Sci-fi has maintained its status as the most complex and audience dividing genre since it first shocked and delighted viewers in 1902. Georges Melies’s 12-minute film “Le Voyage dans le Lune” was a simple yet frightful adventure into the possibilities that film could produce.
Sci-fi through the decades has shown us what could be possible in the future, questioned the very nature of humanity, introduced us to terrifying monsters, and displayed the very latest in cinematic technology.
Many people would argue that they don’t really like sci-fi, deeming it unrealistic and overly complex. However, when done well, sci-fi is one of the greatest genres for grabbing you by the neck and refusing to let go. Many of the highest grossing films since records began fall under the genre of sci-fi.
In no particular order, as sci-fi is such a diverse and varied genre, let’s take a look at the top 10 greatest sci-fi films of the past 50 years.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Cited by many film critics as the greatest sci-fi film of all time, this 60’s master class in how to portray artificial intelligence and human evolution has inspired many of the complex issues seen throughout the history of modern sci-fi.
The film is split into four parts, and famously features its first line of dialogue close to 30 minutes into the feature, since its release in 1968, Stan Kubrick’s film has maintained its status as a sci-fi monolith, and still confounds audiences today. Search Google and see hundreds of results of people questioning the ending of the film, in depth analysis of what it all really means, and a continued praise for the now 45 year old piece of cinematic history.
1968 was clearly a fantastic year for the future classics of sci-fi. A perfect example of the potential of new and innovative cinematic tropes showcased in sci-fi, Planet of the Apes maintains a legendary status to this day.
The ground breaking prosthetic makeup techniques is just one of the many attributes this Franklin J. Schaffner film has to offer, alongside one of the most famous shock narrative twists which is still talked about with reverence today. Sparking many sequels, a remake directed by Tim Burton, and a reboot by 20th Century Fox staring James Franco named Rise of the Planet of the Apes, contemporary audiences are still as in love with this concept as they ever have been.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Despite, or perhaps because of, being banned by British film societies, A Clockwork Orange is another example of cinema taking on legendary cult status, and becoming increasingly idolised as it becomes exposed to new audiences.
Based upon the dystopian novel of the same name by Anthony Burgess, Kubrick’s second film on this list follows the life of Alex and his spree of rape and ‘ultra-violence’, fuelled on a diet of ‘milk-plus’. Innovative language combining cockney rhyming slang, Slovic (mainly Russian), and English; extremely shocking scenes of violence; a close up criticism of psycho-manipulative rehabilitating techniques; it’s easy to imagine the reaction of audiences and critics when presented with such an intense film.
Ridley Scott’s Alien was of such a progressive nature that few other deep-space films come even close to competing. Launching the career of Sigourney Weaver, this gritty depiction of a group of space-workers portrayed as Average Joes won over audiences with the simplistic and honest portrayal of the crew, their lifestyles and their survival techniques.
The aliens themselves are almost unparalleled even today, and at the time of release showed startling advancements in technology and costume manufacture. The internet is awash with analysis of the deeper meanings behind the films (many believe it is an artistic portrayal of motherhood and reproduction) and newly discovered behind the scenes footage.
Blade Runner (1982)
As there are several versions of Blade Runner, with two different endings, this film enters the top ten for the themes and growing cult status it eventually gained despite relatively poor takings when released at the North American box office.
Another modern classic by director Ridley Scott, Blade Runner questions what it really means to be human, meaning the dystopian flick is almost reminiscent of the paranoid-horror era of the 50’s. Scott has said of the film that it is “probably” his most personal and complete film, which is saying something when placed up against his other work. Combining the futuristic with the vintage, the film launched seemingly everlasting cultural influences, including ‘future noir’, which seems to sum up the style of this film rather successfully.
This much-adored Spielberg alien-fest is one of the few titles on this list that saw instantaneous success at box offices worldwide. Adored for an impossibly long list of reasons, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial features heavily on every ‘best films ever’ list that’s been made since its release.
