Much like its close genre cousin (nephew/niece?) the superhero film, the potential of cinematic science fiction exploded in the latter part of the 20th century thanks to technological advances that transformed special effects. Unlike superhero films, which were so stunted for so long that almost every new one makes it onto our updated 100 Best Superhero Films of All Time list, science fiction proved fertile ground for filmmakers before the likes of Industrial Light & Magic supercharged a director’s ability to exceed our imagination. Thus, this list, while filled with films from the ’80s onward, has its fair share of older films. Before we dive into it, though, let’s discuss a few things this list will not have (or at least, not have many of).
Superhero films are for the most part absent. Though so many superhero stories involve the stuff of science fiction—aliens, high-tech and strange worlds—there are plenty of great sci-fi movies to include on this list without bumping 20 of them off for DC and the MCU. We’ve also left off, for the most part, the traditional giant monster/kaiju movie for the same reason. If you want a nice roundup of Godzilla’s greatest hits, check out our own Jim Vorel’s ranking of Godzilla’s cinematic oeuvre. (For the real kaiju rank-o-phile, Jim has also taken the measure of every Godzilla monster.) Finally, joining superheroes and kaiju on the sidelines, are the post-apocalyptic (and a few mid-apocalyptic) films. Though, again, there are a few exceptions, for the most part you will not find Mad Max here, or Eli, or even that guy who is Legend. (I see you frowning—“But will there be dystopias,” you ask? Hell yeah, we got dystopias.)
As you’ll see below, that leaves plenty of great films. As we go about our lives with appliances more powerful than the super computers of a few decades ago, take a few hours here and there to check out some of these you haven’t seen and to revisit some you have. Chuckle at those futuristic visions that now seem all too quaint, marvel at those that still blow your mind, and perhaps squirm uncomfortably as you watch those that strike a bit too close to home.
Director: George Méliès
While A Trip to the Moon only lasts 15 minutes, it still feels epic (plus, that runtime wasn’t considered so short in 1902). In turn, this light, colorful (make sure you watch the hand-painted, restored version) collage of whimsy follows a premise that would go on to serve sci-fi adventure films for more than a century: People embark on a journey and crazy shit goes down. With its long, stagy takes and flat compositions, the primitive nature of the film is apparent, but Méliès makes up for it with charm. Modern viewers instinctively know how to spot basic camera trickery, especially when perspective and scale aren’t quite right. Méliès, however, understood his limitations, embraced the artifice and, with that moon face taking a rocket to the eye, created something iconic. —Jeremy Mathews
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
When you’re the son of David Cronenberg, you have a lot to live up to in a horror film debut, and Brandon Cronenberg does an admirable job in his cerebral and icky horror flick Antiviral. Although it can be a little slow and portentous, the setting and ideas are spectacular. The film imagines a near-future, sci-fi tinged world where obsession with celebrity lives has replaced nearly every other facet of the arts. People are so celebrity-obsessed, in fact, that a booming genetics business has developed to cater to disease hounds—people who literally want to be injected with specific strains of diseases, such as STDs, that have been harvested from various starlets. Elsewhere, people stand in line at meat markets to buy muscle tissue grown and cultivated from celebrity donors. Cronenberg may lay the social commentary on a little thick, but the results on screen are chilling. Cronenberg creates a setting that one is never really able to dismiss from the mind ever again. —Jim Vorel
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Science-fiction isn’t particularly suited to Godard’s gaze—so erratic and tongue-in-cheek, so uninterested in the exigencies and peculiarities of world-building is the legendary French director—but there is also no better visionary to attack the mind-fuck that is this weirdo Lemmy Caution adventure. Alphaville is as much an experimental noir as it is speculative fiction, steeped in the tropes of the former while blissfully tinkering with the world of the latter, never quite justifying the hybridizing of both but never quite caring, either. As such, the pulpy story of a secret agent (Eddie Constantine) who’s sent into the “galaxy” of Alphaville to assassinate, amongst a few, the creator of the artificial intelligence (Alpha 60) which runs all facets of Alphavillian society by pretty much outlawing all emotion—meanwhile falling in love with the daughter of the inventor (Godard muse Anna Karina)—is as goofy as it is compelling, fully committed to the confusing premise and aware, as most Godard films are, of the leaps required of the audience to follow the meandering plot. Saturated with anachronism and stylized to the point of parody, Alphaville isn’t interested in immersing a viewer in a not-so-distant dystopian future as it is in laying bare science fiction as a genre which demands we dramatically re-conceptualize everything about the genre we take for granted: language, humanity and a future we’ll at least kind of understand. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Roger Vadim
Barbarella was a unique film when it was released in 1968, and it remains something very unusual as it celebrates its 50th anniversary: A blend of science fiction, fantasy and erotica that plays all three both campy and straight, depending on its mood. Appropriately, then, Jane Fonda’s Barbarella is a young space vixen trained in the “art of love,” but she’s also something of an ingénue without any experience in the real world. The film’s sets, costumes and production design rightfully earned attention upon its initial release, being fabulously lush and colorful, making for gothic but lascivious grandeur in space, and featuring Space Mutiny’s John Philip Law to boot. If Barbarella initially sold itself upon a vaguely defined promise of titillation, those artistic flourishes ended up proving more influential for the next generation of ’70s science fiction. Barbarella will likely never gain the respect it’s owed, but one could point to plenty of B-movies of its day to testify to the lasting impact it had on exploitation film and the tawdrier corners of sci-fi. —Jim Vorel
Director: Woody Allen
Sleeper’s sci-fi slapstick is Woody Allen comedy at the peak of the legendary filmmaker’s powers. Miles Monroe (Allen), as a cryogenically unfrozen man out of time, is drafted into an underground resistance movement against a tyrannical, robot-enforced police state. (In today’s political climate, its prescience feels eerie, if obvious.) What follows is pinpoint physical comedy, hilariously Allen-esque one-liners and some side-splittingly funny sight gags (not to mention the incomparably talented Diane Keaton) pervading the future dystopian America of 2173. Thankfully, for Miles, the police state of the future is evidently more incompetent than him. Would that we were so lucky today. —Scott Wold
Director: John Sayles
During the ’80s, John Sayles established himself as a smart indie writer/director with a knack for social commentary, but only one of his films embedded said commentary into a zany sci-fi plot. The result is the story of a mute alien who looks like a black man with weird feet, who crash-lands in Harlem and meets and observes the people of New York City. Joe Morton gives a stellar silent performance that, like the film itself, seamlessly moves from comic to empathetic. —Jeremy Mathews
Director: Peter Hyams
Two years after Alien, Peter Hyams blew up the blue-collar subtext of Ridley Scott’s grimy mining vessel politics to remake High Noon in space. In perhaps his noblest role, Sean Connery plays Federal Marshal William O’Niel, a rigorous do-gooder assigned to duty shepherding the motley crew of titanium ore miners inhabiting a station on the Jupiter moon of Io. Like any burgeoning colony on the borders of civilization, law and order automatically succumbs to whatever criminal hierarchy supplies the vices required to prevent the workers from devolving into total madness—but nobody told O’Niel. Principled to a fault and still reeling from the sudden departure of his wife and son—fed up with one too many assignments to shitty outposts far away from an Earth their son has never seen—O’Niel decides to stand alone against the confederacy of capitalist evil saturating the already dysfunctional society slowly springing up on Io, led by by smarmy corporate boss Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle). From there, Hyams stages a tense stand-off between O’Niel and the bureaucratic assassins sent to teach him what’s what (i.e., murder him) leading to a fatal game of cat and mouse in which O’Niel’s hopelessly outnumbered, though the cramped quarters and unforgiving void of space can be worked to his advantage. Rather than relegate the exploration of the cosmos to only the elite, Hyams (with directors like Scott and John Carpenter) serves as cinematic tributary for the proletariat, knowing that what awaits us off planet isn’t an escape from the institutionalized suffering of most of us on Earth, but a continuation of that human tragedy into a much more alien, unforgiving environment. The more it seems we’ll need to find a way to outlive this world—our world—the more we’ll have to come to terms with what we won’t be able to leave behind. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Edson Oda
In a small house, alone in the desert, Will (Winston Duke) watches. Nine Days, the wrenching feature debut from writer/director Edson Oda, understands that we are an existence of voyeurism. We’re only truly living to our fullest when we can see, share, feel the experiences of others. Will is a sort of hiring manager for life itself. As painful as it is for him to accept (he’s obviously grown fond of his previous picks), there is a new vacancy, and there are a few candidates. Over a nine-day process, almost like an audition for a reality show—especially fitting considering that the plane they would leave behind houses a watcher carefully and compassionately taking in a televised wall of literal life-streams—Will and his friend/co-worker Kyo (Benedict Wong) whittle down the applicants to find the best person suited for the gift of worldly existence. Oda’s compact, stirring, metaphysical sci-fi stageplay about the ends and beginnings of life—and all the wonder ripe for the sharing contained between—is as moving a debut as you’ll see all year. First, it takes some real creative brass to try to tackle such an ambitious, heady and easily trite topic. Second, it takes some major storytelling talent—both in the crafting of the script and the handling of its actors—to overcome those obstacles while keeping the dignity of all involved intact. Nine Days has quiet confidence, written in the way that some of the best sci-fi is, where it feels like a massive text that’s been erased down to the barest elements necessary for a perception imagination to piece together—a painting of overwhelming sentiment depicted with the simplest strokes possible. Oda’s script has been visualized with a similar restraint, nearly contained to Will’s home and its screens before it slowly pushes at these boundaries. But, at first at least, Will’s hopefuls—including Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, David Rysdahl, Arianna Ortiz and a last-minute Zazie Beetz—are roped into routine. As the would-be humans continue to prove themselves through a series of psychological tests, their growth or stagnation metered out in compellingly restrained segments overseen by Duke’s stoic yet compassionate shepherd, we become as invested as Will in their prospects. The gravity of what they’re after hits us. The ultra-sincere Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze-esque premise (Jonze executive produced the film) moves beyond its high concept and starts digging into its emotional implications. Scene after scene of appreciation for the magical moments of life hammer our hearts. Rarely do movies so tenderly tenderize you. It can be shatteringly bittersweet even without the soaring strings of Antonio Pinto’s score, and when they come in, it’s not even fair. Admirably ambitious and bracingly sincere, Nine Days leaves you raw and refreshed. Nine Days marks Oda as one of our most exciting new directors, a filmmaker possessing an innovative cinematic mind with a heart to match.—Jacob Oller
Director: Andrew Patterson
The Vast of Night is the kind of sci-fi film that seeps into your deep memory and feels like something you heard on the news, observed in a dream, or were told in a bar. Director Andrew Patterson’s small-town hymn to analog and aliens is built from long, talky takes and quick-cut sequences of manipulating technology. Effectively a ‘50s two-hander between audio enthusiasts (Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz playing a switchboard operator and disc jockey, respectively) the film is a quilted fable of story layers, anecdotes and conversations stacking and interweaving warmth before yanking off the covers. The effectiveness of the dusty locale and its inhabitants, forged from a high school basketball game and one-sided phone conversations (the latter of which are perfect examples of McCormick’s confident performance and writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger’s sharp script), only makes its inevitable UFO-in-the-desert destination even better. Comfort and friendship drop in with an easy swagger and a torrent of words, which makes the sensory silence (quieting down to focus on a frequency or dropping out the visuals to focus on a single, mysterious radio caller) almost holy. It’s mythology at its finest, an origin story that makes extraterrestrial obsession seem as natural and as part of our curious lives as its many social snapshots. The beautiful ode to all things that go [UNINTELLIGIBLE BUZZING] in the night is an indie inspiration to future Fox Mulders everywhere. —Jacob Oller
Director: Duncan Jones
First-time director Duncan Jones is overt about his stylistic appropriations of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, right down to the sweeping orchestral music that frames the opening shots of the titular satellite and Earth. Yet, where Kubrick tapped into existential fears about human extinction and the future of civilization, Jones hypothesizes the logical conclusion of that dark vision: a world where the need for more energy has rendered humanity a manufactured cog of multinational corporations whose reach now extends beyond the boundaries of Earth. The film’s plot centers on Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), the only human on a lunar mining facility that harvests Helium-3, a clean fuel that can meet a near-future Earth’s ballooning energy demands. Base computer system GERTY (Kevin Spacey) is his sole companion on Sam’s three-year caretaking mission, since a supposed satellite failure means he can only send and receive pre-recorded messages. When an accident nearly kills Sam, he’s saved by a clone of himself and begins to unravel the sinister nature of the base, and his existence. Moon cribs heavily from the retro-futuristic look of ‘60s and ‘70s sci-fi for its claustrophobic and sanitized depiction of the moon base, but this high-tech eye candy is only the backdrop to a larger morality tale about humanity’s ever-shrinking position within a technologically-saturated society. When the human experience can be synthesized (and thus made disposable), does such a thing as “humanity” even exist? There’s a host of challenging philosophical threads throughout—cloning, masculinity, energy, corporate power—but those individual issues complement rather than engulf the larger narrative. Moon is a superlative example of science fiction that hearkens to the genre’s roots: social commentary on the human condition, without the easy catharsis of overblown special effects and space opera. It’s the ultimate rarity in modern cinema: a mature, engaging and thoughtful sci-fi movie, and proof that there’s life yet left in the genre. —Michael Saba
Director: Dean Parisot
Galaxy Quest is a film about equilibrium between love and parody; a movie made with less of the former and too much of the latter becomes a mean-spirited dunk on sci-fi fandom, and a movie made in the reverse becomes too much about fan service than honest-to-goodness storytelling. Dean Parisot, aided and abetted by writers David Howard and Robert Gordon, finds the perfect balance of both, and Galaxy Quest gets to be a straight-up sci-fi adventure flick that embraces its genre as enthusiastically as it pokes fun at its tropes. You don’t make that kind of affectionate self-satire without caring. It’s not like sci-fi fandom couldn’t stand a little dunking, after all, but only a real sci-fi fan knows where to draw the line.
