The Top Twenty Science-Fiction Movies of the Twentieth Century
By Michael McCarty
People have been asking for this list for years. It was originally published in my book Esoteria-Land …
You asked for it, here it is. I did add and delete some films from the original list, just to shake things up a bit. Enjoy.
1. Metropolis, 1927, Germany, black and white (silent), 83 minutes
In 2026 AD, the super-technological city of Metropolis is split in two, with one city above the ground and one below. The one above is a luxurious playground, while underground are catacombs filled with machines that run everything above. The underground workers are little more than human automatons. Soon Metropolis is threatened by a revolt, led by the lovely Maria (Brigitte Helm), who is a messiah-like figure among the workers. So mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klen-Rogge) invents a robot of Maria to stop the revolution.
This dark, intense drama swells into a surreal urban nightmare. Reconstructed in 1984 with a musical score by Giorgio Moroder and color tints, this elaborate techno-fantasy by Fritz Lang continues to fascinate. (The F.W. Murnau Foundation and Kino International released a 124-minute, digitally restored version in 2002, supervised by Martin Koerber. It included the original music score and title cards describing the action in missing sequences.)
2. Star Wars (the original and Special Edition), 1977, color; the original 121 minutes, the Special Edition 125 minutes.
On the twentieth anniversary of the release of Star Wars, Lucasfilms and 20th Century Fox released the Special Edition, which contains four additional minutes of footage. Over a million dollars was spent to clean up the prints and add more special effects and THX digitally mastered sound. The big change I didn’t like was having Han Solo shot in self-defense at The Catania — he shot first, he’s a space pirate.
Who hasn’t seen Star Wars? For those who have not, the plot is as follows: Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has stolen the plans of the Death Star. She is then captured by General Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and his mouth-breathing sidekick, Darth Vader (David Prowse). But before she was taken prisoner, she sent the droids R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) to track down Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), the last of the Jedi Knights. Basically, Star Wars is a space-western take on The Wizard of Oz, with Arthurian legends and religious overtones. Pure magic.
It spawned a series that last four decades including:
Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace, Star Wars 2: Attack of the Clones, Star Wars 3: Revenge of the Sith, Star Wars 4: A New Hope (aka, also known as just Star Wars), Star Wars 5: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars 6: Return of the Jedi, Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens, Star Wars 8: The Last Jedi, Star Wars 9: The Rise of Skywalker
There were also what they call “side story” Star Wars films: Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Solo: A Star Wars Story.
I interviewed Alan Dean Foster who has written some of the Star Wars novelizations.
Here is a link to the interview:
Interview With Alan Dean Foster
Alan Dean Foster also wrote the introduction to my book MODERN MYTHMAKERS: 35 Interviews with Horror & Science Fiction Writers and Filmmakers. For that, I am blessed.
Also in MODERN MYTHMAKERS, I interviewed Timothy Zahn who has written several Star Wars novels.
(A photo of film critic Linda Cook, looking at C-3PO at a robot exhibit at the Putnam Museum in Davenport, Iowa)
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, color, 148 minutes
One of the most majestic and visually striking science-fiction films ever made. The prevailing message here is that aliens have been with us since the dawn of time and have had influence over mankind ever since. The ending is wild and trippy – a hallucinogenic montage of life and death beyond the stars. This majestic depiction of outer space was released one year before we even walked on the moon. A landmark achievement in cinema. The Stanley Kubrick Collection edition is the one to get.
4. Alien, 1979, color, 117 minutes
The space-freighter Nostromo receives an S.O.S. from a nearby planet, and the seven-person crew awakens from suspended animation to track down the distress call. They investigate the signal and discover an alien spacecraft and some very suspicious pods. Kane (John Hurt) takes a closer look at one of the pods and, when it bursts open, a nightmarish, insectile alien creature attaches itself to his face. The rest is an intense deep-space nightmare.
Alien features a splendid cast, extraordinary special effects, and a creepy monster designed by renowned artist H.R. Giger. This film is one of the most copied (but never duplicated) science-fiction movies from the latter part of the twentieth century.
The Alien series includes: Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Alien Resurrection (Sherry Decker & I interviewed Marlena Bush who played the scientist in that film …maybe I will reprint that as a blog sometime in the near future), Prometheus and Alien: Covenant.
5. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Special Edition), 1977, color, 152 minutes
Power-company employee Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus) witnesses a UFO and his life is never the same. His obsession destroys his family life, but he simply must know the truth.
Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillion) is a single mother who has lost her son in a close encounter and French UFOlogist Jacques Valse (played by French filmmaker Francois Truffaut) has traveled all over the world to establish contact with the aliens.
All three, along with some visitors from space, end up at Devil Towers, Wyoming. Exhilarating special effects and outstanding acting make this a classic.
6. Back to the Future, 1985, color, 116 minutes
A time-traveling DeLorean, wacky scientist Dr. Emmett Brown (played to the hilt by Christopher Lloyd), and procrastinating protagonist Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) all travel back in time to 1955, where Marty becomes the obsession of his future mom (Lea Thompson). Freudianism, nostalgia for the Fifties, clever time-travel plot-twists, and plenty of comedy make this a fun science-fiction adventure that’s enjoyable even after many viewings.
