With the tragic news of Leonard Nimoy’s passing over the weekend, Trekkies everywhere are in mourning, and non-Trekkies are confronted at every turn with the legacy of a pop culture legend. Even President Barack Obama himself released a statement in honor of the fallen Mister Spock.
Personally, I’m not the biggest Star Trek fan. I liked the J.J Abrams 2009 reboot, not enough to go out and see its 2013 sequel, but that still probably proves more than anything how little I fit into the Trekkie subculture, since I didn’t object to Abrams’s interpretation. It’s not that I particularly dislike the franchise, but science fiction in general just isn’t my go-to genre.
In any case, I think we can all agree that it’s appropriate to celebrate a man who’s brought joy to so many people. And, so, this list of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made is dedicated to the memory of the late and great Leonard Simon Nimoy. Even though sci-fi isn’t my favorite, I was still forced to turn this “Top Ten” list into a “Top Eleven” because each of these movies is simply too great to leave any one of them out.
- Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968)
Love him or hate him, Charlton Heston has proven himself in the original Planet of the Apes and Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973) that he was, is, and always will be the ultimate “twist ending” actor in sci-fi history. Unfortunately, the Apes finale has been parodied so many times that it has lost its power over the years, when astronaut George Taylor finally realizes that he has not crash-landed on an alien planet, but on a post-apocalyptic Earth overrun by sentient primates. The twist was so meaningful because the film came out during the Cold War (1945-1990), when the United States and the Soviet Union were poised to end the world with nuclear annihilation and mutation, costing mankind its own humanity and reducing ourselves to animals.
Apes has spawned a wealth of remakes and companion pieces, with another sequel scheduled for a 2017 release date. In a sci-fi universe, even a movie about talking monkeys has intelligent and allegorical things to say to our society.
- Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010)
Inception has not had as much time to age into a classic as Planet of the Apes has had, but the very title of the movie has become so ingrained in popular vernacular that any and all mindbenders shall forever be termed “fill-in-the-blank-ception.” We’re talking about a movie that’s less than five years old here. Though not Nolan’s masterpiece (that distinction belongs to The Dark Knight (2008)), Inception is still better than The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and far and away better than the grossly overrated Interstellar (2014).
In fact, I was so disappointed in Interstellar that I was hesitant to watch Inception ever again, for fear that it would not be as good as I had remembered it and that The Dark Knight works only because of the Batman source material. I was wrong. Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight is so unbeatable that it won him a posthumous Academy Award, but Inception makes up for its failings with ample imagination, showcasing Nolan’s talent and creativity and perhaps justifying the pretentiousness on display in Interstellar.
- David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986)
I love horror movies, especially the older ones where the practical special effects may look less real than CGI, but at least they feel more real. Still, even this one is too much for me. Jeff Goldblum’s agonizing transformation into a human-insect hybrid rightly earned Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis that year’s Oscar for Best Makeup.
- James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009)
Say what you will about the film’s originality (or lack thereof) and writer-director James Cameron’s overall weaknesses as a filmmaker, but the highest-grossing movie ever made has got to be doing something right, and, when the previous record-holder was Cameron’s own Titanic (1997), then he’s got to know what he’s doing. Avatar’s visual effects are so potent that the self-anointed “King of the World” waited years for the technology to develop before he pursued his vision, and, like it or not, that vision has paved the way for modern filmmaking.
Two sequels are planned for Avatar, with the first one due to arrive in 2017 (what a year for movies that’ll be).
- James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) (no relation to Anna Gunn; I checked)
Superhero films are a hotbed for debate, such as whether or not our culture is oversaturated with them, and how to even classify them. They contain elements of adventure flicks, but, according to some, even those are more of a “cycle” than they are a proper “genre,” since they privilege the journey narrative and character development over pure spectacle and are thus not quite the same thing as “action” movies. That being said, Guardians of the Galaxy may be the most controversial entry on this list – can a superhero movie truly be a sci-fi movie? – but I will argue here that, yes, it can be, if for no other reason than that Guardians is as indebted to classic sci-fi as it is to its Marvel comic book.
With its nostalgic soundtrack, Saturday morning cartoon feel, and Chris Pratt’s literally stellar performance as Peter “Star-Lord” Quill, Guardians is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise overexposed and self-serious genre. How many Spider-Man movies does the world really need? If superhero films are the way of the future, then Guardians of the Galaxy makes them fun and exciting to watch again, something to look forward to rather than something to roll your eyes at.
- Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971)
My personal favorite out of every candidate on this list, A Clockwork Orange is difficult to reconcile with the conventions of science fiction, since it is more satirical than anything else. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is more overtly sci-fi than Clockwork, but the techno Beethoven remixes on Clockwork’s soundtrack indicate its futuristic setting (Kubrick was a director who valued music in his films as much as he did image), and the fact that anyone who’s ever listened to classical music in the present day can relate to this borderline surrealistic nightmare, is what makes it so disturbing. The anxieties surrounding the Cold War and the Atomic Age made for some good sci-fi – A Clockwork Orange is based upon the 1962 Anthony Burgess novel of the same name, which is written completely in the fictional dialect of “Nasdat,” an offshoot of English and Russian that Burgess anticipated for British youth after what he predicted to be the fall of the West to the totalitarian USSR.
A Clockwork Orange stays relevant because it does not date itself, like James DeMonaco’s The Purge (2013) does when it sets itself in the year 2022; after 2022, when America realizes that “The Purge” never happened (or that it never was going to happen), it will become even more laughable than it already is now. Yes, the Soviets ended up losing the Cold War and today’s Western kids don’t speak to each other in Russian slang, but who’s to say what the world will be like another century from now? What’s important about A Clockwork Orange is not its technical details, but its overarching dystopian theme of a government denying its people the capacity to do wrong, and thus denying its people free will – something the government is already doing by invading people’s privacy arbitrarily.
- James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Just like The Fly is the rare remake that’s superior to its original, T2 is the rare sequel that’s better than the first one. Jim Cameron’s second film on this list cemented former California Governor Arnold “Ah-Nold” Schwarzenegger’s acting legacy as the titular Terminator, a time-travelling cyborg assassin. Its box office returns were a record-setting 434 percent increase over The Terminator (1984).
He said he’d be back.
- Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979)
This is the picture that sealed Sigourney Weaver’s fate. The thrice Oscar-nominated actress will go down in history as Ellen Ripley, the kick-ass protagonist of the Alien film series. Some might argue (including Weaver herself) that James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens (1986), is the better movie, but, when people think about Alien, they remember John Hurt’s chest-bursting sequence from the first one (which is just as hard to watch after repeat viewings).
(Also, Aliens would’ve given James Cameron three spots on this list).
An upcoming Alien sequel from Twentieth Century-Fox has been confirmed with Neill Blomkamp as the director (District 9 (2009), CHAPPiE (2015)). Weaver is rumored to reprise her star-making role as Ripley, and it is a separate film from Scott’s own prequel, Prometheus 2. Instead, Blomkamp’s film will take place in between the events of the first two Alien films.
- Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
With 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2005’s War of the Worlds under his belt, Spielberg is a sci-fi kingpin (more like an “everything” kingpin, with a study finding that more Oscar acceptance speeches give thanks to Spielberg than they do to God). Like the alien in the basket on the front of Henry Thomas’s bike, E.T. makes audiences’ spirits soar across the moon in what Empire named “cinema’s most magical moment.” It made Spielberg’s career take off, too – his film and television company, Amblin Entertainment, uses the shot as its symbol.
- Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
A lot of people misremember a lot of things about this movie – you most likely thought that George Lucas directed it, or that James Earl Jones’s line is “No, Luke, I am your father,” or that Star Wars is a sci-fi saga. Technically, Star Wars is a space opera, which, like the difference between adventure films and action films, is not exactly the same thing as sci-fi, but, like Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Wars is still rooted in the sci-fi genre (drawing many of its techniques from Frederick Stephani’s serialized Flash Gordon (1936)). In fact, its fiction paved the way for actual science – former President (and B-movie actor) Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) nicknamed the Strategic Defense Initiative “Star Wars,” and he referred to the Communists in a speech as an “evil empire” à la Ian McDiarmid’s villainous Emperor Palpatine.
The third sequel or remake on this list, The Empire Strikes Back beats out George Lucas’s original Star Wars (1977) (and anything in the prequel trilogy) because it mythologizes the fictional universe. Quoth Yoda (Frank Oz), “Do, or do not – there is no try.” Here’s to hoping J.J. Abrams produces something equally transcendent with The Force Awakens (2015).
- Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)
Metropolis is not just the greatest sci-fi movie ever filmed. It also ranks among the greatest silent films ever made, as well as the greatest films in general. An exercise in German Expressionism (as can be seen in the architecture of its theatrical set design), its epic-length runtime was revolutionary in its day, and it set the standard for politicized science fiction in cinema with its class warfare storyline at a time when the interwar Weimar Republic was economically depressed (leading to the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany with promises of employment for German voters, which, like Robot Maria (Brigitte Helm), seduced the Germans into forsaking their own children, their own later generations).
Lang’s influence is visible to this day, in the music video of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” (2009), for example, when Gaga climbs out of a wheelchair looking just like Robot Maria.
Honorable mention goes out to Gary Ross’s The Hunger Games (2012), Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985), and, of course, Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Sci-fi can do everything from entertain to provoke thought, sometimes both at the same time. Whatever your opinions are on the genre, when it is done well, it can represent cinema at its most… well… cinematic.