How do you narrow down the entire history of science fiction cinema into a list of only the 10 best movies? Help us, Mental Floss! You’re our only hope! (That Star Wars movie isn’t included, but another one is. Let us use the quote.)
1. METROPOLIS (1927)
Director Fritz Lang delivered one of film history’s earliest dystopias with Metropolis, in which the eponymous city’s wealthy ruler (Alfred Abel) and a mad scientist (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) attempt to use the robot doppelgänger of a beloved worker (Brigitte Helm) to incite open rebellion. Metropolis was famously subject to substantial cuts to its initial 153-minute running time, as a result of negative reviews following its 1927 Berlin premiere. (H.G. Wells called it “the silliest film” and “already as a possibility a third of a century out of date.”) In 2008, cinephiles rejoiced when a 16mm negative was found in a Buenos Aires film museum that included the bulk of the missing footage.
2. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
One of the few movie sequels that improves upon its already excellent predecessor, The Bride of Frankenstein reunited director James Whale with actors Colin Clive (Frankenstein) and Boris Karloff (Frankenstein’s Monster). New to the mix was Elsa Lanchester as the Bride and (in a prologue) Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Whale originally balked at the idea of making a sequel to Frankenstein, telling a friend that the original script “stinks to heaven.” Ten or more writers later, and Whale had an acceptable script—in which Frankenstein attempts to create a mate for his monster—to work with. Earlier drafts of the script involved death rays and circus lions.
3. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
The long and storied career of Stanley Kubrick netted the legendary director only one Oscar: Best Visual Effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey. The famous “Star Gate” scene gave 2001 the edge over its competitors … or should we say “competitor,” as only one other film was nominated in that category, John Sturges’s mostly forgotten Ice Station Zebra. Known to 2001’s crew as the “Manhattan Project,” the Star Gate sequence—which utilized various photography methods, including “slit-scan” photography—was shot in secret at a former corset factory in Manhattan on Broadway and 72nd Street.
4. ALIEN (1979)
If any director is deserving of two movies on this list, it’s Ridley Scott. (More on that later.) Three years before Blade Runner, Scott introduced one of cinema history’s most famous monsters in Alien, which was famously pitched to studios as “Jaws in space.” The creature was designed by surrealist painter H.R. Giger, who was handpicked by scriptwriter Dan O’Bannon. As O’Bannon later recalled, upon being introduced, Giger immediately offered him opium.
5. STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)
It’s hard to pick one Star Wars movie to be on sci-fi’s “best of” list … but not that hard, as the second installment in the original trilogy is generally regarded to be the best one. (What, were we going to choose The Phantom Menace?) The Empire Strikes Back gives the franchise its most memorable (and oft-misquoted) line in Darth Vader’s “No, I am your father.” Keeping the twist a secret was so important that, at the time that scene was shot, only a handful of people knew about it: George Lucas, Empire’s producers, director Irvin Kershner, and Mark Hamill, who got the heads-up only seconds before he was to deliver his reaction shot. Not even David Prowse, the man in the Darth Vader suit, knew about his character’s true identity. He delivered the line “Obi-Wan killed your father,” which was later dubbed (along with the rest of his dialogue) by James Earl Jones.
6. BLADE RUNNER (1982)
The work of author Philip K. Dick has been like catnip to directors over the years, with Minority Report, Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau, A Scanner Darkly, Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle and more all pulling from his work. The most famous Dick adaptation, however, is Ridley Scott’s , starring Harrison Ford as an L.A. cop tasked with hunting down rogue androids, or “replicants.” (The original book is titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) Preview screenings went so poorly that an infamous voiceover was added to make the plot easier to follow. (In Ford’s words: “[A] f*cking nightmare.”) Eventually Scott got his way, and the voiceover was chopped from 1992’s “Director’s Cut” and 2007’s “Final Cut” home video releases.
7. BRAZIL (1985)
The old chestnut returns: dystopias that were subject to major attempted—and in some cases successful—studio interference. Universal refused to release Brazil in the U.S. with Gilliam’s original ending, wherein mild-mannered government cog Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is driven insane by torture, instead preferring an alternate cut where he gets the girl and drives off into the sunset. Gilliam organized secret (and forbidden) screenings of his cut for members of the Los Angeles press, who subsequently awarded the film L.A. Critics's awards for Best Film, Best Screenplay, and Best Director. Universal, whose hand had been well and truly forced according to Gilliam, “immediately released it in New York and Los Angeles, [even though] they had no posters. They had nothing—they had a Xeroxed copy of the artwork they were going to eventually make a poster of … And it did proceed to do the most business per theater of any film at that time.”
8. THE FLY (1986)
With his offbeat sensibility and love of body horror, David Cronenberg isn’t exactly the Oscar “type.” It’s his 1986 film The Fly, in which an eccentric scientist (Jeff Goldblum) accidentally genetically splices himself with the insect of the title, that earned Cronenberg’s filmography its only Academy Award to date. Fittingly, the Oscar was for Best Makeup, awarded to Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis. In an early cut of the film, there was even more makeup-enhanced grossness; Cronenberg cut a scene where Goldblum’s character beats a genetically mutated half-cat/half-baboon to death because “If you beat an animal, even a cat-monkey, to death with a lead pipe, your audience is no longer interested in your problems."
9. JURASSIC PARK (1993)
Director Steven Spielberg has a lot of successful films under his belt, but nothing has quite measured up to Jurassic Park (at least if we’re talking financials). With a $1.029 billion worldwide gross, the dino caper remains the highest earner of Spielberg’s career and one of only three pre-2000 films to pass the billion-dollar mark. (The other two are Titanic and Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace.) The film’s impressive box office haul isn’t the only thing that’s aged well; the effects, too, still look remarkably realistic, nearly a quarter-century later—the result of Spielberg insisting on the use of practical effects (including giant animatronic puppets) augmented by CGI.
10. SNOWPIERCER (2013)
Behind-the-scenes interference dogged the most recent film on this list, Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, which found itself at the mercy of Harvey “Scissorhands” Weinstein. Like Metropolis, Snowpiercer is a dystopian drama that centers heavily on class conflict. In the case of Snowpiercer, the remnants of humanity live on a train, with the inhabitants getting richer and richer the further toward the front of the train you go. The Weinstein Company wanted to cut 20 minutes from Snowpiercer for its North American release. Bong Joon-ho refused, and after two years a full version of Snowpiercer was eventually released … into just eight theaters. In the wake of overwhelming critical acclaim, the screen count was eventually upped to more than 350. The movie is currently being adapted into a television series for TNT.
In addition to these movies, you can also find some great gift ideas for sci-fi lovers by checking out our gift guide.
This article was originally published in 2017 and has been updated for 2022.