SCIFI Movies of the year

Most Popular Movies

A Trip to the Moon / Le voyage dans la lune
1902
Georges Melies
From 1902, cinema's first science fiction film, from French director Georges Melies, inspired by the writings of Jules Verne. A team of wizardy-looking astronomers rocket to the moon where they encounter a troupe of acrobatic exploding aliens. The fantastical sets and costumes are a delight and the special effects groundbreaking for their time.

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Metropolis
1927
Fritz Lang
‘I have recently seen the silliest film,’ wrote HG Wells in the New York Times in 1927. He wasn’t alone – critics hated Fritz Lang’s ambitious epic when it was first released. But over time it has become perhaps the most imitated sci-fi film ever. In a densely packed and towering city of the future, Freder, the son of a wealthy industrialist, falls in love with a girl from the hellish underground slum where workers toil to fuel the lives of those above. It’s impossible to overstate the influence of ‘Metropolis’: the evil-twin robot of Freder’s lover Maria inspired C-3PO and the Replicants in ‘Blade Runner’, while Lang’s vision of a city of skyscrapers and elevated highways set the blueprint for futuristic cityscapes. Wells mocked the film’s underclass of workers, naively believing that technology would eliminate ‘the hopeless drudge stage’ of civilisation. But nearly 90 years on, the film’s depiction of slave labour has never seemed more relevant.

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Frankenstein
1931
James Whale
With the heavy brow-line, cranial flat-top and bolts to the neck, the creature featured in Universal’s landmark retelling of the Mary Shelley tale is one of the true icons of fantasy cinema. It’s the deep pools of emotion in Boris Karloff’s eyes which make this a classic however, providing an extra element of humanity to the celluloid archetype of the brilliant but morally unhinged scientist who goes way too far. Colin Clive brings fierce conviction to the role of re-animator Baron Frankenstein and the lab design remains a wonder. But it’s the combination of superhuman force and childlike vulnerability Karloff finds in the monster role which makes this a potent viewing experience even now. Kudos to English theatre director James Whale for highlighting this startling contradiction in a film with an incalculable influence on subsequent genre cinema.

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The Bride of Frankenstein
1935
James Whale
Mary Shelley reveals the main characters of her novel survived: Dr. Frankenstein, goaded by an even madder scientist, builds his monster a mate.

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Things to Come
1936
William Cameron Menzies
For good or for ill, producer Alexander Korda allowed HG Wells to have creative control over this future-gazing epic and adaptation of his own novel – marking a rare occasion when a literary sci-fi giant has guided their own work on celluloid. To start, he uncannily predicts the ravages of enemy air raids in 1940, then maps out decades of subsequent carnage and disease before a new breed of utopian technocrats put mankind back on track – at the expense of wiping out all resistance. The remarkable effects work and the production design charts a twenty-first century shaped by an art-deco aesthetic, though it’s also clear that Wells was more interested in speechifying than engaging the audience’s emotions. His absolute certainty that science will provide a better tomorrow delivers an antiseptically dull fate for us. And counter to his intentions, it’s the scrappy, combative rebels who appear the most engagingly, if fallibly, human.

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It's a Wonderful Life
1946
Frank Capra
An angel helps a compassionate but despairingly frustrated businessman by showing what life would have been like if he never existed.

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Unknown Island
1948
Jack Bernhard
An adventure seeker and his fiancée visit an uncharted island, only to find that it is inhabited by deadly dinosaurs and other creatures ready to attack.

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Destination Moon
1950
Irving Pichel
The 50s era equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Destination Moon was the brave attempt of producer George Pal to bring a convincing account of a maiden voyage to the moon, 19 years before the actual lunar landing took place. There are many aspects of Destination Moon that are now peculiarly quaint - the V2-like rocket, the stilted dialogue, and flag-waving jingoism - but the movie is notable for its concentration on scientific fact rather than bug-eyed monsters, and its attempt to imagine what a lunar mission might look like is, in places, surprisingly accurate.

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The Thing from Another World
1951
Christian Nyby
Admittedly, this loose adaptation of sci-fi legend John W Campbell’s novella ‘Who Goes There’ hasn’t entirely escaped the ravages of time: the effects are clunky, the action a little tame and the creature, when it arrives, really does look like a big carrot with fangs. But let’s focus on the positives, of which there are many. The setup – Arctic scientists find something vast and otherworldly buried in the ice – is magical, and the script (doctored by an uncredited Howard Hawks, king of the masculine-archetypes-in-peril movie) fizzes with invention. Best of all, director Christian Nyby creates a genuinely irksome sense of impending dread, keeping the creature in shadow for much of the film. Our voters agree that John Carpenter’s 1982 remake, ‘The Thing’, which drew more heavily on Campbell’s story, is the superior film – but there’s plenty here to chill the blood and spark the imagination.

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The Day the Earth Stood Still
1951
Robert Wise
1950 clearly marked a new dawn in Hollywood sci-fi, with three keys films on the horizon: ‘Destination Moon’, ‘The Thing from Another World’ and this all-time classic. Robert Wise’s film defines the genre in so many ways, what with Bernard Herrmann’s theremin-heavy score, the extraterrestrial’s archetypal flying saucer, the iconic look of giant robot Gort and even the screen’s most famous snatch of alien dialogue. However it’s the central dilemma of how mankind responds to alien visitors which is key: shoot-first proves our default mode even though humanoid arrival Klaatu has a warning message for our nuclear age and the threat it poses to the rest of the galaxy. This being Hollywood, suave Michael Rennie was perfectly cast as the angular alien – after all, he came from the distant galaxy of Bradford.

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Red Planet Mars
1952
Harry Horner
The War of the Worlds
1953
Byron Haskin
Orson Welles had already terrified America with his radio adaptation, and producer George Pal first brought HG Wells’s 1898 novel to cinema screens in this still-bracing account of a full-scale Martian attack. Spielberg’s post-9/11 remake from 2005 certainly upped the destructive spectacle, but here there’s something insidiously chilling about the design of the invaders’ death-ray-spewing craft and the eerie electronic pulsing which accompanies their progress from fiery landing to global onslaught. The notion of a truly implacable, remorseless alien foe is a key element of every similar celluloid invasion story which has followed, and though the religious certainties on display here certainly date the film, the fears it reveals – annihilation of home and family, breakdown of social order – are extremely telling for being played out in news footage that’s obviously documentary material capturing the real-life carnage of World War Two.

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Invaders from Mars
1953
William Cameron Menzies
A young boy learns that space aliens are taking over the minds of earthlings. 

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It Came from Outer Space
1953
Jack Arnold
A spaceship from another world crashes in the Arizona desert, and only an amateur stargazer and a schoolteacher suspect alien influence when the local townsfolk begin to act strange. 

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Godzilla
1954
Ishiro Honda
60 years later, the archetypal giant monster is still wreaking destruction. But the first Godzilla movie is still a total classic, in which the trauma of nuclear weapons is literalized in the form of a destructive behemoth. A lot of the best science fiction is about grappling with our fears of technology and the unknown, but seldom has it been as visceral and thrilling as it is here. Skip the Raymond Burr-bastardized American release and go straight for the original Japanese version.

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Them!
1954
Gordon Douglas
The earliest atomic tests in New Mexico cause common ants to mutate into giant man-eating monsters that threaten civilization. 

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The Quartermass Xperiment
1955
Val Guest
In 1950s England, professor Quatermass' manned rocket ship returns to Earth, but two of the astronauts are missing and the survivor seems ill and unable to communicate. 

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers
1956
Don Siegel
Establishment scaremongering about the communist threat against American freedom of conscience seemingly underpins this drumhead-tight B-thriller about sinister extraterrestrial pods taking over small-town California in its sleep. The insidious loss of personality and emotion is briskly but chillingly conveyed in the original screen incarnation of a much-filmed Jack Finney story, as Kevin McCarthy’s suave local doctor fights encroaching submission to an alien power which could yet spell curtains for the US of A. Controversy continues to surround the studio-imposed framing device, which softens much of the impact from the rising levels of panic, but doesn’t entirely erase the film’s fascinating ambiguity. Indeed, it’s equally readable as both a ‘reds under the bed’ nightmare, and the polar opposite – a warning that swallowing the official ideological line without question was turning ordinary Americans into what director Don Siegel termed ‘pod people’.

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Forbidden Planet
1956
Fred M Wilcox
So much snarky fun is made of the high-minded parallels between this pastel-shaded, slightly campy sci-fi classic and the plot of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ that it’s easy to overlook the film’s many original ideas. No other sci-fi film up to this point had dealt with such powerful concepts: an entire race of alien telepaths brought low by their own vaulting ambition; a man so consumed by Freudian passion that he can’t bear to let his daughter out of his sight; a spaceship full of ordinary guys just bored to death of intergalactic travel. Add to this some still-impressive effects, a wonderful swooping electronic score and the dry, ironic presence of that mechanical icon Robbie the Robot, and the result is a film that stands up to modern scrutiny at every turn.

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The Incredible Shrinking Man
1957
Jack Arnold
When Scott Carey begins to shrink because of exposure to a combination of radiation and insecticide, medical science is powerless to help him. 

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The Fly
1958
Kurt Neumann
A scientist has a horrific accident when he tries to use his newly invented teleportation device. (94 mins.)

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The Blob
1958
Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.
An alien lifeform consumes everything in its path as it grows and grows. 

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On The Beach
1959
Stanley Kramer
After a global nuclear war, the residents of Australia must come to terms with the fact that all life will be destroyed in a matter of months. 

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The Time Machine
1960
George Pal
You can have millions of pixels at your disposal, but there’s something magically simple about time-lapse photography, which comes into its own when Rod Taylor’s Victorian scientist boards his self-designed contraption and heads straight for the future. Seasons pass and buildings rise and fall in producer-director George Pal’s perfect embrace of available-effects technology, while the curved brass and padded leather machine is a beauty. Thankfully, the story’s prediction of nuclear war in 1966 proved awry, but it’s not all good news in the year 802,701, where passive surface-dwelling Eloi exist as fodder for scary subterranean Morlocks. It’s a film with passionate things to say about making the most of mankind’s gifts, but for anyone who first saw this as a little kid, the Morlocks’ dark eyes illuminated by pinpricks of light may have haunted your dreams ever since.

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Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
1961
Irwin Allen
When the Earth is threatened by a burning Van Allen Radiation Belt, US Navy Admiral Harriman Nelson plans to shoot a nuclear missile at the Belt using his experimental atomic submarine, the Seaview. 

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The Day of the Triffids
1962
 Steve Sekely
After an unusual meteor shower leaves most of the human population blind, a merchant navy officer must find a way to conquer tall, aggressive plants which are feeding on people and animals. 

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La Jetée
1962
Chris Marker
Don't despair, struggling filmmakers: you can make your sci-fi classic without a James Cameron-sized budget (or any budget, really). Nor do you need a feature-length running time or, amazingly, a motion-picture camera. Inspired by Hitchcock's hypnotically romantic ‘Vertigo’, French New Waver Chris Marker created this 28-minute photo-roman composed (almost) solely of black-and-white stills, coupled with haunted narration. In it, Paris is reduced to radioactive rubble, but scientists living underground hope to send a dreamer back in time via his strong memories of an alluring woman. The guy sees her in his mind, they begin to flirt and fall in love, and who can blame him if he never wants to return? Marker lived long enough to see his fatalistic vision become a Bruce Willis movie, ‘12 Monkeys’, but the original can't be beat for sheer elegance. It’s a perfect thing.

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The Damned
1963
Joseph Losey
One of the strangest and – we’re guessing – least seen films on our list is this British New Wave oddity from blacklisted American filmmaker Joseph Losey, who later the same year would go on to pick apart the English class system in his scalpel-sharp satire ‘The Servant’. ‘The Damned’ isn’t quite so cutting in its observations (it doesn’t have the benefit of a Harold Pinter screenplay, after all), but it is perhaps the more unusual and intriguing film, blending every strand of popular post-war paranoia – nuclear, sexual, social – into a murky, unpredictable psychodramatic stew. In one of his earliest big-screen roles, an overbearing Oliver Reed is a grotesque parody of teen rebellion as King, the leather-clad mugger who stumbles upon a cave society of mutant children. A troubling film, and a deeply peculiar one.

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The Last Man on Earth
1964
Ubaldo Ragona
Alphaville
1965
Jean-Luc Godard
French New Wave mover and shaker Jean-Luc Godard seems an unlikely filmmaker to turn his hand to sci-fi, yet here he created one of his most accessible offerings by setting an affectionate piss-take of Gallic pulp cinema’s long running Lemmy Caution spy series in a ‘futuristic’ dystopia ruled by supercomputer Alpha 60. With typical Godardian insouciance it’s all filmed in contrasty black-and-white, in and around contemporary Paris, but its enduring appeal is the combination of don’t-care larkishness, amiable big lug Eddie Constantine doing his tough-guy thing, and a profound underlying seriousness drawing cogent connections between the brutality of fascism and technology’s inhuman reasoning. Moreover, in a city where the illogicality of emotion is punishable by death, there’s no one better than winsome Anna Karina to make us believe that falling in love is well worth the risk.

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Fantastic Voyage
1966
Richard Fleischer
The tension between its highly imaginative central conceit and the available special-effects technology struggling to put it on screen gives movies like Richard Fleischer’s intravenous thriller a special charm that no longer exists in the era of CGI. Rooted in Cold War paranoia, the story has a crack medical team miniaturised in a submarine to venture within the circulatory system of a comatose defecting scientist. The production team – including legendary design wizard Harper Goff – bring a brightly-coloured tangibility to the recreation of a world that lies inside us all. Less impressive is the only-too-obvious back-projection, but the smart idea of an admittedly arbitrary 60-minute limit before the crew start growing back to normal size generates cumulatively effective tension as debut gal Raquel Welch provides the glam and ever-reliable Donald Pleasence offers more than a hint of twitchy menace.

