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Top 20 SF Movies of the 20th Century
by Michael McCarty


Metropolis (1926)  directed by Fritz Lang
In 2026 AD, the super-technological city of Metropolis is spilt into two, with a city above and below the ground. The above is a luxurious playground, while the underground has catacombs filled with machines that run everything. The underground workers themselves are automatons like the machines. Also, throw in fears of a revolt led by the lovely Maria (Brigitte Helm), who is a messianic figure among the workers. Then mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) invents a robot of Maria to stop the revolution.
   A dark, intense drama of urban nightmare, reconstructed in 1984 with a rock music soundtrack, a musical score by Giorgio Moroder and colour tints, this techno-fantasy by Fritz Lang is still fascinating.
more reviews of silent fantasy cinema

Star Wars (1977)  directed by George Lucas
On the 20th anniversary of Star Wars, Lucasfilms and 20th Century Fox released the Special Edition, which contained four more minutes of film, and used over a million dollars to clean up the prints, and add some more special effects and THX digitally re-mastered sound. The results were spectacular, even more impressive than the release of the multimillion-dollar prequel The Phantom Menace.
   Who hasn't seen Star Wars? Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has stolen the plans for the Death Star, but is captured by General Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and his loud-breathing sidekick Darth Vader (David Prowse). Before she was taken prisoner, she sent droids R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) to track down Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), the last of the Jedi Knights. You know the rest.
   A space western take on The Wizard Of Oz, with Arthurian legends and religious overtone. Pure magic.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)  directed by Stanley Kubrick
One of the most majestic and visually striking science fiction films ever made. The underlying message here is that aliens have been with us since the dawn of time and have had influence over mankind since. The ending is trippy, an hallucinogenic montage of life and death beyond the stars, and it offers a realist depiction of outer space, one year before we even walked on the moon.
   A landmark achievement in cinema - the Stanley Kubrick Collection edition on DVD is the one to get.
order 2001 special magazine

Alien (1979)  directed by Ridley Scott
The space freighter Nostromo receives an SOS from a nearby planet. The seven-person crew awakes from suspended animation to track down the distress call. They investigate the signal and discover an alien spacecraft and pods. Kane (John Hurt) takes a closer look at one of the pods and it burst opens an alien creature attaches itself to his face.
   A splendid cast, special effects and a creepy alien designed by renowned artist H.R. Giger. This film is one of the most copied science fiction films of the late 20th century.

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)  directed by Steven Spielberg
Power company employee Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus) witnesses a UFO and his life is never the same, his obsession destroys his family, but he simply must know the truth. Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillion) is a single mother who loses her son in a close encounter, and Claude Lacombe (played by French filmmaker Francois Truffaut) travels all over the world to establish contact with the aliens. All three, and some visitors from space, end up at the Devil's Tower, Wyoming. Exhilarating special effects and outstanding acting make this a classic.

Back To The Future (1985)  directed by Robert Zemeckis
A time travelling De Lorean car, wacky scientist Dr Emmett Brown (played to the hilt by Christopher Lloyd) and a procrastinator protagonist Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) who travels back time to 1955 and becomes the obsession of his future mom (Lea Thompson). Freudianism, nostalgia for the 1950s, clever time travel theories and plenty of comedy make this one fun sci-fi adventure that's still enjoyable after many viewings. Robert Zemeckis also directed the sequels and would go on to direct the thought provoking Contact and the academy award winner Forrest Gump.

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)  directed by Robert Wise
A giant space ship lands in Washington DC and the alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) with his giant robot Gort (Lock Martin) deliver a message of peace and a warning against nuclear weapons. Klaatu is shot and is 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 and I can see how this film had a major influence on Robert Heinlein's novel Stranger In A Strange Land.
   A profoundly intelligent and low-key science fiction film of the 1950s, this is well worth checking out.

Gattaca (1997)  directed by Andrew Niccol
A thinking man's science fiction movie, and dazzling debut by director Andrew Niccol, who would also do the screenplay for The Truman Show. In this future world, parents determine what DNA to use for their unborn, so they can create perfect humans. Unfortunately, Vincent (Nathan Hawkes) 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 'in-valid', he can do only janitorial work. Vincent assumes the identity of one of the genetic elite (Jude Lowe) so he can be accepted on a space travel mission.
   Gattaca is an engrossing film in the tradition of THX-1138 and Things To Come.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)  directed by James Cameron
Arnold 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) because an more advanced model Terminator T-1000 (Robert Patrick), that is a shape-shifting robot made of liquid metal, was sent back to destroy the future's post-nuclear resistance leader.
   This is one of the most violent science fiction movies ever made, but it is an extremely exciting film loaded explosive action. The depiction of a city getting annihilated by a nuclear blast is extremely realistic - showing us, despite all the violence, that it has a pacific core.

