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SYFY WIRE Academy Awards

16 Oscar-winning sci-fi movies you have to watch

Add Jurassic ParkAliens and T2 on your watchlist.

By Phil Pirrello
Jurassic Park 1993

Science fiction rarely gets its due come Oscar season. 

In fact, the Oscars have traditionally ignored sci-fi as capable of producing serious awards contenders because legacy Academy members often are unable to see past the genre as anything more than commercial or blockbuster fare. And even when sci-fi does get a chance to walk down the red carpet, it's usually in recognition for technical achievements in special effects or sound design. Some recent movies, however, such as Gravity or Arrival, manage to score Best Picture nominations, reminding the Academy that sci-fi can do more than entertain audiences with a trip to the Final Frontier or to that galaxy far, far away. 

With the 94th Academy Awards set to air Sunday, March 27 on ABC, here are 16 Oscar-winning films that bucked the odds and added a few awards to their mantles.

01. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Oscar Wins: Art Direction/Set Decoration and Special Effects. 

Disney set the tone, and raised the bar, for their live-action blockbusters with this 1954 adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic novel. 

Director Richard Fleischer, one of Hollywood’s most popular “tentpole” filmmakers at the time, packs nearly every frame of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with wonder and spectacle — even more impressive considering it was done with practical, analog effects. Disney spared no expense bringing Captain Nemo’s orante submersible, The Nautilus, to life; a crew of more than 400 built a full-scale facade of the sub and elaborate interiors to deliver on the scope readers were promised in the novel. The film’s most iconic scene, the Giant Squid attack, was its most challenging. In fact, the first version — shot at dusk and on a calm sea — had to be scrapped because the setting did a poor job delivering tension to the audience and of concealing the wires and cables used to manipulate the life-sized creature.

The reshot sequence, set at night during a violent storm, was a costly but necessary expense; it’s the reason why, almost 70 years later, this take on 20,000 Leagues is still the definitive one. 

02. The Time Machine (1960)

Oscar Wins: Best Special Effects.

The original (and, so far, best) adaptation of H.G. Wells' classic novel inspired so many of the genre's finest. Its story of an inventor from Victorian England, flung into the distant future and caught in the middle of the Morlocks' efforts to enslave and feed on the Eloi, is rife with thematic issues that are still relevant today.

The Time Machine’s themes have aged much better than most of the film’s Oscar-winning visual effects. But the first trip through time taken by H. George Wells (Rod Taylor) is still an effortless mix of analog wonder and awe.

03. Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Oscar Wins: Visual Effects and Art Direction. 

Hollywood filmmakers like James Cameron and Guillermo Del Toro have spent years trying to remake Fantastic Voyage, as the premise is ripe for an update: A crew of specialists must shrink themselves to microscopic levels to save the life of an injured government scientist. 

The team navigates the human body via a sleek submarine-like vehicle, exploring arteries and evading white blood cells the way Luke Skywalker and Han Solo lightspeed across the stars. Audiences had never experienced a movie like this before, and have rarely since outside of Joe Dante’s underrated InnerSpace from 1987 or Disney’s Body Wars theme park attraction. If there was ever a movie moviegoers deserve a remake of, it’s Fantastic Voyage. Here’s hoping the makers of Avatar and Hellboy get a chance to bring that remake soon to a theater near you. 

04. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Oscar Wins: Best Special Effects.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a heady, slow-burn trip into the deepest parts of space to help unlock mankind’s innermost secrets. 

Based on the dense sci-fi novel by Arthur C. Clarke, 2001 offers an episodic-esque chronicle of our species’ evolution from rudimentary ape to cosmos-bound astronauts as we embark on a journey to broaden our understanding of existence that is both harrowing and enlightening. Kubrick’s meticulous attention to detail gives the iconic visuals and effects a cold, exacting precision that, ironically, deepens our appreciation of what makes the flesh and blood of our messy species tick.