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Seconds
1966
John Frankenheimer
What major Hollywood star would have felt more at home with the idea of total self-transformation than Rock Hudson? The macho matinee idol who was secretly gay, the serious artist trapped, by the mid-’60s, in a roundelay of outdated, featherweight romcoms, Hudson must have been desperate for an escape route. As with so much great sci-fi, the concept of ‘Seconds’ is perfectly simple: an ageing, downtrodden salary man pays to be surgically transformed into a chiselled hunk, but life among the beautiful people isn’t quite as he’d dreamed it would be. Drawing equally on post-war film noir, countercultural me-generation wish fulfilment and pre-Watergate paranoia, ‘Seconds’ is one of the most radical, disturbing and downright terrifying thrillers ever released by a major Hollywood studio. It also benefits from arguably the greatest opening title sequence in film history: a warped kaleidoscope of malformed flesh – directed, of course, by the legendary Saul Bass.

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Fahrenheit 451
1966
François Truffaut
In an oppressive future, a fireman whose duty is to destroy all books begins to question his task. 

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Quartermass and the Pit
1967
Roy Ward Baker
Okay, so the sixpence-ha’penny special effects have a rickety, homespun charm. But Hammer’s 1967 horror cult classic (released in America as ‘Five Million Years to Earth’) still has a few scares up its sleeve. Based on the popular 1950s BBC TV series, this is the third and best of the ‘Quatermass’ films. It opens with engineering works at the fictional Hobbs End Underground station, where workers uncover the remains of early human ancestors. Excavation on the site reveals what the army believe is a massive, unexploded World War Two bomb. But not even the Nazis masterminded explosives containing insectoid alien dwarfs with horns… The perfect meeting of sci-fi and horror, the ‘Quatermass’ series influenced everything from ‘2001’ to ‘Alien’.

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Barbarella
1968
Roger Vadim
How differently would ‘Barbarella’ have turned out if Jane Fonda had had her feminist eureka moment before filming? (‘I was totally clueless about the nascent women’s movement,’ she wrote in her autobiography). Directed by her then-husband Roger Vadim from an X-rated comic strip, ‘Barbarella’ stars Fonda as the space-hopping sex kitten who just can’t say no. In 1968, critics slammed the film and it bombed at the box office. Now it’s a cult classic and a curio of groovy 1960s psychedelia. Yes, it’s bonkers and silly, but there are some brilliant details – like the creepy kids (who look like mini-Florence Welches) with their killer dolls. For all this, ‘Barbarella’ is possibly most impressive for the myriad ways the plot devises to part Fonda from her clothes.

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Je t'aime, je t'aime
1968
Alain Resnais
1968 was a helluva year for science fiction. As Vietnam raged and global revolution beckoned, a small group of filmmakers found solace in other worlds, whether the chilly future of ‘2001’ or the satirical apocalypse of ‘Planet of the Apes’. But with his often overlooked ‘Je t’aime je t’aime’, French filmmaker Alain Resnais chose to use sci-fi to look within. It’s the tale of suicidal author Claude Ridder (Rich), who’s asked to take part in a government experiment employing a vast papier-mâché brain sculpture and a number of confused-looking mice. But when the project goes awry, Ridder finds himself lost in time, reliving the breakdown of his relationship with early-model Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Catrine (Georges-Picot). Benefitting from a clanging score by legendary Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki and exploring many of the same themes of memory, regret and empathy as Resnais’s earlier ‘Last Year in Marienbad’, this is a dreamlike experiment that deserves wider attention.

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Planet of the Apes
1968
Franklin J Schaffner
Rod Serling worked on an early draft of the script (inspired by French author Pierre Boulle’s novel ‘Monkey Planet’), and, indeed, the setup is pure ‘Twilight Zone’: cynical American astronaut George Taylor (Heston) lands on a planet where apes are the dominant species and humans are the dumb animals. Taylor connects with chimp scientists Cornelius (McDowall) and Zira (Hunter) who initially study him and eventually help him escape into the Forbidden Zone, where a bigger surprise awaits. The film’s influence is legion, from multiple sequels and merchandise to a ‘Simpsons’ musical parody (‘I hate every ape I see_/_From Chimpan-A to Chimpanzee’). And it stands as a powerful time capsule of the tensions of its era, a provocative address (in fantasy garb) of race relations, nuclear disarmament and other cultural bugaboos.

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The Illustrated Man
1969
Jack Smight
The Illustrated Man is classic Bradbury, a collection of eighteen startling visions of humankind's destiny... 

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Beneath the Planet of the Apes
1970
Ted Post
The sole survivor of an interplanetary rescue mission searches for the only survivor of the previous expedition. He discovers a planet ruled by apes and an underground city run by telepathic humans. 

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THX 1138
1971
George Lucas
George Lucas and his pal Francis Ford Coppola persuaded Warner Brothers to take a flyer on expanding George’s earlier student short into this Orwell and Huxley-influenced fable about free love and free will versus all-powerful totalitarianism. The studio hated the result and the subsequent box-office debacle almost killed both their careers. Viewed today – the only version available is Lucas and co-writer Walter Murch’s digitally spruced-up 2004 ‘Director’s Cut’ – its shaven headed-cast, chillingly benign language intoning state propaganda and oppressive widescreen palette of glacial whites make for genuinely unnerving viewing. Young Lucas evidently believed in heroic individualism, fast cars and the possibility of escape, yet it’s the visualisation of an entire society shaped by universal surveillance, government-supplied sedatives and android police carrying very big sticks which rings darker and truer than the director’s subsequent, significantly more populist output.

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The Andromeda Strain
1971
Robert Wise
They call it science fiction, but only too rarely does the cinematic genre tackle a subject which focuses primarily on the science. This screen adaptation of Michael Crichton’s first bestseller tackles the crisis that unfolds when a space probe falls to Earth carrying an extraterrestrial virus that instantly turns human blood to powder. Thankfully, the US authorities have just built a secret subterranean research facility for exactly such eventualities. But it’s by no means a given that the boffins will be able to isolate and neutralise the threat – and there’s a nuclear self-destruct option to prevent wider contamination. Veteran director Robert Wise, still riding on the box-office bonanza of ‘The Sound of Music’, approaches it all with an austere documentary rigour that at first seems to underplay the drama, but builds an almost unbearable degree of claustrophobic anxiety.

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A Clockwork Orange
1971
Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ novel gives us a future version of Britain where the modernist fabric of the 1960s is exaggerated just enough for it to feel both strange and familiar. But this world’s sense of justice is all awry. Alex (McDowell) and his fellow ‘droogs’ speak Nadsat (a fictional amalgam of English, Russian and nonsense) and commit rape for fun. But when Alex is arrested, it’s the state which now appears menacing: he becomes a tool for venal politicians and is subjected to a form of therapy meant to banish his criminal tendencies. That therapy and its effects are some of the most conspicuous sci-fi elements here (along with the futuristic sets and costumes) – Alex’s eyes are held open while he watches repellent imagery; later, when inspired to be physically or sexually violent, he starts to wretch. Yet perhaps this wasn’t so fictional after all. Kubrick and Burgess were satirising new forms of psychotherapy, while Cold War totalitarianism was also on their minds. Sci-fi fans will also appreciate that a minor character, Julian, is played by Dave Prowse, aka Darth Vader.

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Silent Running
1972
Douglas Trumbull
‘Silent Running’ proves beyond a doubt what many of us fear: even in space, you can’t escape hippies. In a future where plants have become extinct on earth, a handful of starships act as greenhouses, preserving the few remaining specimens in the hope of eventually reforesting the planet. But big business never sleeps, no matter what the century, and it’s not long before the vessels are ordered to destroy their cargo and return to commercial duty. Yet the fat cats didn’t bank on the power of peace ‘n’ love, as personified by Bruce Dern’s impressively and consistently angry pilot Freeman Lowell. He rebels, kills his co-workers and heads off to tend to his plants with a couple of trusty robots in tow. The film may not have aged perfectly (we can live without those willowy Joan Baez numbers), and Lowell is a bit of a blowhard. But the message is eternal: whatever the risks, man must be his own saviour.

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Solaris
1972
Andrei Tarkovsky
This is the moody, melancholic original that inspired Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake (see entry 92). Russian director Andrei Tarkovksy’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s futuristic novel is also a companion piece to Stanley Kubrick’s epochal ‘2001’, with which it is most often compared. Our human protagonist is Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), a grief-stricken scientist still mourning his long-dead wife, Hari. After an earthbound prologue that culminates in a mesmerising drive through an otherworldly metropolis, Kelvin journeys to a space station orbiting Solaris, a sentient planet that apparently has the power to resurrect dead beings. In the midst of investigating these claims, his spouse (Natalya Bondarchuk) miraculously reappears, and things only get stranger from there. Tarkovsky is less concerned with genre trappings than he is with creating a profoundly suggestive atmosphere: the space station itself, with its run-down, echoing corridors, is like a haunted house where the inhabitants’ forlorn memories of love and the motherland come to literal life.

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Slaughterhouse-Five
1972
George Roy Hill
A man tells his story of how he became unstuck in time and abducted by aliens. 

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World on a Wire
1973
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
World on a Wire’ was the first, last and only foray into speculative science fiction for New Wave maestro Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The result is an opulent and elaborate epic – though it was first shown as a three-part TV serial which plays like ‘Chinatown’, if that film’s hero Jake Gittes had traded his cream linen suit for a bank of old-school computers and a sparkly crash helmet. Loosely adapted from Daniel F Galouye’s 1964 pulp sci-fi novella, ‘Simulacron-3’, this staggering work (which triumphantly resurfaced in 2010 after years in the distribution doldrums) prefigures pretty much any film that deals with the concept of concentric realities (‘Inception’, ‘Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace’ et al), and does so with economy, rigour and style. So, so much style.

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Westworld
1973
Michael Crichton
Twenty-four years before creating ‘Jurassic Park’, Michael Crichton directed his own screenplay for the first time with this cautionary tale about another fail-safe theme park attraction going seriously awry. In so doing, he tapped into America’s most secret desires – shooting people in Westworld, playing out power games in Medievalworld and enjoying Romanworld’s guilt-free sexual indulgence. Clearly though, the movie is most interested in going way out west, exploring the ingrained story tropes of B-Westerns on faded MGM’s remaining back lot. Its ace card is a genuine celluloid icon in ‘Magnificent Seven’ alpha male Yul Brynner, delivering a perfectly judged turn as the black-clad android gunslinger who turns from malleable playmate into deadly foe when the park’s circuits get crossed. Hard not to imagine the genesis of James Cameron’s ‘Terminator’ in his determined walk and steely, cold-eyed gaze.

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Soylent Green
1973
Richard Fleischer
On paper, the elements of this eco-horror sensation seemed nourishing enough: Harry Harrison’s inspired 1966 novel, ‘Make Room! Make Room!’, about population overload; the earthy presence of noir legend Edward G Robinson (who died 12 days after shooting wrapped); sci-fi beefcake Charlton Heston as a future gumshoe. But in many aspects, it doesn’t really hang together. The sleuthing isn’t deep and the female roles – especially concubine and ‘furniture’ Shirl (Taylor-Young) – are atrocious. But there’s a real reason why it’s on our list, and it’s that stunner of an ending, one that gave the world a shudder of revulsion during its early-’70s moment of instant coffee and rocketing fast-food profits. Where our food comes from today is more shady and dystopian than ever. Show this one to an organics-only freak you love.

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Fantastic Planet
1973
René Laloux
‘Fantastic Planet’ examines what happens when a civilised people tries to subdue and tame a savage one – an allegory of colonialism, if you will. That the savages are depicted as humans (Oms) and the civilised people as unblinking blue aliens (Draags) makes it clear where René Laloux’s sympathies lie, and plot-wise the film is rather flimsy polemical stuff. But what drives ‘Fantastic Planet’ isn’t story, but rather the mad visual imagination of Laloux’s team, which included renowned surrealist artist Roland Topor. The world that the characters inhabit, at once futuristic and primordial, looks like a cross between Tatooine and a Dali dreamscape: dinosaurs mingle with tentacled aliens while headless humanoid statues abruptly spring to life. The film is very much of its time – it has as much in common with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s hypnagogic universe as with today’s sci-fi – yet it remains disarmingly fresh.

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Dark Star
1974
John Carpenter
Eventually both of the key creators behind ‘Dark Star’ would be involved in significantly scarier movies – one directed ‘Halloween’ (1978), the other wrote ‘Alien’ (1979). But in the early 1970s, USC film-school friends John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon tried their hand at comic satire, resulting in this mordantly hilarious ‘Dr Strangelove’-meets-‘2001’ parody. A stir-crazy spaceship crew – more pot-addled dorm-room philosophers than scientists – is on the twentieth year of its mission to blow up ‘unstable’ planets. They constantly get on each other’s nerves. O’Bannon himself plays the practical joker of the group, who has a penchant for rubber-chicken gags. Soon enough, though, they have other problems to worry about, like the bouncy alien – who looks like a beach ball with claws – wandering the corridors, or the malfunctioning talking bomb that tries to existentially justify its need to explode and kill everyone onboard. The initial version of the film was such a big hit on the festival circuit that Carpenter and O’Bannon got the money to expand it to feature-length – an auspicious start for two terrific talents.

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The Rocky Horror Picture Show
1975
Jim Sharman
A newly engaged couple have a breakdown in an isolated area and must pay a call to the bizarre residence of Dr. Frank-N-Furter. 

