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From Stanley Kubrick to James Cameron: The 10 greatest science fiction films of all time

@LeeThomasMason

Science fiction, a genre that has existed since the early years of silent cinema, has been raising the bar of expectations for decades.

The likes of Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Ridley Scott have been building on the emphatic work which preceded them via iconic directors such as Stanley Kubrick and Fritz Lang who stepped up the genre to new levels. All of the above, it has to be said, are following in the footsteps of Georges Méliès, a director who created Le Voyage dans la Lune in 1902, a project that is often considered to be the first-ever science fiction film.

Although it took several decades before sci-fi was taken seriously within the motion picture industry, the genre has since become a precious commodity and a staple of modern cinema, pulling in large audiences and even larger box office receipts. While the significant developments in technology have aided the growth of sci-fi, the recurring themes of political and social issues, time travel and philosophical issues like the human condition all remain in some form or another.

With huge budgets and major Hollywood names being linked to some of the greatest cinematic moments in history, we’re exploring what is considered to be the top ten science fiction films of all time by the prestigious and highly-respected American Film Institute. Described as “America’s promise to preserve the heritage of the motion picture,” the AFI has been acting as a nonprofit educational arts organisation since it was founded back in 1965.

Given the research conducted and the opinion of AFI board members, we’re exploring the top ten sci-fi films of all time.

The 10 greatest science fiction films of all time:

10. Back to the Future – (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)

Released in 1985 and directed by Robert Zemeckis, Back to the Future was written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale as they kickstarted the franchise of a modern classic.

Starring the likes of Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover, the film went on to gross more than $381 million worldwide at the box office and received three Academy Award nominations, winning the gong for Best Sound Effects Editing.

Official Film Synopsis: “Small-town California teen Marty McFly is thrown back into the ’50s when an experiment by his eccentric scientist friend Doc Brown goes awry.

“Traveling through time in a modified DeLorean car, Marty encounters young versions of his parents and must make sure that they fall in love or he’ll cease to exist.”

9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers(Don Siegel, 1956)

Directed by the great Don Siegel and produced by Walter Wanger, Invasion of the Body Snatchers stars the likes of Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter in a black-and-white epic that plays on elements of film noir.

After struggling to make an impact upon its initial release, Siegel’s effort has gained in notoriety for its brilliance in more recent years, a film very much ahead of its time.

Official Film Synopsis: “In Santa Mira, California, Dr. Miles Bennell is baffled when all his patients come to him with the same complaint: their loved ones seem to have been replaced by emotionless impostors.

“Despite others’ dismissive denials, Dr. Bennell, his former girlfriend Becky and his friend Jack soon discover that the patients’ suspicions are true: an alien species of human duplicates, grown from plant-like pods, is taking over the small town.”

8. Terminator 2: Judgment Day(James Cameron, 1991)

It wouldn’t have been a sci-fi list without a James Cameron film making its way in there. Directed by Cameron, who also co-wrote it alongside William Wisher, Terminator 2 famously stars the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, and Edward Furlong.

Dark, serious, but also camp and ridiculous, James Cameron strikes the perfect balance that every late 20th-century action movie strived for, using his then-unprecedented budget of $102million to create one of cinema’s greatest ever characters. It certainly helped that Arnold Schwarzenegger already felt like a strange, extraterrestrial robot, towering over his co-stars in stature whilst talking with a strange, static monotone. Though much of what makes The Terminator such an icon of science fiction is in the character design and artwork that would become ubiquitous with the fear of autonomous technology. 

Official Film Synopsis: “In this sequel set eleven years after ‘The Terminator’, young John Connor, the key to civilisation’s victory over a future robot uprising, is the target of the shape-shifting T-1000, a Terminator sent from the future to kill him.

“Another Terminator, the revamped T-800, has been sent back to protect the boy. As John and his mother go on the run with the T-800, the boy forms an unexpected bond with the robot.”

7. Alien(Ridley Scott, 1979)

Enter Ridley Scott with a 1979 sci-fi epic which added a new factor to the genre with its breathtaking cinematography and would be a significant factor Scott would carry with him going forward.

Based on a story by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, Alien tells the story of a deadly and violently aggressive extraterrestrial set loose on the ship.

Transcending genre and cinematic form, this iconic tagline for Ridley Scott’s Alien echoes around the cultural zeitgeist as an ominous reminder of the enigmatic nature of outer space, even 42 years after the release of the original film. Spawning sequels, spin-offs and video games that continue to terrify sci-fi lovers to this day, Scott’s original film would come to define a whole new form of the genre, one that focused on the slimy otherworldly horrors of the cosmos rather than its bombastic fantasy joys. 

Official Film Synopsis: “In deep space, the crew of the commercial starship Nostromo is awakened from their cryo-sleep capsules halfway through their journey home to investigate a distress call from an alien vessel.

“The terror begins when the crew encounters a nest of eggs inside the alien ship. An organism from inside an egg leaps out and attaches itself to one of the crew, causing him to fall into a coma.”

6. Blade Runner(Ridley Scott, 1982)

We mentioned Ridley Scott and, more poignantly, his dramatic cinematography and that was defined by his brilliant 1982 film Blade Runner.

Set in the dystopian future, Scott’s film enjoyed a star-studded cast with names like Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer and Sean Young and was loosely based on a novel by Philip K. Dick.

Scott’s film is a flawed masterpiece because, for the most part, it is obsessed with the spectacle of Dick’s imagination rather than the depth of his philosophical concerns. To be fair, the brilliant production design is an essential part of Blade Runner’s moody atmosphere which proves to be conducive to multiplicities of interpretations in the minds of the audience.

