With revelations for even the most avid fans, here are the one hundred greatest sci-fi films of all time, from today’s blockbusters such as Guardians of the Galaxy and Gravity to forgotten classics and overlooked gems.
Whether you judge by box office receipts, industry awards, or critical accolades, science fiction films are the most popular movies now being produced and distributed around the world. Nor is this phenomenon new. Sci-fi filmmakers and audiences have been exploring fantastic planets, forbidden zones, and lost continents ever since George Méliès’ 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. In this highly entertaining and knowledgeable book, film historian and pop culture expert Douglas Brode picks the one hundred greatest sci-fi films of all time.
Brode’s list ranges from today’s blockbusters to forgotten gems, with surprises for even the most informed fans and scholars. He presents the movies in chronological order, which effectively makes this book a concise history of the sci-fi film genre. A striking (and in many cases rare) photograph accompanies each entry, for which Brode provides a numerical rating, key credits and cast members, brief plot summary, background on the film’s creation, elements of the moviemaking process, analysis of the major theme(s), and trivia. He also includes fun outtakes, including his top ten lists of Fifties sci-fi movies, cult sci-fi, least necessary movie remakes, and “so bad they’re great” classics—as well as the ten worst sci-fi movies (“those highly ambitious films that promised much and delivered nil”). So climb aboard spaceship Brode and journey to strange new worlds from Metropolis (1927) to Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).
- The List: The 100 Greatest Sci-Fi Films
- A Trip to the Moon/Le voyage dans la lune (1902)
- Metropolis (1927)
- Woman in the Moon/Frau im Mond (1929)
- Just Imagine (1930)
- Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932)
- Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and The Black Cat (1934)
- The Invisible Man (1933)
- Things to Come (1936)
- Flash Gordon (1936), Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938), and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)
- Dr. Cyclops (1940)
- Destination Moon (1950) and Conquest of Space (1955)
- The Thing from Another World (1951)
- The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
- Invaders from Mars (1953)
- The War of the Worlds (1953)
- The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and Them! (1954)
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and Mysterious Island (1961)
- Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
- This Island Earth (1955)
- 1984 (1956)
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
- Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)
- Forbidden Planet (1956)
- Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)
- The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
- The Blob (1958)
- The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), On the Beach (1959), and The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)
- The Time Machine (1960)
- Village of the Damned (1960) and The Day of the Triffids (1963)
- The Absent-Minded Professor (1961)
- The Birds (1963)
- The Last Man on Earth (1964)
- Alphaville/Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)
- The Satan Bug (1965)
- Seconds (1966)
- Fantastic Voyage (1966)
- Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
- Five Million Years to Earth/Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
- Barbarella (1968)
- Planet of the Apes (1968)
- Night of the Living Dead (1968)
- Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
- THX 1138 (1971)
- Solaris/Solyaris (1972)
- Fantastic Planet/La planète sauvage (1973)
- Westworld (1973) and Futureworld (1976)
- Sleeper (1973)
- Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
- Time After Time (1979)
- Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986)
- Escape from New York (1981)
- Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
- Heavy Metal (1981)
- The Thing (1982)
- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
- Blade Runner (1982)
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind/Kaze no tani no Naushika (1984)
- The Terminator (1984)
- Back to the Future (1985)
- Cocoon (1985)
- The Fly (1986)
- Predator (1987)
- RoboCop (1987)
- The Abyss (1989)
- Total Recall (1990)
- Jurassic Park (1993)
- Stargate (1994)
- Strange Days (1995)
- Twelve Monkeys (1995)
- Open Your Eyes/Abre los ojos (1997)
- The Fifth Element (1997)
- Men in Black (1997)
- The Truman Show (1998)
- The Matrix (1999)
- Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
- Space Cowboys (2000)
- A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Minority Report (2002)
- Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
- V for Vendetta (2005)
- Children of Men (2006)
- Transformers (2007)
- WALL-E (2008)
- Avatar (2009)
- Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek into Darkness (2013)
- District 9 (2009)
- Inception (2010)
- TRON: Legacy (2010)
- Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
- Cloud Atlas (2012)
- The Avengers (2012)
- Man of Steel (2013)
- Gravity (2013)
- The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
- Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
- General Index
- Film Index
Any attempt to pick the top 100 films in a specific genre must begin with a working definition of that unique storytelling venue—or, at least, an expla- nation of how the term will be employed within the volume at hand. This is never as easy a process as it may initially seem. For instance, if we are hoping to choose the Ur-Western, we might well focus on The Last of the Mohicans. Yet the geography of James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel and its many movie adaptations happens to be the East Coast. Similarly, is The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) the greatest gangster movie ever made, as many insist? Or, as others would argue, is it more appropriately considered a non-generic film about the inner workings of an American immigrant family that happens to be connected to The Family?