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Logan's Run
1976
Michael Anderson
Life ends at 30 in this sci-fi that presents a typically ’60s/’70s vision of the future: a doomed society that’s outwardly bright, white and polite yet with a heart as black as night. Loosely based on the novel by William F Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, it stars a chiseled Michael York as Logan 5, a Sandman who processes inhabitants for ‘renewal’ at the age of 30. Of course, they’re actually killed. Jessica 6 (Agutter) suspects as much and soon Logan’s joining her on the run. While not unanimously well received at the time, ‘Logan’s Run’ has become a cult classic, much beloved for its style, stars and themes. Talk of a remake – possibly overseen by ‘Drive’ director Nicolas Winding Refn – rumbles on.

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The Man Who Fell to Earth
1976
Nicolas Roeg
In a lot of ways this rambling, rich psychodrama feels like the last real sci-fi film of the ’70s, before the pendulum swung to heroic space opera and stuck. With his orange hair and a perceptible coked-up jitteriness, Bowie is perfect as the alien, Thomas Jerome Newton: spiky, awkward, uncomfortable in his own skin. But the real stranger in this strange land was cult director Nicolas Roeg, fascinated by the American Southwest – its listless nurses (the brilliant Candy Clark) and bored college professors (a fearless Rip Torn). The movie is filled with daydreamers desperate for a sense of purpose. They instead find television, guns, alcohol and inertia. But even given the film’s sense of resignation, it allows for a romance to flourish, as improbable as water in the desert.

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Star Wars
1977
George Lucas
A pop masterpiece that redefined an industry, ‘Star Wars’ updated sci-fi with unfashionable positivity, taking home a massive global haul that had studio execs salivating. It’s impossible to imagine what that game-changing summer must have felt like for teenagers accustomed to ‘Rollerball’ or ‘Logan’s Run’. Suffice it to say, the stakes were raised and the space blockbuster was born. Creator George Lucas was the same guy who made 1973’s ‘American Graffiti’: keenly attuned to car culture and nostalgia, in love with the horizon, a tinkerer with gears. It’s no surprise that these elements translated so beautifully to the distant planet of Tatooine, where a young man, stranded in a dead-end town and only hoping to head to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters, rises to a life of mythic grandeur. The movie’s technical innovations were seismic, from Ben Burtt’s imaginative sound design to the ingenious creatures and model effects. But chiefly, this was a film that launched a million toys – and, not insignificantly, a million dreams. Harrison Ford became a megastar overnight; ditto the black-masked Darth Vader, whose synthesised breathing noises entered the lexicon. It’s easy to forget, in the wake of so many inferior sequels, prequels and one awful Christmas special, how fresh Lucas’s vision was. He’s since become synonymous with trilogy glut, but the soft-spoken director will always have this first foray, a glorious reinvention of the magic of movies.

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind
1977
Steven Spielberg
For those of us who don’t bow down to any big, bearded spirits in the sky, the discovery of alien life might be the closest we’ll ever come to having a religious experience. And if that’s the case, then ‘Close Encounters’ might be our Old Testament. Steven Spielberg’s film manages to get its point across without resorting to intimidation or cheap scare tactics. This is one of the few movies in history to appeal almost exclusively to what Abraham Lincoln called, ‘the better angels of our nature’: creativity, community, discovery and the capacity for wonder. With the arguable exception of ‘ET’, this tale of benevolent alien contact is Spielberg’s most personal statement. It’s the heartfelt cry of a boyish 31-year-old who can’t rationalise his own self-centred ambitions with the demands of family and responsibility. Possessed by a creative compulsion he can’t understand, everyman hero Roy Neary (Dreyfuss) alienates his wife and comes close to mental breakdown before discovering the source of the visions in his head. Spielberg has said that if he made the film today he wouldn’t allow Roy to abandon his loved ones at the end – and yet this final, painfully human act of selfishness is what gives the film its aching power. Well, that and the breathtaking special effects. The appearance of the mothership over the mountain is one of the great visual punches in cinema. And the gloriously unflashy performances – Truffaut and Bob Balaban make a perfect nerdy double-act. Oh, and let’s not forget John Williams’s pounding, experimental soundtrack. How many non-musicals feature their score so prominently? The result is pure joy distilled onto celluloid. Maybe God does have a beard, after all.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers
1978
Philip Kaufman
The next time you hear a friend bemoaning the Hollywood remake factory, send them a link to this list. ‘The Fly’ and ‘The Thing’ may be better known, but ‘The Right Stuff’ director Philip Kaufman’s wry, self-aware reboot of the 1956 classic about alien pod people deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. Set in 1970s San Francisco – the mecca for inner-child botherers and lentil-knitting crystal worshippers of all stripes – the film takes a sardonic look at the post-hippy dream and dares to ask the question: what’s so great about free will, anyway? Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams make for a wonderfully droll and believable central couple, and they’re ably backed by Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright as his long-suffering wife and Leonard Nimoy as a shifty self-help guru. As the film progresses, the clammy hand of paranoia tightens its grip – and the final shot is a sucker-punch like no other.

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Alien
1979
Ridley Scott
Space isn’t all about glamorously cavorting across the galaxy, swashbuckling your way around undiscovered planets and canoodling with saucy green-skinned, many-breasted alien females. Space can also be a bleak, functional hellscape – just another workplace. And so it is in Ridley Scott’s gruesome horror epic, which pits a team of disgruntled space jockeys against a single, drooling, utterly vicious and single-minded critter. ‘Alien’ was the film that turned the ‘Star Wars’ template on its head, keeping the cutting-edge effects and sense of a used universe, but making it so much more real, gritty and, ironically, more human. The result is a grey, sombre affair filled with grotesque, uncomfortably Freudian imagery – phallic creatures, pulsating eggs, a computer named MUTHUR, that nightmarish birth scene… But it’s also a masterclass in cinematic tension. Artist HR Giger’s creature is a gothic nightmare of a foe, kept hidden for most of the film, leaving audiences to scour the corridors of the starship Nostromo themselves, constantly waiting for ol’ two-mouths to come leaping out. It’s a grim haunted-house movie that has rarely been equalled, so filthy and industrial that we feel like we’re stuck on this hulking rust bucket too, surrounded by panicky engineers, backstabbing androids and a monster from the very depths of our nightmares.

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Stalker
1979
Andrei Tarkovsky
It may have been loosely based on a science fiction novel – ‘Roadside Picnic’ by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky – but ‘Stalker’ pushes the definition further than just about any other film on this list. The story follows three men who enter the mysterious and guarded Zone, nursing dreams of wish-fulfillment, but that’s hardly what the movie is ‘about’. As with all of Tarkovsky’s work, ‘Stalker’ is concerned with mood, with mystery, with decay and sorrow, with creating a contemplative space in which the audience can explore and come to terms with their own reactions to the material on offer. This is perhaps the darkest of the great director’s films – it’s impossible not to view the Zone, a promised land which turns out to be an abandoned industrial hellhole, as a savage comment on Soviet ambition – but at least there’s a glimmer of hope in the film’s heart-stopping final scene.

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The Empire Strikes Back
1980
Irvin Kershner
This first ‘Star Wars’ sequel was recently voted the greatest movie of all time – all time! – by the readers of Empire magazine. Our contributors haven’t gone quite that far, but we can all agree that ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is truly wonderful: a textbook example of how to take a successful but fairly simplistic sci-fi formula and transform it into something emotionally absorbing, philosophically rich and – most importantly – deliriously enjoyable. For perhaps the only time in the entire six-film sequence, George Lucas’s stated ambition to marry ’40s-style derring-do with modern-day SFX really reaches fruition: ‘Big Sleep’ writer Leigh Brackett’s script may have been all but junked by Lucas and rewriter Lawrence Kasdan, but her old-world sensibilities are all over the finished movie. Nowhere is this more true than in the feisty Bogart-Bacall interactions between rakish rogue Harrison Ford and ice princess Carrie Fisher: their on-set dust-ups may be legendary, but their on-screen chemistry is unmistakable. It’s a film that strikes a perfect balance between spectacle, character, humour and sentiment. It barrels through land battles and asteroid impacts, spiritual awakenings and romantic entanglements, all on the way to a truly operatic climax, the one-two punch of Han Solo’s noble sacrifice followed by Darth Vader’s shocking admission – still one of the great twists in cinema. Maybe those Empire readers had a point after all…

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Flash Gordon
1980
Mike Hodges
Watching ‘Flash Gordon’, you can only wonder whether someone thought there was an as-yet untapped audience of sci-fi fans who were also, as the wonderful original Time Out review puts it, ‘gentlemen who prefer blonds’? Of course, once it was out in the world the whole thing made some kind of twisted, outrageous sense, and it still does. It’s not exactly funny – the humour’s too broad and ridiculous. And it’s not exactly exciting – the special effects are knowingly daft, and the action scenes feel haphazardly glued together. And yet somehow this Technicolor tale of heroic muscle-bound lunks, preening goateed villains, boisterous bird-men (Blessed sealed his reputation here), hapless maidens and doomed Blue Peter presenters works like a charm. Queen’s operatic, whammy-whanging soundtrack doesn’t hurt a bit.

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Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
1981
George Miller
The first ‘Mad Max’ had a faint whiff of sci-fi, but that could have been the desolation of the Aussie landscape conjuring up visions of post-nuclear hell. With his follow-up, writer-director George Miller went all out: the world is now a dustbowl populated by rampaging mutants, petrified normals and one brutal lawgiver, and they all have one thing in common – a lust for the black gold. But ‘The Road Warrior’ isn’t just a prescient futuristic parable, it’s also perhaps the finest pedal-to-the-metal action movie ever made: no director before or since has made such a gladiatorial spectacle out of grinding gears, burning rubber and the screech of brakes. The film’s other great strength is its unabashed Aussie-ness: resisting the temptation to play Hollywood at its own game, ‘The Road Warrior’ is as gloriously Strine as Ned Kelly drinking Castlemaine tinnies in a ute.

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Escape From New York
1981
John Carpenter
Massively entertaining, small-budget action film enlivened by a surprisingly high profile cast, not least the swaggering, one-eyed Kurt Russell, doomed to explode if he fails to save the president from a gang of Mad Max-style maniacs. Carpenter may have only had a $7 million budget to work with, but the film he's come up with is an action adventure on a grand scale and the premise  that Manhattan has become a massive walled prison  is a surefire winner.

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Blade Runner
1982
Ridley Scott
We’re so accustomed to cinema being behind the political and cultural curve, that when a truly groundbreaking work arrives, no one’s sure how to deal with it. ‘Blade Runner’ was viewed as a disaster upon first release: here was a glum, grimy, neon-in-the-rain vision of the near future, complete with a taciturn anti-hero whose own moral compass seemed marginally less functional than the Replicant ‘villains’ he was assigned to hunt down. It’s a film that, upon first viewing, feels almost unbearably harsh and claustrophobic, lingering on images of cruelty, decay and exploitation. It was only years later – abetted enormously by the film’s ‘Director’s Cut’ reissue, stripped of its clunky voiceover and crass happy ending – that we began to realise exactly what ‘Blade Runner’ was offering alongside its spectacular visuals. This wasn’t just a grim dystopian action flick, but a meditation on the meaning of life, morality, memory, creation, procreation, nature, nurture – the whole shebang. If Harrison Ford’s Deckard is himself a Replicant – and the film strongly implies that he is – then how do any of us know which aspects of our psyche are ‘real’ and which ‘created’? If the robots are programmed with more soul and compassion than the humans, how do you tell the difference? And does it matter? ‘Blade Runner’ is the kind of spectacle that science fiction was invented for: immersive other worlds that can be explored to reflect our own fears, doubts and disturbances. And it succeeds flawlessly.

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Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan
1982
Nicholas Meyer
Only two ‘Star Trek’ adventures managed to crack our top 100 (though ‘First Contact’ missed out by the slimmest of margins), but then the series never did have quite the same broad appeal as their more easy-to-swallow ‘Star Wars’ rivals. It’s widely accepted that ‘The Wrath of Khan’ is the best of the big-screen Trek adventures: the villain, Ricardo Montalban’s revenge-fuelled mutant powerhouse Khan, is an all-time great, the plot moves at warp speed and the climax is as unashamedly emotional as sci-fi gets. But what’s most pleasing is the warmth and camaraderie between the original cast: Shatner and Nimoy may not be actors of Shakespearean calibre, but these characters fit them – and the entire multi-racial, interspecies crew – like comfy, oversized spacesuit gloves.

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The Thing
1982
John Carpenter
The opening sequence of ‘The Thing’ is unbeatable – a relentless, ice-cold nerve-jangler. A helicopter flies in low over an American scientific research station in the Antarctic. Its crew of Norwegian scientists are hell-bent on shooting a dog, which bounds away from them in the snow like it’s a game of chase. The dog turns out to be a parasitic alien organism that can imitate any life form, and which proceeds to pick off the Yankees one by one. John Carpenter prolongs this gut-twistingly tense paranoia throughout the whole film, and Kurt Russell leads an ensemble cast of totally believable, blue collar guys, bored to death and stir crazy. ‘The Thing’ is Carpenter’s favourite of his films, but it disappointed at the box office (the fact that it came out two weeks after ‘ET’ might explain why). ‘The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans,’ Carpenter later told Time Out. Not anymore.

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ET: The Extra-Terrestrial
1982
Steven Spielberg
The legend goes that, on the set of ‘Close Encounters’, François Truffaut suggested to Spielberg that his next movie should be something personal and honest, ‘a little film about kids’. When the Frenchman found out that said family flick would also involve a stranded alien, he laughed out loud. We reckon he was laughing on the other side of his impish visage when ‘ET’ went on to become the most successful film of all time. Arguably, it’s now the victim of its own box-office clout: all those cuddly toys and ‘phone home’ t-shirts have helped to disguise the fact that this is really an indie flick. Minute in scale, intimate in tone, it is one of the finest films ever made about how kids think and how families fit together.

