Occasionally a friend posts something online that is too good not to include in my blog roll. In this case, it's my former colleague in the UNSW School of History, Dr. Geoff Nathan, who posted a long piece on Facebook today listing his top 50 sci-fi films. Since sci-fi has been a part of my own blogging in recent times, I thought it'd be nice to include this piece on my blog roll, seeing as Geoff doesn't have a blog of his own. I certainly share some of his picks, although for me the original Blade Runner that came out in 1982 directed by Ridley Scott will always be my favorite sci-fi film of all time. Another I'd add to the list is the animated film Fantastic Planet which I first saw when I was a very young boy.
Geoff Nathan’s Top 50 Sci-Fi Films
It’s no secret that I am a big fan of science fiction as a literary and visual genre. I have seen so many best sci-fi movies lists that I finally sat down and thought which films would make my must sees. I wanted to limit it to 50; that should be enough for anyone. I have tried to pick these not just because they are films that I enjoy, but ones that I think are actually good movies.
Some classics that many think should be higher in the list, e.g. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET and Silent Running, would be in the 51-100 range.
What’s Not on My List:
Superhero movies – this may be anathema in this day and age, but between DC and MCU, I am frankly shell-shocked by the sheer number of these formulaic, big-budget flicks/flops. Sure, there are some I really love (X-men First Class and Spider-Man: Homecoming), but with one exception, they are off the list.
Animated films – this also is a bit capricious, especially with interesting movies like the French film, Fantastic Planet, which may be the trippiest sci-fi film ever made, or Heavy Metal or even Tokyo Pass. But for me, they are a Venn Diagram problem: they share sci-fi with too many other genres.
Fantasy – not really necessary to explain, but no LOTR, Harry Potter and other such films.
50. Things to come - a 1936 English film written by H.G. Wells, emphasizing the positive and civilizing effects of science, technology and rationalism.
49. Iron Man – Tony Stark answers an existential question: why does it take losing one’s heart to get one?
48. Children of Men – a bleak future set in England where women have become infertile and children are no more. Did I mention that it’s bleak and English?
47. Liquid Sky – what happens when miniature aliens hide out in an avant-garde nightclub. Weird.
46. Rollerball – when nations are gone, there is only one corporation running the world and people need bread and circuses. Imagine “Gladiator” set in the future.
45. Dreamscape – a fun little film with Dennis Quaid and Christopher Plummer, where telepaths learn to get into and manipulate people’s dreams.
44. Godzilla – the original; a monster is reborn because of man’s foolhardiness with atomic energy. Yo-ho, there goes Tokyo!
43. Jurassic Park – DNA and dinosaurs. Jeff Goldblum in black and velociraptors. Shameless Spielbergisms, flawlessly delivered.
42. Repo Man – possibly the only punk rock sci-fi movie. Aliens stashed away in the trunk of a repossessed car. Harry Dean Stanton is gold.
41. The Abyss – underwater Cold War alien thriller. Really clever. Note: see the extended director’s cut.
40. The Martian – Matt Damon stuck on Mars. Drop the last scene and you have a dandy little film.
39. Flash Gordon – Queen soundtrack. Max Van Sydow as Ming of Mong. Outrageous sets and costuming. Psychedelic skies. Ack! Enormous fun.
38. Interstellar – out of the “Matthew McConaughey can actually act” period. A surprisingly good film about a dying earth, space travel and time dilation.
37. The Thing – vicious, horrible thing infiltrating a research station in Antarctica. Creepy, with some gory special effects. Still can give you a fun scare (not counting Kurt Russell in a beard).
36. The Day the Earth Stood Still – when friendly aliens meet unfriendly humans. Simple. Classic.
35. Them! – more atomic testing, more unexpected results. This time, it’s giant ants in the Nevada desert.
34. Dark Star – comic flick about a space ship blowing up unstable planets. Some really bad spots, especially a crewmember chasing a living, web-footed beach ball for 20 minutes. But Bomb 20 makes up for it all.
33. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – a cool classic film. Is it about aliens replacing us all or an allegory for the Red Scare? You decide! (the ’78 remake ain’t bad, either).
32. The Matrix – realities and more realities, Keanu Reeves/Neo must negotiate them all.
31. Galaxyquest – for everyone who’s been a trekkie, this wonderful send up of a fictional sci fi tv series is the perfect nexus of angsty acting has-beens, fandom and what they can be mistaken for.
30. District 9 – a powerful South African film, made as an allegory for apartheid, but still relevant today for immigrants and those who hate them.
29. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior – post-apocalyptic car chases in the outback of Australia. Mel Gibson, steel boomerangs, and a surprising amount of black leather. Good fun.
28. Sleeper – Woody Allen’s only foray into science fiction and it is hilarious. Slipping on a banana peel gets an entirely new lease on life.
27. The Man in the White Suit – forget Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan; this is the performance to watch (well, see them both). What actually happens when technology has the potential of putting whole industries (and the people employed in them) out of business.
26. Moon – a quiet little film starring Sam Rockwell and the voice of Kevin Spacey. Things go from mildly wrong to very wrong for a man coming to the end of a three-year stint on Earth’s only satellite, alone on a lunar helium mining station.
25. Escape From New York – Kurt Russell, aka Snake Plisken, must rescue the President of the United States from New York City Maximum Security Prison. Satire and camp, beautifully blended.
24. Planet of the Apes – the 1968 original. Simple and still powerful. Great soundtrack.
23. Robocop – in a beyond-the-pale violent Detroit, a (mostly) mindless cyborg is created to make the city safe. A darkly satirical comedy, perhaps best told with the sensibilities of its European director, Paul Verhoeven.