2001 starts on an Earth home to prehistoric apes and takes us to (and inside) a slab composed of alien materials, a monolith that acts as a building block on the road to broadening our minds while enriching our hearts with a knowledge that is both profound and humbling. Along the way, Kubrick and the film's Oscar-winning effects team pulled off visuals that had never been achieved before. The detailed production design and model work of the spaceships (especially that of Discovery One) forced all future space-set Hollywood productions to elevate their game as 2001 redefined what the genre could do — and where it could take its fans — on the big screen.

05. Planet of the Apes (1968) 

Oscar Wins: Honorary award for Best Makeup Effects.

As great as it has been to see the Planet of the Apes franchise catch its second wind in recent years, there's still no topping the 1968 original. This Oscar-winning classic is just the right blend of camp and social commentary, with Charlton Heston delivering his most iconic performance as an astronaut stranded in a world where ape-kind reigns supreme. 

Apes' make-up effects are still a marvel of practical effects ingenuity, which is even more amazing when considering how the filmmakers didn’t believe they would be able to pull it off. Makeup artist John Chambers and his team had the unenviable challenge of making human actors look more like their fictional ape counterparts, and find ways to make the former able to express emotional performances that would resonate with audiences.

To do so, Chambers employed new prosthetic make-up techniques — from tri-piece facial prosthetics to foam latex molds of actors’ heads. Chambers’ approach to the material was unprecedented at the time, and his trial-and-error process would revolutionize the industry much like Ron Serling’s script (and its gut punch of a twist ending) would forever change the genre. 

06. Star Wars (1977)

Oscar Wins: Best Visual Effects, Original Score (John Williams), Film Editing, Production Design, Sound Mixing, and Costume Design.

Fans have watched, and rewatched, George Lucas’ Star Wars more times than they have had hot meals. Credit the film being a load bearing column in pop-culture due to its insanely-likable main characters and the stunning visual effects employed to bring their adventures to life. 

The visual effects team, lead by industry veterans John Dykstra and Richard Edlund, invented new motion camera techniques while relying on tried-and-true “kit bashing” in the creation of ship models. It is how they made the Millennium Falcon jump to lightspeed or unleash the full power of the Death Star. The Oscar-winning VFX brought Lucas’ boundless imagination to life, while setting a new special effects standard for the genre. But attention must also be paid to the work by legendary sound designer Ben Burtt, who won a Special Achievement Oscar for creating the iconic Star Wars soundscape. From beeping droids to malfunctioning hyperdrives, Burrt is responsible for giving voice to all that calls the world of Star Wars home. 44 years later, his Oscar-winning work still inspires and underscores every movie or TV show within the franchise. 

07. Alien (1979) 

Oscar Wins: Best Visual Effects.

Two short years after Star Wars, 20th Century Fox and director Ridley Scott unleashed Alien — another groundbreaking science fiction classic. This time, though, things were much grungier. 

Come aboard the Nostromo, a commercial spaceship returning from a seven-year voyage. Upon awakening from cryo-sleep, the crew discovers a distress signal, goes to investigate, and the rest is face-hugging, chest-bursting, blasting-out-of-an-airlock history. Of course nobody had ever seen anything like this before, courtesy of H.R. Giger's Alien designs that would inspire the entire franchise. Taking a page from Star Wars’ Oscar-winning playbook, Scott and his effects team — led by Carlo Rambaldi, Brian Johnson, Nick Allder and Denys Ayling — doubled-down on a more gritty, lived-in feel for their depiction of what are essentially blue-collar workers in space. Alien’s more grounded production design enhanced the otherworldly (and bloody) Oscar-winning visual effects, especially in regards to the iconic Chestburster sequence, which set the film on the path to Oscar glory.  

08. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Oscar Wins: Best Sound and Special Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects.

The Empire Strikes Back is a perfect film; having recently celebrated its 40th anniversary only reinforces that. It’s a sci-fi classic that you want to rewatch as soon as the credits roll, as its story pushes and pulls Han, Luke and Leia in directions that would ripple effect throughout the franchise for four decades. 