Using child actors and genuine emotional responses was an ingenious move by Spielberg, and the result is a sci-fi film that yanks the heart strings as much as it amazes. The director may have displayed paranoid attitudes regarding his concerns of the script leaking, but evidentially the obsessive nature displayed resulted in one of the greatest family films of all time. It even reduced President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan to tears.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Another family film from Spielberg, this time featuring less than adorable resurrected dinosaurs. A critique of a consumerist society as much as it is an action-adventure both children and adults love, it topped box office charts and knocked E.T. from the top spot.
While critics have complained of under developed characterisation of the human actors, the same cannot be said of the dinosaurs. Real life, to-scale models were created and are quite possibly the reason why this film was such a success. A 20-foot tall, 13,000 pound, 40-foot long T-Rex was the ultimate star of the production, and even today the animations and graphics stand up to scrutiny. Such is the continued popularity of this film that a 3D re-mastered version is set to be released in to cinemas to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its release.
Despite ultimately disappointing sequels, The Matrix worked well as a definition of the sci-fi seen in the 20th century: challenging, complex, and proof that no matter the graphics, setting or context, humanity has always laid the foundations for great sci-fi.
With difficult philosophical issues running throughout the feature, there was every chance that the film could have been a flop, resigned to a cult classic but ultimately unknown. Through intense stylisation, innovative filming techniques, a highly trained and devoted cast, and inputs from graphic novelists, The Matrix went on to become one of the most loved films of all times. The film changed the face of culture as a whole, as well as sci-fi, as it wrote a twisted love letter to the sci-fi films of the 20trh century, just as the 21st was about to begin.
It is impossible to talk about film of the past twenty years without heavily discussing James Cameron. While no one could have believe Titanic (1997) could have been knocked off the top spot as the highest grossing film of all time (after earning over an estimated $2billion), the effects used in Avatar were beyond awesome as well as the biggest money maker of all time.
Still one of the few films to have truly realised the potential of 3D technology, this simplistic story is told with some of the most incredible visual effects ever seen in cinema. All the greatest sci-fi films have explored the possibility of technology, so while the story could be at times underdeveloped, there is no greater visual spectacle available to cinema goers anywhere.
One of the most stylistically beautiful films released in the 21st century (so far), Inception is almost the ‘new’ Matrix in many ways. Showcasing the ultimate in CGI advancements, stylised in a manner that is both futuristic and of its time, and with one of the most mind-bending, complex plots ever committed to film, it’s another big hit that could’ve flopped. Fortunately, with the big names of Leonardo di Caprio and Christopher Nolan attached, Inception became one of the most commercially and critically successful films of the century.
The film also became a turning point for many of the actors involved, transforming them from obscure, indie favourites into huge Hollywood stars. Both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy became household names around the world thanks to this film, and have played major roles in later Nolan films. Inception is proof that excellent sci-fi does not need to focus upon aliens and out of space antics, but when centred upon uniquely human experiences which are then warped and manipulated, it becomes far more fascinating than what lies outside of our world.
So there you have it: the top 10 sci-fi films of the past 50 years. Whether you believe there is something missing from the list or not, it cannot be denied that the films here have shaped science fiction in cinema – and narrative generally – beyond recognition.
Sci-fi fans adored the genre not only for showcasing the world’s most innovative techniques and out of this world storytelling, but for the human exploration that is present within all of the films mentioned here. Sci-fi can make you scream, it can make you think, it can make you laugh and cry all in one breathe.
Looking ahead to 2013’s Sci-Fi films, Dave Pearce from UK cinema chain Vue Said “2013 is going to be a great year for Sci-fi at the cinema. Star Trek: Into Darkness, Pacific Rim and Oblivion are shaping up nicely and we also look forward to welcoming Iron Man (in Iron Man 3) and Superman (in Man of Steel) back to the big screen this summer.“
Whether you like your sci-fi to terrify or to move, be sure to check out all the newest sci-fi flicks released this year…
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