The genre covered here, sci-fi (or, as purists prefer to call it, “science fiction”) may well be the most difficult of all to summarize briefly. As Stephen King noted in his seminal book, Danse Macabre (1981), sci-fi and horror often spill over into one another, confusing the boundaries while confounding any neat definition of either. Individual works can be thought of as belonging to one of those genres or the other, depending on the angle of perception from which the piece is received. The original literary antecedent of both those types of story is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818). Yet, that book can also considered a pre-Victorian romance, if with darker, more metaphysical aspects than other examples of this form. Diverse movie adaptations of Shel- ley’s work have offered all three approaches—most often, one per film in order to bring the book’s epic length down to manageable screen time.
Ultimately, genre “rules,” like all rules, beg to be broken. Often, the best works of any form are the ones that go against the grain. High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952), perhaps the greatest Western ever made, takes place almost entirely within confined buildings. Yet any John Ford fan knows the essence of the genre had, at least until this key juncture, been a celluloid celebration of wide-open spaces in general, Monument Valley in particular. So it goes with science fiction, space fantasy, and imaginative drama—closely inter-related terms that mean pretty much, if not precisely, the same thing
What seems obvious, then, becomes the first great challenge. Necessarily, I’ve adopted a few rules of thumb, allowing for the necessary paring-down process.
“Writing the history of the future” was the earliest attempt by aficionados of a new form to put into words the essence of science fiction, created over several transitional decades between the middle of the nineteenth century and the fin de siècle by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, to name the two best-known authors. Modernist writers offered in fictional form the only valid response, at once logical and creative, to the then-evolving field of science. Previously, any such attempts to understand the human situation here on Earth or in the cosmos above, and a possible connection between the two—other than a faith-based acceptance of everything in the Judeo-Christian Bible—had been dismissed as “the devil’s work,” alchemy, paganism, or Wicca (aka, witchcraft). Almost over- night, everything changed, first in the worlds of technology and medicine, then in the popular culture that always reflects the society from which it derives.
In an early example of what Alvin Toffler a century later would refer to as “future shock,” a commonplace vision of how the micro- and macrocosms worked altered so swiftly that humankind’s place in the universe, or at least our shared perception of it, was turned upside down. Most people could not keep up with the rapidly changing sense of who we were and, more important, why we existed. Nietzsche’s 1882 dictum that “God is dead!” couldn’t have been uttered had science not called into question the legitimacy of older forms of knowledge. Nor could Einstein’s theory of relativity have appeared without intellectuals wondering if indeed anything could be considered absolute. The very meaning of life in a civilization that might entirely abandon religion, while entering a brave new world of wonder and/or terror, would swiftly become an (perhaps the) issue. Fascinatingly, that would not be the case: more often than not, the genre offered a retro vision, insisting on the need to hang on to faith despite any supposed scientific evidence to the contrary.
Simply put, for a film to be about science does not necessarily imply that it will come out in favor of science. At any rate, just such a debate would come to circumscribe the twentieth century. As a result, that early way of defin- ing (“describing” may be a more accurate term) the “new fiction,” if valuable, quickly proved to be less than comprehensive. It served well enough for From the Earth to the Moon (De la terre à la lune) (1865), Jules Verne’s documentary- like projection of an eventual space flight as it might likely occur, so far as the scientific data of his time suggested. However, H. G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (1901)—which included (and, to a degree, introduced) such entirely fanci- ful tropes as Selene, mistress of the moon, and her army of half-man, half-bug insectoids—had to be posited as another genre entirely or the opposite pole of a single genre that now required redefining.
