By Aline Boucher Kaplan
I sent a message to my science fiction friends last week to let them know that they could watch Moon on Netflix in March. I told them it was one of my all-time top 10 science fiction movies.
But that started me thinking about what actually was on my list of the top 10 science fiction movies of all time. My selections differ from the numerous lists that have been published by everyone from Mental Floss to Rotten Tomatoes because our definitions don’t match.
As I explain in my posts about upcoming science fiction movies, I don’t include superhero or comic book movies, anime, animated children’s movies, movies based on video games, horror (including poltergeists, haunted mirrors, creepy children, etc.), fairy tales, Bible movies, paranormal romance and (with a few notable exceptions) monsters.
Searching for Sunshine
I have seen a lot of science fiction movies. Years ago, I was on a business trip with a young colleague. He knew I write in the genre and tried to find a science fiction movie I hadn’t seen. We ran down quite a few titles without finding a no-see. Finally, he came up with one he was sure I had not watched. His face brightened and I braced myself.
“A Boy and His Dog,” he crowed. I smiled. “From the novel by Harlan Ellison,” I replied. “it was Don Johnson’s first big break. And the only time the phrase, “To the farm,” frightened me.” (Okay, I was showing off. Sue me.)
His face fell and he kept searching. Finally, he dinged me with Sunshine, which I had not yet seen but have caught since. (It’s not on my list.)
Earning a Place on the List
A movie earns a place on my favorite list if it makes me feel like I’m Out There. The best ones show people living and working in space. While I enjoy space opera, I prefer a movie that shows how someone like me—not a princess, a warrior, a Jedi knight, or a superhero—would do when my everyday work schedule goes sideways.
I can identify with that. Someday we will have regular working stiffs in outer space, even if we never leave the Solar System. Thanks to Elon Musk and SpaceX, we’re already on track to put non-astronauts in orbit and beyond. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? As with everything else, we’ll have to see how it goes.
Top 11 Science Fiction Movies
So, I sat down and drew up my list—but found I couldn’t keep it to 10 movies. Here, then, are the 11 movies I have liked most in alphabetical order, along with why I like them. Links go to the movie’s IMDB page.
- Aliens (1986): I really love the beginning of Alien (1979), the first movie in the franchise, when an alarm beacon wakens the crew of Nostromo. These people aren’t noble space heroes, they’re just a working crew on a regularly scheduled run. Their first thought is for their jobs and their paychecks, not rescuing some unknown ship in distress. Overall, however, I think that Aliens is the better movie—and I have watched it many times. (Make sure you get the whole, uncut movie that includes the robo-gun scene.)
Also, I like it because the gung-ho Marines sent to exterminate the alien ship don’t really listen to Ellen Ripley when she tries to warn them about the creatures they’re going up against. They pay for that mistake but, still, that’s what it’s really like to be a woman, regardless of where you are.
- Arrival (2016): This movie is so rich, so layered, so intellectually fascinating that I do it small justice by saying it’s about first alien contact. Put your thinking cap on and jump into a complex discussion of linguistics, the nature of time, relationships, overcoming fear, and the importance of communication. Oh, yeah. And aliens of the Good Guy type. They want to talk. They want to tell us things. We only have to learn how to listen.
- Gravity (2013): I used to want to be an astronaut. I thought for many years that I should have been an astronaut. The first ten minutes of this movie in an IMAX theater shook that conviction. Fear of Falling set in big time and I wondered how I could ever do that for real. I put Gravity in the category of Near-time Science Fiction because we have almost reached this point. It could happen not just in our lifetimes, but in the next year—or less. More science, less fiction. All good.
- Moon (2009): One of those little gems that plays in the theater for about two days, this movie is must-see for any serious science fiction fan. One actor (Sam Rockwell), one robot (voiced by Kevin Spacey) and the moon—that’s all you get. But wow, what they do with it. You’ll find yourself saying, “Wait a minute. How did he get there? What happened?” And then you find out. But you’ll find no spoilers here.
- Outland: (1981)
Billed as “High Noon” on Io, Outland gets down into the real nitty gritty of what working in space would be like. Only Alien (see #1 above) and SyFy’s “The Expanse” have done this as well.
The opening scene on Jupiter’s moon has you gripping your seat as a worker wearing a blissful smile but no space suit steps onto an elevator that is clearly marked as exiting in vacuum. He looks beatific and pushes the button to take the elevator down. An alarm sounds. The door opens . . .
NASA’s probes have since shown us that Europa would provide a more hospitable environment and there is a movie called “The Europa Report” but it doesn’t come close to Outland for verisimilitude. Or logic.
- Pitch Black (2000): In space, things don’t always go as planned and incorrect assumptions can kill you. That planet you crash landed on may be unpopulated for a reason. And the violent criminal that terrifies you may make the difference between living and dying. Like Alien, this science fiction horror movie picks you up and carries you along on a breathless ride. Pray for dawn.
- Silent Running (1972): This oldie but goodie gave Bruce Dern his first starring movie role. Want to know what just might happen when we privatize space and let corporations make bottom-line decisions? Ever think it would be great to work Out There all by yourself? Watch Silent Running and you’ll find out. Also, you will meet R2-D2’s ancestors: Hughie, Dewey and Louie. Directed by Douglas Trumbull with special effects by John Dykstra. And the lights go off.
- Stargate (1994): Long before Ancient Aliens came on the scene, Stargate told us what those Egyptian pyramids had really been built for—and dead pharaohs had nothing to do with it. This movie combines two of my favorite subjects: Ancient Egypt and science fiction and it spawned multiple successful TV series.
I loved every minute that it poked a sharp stick in the eye of Accepted Belief, whether archaeology or rocket science. Since then, Google Earth and Ancient Aliens have shown us pyramids all over the world. Could they have had the same purpose? Hmm.
- The Empire Strikes Back (1980): Okay, this movie ramps up the space opera but it’s the darkest, most fallibly human and believable of the Star Wars movies. No silly creatures (Porgs, Ewoks, Jar-Jar Binks), no triumphal parades, no medals, no spiritual space walks. Instead we get Yoda, Cloud City, carbonite and the Big Reveal.
- The Martian (2015): The ultimate survival movie, this flick is as good as the book by Andy Weir—and that’s saying something. Matt Damon was perfect casting for Mark Watney, the smart biologist who figures out how to survive alone on Mars. I kept wondering what it would be like to be the only human being on a whole planet. I loved the book’s combination of science, adventure, humor, and drama and the movie does it all justice.
- War of the Worlds (2005): The flip side of Arrival, this classic (I’m going with the 2005 version because better special effects.), shows us the not-so-nice aliens. The tentacles in the tripods don’t want to talk and they don’t want to teach us anything. They just want to kill us. We don’t know why or what they want. Run.
Expanding the List?
That’s it—my top 11 science fiction movies of all time. Which ones have you liked? What would be on your list? Have I missed anything really great? Let me know in the comments section. I can always expand the list to 15.