In Victorian times, a woman’s ultimate fear was to grow up and find herself married off to some inhuman beast, a deep-rooted fear expressed through novels like Jane Eyre. But in the 1950s, a similar meme began expressing for young teens, and no film expressed this meme more powerfully than Invaders From Mars (1953), a film that cast a shadow over those strange goings-on in the world of adults. I viewed this film as a second grader on a black-and-white in the den of our home outside Boston. I was home sick with a fever, which just intensified the experience immensely. I soon had many dreams inspired by this film, a sure indication of its power in the telepathic plane. Strangely, you almost never see it on television, and the British re-edit destroyed the original ending, which was designed to mimic The Wizard of Oz, as the copy at the top of the poster indicates.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) continued along a similar meme, although this time around the protagonist is an adult and aliens are breeding in pods everywhere up and down the West Coast. Science fiction opens up a lot of possibilities in many different styles, from comedy to super realism to fantasy, but the two of the best examples of the genre on my list were both designed as B-grade thrillers on low budgets, but like Night of the Living Dead, managed to scare teens silly and touch a psychic nerve. Strangely, this film suffered the same sad fate as my first film for the scary ending was jettisoned and replaced with a deus ex machina fake ending instead? I hope the latest versions of these films restore the superior endings the directors both intended.
For my tastes, the glory days of science fiction came in the 1980s, and were aided immensely by the emerging use of CGI. By the way, don’t expect to see Avatar on my list as I positively hated that film, and really don’t care for any CGI blood-baths no matter what the genre. Most of the recent science fiction blockbusters have disappointed me for some time, and I consider the genre in decline, although I did love Gravity and would put it on the list except it’s science fact, not fiction. And I think that’s one reason this genre has suffered for nearly forty years. Our culture is advancing so fast the imaginations of writers have difficulty leaping ahead, simply because paradigm shifts are so quick in real life.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was a game-changer and introduced the super realistic special effects which created something close to a real space ship experience before the advent of CGI. It was a flawed masterpiece, however, simply because the build-up was so great and the ending so weak. Of course, the ending was actually fantastic if you were on LSD at the time and this may have been one of the first Hollywood films people of my generation flocked to while tripping. I don’t recommend synthetics these days, however, so if you want to trip out while watching this, I’d suggest peyote or mushrooms as a much better and safer alternative. And yes, those sacraments will greatly enhance the experience and you won’t even notice the limp ending.
You won’t find Star Wars or Star Trek on my list, or even Dune for that matter. Many of the biggest commercial productions were okay, but this is the top ten so it’s hard to make the cut. However, a low-budget spoof on those films did make it, and it’s seldom celebrated comic masterpiece named for a famous Grateful Dead song, a song that was often a peak moment of their set when a film first appeared called Dark Star (1974). So after going from two thrillers to hyper realism to comedy, the list now enters what I consider the golden age of science fiction.
Alien (1979) was the debut of CGI in a Hollywood science fiction film as far as I know, or something very close. This film took the regular meme of alien possession to much greater realism and theatricality. It was Ridley Scott’s second film and he decided to make it after viewing Star Wars, replacing that film’s light comedy and bloodless battles with a much darker and gorier naturalism.
The Thing (1982) was similar to Alien in some ways, except the location was not a space ship far from earth, but the ice-cold Antarctic. In this thriller, the alien is a shape-shifter who can instantly inhabit anyone and remain undetected. The isolated team is swiftly traumatized and and seeks to determine who may be an alien among them.
Of course Philip K. Dick was a game changer in this genre and a big inspiration to the cyberpunk and cypherpunk movements, but Dick didn’t arrive on the Hollywood scene until Ridley Scott made Blade Runner (1982), although the original story was titled: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Arnold wasn’t very cool until this film came out, but who knew he could be perfectly cast as a robotic killing machine devoid of human emotions? I have to wonder if some of our current school shooters aren’t channeling his character somehow. Meanwhile, Hollywood keeps making the sappiest of robot films, many of which are animated and incredibly maudlin and hardly worth watching, while this gory masterpiece still holds up. The Terminator (1984) is the name of the film.
It’s not often that the sequel is better than the original, but that happened with Aliens (1986). It’s notable that films by Ridley Scott anchor and define this great era in film. Sir Ridley rules the genre more than any other director. I hope he returns to the genre soon as I haven’t really loved any of his films since Black Hawk Down.
The French, like the British, have made many attempts to jump into the science fiction genre over the years, although many of the French productions have been somewhat comic and campy. This film follows in that tradition with the notable addition of advanced CGI. This film was a massive commercial success while receiving mixed reviews. If you haven’t seen The Fifth Element (1997), I suggest you check it out. It doesn’t have the somber nihilism of British films like 1984, but I find it much more entertaining.