The latter would prove to be the case. Verne had set a precedent for what would come to be called “hard” (that is, realistic) sci-fi. Wells created a template for “romantic” (that is, fanciful, drawing on several thousand years of legend and myth) sci-fi. Not only could they coexist within the same essential narra- tive form, the two could also, perhaps to everyone’s surprise, successfully be mixed and matched, as early cinema proved. Though officially a film version of Verne’s novel, the Georges Méliès film A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune) (1902) follows that book’s documentary approach to a cannon-fired rocket for the first half of its running time. Once the stellar voyagers touch down on the lunar surface, however, the tone changes. Shortly, these cosmic travelers encounter creatures borrowed from Wells’s wildest imaginings.
The greatest examples of each form, hard and romantic, as well as the most notable combinations of the two, will all be lauded here. What then will not be included? Foremost are those examples of fantasy fiction that cannot (or, at least, according to my view, ought not) be thought of as belonging to this genre. These include epic fantasies, ranging from King Kong (1933) and The Wizard of Oz (1939) to 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001–2003). The issue here is not quality. Those films are as excellent as anything contained in this study. Again, the decision to not include them is entirely based on a working definition of the genre. This does (indeed, must) impose limitations. But precisely what then are the boundaries? And how are they configured in this volume?
Perhaps no one has so succinctly captured the heart, soul, and mind of the sci-fi genre as author Gregg Rickman. In a phrase that, by the beauty of its sheer simplicity, makes perfect, fundamental sense, Rickman defined sci-fi as “fiction about science.” King Kong may well rate as the greatest romantic adventure-cum-monster movie ever made. But as there is no hint of scientific explanation as to how and why that great ape exists on Skull Island, or how and why the dinosaurs there did not die as others of their breed did, Kong does not fit, no matter how much we might want it to. At the same time, Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), which follows the plot of Kong almost identically, can be considered not only a monster movie or a horror film but also as sci-fi. The group that, in this tale, journeys into a modern heart of darkness worthy of Joseph Conrad consists not of Hollywood moviemakers (as in Kong) but scientists. When they encounter and, in time, defeat the beast, discussions are about how and why this water-logged missing link sidestepped the evolution- ary process and, more significantly, what might be learned from its existence once the scientists return to their laboratory.
Here, then, is this book’s narrative thread. It served as the basis for selecting or rejecting individual films (no matter how excellent) for inclusion as examples of sci-fi’s numerous subgenres. To quickly consider only one such subgenre, the unique realm we now call “dystopian fiction,” The Trial (1962), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Brazil (1985) rate among the greatest examples of the form. Yet, they do not include any specific reference to science—that is, the mechani- cal apparatus that is the practical byproduct of intellectual science. In con- trast, those dystopian pieces included here—Metropolis (1927), The Time Machine (1960), and Blade Runner (1982), to name but a few—directly address science by including, if not always explaining, some aspect of experimentation and the resulting technology. In each, some aspect of science is foregrounded rather than merely serving as an unmentioned backdrop to a dark futuristic tale.
To simplify without, hopefully, oversimplifying: if Aladdin hops on a magic carpet and travels to the moon, we are watching fantasy. But should Flash Gordon climb aboard a rocket and journey to Mars, that’s science fiction. The equation that underlines this volume: fantasy + technology = sci-fi.
For some of the films included here, like Dr. Cyclops (1940) and Destination Moon (1950), science is the primary theme or motif of a movie’s identity. The leading characters are, indeed, scientists. For others, such as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), The Birds (1963), and Night of the Living Dead (1968), science is, at best, peripheral. Always, though, this element is included, albeit briefly, in the movie’s creative mix, which can also feature other elements as diverse as kitchen-sink realism and its opposite, epic-level fantasy.
Within this range, the included films can veer from the gleeful erotic fanta- sies of Barbarella (1968) to the hard and cold facts of Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970). Also, choice examples of the genre often offer oppositional points of view, be they political or philosophical. As the text will illustrate, Wells cre- ated Things to Come (1936) less from the inspiration of an original idea than as a reaction to (and against) everything he despised about Metropolis. In the same vein, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Thing from Another World (1951) are best viewed in tandem as liberal-progressive statements as compared to conservative-traditional attitudes from the early fifties, as dramatized by the era’s fascination with UFOs.