Within that aesthetic framework, we are forced to confront our historical as well as future tendencies to annihilate the Other. If replicants are the next step in the evolutionary ladder, humanity has to accept its looming obsolescence but it chooses to create unnecessary distinctions like “empathy tests” to preserve the status quo. If empathy is the key to being human, a lot of human beings would not qualify.

Official Film Synopsis: “Deckard is forced by the police boss to continue his old job as Replicant Hunter. His assignment: eliminate four escaped Replicants from the colonies who have returned to Earth.

“Before starting the job, Deckard goes to the Tyrell Corporation and he meets Rachel, a Replicant girl he falls in love with.”

5. The Day the Earth Stood Still – (Robert Wise, 1951)

Also known as Farewell to the Master and Journey to the World, this is black-and-white science fiction film directed by Robert Wise is based on the Harry Bates short story ‘Farewell to the Master’ which was published in the 1940s.

With a screenplay written by Edmund H. North, The Day the Earth Stood Still strs the likes of  Michael Rennie, Billy Gray, Hugh Marlowe, Patricia Neal and more.

Official Film Synopsis: “When a UFO lands in Washington, D.C., bearing a message for Earth’s leaders, all of humanity stands still. Klaatu has come on behalf of alien life who have been watching Cold War-era nuclear proliferation on Earth.

“But it is Klaatu’s soft-spoken robot Gort that presents a more immediate threat to onlookers. A single mother and her son teach the world about peace and tolerance in this moral fable, ousting the tanks and soldiers that greet the alien’s arrival.”

4. A Clockwork Orange – (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

What more can be said about the Stanley Kubrick disturbing dystopian film that hasn’t already been said? Adapted, produced, and directed by Kubrick himself, the film is based on Anthony Burgess’ novel of the same name and sent shockwaves around the film industry upon its release.

Set in a dystopian Britain, the film’s protagonist is Alex DeLarge. Alex is the leader of a band of delinquents who spend their evenings drinking milk-plus at the Korova Milk bar before indulging in extreme acts of “ultra-violence” which includes thrashing older men and mercilessly raping women.

As Alex and his droogs set out for a fun night, they beat an old drunkard black and blue before warring with Billy-boy and his gang. Heading west, they invade Mr Alexander’s home, raping his wife and crippling him in the process. Alex, however, incurs the displeasure of his droogs who conspire against him and, while he tries to flee a crime scene when the police are alerted, they betray him, leaving him out for capture. Soon Alex is taken into custody where he becomes the subject of aversion therapy. He is coerced to watch violent films of torture and gore which is accompanied by his favourite Ludwig van Beethoven’s 9th symphony

Official Film Synopsis: “In an England of the future, Alex and his ‘Droogs’ spend their nights getting high at the Korova Milkbar before embarking on “a little of the old ultraviolence,” while jauntily warbling “Singin’ in the Rain.”

“After he’s jailed for bludgeoning the Cat Lady to death, Alex submits to behavior modification technique to earn his freedom; he’s conditioned to abhor violence. Returned to the world defenceless, Alex becomes the victim of his prior victims.”

3. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial(Steven Spielberg, 1982)

From the disturbing to the light-hearted, up steps Steven Spielberg with his family-friendly picture which emerged as an instant box office blockbuster and dethroned Star Wars when it became the highest-grossing film of all time.

With mind-bending special effects from Carlo Rambaldi and Dennis Muren, E.T. remains an all-time classic and a timeless tale of friendship.

Official Film Synopsis: “After a gentle alien becomes stranded on Earth, the being is discovered and befriended by a young boy named Elliott. Bringing the extraterrestrial into his suburban California house, Elliott introduces E.T., as the alien is dubbed, to his brother and his little sister, Gertie, and the children decide to keep its existence a secret.

“Soon, however, E.T. falls ill, resulting in government intervention and a dire situation for both Elliott and the alien.”

2. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope(George Lucas, 1977)

Perhaps the least surprising addition to this list, Stars Wars directed by the great George Lucas has etched its name into the everlasting cinematic legacy even if some people continue to squeeze every last drop of profit out of the franchise with the modern releases.

Starring the likes of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and more, Stars Wars pioneered a new age of science-inspired cinema with its release in 1977.

Official Film Synopsis: “The Imperial Forces—under orders from cruel Darth Vader—hold Princess Leia hostage, in their efforts to quell the rebellion against the Galactic Empire. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, captain of the Millennium Falcon, work together with the companionable droid duo R2-D2 and C-3PO to rescue the beautiful princess, help the Rebel Alliance, and restore freedom and justice to the Galaxy.”

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey – (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Stanley Kubrick is back on our list again and this time he takes the top spot with his daring, pioneering and future predicting masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey is the work of a visionary who had transcended the limitations of his position in human history. At the time of its release, audiences and critics could not decide whether that was a good thing or not. It was so popular among college students who consumed psychoactive substances before entering the theatre that the marketing team decided to call it “the ultimate trip”. However, the primary reason why 2001 is still regarded as one of the most influential cinematic masterpieces of all time is the force of Kubrick’s philosophical investigations and the brilliance of his translation of those abstract ideas to the cinematic medium.

Undoubtedly one of the most influential films of all time, 2001 was written by Kubrick alongside the great Arthur C. Clarke, loosely based on Clarke’s short story ‘The Sentinel’. Nominated for four Academy Awards but only winning Best Special Visual Effects, this film goes down as another Kubrick effort which was bizarrely underestimated upon its immediate release and grew in its stature as years have gone by.

Official Film Synopsis: “An imposing black structure provides a connection between the past and the future in this enigmatic adaptation of a short story by revered sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke.

“When Dr. Dave Bowman and other astronauts are sent on a mysterious mission, their ship’s computer system, HAL, begins to display increasingly strange behaviour, leading up to a tense showdown between man and machine that results in a mind-bending trek through space and time.”