Posted on May 29, 2020
Mike and I are putting together our lists of the top ten SF movies before Star Wars (so nothing after 1976). My first concern when we came up with this idea was how I would find nine movies other than 2001: A Space Odyssey. I just didn’t remember much worthy science fiction from those decades.
The actual problem turned out to be an embarrassment of riches. Even after culling what I could, I still have over two dozen movies to winnow down to ten.
Here, as they say, is where my head is at.
Forbidden Planet – The most beautiful of the bunch from this decade and did a lot to sell science fiction into the mainstream, but also the science is very iffy.
The Day The Earth Stood Still – One of the first sociopolitical science fiction movies, something the field does extremely well. This one made it okay for quarterbacks to go see scifi movies. Michael Rennie’s serious performance also lent the genre some much needed gravitas.
War of the Worlds (George Pal) – Best special effects for an era where SF was mostly known for low budget, bad acting, and silly stories.
The Thing – Like Alien, this is really more a monster movie than a science fiction one, but it makes this list because of the scene where they spread out to show the size of the saucer buried in the ice. And also because I watched this movie at least a hundred times growing up.
Them! – The first serious big bug movie, you can tell its power by the number of low budget copycats (with the grasshoppers from The Beginning of the End climbing over a POSTCARD picture of a building at the bottom of that long list). The final scene in the LA sewers is a white knuckle classic.
2001: A Space Odyssey – Well, I mean, c’mon. Right? This movie defined science fiction as a place for big budgets to put up visual spectacles. It also set college freshman to debating endlessly about the ending.
Planet of the Apes – I remember articles in magazines going on and on about the prosthetic makeup, but this movie was important for another reason: it was one of the first movies to use allegory to talk seriously about race relations.
La Jetee – Not a lot of people have seen this movie and that’s a shame. Mainly playing in the U.S. on the art film circuit, it laid the groundwork for a hundred time travel movies to come. One of my favorites, a direct remake, being 12 Monkeys.
Crack In The World – One of the first ecological disaster science fiction movies. Rather than man’s hubris creating giant bugs, his obsessive need for energy cracks the Earth’s crust. It’s a bit of a soap opera but has some excellent special effects and a dire warning about playing with nature that belongs in a better movie.
Fahrenheit 451 – I’m going to be honest. This one made the list because of its fame and reputation. I don’t care for the movie and I don’t care for the book, but they both influenced a generation of 1984 ripoffs.
Quatermass and the Pit – Another excellent movie (and one you apparently cannot stream anywhere) that is probably the first to show the scientist as the unsocialized misanthrope so many of them are. An intriguing ending, that shows an undaunted Quatermass redoubling his efforts even though the world barely survived his first attempt, helps it stick in the mind.
The 1970s (before 1977)
There was a LOT more good science fiction in the 1970s than I remembered so this list is heavily culled from a much larger one.
The Forbin Project – The first credible cybertech movie, it’s a warning about human intelligence creating its own replacement. Ominous downbeat ending deserves extra points.
The Andromeda Strain – A science fiction movie with actual science in it. Both riveting and realistic. The only downside of this movie is the experience somehow convinced James Olson he was a leading man. An action movie leading man, no less.
Soylent Green – This movie’s depiction of an overcrowded city shows exactly how people are treated by the rich when they become too plentiful. Humans as furniture, indeed.
The Terminal Man – More cyber science from Michael Crichton. An excellent portrayal of misanthropic narcissism from, and this is hard to believe but he really pulled it off, George Segal.
A Boy and His Dog – My first dystopian post-nuclear landscape movie. Loved the novella, fell into a thrall of Harlan Ellison, and this movie is the perfect adaptation.
Death Race 2000 – Don’t laugh until you go back and re-watch this low budget Corman extravaganza. Is it B List actors in kit cars? Yes. Is it full to the brim with cleavage. Oh, you bet. But it’s also an amazingly sharp societal critique and satire.
Rollerball – Science Fiction writers of the 60s & 70s obviously recognized where the corporatization of democracy was headed. This is one of the best views of what it would be like (I’m guessing five years from now or less) when private sector completely captures the public sector.
The Stepford Wives – Dark, funny, and accurate about the pushback against feminism. Watch this instead of anything about the worst woman traitor in history, Phyllis Schlafly.
Logan’s Run – At the time, this movie seemed to be important, but in retrospect it doesn’t really appear to be anything other than a pretty, and pretty standard, anti-authoritarian story. So I guess it’s not going on the final list even if it does star Jenny Agutter with whom I would fall in love again five years after Logan went for a jog.