With the fantastic new film Dune just out in theaters and on HBO Max, it seems like we now have our latest addition to the pantheon of all-time great sci-fi movies. Like snowflakes, however, no two masterpieces in the future-shock genre are exactly alike. The best of the bunch not only whisk us away to strange new worlds and galaxies, they also reckon with our own here and now. Which future worlds rocked our worlds the most? We’ve shot the moon and named the 15 best sci-fi movies of all time. Read on to see if your choices match ours….
Metropolis wasn’t the first science fiction movie (Georges Milies’ A Trip to the Moon predates it by almost 30 years), but it is arguably the first true masterpiece in the genre. Inspired by the New York City skyscrapers that began climbing to the heavens in the 1920s, German director Fritz Lang envisioned a nightmare city of the future where human worker-bees toiled on the ground and their privileged and powerful masters high above them. The film’s message is about as subtle as a jackhammer, but Lang’s black-and-white images are still as stunning and harrowing as they must have been nearly a century ago.
Thing that (almost) came true: Communism.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
“Gort…Klaatu…Barada…Nikto!” That may sound like goofy gibberish, unless of course you’ve seen this '50s sci-fi classic. Made during a decade that was teeming with B-movie allegories about the atom bomb and the Cold War (not to mention McCarthyism), The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the few that still packs a punch. Michael Rennie is the alien who lands in Washington, D.C., with his robot sidekick Gort carrying a warning for all of humankind: Seek peace or else! Naturally, the military aimed their guns at him. But a sympathetic (and wise) Patricia Neal knows better. Worth checking out for Bernard Herrmann’s score alone.
Thing that (almost) came true: A lasting agreement between the U.S. and Russia to freeze the building of nuclear weapons.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s hallucinatory epic is the ultimate cinematic head trip. Some think it’s head-scratchingly oblique; others consider it a mindblower that’s super deep. Like all movies this far out and ambitious, your mileage may vary. Either way, there’s no denying Kubrick’s vision in this tale (based on an Arthur C. Clarke short story) about an alien monolith and man’s quest for knowledge since the Dawn of Man. The beautiful bulk of the film traces a space exploration and the friendly-then-combative relationship between astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and his on-board computer operating system, nicknamed HAL. Their friendship ends badly. Kubrick’s 2001 is bursting with big ideas, exquisitely rendered. And even if you walk away from it puzzled, you’ll at least be sure that you’ve been on a trip.
Thing that (almost came) true: Groovy space stations, check. Computers that can think and talk, check. Eating processed meals in zero gravity, check. Now, if they could just come up with one of those rotating ferris-wheel treadmills to run on, we’d be set!
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Planet of the Apes (1968)
“Get your hands off me, you damn dirty ape!” Charlton Heston hams it up mightily as an astronaut who lands on a world where apes rule. What humans there are, are herded like animals in chains. They’re the ultimate alpha monkeys. Oh, the irony. Speaking of irony, the film’s rug-pulling finale (penned by The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling) remains one of Hollywood’s all-time great twist endings.
Thing that (almost) came true: At last check, the Statue of Liberty was still in tip-top shape. As for our ape brethren, gorillas have been able to use sign language for a while now. Can talking be far behind?
Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope (1977)
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas created a thrilling space adventure full of droids, Wookiees, and lightsaber-wielding Jedis and changed the face of popular cinema. I was 8 when Star Wars came out and, like millions of others, it’s impossible to overstate the impact Lucas’ epic had on my generation’s imaginations. Is The Empire Strikes Back technically a better film? Yes. But A New Hope is the match that first lit the fuse. Watching it now, even in my early 50s, it’s hard not to feel as wide-eyed and excited as a kid from Tatooine named Luke Skywalker.
Thing that (almost) came true: Luke's Landspeeder uses hover technology not far off from the kind now being developed for hoverbikes; the film's anthropomorphic droids like C-3PO are simply more advanced forms of current humanoid robotics prototypes.
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