Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Here was the hardest choice of all, but it was one we had to make. Though the Star Wars films are more science-fantasy than straight science fiction, they usually fall under the sci-fi banner. We’re going to count it, and if we’re going to count it, then it’s gonna be at number one. Many people didn’t think that the original Star Wars could be topped. This movie doesn’t try to. The Vader reveal was incredibly bold, but it’s not the only thing the movie has to offer: we have an epic fight on a snow planet, the Millennium Falcon blazing through an asteroid field, Lando Calrissian, and some of the best Han/Leia banter in any of the films. We love it. It knows.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Now an Admiral, Kirk is feeling his age in this film. Dr. McCoy points out that he would rather be “out there hopping galaxies” and he’s not wrong. But, beginning with a simulation of a “no-win scenario” and ending with a real-life one, this is the film where Kirk is forced to face death at last thanks to Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), a grand embodiment of intelligence and revenge. The great villain forces Spock, who never took the Kobayashi Maru, to make a choice. To save everyone, he sacrifices himself. Spock doesn’t hesitate and gives us one of the best deaths of cinema. The rest of the original Trek cast is in fine form and when it comes to Star Trek, this remains the gold standard.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Based on Arthur C. Clarke’s short story The Sentinel, Stanley Kubrick co-wrote the screenplay to this classic with Clarke himself, and the result is a slow burn voyage into the depths of space that becomes something much deeper. A mysterious monolith helps the apes discover tools in one of the best cuts in film history, a spinning bone becomes the spinning parts of a space station. Here, with a single red light and an unforgettably menacing voice, Kubrick and company create one of the most iconic antagonists in sci-fi. HAL is just one (terrifying) piece of technical wizardry in a film that begs you to ponder humanity's path from the dirt through the stars.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
Spielberg's 1982 film about a boy and the alien that he secretly befriends is one of those nice alien encounters that humankind is inevitably going to screw it up. There are so many iconic moments in this heartfelt film that it’s hard to know where to start— E.T.’s use of a Speak and Spell, the trail of Reece’s Pieces, and E.T.’s growing neck (and glowing finger) all stand out. Only one scene surpasses them: flying bikes. With a final riff of John Williams' score and the government soundly defeated, few films blend successful adventure and sobbing farewell so beautifully.
It was a tough choice as to which Alien film would appear here, and (naturally) it was a choice between Ridley Scott’s first film and James Cameron’s follow-up. It had to be Cameron. He gives us great marines (Bill Paxton! Al Matthews! Paul Reiser!) and alters Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley from a hero to a woman out of time in search of a home. And if you want to talk about iconic scenes in sci-fi, look no further than Ripley’s film-ending battle with the alien Queen. Stepping into a futuristic load lifter, Ripley delivers the perfect “get away from her you bitch” before taking the Queen to town and escaping with a new family in tow.
There are about fifty-four different versions of this film (we may be exaggerating) but for the purposes of this list, we’re going to go with the most recent “Final Cut.” Based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this 1982 classic from Ridley Scott has become so iconic that its look and tone are still constantly copied. Harrison Ford's Rick Deckard hunts down synthetic lifeforms called replicants and raises all sorts of ethical questions. By the end of the film, Deckard is even questioning if he is a replicant. The Deckard question is one of the most famous debates in sci-fi cinema and thanks to Ford, we actually care. Yet, nothing beats Rutger Hauer’s final moments as Roy Batty— his end is one of the most powerful monologues in any film. A sci-fi noir that features boundless creativity, the box office disappointment has become legendary sci-fi.
Back to the Future
Time travel is a familiar staple of sci-fi, with plenty of serious approaches and some very silly ones - but only one strikes the perfect balance between the two. In 1985, Robert Zemeckis took us (and Marty McFly) to 1955. We got there by way of a time-travelling DeLorean invented by Marty’s crackpot friend and now have to get back. Avoiding incestuous creepiness, playing rock music, and changing the course of history, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, and Tom Wilson make the film an exciting, quotable thrill ride.
Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live and this is a genre in which he thrives. Yes, this film is remembered for its groundbreaking visual effects that brought dinosaurs to life (in a much safer way than the characters in the film do), but the film's ideas make it a classic. Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm has an ongoing ethical debate with Sir Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond about the rights and wrongs of cloning dinosaurs. Just because you CAN clone dinosaurs doesn’t necessarily mean that you SHOULD. Add Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and one of the best scores that John Williams ever wrote and you have something truly special.
Children of Men
Due to a medical condition affecting the entire world, humanity has lost the ability to reproduce. What actually causes the phenomenon is never addressed, which is one of the best aspects of Alfonso Cuaron's impeccably-shot masterpiece. It doesn’t matter why we’re not reproducing anymore - there are no babies anymore and the world, as you might imagine, does not handle this well. Clive Owen’s Theo helps lead us through Cuaron's long takes that still boggle the mind, immersing us in a dystopian future that feels all too plausible.
This film put director Neill Blomkamp on the map for good reason. The film’s metaphor for racial intolerance is clear and only becomes clearer as we see how horrible life in the districts is for the alien visitors, usually referred to as “prawns.” The brilliant Sharlto Copley anchors the film as an inspection agent whose prejudice is tested after an encounter results in some alien mutations. Using a found footage, pseduo-documentary style, Blomkamp creates a practical, realistic sci-fi environment on Earth. The aliens look photorealistic, as does their technology— and the human response? Sadly, it’s right on target.