Their list is, for the most part, a pretty good list! And yet, I disagree with it! Naturally! So, let’s have at it: here is my personal list of the top fifteen sci-fi movies. I will go in reverse order, with comment.
15. Flash Gordon
Recently seen and written about! This is almost my platonic ideal of an afternoon fun movie, the kind of thing I watched on a Saturday afternoon as a kid with either a bowl of popcorn or a can of Planters Cheez-Ballz. I have never not loved this movie.
14. Galaxy Quest
Some people actually include this in their ranking of the Star Trek movies. I don’t, but if I did, it would outrank quite a few of the actual Trek flicks. Yes, it’s parody, but it’s parody with some real stuff to say, genuine heart, and an understanding of what really made the object of its humor so worthy of a devoted fan base.
13. Forbidden Planet
To modern eyes it’s a clunky and slow movie, full of cliché and occasionally almost laughable in its depiction of a future humanity where everyone dresses the same and follows the lantern-jawed blond leader around. This was a very effective game-changer back in the day, with its Shakespearean-inspired story and that electronic score.
12. The Iron Giant
Made when animation was just starting to shake off its cultural ghetto of only being suitable for telling Disney-style fairy tales, this movie is something of a Cold War analog to ET, with sadness at the end that is every bit as earned as in the other film. The Iron Giant tells an amazing story with economy and humor.
11. Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day
OK, sure, I’m cheating naming two movies under one entry. It’s hard to separate these two, though, as they really combine to tell a single larger story very effectively. They are both amazing techno-thrillers with time-travel and a seemingly unstoppable enemy; they are also deeply human movies and the second one adds incredible visual effects to boot (the T1000 is every bit as convincing now as he was then).
I still remember my keen disappointment in 1982 when TRON came out. I loved it, saw it twice that summer, yada yada. I assumed that it would be the next Raiders or ET, the next thing that every kid saw. Instead, I got to school that fall, and nobody had bothered to see the movie about “the world inside the computer”. Alas. I still love it, for all its nifty world-building and videogame lingo.
I also enjoyed the sequel a great deal, which again does not seem to have been a universal opinion.
9. 20000 Leagues Under the Sea
I read some Jules Verne as a kid. I didn’t really understand him, but I could sense that there was some neat stuff going on there. This movie clears up a lot of it, making for a voyage into the unknown on our own planet that is fraught with wonder, danger, and a little madness. Like all sci-fi movies from the 50s and 60s it takes a bit of willingness on the part of the viewer to go where it’s taking us, but it’s a grand adventure of a movie.
8. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension
For sheer gonzo weirdness, I don’t think this movie will ever be beat. It’s just fun, with characters that are a hoot to watch from start to finish. Jon Lithgow’s villain is over-the-top goofy hilarity, and Peter Weller balances everything with an understated performance as Buckaroo that somehow makes the entire thing believable. The movie also gave me one of my favorite obscure quotes (which nobody ever gets when I say it in real life): “Whoa, don’t tug on that! You never know what it might be attached to!”
7. The Day the Earth Stood Still
Sure, it’s heavy-handed messaging about nuclear war, and I’m not usually a fan of heavy-handed messages in stories (“If you want to send a message, use Western Union!” the saying goes). But this one is crouched in eerie mystery, and the iconic visual of robot Gort on his relentless march of destruction sticks with me even now.
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
I saw this at a science fiction convention in Portland, OR when I was in fourth grade. I didn’t understand most of it…or rather, big chunks of it. I read the book a few years later, and then I watched it again on home video, and it never fails to engross me when I watch it. Huge and epic, and yet with only a handful of people in it; ambiguous and yet full of strange wonder. What does it mean? I dunno, really, although I do think it’s a story of unnamed aliens encountering humans at various stages in development over the millennia and performing uplift on occasion. I think.
5. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Such a fantastic film this is! The tale of the aliens who implant strange visions into the minds of ordinary people for no other reason than to screen them for purposes of finding out who gets to make the first contact is still incredibly effective, drawing on the late 20th century UFO lore to tell a tale of optimistic meeting with aliens for the first time. I can’t wait to see this when its reissue comes out this fall. (Yes, the story has problematic elements regarding Roy Neary’s family life and the morality of Neary just leaving them to go fly with the aliens. Steven Spielberg has even admitted that he would end the film differently if he made it today. Still, those problematic aspects of the film raise important questions.)
4. The Abyss
What a ride this movie is! Again with the Cold War subtext, this time with aliens under the oceans. The version to watch here is the Director’s Cut, which restores a subplot that, yes, does hearken back to The Day the Earth Stood Still. But the way it all turns out is well-earned (even if James Cameron’s complete lack of subtlety does let him down a little bit). The film’s main mystery is fascinating to behold as it unfolds, and the film’s villains are also interesting people whose fears and aims aren’t entirely unjustified.
3. ET: The Extra-Terrestrial
This movie is near perfection, from its relationships to its pacing to the design of ET himself to the incandescent score by John Williams. Just listening to the music from the last scenes of this movie has been known to make me cry.
2. Castle in the Sky
This is almost my favorite Hayao Miyazaki film, but it’s here on this list because Princess Mononoke is a fantasy. Castle is an adventure-filled wonder-fest that involves a young girl with secret powers who may fulfill prophecies, the various groups looking for her, and…a castle in the sky, floating forever hidden beyond a bank of clouds. Hayao Miyazaki’s films have influenced my storytelling in ways that I haven’t even figured out yet. (BTW, this one is playing next month as part of the Fathom Events roster of great movies! If you’re interested, check out FathomEvents.com for info on screenings in your area.)
1. Star Wars
Oh, come on. Was there any doubt?
Now, this raises a question: can I name just one film? After all, I did cheat with the Terminator movies. But Star Wars now stands at eight movies, with the ninth on the way at the end of this year. Plus, they don’t all combine into one story as seamlessly as one might like. These tend to get made one-at-a-time and aren’t always conceived with the greater story in mind, which leads to tonal inconsistencies and a few lumbering plot points.
But I don’t care.
Star Wars (or, A New Hope) made me the storyteller I am today, which means that maybe it made me who I am today. More on this in this essay I wrote on the fortieth anniversary of the first film.
Here’s a list of movies that I considered but which did not crack my top fifteen, for one reason or another. Titles marked with an asterisk came this close to the Top 15.
This Island Earth
Battle Beyond the Stars (written about here!)
Star Trek: TMP, II, III, VI, and FIRST CONTACT
Blade Runner (I’ve tried, folks, really. I don’t think I’ll ever care about the characters in this story, though.)
Apollo 13 (Might not be science fiction…in fact, it probably isn’t)
The Black Hole (written about here!)
Journey to the Center of the Earth
The Last Starfighter
Night of the Comet
Back to the Future
Guardians of the Galaxy* (again, not sure if it’s SF or Superhero)
Batteries Not Included
Meteor (Yes, it’s crappy 1970s disaster porn. I still like it.)
Space Battleship Yamato (written about here!)
The Postman (Not great, but not nearly as bad as its mega-flop reputation has us think)
Contact (written about here!)
Men in Black
Armageddon (This movie is not good, and I can’t not watch it when it shows up.)
The Fifth Element (I need to see this again; it’s been fifteen years or so)
Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
John Carter (written about here!)
Here are some prominent SF films that I haven’t seen and yet need to:
War of the Worlds (Spielberg)
Planet of the Apes (the new ones)
Treasure Planet (Technically I’ve seen this and I disliked it, but enough people have told me otherwise that I’ve wondered if I owe it a rewatch)
Edge of Tomorrow
The Mad Max movies (Seen so long ago that at this point it’s easier to just say that I haven’t seen them at all.)
And finally, what of Alien and The Matrix? I dislike both, as movies and as franchises. And no, I don’t subscribe to the whole “Well, I don’t like it but I have to grant that it’s a classic” thing. Dislike is dislike for me, period.
Oh, and I cannot hate Starcrash, even though it is really, really, really really really bad.
What say you all, folks?