22. Soylent Green – this film got mixed reviews when it premiered in 1973, but it becomes stronger and more prescient with each passing year. Loosely based on Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! It also features Edward G. Robinson’s last performance.
21. Mad Max Fury Road – I had not thought Mad Max could be reworked so well. It proves that a bang up action film set in post-apocalyptic Australia can also be touching to the point of being poetic.
20. Bladerunner 2049 - although it does not quite reach the iconic qualities of the first film, this sequel is beautiful, moody and continues to ask some important metaphysical questions about the nature of being human.
19. Star Trek (2009) – the gang is back, in an alternative Trek timeline. The plot in many ways is incredibly weak, but seeing such a fun, lively and clever reboot is a real kick.
18. Terminator – I was dragged to this film on opening night. In addition to being one of the best flicks I saw in 1984, it was one of the best sci-fi imaginings about fate and the future. This is the stuff of Greek tragedy, set in 80’s LA. Try not to get a crush on Linda Hamilton.
17. Brazil – if Orwell’s 1984 were told by a Monty Python director (which of course it is). Note: make sure you see the English cut. The American one is a typical Hollywood copout.
16. Aliens – the sequel to the best sci-fi horror film of all time. Gun toting space marines have to deal with the nastiest set of semi-intelligent xenomorphs in cinematic history. Featuring badass Sigourney Weaver and space yuppie Paul Reiser.
15. 12 Monkeys – is world savior Bruce Willis really a time traveller from 2043 or is he a completely deranged nutter? I’m not saying, but Brad Pitt’s supporting role performance is amazing.
14. Terminator 2 – the rare case of a sequel being even better than the original. Everyone’s favourite murderous and havoc-wreaking android is back and he has competition. I just wish James Cameron wasn’t such a dick.
13. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan – Herman Melville. John Milton. Charles Dickens. Obsession and Kirk’s great nemesis. Khaaaaaaan!
12. Star Wars: A New Hope – the one that started them all. Even with all Lucas’ changes to the 1977 release (Han shot first, damn it), it’s still a bang up motion picture.
11. Snowpiercer – if you weren’t careful, you might have missed this 2014 beauty. Amazing cast, amazing director, and a pretty inventive retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness on a train perpetually moving through the dead landscape of a frozen earth. Yeah.
10. Gattaca – another quiet film, but a clever reimagining of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Genetics and the human spirit are at odds with one another while a murder is being investigated in a high-tech rocket firm.
09. Alien – the biggie. Is it sci-fi or horror or both? It doesn’t really matter; it’s still the most authentically scary science fiction film ever made. I still get creeped out when they explore the alien ship.
08. 1984 – Jonathan Hurt as Winston Smith in an extremely faithful rendition of Orwell’s novel. Brutal to watch. The film features Richard Burton’s final performance as O’Brien (and one of his best).
07. Metropolis – yes, many purists would put this 1927 German Expressionist film in the top spot (pride of place for being the first true sci-fi film, I guess) or at least in the top five. I can’t quite go that far, but I deeply respect Fritz Lang’s film. And though hokey by today’s standards, it still has resonance in a world crying out for social justice.
06. Stalker – Tarkovsky’s second science fiction film (the first being the 1972 Solaris). Although set at an iceberg’s pace and possessing a disappointingly pretentious ending, Stalker has an engaging plotline and the most beautiful cinematography I have ever seen.
05. Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess’ tale of wild youth, brought to the big screen by Stanley Kubrick. Ugly, brilliant and still powerful, Malcolm MacDowell as Alex is one nasty little droog. Chorosho, my malenka chelloviks.
04. Forbidden Planet – the height of 1950’s special effects meets Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Leslie Nielsen plays the leading man. American as the tailfins on a ’59 Chevy Impala, it is nevertheless clever and exciting. A classic in every sense of the word.
03. The Empire Strikes Back – the second Star Wars instalment and the best. Dark and light, funny and somber—all in the right ways, all in the right places.
02. Bladerunner – the 1984 imaginings of Los Angeles in 2019 may be slightly dated, but the film noir look and mood of the film continues to impress. Philip K. Dick’s novel following the life of a professional executioner of artificial humans is wonderfully retold in Ridley Scott’s greatest film.
01. 2001: A Space Odyssey – still the best. A bit slow for modern tastes, perhaps, but the film is a wonderful metaphor for all we don’t understand in this life and in the universe. If you don’t feel small and humbled after watching the film, you’ve probably fallen asleep.
5 Honorable Mentions (alphabetical):
-Colossus: the Forbin Project – before there was Skynet, there was Colossus. Shout out to my childhood haunt, the Lawrence Hall of Science.
- Event Horizon – creepiest horror/hard sci-fi film ever made. Lawrence Fishburn outshines everyone in this film about recovering a lost spaceship, even Sam Neal as the tormented scientist who’s the cause of the spaceship’s (and his own) doom. Warning: don’t watch alone.
-Idiocracy – a humorous, politically incorrect extrapolation about what we all fear: that the stupid really will inherit the earth.
-Ikarie XB-1 (Voyage to the End of the Universe) – a little seen 1963 Czech film based on a Stanislaus Lem novel: what happens when a spaceship heads to Alpha Centauri and has some unexpected encounters. Get the version with subtitles; the dubbed American version changed the ending (much for the worse) and cut the film.
-Videodrome – possibly Dave Cronenberg’s weirdest and most disturbing film. I am not 100% sure if it’s sci-fi or surrealism, but the confluence of sado-masochistic porn and conservative political agendas is amazing. This film also cured me of my crush on Debbie Harry.
Dr. Geoff Nathan is a professor of Roman History, specializing in the history of the family. When he's not being an academic or putting together fun lists, he likes to eat out and travel with his wife and think about writing his own science fiction novels.