According to imdb.com, it was British so it qualifies. But I’ve only seen it the once and that was decades ago, and I remember very little about it. I’ll have to see if I can find a copy and rewatch it.

  9. I loved the film version of 1984 — I think it’s unjustly ridiculed (I’m not sure why!). I’m not sure why you included Frozen alive on your list — hehehehe…. It’s a somewhat giggle/pain inducing film.

  10. Children of Men?

  11. Children of Men is an American film directed by a Mexican…. Alfonso Cuarón…

  12. Would you include ; Day of the triffids, HG wells Time machine, village of the damned, and although it was a made for tv two parter, Raising Lazerus?

  13. Also, ‘ Frankenstein Unbound’?

  14. I’ve also remembered one that scared the pants off me as a young boy which was ‘ The Frozen Dead’. In particular the girl’s head in a box whispering ” bury me”. It didn’t help when my mother would point at her hat boxes above the wardrobe and whisper ” bury meeee……” Thanks mam.

  15. Incidentally , how are you categorizing science fiction? I wouldn’t consider Sliding Doors or Reign of Fire as science fiction but rather as fantasy. When you think about it Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is science fiction. I don’t mean to shout, I’m just saying. You could re-title fiction/ fantasy if you wish and that might open the door for more British movies.

  16. Pingback: A quarter of top fives | It Doesn't Have To Be Right...

  17. Late to the party here, but what about Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter Of Life And Death? Looks like a fantasy in parts due to the black and white “afterlife”, but science-based in that the neurological symptoms and causes of David Niven’s hallucinations were rigorously researched. Here’s Oliver Sacks’ review of former neuro nurse Diane Friedman’s book about it (A Matter of Life and Death: The Brain Revealed by the Mind of Michael Powell) – “Friedman shows that A Matter of Life and Death is not only the surreal and romantic fable it was taken to be by most viewers, but it is also a carefully worked out neurological case history.”

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