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Tron
1982
Steven Lisberger
It’s hard to understate how much this film changed the genre of science fiction — it’s arguably the first movie to use computer generated effects, as Lisberger hung out at MIT and learned from the techies there — but it’s also still one of the most thrilling depictions of virtual worlds on the big screen. (Compare Tron to Lawnmower Man to see how much more exciting and believable the earlier film is.) With the theme of fighting against the fascistic Master Control Program, Lisberger manages to update science fiction’s longstanding interest in social change, but makes it fun and exciting rather than dreary and preachy.

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Return of the Jedi
1983
Richard Marquand
The last and, our voters agree, least of the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy may have its problems, but it’s one heck of a ride. Detractors may quibble about the cuddly-toy Ewoks, the wimpy depiction of Princess Leia (not just the gold bikini incident, but her general reluctance to play the blaster-wielding badass) and the writers’ lazy decision to revive the Death Star from the first movie rather than going for a full-on assault against the heart of Imperial power. But so much of the movie really does work: the sail barge escape is pell-mell swashbuckling action at its finest, the speeder bike chase is full-throttle fun and the monumental three-way climax is a Wagnerian crescendo that caps the series in fine style. Best of all, it really whets the appetite for Episode VII…

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2010
1984
Peter Hyams
Take one look at the original reviews, and it’s clear that pedantic literalists were deeply annoyed by Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. What’s with that monolith? Why’s the computer going nuts? What are all these flashy lights for? And what’s up with the big space baby? Luckily, their prayers were answered by author Arthur C Clarke and writer-director Peter Hyams in the form of ‘2010’, a film that sets out to remove any trace of ambiguity from Kubrick’s universe and replace it with plain, unadorned facts. Which isn’t to imply that ‘2010’ is a bad movie – it’s just a very traditional one, with proper actors, creaky special effects, an ordinary score, a beginning, a middle and an end – all that square stuff the first movie managed without. Kubrick purists are going to hate it with a passion, and that’s fair enough. But this is rock-solid old-school sci-fi: thoughtful, intelligent and unfussy.

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Dune
1984
David Lynch
The most controversial film on this list? One of our contributors actually made a point of saying how much he loathed ‘Dune’, joining a chorus of haters that notably includes the director himself, who felt that his vision was compromised by budget problems and recuts. But still, there’s a hardcore fanbase who can’t get enough of David Lynch’s berserk, wayward adaptation of Frank Herbert’s genre-defining novel.

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The Terminator
1984
James Cameron
Let’s head back in time to the days when James Cameron’s only feature film credit was 1981’s ‘Piranha Part Two: The Spawning’. While promoting that quickie horror sequel, a dream of a metallic torso pulling itself from an explosion sparked his imagination. He translated his nightmare into this iconic sci-fi feature, made mostly under the radar for $6.4 million and released (by an initially indifferent Orion Pictures) to strong reviews and stellar box office. The story is blissfully pulpy: a killer robot in synthetic skin (Schwarzenegger, then best known for playing a sword-wielding comic-book barbarian) is sent back in time from a ruined Earth to the present day. His task is to murder Sarah Connor (Hamilton), the mother of the future saviour of humanity. Her protector is Kyle Reese (Biehn), a soldier in the post-apocalyptic war yet to come, who also time-travels back to convince the sceptical Sarah of the danger she’s in. Both humans are eminently likeable, especially Sarah, whose arc from dorky, beleaguered waitress to tough-as-nails fighter (‘You’re terminated, fucker!’) is giddily satisfying. But it’s Arnold’s show: even with a bare minimum of dialogue (only 18 lines, one of which is the endlessly quoted catchphrase above), he’s a terrifying presence as the near-unstoppable man-machine – a crystalline vision of technology lethally turning on its creators.

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Repo Man
1984
Alex Cox
So few films stand entirely alone. But British expat Alex Cox’s debut – a tale of heroic but slovenly debt collectors, crazed suburban punks, alien corpses, secret government organisations, one-legged women and glowing green Chevy Novas – fits the bill. Funded by Monkee Mike Nesmith and shot by Cox when he was fresh out of UCLA film school, ‘Repo Man’ is outsider art at its most accessible, comedy at its most unusual and science fiction at its most absurd. Emilio Estevez’s preening teen tearaway Otto and Harry Dean Stanton’s disheveled old-timer Bud make for a perfect central double act. But it’s the supporting characters that really bring the movie together: Walter’s conspiracy-theorist junkman, the hairnet-wearing Rosato Brothers, Otto’s mohicanned criminal buddies. One piece of advice, though: if you can, watch ‘Repo Man’ in its extended, censored for TV version: the Cox-approved ‘flip you melonfarmer’ dialogue is priceless, and the extra scenes are some of the best in the movie.

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Back to the Future
1985
Robert Zemeckis
Let it be stressed: at the root of every great sci-fi film is a killer script, not special effects or lasers. Working with writer Bob Gale, director Robert Zemeckis built so many dazzling curlicues into this ’80s-to-’50s time-travel adventure, audiences were turned on by their minds as well as the flux capacitor. It helps when your star is Michael J Fox, captured at the peak of his youthful heroism. Marty McFly’s personal ambitions are thwarted by economic reality, and ‘Back to the Future’ is subversive enough to suggest that life’s achievements – indeed a whole family’s happiness – come from boldness, confidence and a swift punch outside the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. Crazy professor Christopher Lloyd steals all of his moments, but the movie’s most exquisite creation may be Crispin Glover’s painfully defeated George McFly, a mouse in need of a lion’s courage.

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Brazil
1985
Terry Gilliam
Jonathan Pryce plays Sam Lowry, an unexceptional everyman who dreams big but lives as a tiny cog in a bewildering machine in Terry Gilliam’s farcical but biting dystopian nightmare – a film he originally struggled to get to screen when executives bristled at its length and bleak ending. The ex-Python and ‘Time Bandits’ and ‘12 Monkeys’ director conjures up a discomforting retro-futuristic world, setting much of his story in vast warehouse-like offices and cathedral-like industrial spaces. Yes, it’s the future (sort of), but the costumes and movie references (from ‘Casablanca’ to ‘Metropolis’) are a nod to the past, and there’s something of the 1940s and George Orwell to the whole thing. Whatever the period, at the film’s heart is the eternal battle between free will and society, alongside a slap-to-the-head conception of what today’s reliance on technology and bureaucracy says about what the future might hold. Lowry dreams of soaring high like a mechanical bird and sweeping a beautiful mystery woman (Greist) off her feet. In reality, he finds himself at the heart of a confusing scandal involving presumed terrorists and a case of mistaken identity, reluctantly taking up a job at a government department called Information Retrieval so he can seek answers. The presence of Michael Palin and a sense of Britishness about the whole thing inevitably make ‘Brazil’ feel like an offshoot of Gilliam’s ‘Monty Python’ days. But this is something altogether more majestic, ambitious and troubling. For every visual gag about being stuck in an absurd lift, there’s the sight of a government apparatchik in a baby mask or an older woman (Lowry’s mother) having her face stretched to combat ageing. It’s Gilliam’s finest hour.

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Enemy Mine
1985
Wolfgang Petersen
We love tortured movies about encountering the other—and they don’t get much more tender and beautiful than this tale of a human (Dennis Quaid) who gets crash-landed on a planet with an alien (Louis Gossett Jr.). The two of them have to learn to work together to survive, and ultimately become a kind of family. It’s a parable of overcoming xenophobia, but also of learning to see the beauty in the other—and the ugliness in your own people. 

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Aliens
1986
James Cameron
Almost three decades on, ‘Aliens’ still looks like some kind of miracle. How did James Cameron, the veteran of precisely two films (one of which was unwatchable) manage to match, some would say improve upon, one of the most inventive sci-fi movies ever made? Where did that script spring from, so streamlined and propulsive yet at the same time so sharp and quotable? And how, on a budget that would barely have covered the on-set sandwich trolley for ‘Avatar’, did he manage to create such an all-encompassing world, such dangerously droolsome hardware, such repulsively believable xenomorphic monsters? Admittedly, there are a lot of borrowed ideas in ‘Aliens’: the creatures, corridors, corporations and kick-ass heroine from the first movie, the sympathetic android from ‘Blade Runner’, militaristic dialogue straight from a Vietnam flick, costumes and weapons torn from the pages of countless comic books. But Cameron doesn’t just use these tropes, he develops them at every turn: Weaver’s Ripley becomes a maternal figure grappling with loss; Bishop the android is glassy and self-mocking, comfortable with his artificial existence; the hapless grunts are more than just meat, they’re fully-fleshed characters. Cameron has never managed to repeat the trick. There are great moments in his later movies, but like his ‘Alien’ antecedent Ridley Scott, Jim did his best work in his second and third films. If all he’d left us was ‘Aliens’, he’d still be a legend: here is one of the most effortlessly entertaining, endlessly rewatchable movies of all time, the work of a filmmaker blazing like rocket fuel.

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The Fly
1986
David Cronenberg
Is there another film that leaves audiences as sick to the stomach as ‘The Fly’? David Cronenberg pulls a sly trick, lulling us with a sweet screwball comedy as journalist Geena Davis meets Jeff Goldblum’s eccentric scientist at a convention. He takes her home to show her his telepods (ahem), and it’s not long before romance blooms. But following a lover’s tiff, Goldblum drunkenly uses himself as a human guinea pig – not noticing the housefly that darts into the machine after him. There are scenes in ‘The Fly’ – Davis’s dream of pupal birth, the arm-wrestling contest, Goldblum’s repulsive but somehow tragic mutations – that are impossible to forget. In the late ‘80s the film was read as an allegory of the AIDS crisis. But writer-director Cronenberg said in later interviews that its themes are more universal than that: ‘ageing and death – something all of us have to deal with.’

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Predator
1987
John McTiernan
Long before ‘Snakes on a Plane’, ‘Predator’ was one of the first movies to be directly inspired by a Hollywood in-joke. The gag doing the rounds after ‘Rocky IV’ was that, having battered an earthly opponent, next time around Sly would have to fight an alien. All of which gave screenwriting brothers Jim and John Thomas an idea… With Sly tied up with 'Rocky V', Arnie stepped in to play Dutch, the military tough guy who takes his top team of wisecracking mercenaries into the Latin American jungle to rescue American hostages, before terrorists turn out to be the least of their problems.

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RoboCop
1987
Paul Verhoeven
We all know what the future’s going to be like: vicious, crime-ridden and impoverished. The rich are going to hide themselves away in big shiny high-rises while the rest of us plebs duke it out on the mean streets, roasting rats over a fire in a metal bin. We can only dream that someone invents a law enforcement machine as efficient as RoboCop, who single-handedly cleans the scum from Detroit’s streets in Paul Verhoeven’s relentlessly satirical dystopian nightmare. This 1987 film is not only still very funny, but more importantly it still speaks volumes about power-hungry governments and city-wide corruption all these years later. The combination of dark wit and despicable, stomach-churning violence makes for a near-perfect look at the bleakest possible future. Your move, creep.

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Akira
1988
Katsuhiro Otomo
Tense and pacey, ‘Predator’ delivers an intravenous shot of testosterone as a trophy-collecting game hunter from outer space picks off the platoon one by one. But of course the climax sees Old Ironballs taking the creature on single-handed, duking it out in the mud, mano-a-mano.

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They Live
1988
John Carpenter
Hollywood loves to villainise itself on its own terms, yet it never met a rascal like John Carpenter, who snuck in through the side door with ‘Halloween’ and somehow held on to his libertarian streak. Inspired by a short story about mass alien hypnosis (but mainly fed up by all the commercials on TV), the writer-director unleashed his most potent subversion, a paranoid masterpiece in which a blue-collar drifter (Roddy Piper) dons a pair of special sunglasses and can suddenly see the hidden messages among us: OBEY, REPRODUCE, CONSUME. This is, of course, what our billboards really do say, in code. ‘They Live’ is a crash course in semiotics and media manipulation – an astounding accomplishment for a sci-fi B-flick that also contains the longest back-alley brawl in movie history.

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The Abyss
1989
James Cameron
Fresh off the massive success of ‘Aliens’, James Cameron spent three years and a boatload of studio cash bringing this daunting pet project to the screen. A lifelong deep-sea obsessive, Cameron’s dedication to the nuts-and-bolts reality of life on the ocean floor makes for a uniquely gritty, tactile experience, even as his midlife swing towards sentimentality begins to undermine the toughness of his vision. It’s that old chestnut of the civilian team hauled in to help out the military, as Ed Harris and his oil-drilling roughnecks come to the aid of a downed nuclear sub and find themselves facing something altogether more otherworldly. The action sequences are relentless, and if the film is somewhat let down by its gushy ending (improved but not entirely sorted out in the Special Edition recut), it’s a small price to pay for greatness elsewhere.

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Back to the Future Part II
1989
Robert Zemeckis
After visiting 2015, Marty McFly must repeat his visit to 1955 to prevent disastrous changes to 1985...without interfering with his first trip. 