So Parisot, Howard and Gordon must be real sci-fi fans. Much as Galaxy Quest picks away at the conventions of its category, and at the people who worship sci-fi with as much reverence as the average Baptist praises Jesus, it’s built on an abiding fondness for Star Trek: For phasers, for warp drives, for teleportation, for holograms, for alien races exotic and bizarre, for every other damn cliché in the sci-fi playbook that makes us groan but which we know we couldn’t quite live without. (What’s a good sci-fi movie without a brash, macho commander who makes questionable strategic calls that somehow work anyway?) This one’s for the sci-fi fans. And if you’re not a sci-fi fan, then it might be the movie to make you into one. —Andy Crump
Director: Jack Sholder
Though John Carpenter’s The Thing steeped the then-terrifyingly mysterious AIDS crisis in otherworldly horror five years before, The Hidden indulges in similar tropes and identical themes with blunter, no-less-pulpier mayhem. LA detective Thomas Beck (Michael Nouri) must reluctantly work with FBI Special Agent Gallagher (Kyle Maclachlan, pretty much playing a proto-Dale Cooper) to get to the bottom of a spate of violently incomprehensible murder sprees seducing otherwise normal, mild-mannered citizens—only to discover, when it’s much too late, that the culprit is an alien slug parasite passed orally from host to host, giving each unlucky husk superhuman vulnerability and a nihilistic mean streak. The sci-fi fare of the late ’80s too often succumbed to the cynicism of an overcommercialized zeitgeist, seeing in corporate America and the Reagan administration’s response to every social crisis the death knell of whatever good vibes speculative fiction once had to offer, but with The Hidden—violent and brutal in its own right—came, in the film’s final moments, a gesture of sacrifice and genuine compassion unusual for a genre flick of its ilk. Or, at least, that’s one way to interpret it. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Michael Crichton
Long before there was Jurassic Park (or the increasingly frustrating Westworld HBO series, for that matter), Michael Crichton wrote (and directed) the story of another disastrous theme park: Delos, housing the sophisticated amusement android characters of Westworld, Medievalworld and Romanworld. After catastrophic malfunctions inevitably occur, a couple dudes enjoying Dude Time find themselves menaced for real, when the robotic “bad guy” Gunslinger’s safety measures disappear. And a decade before there was The Terminator, there was Yule Brenner’s implacable robot stalker, an unfeeling killing machine who happens to look exactly like Brenner’s heroic character from The Magnificent Seven. Don’t bother trying to melt his face, Peter (Richard Benjamin); there are plenty more where that came from. “Boy, have we got a vacation for you!” promises the ads for the park. They weren’t wrong. —Scott Wold
Director: Roland Emmerich
They pretty much don’t make action movies like Independence Day anymore, although if you ask someone who caught Independence Day: Resurgence, they’ll tell you that’s probably a good thing. Regardless, there’s a certain sheen to this particular brand of FX-driven pre-2000s disaster blockbuster, an earnestness of conviction in terms of clear-cut characters like Jeff Goldblum’s “David Levinson”—call it a willingness to believe that the audience will be 100 percent on board with a protagonist from the very beginning, rather than questioning his methods. As for the rest of the cast, we get a who’s who of ’90s delights, whether it’s an ascendant, wisecracking Will Smith—one year before Men in Black would cement him as leading man material—or Bill Pullman as the flyboy American president ready to deliver one of cinema’s greatest jingoistic addresses. Independence Day doesn’t shy away from its inspirations as pulp (it might as well be a remake of Earth vs. The Flying Saucers as far as the alien motivations are concerned) but it dresses up its Saturday morning cartoon plot with undeniably ambitious spectacle, even when viewed 20-plus years later. That exploding White House, not to mention the effortless camaraderie of Goldblum and Smith in all their scenes together, cement Independence Day among the most rewatchable sci-fi action films of the past two decades. —Jim Vorel
Director: Douglas Trumbull
A precursor to both Wall-E and Moon, Silent Running was the first feature directed by Douglas Trumbull, the special-effects wizard best known for his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Tree of Life. Set on a spaceship hovering around Saturn, this meditative film concerns an interstellar greenhouse custodian named Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) who’s keeping watch over the last of Earth’s forests and wildlife. When Lowell is told to destroy his payload and return to Earth, he refuses, deciding instead to fake an accident and pilot his ship into the farthest reaches of space, where he and his living wards will be safe from human interference. Ecologically conscious, narratively simple, deeply affecting, Silent Running is one of those great lost gems of 1970s sci-fi. —Tim Grierson
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Before she reinvented herself as the director of award-winning docudramas, Kathryn Bigelow made her name directing crazy genre movies like Near Dark and Point Break. With all respect to Point Break, however, Strange Days remains Bigelow’s most compelling pre-War on Terror project. Written by Bigelow’s former husband James Cameron and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Jay Cocks, Strange Days is a pulpy, noir-influenced sci-fi pic in the vein of Blade Runner but with more high-octane action and a lot more nudity. Developed in the era of the videotaped Rodney King beatings and the L.A. riots, the film is set in a dystopian Los Angeles where people’s memories and experiences are recorded directly from their brains to sell on the black market. Anyone who has ever wanted to experience criminal activities or perverse sexual encounters can now do so without repercussions. The trouble begins when vice-detective-turned-black-marketer Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) discovers a “snuff” disc depicting the brutal murder of an acquaintance. This disc leads him down a rabbit hole into the urban underground. At nearly two and a half hours, the film’s visual pyrotechnics and beautifully stylized performances provide more than enough ammunition to justify such excess. —Mark Rozeman
Director: Bong Joon-ho
There is a sequence midway through Snowpiercer that perfectly articulates what makes Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho among the most dynamic filmmakers currently working. Two armies engage in a no-holds-barred, slow motion-heavy action set piece. Metal clashes against metal, and characters slash through their opponents as if their bodies were made of butter. It’s gory, imaginative, horrifying, beautiful, visceral and utterly glorious. Adapted from a French graphic novel by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is a sci-fi thriller set in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world. Nearly two decades prior, in an ill-advised attempt to halt global warning, the government inundated the atmosphere with an experimental chemical that left our planet a barren, ice-covered wasteland. Now, the last of humanity resides on “Snowpiercer,” a vast train powered via a perpetual-motion engine. Needless to say, this scenario hasn’t exactly brought out the best of humanity. Bong’s bleak and brutal film may very well be playing a song that we’ve all heard before, but he does it with such gusto and dexterous skill you can’t help but be caught up the flurry.—Mark Rozeman
Director: Alex Proyas
Alex Proyas’s magnum opus serves up a cerebral sci-fi extravaganza as filtered through the visual tropes of film noir and German Expressionism. A staggering achievement in imagination, Dark City, like clear predecessor Blade Runner, flopped at the box office only to be revived later as a beloved cult classic. The film casts Rufus Sewell as amnesiac John Murdoch who wakes up one night to discover that his city is (quite literally) under the manipulation of a band of mysteriously pale men in jet-black trench coats and fedoras. Along for the ride is Kiefer Sutherland as a crazed scientist and Jennifer Connelly as the femme fatale, our hero’s estranged wife.
One might also draw a straight line between this and The Matrix, released a year later. The similarities between the two films’ visual styles and themes of slavery, techno-rebellion and free will are nigh-impossible to miss, and many visual essays have been written specifically to compare the two movies. John Murdoch’s arc is only slightly less portentous than that of the prophesied One (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix—both are seemingly normal men scooped up and thrust into a web of slowly untangling secrets while discovering that they possess special powers that will eventually allow them to defeat the puppetmasters who created their reality. The two films were even largely filmed at the same studio—Fox Studios Australia—and possess a similar green-tinged patina of unreality. Ultimately, Dark City is a bit more philosophically aloof than the popcorn-munching, easier to grasp Matrix, which is probably the reason the latter eventually became a cultural touchstone. But Dark City deserves to be seen, both on its own merits and as an exercise to see which of its sights may have lodged in the mind of the Wachowskis, waiting to be reborn in the next year’s blockbuster. —Mark Rozeman and Jim Vorel
Director: Steven Spielberg
A.I. may be Spielberg’s misunderstood masterpiece, evidenced by the many critics who’ve pointed out its supposed flaws only to come around to a new understanding of its greatness—chief among them Roger Ebert, who eventually included it as one of his Great Movies ten years after giving it a lukewarm first review. A.I. represents the perfect melding of Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick’s sensibilities—as Kubrick supposedly worked on the story with Spielberg, and Spielberg felt obliged to finish after Kubrick’s death—which allows the film to keep each of their worst instincts in check. It’s not as cold or distant as Kubrick’s films tend to be, but not as maudlin and manipulative as Spielberg’s films can become—and before the ending is brought out as proof of Spielberg’s failure, it should be noted that the film’s dark coda was actually Kubrick’s idea, adamant that the ending not be meddled with moreso than any other scene. A closer inspection of the film’s themes reveal a much bleaker conclusion—and, no, those aren’t “aliens.” —Oktay Ege Kozak
Director: Christopher Nolan
In the history of cinema, there is no twist more groan-inducing than the “it was all a dream” trope (notable exceptions like The Wizard of Oz aside). With Inception, director Christopher Nolan crafts a bracing and high-octane piece of sci-fi drama wherein that conceit isn’t just a plot device, but the totality of the story. The measured and ever-steady pace and precision with which the plot and visuals unfold, and Nolan mainstay wally Pfister’s gorgeous, globe-spanning on-location cinematography, implies a near-obsessive attention to detail. The film winds up and plays out like a clockwork beast, each additional bit of minutia coalescing to form a towering whole. Nolan’s filmmaking and Inception’s dream-delving work toward the same end: to offer us a simulation that toys with our notions of reality. As that, and as a piece of summer popcorn-flick fare, Inception succeeds quite admirably, leaving behind imagery and memories that tug and twist our perceptions—daring us to ask whether we’ve wrapped our heads around it, or we’re only half-remembering a waking dream.
Director Andrei Tarkovsky wrote a book about his philosophy towards filmmaking, calling it Sculpting in Time; Nolan, on the other hand, doesn’t sculpt, he deconstructs. He uses filmmaking to tear time apart so he can put it back together as he wills. A spiritual person, Tarkovsky’s films were an expression of poetic transcendence. For Nolan, a rationalist, he wants to cheat time, cheat death. His films often avoid dealing with death head-on, though they certainly depict it. What Nolan is able to convey in a more potent fashion is the weight of time and how ephemeral and weak our grasp on existence. Time is constantly running out in Nolan’s films; a ticking clock is a recurring motif for him, one that long-time collaborator Hans Zimmer aurally literalized in the scores for Interstellar and Dunkirk. Nolan revolts against temporal reality, and film is his weapon, his tool, the paradox stairs or mirror-upon-mirror of Inception. He devises and engineers filmic structures that emphasize time’s crunch while also providing a means of escape. In Inception different layers exist within the dream world, and the deeper one goes into the subconscious the more stretched out one’s mental experience of time. If one could just go deep enough, they could live a virtual eternity in their mind’s own bottomless pit. “To sleep perchance to dream”: the closest Nolan has ever gotten to touching an afterlife. —Michael Saba and Chad Betz
Director: Mamoru Oshii
It’s difficult to overstate how enormous of an influence Ghost in the Shell exerts over not only the cultural and aesthetic evolution of Japanese animation, but over the shape of science-fiction cinema as a whole in the 21st century. When Ghost in the Shell first premiered in Japan, it was greeted as nothing short of a tour de force that would later go on to amass an immense cult following when it was released in the states. The film garnered the praise of directors such as James Cameron and the Wachowski siblings (whose late-century cyberpunk classic The Matrix is philosophically indebted to the trail blazed by Oshii’s precedent).
Adapted from Masamune Shirow’s original 1989 manga, the film is set in the mid-21st century, a world populated by cyborgs in artificial prosthetic bodies, in the fictional Japanese metropolis of Niihama. Ghost in the Shell follows the story of Major Motoko Kusanagi, the commander of a domestic special ops task-force known as Public Security Section 9, who begins to question the nature of her own humanity surrounded by a world of artificiality. When Motoko and her team are assigned to apprehend the mysterious Puppet Master, an elusive hacker thought to be one of the most dangerous criminals on the planet, they are set chasing after a series of crimes perpetrated by the Puppet Master’s unwitting pawns before the seemingly unrelated events coalesce into a pattern that circles back to one person: the Major herself.
Everything about Ghost in the Shell shouts polish and depth, from the ramshackle markets and claustrophobic corridors inspired by the likeness of Kowloon Walled City, to the sound design, evident from Kenji Kawai’s sorrowful score, to the sheer concussive punch of every bullet firing across the screen. Oshii took Shirow’s source material and arguably surpassed it, transforming an already heady science-fiction action drama into a proto-Kurzweil-ian fable about the dawn of machine intelligence. Ghost in the Shell is more than a cornerstone of cyberpunk fiction, it’s a story about what it means to craft one’s self in the digital age, a time where the concept of truth feels as mercurial as the net is vast and infinite. —Toussaint Egan
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Let’s begin with a number: 30 million. That’s how much money Neill Blomkamp spent to make District 9, a movie small in scale but great in ambition, look like it cost four times that amount. Years later, Blomkamp’s career hasn’t realized the full promise shown in District 9, but here, he looks like a guy knows what he’s doing all the same. A genre stew blended from varying measurements of Alien Nation, Watermelon Man, Independence Day, The Fly and RoboCop, District 9 treads familiar territory in an unfamiliar place, through an unfamiliar lens, splicing documentary-style filmmaking together with stomach-churning body horror and, by the end, high-end action spectacle.
Nine years ago, the end results of Blomkamp’s mad sci-fi cocktail felt revelatory. Today they feel disappointing, a remark on what he could have been and where his career might have taken him if he’d not lost himself in the morass of Elysium or turned off even his more devoted followers with Chappie. All the same, District 9 remains a major work for a first-timer, or even a third-timer, polished and yet scrappy at the same time; the film tells of an artist with something to say, and saying it with electric urgency. —Andy Crump
Director: Joe Cornish
Written and directed by Joe Cornish, the sci-fi action comedy centers on a gang of teenage thugs—particularly their disgruntled leader, Moses, remarkably underplayed by a young John Boyega—and their housing project in South London. When the defiant juveniles take their crime to a new level and mug an innocent nurse (a delightful Jodie Whittaker), they immediately find themselves plagued by alien invaders. These hideous creatures, with their jet black fur and glowing blue fangs, want nothing more than to destroy the boys and their tower block.
In the spirit of Spielberg—even more so than J.J. Abrams’ Spielberg ode of the same year, Super 8—Cornish uses alien beings as the catalyst to bring supernatural redemption to a person and a community. He focuses specifically on London’s socioeconomic bottom half and the turmoil surrounding them, exposing the lies that society’s youth buy into that prolong cultural discontinuity. A comical scene, in which Moses tries to make sense of the aliens while giving excuses for his criminal behavior, highlights this cleverly—he doesn’t just blame the government for violence and drugs in his neighborhood, he blames the government for the whole alien invasion.
Cornish, however, doesn’t simply confront this hopeless attitude, he points toward hope—most vividly in the way Moses battles the aliens, his fight rapt with symbolic implications. Though he tries to escape the beasts through running and avoidance, he realizes he must inevitably face them, but not on his own. In Attack the Block, the alien invasion becomes one giant metaphor for the darkness that binds Moses, his friends and his block—a threat that can only be countered with the pivotal power of community. —Maryann Koopman Kelly
Director: Shane Carruth
Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color builds a stunning mosaic of lives overwhelmed by decisions outside their control, of people who don’t understand the impulses that rule their every action. Told with stylistic bravado and minimal dialogue (none in the last 30 minutes), the film continually finds new ways to evoke unexpected feelings. The visuals—from stunning shots of underwater schist to microscopic photography—combine with extraordinary sound design and rhythmic cross-cutting to create a hypnotic portrait of the story’s intertwined narratives. The means to the interconnectivity is a small worm whose parasitic endeavors link lives together, but Carruth doesn’t bother with sci-fi exposition. The organism does what it does, and that’s all we need to know. This allows more time to explore the emotional impact the organism has on the characters. Ultimately, that’s where Upstream Color succeeds. An elaborate intellectual concept fuels the film, but a rich sense of humanity gives it power. —Jeremy Matthews
Director: Steven Lisberger
In a movie in which computer programmers—so-called “users”—are revered as gods, no one really programs much of anything. It’s understandable: The early ’80s presented mind-boggling technology, once reserved for academics and elites, to the masses, and it all seemed like magic. Steven Lisberger’s Tron writes that awe into its code, building a world within a computer as a theocracy (populated by “programs” who carry out their existences serving a single function) ruled on religious oppression. The godhead is power-hungry AI MCP (Master Control Program) who, presaging James Cameron’s Terminator films, intends to surpass its human progenitors, the deified users, to take over the “real” world, making sinister moves like hacking into the Pentagon and the Kremlin and then being a cocky asshole about it. Suave engineer Flynn (Jeff Bridges) just wants credit for the video game he created, which turned ENCOM—the company he helped found as a forefather of the MCP—into an international juggernaut before his partner (David Warner) plagiarised him and kicked him from the top of the corporate ladder. Infiltrating the ENCOM building to try to dig up evidence of the betrayal, Flynn, just as annoying as the MCP, is digitalized, sucked into the company’s computer network via a laser (housed in “Laser Bay 1,” according to the buttons on the elevator), wherein, disguised as a program, he discovers just how fascist coding can get. And, like Neo in The Matrix, Flynn learns he can manipulate the fabric of this reality, taking up his new quasi-mystical role with relish, later going full be-robed Jedi bathed in beatific neon light for 2010’s Tron: Legacy. “All that is visible must grow beyond itself and extend into the realm of the invisible,” says Dumont (Barnard Hughes), an oracular figure and the closest the film gets to a digital priest. Tron, and so much of sci-fi, is a sign of just how spiritually charged that growth can be. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Pi feels like an 85-minute migraine. That’s a good thing.
