Top 10 Science Fiction/Fantasy Films
As a general rule, I don’t like to list anything as my favorite or rank them from one to ten. I prefer to have tiers (levels) that I would include as my best. This system allows me to consider several films that are very different on equal footing. Each of them has left an impression on the genre that has made them unforgettable. Considering they span eight decades of film-making, they are quite remarkable. I also included some TV Science Fiction. I felt that although this list is about movies, it’s also about the genre of science fiction /fantasy. Everything in this top level is to me the best. Every one of them has a reason and a meaning for being on this list. They are in no particular order:
THE LORD OF THE RINGS (all 3 films, as one) – Peter Jackson’s brilliant homage to Tolkien’s fantasy. It wasn’t just the screen adaptation that was brilliant, but it showed his deep respect, passion and reverence for the original book. An unforgettable score, set and costume designs that literally brought the feel of the book directly to the screen. Only a devoted fan could have accomplished such a huge undertaking. Jackson found the balance between those who never read the books, with those who had. He identified specific memorable scenes from the original material, then accurately reconstructed them onto the screen, connecting them like pearls on a string, while adapting the story to fit the medium. My only regret was it didn’t win the twelfth Oscar to make it the most oscared film in motion picture history, and yet all three films did win a total of 17 Oscars which puts it in a category all its own.
KING KONG (1933) – It’s the original Kong. It’s the one film that most science fiction directors, special effects and visual artists consider the seminal film, the template for all epic films of its kind that were to come. It defined the genre of what was to become the fantasy film. It’s the great Kong, the eighth wonder of the world. It put the newly built Empire State building onto the cinematic map as one of the most important structures ever built. It’s also the retelling of the Beauty and the Beast legend that has captivated audiences and readers since it was written.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) – The only science fiction film that I know that featured no alien technology. It could be classified as a mystery, a social satire on a communist takeover of a free society in the mid-fifties. But it’s that look of horror and that drop of dirty cave water dripping from the tip of Kevin McCarthy’s nose as he looks into Becky’s (Dana Wynter) eyes in the cave scene as he realizes that she has become a pod person that sealed the picture as one of my top ten favorites. It also made me look twice at Brussel Sprouts before I would eat it. Filmed in just 2 weeks in stark black and white, with memorable screams by Carolyn Jones (Morticia Adams from the TV show, The Addams Family). If anyone hasn’t seen the film, they should go out and rent or buy it.
FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) – A solid piece of outstanding science fiction, as a loose reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Tempest. Walter Pigdeon as a philologist studying an ancient, extinct society; Leslie Nielsen as the Captain of the space craft, with a backdrop of cheesy set and costume designs which often reminds me that it’s the progenitor of Classic Star Trek that would come ten years later. And of course, Robbie the Robot, a miniature of which has sat on my desk for years. The eerie sound effects are astounding and worthy of a classic that has stood for five decades as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. No film is more deserving of being considered on any top ten list as this one. Its message is timeless, and its psychological implications of “monsters from the Id” still relevant to contemporary human evolution.
ALIENS – This is the movie that redefined the meaning of hero, and expanded it to include women. Sigourney Weaver shines in this “thumpa-thumpa” heart pounding thriller that was also the first performance by any actor to receive an academy award nomination, as best actress, for a science fiction role. Although Aliens is the film to be on this list, Alien deserves a place as part of the film’s back-story. Every sequence of events lead the audience down a path of adrenaline-filled danger as Weaver is continually faced with confrontation that at the very end defines the meaning of what heroism is: heroism isn’t overcoming one’s fear to act, but acting in spite of one’s fear. This is the reason it’s on my list.
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) – “Gort, klaatu barata nicto” says Patricia Neal to the robot, and although some may see this film as dated, with not so hot special effects, it’s the message of the film that places it on my top ten list. A film relevant to its time. One that explores the consequences of nuclear arms proliferation by a world that has no clue of its effects on others. It suggests that we aren’t alone, and it draws our attention to possibilities of life from other parts of the galaxy. It reminds us that with all scientific advancements comes recognition that we are responsible for how those achievements are used, constructively and destructively.
FANTASIA (1940) – It belongs on my list because it was a brilliant concept to create visual interpretations (cartoons), and play them to classical music. Imagine, this was created in 1940 before computer technology was even conceived. Each sequence is as perfect, for adults as well as children. Its instructive orchestral sequences explains different kinds of music structures as it illustrates various ways music tells a story.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946) – Jean Cocteau’s French version of the classic fairy tale. Done in black and white, I still remember the arms jutting out of the walls holding the candelabras and the surrealistic ambiance the movie created. It redefined the love story and emphasized the importance of measuring love and beauty by the quality of one’s heart rather than by what one sees on the outside. It should remind anyone making lists of their top films, not to forget foreign language films. There are so many out there that are deserving of credit. I had to include at least one. This was the one that I choose .
THE TIME MACHINE (1960) – Imagine being able to travel through time. Who hasn’t had that fantasy? A worthy score, appropriately set at the turn of the century as was envisioned by H.G. Wells, with thought-provoking themes of how our society may develop in the future. Excellent special effects. I would love to have a miniature version of the actual time machine on my desk right next to my miniature of Robbie the robot, from forbidden planet, and the robot miniature from the TV series “Lost in Space” (Danger, Will Robinson). Anyone who knows where I can find one, let me know, please.