The infamous reveal that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, paired with the tragic carbonite freezing of Han, marks one of the greatest stretches of run time in any movie. Dennis Muren’s work here, in support of the Oscar-winning team behind the original Star Wars, expanded upon ILM’s practical effects techniques in ways that would once again revolutionize the medium. The use of stop-motion models to bring the Battle of Hoth to life is arguably the highlight of the film’s effects reel; the level of detail used to depict the Imperial AT-ATs marching across a frozen tundra is still jaw-dropping.

09. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Oscar Wins: Best Visual Effects, Original Score, Sound, and Sound Effects Editing. 

Spielberg received a UN Peace Medal for this movie, so you know he did something right here. E.T. is both one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made and the quintessential film about friendship and childhood innocence. It's also one that only gets better with age, especially John Williams’ stirring score and the impressive visual effects.

Williams’ iconic theme has been tugging on our heartstrings for almost 40 years, while the animatronic effects used to make the relationship between young Elliot (Henry Thomas) and his new alien friend still maintain their sense of wonder. E.T.’s Oscar-winning sound design does not get the attention it deserves, however. Star Wars’ Ben Burtt worked with Charles L. Campbell to execute E.T.’s unique alien utterances while surrounding the creature and his human friends with one of the most unassuming and effective soundscapes to ever appear in a Spielberg film.   

10. Aliens (1986)

Oscar Wins: Best Visual Effects.

Writer-director James Cameron faced the unenviable task of succeeding Ridley Scott's 1979 classic. To do so, Cameron went the action-horror movie route, and created a sequel that is arguably better than the original. And who doesn't love an ol' fashioned brawl between Power Loader and Alien Queen?

Stan Winston and his team deservedly won Oscars for their landmark work in updating the xenomorph exoskeleton and for the elaborate Alien Queen puppet that required several operators (including one controlling the queen from the inside) in order to bring Cameron’s unique vision for the monstrous villain to the screen.

And while Sigourney Weaver did not win Best Actress for her all-timer performances as a PTSD-stricken Ripley, it’s important to note that she defied expectations for the genre at the time to earn a nomination for her work. 

11. Total Recall (1990)

Oscar Wins: Special Achievement Award for Visual Effects.

As ‘90s action movies go, they don't get much better or engrossing than Total Recall. Especially in regards to the elaborate Oscar-winning visual and make-up effects. 

Director Paul Verhoeven's deft handling of the complicated, twisty material (based on Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember it for You Wholesale) gives each scene the exact amount of whatever it needs to keep audiences either at the edge of their seats or white-kunckling their armrests. The action never feels like it is competing with character; if anything, the set pieces are character-driven — a rarity in the modern blockbuster era.

Those set pieces are further enhanced by the practical make-up gags executed by the legendary Rob Bottin (John Carpenter’s The Thing) and his team, who were responsible for generating both photoreal animatronics of star Arnold Schwarzenegger (in various, R-rated phases of distress) and never-before-seen depictions of alien life on Mars. Oh, and we’d be remiss if we forgot their excellent, iconic work creating Johnny Cab

12. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Oscar Wins: Visual Effects, Makeup, Sound, and Sound Effects.

The first two Terminator movies are critical pillars of the sci-fi genre, but it's really James Cameron’s Terminator 2 that stands as the high-water mark for this franchise. 

Great action, compelling characters, and a heartfelt story about humanity struggling to change its fate make for an incredible sci-fi experience that has aged very well over the last three decades. Bringing the T-1000 and its liquid metal body to life helped usher in the digital visual effects revolution; it’s not a James Cameron film if the limits of visual effects aren’t being pushed and redefined. Here, Cameron and his team — which included ILM’s Dennis Muren — took the early CG tools Cameron employed on The Abyss and applied them here to bring a photoreal, CG character to life. One that could realistically interact with live-action actors and on-set lighting elements in very believable ways, for extended periods of time — a feat no movie had attempted or executed before. T2 essentially test drove all of the CG techniques Hollywood now takes for granted, and fans have never forgotten that it all started with a silver-skinned, time-traveling murder bot walking through and out of flames and into movie history. 

13. Jurassic Park (1993)

Oscar Wins: Best Visual Effects, Sound, and Sound Effects.