Darren Aronofsky, American master of the cinematic freakout, fittingly got his start with a film that brings us into the head of a man on the verge of a mental breakdown. For this guy, a math whiz named Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) who got his PhD at 20 and spends his days crunching numbers in a dingy New York apartment, the world is one big equation to be solved. Applying a mind quick enough to multiply 322 by 491 in a fraction of a second, Max intends on unlocking the patterns of the universe—the symmetries, recursions and ratios that will enable him to, among other things, predict the trajectory of the stock market, which he sees as an organism abiding by natural laws. For him, this quest is about pushing both technology and the human body further than they’ve ever gone before and so is, as is often the case with most sci-fi exploring the brink of understanding—of a new reality—hubristic in nature, though other parties intend to exploit his brain for different reasons. A posse of Wall Street big shots want to buy his stock market data to turn a profit, while a group of Hasidic Jews seek his help in deciphering the Torah, which they believe involves decoding the numerical basis of the Hebrew language. As outside interference and, above all, internal drive push Max to and beyond the brink of collapse, Pi seems on the verge of disintegrating with him, so closely does it hew to the man’s subjective experience.
To do this, the film shows us the things that a mentally-spent Max hallucinates: a singing subway passenger, a man with a bloodied hand and, most strikingly, a disembodied brain that literalizes the film’s own status as an externalization of its protagonist’s mind. These oneiric visions imbue the movie with a nightmarish aura evoking the surrealism of David Lynch. Appropriately, Pi’s most obvious Lynchian forebear is Eraserhead, given the Aronofsky film’s black-and-white aesthetic, otherworldly aura, slimy imagery, character of the alluring woman-next-door and grating soundtrack courtesy of Clint Mansell, whose hellish soundscape brilliantly evokes how tinnitus might sound if cranked to 11.
Three times throughout the film, Max recounts a childhood incident where his mom told him not to stare into the sun. He did anyway and impaired his vision as a result. The most obvious point of reference here is the myth of Icarus, the classic admonishment against unchecked ambition explicitly referenced elsewhere in the film, but also evoked is Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” which tells of an underground prisoner who, raised to believe that projected shadows on a wall were the original Things themselves, is freed from ignorance and allowed to step above ground into the light. In that story, the liberated man is blinded by sunlight after having spent his life in the dark, but with Max, what’s unclear is whether the sun is a transcendent truth or the fires of his own obsession obstruct the clarity that he’s been trying so hard to grasp. —Jonah Jeng
Director: Rian Johnson
Joseph-Gordon Levitt channels his inner badass to act as the younger version of Bruce Willis, nailing (with the help of some CGI and prosthetics) Willis’s ubiquitous action presence. The best case made on film for “If time travel is outlawed, only outlaws will have time travel!”, writer/director Rian Johnson wisely treats the tech as a given, focusing instead on the dramatic scenarios humans’ use of it would create. The result is one of the more thrilling time-travel-infused flicks of the last few decades, and one obvious reason why Johnson was trusted with a Star Wars film not long afterward. —Christian Becker
Director: Peter Weir
Peter Weir’s delightful, hilarious The Truman Show wouldn’t get made anymore. It’s a star-studded event film centered around a simple and dystopian premise: Jim Carrey’s eponymous character has unwittingly been raised from birth as a reality TV star and only now has begun to suspect that everybody in his life is a hired actor. Carrey’s clear-eyed acting is worlds away from the zany roles that catapulted him to fame a few short years prior, though, as was typically the case with Carrey roles in the ’90s, copious amounts of special effects work go toward creating a believable simulated reality for Carrey’s endearing everyman to be trapped within. The heartfelt monologues and devastating revelations as he fights to escape his gilded cage shine all the brighter for it. The fight to break away from control, from a sanitized and curated existence dictated by a literal white father figure in the sky, rings alarmingly two decades years later, when social media has made performative brand managers of us all. Truman is an unlikely and often hapless hero in his own story, but his eventual hijacking of his own narrative—and his final defiance of his literal and figurative creator figure—form one of the most heroic cinematic arcs of the last 20 years. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: David Twohy
Space Opera. So easy to dismiss, yet, as with many of the pulpy confections of the imagination, so hard to get just right. Fifth Element gets it right. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets gets it wrong (though just wrong). David Twohy and Vin Diesel’s sequel to Pitch Black, however, is cooked to perfection, with noir-tinged dialogue and distress, existential threats both personal and planet-wide, and outlandish events and crazy characters presented with earnestness. The Chronicles of Riddick avoids exposition overload, though it manages to sneak in plenty of world-building, as our titular Furian kicks antagonist ass from one scene to the next. In some ways, the series as a whole can be compared to the Alien franchise—the first film horror, the second all action, the third, well, less exciting—but the second film of the series stands out as one of the purest, most enjoyable encapsulations of space opera outside the land of Lucas. —Michael Burgin
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Okja takes more creative risks in its first five minutes than most films take over their entire span, and it doesn’t let up from there. What appears to be a sticking point for some critics and audiences, particularly Western ones, is the seemingly erratic tone, from sentiment to suspense to giddy action to whimsy to horror to whatever it is Jake Gyllenhaal is doing. But this is part and parcel with what makes Bong Joon-ho movies, well, Bong Joon-ho movies: They’re nuanced and complex, but they aren’t exactly subtle or restrained. They are imaginative works that craft momentum through part-counterpart alternations, and Okja is perhaps the finest example yet of the wild pendulum swing of a Bong film’s rhythmic tonality.
Okja is, in other words, the culmination of Bong’s unique rhythms into something like a syncopated symphony. The film opens with Tilda Swinton’s corporate maven Lucy Mirando leering out an expository dump of public relations about her new genetically created super-pigs, which will revolutionize the food industry. We’re also introduced to Johnny Wilcox, played by Gyllenhaal as a bundle of wretched tics, like there’s a tightly-wound anime character just waiting to rid itself of its Gyllenhaal flesh, but in the meantime barely contained. Okja is the finest of the super-pigs, raised by a Korean farmer (Byun Hee-bong) and his granddaughter Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), an orphan. Okja is Mija’s best friend, a crucial part of her family. Bong takes his sweet time with this idyllic life Mija and Okja share. The narrative slows down to observe what feels like a Miyazaki fantasy come to life. Mija whispers in Okja’s ear, and we’re left to wonder what she could possibly be saying. The grandfather has been lying to Mija, telling her he has saved money to buy Okja from the Mirando corporation. There is no buying this pig; it is to be a promotional star for the enterprise. When Johnny Wilcox comes to claim Okja (a sharp note of dissonance in the peaceful surroundings) the grandfather makes up an excuse for Mija to come with him to her parents’ grave. It is there he tells her the truth.
Mija’s quest to rescue Okja brings her in alliance with non-violent animal rights activists ALF, which ushers the film into a high-wire act of an adventure where Bong’s penchant for artful set-piece is pushed to new heights. The director works with an ace crew frontlined by one of our greatest living cinematographers, Darius Khondji, who composes every frame of Okja with vibrant virtuosity. The very action of the film becomes action that is concerned with its own ethics. As the caricatures of certain characters loom larger, and the scope of the film stretches more and more into the borderline surreal, one realizes that the Okja is a modern, moral fable. It’s not a film about veganism, but it is a film that asks how we can find integrity and, above all, how we can act humanely towards other creatures, humans included. The answers Okja reaches are simple and vital, and without really speaking them it helps you hear those answers for yourself because it has asked all the right questions, and it has asked them in a way that is intensely engaging. —Chad Betz
Director: Claire Denis
High Life begins with a moment of intense vulnerability, followed immediately by a moment of immense strength. First we glimpse a garden, verdant and welcoming, before we’re ushered to a sterile room. There we realize there’s a baby alone while Monte (Robert Pattinson), her father maybe, consoles her, talking through a headset mounted within his space helmet. “Da da da,” he explains through the intercom; the baby starts to lose her shit because he’s not really there, he’s perched outside, on the surface of their basic Lego-piece of a spaceship, just barely gripped on the edge of darkness. They’re in space, one supposes, surrounded by dark, oppressive nothingness, and he can’t reach her. They’re alone. Next, Monte empties their cryogenic storage locker of all the dead bodies of his once-fellow crew members, lifting their heavy limbs and torsos into space suits, not because it matters, but maybe just because it’s something to do to pass the time, as much a sign of respect as it is an emotional test of will. Monte looks healthy and capable, like he can withstand all that loneliness, like he and his daughter might actually make it out of this OK, whatever this is. High Life lives inside that juxtaposition, displaying tenderness as graphically as violence and anger and incomprehensible fear, mining all that blackness surrounding its characters for as much terror as writer-director Claire Denis can afford without getting obvious about it. Pattinson, flattened and lithe, plays Monte remarkably, coiled within himself to the point that he finishes every word deep in his throat, his sentences sometimes total gibberish. He doesn’t allow much to escape his face, but behind his eyes beams something scary, as if he could suddenly, and probably will, crack. He says as much to Willow, his kid, whispering to her while she sleeps that he could easily kill them both, never wanting to hurt her but still polluting her dreams. He can’t help it, and neither can Denis, who, on her 14th film (first in English), can make an audience believe, like few other directors, that anything can happen. Madness erupts from silence and sleep, bodily fluids dripping all over and splattering throughout and saturating the psyches of these criminal blue collar astronauts, the overwhelming stickiness of the film emphasizing just how intimately close Denis wants us to feel to these odd, sick fleshbags hurtling toward the edge of consciousness. —Dom Sinacola / Full Review
Director: Nicholas Roeg
Imbued with newfound poignancy and melancholia after the passing of its mercurial lead Starman, David Bowie, Nicholas Roeg’s impressionistic, ravenous, experiential masterpiece is one of the rare films about aliens that feels as exotic in its form as its content. Filled with Roeg’s characteristically discursive, paradoxically symmetrical but nonlinear cutting and violently sensual imagery, The Man Who Fell to Earth is as much about subverting the very nature of human experience as it is about offering an outside window into our culture. As the “secretive, but not private” Thomas Jerome Newton—a meteoric billionaire industrialist whose knowledge allows him to skip decades of scientific stranglehold at a mere moment—Bowie’s version of a universal traveler is less about a misunderstanding of the world than a semantic confusion of the pronunciation of words, or an inability to reinforce his own externalized narrative. Even as Newton leaps every known scientific hurdle, his life force is slowly being wrung out by competitors and friends alike who are so consumed with success they’re unable to see the big picture, or recognize the importance of Newton’s own interest in returning to his family.
In what both represents and replicates the experience of watching a Roeg film, Newton obsesses over dozens of televisions, attempting to collectively view reality as one congealed experience. As he explains, “Television shows you everything, but it doesn’t tell you everything.” Moving decades in single frames, Newton can’t escape this misery of his own making, basking in the death of his memories over endless gins as he experiences seemingly multiple lifetimes in a single event. Referring to his eternal imprisonment, Rip Torn’s traitorous Nathan Bryce asks, “Are you mad that we did this?” On the verge of passing out, Newton responds, “We’d have probably treated you the same if you came over to our place.” Even aliens aren’t immune to our vices of apathy and despair. —Michael Snydel
Director: Stuart Gordon
Ironically, the most entertaining take on H.P. Lovecraft is the least Lovecraftian. Stuart Gordon established himself as cinema’s leading eldritch adaptor with a juicy take on the story “Herbert West, Re-Animator,” about a student who concocts a disturbingly flawed means of reviving the dead. Re-Animator more closely resembles a zombie film than the author’s signature brand of occult sci-fi, but it boasts masterful suspense scenes, sharp jokes and Barbara Crampton as a smart, totally hot love interest. Jeffrey Combs as West establishes himself as the Anthony Perkins of his generation, a hilariously insolent and reckless genius he’d go on to play in two Re-Animator sequels. (Combs even played Lovecraft in the anthology film Necronomicon.) Re-Animator is a near-perfect crystallization of the best aspects of ’80s horror, delighting in its perversion as much as its awesomely grotesque practical effects. —Curt Holman
Director: Andrew Niccol
Less given to gadgetry and special effects than deeply felt characters, Andrew Niccol’s 1997 film envision a near-future in which almost all children are lab-created and genetically modified to prevent any mental or physical “imperfections.” Ethan Hawke stars as Vincent, a “God child” conceived naturally and therefore irrevocably flawed. In order to pursue his ambitious career dreams, Vincent seeks help from a DNA broker and assumes a new, genetically superior identity. Archetypal in construction, the film uses a beautiful orchestral score by veteran composer Michael Nyman (The Piano) to evoke an atmosphere that both melancholic and reflective, layered over impeccable production design. The film’s every visual element, from color saturation to sound design, assists in immersing viewers in an atmosphere, like those beings one semantic step from being synthetic, simultaneously familiar and completely alien. —Kara Landhuis
Director: Lucile Hadžihalilovic
Hadžihalilovic’s gorgeous enigma is anything and everything: creature feature, allegory, sci-fi headfuck, Lynchian homage, feminist masterpiece, 80 minutes of unmitigated gut-sensation—it is an experience unto itself, refusing to explain whatever it is it’s doing so long as the viewer understands whatever that may be on some sort of subcutaneous level. In it, prepubescent boy Nicolas (Max Brebant) finds a corpse underwater, a starfish seemingly blooming from its bellybutton. Which would be strange were the boy not living on a fatherless island of eyebrow-less mothers who every night put their young sons to bed with a squid-ink-like mixture they call “medicine.” This is the norm, until Nicolas’s boy-like curiosity begins to reveal a world of maturity he’s incapable of grasping, discovering one night what the mothers do once their so-called “sons” have fallen asleep. From there, Evolution eviscerates notions of motherhood, masculinity and the inexplicable gray area between, simultaneously evoking anxiety and awe as it presents one unshakeable, dreadful image after another. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam takes Chris Marker’s La Jetée and makes it grimier. Beginning in post-apocalyptic Philadelphia in 2035, Twelve Monkeys glimpses Earth’s surface as contaminated by a virus that forces survivors to hide underground. Cole (Bruce Willis) must travel back to the ’90s to collect information on this deadly virus, but, of course, nothing goes as planned. While Cole questions his sanity, he must not only find a way to escape the mental institution in which he’s been placed, but he must also race against fate to undo his ultimate undoing. A cauldron of plot twists, excellent performances and environmentalism, Twelve Monkeys makes an inarguable case for inevitable human doom. —Christian Becker
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Contact seems almost calculated as the sort of cerebral sci-fi to frustrate multiplex audiences with its philosophical, open-ended conclusion about “first contact,” questioning whether any of what Jodie Foster’s character experienced really happened at all. Still, Contact is a beautiful film about the struggle between the tangible and the ephemeral, between faith, intellect and ambition. Ellie (Foster) is innately sympathetic, a woman with a selfless streak who nonetheless on some level seeks a very personal validation in being chosen as humanity’s representative to meet an alien race. The film challenges us to consider the depth of our inconsequential standing in the universe, and how different aspects of humanity, both beautiful and hideous, would present themselves after the revelation of a “higher power.” Add to this an impressive cast that includes Foster, John Hurt, James Woods, William Fichtner, Rob Lowe, Tom Skerritt, David Morse and Matthew McConaughey (years before his McConaissance), and you can overlook the presence of Jake Busey in one of the best examples of “hard sci-fi” in the 1990s. —Jim Vorel
Director: George Lucas
The brilliance behind George Lucas’s choice to have his dystopic society disciplined via android cops is that there’s little difference between the machines who keep the “peace” and the people for whom they’re keeping it. Resembling a sort of campy take on highway patrolmen (think the Village People, except with way less singing) spliced with G.I. Joe’s Destro, the robot police force is governed solely on “budget,” which of course allows our hero THX (Robert Duvall) to escape the underground society, and the mysterious deity, OMM 0910, that represses him. Yet, in being left to his own devices after OMM determines that chasing after THX would put the robot police force 6% “over budget,” even THX’s humanity is further reduced to a matter of balancing numbers. It may be a point of triumph for our protagonist, but in perhaps the most subtle thematic move the director has ever made, Lucas is implying that even the organic characters in THX 1138 are mere tools for a higher power. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Doug Liman
Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) spends his days in the film’s near-future setting spinning the armed forces’ ongoing efforts against a hostile alien race (dubbed Mimics) without ever setting foot on a battlefield. At least until a gruff general (Brendan Gleeson) sends him on a particularly dicey mission. The result is Cage’s death, but the story doesn’t end there. Instead Cage awakes at the beginning of the day he died with his memory intact, and quickly discovers the resurrections will recur every time he dies. His only hope of escaping the endless cycle lies with super-soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who knows from experience exactly how Cage might be able to use this new ability to help humanity win the war of the worlds.
