E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
One of the classics of science fiction, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. is a wonderful film that also happens to contain one of the most iconic movie moments of all time (you know the one). As Roger Ebert wrote, “This is not simply a good movie. It is one of those movies that brush away our cautions and win our hearts.”
Guillermo del Toro’s deeply disturbing dark fantasy mixes a fairy tale world with a real one, to devastating effect. Truly marvelous.
For the deep thinkers and moody wonderers of the sci-fi set. As Flavorwire Film Editor Jason Bailey writes: “Duncan Jones (son of Bowie!) directs this stylish, hypnotic, and thrillingly literate story of a solitary astronaut’s slow discovery that there may be more to his mission than he thought. Sam Rockwell has never been better, while Kevin Spacey is perfection as a HAL-style robot voice.”
The Lord of the Rings trilogy
Epic, beautiful, and epically beautiful on all levels, Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation of what is probably the best-loved fantasy series of all time was a big risk and a home run. Too bad he couldn’t work the same magic with The Hobbit.
The Princess Bride
The charmingest of all – a fantasy/adventure/romantic comedy that manages to poke fun at fantasy/adventure/romantic comedies while still being a funny, heartwarming, shining example of the same. Meta swordfighting is the best swordfighting.
Jim Henson’s weird, outlandish daydream may have technically been intended as a children’s film, but it’s become such a cult classic among viewers of all ages that it felt wrong to exclude it. Plus, who can possibly resist David Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King? Not this reviewer.
Men in Black
Yep, it’s mega-goofy. It has Will Smith. But that’s its charm, and if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out.
Tim Burton has described Edward Scissorhands as his most personal film, and it shows. Bizarre and tender, it’s a movie unlike any other, wherein a young girl in a slightly surrealistic town falls in love with an unfinished, artificial man. Still Johnny Depp’s greatest role.
Not only is George Miller’s dystopic blood-pumper one of Hollywood’s most surprising and heartening success stories, it also happens to be a grimly stylish cult classic that launched Mel Gibson’s career (not to mention Miller’s).
Miyazaki’s 1997 masterpiece is an epic period drama, an ever-relevant story of the struggle between man and nature, a love story, a tale of gods and spirits, and something a bit more than all of that. Gorgeous, haunting, and worlds-deep, it’s a film for the ages.
Well, we just couldn’t choose. This one feels like childhood, a surreal dreamscape of spirits and talismans, and is widely recognized as one of the greatest animated films of all time.
Jason Bailey calls this one “a rare science-fiction film with as much interest in the ‘science’ half of the equation.”
Shane Carruth’s experimental low-budget film – the story of a couple of young engineers who invent a time machine – is a cult classic, particularly among film majors and others of the cinematically geeky persuasion. Chock full of jargon and philosophy as it may be, it should still be required viewing for anyone looking for a jolt – after all, as one critic put it, “If it’s a quick, potent, mind-bending shot of Whoa you seek — and I’m talking about pure Whoa here, the good stuff, undiluted by extraneous gadgets or CGI cityscapes — I give you Primer.”
Ridley Scott’s 1982 neo-noir adaptation (a loose one, but still) of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has stood the test of time, and then some. Visually stupendous and complete with a complex human story that will have you mulling over your morality for years, this one is an absolute classic – whatever version you watch.
Not just for stoners, swear. René Laloux and Roland Topor’s 1973 cutout animation film, in which human beings, known as Oms, are alternately domesticated pets and unwanted vermin on the planet of the Traags, is gorgeous and bizarre and surreal, and may give you nightmares about long blue fingers descending upon you. Oh, the French.
The Wizard of Oz
Again, this may technically be a children’s film, but it has gained such incredible purchase in our culture that in some ways it is the American fantasy film, constantly referenced, deeply ingrained in our collective unconsciousness, and not to mention one of the best movies of all time. Unless that’s just the ingraining talking.
The Secret of Roan Inish
This lovely, moody movie weaves the myths and magic of Irish legend into the quiet struggles of a young girl. Also: selkies are the new vampires. You heard it here first.
Jason Bailey writes: “Sci-fi meets neo-noir in this 1998 treat from director Alex Proyas, which combines creepy set pieces, evocative imagery, and an imaginative plot that posits a kind of alien-induced Matrix a good year before that film hit theaters.”
And speaking of The Matrix, what list of must-see science-fiction movies could be without it?
This one sort of straddles the sci-fi/fiction divide, and is also a frankly wonderful film, which makes it a shoo-in for this list (consider Monty Python and the Holy Grail here in spirit too, since mangled Arthurian legend technically counts as fantasy). A young boy gets mixed up with some dwarves who have stolen the Supreme Being’s map of the universe and are using it to jump around space-time to snatch treasure. Time travel and dwarves? If you’re not sold, you may be a lost cause.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
You don’t usually think of Raiders as a fantasy film, do you? Well, it is, if sort of historical-adventure fantasy – how else do you explain what happens when you open the Ark of the Covenant? Inventive, rollicking, and widely loved, this is truly a film everyone should see.
This 1962 French science fiction film, almost wholly stitched together from stills, is influential enough to make the list even as a short. After all, it inspired 12 Monkeys (which you can consider rolled into this entry) and is considered by many to be the best time travel film of all time.
A whimsical, jaunty satire set in a bleak, totalitarian future, created by the singular Terry Gilliam.
Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece is a pioneer project: the first full-length science fiction movie ever made. Set in a futuristic dystopia, it manages to be incredibly powerful, despite the fact that it is, of course, a silent film.
All right, so this film suffers a bit from sentimentality. But then again, it’s just so sweet and delightful, a whole, shimmering world for your inner child to plunge into. Plus, Loudon Wainwright is in it, which gives it extra points.