Back to the Future was directed by Robert Zemeckis, who directed the sequels and also the thought-provoking Contact and the Academy Award-winning Forrest Gump.
Film one a trilogy worth seeing again and again.
7. The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951, black and white, 92 minutes
A giant spaceship lands in Washington, D.C. The ship’s inhabitants, Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and his giant robot Gort (Lock Martin), deliver a message of peace and a warning against nuclear weapons.
Klaatu is shot and subsequently rushed to a hospital, but he escapes and takes up lodging in a typical household to view humans up-close. The story is loosely based on the story of Christ; I can see how this film had a major influence on Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.
This profound, intelligent and low-key science-fiction film is one of the best to come from the Fifties and is well worth checking out.
8. Tank Girl, Color, 1995, color, 104 minutes
Imagine A Boy & His Dog but done on a lot of drugs with overflowing attitude and sass and comic book colors. The storyline is set in a post apocalyptic world after a comet disrupts the rain cycle, leaving Earth a barren wasteland in 2033. Ksslee (Malcolm McDowell) is a head of the Water and Power Corporation and has taken over the planet’s dwelling water supply.
Enter a pair of sexy and kick-ass outlaws Tank Girl (Lori Perry) and Jet Girl (Naomi Watt) and the fun begins. This is a high octane adventure that gets better each time I see it.
9. Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991, color, 135 minutes
Aah-nold is back in a juggernaut of a movie! The Terminator T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) returns to 1997 to save juvenile delinquent John Connor (Edward Furlong) from the more advanced Terminator T-1000 (Robert Patrick). The T-1000 is a shape-shifting robot made of liquid metal, sent back in time to destroy the boy who will someday become a post-nuclear resistance leader.
This may be one of the most violence science-fiction movies ever made, but it is extremely exciting and loaded with explosive action. The depiction of a city being annihilated by a nuclear blast is sadly realistic – showing us, despite all the violence, that this movie conveys a pacifist message.
The entire series: Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (reviewed), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator: Salvation, Terminator: Genisys, Terminator: Dark Fate.
10. Dark City, 1997, color, 103 minutes
Picture a brooding city that floats inside a sunless world. At night, the city literally changes structure. It belongs to no particular time or era. It just keeps changing and changing, like a demented Rubik’s Cube. Dark City is a strange hybrid of Metropolis and Blade Runner. It’s also a romance and a murder mystery, darker than any noir film you’ve ever seen.
Look for Richard O’Brien (Riff Raff of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) as one of the alien strangers. William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, and Jennifer Connelly also star in this enigmatic tale.
This film inspired me to write the book DARK CITIES: DARK TALES.
11. They Live, 1988, color 88 minutes
Based on the 1963 short story “Eight O’ Clock In The Morning” by Ray Nelson, John Carpenter written this screenplay (as Frank Armitage), did the film score (co-written Alan Howarth) and directed it. A down on his luck drifter played by wrestler (Roddy Piper) discovers a pair of sunglasses that discover skull-faced aliens are living among us and he uncovers a conspiracy plot that the US government and the media is using subliminal messages to pacify the general masses while the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Of course, Roddy Piper and a group of freedom fighters decided to try win back humanity. The aliens in this film are really creepy and Carpenter doesn’t really get enough credit for featuring a drone in a motion picture long before they became a reality.
I interviewed John Carpenter in my book: MODERN MYTHMAKERS: 35 Interviews With Horror and Science Fiction Writers and Filmmakers.
12. A Clockwork Orange, 1971, color, 137 minutes
It’s hard to believe this movie was written and directed by Stanley Kubrick just a few short years after he made 2001: A Space Odyssey. The setting is an ultra-violent world of rape and pillage inhabited by Alex (Malcolm McDowell – who is also in Tank Girl … see number 8) and his gang of droogies. After Alex is apprehended and incarcerated, he agrees to be the subject of a test in which any violent impulse will make him violently sick.
This provocative, dark social satire is one of the most controversial science-fiction films ever, but also one of the best.
13. Videodrome, 1982, color, 89 minutes
Director David Cronenberg’s twisted take on cable TV. Max Wren (James Woods) is a jaded cable programmer who thinks he has seen everything – but when he discovers Videodrome, a pirated satellite signal broadcasting sex-torture-murders, he becomes obsessed. Deborah Harry of the band Blondie plays his sexy girlfriend, Nicki Brand. A mind-blowing film.
14. Gattaca, 1997, color, 107 minutes
Gattaca is both a thinking-man’s science-fiction movie and a dazzling debut by director Andrew Niccol, who did the screenplay for The Truman Show. In a future world, parents determine what DNA to use for their unborn children, so they can create perfect humans.
Vincent (Nathan Hawkes), however, was created the old-fashioned way – in the backseat of a car. Vincent dreams of becoming an astronaut at the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation (a NASA-like outfit) but because he is an In-Valid, he can only do janitorial work. So Vincent assumes the identity of one the genetic elite (Jude Lowe), so he can be accepted on a space-travel mission. This is an engrossing film in the tradition of THX-1138 and Things to Come.