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Total Recall
1990
Paul Verhoeven
Loosely adapted from Philip K Dick’s 1966 short story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, this electrifying futuristic adventure casts hulking Arnold Schwarzenegger as 2084 Earthman Douglas Quaid, a construction worker whose life changes drastically after a botched memory implant. Suddenly, he’s a secret agent whose wife (a pre-‘Basic Instinct’ Sharon Stone) is trying to kill him and whose fate is inextricably tied up in a revolution brewing a planet away on Mars. Director Paul Verhoeven has his usual perverse fun visualising the world to come: relentlessly cheery animatronic taxi drivers, full-body X-ray security machines and (hey, adolescent boys!) a three-breasted mutant prostitute. Arnie, unsurprisingly, is at his cocky, quippy best: just try stifling that giggle when he (literally) drills into a bad guy and shouts, ‘Screw you!’

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Terminator 2: Judgment Day
1991
James Cameron
In 1984, ‘The Terminator’ gave an Austrian man-mountain called Arnold Schwarzenegger his breakthrough role as a cyborg villain. He promised he’d be back. It took seven long years, but Arnie was true to his word. This time around his hulking cyborg bad guy was reformed (or reprogrammed) as a righteous protector, sent back to save scrappy John Connor (Edward Furlong) and therefore the planet from nuclear apocalypse. ‘Terminator 2’ is a darkly funny thrill ride, throwing up all sorts of temporal head-scratchers (if the computer chip is destroyed, how do the Terminators get invented?). But that’s nothing new for sci-fi. It was the most expensive movie ever made at the time, and even now you can see where James Cameron spent that $100 million – on Arnie’s CGI nemesis, the T-1000, a molten metal baddie who can transform at will. Almost a quarter of a century later, those state-of-the-art effects still hold up.

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Alien 3
1992
David Fincher
After her last encounter, Ripley crash-lands on Fiorina Fury 161, a maximum security prison. When a series of strange and deadly events occur shortly after her arrival, Ripley realizes that she brought along an unwelcome visitor. 

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Jurassic Park
1993
Steven Spielberg
Everybody loves dinosaurs – as long as they’re just bones in a museum. Steven Spielberg’s rollercoaster thriller, adapted from Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel, brings these prehistoric beasts back to life with a clever conceit: scientists have discovered how to harness dino DNA from fossilised amber and billionaire John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) has created an island zoo where spectators pay top dollar to view the cretaceous giants. All well and good until the security system fails and T-Rex and friends go on a chomping rampage. The cast, led by Sam Neill as a gruff, kid-hating paleontologist and Jeff Goldblum as a chaos-theory rockstar, is an absolute delight. And Spielberg still knows how to build a nail-biter of a set-piece, like the tense velociraptor kitchen sequence or the central tyrannosaurus attack that was a landmark showcase for then-nascent CGI technology.

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Stargate
1994
Roland Emmerich
An interstellar teleportation device, found in Egypt, leads to a planet with humans resembling ancient Egyptians who worship the god Ra. 

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Ghost in the Shell
1995
Mamoru Oshii
It’s the year 2029, and humanity exists in a society managed by an electronic network that takes possession of their consciousness (‘ghost’) when they don a special cybernetic suit (‘shell’). But beneath the layers of hi-tech delirium and political intrigue lies a fairly simple idea: that human identity is a function of memory, and so in theory indistinguishable from a digital hard drive. Far from a run-of-the-mill slice of millennial angst, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ abounds in mysteries and paradoxes. The film is Japanese, but the world appears to be a version of Hong Kong; the setting is futuristic, but the soundtrack features ancient Japanese chant; the main characters are robots, yet they can’t relinquish certain human obsessions. A strange and subtle work of anime.

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12 Monkeys
1995
Terry Gilliam
Our voters may agree that Terry Gilliam’s second sci-fi masterwork doesn’t quite hit the heights of his first, the excellent ‘Brazil’, but ‘12 Monkeys’ is a disorientating trip all of its own. Bruce Willis plays a low-level criminal in a future earth destroyed by disease, sent back in time to trace the roots of the plague. In the process he manages to fall in love with Madeleine Stowe (fair enough) and gets banged up in a mental institution where he stumbles upon Brad Pitt in one of his first and finest roles as a demented, jittery environmental terrorist. The plot, directly inspired by Chris Marker’s photo-roman short ‘La Jetée’ (see number 28) is crammed with temporal twists and surreal turns, disguising the fact that fairly little actually happens. But this is such a bizarre mind-fuck of a film that it hardly matters. Plus, you get to see our Bruce wearing a blonde wig and Hawaiian shirt, which is a huge bonus.

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Independence Day
1996
Roland Emmerich
Yes, it’s cheesy. Yes, it’s noisy. Yes, it’s about as subtle as a starship in the face. But good God, it’s so much fun. Emmerich may not be as bold or as crafty a sci-fi satirist as his fellow Euro-export Paul Verhoeven, and on first release there were many who took all the flag-waving and Presidential speechifying in ‘Independence Day’ at face value. But look again, and this is a sly little slice of myth-busting entertainment. Who else had the balls to blow up the White House, full frame, just for kicks? Who else depicted an American administration all too willing to use nuclear weapons – only to find they have no effect whatsoever? Lest we forget, this is the first major summer blockbuster to feature a central black character who’s neither a sidekick, a comic aside or simply dead meat. Oh, and Jeff Goldblum’s final walk across the flaming desert might actually be the coolest thing ever.

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Star Trek: First Contact
1996
Jonathan Frakes
The Borg travel back in time intended on preventing Earth's first contact with an alien species. Captain Picard and his crew pursue them to ensure that Zefram Cochrane makes his maiden flight reaching warp speed. 

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Starship Troopers
1997
Paul Verhoeven
Satire in science fiction is nothing new – but creating a perfect balance of entertainment and politics requires a particular set of skills. To date, the crown prince of ferocious action movies with blunt-as-a-brick subtext has to be Paul Verhoeven, whose three films on this list (‘RoboCop’, ‘Total Recall’ and this gem) are the work of an artist equally interested in thrilling his audience, offending their sensibilities and making them think. In a future world where everyone is beautiful and only ‘citizens’ get to vote, Verhoeven imagines a war against an alien race whose hideous appearance makes them a perfect target for human aggression. The attacks against American imperialism and Hollywood shallowness come thick and fast, culminating in one of the most striking images in all of sci-fi as Neil Patrick Harris, in full Gestapo dress, prepares to send a platoon of terrified teenage boys into battle.

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Contact
1997
Robert Zemeckis
Is Carl Sagan the unsung hero of modern science fiction? We often hear about the scientists who were inspired by his 1980 ‘Cosmos’ TV series. But it must be the same for authors and filmmakers seeing through Sagan’s wise eyes how vast, rich and strange our universe is. An occasional novelist, Sagan’s best known work is ‘Contact’, the story of a young astronomer – played with grave dignity by Jodie Foster in this movie version released barely a year after Sagan’s death – who receives a signal from outer space. Robert Zemeckis’s film suffers from bouts of sentimentality and a tendency to play things a little safe. But it benefits from a handful of glorious visual moments unlike anything else in sci-fi – the stunning track-back through the universe at the film’s opening, the special effects bonanza that brings matters to a climax and a truly weird and unforgettable through-the-mirror long shot.

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The Fifth Element
1997
Luc Besson
Never a critical favourite, the French filmmaking magnate Luc Besson has resolutely persisted in following his own idiosyncratic taste, and this wayward fantasy has an individuality distinct from Hollywood formula. The plot involves ancient Egyptians, interplanetary invaders and the female embodiment of goodness – all suggestive of a youth misspent poring over Earth, Wind & Fire lyrics. But boy, did Besson assemble a crack team to visualise it. From action-man Bruce Willis’s ribbed orange vest to supreme being Milla Jovovich’s bandage dress, the Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes are iconic in their way, while Dan Weil’s production design populates the screen with characterful hardware and gizmos. Given comic-relief Chris Tucker’s grating contribution, the film might be best enjoyed with the sound off, as Besson’s flair for memorable one-off images – Jovovich’s swan dive into the NYC skies, the blue alien diva – make ‘The Fifth Element’ the apotheosis of Le cinéma du look.

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Gattaca
1997
Andrew Niccol
Preparation is key if you’re going to make the leap to genetically perfect ‘Valid’ from inherently inferior ‘Invalid’. You’ll need fake fingertips loaded with A-grade blood, a urine pack filled with the right stuff, plus hair and skin samples to complete the illusion. Such is the daily lot of Ethan Hawke’s determined wannabe, dreaming of joining the astronaut elite in Andrew Niccol’s unsettling fantasy on a nature v nurture theme. It posits a world where discrimination – or ‘genoism’ – is technically illegal, yet employers make hiring decisions based on blood samples. Niccol twists the language to startling effect – rebellious Hawke is dubbed a ‘de-generate’ – but the film succeeds so well because it’s not content simply to bask in its own ideas, escalating tension when an unrelated murder investigation threatens to unmask the protagonist’s existential masquerade.

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The Truman Show
1998
Peter Weir
Jim Carrey leaves his low-comic roots behind in this superb satire of our TV-obsessed culture. The former Ace Ventura is terrific as Truman Burbank, a seemingly normal everyman with a wife (Linney), a house and a white picket fence. In truth, he’s the unwitting star of a 24-hour blockbuster television show that airs worldwide. Sci-fi specialist Andrew Niccol (‘Gattaca’) wrote the prescient script, anticipating reality television’s Big Brother ubiquity. But it’s thanks to the great Aussie director Peter Weir – keeping the surface light and the undercurrents dark – that the story is so pointed. Everything Truman experiences is cheerily alien; it consistently sends chills up the spine (why does his spouse keep talking about her home-care products like she’s shilling for them?). By the time the show’s man-behind-the-curtain Christof (Ed Harris, all wily benevolence) comes to the fore, the spooky surreality has reached a fever pitch.

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Dark City
1998
Alex Proyas
Like science itself, sci-fi loves to probe the nature of what we call reality – in films as diverse as ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Solaris’, questions about subjective perception versus objective fact form the core of the story. But few dig as deep to find the answers as ‘Dark City’, Alex Proyas’s grimy slice of existential angst masquerading as a noir-inflected thriller. In the unnamed urban sprawl of the title, a killer is on the loose. It might be John (Sewell), he’s not really sure. In fact, he’s not certain of much any more – what he does for a living, what he did yesterday, or if there even was a yesterday… Starting from a simple murder mystery and building inexorably outwards from there, Proyas introduces us to a world where – in that overused but here entirely appropriate phrase – nothing is as it seems. The ending is a stone-cold brain-melter.

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The Iron Giant
1999
Brad Bird
In the wake of the Sputnik launch in 1957, a towering metal robot crash-lands in a small Maine community (relocated from the rural England of Ted Hughes’s source novel), inadvertently scaring the bejesus out of everyone it encounters. In fact it’s a benign, selfless giant, intent only on munching scrap metal and protecting a young boy who saves its ‘life’. To adults, Brad Bird’s animated classic is a well-observed evocation of the anti-communist paranoia that permeated life in the 1950s – the golden age of sci-fi. To kids, it’s a universal tale of tolerance and trusting friendship; you could replace the giant with ET or Totoro and you’d have much the same film. It may be voiced by Vin Diesel, but the giant itself is a thing of beauty: a distant relative of the robots in ‘Castle in the Sky’ or ‘The King and the Mockingbird’, it conveys a wealth of emotions despite not saying or doing much at all.

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Galaxy Quest
1999
Dean Parisot
‘Star Trek’ fandom was a phenomenon just begging to be lampooned, as that wonderfully dry, mismatched original cast grudgingly surrendered their lives to a legion of mega-nerds in jumpsuits with Plasticine stuck to their faces. An object lesson in the art of the affectionate pastiche, ‘Galaxy Quest’ rounds up the usual sci-fi serial suspects – the macho captain (Allen), the window-dressing female (Weaver), the Shakespearian thesp (Rickman) – and pulls the old ‘Three Amigos’ trick of plunging them into a real intergalactic war. The cast is damn close to perfect (Rickman, in particular, shows previously unimagined comic chops), and the idea of a po-facedly literal extra-terrestrial race who haven’t figured out that the show isn’t a documentary is played for maximum laughs. The result is wickedly smart and knowingly in-jokey without ever (ahem) alienating the non-nerds. The fact that it placed higher on this list than any of the official ‘Trek’ movies speaks volumes, although we await the furious comments…

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The Matrix
1999
The Wachowski Brothers
That creaky old phrase ‘millennial angst’ was tossed around like so much confetti in the last few years of the twentieth century, but it fits ‘The Matrix’ like a black PVC glove. The ultimate expression of existential paranoia in sci-fi, the Wachowskis’s jet-speed cyber-action classic doesn’t just question the meaning of life, but its very existence. That it also manages to weave in kung-fu, groundbreaking digital effects, fear of technology, pounding industrial techno and wraparound shades makes it perhaps the ultimate ’90s movie: a little dated now, to be sure, but still lots of fun to revisit. Those pitiful sequels may have gone and ruined it all with impenetrable cod-philosophising and crusty rave chic, but for a little while this really did feel like the future of film.

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Battle Royale
2000
Kinji Fukasaku
The premise of kids killing each other in a government-supported game has now been popularized to billion-dollar effect with the (very good) “Hunger Games” franchise, but if we were going to choose one film in this tiny sub-genre, it was always going to be “Battle Royale.” The final film from Kinji Fukasaku sees a class of high school students fixed with explosive collars and forced to kill each other as part of a scheme intended to curb teen disobedience. Lean, bloody, and with terrific action sequences (Quentin Tarantino called it his favorite film of the previous two decades), it’s also more than a mere genre piece: the students, and even their teacher (a smartly-cast Takeshi Kitano) are sensitively and three-dimensionally drawn, and its power as metaphor, both examining the power of violence and the demonization of youth, elevates it far above the tales of Katniss & co. Indeed, it cut a little too close to the bone for many, and landing in the aftermath of Columbine, it wasn’t released in the U.S. for eleven years, and is banned in Germany to this day.

