Thursday, November 6, 2014

10 Classic Science Fiction Movies Every Geek Should Know

Recently I gave a talk at Rocket City NerdCon about classic science fiction movies, with an emphasis on some of the essential classics that every fan should see. Here, for those of you who didn't make it to the panel, is the list from the talk. Getting it down to just ten movies proved more or less impossible, as you'll see from the way I cheated on #3 and #6! I also talked about some bonus picks that might not be the best sci-fi movies ever made, but they certainly are memorable and fun. Have you seen all of these movies? What classic sci-fi films are your favorites?

1) A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902) – Georges Melies, France

The silent that helped to start it all; you can't escape the influence of Melies, especially that grimacing moon with the rocket in his eye.

2) METROPOLIS (1927) – Fritz Lang, Germany

Lang eventually made his way to Hollywood, where he made several excellent noir films, but his sci-fi silent gave us an early taste of dystopia and robotic doppelgangers. Among the modern artists influenced by Lang's film are musician Janelle Monae, whose debut album was called Metropolis and focused on the adventures of an android heroine named Cindi Mayweather. Her later albums, The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, have continued to explore the themes set forth by Lang's work and related sci-fi classics like Blade Runner.

3) FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) – James Whale, US

Mary Shelley helped to establish one of the enduring themes of science fiction, that of the scientist who goes too far, with her 1818 novel, and James Whale provided the iconic cinematic adaptation with Boris Karloff as the shuffling monster. The sequel also offers us the iconic image of the Bride, played with hissing perfection by Elsa Lanchester (who also plays Mary Shelley herself in the film's framing scenes).

4) THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) – Robert Wise, US

Not all aliens come to conquer us, as Klaatu (Michael Rennie) proves in this important picture from the beginning of the 1950s golden age of sci-fi. While his robot underling strikes fear, Klaatu himself is a gentle visitor who even attracts the romantic interest of a lovely earthling woman (Patricia Neal).

5) THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) – Christian Nyby, US (uncredited help from producer Howard Hawks)

There have been numerous Thing remakes, but the original started it all, with James Arness weirdly cast as the menacing monster.

6) THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) – Eugene Lourié, US and GOJIRA (1954) – Ishiro Honda, Japan

Kaiju movies made their debut in the 1950s; Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion work brought the prehistoric Beast to life a year before Ishiro Honda unleashed Godzilla, but both helped to usher in a new age of rampaging monsters meting out some karmic payback on mankind. 

7) CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) – Jack Arnold, US

The last of the great Universal monsters to arrive on the scene, the Creature is a distinctly sci-fi being, basically a kaiju on a much smaller scale (and with an eye for the ladies). Can we blame him for fancying Julie Adams? Of course not. 

8) FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) – Fred M. Wilcox, US

Shakespeare goes sci-fi in this influential tale of a lone scientist and his daughter living on an alien world, where a mysterious creature kills everyone else. Leslie Nielsen plays the straight romantic lead, while Robby the Robot makes his first appearance. 

9) INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) – Don Siegel, US

Communist paranoia gets freaky when alien doubles start taking over a town. Like The Thing, Invasion spawned numerous remakes, including the 1978 version with Donald Sutherland, but it's hard to beat Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter in the original.

10) THE FLY (1958) – Kurt Neumann, US

Another classic with a significant remake, the original version of The Fly has a fabulously wild ending, but most of the story is really about the doomed love of a married couple and the way in which scientific ambition destroys their lives. Vincent Price, so often the monster, this time plays the scientist's brother, who has to figure out why his sister-in-law killed the man she loved.

BONUS PICKS

20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) - Richard Fleischer, US
For steampunk fans, this Disney live-action adventure is a must. Kirk Douglas, James Mason, and Peter Lorre add to the fun.

THEM! (1954) - Gordon Douglas, US
Giant ants once again prove that atomic testing is bad news. Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness, and Fess Parker all make memorable appearances, but the ants are really the stars.

THE BLOB (1958) - Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr., and Russell S. Doughten, Jr., US
Stranger even than middle-aged Steve McQueen as a high school student is the Blob itself, but Burt Bacharach's swinging theme makes a weird B-picture a priceless delight.

ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES (1959) - Bernard L. Kowalski, US
Atomic era horror so bad it’s great! This one is just for fans of bad 50s sci-fi. Get the popcorn and settle in for some truly awful cliches and bad monster costumes.

DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1920, 1931, and 1941) - Various directors
Multiple takes on Robert Louis Stevenson's story show more of the dark side of science. One of the great lessons of the sci-fi movie is: Never use yourself as a guinea pig. Sadly, neither Dr. Jekyll nor any of his fellow scientists ever seem to learn.

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) - Erle C. Kenton, US
H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau gets a stylish horror treatment in this gem starring Charles Laughton as the inhumane scientist who wants to transform animals into men. 

ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (1964) - Byron Haskin, US
The title pretty much says it all, right? Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin star, but the star you'll remember is Adam West. This is a great example of the "astronaut in peril" genre most recently embodied by Gravity (2013).