“Hold onto your butts.”

Nearly 30 years after its original release, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is just as entertaining and enthralling now as it was when ‘90s kids first watched Drs. Grant, Sattler, and (*insert perfect Jeff Goldblum voice tick here*) Malcolm run from and scream at dinosaurs. 

Based on Michael Crichton’s bestselling novel, Jurassic Park lets Spielberg do what he does best: Mix relatable, “ordinary” characters with extraordinary, four-quadrant-pleasing summer entertainment. ILM's use of pioneering digital effects brings these prehistoric beasts to life with a kind of wonder and danger that make it feel like we are sometimes watching the most expensive travelogue ever. (Stan Winston’s landmark practical effects with the animatronic dinosaurs, especially the raptors and T-Rex, are also a key ingredient to the film’s enduring legacy). 

14. Gravity (2013)

Oscar Wins: Best Director, Cinematography, Visual Effects, Original Score, Film Editing, Sound Mixing, and Sound Editing. 

You'll be hard-pressed to find a more gripping tale of survival than Gravity, which stars Sandra Bullock as an astronaut who somehow has to make the impossible trip back to Earth after her space station is destroyed. It's a testament to her performance and Alfonso Cuaron's Oscar-winning direction that so many moviegoers were convinced that parts of the movie were actually shot in orbit.

That level of verisimilitude was achieved by nearly five years of R & D by the VFX company Framestore. Using large LED screens capable of simulating lighting conditions as one would experience in space or in orbit of Earth, Framestore, Cuaron and Gravity’s Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki achieved the closest one could get to going into space without the need of an actual rocket.

Cauron’s commitment to making Gravity feel like it was filmed amongst the stars is matched only by his mandate to anchor the riveting visuals to big emotional stakes. Bullock’s Dr. Stone has to go into the void to rediscover and recenter herself for a new lease on life upon her tortuous journey back to Earth. The trip up is, fittingly, given the title, only as good as the lessons learned on the way back down. Cauron uses Gravity to deliver on that thematic message by wrapping it and his audience up in groundbreaking sci-fi visuals that stick with you long after the end credits roll.

15. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Oscar Wins: Best Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, and Costume Design.

George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road will forever be in the conversation about “best action movies ever made.”

Six years since its release (and with a Furiosa prequel currently in pre-production), Fury Road’s “shiny and chrome” thrill ride through the Wasteland still reverberates in our guts like the sound of war rigs tearing across its post-apocalyptic landscape. A master class in pure visual cinema, thanks in large part to the work Miller’s wife and Oscar-winning editor, Margaret Sixel. She doesn’t so much as “edit” set pieces as compose kinetic ballets that perfectly orient the viewer to the action’s emotional and physical geography. We are never confused or lost while watching the film, which isn’t easy to pull off when your movie is 90 percent, non-stop road chase.

The production’s mix of live-action, practical car stunts and CG enhancements all work together to service one of the most original and visceral sci-fi films ever made. Here’s hoping Fury Road’s success at the Oscars helps other similar genre films get the awards attention they deserve.

16. Arrival (2016)

Oscar Wins: Best Sound Editing.

Arrival — nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay — is a modern classic. It’s an inspired and heartfelt take on a first contact story, a popular sci-fi trope. Here, scientists Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner struggle to cut through the Federal Government’s bureaucratic red tape in their attempt to decipher a mysterious alien race’s language. But it’s more than just a new language, it’s a tool that could teach humanity how to experience memory and reality in non-linear ways.

Unfortunately, despite eight nominations, Arrival only took home one award for Best Sound Editing. But the accolade was indeed deserved, thanks to the immersive sound work employed aboard the echo-y chambers aboard the aliens’ ship where most of the movie’s key sequences take place. These memorable sequences are vital to servicing the film’s emotional payload. The way humans ruminate on past mistakes or traumas, to the point where it feels like we exist in them, is just one of the heady and powerful themes Arrival tackles on its way to becoming a sci-fi film that is as essential as Kubrick’s 2001.