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Happy Accidents
2000
Brad Anderson
Ruby Weaver has man trouble: she tries to fix them, so she's stuck herself with a string of losers. Her current lover, Sam Deed, seems different: he's sweet, tender, just in from Dubuque. But, as Ruby tells her therapist about Sam, in flashbacks we see someone not quite of this world. In fact, Sam informs Ruby that he's from the future, 2470 to be exact. Ruby's sure he's delusional, but most of the time she wants to keep him - and maybe fix him. Although he seems sane, maybe Sam hasn't told her the real story: what's he up to, and who is Chrystie Delancey?

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Pitch Black
2000
David Twohy
Movies like ‘Pitch Black’ are the bedrock of sci-fi: it may not have the vaulting ambition of a ‘2001’ or even an ‘Alien’, with which it shares DNA, but this is an efficient and highly entertaining intergalactic monster mash. The setup – a group of mismatched travellers must battle the elements, each other and an army of toothy beasts to survive on a hostile world – is far from original, a fact of which co-writer and first-time director David Twohy was doubtless aware. But it’s all in the execution: the effects are bare-bones but effective, the performances rock solid and it all moves along at a pleasing clip. Best of all is the way Twohy toys with traditional sci-fi archetypes: the square-jawed cop turns out to be a drug-addict mercenary while the skinhead criminal – Vin Diesel’s growling Riddick – ends up the hero. A word of warning though: avoid the woeful sequels.

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Donnie Darko
2001
Richard Kelly
Amazingly, it’s been nearly 15 years since Richard Kelly’s indie genre-bender arrived, and though its legacy has been tarnished by an inferior Director’s Cut and the helmer’s questionable follow-ups, the film remains as original and enjoyable a creation as ever. Melding John Hughews David Lynch, and Albert Einstein into an ’80s-set tale of a troubled teen (Jake Gyllenhaal, in a star-making role) who receives visits from a sinister rabbit who may be trying to convince him to travel through time, it’s rich, funny, swooningly romantic stuff with a very fine cast (Patrick Swayze and Katharine Ross got well-deserved comeback roles, there’s a great cameo from producer Drew Barrymore, and keep an eye out for a young Seth Rogen as a bully), and a surprisingly melancholy tone. Kelly, just 26 when the film was released, handles things with real flair (and a great ear for song selection), and while the Director’s Cut only makes the mythology more impenetrable, it’s a fascinating sci-fi puzzle-box on top of everything else.

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AI: Artificial Intelligence
2001
Steven Spielberg
Given that it saw beloved director Steven Spielberg taking over a project from one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the history of the medium, the late Stanley Kubrick, it was inevitable that some would be disappointed by “A.I,” and it took a relatively long time for the film to be greeted as anything other than a missed opportunity. Fortunately, it’s now won a fair chunk of cinephiles over, and is certainly seen as, if not Spielberg’s most lovable work, then certainly one of his most interesting. Riffing loosely on “Pinocchio,” the film (which features Spielberg’s first sole screenplay credit since “Close Encounters”) follows Haley Joel Osment’s child ‘mecha,’ rejected by his real parents and heading out in search of a way to become a real boy. Misread and misinterpreted by critics on release, it now stands as a perfect meld of the two visionaries behind it and one of Spielberg’s most meticulous, complex, and haunting works, and one well worth revisiting if you rejected it first time around.

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Vanilla Sky
2001
Cameron Crowe
A self-indulgent and vain publishing magnate finds his privileged life upended after a vehicular accident with a resentful lover.

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The American Astronaut
2001
Cory McAbee
No money? No problem. Writer-director-star Cory McAbee used imaginative dodges – such as action sequences filmed as musical numbers in silhouette – to make up for a relatively small budget of between one and two million dollars (the exact figure remains sketchy). The film’s premise suggests high camp, ‘Barbarella’-style, but in fact this 35mm black-and-white effort combines kitschy elements with the roughneck machismo of a Western – imagine a tumbler of neat Jack Daniels with a cocktail umbrella perched inexplicably on the rim. McAbee's charmingly ramshackle antics slightly run out of steam by the end of a wisely brief 91 minute runtime, but this idiosyncratic yarn’s inspired highlights make it a must-see passion project for anyone who enjoys combing science fiction’s farthest shores for the weirder pieces of flotsam and jetsam.

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Minority Report
2002
Steven Spielberg
The second part of a masterful Spielberg sci-fi double bill, “Minority Report” was the helmer’s best blockbuster since “Jurassic Park,” but it also proved to be something more: an enormously inventive, unexpectedly funny procedural that delved into serious moral and philosophical issues in the way that all the best science fiction does. Based very loosely (about as loosely as “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall”) on a Philip K. Dick story, it’s set in a future where the police are able to stop murder before it takes place, only for the lead investigator (Tom Cruise) to be forced on the run when his name comes up. Scott Frank’s terrific script is a noirish, textured blend of mystery, action, and spectacle. It’s a harder-edged film than we’ve come to expect from Spielberg (at least until the slightly too-neat ending), but he, and his star, seems to relish the opportunity, tackling the film with a playfulness that had been lacking from much of his work in the years running up to this. The film’s so eerily prescient that it hasn’t aged a day, either.

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Solaris
2002
Steven Soderbergh
A massively complex, yet remarkably calm film, Steven Soderbergh‘s take on Stanislaw Lem‘s novel has taken some time to emerge from the shadow of Andrei Tarkovsky‘s very brilliant, but very different version. Starring an understated George Clooney as the semi-bewitched astronaut whose dead wife (Natasha McElhone) returns to him over and over again under the reality-warping influence of a nearby planet, “Solaris” is a tricky, slippery, overtly philosophical, and questioning story, but somehow the crisp intelligence of Soderbergh’s style helps us never to feel lost in its labyrinths. The film’s detractors often negatively compare its focus on the central relationship with the more overtly “big” questions its famous forbearer dealt in, and yet Soderbergh mines that seam with such single-minded intensity that he touches on universal truths within its boundaries. Unapologetically cerebral in its themes, and minutely considered in its pacing, “Solaris” exerts, like the planet from which it takes its name, an uncanny pull on the senses, and displays, for a genre usually defined by its clinical white surfaces, an enormous amount of soul.

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Signs
2002
M. Night Shyamalan
Many’s the argument we’ve had, much is the ridicule we’ve suffered, but we’ll say it again: M. Night Shyamalan‘s widely derided “Signs,” starring Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin, is great. However, since this film uses the oldest sci-fi trope (an alien invasion) to pry open faultlines of guilt, grief and lost faith within one fractured family, it’s easy to see where Shyamalan disappointed large swathes of his audience. While the film does feature a trademark 3rd act reveal (which is either strangely moving or dumb as hair), it’s not the destination but the journey that is the point here. A lot of the alien stuff does not work, but the story of an ex- preacher whose faith died with his wife and who is trying to protect his family from an invasion shows an admirable ambition to contend with the conundrum of life after death that rings true, sincere and peculiarly hopeful.

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The Matrix Reloaded/The Matrix Revolutions
2003
The Wachowski Brothers
/ The human city of Zion defends itself against the massive invasion of the machines as Neo fights to end the war at another front while also opposing the rogue Agent Smith.

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Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
2003
Jonathan Mostow
A cybernetic warrior from a post-apocalyptic future travels back in time to protect a 19-year old drifter and his future wife from a most advanced robotic assassin and to ensure they both survive a nuclear attack.

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Primer
2004
Shane Carruth
Made for a fraction of pretty much every other movie here (just $7,000), Shane Carruth’s directorial debut, “Primer,” is a startling and incredibly complex picture that completely re-energised the time-travel movie and immediately leapt to the forefront of the genre. The endearingly lo-fi picture sees a group of engineers accidentally create a device in their garage that can send them back in time, before falling out in spectacular fashion. Of course, that barely scratches the surface of the plot: it’s a dizzyingly dense film, to the extent that it can feel impenetrable at first, but as if mirroring the journey of its characters, it becomes more and more rewarding as you travel back for a second, third, or fourth go. Shot on 16mm (with enough stock that he could only shoot each scene once, which might explain why it’s a little rough around the edges in places, though that only adds to its chilly charm for us), it’s an uncompromising, completely fascinating picture, and that Carruth’s other sci-fi classic (more of which in a moment) is so wildly different is a testament to his immense talents.

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2004
Michel Gondry
We’re already firmly on the record with our endless adoration for Michel Gondry’s superlative investigation of love, regret, and memory (in fact our Oli Lyttelton wrote a lovely piece on the very personal connection he has to the film here). While the warmth and sorrowful humanism of the film are what stays with you, its intelligence and the elegance of its plotting can’t be overstated either. Giving Gondry’s lively visual imagination a license to play to its eccentric, practically-achieved strengths, Charlie Kaufman’s script nonetheless has the kind of focus and tightness that many of the director’s other features have lacked, and Jim Carrey’s against-type performance as the brokenhearted man desperately chasing after the memories of his relationship with Clementine (Kate Winslet) makes this a career high for all three, and a devastatingly beautiful, funny and melancholy film to boot. It’s the rare movie that has as much heart as it has creative smarts, and maybe twice the wisdom.

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2046
2004
Wong Kar-wai
Wispy and oblique even by the standards of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, “2046” is nevertheless as soul-tinglingly beautiful as we’ve come to expect from the master director, even if it doesn’t feel as substantial as it could have been. Essentially a sequel to his masterpiece “In The Mood For Love,” the film sees Tony Leung’s Chow return, now romancing (or sometimes not romancing) various women while penning a series of stories set in the year 2046. The meta-nature of the narrative means that the film is sci-fi only by the loosest sense, but it’s still a thrill to get to see Wong turn his hand to a neon fantasia of a future. And if the pieces don’t quite add up to a satisfying whole (the Cannes premiere was somewhat rushed, and there’s a slight sense that the film was never quite finished), it nevertheless captures the very particular kind of melancholy that only Wong can pull off.

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Serenity
2005
Joss Whedon
How in hell did ‘Serenity’ ever get made? Its parent TV show, cowboys-in-space adventure ‘Firefly’, had been cancelled two years previously after a mere 11 episodes. Its creator, Joss Whedon, had never directed a feature film before, and his one small-screen success, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, had itself just been kicked off the air. Yet still, someone at Universal Pictures thought it’d be a good idea to give Whedon a free hand and a parcel of cash to resurrect his baby as a standalone feature. It was a terrible economic decision, of course, as ‘Serenity’ predictably failed to recoup its budget. But it was a spectacular boon to those of us who adore Whedon’s idiosyncratic art: ‘Serenity’ is whip-smart, action-packed and wildly inventive. Following ‘The Avengers’, our Joss is now one of the most successful filmmakers in the world. We told you so.

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War of the Worlds
2005
Steven Spielberg
As Earth is invaded by alien tripod fighting machines, one family fights for survival.

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V For Vendetta
2005
James McTeigue
In a future British tyranny, a shadowy freedom fighter, known only by the alias of "V", plots to overthrow it with the help of a young woman. 

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A Scanner Darkly
2006
Richard Linklater
A higher-than-usual number of great sci-fi movies have been made from the work of legendary author Philip K. Dick, but few have been as faithful, or as weird, as Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly.” Set in a near-future where an undercover cop (a rarely-better Keanu Reeves) has infiltrated a group of junkies addicted to the hallucinatory Substance D, only to end up with a very Dick-ian identity crisis when he’s asked to spy on himself. Linklater reuses the rotoscoped-animation style he’d employed in ‘Waking Life,” enabling his wonderfully freaky visuals to melt and meld into each other, while his trademark looseness makes the film into a wonderful blend of stoner freak-out comedy and existential thriller. Featuring a killer supporting cast of Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder (the former in one of his last memorable pre-Tony Stark performances), it might not pack the emotional punch of the ‘Before’ trilogy or “Boyhood,” but it’s nevertheless one of the very best of the director’s career.

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Children of Men
2006
Alfonso Cuarón
Not just the best sci-fi movie of the last 15 years, but one of the best movies period, Alfonso Cuaron’s bravura dystopian masterpiece cemented the Mexican helmer’s status as not just a fast-rising star, but as one of our very, very best. Based on P.D. James’ novel, it’s set in a world where no children have been born in two decades, and society has collapsed as humanity waits to die out. Theo (Clive Owen) is entrusted with transporting a young immigrant woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who is pregnant, the first person in a generation to be so. Aside from its central premise, everything about “Children Of Men” is chillingly plausible, and Cuaron’s vision is brought to life seamlessly with subtle VFX and the never-bettered docudramish photography of Emmanuel Lubezki (including two of the greatest extended shots in cinema history). The cast, including Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Peter Mullan, and Danny Huston, are impeccable, it’s disarmingly funny, deeply sad, enormously exciting, fiercely political, and endlessly inventive, and people will be stealing from it for decades to come. Though many dismissed it on release as being too bleak, that was to miss the point: “Children Of Men” is a film about hope, and in the 21st century, we need all the hope we can get.

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The Host
2006
Bong Joon-ho
Bong has become more well known recently for directing the post-apocalyptic thriller Snowpiercer—but this story of a mutant creature terrorizing Korea is like a new Godzillafor the 21st century. Instead of being unleashed by atomic bomb tests, this monster is created by chemical spills and American imperialism, and the political satire is pretty intense. But this is also one of the all-time great monster movies, in which the fight against the creature is a thing of beauty and terror.

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The Fountain
2006
Darren Aronofsky
As a modern-day scientist, Tommy is struggling with mortality, desperately searching for the medical breakthrough that will save the life of his cancer-stricken wife, Izzi.

