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50 Essential SF Films


Time Out have put together a very strange list of their 50 essential sf films here (with nods to here and here). It does not include dystopias, for some completely arbitrary reason – so no Blade Runner or Fahrenheit 451. Their list is… silly. Cherry 2000? Howard the Duck? Battlefield Earth? If shiteness is an essental quality of sf cinema, then perhaps they do belong on the list. I, however, believe otherwise.

So I shall do the blog-worthy thing, and present my own list. And I will include dystopias. For as good a reason as Time Out excluded them from their list: because I want to.

Here then is my list of 50 essential sciencefiction films – in alphabetical order. Oh, and it is exactly 50 films. Rather than cheat and feature an entire franchise – Star Wars, Star Trek – I’ve picked the best of each. There is some overlap with the Time Out list.

2001: A Space Odyssey, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1968) – still a high-water mark for sf films. It possesses a grandeur unmatched by few other genre movies.
A Clockwork Orange, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1971) – it’s essential because it shows that sf is not all spaceships and robots; it’s essential because it shows that sf can be brutal (not violent, brutal) ; it’s essential because it shows that sf can be also for adults.
Abre los Ojos, dir. Alejandro Amenábar (1997) – ignore inferior remakes, this is an original piece of sf film-making.
Alien, dir. Ridley Scott (1979) – the first and still the best of the franchise.
Avalon, dir. Mamoru Oshii (2001) – perhaps the central premise is not the most original in the world – but then what sf film does feature an entirely original premise? – but in parts of this film, the presentation of it is jaw-dropping.
Back to the Future, dir. Robert Zemeckis (1985) – sf can be family entertainment too. And without being brainless.
Battle Beyond the Stars, dir. Jimmy T Murakami (1980) – although clearly made to cash in on Star Wars, the plot was ripped from The Seven Samurai by way of The Magnificent Seven (Robert Vaughan even reprises his role). It manages to transcend its origins just a tiny little bit.
Blade Runner, dir. Ridley Scott (1982) – I need say nothing about this film. Its presence here is a given.
Brazil, dir. Terry Gilliam (1985) – if George Orwell had not been so po-faced, he would have written Brazil. Ironic that it took an American to make a more English version of 1984 – totalitarianism is not frightening, it is absurd. See, sf doesn’t need to ignore politics, either.
Children of Men, dir. Alfonson Cuarón (2006) – the book was mediocre, the film is very good.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind, dir. Steven Spielberg (1977) – this film is too iconic to ignore it, although it has not aged entirely gracefully.
Dark City, dir. Alex Proyas (1998) – oh dear, what happened? Proyas went from this great little film to… I, Robot.
Delicatessen, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro (1991) – sf can be very funny too, without being like Spaceballs. Poking fun at sf for humour’s sake is easy: it’s a huge target. But making something humorous and sf is much harder. Delicatessen does it superbly.
Destination Moon, dir. Irving Pichel (1950) – before the Americans went to the Moon for real, they went to the Moon on celluloid. They got quite a bit wrong in this film, but it’s a fascinating look at the thinking of the time on the subject.
Dune, dir. David Lynch (1984) – as adaptations of novels go, this one isn’t good. But as a realisation of the Dune universe, it beats all. Frank Herbert’s series of novels will forever be coloured by this film’s production design. And yet it could have been so good: there are moments of true greatness in it. And some really dumb bits, too.
Fahrenheit 451, dir. François Truffaut (1966) – the book is dull, but the film is weirdly engrossing.
Flash Gordon, dir. Mike Hodges (1980) – everything that sf fans hate about the public’s perception of the genre is in Flash Gordon. It’s as camp as a row of tents. It has stupid costumes and stupid lines and a universe that makes no sense. It is full of British thesps hamming it up so much Brian Blessed’s performance doesn’t even stand out as over-the-top. And yet… it’s great fun.
Forbidden Planet, dir. Fred M Wilcox (1956) – if you dismissed this as just another 1950s studio cash-in on sf, like This Island Earth for example, you’d be doing it a disservice. It’s a clever story, put together with state-of-the-art (of the time) effects. Okay, so the robot is silly, and Altaira’s wardrobe looks like it belongs in a bad B-movie… but it’s definitely an essential classic.
Galaxy of Terror, dir. Bruce Clark (1981) – sometimes cash-in films transcend the profit motive. Forbidden Planet did. And so does Galaxy of Terror. The sfx are a bit ropey, but the climax of the story makes up for it.
Independence Day, dir. Roland Emmerich (1996) – some films are events. This one was. Even though it’s brainless family entertainment, and everything a sf film doesn’t have to be.
La Jetée, dir. Chris Marker (1962) – some films transcend the media, and that’s what this one does. It is narrated; it is composed of black & white still photographs. And yet its power is undiminished.
Metropolis, dir. Fritz Lang (1927) – I shouldn’t need to explain or defend this film’s inclusion.
Naked Lunch, dir. David Cronenberg (1991) – it could be argued that William S Burrough’s work is not sf, but never mind. As adaptations of unfilmable novels go, this is one of the best.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, dir. Michael Radford (1984) – sometimes it was hard to tell the 1970s and 1984 apart; sometimes it was hard to tell the early part of this century and 1984 apart. Happily, we have this film to do it for us.
Pitch Black, dir. David N Twohy (2000) – a taut little sf movie, and so unlike its bloated sequel. It’s one of those films where the one-sentence, er, pitch tells you everything you need to know about it. More sf films should be made with that as an objective.