Based on the manga All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka and adapted for the screen by Christopher McQuarrie (Cruise’s current go-to director completely in sync with his physically-defying action spectacle) and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, Edge of Tomorrow recalls other notable time loop sagas, including Groundhog Dayand Source Code in the witty and engaging way it moves its story forward piece by piece. As Cage relives the same day over and over again, he also learns how to become a true soldier, trains with (and falls for) Rita, discovers how the aliens function and ever so patiently formulates the perfect plan of attack. Like a video game hero with infinite lives, Cage has the opportunity to refine and correct every mistake he makes along the way. However long Cage is on that journey, Edge of Tomorrow is a blast, and Cruise carries the surprisingly amusing action like a pro—his skill with deadpan comedy proving even more valuable than his infamous enthusiasm for sacrificing his flesh over and over and over. —Geoff Berkshire
Director: Richard Marquand
Look, I’m not here to defend Ewoks. Really, I’m not. But there’s a certain subset of Star Wars fans who go really profoundly overboard on their Ewok hang-up. Yes, the little fuzzballs probably could have been phased out of Episode VI altogether, but outside of them, the film offers the most incredible action sequences and epic conclusion of the entire series. So please, forget about the Ewoks for one moment and appraise the film on the rest of its merits.
It’s all here: Incredibly varied settings, from the grime of Jabba’s palace to the overgrowth of Endor and the cold, steely sparseness of Imperial command ships. A fully matured Luke (Mark Hamill) proves that his powers have grown considerably, that he’s not simply chasing “delusions of grandeur” in the rescue of Han (Harrison Ford). And then there’s the true introduction of Palpatine as the face of ultimate evil—is there any more badass way to introduce a character for the first time than for Darth Vader, who we’ve personally witnessed choke numerous officers to death for trivial offenses, to say, “The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am”? The space battle above Endor is the greatest that the series has ever produced, and probably ever will produce (the only thing that comes close is the conclusion of Rogue One); the sheer scale and dizzying choreography that ILM managed to pull off with practical effects in 1983 is still one of the most amazing VFX feats in cinema history. And the ultimate confrontation between Luke, Vader and the Emperor is the tipping point of the entire trilogy’s arc: Luke’s final test—both of his Jedi resolve and his deep-seated belief in the spark of Anakin Skywalker left burning deep within Vader. The moment when Luke casts his lightsaber down and declares himself to be “a Jedi, like my father before me,” bringing a bitter scowl to the Emperor’s crestfallen face, is an emotional triumph. —Jim Vorel
Director: James Cameron
It makes sense that Avatar is still the highest grossing movie ever made: Irony and insincerity have no place in its extended universe. Whether or not James Cameron intended to crib the world of Pandora and its futuristic inhabitants from practically every fantastical ur-text ever conceived, it hardly matters, because Avatar is modern mythmaking at its most foundational. Cameron still seems to believe that “the movies” can give audiences a transformative experience, so every sinew of his film bears the Herculean effort of truly genius worldbuilding, telling the simple story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his Dances with Wolves-like saving of the Na’vi, natives to the planet of Pandora, from the destructive forces of colonialism. Cameron wants us to care about this world as much as Jake Sully, and by extension James Cameron, does, crafting flora and fauna with borderline sociopathic obsessiveness, at the time pushing 3-D technology to its brink to bring his inhuman imagination alive. It worked; “unobtanium” is actually a real thing. Four sequels feels like a disgusting gambit for a man whose ambition may have long ago outpaced his sense of storytelling, or sense of reason, or sense of what our oversaturated, over-franchised culture can even stomach anymore. But Cameron’s proven us wrong countless times before. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Christopher Nolan
Whether he’s making superhero movies or blockbuster puzzle boxes, Christopher Nolan doesn’t usually bandy with emotion. But Interstellar is a nearly three-hour ode to the interconnecting power of love. It’s also his personal attempt at doing in 2014 what Stanley Kubrick did in 1968 with 2001: A Space Odyssey, less of an ode or homage than a challenge to Kubrick’s highly polarizing contribution to cinematic canon. Interstellar wants to uplift us with its visceral strengths, weaving a myth about the great American spirit of invention gone dormant. It’s an ambitious paean to ambition itself. The film begins in a not-too-distant future, where drought, blight and dust storms have battered the world down into a regressively agrarian society. Textbooks cite the Apollo missions as hoaxes, and children are groomed to be farmers rather than engineers. This is a world where hope is dead, where spaceships sit on shelves collecting dust, and which former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) bristles against. He’s long resigned to his fate but still despondent over mankind’s failure to think beyond its galactic borders. But then Cooper falls in with a troop of underground NASA scientists, led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), who plan on sending a small team through a wormhole to explore three potentially habitable planets and ostensibly secure the human race’s continued survival. But the film succeeds more as a visual tour of the cosmos than as an actual story. The rah-rah optimism of the film’s pro-NASA stance is stirring, and on some level that tribute to human endeavor keeps the entire yarn afloat. But no amount of scientific positivism can offset the weight of poetic repetition and platitudes about love. —Andy Crump
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is, quite simply, the film responsible for the creation of Studio Ghibli. It not only signaled Miyazaki’s nascent status as one of anime’s preeminent creators, but also sparked the birth of an animation studio whose creative output would dominate the medium for decades to come. Following the release of The Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki’s odd Lupin III adventure, the director was commissioned by his producer and future long-time collaborator Toshio Suzuki to create a manga in order to better pitch a potential film to his employers at Animage. What resulted was Nausicaä, a fantasy-sci-fi epic inspired by the works of Ursula K. Le Guin and Jean “Moebius” Giraud, starring a courageous warrior princess trying to mend a rift between humans and the forces of nature while soaring across a post-apocalyptic wilderness.
Nausicaä was the film that introduced the world to the motifs and themes for which Miyazaki would become universally known: a courageous female protagonist unconscious of and undeterred by gender norms, the surmounting power of compassion, environmental advocacy and an unwavering love and fascination with the phenomenon of flight. It spawned an entire generation of animators, among them Hideaki Anno, whose lauded work on the film’s climactic finale would later inspire him to go on to create Neon Genesis Evangelion. The essentialness of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’s placement within the greater canon of animated film, Japanese or otherwise, cannot be overstated. —Toussaint Egan
Director: J.J. Abrams
J.J. Abrams’ slick movie reboot of the Star Trek franchise is essentially a louder, flashier and sexed-up take on the ’60s television show. While it eschews the series’ usual M.O. of sci-fi-as-social-commentary, it’s largely faithful to the source material and features a top-shelf ensemble cast. Star Trek resurrects the idealistic flights of fancy of pre-’70s sci-fi, and offers us a compelling glimpse at what a multicultural (not to mention multicivilizational) utopian future might look like. Perhaps more importantly, this movie takes a franchise that’s seemingly indelibly stamped with the scarlet letter of geekdom and gives it mass appeal. —Michael Saba
Director: Michael Anderson
In the far-flung future of 2274, 30 is the new 80. Unfortunately for those who think they’re entitled to a second act in life, like Logan 5 (Michael York), escaping can get you sentenced to “Deep Sleep” by the Gestapo-like Sandmen. And even if you make it past the human assassins, you could still wind up face-to-chrome grill with Box, the magnificently melodramatic robot who ran out of fish! And plankton! And sea greens! And protein from the sea!, and so decided it might as well flash-freeze some fresh Runners instead. I can’t prove it, but I have a sneaking suspicion Billy West modeled his performance of thespian robot Calculon from Futurama after Roscoe Lee Browne’s positively Shakespearean Box. “My birds! My birds! My birds!! —Scott Wold
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith have tremendous chemistry in what’s essentially a buddy cop movie. But if the cocky, young cop starts out sure of himself, Jones’s Agent K quickly brings him down to an alien-infested Earth. Delightful in tone, director Barry Sonnenfeld plays into all our wildest conspiracy dreams, turning our everyday world into a secret refuge for an imaginative variety of creatures from planets beyond. The plot might be a little slim, but the alien vignettes along the way are clever enough to carry the weight. —Josh Jackson
Director: Steven Spielberg
The more we become connected, the more any sense of personal privacy completely evaporates. So goes Steven Spielberg’s vision for our near future, couched in the signifiers of a neo-noir, mostly because the veil of safety and security has been—today, in 2002 and for decades to come—irrevocably ripped from our eyes. What we see (and everything we don’t) becomes the stuff of life and death in this shadowed thriller, based on a Philip K. Dick story, about a pre-crime cop John Anderton (Tom Cruise) whose loyalty and dedication to his job can’t save him from meaner bureaucratic forces. Screenwriters Scott Frank and Jon Cohen’s plot clicks faultlessly into place, buoyed by breathtaking action setpieces—metallic tracking spiders ticking and swarming across a decrepit apartment floor to find Anderton, the man submerged in an ice-cold bathtub with his eyes recently switched out via black market surgery, immediately lurches to mind—but most impressive is Spielberg’s sophistication, unafraid of the bleak tidings his film prophecies even as it feigns a storybook ending. —Dom Sinacola
Director: David Cronenberg
Videodrome wears many skins: It’s a near-future thriller about the lines between man and machine blurring, a sadomasochistic fantasy, a chronicle of one man’s tragic descent into madness and even a screed against society’s abusive relationship with theatrical violence. Yet, more than any dermis it claims as its own, Videodrome is horror down to its bones, a shard of phantasmagorical mania wielded by the genre’s most cerebral master. The mind is where Cronenberg creeps, taking his imagination’s darkest wanderings—steeped in symbolism and subconscious detritus—to visceral extremes. The same could be said for smut peddler Max Renn (the always sweaty James Woods), manager of a cable TV channel devoted to finding new boundary-breaking entertainment, who stumbles upon a pirated broadcast signal carrying “Videodrome,” a seemingly unsimulated series filled with graphic torture and death. As Cronenberg’s dark dreams tend to do, “Videodrome” begins to warp Renn’s reality—our mind’s eye, as one episode explains to him, is the television screen—and the malevolent forces behind “Videodrome” convince him to go on a killing spree, armed with his newly grown mutant cyborg hand (which might be a hallucination but probably isn’t). Throughout, Cronenberg literalizes Renn’s grossest thoughts, opening up a vaginal orifice in his stomach (into which he salaciously sticks his handgun) or transforming his television set into a pulsating, veined organ, manifesting each apocalyptic vision with immediate, tactile reality. In Videodrome, maybe more saliently than in any of his other films, Cronenberg squeezes the ordeals of the slumbering mind like toothpaste from the tube into the disgusting light of day, unable to push them back in. Long live the new flesh—because the old can no longer hold us together. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Richard Fleischer
Cannibalism is usually such an intimate affair. Not so in Soylent Green, a loose adaptation of Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel, Make Room! Make Room!, in which “Soylent Green is people!” Along with his famous call for cleaner, less groping ape hands, Charlton Heston’s delivery of Soylent Green’s signature line has proven one of his most lasting contributions to pop culture, as well as one of the great spoilers of film history. —Michael Burgin
Director: Don Hertzfeldt
In the first part, in 16 minutes, Don Hertzfeldt lays out humanity’s destiny: a vastly interconnected age of barely functional connections. In stick figures, impressionistic smatterings of vibrant color, geometric arrays, a snippet of a Strauss opera and the perspective of one little girl, Emily (Winona Mae), World of Tomorrow makes all science fiction to come before feel limited, not far-reaching enough—not enough. In 16 minutes. In any of the subjects that keep us up at night, that define us through our calamities—mental degradation, the loss of memory, nostalgia, cloning, AI, robotics, time travel, immortality, death, the incomparable loneliness of the universe—in Hertzfeldt’s deceptively simple animation, all is boiled down to an essence, a “yes” or “no” question: Why does simply being human push us farther and farther away from each other? Further and further away from ourselves? In the case of Future Emily falling in love with a mining robot, Hertzfeldt doesn’t want us to take it seriously so much as feel the pain, any pain, of Emily inevitably abandoning the robot to its long, blank eternity without her. In the case of hundreds of thousands of botched time travel missions killing time travelers by stranding them in an unknown time, or, worse, depositing them into the thinnest outer reaches of our atmosphere so their bodies fall back to earth, a beautiful nighttime show of falling stars, Hertzfeldt expects you to find this all pretty funny, because he knows you are using laughter to bury the urge to scream hopelessly into the indifferent void about just how meaningless your existence truly is. In 16 minutes: All of this—including a moment that will make your heart skip a beat because, in 15 minutes, you’ve become irrevocably attached to this little girl, Emily Prime, and you can’t bear the thought of leaving her, this little stick person cartoon, to face the universe alone.