Only feature films are included, ruling out such wondrous “shorts” as the animated Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1953) and the trend-setting La jetée (1962). Even that basic rule proves tricky: A Trip to the Moon, though only about ten minutes in length, was one of the longest films ever constructed at the time of its release. Therefore, it is included as a feature, that term having altered several times with the history of cinema. My emphasis remains on Hollywood products, yet international items are also included, particularly those that caught the worldwide attention of genre critics and diehard fans. Considerations as to budget were not primary: a great B sci-fi film—and there are many here—deserves to be considered a classic more than expensive flops, as anyone who has managed to sit through Christopher Nolan’s disappointing effort Interstellar (2014) can attest.
For the purpose of creating a continuum, and at least some sense of historic context, the films are presented here in the order in which they appeared, each accompanied by its numerical rating. As to those evaluations, which, of course, are largely subjective, the following considerations were taken into account: the excellence of the work, though this had to be scrupulously analyzed in terms of the state of the art of special effects or, as they will be abbreviated from this point on, F/X, when the film was created; the complexity of the film in terms of a balance of visceral action and cerebral insight; the influence of the film in the genre’s ongoing and ever-evolving tradition; and the degree to which the film has withstood the test of time. This final criterion was most difficult to assess, obviously, in terms of the most recent releases.
As to what I might personally bring to the package, in addition to the selec- tion process itself, one desire was to reveal the interlocking aspect of genre examples in terms of any single film’s ability to reference another of the same genre and the manner in which films reference one another. The now-old idea of New Criticism, in which each work is to be evaluated strictly for its own merits, initially sounds like an appealing, common sense approach. Then one remembers the “culture” and that the objets d’art and works of entertainment that compose it are not presented or experienced in isolation, but as part of an ongoing stream of everyday consciousness. Perhaps we ought not compare the Star Wars prequel trilogy to George Lucas’s first three films in the series, or the recent Star Trek reboot to the first set of theatrical films (or to the TV show). But we do. And we will continue to do so.
One final note: only when this book was completed did I realize how often I cite Rod Serling and his TV series, The Twilight Zone (1959–1964) when referring to movies that, at first glance, have no direct connection to either the man or his show. (Note: the 1983 Steven Spielberg-produced Twilight Zone: The Movie is far too uneven in quality to be considered for inclusion here.) Perhaps my previous involvement with the 2009 book Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone (co-author, Carol Kramer Serling) steered me in that direction, though I believe I would have come to the same conclusion had that not been the case. Zone is arguably the greatest sci-fi TV show, though Serling always preferred to think of it as imaginative fantasy. Even more amazing than the quality of the series, however, is the manner in which Serling and Zone shaped not only the gen- eration of sci-fi filmmakers who would come of age in the 1970s (for example, Lucas and Spielberg) but also each generation since. Even now, Hollywood honchos toss about ideas for yet another Zone revival, or perhaps a biopic about Rod Serling. If the references to him here appear plentiful, please keep in mind that we cannot fully appreciate contemporary examples of the form unless we carefully consider their point of inception.
“Brode's done an admirable job in this well-written and engaging book. For neofans, it's an excellent starting place. For older fans, it's interesting to see old favourites in context against newer movies. Fantastic Planets is a welcome addition to any SF or film buff's bookshelf.”
“It contains a ton of information that sci-fi fans will love having collected into one volume . . . The central benefit of Brode’s book [is] discovering new films that one is already highly likely to enjoy. Not only does it collect all that film ephemera into one place for easy reference, it also serves as a springboard for the kinds of conversations that energize film fans.
“An excellent work whose innovative format, often-unexpected choices of films, and accessible writing style make it ideally suited to nonspecialist scholars, undergraduates, and general readers. The author’s choice of which films to discuss sets it apart from virtually every other history-of-sci-fi-film book likely to appear on even well-stocked personal (or library) shelves. I strongly recommend it.”
Cynthia J. Miller, Professor of Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, Emerson College, and coeditor of 1950s “Rocketman” TV Series and Their Fans: Cadets, Rangers, and Junior Space Men and Steaming into a Victorian Future: A Steampunk Anthology
“Reading the short entries is addictive, like sampling canapés at a buffet table. The chronological order allows the reader to enter anywhere, or even to read the book backwards, favoring recent, more familiar items over older more obscure ones.”
James MacKillop, author of Contemporary Irish Cinema: From The Quiet Man to Dancing at Lughnasa