Planet of the Apes, dir. Franklin J Schaffner (1968) – too iconic to ignore.
Possible Worlds, dir. Robert LePage (2000) – another film that bucks the sf as brainless family entertainment trend, and so deserves to be on any self-respecting list.
Primer, dir. Shane Carruth (2004) – sf does not have to have multi-million dollar sfx budgets. Nor does it have to be heroically stupid. Admittedly, you can go too far in the other direction – certainly Primer‘s plot is likely to cause sustained bouts of head-scratching….
Queen of Blood, dir. Curtis Harrington (1966) – cobbled together from footage from Soviet sf film Nebo Zovyot, with inserts filmed in the US with a US cast (plus Basil Rathbone), this still manages to be a surprisingly modern film. I wrote about it here.
Repo Man, dir. Alex Cox (1984) – before there was guerilla film-making there was this: a cheap and cheerful movie that manages to celebrate its ideas in every frame.
Rollerball, dir. Norman Jewison (1975) – the future we deserved but never got: all those mainframe data centres and architecture by Oscar Niemeyer, not to mention the corporate oligarchy and plebian bread and circuses. Well, we got some of it. Ignore the silly eponymous sport, look at the world Jewison shows us.
Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow, dir. Kerry Conran (2004) – another film with a future we deserved – airships, giant rockets, giant robots…. This film looks fantastic, but perhaps marrying its astonishing visuals with pulp story-telling was not the best way to do it. Nonetheless, it’s essential.
Solaris, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky (1972) – ignore inferior remakes. Tarkovsky is, I admit, an acquired taste and perhaps unsuited to the modern multiplex moviegoer, but this remains a powerful piece of film-making.
Stalker, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky (1979) – and Tarkovsky’s Stalker – an adaption of a novel by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky – is arguably even better than Solaris.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture, dir. Robert Wise (1979) – received wisdom would have it that Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan is the best of the franchise. It’s not, it’s a bloated television episode. Unfortunately, The Motion Picture is not the best either. But it is the most outright cinematic of them, cunningly hiding its television origins. Its pace may be glacial, but the presence of two Tarkovsky films on this list should have told you I don’t consider that necessarily bad.
Star Wars 5: The Empire Strikes Back, dir. Irvin Kershner (1980) – easily the best of the lot, thanks to a sharp script by Leigh Brackett. And Kershner, unlike Lucas, managed to get good performances out of his cast.
Starship Troopers, dir. Paul Verhoeven (1997) – a superb satire of Heinlein’s novel. The sight of Doogie Howser in a Nazi greatcoat has to be one of the biggest sensawunda moments of 1990s sf cinema.
The Abyss, dir. James Cameron (1989) – there’s an earnestness to this film which still appeals today, and the special effects still – ahem – hold water. Perhaps the ending is somewhat difficult to swallow, but this remains one of the best first contact films made.
The Day the Earth Stood Still, dir. Robert Wise (1951) – back in the day, they used to make thoughtful sf films with little in the way of gosh-wow special effects. Okay, so perhaps the story is a little simplistic and implausible, but it’s considerably closer to the people in it than your average modern-day soulless blockbuster.
The Fifth Element, dir. Luc Besson (1997) – this is not so much a film as a moving comic. It’s very colourful, it’s very silly, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense, and the characters are painted with the same bright palette as the backgrounds. But it’s still a lot fun. And you can’t go wrong with a space opera with European sensibilities. More space operas should have European sensibilities, in fact.
The Man Who Fell to Earth, dir. Nicolas Roeg (1976) – also too iconic to ignore, if only for Bowie in the title role.
The Matrix, dir. Larry & Andy Wachowski (1999) – ignore all inferior sequels. This was an astonishing film when it was released and we should remember it for that.
The Mysterians, dir. Ishiro Honda (1957) – a Japanese sf film from last century which is not structured around some recurring hero or monster is deserving of note. In all other respects, this is as strange as the many Gojira, Gamera or Starman films.
The Silent Star, dir. Kurt Maetzig (1960) – the second sf film produced by the East German DEFA studios, and it’s clearly not the product of western capitalist minds. The production design is amazing. I wrote a bit about it here.
The Terminator, dir. James Cameron (1984) – ignore all inferior sequels. This is a taut action sf film, with little pretensions and little need for any.
The Thing, dir. John Carpenter (1982) – the original had an earnest silliness about it; this one translated that into gore. It made aliens on Earth just as scary as the ones in spaceships.
The Time Machine, dir. George Pal (1960) – another iconic film, although it’s scuppered a little by 1960s sensibilities – silly lines like “How do the women of your time wear their hair?”
Things to Come, dir. William Cameron Menzies (1936) – not to be confused with the similarly-titled The Shape of Things to Come from 1979 which a) bears no resemblance to HG Wells’ novel, and b) is astonishly crap. Menzies’ version, however, is just an astonishing piece of early cinema.
Twelve Monkeys, dir. Terry Gilliam (1995) – Back to the Future proved that audiences could follow twisted time-travelling narratives; Twelve Monkeys pushed it even further, and still remained entertaining drama.
Until the End of the World, dir. Wim Wenders (1991) – this was the first film which for me made the future seem like a real place. Admittedly, its future is a little quaint these days, and the actual story feels like two stories badly welded together, but it is still as Wenders intended it: the “ultimate road movie”. I wrote about it here.