Episode 2, a headier, longer (22 minutes) and altogether more ambitious continuation of the first film’s story of the endlessly replicating entity beginning with Emily Prime, revolves around a realization, uttered by Emily-6, a clone of the clone Emily Prime met in the first film: “If there is a soul, it is equal in all living things.” Emily-6 is more vessel, more of a vestigial being, than individual human, created as a backup for Emily’s memories, and so serving no functional purpose. She once again travels to the past to walk with Emily Prime, this time through Emily-6’s own psyche, hoping Emily Prime will be able to offer some context, some meaning, for everything she’s storing. At once, Hertzfeldt captures that disorienting distance between our memories and our sensation of inhabiting them, a distance that only grows wider and weirder with time, to the point that we may even doubt their veracity. And yet, these memories are the key to our immortality. Are our memories what make us human? What make our souls? Revisiting a moment in Emily’s life in which she kills a bug, realizing that bug is dead, no clones to replace it, just gone forever, Emily-6 grasps the futility of her own design. If there is a soul, she has one different from Emily Prime, different from the version of Emily upon which she’s based. The empathy of this moment, as is the case with so much of what Hertzfeldt’s accomplished in barely half an hour, is heart wrenching. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Satoshi Kon
In a career of impeccable films, Paprika is arguably Kon’s greatest achievement. Adapted from the 1993 novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui (whose other notable novel, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, would form the basis of Mamoru Hosoda’s 2006 film of the same name), Kon could not have asked for source material that better suited his thematic idiosyncrasies as a director. Paprika follows the story of Atsuko Chiba, a psychiatrist working on revolutionary psychotherapy treatment involving the DC Mini, a device that allows the user to record and navigate one’s dreams in a shared simulation. By day Atsuko maintains an unremittingly cold exterior, but by night she moonlights as the film’s titular protagonist: a vivacious dream detective who consults clients on her own terms. When a pair of DC Minis are stolen and loosed upon the world, causing a stream of havoc which manifests the collective unconscious into the waking world, it’s up to Paprika and her colleagues to save the day. The summation of Kon’s decade-long career as a director, Paprika is a cinematic trompe l’oeil of psychedelic colors and exquisite animation. Kon’s transition cuts are memorable and mind bending, the allusions to his immense palate of cinematic influences are savvy, and his appeal to the multiplicity of the human experience as thoughtful and poignant as ever. Unfortunately, Paprika would turn out to be Kon’s last film, as he would later tragically pass away in 2010 from pancreatic cancer. One fact remains evident when looking back on the sum total of his life’s work: Satoshi Kon was, and remains, one of the greatest anime directors of his time. He will be sorely missed. —Toussaint Egan
Director: Hiroshi Teshigahara
In some ways Hiroshi Teshigahara was a proto-Cronenberg, a sharp intellectual with a taste for pulp and the ability to dissect our affinities for the filth we drape around us. Body and psyche are always depicted in pulsing communion in Teshigahara’s films, and if Woman in the Dunes operated as a disarming vision of the sacrifice of transcendence to the hungers of human need (a thematic cousin to Cronenberg’s Shivers), then The Face of Another is about how the outer determines the inner—about our modularity, malleability and mundanity. It’s Teshigahara’s Dead Ringers.
And in Armageddon / Deep Impact mode, it came out the same year as the very similar Seconds. No bother, both movies rule: They are the Dead Ringers to each other, echoes of echoes about the echoes that make up our identity. Maybe that’s all identity ever was: a memory of a word that one’s body once spoke, that it still speaks, but maybe not always in the same voice, and maybe the word’s not what you once thought it was. In the beginning was the Word? “Yup,” says The Face of Another, barely stifling a scream.
Teshigahara’s rendering of Kobo Abe’s story strips a man of his face and gives him a new one. At some point we realize the man is gone, but also realize that we never knew him to begin with. In 2014’s Phoenix, Christian Petzold uses a similar premise to construct a melodrama. Nothing of that sort interests Teshigahara, however. At their harshest, his pictures are cold, still horrors; at their most tender, elegies for the existential. The Face of Another is both. —Chad Betz
Director: Brandon Cronenberg
The barren, lonely, modest urban landscapes of Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor reflect a familiar perspective. Brandon is, as you either already know or have surely guessed, David’s son; he shares his father’s interest in corporeal grotesquery, physical transformation representing mental transformation, and an unnerving, topical preoccupation with viruses. Brandon cuts deeper than daddy, though, if not (yet) with the same incisiveness, then with a clinical precision that only intensifies the oneiric oddness coursing intractably through Possessor. This disturbing horror/thriller follows Tasya (Andrea Riseborough), an assassin working for a shady organization that carries out its hits via remote cerebral link between assassin and unwitting host—in this case Colin (Christopher Abbott). Cronenberg charts a horrific journey from mind to mind, plotted along neural pathways but predictably expressed along physical routes. It veers off into an arterial journey, the narrow vessels containing the stuff of life—and death—in a larger body. The film has the feel of a grand sci-fi spectacle shrunk down to a dark, dingy miniature; its crude efficiency belies the potency of Cronenberg’s ruminations on the theme of a foreign invader corrupting a wayward soul in a poisonous society.—Paddy Mulholland
Director: Alex Garland
Annihilation is a movie that’s impossible to shake. Like the characters who find themselves both exploring the world of the film and inexplicably trapped by it, you’ll find yourself questioning yourself throughout, wondering whether what you’re watching can possibly be real, whether maybe you’re going a little insane yourself. The film is a near-impossible bank shot by Ex Machina filmmaker Alex Garland, a would-be science fiction actioner that slowly reveals itself to be a mindfuck in just about every possible way, a film that wants you to invest in its universe yet never gives you any terra firma to orient yourself. This is a film that wants to make you feel as confused and terrified as the characters you’re watching. In this, it is unquestionably successful. This is a risky proposition for a director, particularly with a big studio movie with big stars like this one: This is a movie that becomes more confusing and disorienting as it goes along. Garland mesmerizes with his visuals, but he wants you to be off-balance, to experience this world the way Lena (Natalie Portman) and everyone else is experiencing it. Like the alien (I think?) of his movie, Garland is not a malevolent presence; he is simply an observer of this world, one who follows it to every possible permutation, logical or otherwise. It’s difficult to explain Annihilation, which is a large reason for its being. This is a film about loss, and regret, and the sensation that the world is constantly crumbling and rearranging all around you every possible second. The world of Annihilation looks familiar, but only at first. Reality is fluid, and ungraspable. It can feel a little like our current reality in that way. —Will Leitch
Director: Shane Carruth
Primer does not operate as most movies do, practically reverse-engineered to demand repeat viewings in order to, at the very least, figure out what is even going on. Shane Carruth—who wrote, directed, starred in, edited and scored the film on an impossible budget of $7,000—is, more than a decade after Primer premiered, still a rarity in the studio system, able to create groundbreaking films totally outside that system while trusting in the intelligence of his audience to trust that he’s got everything under control. The difficulty in untangling Primer’s labyrinthine time-travel plot falls in Carruth’s approach: Limited (or perhaps inspired) by a non-existent budget, Carruth shaved his story down to its basest elements, providing exposition in overheard conversations, offering practically nothing in the way of a narrative map to follow, vying instead to explore as mundanely as possible how two software engineers would wield the unthinkable power of time travel. While it may frustrate many uninterested in translating this kind of metaphysical visual language, Carruth’s film aims for more transcendent awards: Navigating Primer feels, we can only imagine, as Carruth’s characters would feel on the precipice of the completely unexplored unknown. That, for all its distancing tactics and opaque conundrums, Primer still operates on a deeply human level, is Carruth’s truest success. Upstream Color may be a sign that Carruth will only get better, but Primer is still a modern landmark of science fiction filmmaking: A story about the mysteries of reality revealed to the only most ordinary—living the most ordinary lives—among us. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Your appreciation of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival will hinge on how well you like being led astray. It’s both the full embodiment of Villeneuve’s approach to cinema and a marvelous, absorptive piece of science fiction, a two hour sleight-of-hand stunt that’s best experienced with as little foreknowledge of its plot as possible. Fundamentally, it’s about the day aliens make landfall on Earth, and all the days that come after—which, to sum up the collective human response in a word, are mayhem. You can engage with Arrival for its text, which is powerful, striking, emotive and, most of all, abidingly compassionate. You can also engage with it for its subtext, should you actually look for it. This is a robust but delicate work captured in stunning, calculated detail by cinematographer Bradford Young, and guided by Amy Adams’ stellar work as Louise Banks, a brilliant linguist commissioned by the U.S. Army to figure out how the hell to communicate with our alien visitors. Adams is a chameleonic actress of immense talent, and Arrival lets her wear each of her various camouflages over the course of its duration. She sweats, she cries, she bleeds, she struggles, and so much more that can’t be said here without giving away the film’s most awesome treasures. She also represents humankind with more dignity and grace than any other modern actor possibly could. If aliens do ever land on Earth, maybe we should just send her to greet them. —Andy Crump
Director: Denis Villeneuve
The debate between what makes something “real” or not has become a staple of adult-minded sci-fi fare in the three-plus decades since Ridley Scott made one genre masterpiece after another dithering over the same debate, but the strength of Blade Runner 2049 is in how intimately Villeneuve (and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green) attempt to have us experience this world through the unreal eyes of a Replicant, K (Ryan Gosling). Ideally, we are forced to think about what “humanity” is when empathy—caring for these robots—is the natural result of the filmmakers’ storytelling.
Revisiting Blade Runner, one may realize that there isn’t much of a story there. The same could be said for Dick’s novel, as well as many of his novels: There is breathtaking world-building, impressive use of language and speculative ideas expanded and thought out to thoroughly conceived ends, but our characters are just people existing in this world, and Blade Runner is really just the story of a cop hunting down four dangerous criminals. 2049, despite its heavy themes and heavier exposition, is about a cop who must find a very special robot before the evil mega-corporation does. The brilliance of Blade Runner, and now its sequel, is that the majesty of the imaginations behind them—the sheer sci-fi magnanimity on display—is enough to bind us to these characters. To care about them.
Blade Runner 2049, then, is undoubtedly the most gorgeous thing to come out of a major studio in some time. Roger Deakins has inculcated Jordan Cronenweth’s lived-in sense of a future on the brink of obsolescence, leaning into the overpowering unease that permeates the monolithic Los Angeles Ridley Scott built. The scale of the film is only matched by the constant dread of obscurity—illumination shifts endlessly, dust and smog both magnifying and drowning the sense-shattering corporate edifices and hyper-stylized rooms in which humanity retreats from the moribund natural world they’ve created. There is a massive world, a solar system, orbiting this wretched city—so overblown that San Diego is now a literal giant dump for New L.A.’s garbage—but so much of it lies in shadow and opacity, forever out of reach. What Scott and Cronenweth accomplished with the original film, placing a potboiler within a magnificently conceived alternative reality, Villeneuve and Deakins have respected as they prod at its boundaries. There’s no other way to describe what they’ve done other than to offer faint praise: They get it. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Glistening agitprop after-school special and gross-ass bacchanalia, Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers delights in the ultraviolence it doles out in heavy spurts—but then chastises itself for having so much fun with something so wrong. Telling the story of a cadre of extremely attractive upper-middle-class white teens (played by shiny adults Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Nina Meyers, Jake Busey and Neil Patrick Harris) who get their cherries popped and then ground into hamburger inside the abattoir of interstellar war, Verhoeven cruises through the many tones of bellicose filmmaking: hawkish propaganda, gritty action setpieces and thrilling adventure sequences, all of it accompanied by plenty of gut-churning CGI, giant space bugs and human heads alike exploding without shame or recourse or respect for basic physics and human empathy. As much a bloodletting of Verhoeven’s childhood trauma, forged in the fascist mill of World War II Europe, as a critique of Hollywood’s cavalier attitude toward violence and uniformly heroic depictions of the military, the sci-fi spectacle can’t help but arrive at the same place no matter which angle one takes: geeked out on some hardcore cinematic mayhem. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
“What will he find out there, doctor?”
That’s what the conservative ape scientist Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) tells compassionate ape “veterinarian” Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) at the end of the original Planet of the Apes, as misanthropic astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) sets out into the Forbidden Zone of this topsy-turvy planet—where intelligent, talking apes are the dominant species and humans are dumb beasts—in order to find out what really happened to his species. Unless you were living under a rock for the last 50 years, you know exactly what he will find.
But why does Zaius call this literally earth-shattering revelation Taylor’s destiny, and not his past, which is technically the case? The answer for that lies within Zaius’s role in the ape society. Unlike all other apes, Zaius knows the history of the painful and complex relationship between apes and humans. He knows how humans’ natural attraction to war, persecution, prejudice and cruelty sealed their eventual doom, and is (perhaps vainly) attempting to keep that “intellectual virus” from spreading to his beloved apes. He knows that once an intelligent human like Taylor has a chance to restart yet another attempt at civilization for his species, the same ugliness and destruction that comes with his inner nature will certainly plague his descendants. Therefore, he knows that Taylor will find both his past and his future on that beach.
Today, the Planet of the Apes franchise is still going strong. The timeless appeal of these films stems from the fact that they explore high-concept themes, like the inherent viciousness and frailty of human nature, with brutal clarity, told with a refreshing lack of condescension and philosophical hand-holding. By presenting a fable world where what we now consider to be animals are dominating humankind, they hold a mirror to our ugliness, arrogance and, just maybe, our chance for redemption.
Every installment and reiteration of the franchise contains a handful of characters who struggle to go against their basest urges and strive to bring compassion and peace to their kind. Yes, these films never forget to cultivate the value of hope for a peaceful world, but they’re never naïve enough to attempt to sell the audience on the idea that it’s an easy feat—as evidenced by the unfortunately yet appropriately bleak endings found in most of them.
The one that started it all is still the epitome of the Planet of the Apes experience. Co-written by Twilight Zone co-creator Rod Serling, the sci-fi fable structure of the novel’s adaptation fits Serling’s sensibilities so impeccably that the original Planet of the Apes might be the closest we’ll ever get to a single-story, feature-length Twilight Zone movie, creating a kind of balanced synergy between pure genre excitement and level-headed morality tale. —Oktay Ege Kozak
Director: Alex Garland
While popular science-fiction films have taught us that, no matter what we do, robots that become self-aware will eventually rise up and kill us, recent advances in artificial intelligence in the real world have confirmed something much seedier about the human imperative: If given the technology to design thinking, feeling robots, we will always try to have sex with them. Always. Alex Garland’s beautifully haunting film seems to want to bridge that gap. Taking cues from obvious predecessors like 2001: A Space Odyssey and AI—some will even compare it to Her—Ex Machina stands solidly on its own as a highly stylized and mesmerizing film, never overly dependent on CGI, and instead built upon the ample talents of a small cast.
The film’s title is a play on the phrase deus ex machina (“god from the machine”), which is a plot device wherein an unexpected event or character seemingly comes out of nowhere to solve a storytelling problem. Garland interprets the phrase literally: Here, that machine is a robot named Ava, played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, and that nowhere is where her creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), performs his research and experiments. Ava is a heavenly mechanical body of sinewy circuitry topped with a lovely face, reminiscent of a Chris Cunningham creation. Her creator is an alcoholic genius and head of a Google-like search engine called Bluebook which has made him impossibly rich. Enter Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who is helicoptered in after winning a lottery at work for which the prize is a week at Nathan’s house. Nathan also intends to use Caleb to conduct something of a Turing test on steroids with Ava to determine if she can truly exhibit human behavior.
