Film.com Staff June 7, 2012
“Prometheus,” the long-awaited sorta-prequel to “Alien,” is finally upon us. As Ridley Scott’s mysterious extravaganza prepares to stake its claim in the realm of science fiction, let’s take a look at the genre’s tried and true cinematic champions, from a game-changing silent classic (“Metropolis”) to a very recent vision of a dystopian future (“The Hunger Games”) — By Max Evry, Loquacious Muse and Elisabeth Rappe
50. ‘TRON’ (1982)
This ahead-of-its-time oddity shot back into relevance with “TRON: Legacy,” yet with all the modern tools at its disposal the sequel could not recapture the simple charm of the primitive ’80s CGI. Most of this film could be made on any PC today for about a hundred bucks, but at the time seeing Jeff Bridges ride that Light Cycle or play Deadly Discs was as cutting edge as it got. – M.E.
49. ‘Pitch Black’ (2000)
It’s a haunted house of a concept – monsters who only come out at night – but it’s ramped up thanks to a plot where everything that can go wrong does, and to a cast of grubby, acrimonious characters who just might kill one another long before the darkness comes. – E.R.
48. ‘Splice’ (2009)
A post-modern take on the mad scientist theme. Two scientists splice human DNA with animal genes in an attempt to create a new hybrid animal for medical purposes and become a little too attached to their creation. The situation gets unspeakably out of hand, though many of the film’s horrifying moments are more psychologically disturbing than physically. “Splice” features one of the most outrageous, jaw dropping sex scenes ever filmed and an ending that will make your everything hurt. – L.M.
47. ‘The Thing From Another World’ (1951)
It may lack the splatter and jump scares of today’s sci-fi flicks, but they all owe a debt to this taut, sophisticated thriller from the atomic age. It has some humorous marks of its time (the alien is botanical and drinks blood like a vampire) but it has a remarkable death count, and is heavy with the era’s new fear of the skies. – E.R.
46. ‘Solaris’ (1972)
Russian patience-tester Andrei Tarkovsky took a fascinating sojourn into science fiction that borrowed many of its cues from Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” but in an even more philosophical direction. Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) travels to evaluate a space station in disarray, only to encounter his dead wife and a host of other mysteries. Those unaccustomed to Tarkovsky’s glacial pacing may feel stymied, but it’s a trip worth taking. – M.E.
45. ‘The Fountain’ (2006)
How far would you go to save the woman you loved? To the jungles of an unknown continent? To the very stars? “The Fountain” is an aching and eerie journey through the echo chamber of loss. Tom’s (Hugh Jackman) angry refusal to surrender to death is an old trope, but grief deserves to be splashed across the cosmos. – E.R.
44. ‘Pi’ (1998)
“Black Swan” filmmaker Darren Aronofsky boldly announced himself as a talent to be reckoned with through this opus about an introverted math wiz named Max (Sean Gullette) who discovers a perfect mathematical pattern for predicting the stock market. In other words, it’s Bernie Madoff’s favorite movie … at least until the part with the power drill. – M.E.
43. ‘Attack the Block’ (2011)
Imagine a foul-mouthed version of “The Little Rascals” in South London going mano-a-mano against some badass aliens and you have this movie in a nutshell. A strange hybrid of humor, gore and biting social commentary about the plight of housing projects, Joe Cornish’s movie never should have gelled … but it does, miraculously, thanks to some muscular storytelling. – M.E.
42. ‘Moon’ (2009)
A haunting elegy that questions the nature of individualism, memory and the soul of both man and machine. (The actions of the peaceable GERTIE suggests there’s more under that smile than we know.) It also boasts a superb set design, avoiding Apple aesthetics in favor of stained and grimy plastic that makes you feel as stifled as Sam. – E.R.
41. ‘The Iron Giant’ (1999)
Before he struck Pixar gold, genius animator Brad Bird made his feature debut with this alternately sad and uplifting tale of a big ol’ robot with a big ol’ heart who befriends a boy and prevents a nuclear holocaust through valiant self-sacrifice. In other words, not typical kiddie fare. The alien machine is voiced by none other than Vin Diesel! – M.E.
40. ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977)
What separates “Close Encounters” from all other alien encounter films is its breathless mix of wonder, confusion and anxiety. No one knows what our visitors have planned for us, but the spirit of diplomacy from both sides is encouraging. That we meet our new friends in one of the most alien landscapes on Earth is pure movie magic. – E.R.
39. ‘Dark City’ (1998)
Alex Proyas transferred the moody stylistics of “The Crow” to a far loftier tale that doesn’t truly reveal itself as sci-fi until its literal breakthrough reveal. With purposefully jarring anachronisms and authentic noir atmosphere, the story of Rufus Sewell’s amnesiac John Murdoch using his telekinetic gifts to save mankind managed to outdo “The Matrix” on every philosophical and visual level for half the budget and a year prior. – M.E.
38. ‘Total Recall’ (1990)
Three words: Triple breasted whore. It’s getting a suped-up remake this year, but the original is still a mighty fine slice of extreme sci-fi. Based on a story by legendary Philip K. Dick, it involves a muscle-bound construction worker (who else but Arnold Schwarzenegger?) whose vacation to Mars is complicated by the fact that he might not actually be there. Oh, and folks is tryin’ ta’ shoot ‘im. – M.E.
37. ‘Galaxy Quest’ (1999)
Nothing is sacred in this movie. Conventions, obsessive fans in their T-shirts and costumes, and D-List actors who won’t let go of their one television role are all hilariously skewered. But it stops short of being mean and becomes a love letter to the genre — and to those who really, truly believe in its onscreen heroics. – E.R.
36. ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956)
A precursor to everything from “Star Trek” and “Lost in Space” to this summer’s “Prometheus,” the lavish design of this pulpy piece of sci-fi feels ripped right off the covers of an old issue of “Amazing Stories.” Leslie Nielsen is the fabulously bland starship captain and Anne Francis bubbles with innocent sexuality, but Robby the Robot steals the show from his human counterparts. – M.E.
35. ‘The Hunger Games’ (2012)
It’s always a crapshoot when adapting such beloved source material, but Gary Ross brought a necessary groundedness to the dystopian Panem and created a world similar enough to our own to make us squirm in our seats — something every great piece of dystopian science fiction should do. Star Jennifer Lawrence’s pitch-perfect performance as heroine Katniss put her on the map with mainstream audiences. With three more films coming up, the legacy of the “Hunger Games” films is far from being wrapped up. – L.M.
34. ‘Serenity’ (2005)
The Western has always flirted with sci-fi, but “Serenity” really exploited the fusion (and threw some Chinese culture in for color). It’s such a solid character adventure that one gets sucked in whether or not they’ve flown with the “Firefly” crew before, making the fatalities among them some of the most heartbreaking of the genre. – E.R.
33. ‘Avatar’ (2009)
Iron Jim Cameron did it again, and after a twelve-year absence from directing feature films, no less. One of the most immersive explorations of another world ever filmed, “Avatar” takes place on Pandora — a place as lush, exotic and dangerous as every sci-fi fan has ever dreamed of, vividly brought to life through the magic of Weta’s amazing performance capture animation and a mountain of “Titanic” cash. – M.E.
32. ‘Starman’ (1984)
Equal parts romance and sci-fi thriller, it’s an offbeat hybrid that only the ’80s could produce, a story about exploration and first contact as much it is about loss and recovery. Jeff Bridges’ disquieting performance keeps it from being too maudlin, and Karen Allen’s broken, bitter widow keeps it grounded on Earth. The maturity on display is practically extinct today. – E.R.
31. ’12 Monkeys’ (1995)
Terry Gilliam’s grimy and chilling thriller imagines time as something that’s both immutable and fluid. James Cole (Bruce Willis) travels to 1996 hoping to help cure (but not prevent) an apocalyptic viral outbreak. As history spins out dizzyingly before him, Cole begins to believe he can alter the past, unaware he’s already been written into its doom. – E.R.
