Its all about The Last Jedi right now but there are plenty of science fiction movies that never get that kind of attention. Many of these sci-fi movies have been overlooked in favor of newer blockbusters with huge special effects budgets. However, two very different movies, Gattaca and Battle: Los Angeles are both relatively small budget movies that put ideas, character and story ahead of pure spectacle. Spectacle can be an important part of sci-fi movies, but if there is no deeper foundation than the result can be an empty one. Many people say they “don’t get” sci-fi movies, but if you give these underrated ones a chance you may gain a new respect for an often misunderstood genre.
15. The Hand of God
“The Hand of God” was the final episode of the original television series Battlestar Galactica after an all too brief run. The story was conceived a series of television movies with religious overtones. The two hour pilot episode had a run in theaters. This 1978 series has been very unfavorable compared with the reboot from 2004-2009. Critics make some valid points such as the reboot takes a more complex approach to the material, but the new episodes drain most of the fun out of the story. Good special effects, good writing and acting really can’t save it from being drab and depressing. The original show was light and a little campy, but because its fun people will watch it and you should too.
14. Conspiracy One
Conspiracy theories alleging that NASA faked the 1969 moon landing have existed for decades. The 1970’s was a time when the public turned on their government – no longer trusting them to tell them the truth, so 1977 was a perfect time to release Capricorn One. This movie unravels a conspiracy about NASA faking a Mars landing, but the similarities to the moon landing conspiracies are obvious. The competent cast includes Elliot Gould, James Brolin and Sam Waterson. O.J. Simpson was popular at the time so he has a small role. While Capricorn One will never be confused with a great movie, it is an entertaining and watchable movie that deserves a look or even a second look.
13. Apes Rebooting Apes
Our long fascination with those damned dirty apes began when Pierre Boulle’s novel was made into a blockbuster movie in 1968. The commercial and critical success of The Planet of the Apes spawned three sequels, but Tim Burton’s 2001 reboot didn’t go anywhere. But then a fresh reboot was launched in 2011 called Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This one was successful enough to warrant two sequels, but these darker movies aren’t classics like the originals. However, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an effective reimagining of the story and very much worth watching. The director announced he intended there to be a fourth installment of the reboot, but would be dependent on the box-office performance of the third installment.
12. An Alternate Generation
Riffing off the moon landing conspiracies and other the television mini series Ascension presents the premise that the U.S. government secretly built and launched a generation ship to a distant star system in the 1960s. Neither the public nor the crew and passengers are aware of the truth behind this mission. The ship, it turns out, never left Earth and is being used for a genetic experiment in an attempt to create advanced human specimens. The series ends on a somewhat ambiguous note and fans have been clamoring for follow-up episodes since Ascension’s release in 2014. This series offered a complex drama with twists and surprises that make it worth watching.
11. The Year We make Contact
2010: The Year We Make Contact had the almost impossible task of being a follow up to the 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Released in 1984, 2010 did ok at the box-office, but critics were not very kind. In the 16 years since 2001 had become both a classic and a cult hit a nearly legendary status among science fiction fans. Although arguably 2010 improved upon a weakness of the first film: the astronauts were boring, cardboard characters the audience didn’t really care about. Roy Scheider’s American astronaut and the earthy Russian cosmonauts are a welcome improvement over the stoic characters in 2001 who are eclipsed by HAL and the monolith. 2010 is not a timeless classic, but it is a solid movie worth your time.
10. An Inexorable Force
When Disney released The Blackhole in 1979 it seemed like a good bet on paper. The movie boasted an accomplished cast, a classic story with shades of The Forbidden Planet, Moby Dick and Star Wars and decent special effects. Unfortunately for Disney, movies aren’t made on paper and the big budget sci-fi movie got sucked into a financial blackhole. However, it is not a bad movie. It is uneven and flawed with a tone that alternates between comic and dark. The cast plays it straight and holds up the film under its own weight which is ponderous instead of streamlined. It is a cargo ship, not an X-Wing fighter, but we need cargo ships too. The circle was complete when Disney purchased Lucasfilm for $4 billion dollars in 2012.
9. They Live Among Us
Good science fiction deals with ideas not just cool space ships and weird looking aliens. Alien Nation was released in 1988 and it tried to say somethings about illegal immigration, the “other” and how these issues effect the people and places that confront them. That it didn’t say what it wanted to say very effectively is a shame, but it should get points for trying. The movie is most effective as a buddy cop picture with the pair played by James Caan and Mandy Patinkin who trade cultural stereotypes and become friends. The movie was popular enough to get adapted for television in the 1990s where it had some success. There has been talk recently of attempts to reboot the movie, but hollywood should probably leave well enough alone.