In fact, Ex Machina seems designed around the performances of its excellent mini-ensemble. Vikander especially finds the perfect balance between prosthetic personality and genuine empathy, enhanced by the film’s own teetering between some wonderfully titillating and creepy moments: Caleb watching Ava disrobe over a monitor, revealing her metal and circuitry; Nathan and his other sex-bot performing a jarringly synchronized disco dance; and Caleb losing his shit and questioning his own humanity with the help of a razor blade. It’s an awfully attractive film, too, appropriately seductive—no doubt designed to provoke conversations about the morality inherent in “creating” intelligence—as well as whether it’s cool to have sex with robots or not. —Jonah Flicker
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Those still banging the drum for The Matrix’s apparent “innovation” should reserve a four-hour slot for Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ornate science-fiction drama World on a Wire, and discover that the idea of our world as a simulation (within a simulation, within a simulation …) had already been covered 26 years prior. Only recently revived as a “lost classic” of Fassbinder’s, it’s hard to imagine how forward-thinking World on a Wire must have appeared at the time, originally airing on German television in 1973. A technical director for a company that’s created a simulation of an entire world within its computers, Dr. Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitch) investigates personally after his colleagues begin to disappear, and the people around him insist those now missing never actually existed at all. Framed beautifully among the mirrors and tacky futurist décor of early 1970s Germany, the film’s styled like the paranoid thrillers that were so popular at the time, only here the distrust grows epidemically—from initially incorporating Stiller’s associates, then the government, to eventually including Stiller’s fellow citizens and the very world he lives in. The fashion has aged; the ideas haven’t. —Brogan Morris
Director: John McTiernan
For all of the jokes and terrible impersonations made over the decades at the expense of Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger, during his peak throughout the ’80s, the actor possessed a certain joie de vivre unmatched by any action performer in Hollywood (with the possible exception of Bruce Willis). Schwarzenegger’s impish charm contrasts beautifully with his larger-than-life, muscle-bound physique, a dynamic he’s always happy to entertain. But Predator is one of the films of his heyday that dared to conjure a threat that even the specter of Schwarzenegger might not be able to conquer, a space-traveling alien trophy hunter who assembles a grisly collection of skulls and spinal columns throughout. It’s a basic premise that was utterly run into the ground by copycat B movies in the years to follow, but none of them come close to replicating the hyper-macho camaraderie that makes Predator an enduringly entertaining relic of its time. The sophomoric banter between the likes of Jesse Ventura, Carl Weathers and Shane Black is what sets the film apart, infusing it with a somehow endearing gentleman’s club mentality, fully aware of its inherent stupidity. We want to see this merry band of special forces operatives conquer the faceless chameleon set against them. There’s wry satire here about America’s attitude toward meddling in the affairs of less-developed nation states, but more than anything, Predator is simply one of the ’80s ’ best games of cat and mouse. —Jim Vorel
Director: John Frankenheimer
Of all the films on this list, one of those with the world closest to ours can be found in John Frankenheimer’s Seconds. Setting the tale from coast to coast in prosperous ’60s America, Frankenheimer casts an eye through a thin veil of science fiction to what he sees as a failingly lonely way of life. Approached by a mysterious outfit known as “the Company,” middle-aged family man Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is given the opportunity to fake his death and start over as bohemian California-based painter Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson). Tapping away to the existential core, however, “Tony” only finds his new life as hollow as his old one, a construct populated by Company actors and other “reborns” who just want to sustain the illusion. James Wong Howe’s shadow-infused cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s anxious horror score apply the paranoid sheen to what is really a bleak examination of the contemporary domesticated worker—bleak because, minus the presence of the elusive, amoral Company, Seconds’ dystopian Earth is really our own. —Brogan Morris
Director: Luc Besson
In an early scene from Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, there’s a subtle but very telling exchange between the film’s two protagonists. Cab driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) has his daily routine interrupted when Leeloo (an early starring role for Milla Jovovich) crashes through his roof. She speaks an ancient language, so the two can’t communicate—until she says the word “boom,” that is. “I understand ‘boom’,” Korben replies. Right away, we’re cued to the limits of Korben’s worldview, mostly restricted to macho action. This is also the first hint we get that this is a self-reflexive role for Willis, breaking down his tough-guy star persona and digging deep into what exactly makes him such a reliable “guy-movie” centerpiece. For all his typical manly heroism, Korben is a misfit in the film’s flamboyant space operatic future. He’s an alpha-male, tailor-made for the ’80s or ’90s, but, after finishing his time in the military, he’s adrift. The 23rd century doesn’t quite have room for him: He lives alone following a failed marriage, has trouble holding onto his job (and his driver’s license), can’t quit smoking and doesn’t have any friends outside of his old platoon. When the mysterious Leeloo literally lands into Korben’s life, he automatically takes on the role of protector. Leeloo is, it turns out, is a supreme being, sent to Earth to protect humanity from an ancient force that threatens the planet every 5,000 years. There’s a contradiction at the heart of The Fifth Element, with Korben’s manly heroism at odds with his social ineptitude. The film doesn’t try to reconcile these, but rather lets Korben find his own path. He learns to work with others and embrace his more sensitive side, even as he’s cracking wise and kicking ass. In the end, it’s Leeloo who has the power to save Earth from an apocalyptic alien attack. She’s the supreme being sent to Earth for that purpose. But she still needs Korben, and at the last minute, he figures out his role. It’s hard to know how intentional any of this was, since Besson still gives us a stoic tough-guy who saves the day. But with , Besson doesn’t replace the male action hero, but rather makes him more complex. —Frederick Blichert
Director: Philip Kaufman
There’s no real need for the film’s credit-limned intro—a nature-documentary-like sequence in which the alien spores soon to take over all of Earth float through the cosmos and down to our stupid third berg from the Sun—because from the moment we meet health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) and the colleague with whom he’s hopelessly smitten, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), the world through which they wander seems suspiciously off. Although Philip Kaufman’s remake of Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers begins as a romantic comedy of sorts, pinging dry-witted lines between flirty San Franciscan urbanites as Danny Zeitlin’s score strangely lilts louder and louder overhead, Kaufman laces each frame with malice. Oddly acting extras populate the backgrounds of tracking shots and garbage trucks filled with weird dust fluff (which we eventually learn spreads the spores) exist at the fringes of the screen. The audience, of course, puts the pieces together long before the characters do—characters who include Jeff Goldblum at his beanpole-iest and Leonard Nimoy at his least Spock-iest—but that’s the point: As our protagonists slowly discover that the world they know is no longer anything they understand, so does such simmering anxiety fill and then usurp the film. Kaufman piles on more and more revolting, unnerving imagery until he offers up a final shot so bleak that he might as well be punctuating his film, and his vision of modern life, with a final, inevitable plunge into the mouth of Hell. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Fred M. Wilcox
Forbidden Planet is a rarity in a decade of low-budget B-movie sci-fi. Made by MGM Studios—and working as a narrative retread of Shakespeare’s The Tempest—this is high-quality, intelligent science fiction, featuring state-of-the-art special effects. A ship of American astronauts lands on an alien planet where the inhabitants are trying to safeguard the ruins of a previous civilization. Famous for its iconic “Robby the Robot”—more complex and intelligent than most of its automated screen predecessors—Forbidden Planet stands head and shoulders above most science fiction of the ’50s. —Andy Crump
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Very loosely based on the Philip K. Dick short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (and aren’t all PKD adaptations “very loose”?), Total Recall functions as a construct for Paul Verhoeven to take a high-concept premise about memory implants and lost identity and motivational uncertainty and turn it into an Arnold Schwarzenegger schlock-fest. It should be bad, but it’s not; it should be, at best, cheesy fun—but it’s even more than that. Unlike many of it’s sci-fi action peers, Total Recall never runs out of steam or ideas; it starts with the memory implant stuff, but on the back end gives us a vividly imagined Mars society with an oppressed mutant population (which is, like, the best special make-up effects portfolio ever) and a secret alien reactor that’s a MacGuffin but also a deus ex machina. The plot’s a mess but so is Arnold. It all works.
Total Recall’s $60 million production budget was absolutely huge for its time, but unlike similar Hollywood ventures that put money towards glitz (like the 2012 remake, so slick it slips right out of one’s head), Verhoeven uses the loot to give us more dust, more grit, more decrepit sets, more twisted prosthetics and maximum Arnold. Verhoeven, in fact, uses Arnold as much as he uses anything else in the budget to tell this darkly exuberant story, from the contorted confusion of the set-up right on through to the eye-popping finale. It results in a sci-fi screed written in the form of a hundred Ahh-nuld faces, absurd and unforgettable. For as many times as Dick has been adapted, this is perhaps the one time the go-for-broke energy and imagination of his work has made it into the cinema (Blade Runner is something else entirely). Total Recall may have little in common with the actual content of the story it blows up, but it knows the vibe. And PKD vibes are the best kind. —Chad Betz
Director: René Laloux
It doesn’t matter if you’re watching René Laloux’s excellent, eccentric Fantastic Planet for the first time or the fortieth, under the influence or stone sober: The film is such a one-of-a-kind oddity in cinema that each viewing feels like its own wholly unique experience. Put simply, there’s nothing quite like it. If you’ve yet to see this masterwork of 1970s psychedelia-meets-social-commentary, you’re missing out. If you have seen it, chances are you haven’t seen anything quite like it since, because there isn’t much in animated cinema to match it. The closest you’ll get is Terry Gilliam’s paper strip animation stylings in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, or maybe the still painting approach of Eiji Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Sadness. Neither of these equate with Fantastic Planet’s visual scheme, though, which just underscores its individuality. Where does a movie like Fantastic Planet come from? How does it even get made? Laloux has offered few answers over the years, though the documentary Laloux Sauvage holds some insight into how his mind works. Maybe the answers aren’t worth pursuing in the first place, and maybe the best way to understand Fantastic Planet is just to watch it, and then watch it again. —Andy Crump
Director: Stanley Kubrick
As with most (well, probably all) of Stanley Kubric’s book-to-screen adaptations, A Clockwork Orange remixes several aspects from Anthony Burgess’s novel, and probably for the better (at least Alex [a terrifyingly electric Malcolm McDowell] isn’t a pedophile in Kubrick’s film, for example). It’s still a relentlessly vicious satire portraying a society permissive of brutal youth culture, one where modern science and psychology are the best countermeasures in combating the Ultra Violence ™ that men like Alex and his fellow “droogs” commit. It’s painfully clear that when Alex is cast as a victim by the British Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharp) that—spoiler alert!—evil wins. Christ, can any of us ever hear ”Singing in the Rain” the same again after this nightmare? —Scott Wold
Director: John Carpenter
No disrespect to the classic Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks version of The Thing from Another World from 1951, but John Carpenter’s 1982 reimagining of that story into The Thing is one of cinema’s greatest acts of modernization. In a manner that was mimicked six years later by Chuck Russel’s remake of The Blob, Carpenter took a thinly veiled Cold War allegory and cloaked it in his taut, atmospheric style, ratcheting up both suspense and the lurid payoff delivered by groundbreaking FX work, while expanding the mythology and capabilities of the titular monster. Every frame is a visual puzzle: Carpenter’s camera drifts over empty hallways, open door frames and cloaked figures in the arctic air. Who is The Thing, and more contentiously, when and how did they become The Thing? To this day, the theories spiral endlessly into dark corners of the internet, as Carpenter’s visual clues and Bill Lancaster’s script seem to provide the audience with most—but never quite all—of the information they need to be certain. Rob Bottin delivers what may be the literal zenith of practical effects in the history of horror cinema during The Thing’s several transformation scenes, and particularly in the mind-blowing sequence featuring the severed head of Norris (Charles Hallahan) sprouting legs to become a crab-like creature, which then attempts to scuttle away. The film is an artifact of big-budget ’80s horror purity: a thing of next-level special effects, mind-expanding mystery, masterful direction and the awesomeness that is Kurt Russell as the cherry on top. —Jim Vorel
Director: Alain Resnais
Claude (Claude Rich) can’t successfully commit suicide, so instead he commits himself to the abyss of time. As in the case in Chris Marker’s La Jetée and, later, in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which Gondry admitted was inspired in part by Resnais’ film), the passage of time is experienced as the sum total of one’s memories—splayed like guesstimated data points across the illusory y-axis of our lives—and so beholden to the whims and tenuous subjectivity of our neuroses, our chemicals and, most of all, our nostalgia. Depressed and sunk into a kind of existential shock after the death of his wife, Claude submits to an extremely experimental time travel device concocted by a shadowy, private research cadre. Like Marker’s time machine, Resnais’ technology seems to take place mostly in the head of the protagonist, crafting his vessel more like a desert yurt ripe for a vision quest (replete with bean bag chair and administered “medicine,” presented as perhaps only semantically distinct from something like Ayahuasca) than a transportational pod—though Claude’s body does physically un-stick in time. Intended to only go back for minutes to experience small shards of space-time, Claude does not, as is usually the case, experience the sojourn the scientists meant him to, recycled and regurgitated through ever-random moments in his life which, taken together, flesh out the truth and tragedy behind the truth and tragedy Claude’s convinced himself is real. A master class in film editing, Je t’aime, je t’aime wallows in the impermanence of love, all the more painful, and all the more timely, for it. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Come for the “KhaaAAHHHHHN!” and stay for the surprisingly emotional treatise on aging without wisdom—as well as one hell of a potent, humbling gut punch of an ending. Anyone arguing for any other film in the Trek franchise will find themselves speaking into a black hole chewed in the matte canvas by exquisitely potent villain, played by Ricardo Montalban. That director/co-writer also Nicholas Meyer somehow coaxes a performance from William Shatner that’s only barely un-Kosher makes this movie a space opera with broad, lasting appeal. —Scott Wold
Director: John Carpenter
Like most of John Carpenter’s movies, They Live can be read however one pleases—they are, after all, mostly about pleasing you. A sharp commentary on consumerism carved gleefully with a dull knife, or maybe something closer to a concerned embrace of the bourgeois joys inherent in dumb violence, or maybe just a weird-ass sci-fi action movie with a weird-ass leading man: They Live is, almost inherently, a joy to watch. It’s as if Carpenter’s tapped into some sort of primordially aligned pleasure axis along your spine, giving you the tingles as he balances insight and idiocy throughout his tale about a drifter (“Rowdy” Roddy Piper) who, with the help of magic sunglasses, discovers that the rich and powerful are just as grotesque as he’d always assumed. Every one of Carpenter’s odd plot choices click into place as if preordained, so that when Piper’s in a completely pointless, six-minute fight scene with Keith David, one can’t help but love that Carpenter’s in on the punchline with all of us, which just happens to be that there is no punchline. The fight scene exists for its own sake—as maybe much of They Live does. Carpenter’s a goddamn genius. —Dom Sinacola
Directors: Kurt Neumann (1958) and David Cronenberg (1986)
Between The Blob, The Thing and The Fly, the ’80s were a magical decade for remaking already iconic ’50s horror/sci-fi movies. The original Kurt Neumann/Vincent Price version of The Fly is sometimes waved away as nothing more than a “camp classic,” but it’s a substantial film that is often more mystery than it is horror—a tightly focused narrative hinging around the question of why a woman has confessed to messily crushing her husband to death in a hydraulic press. Vincent Price is as entertaining as the fly-crossed scientist as you would no doubt expect him to be. The Cronenberg version, like the remake of The Blob, takes that basic premise and dresses it in both gallows humor and body horror, Jeff Goldblum’s researcher literally watching pieces of his body gelatinize and melt away in front of him. As “Brundle” he’s full of manic energy, ingenuity and eventually insectoid-enhanced physicality. Along with The Thing, the film is one of the last great hurrahs of the practical effects-driven horror era, featuring some of the more disgusting makeup and gore effects of all time. After seeing a man-sized Brundlefly vomiting acid, it’s difficult to ever look at a common housefly in the same way again. —Jim Vorel
Director: Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg’s classic is many things: an ode to friendship that resonates with child and adult alike, one of the top-grossing films of all time, and the moment his career, on a scale of 1-10, reached 11. Though the Academy would not award Spielberg the Best Director trophy until there were more Nazis involved, E.T. remains perhaps the most deft expression of his directorial hand, interweaving all the usual “alien visitation” tropes with that most shared of human experiences—childhood—until the sci-fi of it all seems less important than the humanity portrayed. —Michael Burgin
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
The sum total of anime cinema from the early ’90s to present day is marked by the precedent of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. Adapted from the early chapters of Otomo’s landmark manga series, Akira was the most expensive animated film of its time and a cinematic benchmark that sent shockwaves throughout the industry. Taking place 31 years after after World War III was sparked by a massive explosion that engulfed the city of Tokyo, Akira is set in the sprawling metropolis of Neo-Tokyo, built on the ruins of the former and teetering precariously on the cusp of social upheaval. The film follows the stories of Kaneda Shotaro and Tetsuo Shima, two members of a youth motorcycle gang whose lives are irrevocably changed one fateful night on the outskirts of the city. While clashing against a rival bike gang during a turf feud, Tetsuo crashes into a strange child and is promptly whisked away by a clandestine military outfit while Kaneda and his friends look on, helplessly. From then, Tetsuo begins to develop frightening new psychic abilities as Kaneda tries desperately to mount a rescue. Eventually the journeys of these two childhood friends will meet and clash in a spectacular series of showdowns encircling an ominous secret whose very origins rest at the dark heart of the city’s catastrophic past: a power known only as “Akira.”