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The Prestige
2006
Christopher Nolan
Late 1800s London is the perfect setting for Christopher Nolan’s twisty tale of rival magicians. The Victorian age was an unprecedented time of scientific discovery, where the impossible was being made possible with every new invention – just like magic. A puzzle of a film, ‘The Prestige’ opens with a murder and unfolds in flashback. Alfred Bordern (Bale) and Robert Angier (Jackman) meet as young magicians’ apprentices. Driven by rivalry, for years they steal each other’s tricks, finally coming to blows over Bordern’s ‘The Transported Man’ illusion. Angier can’t figure it out, and insane with jealousy, asks the (real) inventor Nikola Tesla to build him a machine to compete with Bordern. But at what cost? Christopher Nolan pulls a rabbit out of the hat with a gripping, suspenseful ta-da finish.

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Sunshine
2007
Danny Boyle
After the success of “28 Days Later,” and before he became an Oscar-winner, Danny Boyle went into space for a bold vision that, while it isn’t entirely successful, is so transcendent when it hits that it more than deserves a place on this list. Following an international crew on a desperate expedition to try and reignite the sun, it has one of the best ensembles in the genre in recent years (Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, Hiroyuki Sanada, Mark Strong, et al), and then surrounds with arguably the most stunning, eye-searing imagery that Boyle’s ever produced. On first viewing, the film’s mix of more familiar genre tropes with more psychedelic, mind-bending, “2001”-ish elements doesn’t quite gel, but it’s a movie that grows deeper and richer on every viewing, especially when you turn up John Murphy and Underworld’s seminal score. The superficially similar “Interstellar” was arguably more polished and satisfying, but the fiery passion of “Sunshine” was too great for it not to show up here.

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Timecrimes
2007
Nacho Vigalondo
That said, “Primer” isn’t quite our favorite time-travel picture of the decade: that honor instead goes to another low-budget spin on the conceit, Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo’s twisty, twisted “Timecrimes.” The set-up sees Héctor (Karra Elajalde) go out to investigate a nude neighbor when his wife leaves the house, only to be stabbed by a mysterious bandaged figure, and then discovering that a scientist has built a time machine that can send him an hour back in time. A devious, tighly plotted, and frequently surprising little picture leavened with a sly sense of humor, it sees Vigalondo juggle tones and genres with a confidence that belies his status as a first-time filmmaker (although he’d been Oscar-nominated for his short film “7:35 de la Mañana”). In its low-budget ingenuity, it follows not just something like “Primer,” but also films like “Memento,” “Pi,” and even “Dark Star,” giving the film a scope and scale that belies its limited setting and cast, but more than anything, it’s just enormous fun to unpack and puzzle over.

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The Man From Earth
2007
Richard Shenkman
An impromptu goodbye party for Professor John Oldman becomes a mysterious interrogation after the retiring scholar reveals to his colleagues he has a longer and stranger past than they can imagine.

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WALL-E
2008
Andrew Stanton
Three years before ‘The Artist’ reminded audiences that silent films exist, Pixar played the neater trick of channelling the pre-talkie era into a cartoon. Having found fame with a string of films that featured garrulous, wisecracking characters, the studio returned to the mute critters of their early shorts: there’s as much ‘Luxo Jr.’ in ‘WALL-E’ as there is R2-D2.

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Cloverfield
2008
Matt Reeves
Love him or loathe him, J.J. Abrams undoubtedly has a feel for what audiences want from mainstream entertainment that few can match. But the secret of his Bad Robot factory isn’t so much in the choice of material as it is the strength of execution, and “Cloverfield” exemplifies that. Uniting two hugely talented Abrams collaborators, Drew Goddard (who wrote) and Matt Reeves (who directed), the film is the why-didn’t-I-think-of-that concept of “The Blair Witch Project” meets “Godzilla,” which was always going to connect. But it’s lasted — even growing in reputation— because Reeves’ direction is extraordinarily well-choreographed, capturing the chaos of disaster without making it incomprehensible, and because Goddard’s script finds the humanity among the people on the ground. For a film that could have just been a rollercoaster ride, it holds up incredibly well nearly a decade on.

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District 9
2009
Neill Blomkamp
Unable to manage their waste output, humans have evacuated Earth, leaving robots behind to clean up the mess. The film’s wonderfully atmospheric opening act follows the last remaining drone, WALL-E, as he silently goes about his Sisyphean task in this blasted, Chernobyl-inspired landscape – and the first line of dialogue only arrives 45 minutes in. The film sags somewhat when WALL-E joins the humans (read: Americans) on their spaceship (reportedly modelled on Dubai and Shanghai), but it remains Pixar’s boldest work by far.

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Moon
2009
Duncan Jones
Every generation has a low-key cult sci-fi debut or two that simply have the feel of future classics, and the 21st Century has had several, though none as satisfying and as worthy of revisiting as Duncan Jones’ brilliantly conceived, perfectly executed “Moon.” The spartan story of a lone astronaut (Sam Rockwell) manning a mining station on the far side of the moon, with only the station’s computer, voiced by Kevin Spacey, for a companion, who discovers he’s not as alone as he thought, (although perhaps he’s ultimately even more so), the film goes through subtle shifts in mood, from droll to creepy to all-out uncanny. It all orbits around Rockwell’s performance, though, and he is superb at wrangling depths and subtleties from a role that has him often alone and wordless, projecting the intense, almost existential weariness of a man so very far from home. Jones stayed with sci-fi for his follow up, “Source Code,” but while it’s a fun, twisty thriller take on the genre, it didn’t come anywhere close to matching the shimmery, enigmatic atmosphere of his supremely controlled debut space oddity.

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Star Trek
2009
JJ Abrams
In its later years, both on the large and small screen, the ‘Star Trek’ franchise had grown awfully po-faced – the final TV series, ‘Enterprise’, was unbearably dull and pompous, while the last two ‘Next Generation’ movies were tedious extended-episode trudges lacking any real emotion, freshness or – to quote James T Kirk’s dying words: ‘fun’. Of course, the hardcore Trekkers made an almighty fuss when TV mogul JJ Abrams came along and transformed their precious franchise into something the wider movie-going audience might actually enjoy, but it’s their loss. This ‘Star Trek’ is a blistering rollercoaster of a film, rocketing from set-piece to set-piece and having a barrel of in-jokey laughs reinventing the iconic characters we know and love. The sequel, ‘Into Darkness’, was a crass, fan-baiting mess, but we still hold out hope for the forthcoming part three, now that Abrams has jumped starship for a whole different galaxy.

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The Road
2009
John Hillcoat
In a dangerous post-apocalyptic world, an ailing father defends his son as they slowly travel to the sea.

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Avatar
2009
James Cameron
Director James Cameron has acknowledged that ‘Avatar’ has many influences, from the jungles of ‘Tarzan’ to the themes of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter series. But, typically, Cameron went and did it bigger and better than anyone else. Having come up with the idea in his ‘Titanic’ days, he literally waited for technology to catch up, requiring seriously sophisticated motion-capture photography and effects to plunge us into planet Pandora, along with the avatar of earthly soldier Jake Sully (Worthington). The results are awe-inspiring, especially in 3D, and scored the film Oscars for Cinematography, Visual Effects and Art Direction. ‘Avatar’ is more than just a spectacle however: it’s a familiar yet heart-warming story of a military man who switches sides after integrating with a peaceful people.

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Splice
2009
Vincenzo Natali
Genetic engineers Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast hope to achieve fame by successfully splicing together the DNA of different animals to create new hybrid animals for medical use.

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Beyond The Black Rainbow
2010
Panos Cosmatos
An instant trippy midnight movie favorite, and constructed entirely with the intention of being exactly that, “Beyond The Black Rainbow” does for mind-bending ‘70s sci-fi what “Berberian Sound Studio” or “Amer” did for giallo, paying homage and bringing it crashing into the 21st century. Directed by Panos Cosmatos, the son of “Rambo: First Blood Part II” and “Tombstone” director George, the plot, which loosely sees a new age scientist interrogating a young girl with telepathic powers who he’s kidnapped, is essentially beyond the point: this is a film of mood, atmosphere, and imagery, its meditative pace and hypnotic visuals making you feel like you’re on something strong even if you went in sober. It’s certainly style over substance, and you could argue that it wears its influences a little too strongly on its sleeve, but in our opinion, in drawing on everything from Jodorowsky and “2001” to Michael Mann and George Lucas, it adds up to something beautiful, fascinating, and a damn sight more interesting than 95% of genre fare out there.

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Inception
2010
Christopher Nolan
The most original, boldest, and unusual blockbuster of the 21st century so far, “Inception” is a deeply personal delve into the psyche of Christopher Nolan, an explosive, visually delirious action movie about grief and catharsis that somehow made $800 million worldwide. Tracking Leonardo DiCaprio’s dream-thief as he attempts to pull the biggest heist of his career in order to return home to his children and get past the death of his wife, it’s a thrilling, Bond-aping adventure with a rigorously constructed universe (too rigorous for some) and some of the most memorable images and set-pieces of 21st century cinema — up-ended Paris, the corridor fight, the waves on the beach, the spinning top. But it’s also the most expressionistic thing that Nolan’s made, melding the best cast he’s ever assembled, Hans Zimmer’s iconic score, and next-level editing into a grand symphony of the mind. Five years on, it feels more than ever that this might be Nolan’s masterpiece.

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Never Let Me Go
2010
Mark Romanek
A difficult, chilly film with a placid exterior hiding a vein of deep feeling, “Never Let Me Go” is one of the saddest films of the last decade and a remarkably sustained mood piece that grows more and more with each viewing. Adapted by future “Ex Machina” director Alex Garland from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel and directed by Mark Romanek, it follows three children in a grim Britain being raised in a remote boarding school who discover that they are clones being raised for the purpose of organ donation and are unlikely to live conventional lives. Some audiences couldn’t deal with the lead characters’ quiet acceptance of their fate, but it feels utterly appropriate to the quietly-fucked world that Romanek builds, and brought out by remarkable, deeply human performances by his three leads, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, delivering among their best work. It’s a deeply haunting film.

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Monsters
2010
Gareth Edwards
He’s about to head to a galaxy far, far away with “Rogue One,” and understandably so: Gareth Edwards made one of the most ambitious and striking directorial calling cards in recent memory with “Monsters.” Small in budget but huge in scope, it’s set in a world where alien creatures have made much of Central America a no-go area, and where an American (Scoot McNairy) is hired to find a wealthy young woman (Whitney Able) and bring her home. A low-key, intimate romance of unexpected feeling then unfolds, amid a backdrop of devastation, and if the script feels a little lacking sometimes, the chemistry between the leads (who married in real life), and Edwards’ kinship with the strange creatures leads to something that transcends the ‘Before Sunrise With Giant Aliens’ elevator pitch. It culminates in an ending that’s among the most strange and beautiful things we’ve seen on screen in recent years.

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Attack The Block
2011
Joe Cornish
So John Boyega is about to be one of the biggest sci-fi stars in the world, but to certain observers of inventive, low-budget British cinema, he already kind of is. As the MVP in writer/director Joe Cornish‘s absolutely terrific “Attack the Block,” (exec produced by Edgar Wright) Boyega, in his debut, inhabited Moses, the surly thug who goes from mugger to unlikely resistance leader when his council block comes under attack from aliens. Correction, from “big alien gorilla wolf motherfuckers.” But while he absolutely blisters in the film, never lapsing into anything as uncomplicated as a straight-up hero, “Attack the Block” is really a triumph of writing and directing, and the canny ability to shape a narrative that, while it’s about an alien invasion, of all the big, expensive-sounding things in the world, could be delivered on slender budget with no sense of compromise. In fact, the lo-fi feel significantly adds to the film’s effectiveness, as it becomes less a bombastic spectacle, and more an examination of character, pack mentality, and the survival instinct, when an outside menace forces uneasy alliances between natural enemies.

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Melancholia
2011
Lars von Trier
We’d suggest that Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” is the best of his recent run of work, in part because he’s less concerned with shocking his audience or busting through taboos. Apparently sparking from a bout of depression that the filmmaker suffered from, it echoes both its near-contemporary “Another Earth” and Don McKellar’s “Last Night,” telling the story of a bourgeois family attempting to deal with the end of world, that will be caused by a newly-discovered planet crashing into Earth. It’s emblematically a Lars Von Trier film, with all that entails, but there’s a maturity and a humanity that can sometimes be forgotten beneath his provocations, and a new influence of Altman and Chekhov that makes it feel richer than the short shark shop of “Antichrist.” New collaborators in Kirsten Dunst and DP Manuel Alberto Claro bring out the best in him too, adding up to a film that while bleak, is utterly, utterly beautiful.

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Another Earth
2011
Mike Cahill
In 2011, there suddenly came a new star in the indie sky: Brit Marling appeared as both cowriter and star of two films at that year’s Sundance that had at least sci-fi inflections. The new-agey-cult story “Sound of My Voice” from Zal Batmanglij may be even stronger, but for a robust sci-fi premise, “cult leader who may be from the future” is pipped at the post by “second Earth appears, inhabited by exact doubles of every person on the planet.” Mike Cahill‘s “Another Earth” was somewhat, erm, eclipsed by Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia,” but it is very different, with a less apocalyptically doomy atmosphere and a sense of intrigue regarding the possibility of redemption that this cleverly unexplained event might represent. Here, Marling’s student and William Mapother‘s composer collide in a tragic accident, and the knowledge that their two lives may be different on Earth 2 begins to look like a second chance.