War Of The Worlds (1953)  directed by Byron Haskin
Forget Independence Day or Starship Troopers, this is the alien invasion movie to see. A strange meteor crashes to California (the setting was changed from Victorian England, to the Golden State), it then spouts mechanical tentacles and casts an eerie green light (looking like a glowing sinister stingray). It turns out to be an alien spacecraft. Other meteors have been falling all over the planet, and so the invasion begins. Produced by George Pal, who also made other classics including The Time Machine, Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)  directed by Stanley Kubrick
It is hard to believe that this movie is written and directed by Stanley Kubrick a few short years after 2001, set in an ultra-violent world of rape and pillage led by Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his gang of droogs. After Alex is apprehended and incarcerated, he agrees to be a subject of a test that any violent impulses with make him violently sick. This is a provocative and dark social satire that's one of the most controversial sci-fi films ever.

Dark City (1997)  directed by Alex Proyas
A brooding city that floats inside a sunless world and, at night, this town literally changes structure. The city belongs to no particular time or era. It keeps changing and changing like a Rubik's cube, and is a strange hybrid of Metropolis and Blade Runner. Look for Richard O'Brien (Riff Raff of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) as one of the strangers. William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland and Jennifer Connelly also star in this enigmatic tale.

Videodrome (1982)  directed by David Cronenberg
Cronenberg's take on TV is a mind-blowing film. Max Renn (James Woods) is a jaded cable programmer, but when he discovers 'Videodrome', a pirated satellite signal broadcasting sex-torture-murders, he becomes obsessed. Deborah Harry of the band Blondie played his sexy girlfriend Nicki Brand.

Starman (1984)  directed by John Carpenter
A low-key science fiction love story from John Carpenter (maker of Halloween, Escape From LA and They Live), this stars Jeff Bridges as the starman who lands in Wisconsin and takes on the form of Jenny Hayden's (Karen Allen) recently deceased husband. The alien can only survive on Earth for a few days, and he needs Hayden to drive him to the Arizona desert soon so he can rendezvous with his spaceship. Starman is a sensitive and well-acted romance.

The Brother From Another Planet (1984)  directed by John Sayles
A black alien (Joe Morton) escapes from his home planet and winds up in the ghetto on Earth. 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 co-starred as one of the bounty hunters in this low-budget masterpiece. Recommended for fans of alternative cinema.

The Fly (1986)  directed by David Cronenberg
Cronenberg made this chilling tale of scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) who is experimenting with a transport device when his genes accidentally get inter-spliced with those of a housefly. Brundle fights to hold onto his humanity as he becomes more monstrous and insect-like. Sometimes hard to stomach, this very powerful motion picture could be a metaphor for what it is like to have cancer.
read reviews of The Fly movies

Westworld (1973)  directed by Michael Crichton
Delos is the amusement park of the future where vacationers can live out their fantasies in Imperial Rome, Medieval Europe or the Old West with lifelike robots. Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin) visit the hi-tech wonderland but very much like Jurassic Park (also written by Crichton), technology goes awry. There's a terrific performance by Yul Brynner as the gunslinger.

Barbarella (1967)  directed by Roger Vadim
The beautiful Barbarella (Jane Fonda - better looking here than in any of her workout videos) goes on an intergalactic rescue mission to save scientist Duran Duran (Milo O'Shea). On her quest she is gnawed on by killer dolls, confronts an evil Queen (Anita Pallenberg) and befriends and beds blind angel Pygar (John Phillip Law). Based on the French comic strip created by Jean-Claude Forest, this is sexy, silly and just plain fun.

Sleeper (1973)  directed by Woody Allen
This is an over-the-top future comedy by Woody Allen, who plays the owner of a Greenwich Village health food store. He is put into suspended animation and awakes 200 years later in a dark world with robots (including a hilarious portrayal by Allen), giant vegetables and the Leader - a national dictator who survived an assassination attempt, but all that is left of him is his nose.
   Innovation and humour all at the same time.

Dark Star (1974)  directed by John Carpenter
Made on a shoestring budget, this little known comedy gem is directed by John Carpenter (his debut) and co-written by Dan O'Bannon (the screenwriter for such genre classics as Total Recall, Alien, Lifeforce). This wacky film is about a group of scientists who have been in space too long. The attack of the alien mascot, which looks like a giant beach ball, is so schlocky, that it's funny.

Honourable mentions:
The Bride Of Frankenstein, Contact, Doctor Cyclops, Forbidden Planet, Jason And The Argonauts,
It Came From Outer Space, The Matrix, Planet Of The Apes, The Time Machine, and This Island Earth.


Related items:
tZ  Future Perfect - a Top 10 SF Films by Richard Bowden
tZ  screen scene - reviews of new genre cinema and television
tZ  'The Worst SF Films Ever Made': bad genre movies
tZ  VideoVista - includes many top 10 listings about the world of movies
Michael McCarty

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