30. ‘Predator’ (1987)
Heed these words: “Get to da choppa!” Arnold Schwarzenegger went toe-to-toe with the title beastie after the camouflaged alien took out his entire team of roided-out mercenaries with little fuss. He, of course, wins. TRUE FACT: After a major design revamp which replaced Jean-Claude Van Damme as the creature, it was none other than James Cameron who suggested to Stan Winston that its makeup include mandibles. – M.E.
29. ‘The Fly’ (1986)
David Cronenberg, why you so nasty? Seriously, there are moments of visceral body horror amid Jeff Goldblum’s transformation from geeky scientist to acid-vomiting nightmare that will turn you as pale as Lindsay Lohan after a stomach pump. Going far beyond its cheesy 1958 B-movie origins, this is a prime example, along with John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” of why remakes are okay sometimes. – M.E.
28. ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956)
Its been remade no less than three times, but this alien invasion yarn from “Dirty Harry” director Don Siegel has been alternately interpreted as an affront against the slavish conformity of McCarthyism or Communism, depending on what one’s mood is. One McCarthy, star and Joe Dante regular Kevin McCarthy, makes his final warning, “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!” into a classic moment. – M.E.
27. ‘Star Trek’ (2009)
Talk about reinventing the wheel. “Lost” guru J.J. Abrams took this utterly exhausted four-decade old franchise and gave it a shot of paprika in the tailpipe, managing to go where no “Star Trek” had gone before: mainstream credibility. The cast is younger, cuter, more “90210” than “The Trouble with Tribbles,” yet the utopian sensibility and yearning for adventure remains intact. – M.E.
26. ‘Minority Report’ (2002)
This noir mystery based on a Philip K. Dick story is set against a frightening future where a specialized police department called PreCrime arrests murderers before they have the chance to commit the crime — all fingered by the visions of three mutated humans with supposedly infallible precognitive abilities. On the verge of the system being instituted nationally, a series of events unfolds that force everyone to consider how sure our fate can be … and if free will will always remain an option. Production designer extraordinaire Alex McDowell’s tech-heavy world of 2054 paired with high-speed film and washed-out color creates an unforgettable visual experience to match the film’s intellectual intensity. – L.M.
Also Check Out: 10 Must-See Sci-Fi Film’s You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
25. ‘Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi’ (1983)
Plenty of fans rag on this installment – the Han who doesn’t want to be there, the Ewoks, the 21st century edits – but the culmination of Luke and Vader’s battle and the power of a father’s love for his son shines through any teddy bears and tweaks. It’s modern mythology at its finest. – E.R.
24. ‘The City of Lost Children’ (1995)
Sinister Siamese twins, a sentient pickled brain, a towering ocean fortress … these are just a few of the obstacles a little girl and a circus strongman (Ron Perlman!) must overcome to rescue a bunch of children kidnapped by a dream thief. It’s just as strange and heavily art-directed as it sounds coming from the director of “Amelie,” Jean-Pierre Jeunet — and like nothing else you’ve ever seen. – M.E.
23. ‘Brazil’ (1985)
When “1984” and Monty Python mated, the surreal offspring it produced was “Brazil.” Its ridicule of totalitarianism is relentless, and such fearless glee produces a strange and beautiful optimism even in the film’s darkest moments. The film is full of prescient moments, but the stifled government workers surreptitiously watching movies on their work computers are probably the most familiar. – E.R.
22. ‘District 9′ (2009)
Yes, this film is a very blunt metaphor, but it’s elevated by its sweaty, grimy realism and firm resolve to avoid cliched awakenings, heroes and happy endings. Wikus and Christopher Johnson unite for personal motives, not true understanding or sympathy. They never actually become friends, and their victory is all the richer for its honesty. – E.R.
21. ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968)
A small step for one man, Stanley Kubrick, this was also one giant leap for popcorn-munching kind — a serious, boggling and altogether astounding ride to Jupiter and beyond the infinite. Some find it too cold or ambiguous, but watch the scene where Keir Dullea manually shuts down HAL’s glitchy computer brain and marvel at one of the most hauntingly emotional murder scenes in all of moviedom. – M.E.
20. ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (2004)
You’ll never find a funnier, weirder and more bittersweet examination of romance than this. We all wish we could rip someone out of our memory, but it’s our determined, obsessive hearts that prove more problematic. Joel’s heartbreaking determination to save his Clementine may make him as much a sci-fi hero as Luke Skywalker. – E.R.
19. ‘The Terminator’ (1984)
“The Terminator,” like “Alien,” remains forever part of the great debate of original versus sequel. “T2″ is more polished, FX-heavy and expensive, but the first is where the heart is. A love story at its core, “The Terminator” follows Sarah Connor, a woman targeted by a cyborg assassin from the future because she will one day give birth to humanity’s liberator. A soldier from that same future follows the Terminator back in time in order to protect Sarah and time travel paradoxes — not to mention tons of sequels and spin-offs — ensue. — L.M.
18. ‘Children of Men’ (2006)
For once, it’s not plagues, bombs or Terminators that destroy the world, but a mysterious and devastating inability to reproduce. Everything about this future is terrifying, but the ruthless pursuit of Theo and pregnant Kee really zeroes into our nightmares. The film ends on a sigh of relief, but whether it’s a sigh of hope is entirely up to you. – E.R.
17. ‘Jurassic Park’ (1993)
It’s supposed to be a giant red flag about how nature is red in tooth and claw and not something to build a theme park around … but it’s too exhilarating to be a morality lesson. If someone cloned a Tyrannosaurus Rex tomorrow, we’d all line up to see it — and quote Ian Malcolm as we waited our turn. – E.R.
16. ‘Planet of the Apes’ (1968)
“I hate every ape I see, From chimpan-A to chimpan-Z.” Though decades of parody (much from “The Simpsons” alone) has made this Charlton Heston starrer descend to the level of camp, it’s still a very potent parable of societal unrest and social stratification. Though its Civil Rights/Cold War-era politics may seem dated, that iconic shot of the Statue of Liberty is no less viable nowadays. – M.E.
15. ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’ (1982)
Why does this entry remain so relevant thirty years later? Because instead of relying on special effects, helmer Nicholas Meyer looked to traditional naval heritage and Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” for inspiration in crafting a sequel to Original Series episode “Space Seed.” Ricardo Montalban’s Khan is perhaps the most formidable foe Captain Kirk ever faced, and the story requires no initiation in “Trek” lore … thankfully. – M.E.
14. ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ (1951)
A subversive political and philosophical allegory about our place in the universe and whether mankind is worthy of joining a federation of space-faring alien civilizations that have evolved beyond war … or should be destroyed as a menace. A film way ahead of its time that presaged the more intelligent sci-fi of the ’60s instead of the bug-eyed monster and flying saucer drive-in fare that dominated sci-fi in the ’50s. – L.M.
13. ‘WALL-E’ (2008)
Only Pixar could combine an adorable robot with a poisoned, post-apocalyptic future and not lose an ounce of social critique or sophistication. The rebellious personalities and tender love affair of Wall-E and EVE even raise questions about souls and self-identity. It’s a haunting and prophetic story that just happens to come with a toy line. – E.R.
12. ‘Metropolis’ (1927)
Both aesthetically and thematically the granddaddy of most 20th century science fiction cinema … and beyond. German expressionist director Fritz Lang’s imaginatively bleak futuristic cityscapes prefigure “Blade Runner” by over five decades and Times Square is getting there. Brigitte Helm’s C-3PO-esque robot (or is that the other way around?) is still way cool and, dare we say, rather sexy. – M.E.
11. ‘Back to the Future’ (1985)
“Back to the Future” is time travel science fiction at its best. The film is endlessly re-watchable, funny, charming, heartfelt, exciting and intellectually stimulating. It plays with the conventions of time travel in an accessible but never dumbed-down way. Plus the Alan Silvestri score! Marty McFly’s red puffy coat! The Flux Capacitor! Anything and everything about Doc Brown! Anywhere there is a Best Movies list, “Back to the Future” is probably on it. – L.M.