Like Ghost in the Shell that followed it, Akira is considered a touchstone of the cyberpunk genre, though its inspirations run much deeper than paying homage to William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Akira is a film whose origins and aesthetic are inextricably rooted in the history of post-war Japan, from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the “Anpo” student protests of that era to the country’s economic boom and the then-nascent counterculture of Bosozoku racing. Akira is a film of many messages, the least of which a coded anti-nuclear parable and a screed against wanton capitalism and the hubris of “progress.” But perhaps most poignantly, at its heart, it is the story of watching your best friend turn into a monster. Akira is almost single-handedly responsible for the early 1990s boom in anime in the West, its aesthetic vision rippling across every major art form, inspiring an entire generation of artists, filmmakers and even musicians in its wake. For these reasons and so many more, every anime fan must grapple at some point or another with Akira’s primacy as the most important anime film ever made. —Toussaint Egan
Director: Michel Gondry
In what might be Charlie Kaufman’s finest script, boy meets girl, unaware that they might be living out a doomed eternal recurrence. A brain-wipe firm allows its clients to erase choice people or events from their memory. Turns out, Joel (a repressed Jim Carrey) and Clementine (a vibrant Kate Winslet) have done this before. Technology is the Great Enabler and, perhaps, a secret destroyer—except that the science fiction aspect of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is just an auxiliary to the core relational dynami. Stripped of fantasy, the film’s theme is no Luddite cautionary tale but rather just a melancholy observation of human relationships. This is how it’s always been. We’re quite accomplished at failing each other…and ourselves.
There’s nothing so condemnatory as that statement in Eternal Sunshine, a film that watches and weeps at a whimsical circus breaking down. It immerses us in Joel’s mind, Gondry’s in-camera effects and nearly experimental editing taking us tumbling through the increasingly tragic process of removing Clementine. When I first saw this film in the theater in 2004, I swore I would never do the thing that Joel does to try to heal himself, but I’ve lived some life since then and now I’m not sure I can say the same. I’ve deleted phone numbers and pictures on Facebook, had about a month where I was vigilantly untagging myself; I’m sometimes scared to even look at my feed. It doesn’t matter what the social environment is, humans will use whatever’s available to mitigate pain, especially emotional pain. But sometimes we need the thing we want to be rid of; there’s no actualization without vulnerability, risk, and, inevitably, hurt. The final shot of Eternal Sunshine lingers in my memory, always on loop: Joel and Clementine, stumbling in play away from the camera, on a snowy beach in Montauk. It seems like an extrapolation of the final shot of The 400 Blows: “Stuck in stasis” has become “stuck in repeat.” And, yet, in that shot is acceptance, possibly even hope. There are no spotless minds, but perhaps some still can shine. —Chad Betz
Director: Steven Spielberg
Close Encounters was the personal project Spielberg wanted to pull off when he was able to establish himself as a Hollywood power player. The massive success of Jaws gave him the opportunity to realize his character-based, big budget, special-effects-driven science-fiction tale about humanity’s place in the galaxy, a rare optimistic and benign chronicle of first contact. The story of a father (Spielberg alter-ego Richard Dreyfuss) abandoning his family through obsession allowed Spielberg to deal with the inner demons related to his career, his own family and his upbringing by looking outward, boundlessly exploring the cosmos with outsized awe. —Oktay Ege Kozak
Director: Spike Jonze
Spike Jonze’s colossal talent was far too great to remain trapped in MTV’s orbit; that became immediately clear when his breakout feature-length debut, Being John Malkovich, earned him an Oscar nod for Best Director. Following that minor postmodern masterpiece, he and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman continued their journey into solipsism with the hilariously unhinged Adaptation. As challenging, yet fun and accessible as Kaufman’s screenplays are, Jonze’s Her answers any lingering questions of whether those two movies’ (well-deserved) acclaim sprang solely from the power of Kaufman’s words. Retaining the sweetest bits of the empathetically quirky characters, psycho-sexuality and hard-wrung pathos of Malkovich, Her successfully realizes a tremendously difficult stunt in filmmaking: a beautifully mature, penetrating romance dressed in sci-fi clothes. Eye-popping sets and cinematography, as well as clever dialogue delivered by a subtly powerful Joaquin Phoenix, make Jonze’s latest feature one of the best films of 2013. It also serves as confirmation that—much like Her—the director is the complete package. —Scott Wold
Director: James Cameron
James Cameron’s first Terminator (and second feature) is less of a pure-popcorn action flick than its upscaled sequel, but that makes it all the more terrifying of a movie—dark, somber, replete with a silent villain who calmly plucks bits of his damaged face off to more precisely target its victims. The task in front of Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) seems so insurmountable—even with a soldier from the future, going after the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger, duh) with modern weapons is so ineffectual, it’s nearly comical. It’s as if Schwarzenegger is playing entropy itself—entropy seemingly a theme of The Terminator series, given the time-hopping do-overs, reboots and retreads since. You can destroy a terminator, but the future (apparently driven by box office receipts) refuses to be changed. —Jim Vorel
Director: Brad Bird
Brad Bird’s feature debut championed traditional hand-drawn art at a time when computer animation was gaining in popularity, released by studio folk who didn’t realize just how special of a film they had on their hands, putting little to no marketing behind it. Luckily, The Iron Giant received its due recognition on home video. Set in the 1950s and drawing off of nuclear fears of the time—as well as Bird’s personal tragedy regarding gun violence—The Iron Giant incorporates the hallmark of the era’s science-fiction—a giant metal robot—into a touching coming-of-age story. Bird effortlessly moves between riotous comedy (such as young Hogarth’s efforts to hide his enormous new robot friend from his mother), high-spun action and poignant moments of fear and friendship. —Jeremy Mathews
Director: Steven Spielberg
Jurassic Park, in 1993, was an achievement in major league filmmaking. Like Star Wars before it, it showcased a quantum leap in visual effects—both physical and CGI, in this case. Most important, however, were those CGI advancements. Jurassic Park, for better or worse, probably represents the first moment in our modern AAA Hollywood mythos in which an audience could look at CGI-driven creatures, nod their heads and simply accept them as part of the story. Married with one of the greatest pure adventure yarns in Spielberg’s celebrated canon, Jurassic Park was the spectacle we’ve come to expect of the traditional “blockbuster.” That loose term, since the days of Jaws, has always referred to a breed of films that are supposed to succeed by wowing us and making jaws drop. Jurassic Park did that in a way that infinitely raised expectations for every effects-driven money-maker—for everything—thereafter. —Jim Vorel
Director: Fritz Lang
Metropolis never slows as it delivers a constant stream of iconic images. Fritz Lang filled his parable with all the sci-fi/adventure tropes he could: the mad scientist, the robot, the rooftop chase, the catacombs and, as it turns out, a devious henchman. Metropolis, too, is a great reminder of just how difficult it is to judge an incomplete film. In fact, many silent films are missing material, even when it isn’t made clear in screenings or on home video. While Lang’s film has always been known for its spectacular special effects—it’s legally required that I use the phrase “visionary” while discussing it—not until a few years ago did modern audiences see a film anywhere close to the one that first premiered. It turned out that Metropolis’s best performance, Fritz Rasp as a ruthless spy for the corporate state, was part of that missing material, and it gives the film a greater sense of urgency, increasing the feeling of class-based antagonism. With that unknown excellence lurking in one of the most famous films of all time, it leaves us to wonder what else was lost in nitrate flames. —Jeremy Mathews
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
In 2002, Steven Soderbergh adapted Stanislaw Lem’s classic science fiction novel into a perfectly fine and handsome movie. It’s the one time that the story of a Tarkovsky film has been duplicated, sharing source material, and it illustrates an important truth: Andrei Tarkovsky’s vision is singular, inimitable; it towers over all others. Where an accomplished director like Soderbergh made a serviceable sci-fi flick, Tarkovsky made visual poetry of the highest order.
Tarkovsky’s artistic instincts rarely failed him, and even though it was a big budget genre picture, Solyaris takes risks with the same confidence of expression and the same depth of resonance as any other Tarkovsky film. The science fiction concept of the titular planet-entity allows Tarkovsky a new angle at the same themes pondered in many of his works: the pivotal roles of history and memory in our present and future; the fraught responsibility of the individual in responding to the calls of the sublime; the struggle to know truth. Tarkovsky’s long-take, free-associative aesthetic was predicated on his philosophy of filmmaking as “sculpting in time,” and in Solyaris there is a fascinating confluence between the way time and perception is manipulated by Tarkovsky, and the way those things are manipulated by Solyaris itself. Solyaris gives back the protagonist, astronaut psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), for what purpose is unclear. But Tarkovsky’s films work in a similar fashion; difficult to say exactly why they do what they do, yet they pull at the deepest roots of our selves. They elicit emotional, meditative realities unlike any other. Like Kelvin’s resurrected Hari, the stimuli are simulacrums, symbols mined from a collective dream, but this does not diminish the worth of experiencing them. Sometimes they lead you to a place like Solyaris leads Kelvin: an island of lost memory—or perhaps of an impossible future, awash in the waters of some Spirit. That makes the unreal real; that gives the dream life. —Chad Betz
Director: James Cameron
That rare sequel that trumps its predecessor, James Cameron and co-writer William Wisher Jr. crafted a near-perfect action-movie script that flipped the original on its head and let Ahnold be a good guy. But it’s Linda Hamilton’s transformation from damsel-in-distress to bad-ass hero that makes the film so notable. Why should the guys get all the good action scenes? —Josh Jackson
Director: Andrew Stanton
Opening with 45 sublime minutes of almost no dialogue, WALL-E was a significant gamble for Pixar, whose remarkable string of successes to that point fell within a pretty narrow range. WALL-E rests firmly in the realm of children’s fantasy, but writer-director Andrew Stanton shooed the celebrity voices away from the center of the film and was clearly reaching toward something new. In a post-post-apocalyptic world where humans have gone into space and left behind an army of machines to clean up the place, 700 years have passed without much progress, and even the machines have fallen into ruin, except for one, a dilapidated ottoman-sized trash compactor named WALL-E who’s still honoring his directive and pining for a lost world. When WALL-E meets a gleaming white probe named Eve, their tentative relationship, like the rest of the film, evolves with few words. Even as the setting shifts to the ship containing the aforementioned humans and the rhythm shifts to action sequences with hazy goals, he film’s promise reduced to a well-executed but ordinary need for adrenaline, WALL-E is a noble experiment, lingering in the mind long after movies like Cars have faded. —Robert Davis
Director: Robert Zemeckis
The three-part epic journey of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his legitimately insane mentor Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) not only provides the crucible through which practically every comedy-adventure made since must pass, it proves that even one insignificant kid’s actions make a universe of difference. There is little to add to a popular discussion of these films besides pointing out their diminishing returns with each successive entry, but that hardly takes away from the brilliance of Zemeckis’s storytelling. No plot point is wasted, no shot infused with anything less than humor and emotional breadth—if this sounds a bit schmaltzy, or a bit overboard with praise, then stop to consider how cherished these films are in the course of American cinema. As they mess with history, so too do they make history, and from that standpoint, it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling the need to go back to make this trilogy any better. —Michael Burgin
Director: Robert Wise
Robert Wise directed musicals (The Sound of Music), horror movies (The Haunting) and biopics (Somebody Up There Likes Me). But his finest film might have been The Day the Earth Stood Still, his 1951 pacifist parable (based on the Harry Bates short story “Farewell to the Master”) about the arrival of a UFO in Washington, D.C. This is no ordinary alien-invasion movie, though: The human-looking extra-terrestrial who emerges, named Klaatu (Michael Rennie), brings a message of warning that he wants to deliver to all the planet’s leaders. Instead, the military tries to imprison Klaatu, who escapes and goes undercover, befriending an unwitting mother (Patricia Neal) and her impressionable son (Billy Gray). If all you know of The Day the Earth Stood Still is “Klaatu barada nikto,” you’ll be amazed what a thoughtful, funny, smart movie this is: Wise produced one of Hollywood’s warmest sci-fi classics. And it’s approximately 1,000 times better than the 2008 Keanu Reeves remake. —Tim Grierson
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Throughout the late-1970s and indulgent ’80s, “industry” went pejorative and Corporate America bleached white all but the most functional of blue collars. Broadly speaking, of course: Manufacturing was booming, but the homegrown “Big Three” automobile companies in Detroit—facing astronomical gas prices via the growth of OPEC, as well as increasing foreign competition and the decentralization of their labor force—resorted to drastic cost-cutting measures, investing in automation (which of course put thousands of people out of work, closing a number of plants) and moving facilities to “low-wage” countries (further decimating all hope for a secure assembly line job in the area). The impact of such a massive tectonic shift in the very foundation of the auto industry pushed aftershocks felt, of course, throughout the Rust Belt and the Midwest—but for Detroit, whose essence seemed composed almost wholly of exhaust fumes, the change left the city in an ever-present state of decay. And so, though it was filmed in Pittsburgh and around Texas, Detroit is the only logical city for a Robocop to inhabit.