15. Starman, 1984, color, 115 minutes
This low-key science-fiction love story comes from director John Carpenter. This is a surprisingly gentle project for Carpenter, who is famous for such dark thrillers as Halloween, The Fog, They Live, Prince of Darkness, and Escape from New York.
Starman (Jeff Bridges) lands in Wisconsin and takes on the form of the recently deceased husband of Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen). The alien can only survive on Earth for a few days, and he needs Hayden to ride him to the Arizona desert soon so he can rendezvous with his crew. A sensitive and well-acted romance.
I interviewed John Carpenter in MODERN MYTHMAKERS. I think I might have mentioned this before, but it is a great interview, worth mentioning twice. LOL.
16. The Fly, 1986, color, 100 minutes
David Cronenberg does it again. This chilling horror/science-fiction feature tells the tale of scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), who is experimenting with a matter transport device. During an experiment, his genes accidentally get spliced with those of a housefly. Oops!
Brundle fights to hold onto his humanity as he becomes more monstrous and insect-like. Sometimes hard to stomach, this motion picture gives disturbing, unexpected insights into what it must be like to have a terminal illness. A very powerful film.
17. Westworld, 1973, color, 90 minutes
Delos is the amusement park of the future, where vacationers can live out fantasies in Imperial Rome, Medieval Europe, or the Old West while interacting with lifelike robots. Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin) go to this hi-tech wonderland and experience more of an adventure than they bargained for. As in Jurassic Park (which Michael Crichton also wrote), technology goes awry and lives hang in the balance. A highlight of Westworld is a terrific performance by Yul Brunner as the Gunslinger.
I enjoy this movie more than the HBO series.
18. Barbarella, 1967, color, 98 minutes
The beautiful Barbarella (Jane Fonda, looking better than she ever did in any of her workout videos) goes on an intergalactic rescue mission to save Duran Duran – not the band, but a scientist played by Milo O’Shea.
On her quest, she is gnawed on by killer dolls, confronts an evil Queen (Anita Pallenberg), and befriends and beds the blind angel, Pigar (John Phillip Law). Based on a French comic strip created by Jean-Claude Forest. Sexy, silly — and just plain fun.
19. Brother from Another Planet, 1984, color, 109 minutes
A black alien (Joe Morton) escapes from his home planet and winds up in the ghetto. However, two alien bounty hunters are constantly on his trail. John Sayles (the screenwriter for Mimic, The Howling, Battle Beyond the Stars) wrote, directed and even starred as one of the bounty hunters in this low-budget masterpiece. Recommended for fans of alternative cinema.
20. Dark Star, 1974, color, 83 minutes
Made on a shoestring budget, this lesser-known comedy gem was directed by John Carpenter (his debut) and written by Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon (the screenwriter for such genre classics as Total Recall, Alien, and Lifeforce). This wacky film concerns a group of scientists who have been in space way too long. The attack of the alien mascot that looks like a giant beach ball is so schlocky (strangely enough in the next century Star Wars 7, 8 & 9 featured a beach ball like robot BB-8 for a lot more money), it’s funny and weird and well worth checking out.
Did I mention that I interviewed John Carpenter in my book MODERN MYTHMAKERS??? LOL.
Blade Runner, Outland, Mars Attacks! Memoirs of The Invisible Man (another overlooked John Carpenter movie), 12 Monkeys, Zardoz, Alphaville, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Godzilla, The Bride of Frankenstein, Frankenstein, Contact, Doctor Cyclops, Forbidden Planet, Jason and the Argonauts, The Matrix, Planet of the Apes (the original), The Time Machine, This Island Earth and Logan’s Run (I actually interviewed the writers of the book: William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson … in my mega book of interviews: Modern Mythmakers) and The Beasts From 20,000 Fathoms & It Came From From Outer Space (Both Beasts & It were based on the writing of Ray Bradbury, who I also interviewed in Modern Mythmakers),Trip To The Moon, Things To Come, The Shape of Things To Come, Fantastic Voyage, Soylent Green, The Ultimate Warrior, Robinson Crusoe On Mars, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Demon Seed (and yes, I interviewed Dean Koontz in Modern Mythmakers too), A Boy and His Dog (Harlan Ellison, whom I interviewed in More Giants of the Genre) and Silent Running.
If you liked this blog … check this out too:
Top 19 of 2019 (Movies & TV shows)
And of course … if you like this blog and want to read interviews with John Carpenter and Alan Dean Foster … and 32 other giants of the genre:
… please check out Modern Mythmakers. The ebook right now is only .99 cents.
Modern Mythmakers is a collection of 35 interviews from horror and science fiction’s most influential writers and filmmakers, including…
•William F. Nolan
•The Night of the Living Dead crew (including John Russo, Kyra Schon and Russ Streiner)
•and of course, Bentley Little
…and many more.
•Science fiction & fantasy interviews
•Films and Television
•Films and screenplays