Forget the Soderberg version. Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptaion of Stanislaw Lem’s classic science fiction novel is a masterpiece, meditative, psychologically complex, and cinematographically perfect.
It’s not that it’s such a brilliant film, though it’s quite entertaining, and anyone who says otherwise is a major snob, but rather that it’s a cultural landmark and a triumph of spectacle. Also, dinosaurs.
Alien and Aliens
True, in some ways these two films couldn’t be more different – Ridley Scott’s first is moody sci-fi/horror with an amoral center, James Cameron’s second an action flick, but they both deserve a mention here. Hell, why not throw in the whole franchise? As far as contributions to cinematic sci-fi go, it doesn’t get much bigger.
Jean Cocteau’s luminous 1950 film is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus set in modern-day Paris, the characters stepping back and forth between the world and the underworld through mirrors, a poet meeting death in the form of a princess, or vice versa.
Jason Bailey writes: “Co-writers John Carpenter (pre-Halloween) and Dan O’Bannon (pre-Alien) collaborated on this dark, deadpan, wonderfully peculiar sci-fi comedy from 1974, in which the crew of a manned space station lose their minds in deep space.”
2001: A Space Odyssey
A classic among classics, Kubrick’s 1968 film pops up at the top of just about everybody’s best-of sci-fi list, and for good reason. Hypnotic and breathtaking, it was not only a spectacular science fiction film, but one that opened the door for many others, both by creating a market for them and by inspiring directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. The latter said, in 1977, “Stanley Kubrick made the ultimate science fiction movie, and it is going to be very hard for someone to come along and make a better movie, as far as I’m concerned.” A sentiment that still rings true today.
You know the drill: many years in the making, ludicrously expensive, groundbreaking special effects, highest-grossing film of all time, anti-imperialist message, blue people running about. Now we’re just waiting for those promised sequels.
Back to the Future
Possibly the greatest sci-fi comedy of all time features Marty McFly traveling back through time in a DeLorean to meddle in his parents’ love story. But here’s the more pressing issue: 2015 is only two years away. Where are those hoverboards?
Star Wars Episodes IV-VI
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Ray Bradbury called this the greatest science fiction film ever made. That should be good enough for everybody.
A Clockwork Orange
Kubrick’s 1971 film is a classic of dystopian cinema, Burgess’ disturbing commentary on society and youth brought to its most graphically violent, visually and psychically arresting peak.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
This crazed satire of nuclear politics and Cold War attitudes is not only a cultural icon in its own right but features Peter Sellers (himself a cultural icon) at his best, in three distinct roles. This is gallows humor at its smartest, a film that, despite its specific reaction to its own time, only seems more and more relevant as the years tick on.
Jason Bailey writes: “Writer/director Darren Aronofsky’s long-awaited follow-up to Requiem for a Dream was messy, odd, and borderline impenetrable. It was also bold, brave, and brilliant, an intensely personal take on the multi-tiered science fiction epic, filled with astonishing images and staggering emotion.”
One of Woody Allen’s best is both a great science fiction film and a parody of the same, in which a cryogenically frozen health-food store owner wakes up in 2173 in the midst of a rebellion.
City of Lost Children
In Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s arresting 1995 film, a crazed scientist sets up shop on an ocean rig, stealing the dreams of children. Also notable here: Jeunet’s Delicatessen, set in a single apartment building in a post-apocalyptic France where food is, shall we say, difficult to come by.
The Harry Potter series
Sure, these movies vary in quality, with the final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, topping the pile, but as a whole, they’re fun and fantastical and completely worth it, whether you’ve read the books or not. After all, many of the films on this list are iconic, but Harry is a cultural phenomenon the like of which we’ve never seen before, and thus, rather worth getting to know.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
In this 1951 sci-fi classic, an alien dignitary comes to Earth to warn its citizens that their increasingly violent tendencies will not be tolerated by the universe at large. It also features one of the most famous (and talked about) phrases in the interplanetary lexicon: “Klaatu barada nikto.” What does it mean? There was an entire documentary on the subject, but we still don’t know for sure.
Dark and dense, the mystery of Donnie Darko holds up even after repeated viewings. The film is a weird combination – the best parts of an angsty teen drama, but bursting with an enigmatic science-fiction story and what may or may not be the supernatural.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Another classic from the ‘50s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers features a simple plot that’s been repeated time and time again: aliens come, replicate, and replace us. Yes, this (or rather, the novel it’s based on) is where the term “pod people” comes from. Also of note: the 1978 remake, which was, surprisingly, nearly as good.
This film is hard to categorize – ghosts probably count as horror, but Stay Puft Marshmellow Men? That gets us a fantasy ranking, right? If not, we’re counting the ghostbusting tech as sci-fi and calling it a day. Either way, this beloved film is a must-watch.
Being John Malkovich
In Spike Jonze’s surreal, twisted fantasy, a failed puppeteer finds a portal in his office that leads into the mind of John Malkovich. This is probably the least bizarre part of the film.
Another cult animated film with legendary visuals that is frequently listed as one of the greatest anime movies of all time, Akira is a cyberpunk masterpiece of psychics and biker gangs.
The Terminator and Terminator 2
Another cultural touchstone of a franchise, violent and crazy and turbo-charged. Don’t you want to say you’ll be back with authority? We thought so.
Jason Bailey writes: “Before Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow crafted this sharp, jittery, tricky vision of a future in which virtual reality and omnipresent surveillance have rendered privacy all but moot. Oh, science fiction!”
Did you think you were going to make it off this list without a Joss Whedon production? No, you know better than that.