8. Welcome to Earth
War of the Worlds, released in 1956, is true classic of the science fiction genre. Spielberg’s remake in 2005 encountered a mixed reaction and will not enjoy classic status. Although many critics panned the 1996 Independence Day it was a legitimate summer blockbuster. it shamelessly stole from War of the Worlds and any number of disaster movies, but delivered a big spectacle with a smile that left audiences cheering for the heroes when they brought down the alien ships. The movie has been criticized for a supposedly silly plot – you either accept that aliens can invade the earth or you don’t. If you do accept it you can have a lot of fun with the result. The recent sequel was bigger and louder, but certainly not better – stick to the original.
7. Where We’ve All Gone Before
In Star Trek: First Contact the hated enemy known as the Borg have boarded the Enterprise and killed or assimilated many of the crew. The smart decision would be to abandon ship, but Picard, clouded with hatred for the enemy intends to make the Borg pay. The scene where he explains to a newcomer that it is past time someone took a stand against the Borg is poignant. This is one of the best scenes in the Star Trek movies and helps make First Contact the stand out entry of the Next Generation movies. There are also fun scenes involving the creator of warp drive on earth, Zefram Cochran that Star Trek fans will cherish. However, it is a solid action movie that movie goers who aren’t fans can still enjoy.
6. Want to go for a Ride?
Are we alone in the universe? It is a question that has stimulated Humanities’ imagination for thousands of years. Carl Sagan’s novel adapted to the big screen in 1997 seems to answer this question in the affirmative. I use the word “seems” because the public is left with a very different impression of the events surrounding the discovery of a signal from space than the people in the know. The people in the know are mostly either scientists or government officials groups with very different agendas. Politics and religion cloud the discovery, but the protagonist, played by Jodie Foster, takes a journey through a worm and finds something. or does she? The films’ clever ending is one of the main reasons it is a must watch.
5. Talk to the Hand
The original The Terminator, released in 1984, was an unexpected box office smash that proved James Cameron was a talented movie maker. It also provided Arnold Schwarzenegger with a break out role. Terminator: Rise of the Machines, released in 2003, was the second and often overlooked sequel. The novelty introduced in this movie is the attractive female cyborg referred to as a Terminatrix. Arnold reprises his role as reprogrammed Terminator whose job it is to protect humans from the SkyNet’s assassins. The original is a sci-fi classic the second one was a worthy successor, but overrated. Rise of the Machines went forward with an aging Schwarzenegger and without Cameron at the helm, but succeeded in making a watchable movie anyway.
4. Hate Leads to Suffering
Fans and fanboys will debate the merits of the Star Wars prequel trilogy until the end of time or at least until Disney screws things up. In the mean time Star Wars fans and movie fans in general should give Episode I: The Phantom Menace a fresh look without the childhood baggage that many fans brought to it in 1999. As the opening chapter of a nine part saga it must take some screen time to set up characters, themes and events, but even with this burden Mr. Lucas makes a rousing adventure with much more thrills and action than you can find in the much beloved Episode IV: A New Hope. The original deserves to be beloved, but The Phantom Menace deserves a fair assessment not clouded by fear.
3. Who Goes There?
Based on a popular short story called “Who Goes There?” The Thing From Another World is an entertaining, scary and fun science fiction movie exactly unlike the kind of movies Hollywood mostly makes today. Although there have been two subsequent remakes, one by John Carpenter, which are supposedly truer to the source material, neither can compete with the 1951 version for sheer watchability. Perhaps for many the fact that it is black and white and the Cold war era seems so dated now has turned off a generation of would be fans. Don’t be put off by these points, get a copy and keep watching the skies!
2. To Chew Bubble Gum
Some detractors of the 1988 They Live argue that it takes itself too seriously in its attempts at social satire. Perhaps. But even if it does there is still plenty of sci-fi goodness to recommend it. The movie has taken on a bit of a cult status, which is unfortunate, because many people associate this label with simply being weird or a cover for low quality. They Live, is weird and seemingly low budget, but this is not the same as low quality. Roddy Piper is well cast as the drifter who gains possession of a pair of sunglasses that reveal an insidious alien conspiracy. “I’m here to kick ass and chew bubble gum is one of the great lines of 1980s action, sci-fi movies. It’s a little goofy, but goofy can be good thing and its message of mindless consumerism and consumption is even more true today than it was in 1988.
1. Only the Strong Succeed
One of the characters in the 1997 Gattaca recalls childhood competitions with his brother, a supposedly inferior genetic specimen who was somehow able to best him in swimming. When asked how he did it Ethan Hawke’s character explained, “I never saved anything for the swim back.” This line is at once inspiring and heart breaking. Gattaca shows us a not too distant future where one’s genetic profile is literally one’s destiny. That is unless you are willing to subvert society and pass yourself off as a valid even though your genes tell a different story. The movie convincingly makes the case that we can rise above our limitations and achieve great things – if you want it to make that case. Interestingly, you could also come away thinking that biology is destiny unless you cheat it and show a fraudulent self to the world. Perhaps it is this ambiguity that turns some people off, but either way you see it it is worth seeing.