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'Jurassic Park,' 'E.T.,' and more: Steven Spielberg's best sci-fi films, ranked
Who would be crazy enough to rank Spielberg's best sci-fi films? We are!
Steven Spielberg is still strong behind the camera at age 75. The Fabelmans, which gets a limited release on Nov. 11 and goes wide on Nov. 23, is a semi-autobiographical portrayal of his own childhood as a movie-obsessed kid in Arizona who wanted to make movies for a living. He did indeed go on to make movies for a living, as The Fabelmans is the 34th film Spielberg directed. Several of the 33 movies that preceded it were sci-fi films — and some of those are among the greatest the genre's ever produced.
His more fantastical films are directly responsible for a whole generation of filmmakers who were inspired to follow in his footsteps because of movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And, for five decades, Spielberg has continued to put his stamp on the sci-fi genre that he's helped visually define and reinvent cinematically time after time, including his most recent sci-fi effort, 2018's Ready Player One.
With a resume chock-full of bangers, we decided to review and reflect on our sci-fi Spielberg favorites by ranking them. Which had the least impact, and which rocked our tiny minds? Read on to find out — and not that, to make this list, the films below had to include some kind of supernatural, futuristic, or fantasy element which is why films like Jaws or Duel don't make the list.
15. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
While Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull did have some memorable elements like Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) reuniting with Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Cate Blanchett as an arch-baddie, and a new John Williams score, there's no question that this was not the best of the Indiana Jones franchise. No one, even Spielberg, feels like they were in the zone with this chapter, thus it earns bottom-of-the-pack status.
14. Ready Player One (2018)
Ready Player One is a weird one because it plays out like Spielberg was unleashed in a sandbox of his own IP and then told to remix it to appeal to both this generation and the generations who grew up on his films. The result is a film that looks slick and weaves in the familiar in sometimes clever ways. But, it doesn't give Spielberg an opportunity to do what he does best in this space: innovate.
13. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park looks like a million bucks with visual effects that improve upon the stunning work done in Jurassic Park. But the story is nowhere near as compelling as the original and it's missing the blockbuster chemistry of having Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum on screen together. There are some great action sequences and dinosaur scares but this isn't an installment many go back to revisit with great fondness.
12. The BFG (2016)
Spielberg adapts Roald Dahl's 1982 novel, The BFG, with actor Mark Rylance doing a motion capture performance of the titular Big Friendly Giant. Spielberg works his family-friendly magic by mixing live-action and CGI together to bring the world of Giant Country to life. While it's an entertaining and beautifully rendered film, ultimately it doesn't have the spunk and energy of some of his prior family-oriented films of fancy.
11. Hook (1991)
You either grew up loving Hook, or were in the camp that didn't get this one. Robin Williams plays the adult Peter Pan who forgot about his childhood adventures and is forced to return to Neverland to save his kids. Spielberg assembled a dream cast, including Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell and Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook, to bring this storybook classic to life. He wisely used huge practical sets and water tanks to bring this one to life so there's a staged quality to Hook that gives it an old Hollywood look, feel, and charm.
10. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
A.I. mostly remains memorable because it's the movie that Stanley Kubrick developed for years and finally handed over to Spielberg to get it made. It certainly looks beautiful, and there are some great performances from Haley Joel Osment as David and Jude Law as Gigolo Joe. But the pace of the film is extremely ponderous and languid, which feels more in alignment with a Kubrick approach to sci-fi rather than Spielberg's. The outcome is a movie feels like it's trying to graft together the two auteur's very different styles and it doesn't really gel in the end. It's also not quite there with the facial CG and VFX, which pull the eye and takes the audience out of the film here and there.
9. War of the Worlds (2005)
On the spectacle scale, Spielberg knocks it out of the park in portraying the immediate aftermath of invading Earth in his version of War of the Worlds. The post-plane crash escape sequence of the Ferrier family, played by Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, and Justin Chatwin, is straight-up harrowing stuff. And then Spielberg follows it up with the Hudson River sequence that is visceral and terrifying. The movie stumbles with some of its annoying characters and the story logic that doesn't always work. But there's no question that Spielberg's ability to craft events on a scale few can match is very much intact with this film.
8. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Everybody wanted Indiana Jones back in cinemas, but no one expected his follow-up adventure to be so weird and dark. When Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom works, it really works. The addition of Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) as Indy's mouthy sidekick is perfect, along with the film's production design and some of its action set pieces. But, the chemistry with Kate Capshaw's Willie Scott is more irritation than romance, which grates as the film goes on. There are also a whole lot of somewhat racist and childhood-ruining scenes involving edible monkey brains, insect swarms, and even bloody human sacrifice that makes this one feel like Spielberg and Lucas were working out some dark stuff on the big screen instead of just making a fun adventure.
7. Always (1989)
Always remains one of the less-appreciated gems in Spielberg's filmography. A contemporary remake of A Guy Named Joe, Spielberg got to make a throwback romantic comedy and a thrilling action movie about aerial firefighters. It doesn't sound like it should work but it does, like a house on fire. Richard Dreyfus and Holly Hunter play the lovers separated by a tragedy, but then he comes back to literally haunt her as she tries to move on without him. You'll swoon, you'll laugh, grip the edge of your seat and then sob which only a master like Spielberg can make look so effortless to land.
6. Minority Report (2002)
Not many directors can visualize the future in ways that are prescient but Spielberg has always had the knack for portraying technology and sci-fi elements as plausible and near future. With Minority Report, Spielberg made a future that has caught up with us in terms of some of those high-concept ideas now our reality. It's slick and absorbing to look at, but it's also a nail-biter of a thriller and mystery. It's also smart in how it portrays the complexities of free will vs. determinism, making for a thoughtful and exciting watch that still holds up today.
5. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Arguably, Spielberg's best sequel on his resume and just a damn good movie. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade recaptures the spirit, tone, and energy of Raiders of the Lost Ark but covers new ground by adding Indy's dad into the mix. Harrison Ford and Sean Connery are perfection as the Joneses. Their bickering and joint grumpiness makes for great comedy, but also it turns on a dime and becomes a deeply emotional story about fathers and sons. Every action sequence bests the next and the overall search for the Holy Grail is a twisty-turny delight.
4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
With Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg made the "what if" of UFOs coming to earth to make first contact very, very real. He fuses together the fantastic with horror, and then even an almost documentarian approach to portraying the moment when the alien ship arrives at Devil's Tower to finally formally communicate with man. While the Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus) sequences can get a little too mired in his obsession at times, when Spielberg gets to the last act, the film is mesmerizing. It set the bar for portraying the realism of what a believable alien encounter might look like.
3. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Just five years after Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg gave us the warm and fuzzy view of potential alien first contact with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The quintessential childhood adventure, Spielberg brought to life an affecting friendship between a little boy (Henry Thomas) and the stranded alien he helps save and find a way home. From John William's score to the epic flying bicycle sequence, Spielberg went full cinematic in bringing this story to life and it became an instant classic that remains beloved 40 years later.
2. Jurassic Park (1993)
The greatest compliment you can give Spielberg regarding Jurassic Park is that back in 1993 when audiences walked out of that movie, they fully believed that he brought dinosaurs back to life. Working with VFX legends like Stan Winston and ILM's Denis Muren, Spielberg matched his gift of spectacle with the magic of technology to make a movie that captured the sense of wonder of actually seeing a dinosaur roam the Earth once more. And then he added his genius for making blockbuster-scale action that was thrilling, scary, and unlike anything audiences had ever seen before.
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
A perfect movie in every way, Raiders of the Lost Ark spends most of its narrative existing as a globetrotting historical adventure, but then the third act brings in the supernatural with the terrifying sequence with the opening of The Ark of the Covenant. And what a scene it is! Spielberg gives the Nazis their due when the wrath of God is unleashed upon them and the audience is floored by the results. Harrison Ford charmed audiences around the world with his brainy and brave turn as archeologist Indiana Jones and instantly turned the character into one of cinema's most iconic characters.