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Looper
2012
Rian Johnson
Somewhat similar to “Sunshine,” “Looper” — Rian Johnson‘s third feature after breakout noir “Brick” and loopy, unloved “The Brothers Bloom” — is half of a truly brilliant, all-time sci-fi classic. Unlike Danny Boyle‘s film, however, here it’s the second half that really takes flight, leaving a far more satisfying dismount, and hence its higher placement. In fact it starts out fairly generic, with the faintly ludicrous premise that, time travel having been invented, its chief use is by the future mob, which sends its enemies back only to have them instantly, and tidily executed in the past, leaving no pesky incriminating body. One such executioner, however, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and some prosthetics, is faced with a dilemma when his future bosses send his older self (Bruce Willis) back to him. So far, so high-concept mummery, but in the second half, with the introduction of Emily Blunt and her gifted son, the film switches gears and becomes unexpectedly wonderful, a quiet and melancholic reflection on destiny, fate, and, of all the hoary sci-fi cliches in the world, sacrifice.

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Cloud Atlas
2012
The Wachowskis
An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.

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Interstellar
2013
Christopher Nolan
Perhaps one of the most hotly contested films, sci-fi or otherwise, in recent memory, Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” received a host of polarizing and emotionally hot reactions. Some claimed the picture his worst (our review wasn’t very charitable), some thought it was a vision from the heavens, and as usual, when the dust has settled, more mannered judgments have taken root (more of a consensus Playlist opinion forms here). So yes, Nolan shoots for the fences in “Interstellar” and arguably does not connect in the same home run fashion he has for so many pictures in a row now. The dialogue can be really on the nose, while the ending some see as jumping the shark. None of us will make too strong of a case against any of those points. That said, Nolan’s film is still a dazzling, ambitious vision of love, time, space, and some deeper, perhaps fuzzier elements of the universe. It’s the place where the heart and quantum physics meet. While that might admittedly be a bit of an awkward intersection, its love-letter sincerity to humanity inspired by Nolan’s own children is at least visually awe-inspiring and occasionally breathtaking. Admittedly clunky in spots, it’s a film that will very likely only grow in estimation over time.

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Gravity
2013
Alfonso Cuarón
While it’s true that Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” strictly speaking, does not fall into the sci-fi category (it uses existing tech and is set more or less contemporaneously), the space-set survival tale qualifies for us, more for the very sci-fi sense of wonder and curiosity it embodies. Immaculately shot by Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki, including the now famous, stiched-together “unbroken” sequence at the beginning, and convincingly performed by an assured and sympathetic Sandra Bullock, the film has its flaws — some clunky dialogue and a slightly misbegotten detour with George Clooney’s character. But its poetry is all in its images, which amount to the most ravishing evocation of being alone in space we’ve ever witnessed, and a best-ever, ever use of IMAX 3D. In fact, perhaps it qualifies as sci-fi more for the manner of its creation than for its (admittedly slim, but still) resonant story — the rigs, sets, and cg whizzery required to bring it to such immaculately realistic life are already legendary.

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Her
2013
Spike Jonze
Proving once again that some of the greatest sci-fi happens when the genre cross-pollinates with another, or several others, Spike Jonze’s lovely, intimate film is just as much an indie love story and a journey of self-discovery as it is a traditional sci-fi movie. Starring a tremulous Joaquin Phoenix in one of the finest and most sympathetic performances of an already stellar career, it also features voice acting work from Scarlett Johansson that is so evocative we remember the Operating System she plays (Samantha) as being as real as she is to Phoenix’s Theodore — one of the only times we really recall considering a voice-only performance as potentially awards-worthy. There’s a quiet intelligence to Jonze’s probing of our relationship with our machines, but mostly it’s a film marked out by its unusual grace in recognising how, in the face of our growing dependence on technology, we are somehow more fallibly human than ever.

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Upstream Color
2013
Shane Carruth
One of only three directors to have two entries on this list (and the budgets for both of his titles combined could comfortably fit 50 times over into those of most all the others), Shane Carruth followed up his spectacularly brainy “Primer” with the spectacularly brainy “Upstream Color,” which broadens its scope, and therefore its reach, to warp the heart as well as the mind. A very, very, very offbeat love story, it follows a man (played by Carruth himself) and a woman (Amy Seimetz) who fall for each other helplessly but discover their mutual attraction is at least partly to do with a symbiotic link to a herd of pigs, the biology of a mutant strain of orchid, the poetry of Walt Whitman, and a bizarre hypnosis/heist scheme. Full of wonder and scientific curiosity at the uncanny nature of love, and investigating it so minutely that its mathematics themselves become beautiful, we may not be able to answer defintively what it all means, but the film’s pervasive mood and lingering sustain (down to the polyglot Carruth’s gauzy cinematography and self-composed ambient score) means it’s a pleasure to continue puzzling it out, even all this time later.

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Under The Skin
2013
 Jonathan Glazer
The set-up is fairly simple: an alien lands on Earth and tries to fit in while also having to sate an appetite for human flesh by assuming the form of a beautiful woman (Johansson) and luring keen men to their deaths. But the beauty of Jonathan Glazer’s film is how unfamiliar the whole sci-fi element feels (visually and sonically – Mica Levi’s score is excellent), while the setting of drab, rainy contemporary Scotland couldn’t feel more familiar. Glazer’s use of special effects to depict the way in which Johansson’s alien gobbles up her victims – we see them walking into what looks like a lake of oil – is strange and mysterious. Like much superior sci-fi, the genre elements mainly exist to cast new light on our world as it is. Here, the most powerful moments are when Johansson interacts with the Scottish locals (some of them non-actors and filmed secretly) and when we’re pushed to reconsider the nature of sex, love, desire and attraction.

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The World's End
2013
Edgar Wright
Easily the most divisive of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Cornetto Trilogy, the third, darkest and most sci-fi installment is less eager to please than the earlier films, but feels more resonant over time. Following wash-out Gary King (Pegg in his greatest performance)’s attempt to reunite his old friends for a once-aborted pub crawl around his hometown, only to discover that the place has been steadily taken over by robots, the film sees Wright’s craft reaching greater heights (the fight scenes are world class) and finding a newly melancholy tone in his work that feels like new ground. And if you’re looking for an insight into the British psyche that caused the self-destructive decision to go for Brexit, look no further than Gary King scorching the earth and telling the alien consciousness to “fuck off back to Legoland” in order to achieve self-determination.

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Coherence
2013
James Ward Byrkit
An inventive puzzle-box of an indie that’s still sadly underseen, “Coherence” feels like it should get the kind of ever-growing cult audience that “Primer” picked up over the years. Directed by Gore Verbinski collaborator James Ward Byrkit, it’s the kind of film that works best the less you know about it. But broadly speaking, it focuses on a well-to-do L.A. dinner party (“Buffy” actor Nicholas Brendon being the most recognizable face) that must tackle a quantum-physics-tastic situation when a comet passes overhead. It’s ingeniously written and resourcefully made, with Byrkit stripping the story right down to its bones, but without making the characters or dialogue feel perfunctory. Yet it’s narratively satisfying in a way that mind-benders of this type aren’t always, ending on a lingering note of existential dread that feels deeply earned. It’s rough around the edges, and yet few low-budget sci-fi pics feel as accomplished or exciting.

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Edge of Tomorrow
2014
Doug Liman
Taking “Groundhog Day” and giving it a sci-fi twist (more effectively than Duncan Jones’ “Source Code” a few years earlier), Doug Liman’s excellent blockbuster “Edge Of Tomorrow” picks up Tom Cruise’s dickish PR guy and drops him in the midst of a D-Day-style battle against an impossible alien threat, then makes him live it (and perish in it) over and over again. The film was the best use of Cruise’s star persona in aeons (serving almost as a metaphor for the redemption of his own stardom), but the secret weapon, aside from a cunning evocation of video game tropes, the best alien warfare since “Starship Troopers,” and crystal clear direction from a back-on-form Liman, was Emily Blunt as the “full metal bitch,” making a strong case that she deserves to be the biggest star in the world. The film didn’t find the theatrical audience it deserved at home, but more and more people are catching on over time.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
2014
Matt Reeves
After Tim Burton’s dreadful 2001 version, few had high hopes for the second reboot of the classic “Planet Of The Apes” series in a decade when Rupert Wyatt’s “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” arrived. But the film was a quiet, unexpectedly moving triumph, and was then exceeded on every front by Matt Reeves’ follow-up, one of the few sequels that trumps the original. Picking up after the ape-pocalypse, as Caesar (Andy Serkis) is forced to confront humanity again, as well as a new threat closer to home, the movie, even more than its predecessor, takes full advantage of the stunning performance-capture technology, which reaches something of an apex here. Beyond that, it’s also simply a remarkably well-told story: a rare summer blockbuster in which you actively root against violence taking place, with a borderline Shakespearean arc for its non-human hero, and Reeves’ stylish-but-unshowy filmmaking chops steering things beautifully.

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Snowpiercer
2014
Bong Joon-ho
In these days when the phrase “based on a comic book” has more or less become a guarantee of a plasticky, soulless “product” rather than a film, it helps to remember that it also describes Bong Joon-ho’s magnificently weird “Snowpiercer.” As was its French-language source (“Transpierceneige“), the film is a meaty allegory for the class struggle as the remnants of a ruined civilization live aboard a train speeding through the dystopian snowscape, the rich literally compartmentalized away from the poor. Featuring a wittily cast Captain America in Chris Evans, and a grotesquely made-up Tilda Swinton in its large international ensemble, the film is one of the most original and defiantly idiosyncratic sci-fi films ever to see the inside of a multiplex, however briefly. It had a rough time of it, but as the visionary Bong’s biggest film to date (his monster mash “The Host,” made it onto our Best Horrors list), the tales of its troubled journey en route to a haphazard, undersold release feel like they will only contribute to the film’s growing status as an underseen classic in years to come.

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I Origins
2014
Mike Cahill
A molecular biologist and his laboratory partner uncover evidence that may fundamentally change society as we know it.

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Predestination
2014
Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig
And here’s a sort of companion piece to Looper and Twelve Monkeys—the Spierig Brothers took Robert A. Heinlein’s classic, definining story of time travel and transformation, and actually managed to turn it into a powerful, satisfying movie. What makes this film more than just the clever closed-loop time travel scenario its title implies is the intense performance from Sarah Snook as the “Unwed Mother.”

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Ex Machina
2015
Alex Garland
Having had his hand in some of the most distinctive genre movies of the last couple of decades, writer Alex Garland (“Sunshine,” “28 Days Later,” “Dredd,” “Never Let Me Go”) exceded himself with this, his directorial debut and the most recent movie on our list (it’s still in theaters — go see it!). A wire-taut, ever-shifting three-hander about a programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) who’s invited down to the remote Alaskan hideaway of his genius boss (Oscar Isaac), only to discover he’s there to administer the Turing Test to an AI. It’s a tricksy little picture, starting off as an examination of the creation of sentient life and ending up as a parable of the terrible ways that men treat women, but that shouldn’t suggest that Garland ever lets the film out of his control. Neither his script or his direction stray off the path he intends, and he plays the audience like a fiddle as a result. Complete with three stellar performances and an unforgettable dance scene, if there’s a better sci-fi film this year, we’ll have to rearrange our list.

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Mad Max: Fury Road
2015
George Miller
A year ago, this spot probably would have gone to the second Mad Maxmovie, The Road Warrior, but that was before Fury Road defied all expectations with its commanding action sequences and the resounding appeal of determined War Rig driver, Furiosa. Franchise director George Miller returns to his ideas of wasteland denizens scrabbling for survival years after wars over oil, this time to tear down images of sexual subjugation and discrimination. Sounds like a message movie, but what Fury Road really wants to drive home is the War Rig, right into tyrant Immortan Joe's skull.

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The Martian
2015
Ridley Scott
And finally, we just saw a brand new science fiction masterpiece. Like Gravity(which we almost included on this list as well) this is a brutal, immersive film about surviving away from Earth. But it’s also a wonderful celebration of the ingenuity and cleverness of a man who’s stranded alone on Mars and has to figure out how to survive by his wits alone. The humor and desperation make this movie a rollercoaster ride, as much as its thrilling visuals.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens
2015
JJ Abrams
Revitalizing the “Star Wars” franchise, that took such a massive body hit with the prequels, may seem “merely” a matter of not-screwing-up but it’s actually semi-miraculous that with so much at stake JJ Abrams & co managed it. ‘The Force Awakens’ is new but also old, progressive but also traditional, nostalgic but also optimistic, and the sense of wide-open adventure that it shares with the original trilogy is exhilarating and infectious. Bringing prior cast members Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill back for a victory lap, really it works as a baton-pass to the next generation, irresistibly embodied by John Boyega and Daisy Ridley. Casting those actors as the new “Star Wars” stars might be as obvious a nod to modernity as it’s possible to make, but getting to finally watching a girl and a black guy tossing a light saber to each other while trying on blockbuster heroism for size is so very much not nothing either.

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Arrival
2016
Denis Villeneuve
A linguist is recruited by the military to assist in translating alien communications.

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Midnight Special
2016
Jeff Nichols
The most “science fiction-y” bells and whistles in Jeff Nichols‘ thrumming, low-key “Midnight Special” may be the weakest elements of the film, but the overall mood —a yearning for understanding beyond what we know— is potent enough to warrant a placement here. Much was made in advance of the film’s debts to Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter —perhaps too much, in the sense that it disappointed those who went in hoping to scratch the kind of ’80s childish-wonder/horror itch that Netflix’s “Stranger Things” does so effectively. In fact, Nichols’ film, which stars Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst and Jaeden Lieberher, is far more thoughtful and introspective. The otherworldly elements —a child with supernatural powers, a government conspiracy, extra-terrestrial communiques— function as merely a science fiction framework allowing Nichols to probe the concept of fatherhood to a painfully personal degree, as well as the existential dilemmas that raising a child can pose.

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