A practically peerless, putrid, brash concoction of social consciousness, ultra-violence and existential curiosity, Paul Verhoeven’s first Hollywood feature made its tenor clear: A new industrial revolution must take place not within the ranks of the unions or inside board rooms, but within the self. By 1987, much of the city was already in complete disarray, the closing of Michigan Central Station—and the admission that Detroit was no longer a vital hub of commerce—barely a year away, but its role as poster child for the Downfall of Western Civilization had yet to gain any real traction. Verhoeven screamed this notion alive. He made Detroit’s decay tactile, visceral and immeasurably loud, limning it in ideas about the limits of human identity and the hilarity of consumer culture. As Verhoeven passed a Christ-like cyborg—a true melding of man and savior—through the crumbling post-apocalyptic fringes of a part of the world that once held so much prosperity and hope, he wasn’t pointing to the hellscape of future Detroit as the battlefield over which the working class will fight against the greedy 1%, but instead to the robot cop, to Murphy (Peter Weller), as the battlefield unto himself. How can any of us save a place like Detroit? In Robocop, it’s a deeply personal matter. —Dom Sinacola
Directors: The Wachowskis
There is little to add about what’s been already codified about the film that made cyberpunk not stupid—and therefore is the best cyberpunk movie of all time, amidst its many accomplishments—or that made Keanu Reeves a respectable figure of American kung fu, or that finally made martial arts films a seriously hot commodity outside of Asia. The Matrix is—next to the Wu-Tang Clan—what proved to a new generation that martial arts films were worth their scrutiny, and in that reputation is bred college classes, heroes’ journeys and impossible expectations for special effects. Even today we still have this film to thank for so much of what we love about modern kinetic cinema, about how malleable genius science fiction can be, about just how deeply our connection to mythmaking—to the religiosity of civilization’s symbols—can reach. This is our red pill; everything else is an illusion of greatness and everything else is an allusion to what the Wachowskis accomplished, including the two sequels—bloated and beautiful and unlike anything anyone could have expected from the relatively self-contained original—which in turn earned the distinction of setting the course for every multi-part franchise (i.e., Lord of the Rings and the MCU) to come —Dom Sinacola
Director: Chris Marker
At only 28 minutes, La Jetée is somewhere between a film and art piece. Its concept—black and white photos pieced together while an omniscient narrator explains what’s happening—quickly announces its symbolic purpose: a man (Davos Hanich), whose story we’re told as plainly as possible we are now a part of, can travel relatively painlessly through time because of a few stark images he’s carried with him since childhood. World War III has decimated Paris, reducing most citizens to desperate “guinea pig” status, used by Scientists to concoct time travel experiments “to call past and future to the rescue of the present.” Most of the helpless jerks launched through time end up going mad, unable to mentally “hold” themselves to a time their minds aren’t conditioned to endure. But the aforementioned man is stronger than them: He is “glued to an image of his past.” So how better can a filmmaker believably reproduce memory than obsess over the stillness of it? Rarely do we fixate on a whole detailed sequence, instead dwelling on one detail, one image branded into our brain tissue. The man’s is that of a pier (“la jetée”), someone dying in epic silhouette and a woman’s face. It’s that image that allows him to travel (without machine) through time, to visit our “present” in order to prevent his “future.” Like in Twelve Monkeys, Terry Gilliam’s upsetting re-imagining of Marker’s film, redirecting fate is easier said than done. As the man confronts his destiny, no other film since La Jetée has made the concept of time travel so personal, and the concept of time so sad. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Ridley Scott
Conduits, canals and cloaca—Ridley Scott’s ode to claustrophobia leaves little room to breathe, cramming its blue collar archetypes through spaces much too small to sustain any sort of sanity, and much too unforgiving to survive. That Alien can also make Space—capital “S”—in its vastness feel as suffocating as a coffin is a testament to Scott’s control as a director (arguably absent from much of his work to follow, including his insistence on ballooning the mythos of this first near-perfect film), as well as to the purity of both horror and sci-fi as cinematic genres. Alien, after all, is tension as narrative, violation as a matter of fact, using technology and imagination as powerful vessels for both. When the crew of the mining spaceship Nostromo is prematurely awakened from cryogenic sleep to attend to a distress call from a seemingly lifeless planetoid, there is no doubt the small cadre of working class grunts and their posh Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) will discover nothing but mounting, otherworldly doom. Things obviously, iconically, go wrong from there, and as the crew understands both what they’ve brought onto their ship and what their fellow crew members are made of—in one case, literally—a hero emerges from the catastrophe: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the Platonic ideal of the Final Girl who must battle a viscous, phallic grotesque (care of the master of the phallically grotesque, H.R. Giger) and a fellow crew member who’s basically a walking ziploc bag for an upsetting amount of seminal fluid. As Ripley crawls through the ship’s steel organs, between dreams—the film begins with the crew wakening, and ends with a return to sleep—Alien evolves into a psychosexual nightmare, an indictment of the inherently masculine act of colonization and a symbolic treatise on the trauma of assault. In space, no one can hear you scream—because no one’s really listening. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Terry Gilliam
Taking place in a dystopic future a little goofier than the classic Orwellian version (though no less sinister), the world of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film is the lovechild that results when bureaucratic nightmare meets escapist fantasy. The result is lyrical and beautiful, as well as horrific and haunting. Though decades of ill-fated and tumultuous productions lay ahead for the Monty Python alum, Brazil remains one of the purest and most palatable expressions of Gilliam’s unique vision. —Michael Burgin
Director: Jonathan Glazer
It’s a rare feat for a film to successfully convey the voice of the Other. Especially when that voice is an Other to everyone else here on Earth. Loosely based on Michel Faber’s book of the same name, director Jonathan Glazer’s take on Under the Skin finds greater fascination with translating an otherworldly perspective than with the novel’s rather transparent “meat is murder” didactic. It not only makes for a more interesting story, it takes the form of an experience that reminds one of why the medium of film is so special. Taking place in present-day Scotland, both in and outside Glasgow, Under the Skin follows the alien-hijacked visage of a woman (Scarlett Johansson) as she stalks and separates men from the herd, luring them back to her lair to meet an oily doom. That’s merely the premise, though: Glazer’s film slowly emerges as a deeply curious meditation on what it means to be human. It might be a bit hyperbolic to consider it an apt companion piece to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it surely touches upon a similar investigative theme, only in reverse. And, wow, like Kubrick’s touchstone, Glazer’s movie, too, is a visual knockout, thanks to the stunning mixture of stillness and claustrophobic disorientation captured by cinematographer Daniel Landin. And as primal and affecting as the film’s imagery is, its score and sound design is more than a fitting match. Of course, any film whose story relies on a single actor—regardless of any other of its competencies—can still stumble and not recover if that actor’s performance falls flat. But Scarlett Johansson again proves she’s not merely another pretty face, even if that pretty face is an awfully useful tool in portraying a lethal seductress. Along her character’s journey from dispassionate serial killer to vulnerable human sympathizer, Johansson hits her marks with chilly precision. The casting of Johansson, too, proves additionally inspired; just as with David Bowie’s Thomas Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth, the very nature of their iconic presence further distances the notion of mere actors-cum-aliens—they’re already elevated above the clouds in their stratospheric fame. —Scott Wold
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
“Once, the future was only a continuation of the present. All its changes loomed somewhere beyond the horizon. But now the future’s a part of the present.” So says the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, somewhere deep in the Zone, contemplating the deeper trenches of his subconscious, of his fears and life and whatever “filth” exists within him. “Are they prepared for this?” he asks. In Tarkovsky’s last Soviet film, the director seems to be admitting that what he’s feared most has come to pass.
What that means is of course nebulous for a viewer not steeped in the director’s life or in the history of the country that was both home and hostile to him and his work throughout most of his life. Based very loosely on Roadside Picnic, a novel by brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky (who also wrote the screenplay), Stalker imagines a dystopic future not far from our present—or Tarkovsky’s present, before the fall of the Berlin Wall or the devastation of Chernobyl—in which some sort of otherworldly force has deposited a place humans have called “the Zone” onto Earth. There, the laws of Nature don’t apply, time and space thwarted by the hidden desires and wills of all those who enter it.
Of course, the government has set up cordons around the Zone, and entry is strictly prohibited. Guides/liaisons called “stalkers” head illegal expeditions into the Zone, taking clients (often intellectual elites who can afford the trip) into the heart of the restricted, alien area—in search of, as we learn as the film slowly moves on, the so-called “Room,” where a person’s deepest desires become reality. One such Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) is hired by the aforementioned Writer and a physicist (or something) known only as the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) to lead them into the Zone, spurred by vague ideas of what they’ll find when they reach the Room. The audience is as much in the dark, and through Tarkovsky’s (near-intolerably) patient shots, the three men come to discover, as do those watching their journey, what has really brought them to such an awful extreme as hiring a spiritual criminal to guide them into the almost certain doom of whatever the Zone has waiting for them.
And yet, no context properly prepares a viewer for the harrowing, hypnotic experience of watching Stalker. Between the sepia wasteland outside the Zone (so detailed in its grime and suspended misery you may need to take a shower afterwards) and the oversaturated greens and blues of the wreckage inside, Tarkovsky moves almost imperceptibly, taking the rhythms of industry and the empty lulls of post-industrial life to the point of making the barely mystical overwhelmingly manifest. Throughout that push and pull, there is the mounting sense of escape—of Tarkovsky escaping the Soviet Union and its restrictions on his films, maybe—as equally as there is the sense that escape should never be attempted. Some freedom, some knowledge, the director seems to say, isn’t meant for us. —Dom Sinacola
Director: George Lucas
Before Star Wars, science fiction inhabited a vastly different cinematic landscape. Outside of a few films like John Carpenter’s Darkstar, these imagined realities tended to be pristine, shiny and generally fantastical. The Star Wars universe, on the other hand, dropped audiences into an already ongoing story, in a setting that felt incredibly thought out, organic and lived-in. Things get dirty. The Millennium Falcon is full of dents and dings, as worn as a real-world vehicle would be. It’s may be strange to use the word “realistic,” to describe the visual side of George Lucas’s space opera, but the setting for Star Wars simply felt more authentic than those that came before, and this is an often overlooked element of what made it a cultural phenomenon—along with, of course, its groundbreaking FX work. The people who really had their work cut out for them were filmmakers who wanted to do sci-fi in a post-Star Wars world. The bar of expectations had been raised to exponential heights. —Jim Vorel
Director: James Cameron
James Cameron colonizes ideas: Every beautiful, breathtaking spectacle he assembles works as a pointillist representation of the genres he inhabits—sci-fi, horror, adventure, thriller—its many wonderful pieces and details of worldbuilding swarming, combining to grow exponentially, to inevitably overshadow the lack at its heart, the doubt that maybe all of this great movie-making is hiding a dearth of substance at the core of the stories Cameron tells. An early example of this pilgrim’s privilege is Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s roughly-feminist horror masterpiece, in which Cameron mostly jettisons Scott’s figurative (and uncomfortably intimate) interrogation of masculine violence to transmute that urge into the bureaucracy and corporatism which only served as a shadow of authoritarianism—and therefore a spectre of the male imperative—in the first film. Cameron blows out Scott’s world, but also neuters it, never quite connecting the lines from the aggression of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation to the maleness of the military industrial complex, but never condoning that maleness, or that complex, either. Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) story about what happened on the Nostromo in the first film is doubted because she’s a woman, sure, but mostly because the story spells disaster for the corporation’s nefarious plans. Private Vasquez’s (Jennette Goldstein) place in the Colonial Marine unit sent to LV-426 to investigate the wiping out of a human colony is taunted, but never outright doubted, her strength compared to her peers pretty obvious from the start. Instead, in transforming Ripley into a full-on action hero/mother figure—whose final boss battle involves protecting her ersatz daughter from the horror of another mother figure—Cameron isn’t messing with themes of violation or the role of women in an economic hierarchy, he’s placing women by default at the forefront of mankind’s future war either for or against the ineffable forces of capitalism. It’s magnificent blockbuster filmmaking, and one of the first films to redefine what a franchise can be within the confines of a new director’s voice and vision, but below all of the wonderful genre-based imagination and splendor, Cameron doesn’t have much of anything to say. Still, it’s an awesome film despite itself, a tense action bonanza, and a pretty good reminder all these years and proposed Avatar sequels later that Cameron’s clearly decided on which side of the war he’s fighting. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Irvin Kershner
The Empire Strikes Back is Exhibit A in the category of sequels that surpass the original, taking the wondrous world we were granted in A New Hope and deepening, expanding its purview in every direction. It gives flesh to the idea of the “Rebel Alliance,” showing us how this ragtag band of freedom fighters operates while slowly winning the ideological battle and drawing more support to their cause. Every character undergoes positive growth: Leia (Carrie Fisher) moves from “princess” figurehead to military commander and tireless organizer of a resistance; Han (Harrison Ford) has become a leader of men, completing the transition he began when returning to help destroy the Death Star in A New Hope; and Luke (Mark Hamill) finally starts down the path to becoming a Jedi in earnest. His Dagobah scenes with Yoda are heavy with omens and portent; never in the series do the arcane mysteries of the Force feel as compelling as they do while Luke levitates rocks and digests philosophy. The mysticism and wonder of Star Wars are at their zenith in Empire.
Elsewhere, the series’ space-piloting scenes have their most goosebump-raising moment when the Falcon dodges asteroids and T.I.E. Fighters. The petty squabbles of the Imperial Navy and its never-ending parade of dead officers give us a glimpse into the structure of the enemy. A colorful array of bounty hunters is assembled. A classic romance blossoms. All builds to what is perhaps the biggest “oh my god!” reveal in cinema history, completely redefining the audience’s perception of all the events that led up to it. It’s hard to imagine that Empire will ever be toppled as the greatest Star Wars film of all time, but if it somehow is, that will indeed be a momentous disturbance in the Force. —Jim Vorel
Director: Ridley Scott
Just as The Road Warrior set the look and tone for countless post-apocalyptic cinema-scapes to follow, so too did the world of Ridley Scott’s dingy, wet and overcrowded Blade Runner set the standard for the depiction of pre-apocalyptic dystopias. But he also had Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer and a cast of actors who all bring this Philip K. Dick-inspired tale of a replicant-retiring policeman to gritty, believable life. Beneath the film’s impressive set design and inspired performances lies a compelling meditation on the lurking loneliness of the human (and, perhaps, inhuman) condition that continues to resonate (and trigger new creations, like Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049) to this day. —Michael Burgin
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Fifty years ago, Stanley Kubrick told the story of everything—of life, of the universe, of pain and loss and the way reality and time changes as we, these insignificant voyagers, sail through it all, attempting to change it all, unsure if we’ve changed anything. Written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke (whose novel, conceived alongside the screenplay, saw release not long after the film’s premiere), 2001: A Space Odyssey begins with the origins of the human race and ends with the dawn of whatever comes after us—spinning above our planet, god-like, a seemingly all-knowing, hopefully benevolent fifth-dimensional space fetus—spanning countless light years and millennia between. And yet, despite its ambitious leaps and barely comprehensible scope, every lofty symbolic gesture Kubrick matches with a moment of intimate humanity: the sadness of a mighty intellect’s death; the shock of cold-blooded murder; the minutiae and boredom of keeping our bodies functioning on a daily basis; the struggle and awe of encountering something we can’t explain; the unspoken need to survive, never questioned because it will never be answered. So much more than a speculative document about the human race colonizing the Solar System, 2001 asks why we do what we do—why, against so many oppositional forces, seen and otherwise, do we push outward, past the fringes of all that we know, all that we ever need to know? Amidst long shots of bodies sifting through space, of vessels and cosmonauts floating silently through the unknown, Kubrick finds grace—aided, of course, by an epic classical soundtrack we today can’t extricate from Kubrick’s indelible images—and in grace he finds purpose: If we can transcend our terrestrial roots with curiosity and fearlessness, then we should. That the end of Kubrick’s odyssey returns us to the beginning only reaffirms that purpose: We are, and have always been, the navigators of our destiny. —Dom Sinacola