6 thoughts on “50 Essential SF Films

  1. A much better list. Their not including Stalker or La Jetee was just bizarre. I’m glad to see that someone else prefers ST:TMP to Khan, and glad to see some respect for Dune and Sky Captain, both flawed but worthwhile films, at least for those of us for whom the visual aspect is important. (The new Trek is quite good in that department as well.)Some possible additions:Tremors (best creature feature ever)The Quiet Earth (a tasty last-love-triangle-on-earth film from New Zealand)Phase IV (my favorite of the rash of post-2001, pre-Star Wars SF art films)Android (an odd little arty film co-starring Klaus Kinski, and reusing the sets from Battle Beyond The Stars)City of Lost Children (admittedly pretty borderline SF, but wow)I have the disc of On The Silver Globe in hand, and have high hopes for it.And I have a soft spot for Logan’s Run, but wouldn’t try to defend it…

  2. Thanks.Tremors is fun but was derailed by too many inferior sequels. And I suspect I was focusing too much on heartland sf when I put my list together. The Quiet Earth I thought was a bit rubbish and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.I’ve been after a copy of Android for ages but have yet to find a copy that doesn’t break the Rule of DVD.

  3. I’d take any list from Time Out as seriously as I would anything from Channel 5 (or Empire)No arguments with any of your choices, although I have a soft spot for Dark StarMartyn Taylor

  4. Tremors, like The Matrix, has no sequels.And the Rule of DVD is…?

  5. Also, I forgot Buckaroo Banzai.

  6. I have seen very few of these. I tend to found moving picture SF (film and television alike) not a patch on the written word variety. But in my case that’s possibly true of moving pictures against the written word in general.I’m just not that into cinema I suppose.

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