I’ve done pieces on the essential documentaries and foreign language films you should see. This week I present to you another installment in my essentials by genre series. This week I give you my essential science fiction films. I was raised on Star Trek and Twilight Zone reruns thanks to my unabashedly geeky mother, so this is one of my favorite genres. After careful consideration, here are the essential science fiction films for anyone who wants to be film literate. The list is in no particular order, lest anyone think I’m ranking them.
1. Metropolis (1927)
No serious discussion of science fiction films, or films period, is complete without Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Released in 1927, it is simply one of the most important films ever made. Looking at the massive sets and thought-provoking story, it’s hard to imagine it was made back in the 1920’s. The story is about a society divided by class. The upper class lives in the skyscrapers and the workers live below in horrible conditions. The son of the city’s founder meets one of the women workers who is optimistic that someday a mediator will come along and bring the classes together. This doesn’t sit too well with the city’s founder, who kidnaps her and makes a robot version of her to use against the workers to stop them from rising up. Films like Blade Runner, Dark City, and The Matrix owe a debt to Metropolis, especially in the production design department. Metropolis is a great science fiction film and also a great way to introduce yourself to silent films.
2. Star Wars (1977)
Star Wars. Do I really need to say much more than that? Before George Lucas got carried away with going digital at the expense of characters and dialogue in the prequels (a rant for another day), there was the original film which was a watershed moment in cinema history. By now you know the story is about Luke Skywalker, who teams up with a Jedi named Obi-Wan Kenobi, a smuggler named Han Solo, a rebel by the name of Princess Leia, and a couple of droids to defeat the evil Empire led by Darth Vader. Star Wars gave us Industrial Light & Magic, a special effects studio created for the film when Lucas knew the effects he wanted for his movie would require new technology. Star Wars took us to a galaxy far, far away with some unforgettable characters and amazing action sequences. The opening shot of the Imperial Star Destroyer is a curtain raiser for what is one of the most timeless epics in the history of movies. If you get a chance do see it on a big screen. When the original trilogy was re-released in theaters for its 20th anniversary my mother took me to see it, insisting I be raised on the classics. It’s an experience I will never forget.
3. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Director Robert Wise may have won awards for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, but he also was responsible for two significant science fiction films. He directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Day the Earth Stood Still. The Day the Earth Stood Still to this day is one of the most thoughtful films in the genre. The plot? A UFO lands on Earth after the end of World War II. The aliens tell Earth that they must stop being destructive or it will be destroyed because it is a threat to the galaxy. That concept was radical back in 1951. Today it’s not as controversial and the film holds up over 50 years later.
4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Science fiction is a great vehicle for social/political commentary. One of the best examples is the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A race of aliens plans to takeover Earth by turning its inhabitants into emotionless pod people. As soon as you fall asleep they can absorb your thoughts and memories. You’ll look like you, and sound like you, but you won’t be you. The story was a metaphor for the fear of communism at the time of its release. What makes this film hold up over time is the timeless fear of losing your identity and being forced into conformity. The premise is truly terrifying! An effective remake was made in 1978 starring Donald Sutherland, but the original is still the best.
5. Alien (1979)
Alien is part science fiction and part horror. On both levels the film is a masterpiece. The movie made a star out of Sigourney Weaver, who would later appear in the sequels (Aliens being the best of the bunch) and appear in many other great films. The movie follows the crew of the space vessel Nostromo as they respond to a distress call from an alien planet. They go down to look for survivors and find none. One of the crew is attacked by a facehugger alien. When the person is brought back on the ship terror ensues. Alien gives us a very grungy version of the future so space looks lived in, the opposite of pristine visions of the future seen in previous films. And the alien when you do see it is pretty scary. In the end the plot is about who can survive being trapped on the ship with the acid tongued alien. Alien also has one of the freakiest scenes in any movie: the famous chest-bursting scene. To this day I have nightmares about it. With Alien, director Ridley Scott raised the bar for science fiction.
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
2001 has a plot that’s rather complex. I’ll let Internet Movie Database explain it.
“2001” is a story of evolution. Sometime in the distant past, someone or something nudged evolution by placing a monolith on Earth (presumably elsewhere throughout the universe as well). Evolution then enabled humankind to reach the moon’s surface, where yet another monolith is found, one that signals the monolith placers that humankind has evolved that far. Now a race begins between computers (HAL) and humans to reach the monolith placers. The winner will achieve the next step in evolution, whatever that may be.
The story is a little convoluted, but the films is worth your patience. The visuals are stunning and the villanous computer HAL is one of the most chilling characters ever put on-screen. Add in Stanley Kubrick’s visionary direction and you have something that’s truly special. Fun fact: there was a score composed for 2001, but Kubrick thought using classical music would be more effective. He was right. It’s impossible to imagine the opening sequence without Thus Spoke Zarathustra playing in the background.
7. Forbidden Planet (1956)
Imagine mixing science fiction with Shakespeare’s The Tempest and you get the genre classic Forbidden Planet. A spaceship and its crew are sent to investigate the sudden silence coming from a planet inhabited by scientists. Upon arrival the crew discovers all but two people are dead. The culprit is a monster that roams the planet. Forbidden Planet has a robot that would go on to be the inspiration for Robbie the Robot on the TV show Lost in Space. The cast features Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, and Anne Francis. Not a bad cast for an early science fiction film.
8. Galaxy Quest (1999)
I had to include one comedy on the list. Galaxy Quest starts off as a parody of Star Trek and its fan base. It has fun with that without being cruel or condescending. Then the real story kicks in and it’s a great ride from there. The cast of a cult TV show is brought to outer space to help an alien race under attack. The aliens have seen tapes of their show thinking the actors really are space heroes. The cast of the show are forced to play their television roles in real life. Among the talented cast: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, and Tony Shalhoub. Sit back and enjoy this parody of science fiction fandoms and love letter to the genre. If you need an extra reason to see it, consider that it was endorsed by Star Trek alum George Takei.
9. Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner is another case where I need help from Internet Movie Database explaining the plot.
In a cyberpunk vision of the future, man has developed the technology to create replicants, human clones used to serve in the colonies outside Earth but with fixed lifespans. In Los Angeles, 2019, Deckard is a Blade Runner, a cop who specializes in terminating replicants. Originally in retirement, he is forced to re-enter the force when four replicants escape from an off-world colony to Earth.
Deckard is played by Harrison Ford in one of his best performances. Blade Runner marks the second appearance of director Ridley Scott on this list. The man has a knack for science fiction. The dystopian future is visually stunning and has to be seen to be believed. Blade Runner was based on the story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. The author’s work also inspired Minority Report, Total Recall, and The Adjustment Bureau among others. Blade Runner delves further into the question of man versus machine. There are five different versions of the film in existence due to friction between Scott and the studio releasing the film If you want further insight into the tortured production of this classic, check out the documentary Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner. It’s really one of the best educations in film making you will ever get.
10. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
How do you follow the success of Jaws? If you’re Steven Spielberg you make Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In the film, a line worker played by Richard Dreyfuss goes to investigate a power outage. Along the way his truck stalls and he is bathed in some kind of mysterious light. He then starts having visions and five musical notes repeat in his head. He sets out to find what it all means. Of course it involves aliens and humans making contact with them. Close Encounters is effective as science fiction, mystery, and drama. Spielberg would go on to give us another science fiction class: E.T.. This movie gave us a great taste of things to come from one of our most talented directors.
Those are my science fiction essentials. What say you? Discuss in the comment section!