10. ‘Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope’ (1977)
What’s left to praise about the seminal space opera of our time? Yes, it defined the modern four-quadrant blockbuster, proved an accelerator pad in special effects development, tapped into archetypal fantasy tropes still used as storytelling blueprints and remains eminently quotable (“Curse my metal body, I wasn’t fast enough!”). How about bringing Mark Hamill to the world? You’re welcome. – M.E.
9. ‘The Thing’ (1982)
Equal parts science fiction and horror — a terrifying, unsettling examination of human paranoia by way of body-inhabiting aliens that sent more than a few unsuspecting moviegoers retching out of the theater. John Carpenter’s graphic retelling of a ’50s classic was a victim of “E.T.” bliss when it first came out but has since founds an audience. Truly creepy and extremely gory throughout, but it’s the testing scene — in which each person gives blood to see who among them will become a murderous alien — that is the most famous, inspiring countless mimics. – L.M.
8. ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982)
Everyone has dreamed of finding a special, secret and otherworldly creature that instantly becomes your best friend. The concept screams slapstick, but Steven Spielberg knew such a wish derives from loneliness. E.T. and Elliott are lost souls who find one another at precisely the right moment. And who knew phoning home would be so heartbreaking? – E.R.
7. ‘Aliens’ (1986)
If “Alien” is a haunted house movie, “Aliens” is a balls-out war movie. The evisceration remains, as does the corrupt military-industrial villain and the android crew member with a hidden agenda, but silence and jack-in-the-box scares are traded for explosions and adrenaline — graphic, violent, suspenseful and action-packed with a powerhouse climax. Add Jim Cameron, the ultimate Bill Paxton performance and Sigourney Weaver at her maternally fiercest and you have a classic. – L.M.
6. ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ (1991)
He said he would be back, and Arnold’s a man of his word. Jim Cameron took his original low-budget “The Terminator” and built on its back one of the biggest behemoth blockbusters ever conceived. Liquid metal man? Check. Motorcycle jump onto a helicopter? Check. Explosions? Checkitycheckcheckcheck. At its core, though, the film’s alarmist stance against the escalation of the arms race provides a heart at the core of the mayhem. – M.E.
5. ‘Inception’ (2010)
Christopher Nolan’s piece of mind-bending brilliance played with the world of dreams in a way that has never been seen before. “Inception” proved that smart, original, hard-science fiction can still find a mass audience. With every viewing of “Inception,” new epiphanies about its true or hidden meanings surface. With its memorable, bombastic score, all-star cast, seamless visual effects, mind-boggling world building and powerful emotions at its center, “Inception” lived up to all of our extremely high expectations. – L.M.
4. ‘The Matrix’ (1999)
The Wachowskis injected new life into the genre, introducing cyberpunk to the cinema with this mashup of multiple sub-genres, including anime, dystopian fiction, westerns and martial arts. “The Matrix” influenced virtually everything else since — fashion, music, CGI, special FX, video games (think “bullet time”), literature, kick-ass heroines and more. This true, hard-science fiction film plays with the idea that life as we know it is a simulation and frankly makes a pretty good case for it. – L.M.
3. ‘Alien’ (1979)
Fear ripples through every frame of “Alien.” It’s in the creature design, whose very viciousness defies a species name but seems to be absolute evil, bladed and barbed. It’s in the impenetrable blackness outside the Nostromo windows, which coldly mocks any thought of escape, and mirrors the terror within. We’re still screaming, even if no one can hear us. – E.R.
2. ‘Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980)
The best of the “Star Wars” installments because it’s so bleak. Our heroes have their backs against the wall, and it drives them to fall in love, seek out mysterious Jedi Masters and confront their darkest enemies without ever questioning themselves. Oh, and the “‘I love you.’ ‘I know.'” exchange proves sex and sci-fi can get along just fine. – E.R.
1. ‘Blade Runner’ (1982)
You shouldn’t want to live in the world of “Blade Runner,” but the noodle bars and retro-futuristic clothing make for an impossible glamor out of the endless rain, poisoned urban sprawl and relentless, repetitive neon advertising. The only thing richer than the atmosphere is the soulful philosophy from beings who aren’t supposed to possess a shred of humanity. Three decades later, Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi entry has yet to be topped. – E.R.
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