PLANET OF THE APES (1968) – Charlton Heston’s claim to Sci- Fi glory, a film that was a social satire. It was brilliantly written, well acted, but it was the very last scene as Heston rides on the beach when he discovers the truth of where his destiny truly was that made the film worthy of my top 10 list.
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH> (1960) – I liked the journey, the adventure, and Jules Verne. The whole idea of going inward, searching to the center of the earth, rather than outward toward space was almost an allegory for a search into ones own nature. What’s the point of searching outward unless you know where and who you are to begin with?
THE TWILIGHT ZONE – Although many would argue that the Twilight Zone (TV series) was not Sci-Fi, it went beyond Sci-Fi and fantasy. Anything as imaginative as what was presented weekly for our consideration, is in my mind within this category, and deserves recognition as one of the truly significant anthology series of all time. It focused so much of its attention on the IRONIC TWIST, the unexpected. It expanded the boundaries of our imagination and took us on a journey that went into other dimensions of thought and reality. I added it to this list because it belongs here.
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957) – An amazing survival story in the spirit of another great film, Alien, this adaptation chronicles an extraordinary journey of transformation and discovery that begins when Scott Carey played by Grant Williams is exposed to a strange mist while vacationing on a boating trip. He then begins to shrink, inch by inch, without explanation. Scott’s narration of his rapidly changing world is remarkable as he becomes so small that he is forced to live in a doll house. This is where the real story of his survival begins, as he is threatened by his cat, almost eaten, and winds up trapped in the basement of his house, He is on his own, and his continued existence depends on his ability to find food, shelter, while avoiding that ONE predator, so feared that you could almost hear the pounding of his heart as he so eloquently narrates his upcoming fight, strategy and ultimate outcome of this life-or-death struggle. His main rival, a spider, pursues him as prey as he is forced to face his uncertain future and prepare for the final battle of his life using his ingenuity – an empty matchbox for shelter – and a sewing needle as his only weapon to fight this terrifying creature. The special effects are astounding for that – or any – era, but it is Williams’ acting and narration (as Scott) that proved to be a landmark achievement. It is vivid, real and passionate, as he meticulously prepares the needle, shares with the audience his despair, especially of being abandoned in a world that no one has ever experienced before, with no possibility of help, and being totally unprepared for staying alive. As he describes his fears, he realizes his survival rests squarely on the insight that he must aggressively go on the offensive. It’s a compelling and visceral story, cutting away all barriers of society, culture, education, knowledge and stripping him down to bare instincts and ingenuity.The final battle with the spider and his victory gives Scott the strength to overcome his greatest fears and self-doubts, accept his reality and adapt to whatever he may face as he continues to shrink, so small that he is now able to climb through the window screen and go forth into an unknown world, confident and secure that his existence is just as important now as it was before his transformation began. This is a beautifully done film.
Star Trek (2009) – JJ Abrams adaptation of Star Trek is dazzling, a brilliant homage inspired by the sixties television classic created by Gene Roddenberry with a sharp script containing the right balance between drama, humor and fast moving action evoking images of the original series without getting sentimental. The special effects are outstanding with colorful set designs, just the right amount of odd looking aliens in cameo appearances and a score that integrates hints of the old with new themes. The ensemble cast channel the spirit of the original crew of the forty-four year old saga, beaming generations back to a new beginning of an alternate reality redefining events and relationships while remaining faithful to the lore of Roddenberry’s vision. It is a fresh look at Star Trek, emotionally riveting from the first scene to the last capturing the attention of those who grew up with the franchise and those that did not. Then there is the highly anticipated appearance of Leonard Nimoy as Ambassador Spock last seen eighteen years earlier on Romulus, left there by Captain Picard in the next generation’s two part fifth season character study of Mr. Spock, Unification I and II (1991). As always, his struggle to settle the conflict between his human and Vulcan nature is part of the plot as he continues to be treated as an outsider on both worlds. This is the reason he has become a cult figure, now serving as a bridge between the original time line and the new star trek universe. An exploding star, red matter reminiscent of The Blob (1958) and a black hole that makes it possible for the Ambassador, now quite old even for a Vulcan to return to the time before the star ship enterprise became the flagship of the federation. Finally, at the film’s climax Spock Prime encounters his younger self played by Zachary Quinto, sharing some of what he has learned over the course of his long distinguished career in star-fleet, having finally found peace with his humanity. This is one of the finest films of 2009, the most successful of all the star trek installments, and one of the best science fiction films in the last 40 years.
Classic STAR TREK & THE NEXT GENERATION (TNG) – Both series deserve to be on this list for different reasons: Classic Trek for breaking so many barriers during the sixties, and creating some of the most memorable characters in Sci-Fi history. TNG, which will be illustrated in its own essay which will be posted, for your consideration at some later date.
I am sure I have forgotten some that I will agree also belong on the list of top ten, which, in my case is more than 10. Which of these would be placed on your list?