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Team Top Ten: Best Sci-Fi Films (Pre-1977)

Amir, welcoming you back to Team Top Ten! We are returning after a long hiatus with not one, but two top ten lists for April. In connection to our theme of the week, Artificial Intelligence on the big screen, we are here to celebrate science fiction cinema. As with the horror genre and to help ourselves a bit by narrowing down our options, we're cutting the list in two halves. Our dividing point is 1977, when two of the cinema's most enduring science fiction films were released: Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars ushering in an era of huge advances in popularity and visual effects technology. And yes, those are both science fiction films and your contrarian arguments will not be heard.

We were spoilt for choice for the second part of this poll, for the simple reason that far more science fiction films have been produced since 1977 than before it. Still, this first list is comprised of eleven films that have all become part of the canon and among the best in film history in any genre. Without further ado...

Team Experience Top Ten
Best Science Fictions Film Produced Before 1977...

=TIE 10. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

The film that brought us David Bowie, Movie Star is appropriately unusual, splashy, and hard to pin down. Bowie's angular, off-puttingly beautiful face and magnetic otherworldly presence are put to perfect use in Nicolas Roeg's film, where he plays an alien come to Earth in order to get water he can return to his drought-ravaged planet, only to be undone by various earthly vices. Bringing in an outsider to shine a light on society's faults and peculiarities is not a device that wants for use, but Roeg's deployment of it is memorable and complex. It's generally considered a cult classic, but it's more earnest and melancholy than that label suggests. You may find it enchanting or you may find it frustratingly oblique, but it will stick in your brain long after it ends.
Margaret de Larios 

=TIE 10. Godzilla (1954)

Godzilla should not work. It's a film that happened almost by accident without much planning, and you can tell from the campy dialogues, the endless references to Hollywood monster flicks and most of all from the "cartoony", "stagey" feel of the now-legendary climax in which the giant reptile wreaks havoc on a cardboard Tokyo...and yet the film works in ways that still today seem inexplicable, miraculous even. Perhaps because of how "fake" it looks, it became an even more potent, urgent indictment of the American nuclear bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as if to say: this is what you did to us, you stomped over us as if we were made out of paper. Its "cult film" legacy and undeniable entertainment value aside, it remains one of the most powerful anti-war films ever made, a call to acknowledging responsibility, a reminder that our every action ignites an equal reaction.
Jose Solis

9. Forbidden Planet (1956)

I could list a whole host of reasons why Forbidden Planet is one of the most important sci-fi films ever made: It's the first mainstream film to have a totally electronic score. It's the first full sci-fi feature produced by MGM. It introduced the world to the wonderful Robby the Robot, one of Hollywood's first robots that was a complete character with a personality. Robby, in addition to the film's sets and models of spaceship C-57D, were so perfect as to be re-used in numerous subsequent features and television shows. But as to what makes Forbidden Planet one of the best sci-fi films ever made? Co-star Anne Francis credits the film's success to the fact that from the first day of the shoot, everyone involved was told to take it seriously. And it shows. No matter how ridiculous the plot gets - and it does - Forbidden Planet feels more serious and more real than just about any other sci-fi film of its era. That it's also lots of fun can only be due to that mysterious alchemy that separates merely good films from truly great ones.
–Daniel Bayer


8. Planet of the Apes (1968)

An instant sensation when it first opened in the turbulent 1960s, when everything was in flux and the Vietnam war was raging, it's no accident that The Planet of the Apes is still with us today and pushing violent and environmental political buttons. Its screenplay is beautifully structured to begin with a trope so familiar "astronaut crash lands on a strange planet" that its shoulda-that-seen-coming ending, is one of cinema's greatest rug-pulling finales. One secret to its enduring appeal, long after technological advances in makeup and visual effects have rendered its once exciting makeup work awkward and limited, is surely to be found in its all ages all political stripes appeal. It paints its parable in very bold, very broad strokes, eyepopping and hooky enough for children (apes... who talk! and ride horses!), smart enough for adults, and alarmist and empathetic enough for conservatives and liberals alike.
-Nathaniel R


7. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

It’s telling that that one rarely thinks about Bride of Frankenstein as science fiction despite its main characters being scientists who spend much of the film’s brief running time rattling around laboratories tending to their deranged experiments. James Whale’s sequel, which expands on and tops his original in pretty much every way, is still a marvel in the ways it blends tones and smuggles in subtext. So while regarded by most as the iconic horror classic - and beloved as a riotous camp comedy by those in the know – Bride manages to cast a shadow over the whole of the sci-fi genre as well. Certainly no subsequent story of crazed scientific creation can avoid contending with Whale’s gothic freak show, just as all the fantastical creatures that followed are measured against the pathos of Karloff’s monster and his plaintive groans of “Friend?” as he lurches towards Elsa Lanchester’s Bride.
Michael Cusumano


6. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

I voted for Invasion of the Body Snatchers despite having a much dimmer memory of it than I do of the more intensely neurotic, differently paranoid 1978 version or the uneven but not-uninteresting 1993 remake by Abel Ferrara.  I know it's bad faith to vote for a movie I'm not even sure I've seen all the way through, although certain shots and patterns still stand out clearly, especially the heterogeneous lenses that sometimes simulate neutral reality and sometimes streamline the image into unnerving clarity or depthelessness.  At times, you know why the film has suddenly shifted in look; at others, you start to worry about what's coming, or what's really happening.  These impressions linger enough with me to warrant a vote, as do the many Cold War alien-invasion thrillers more generally, as does the durable currency of this particular storyline, in all its creative iterations and era-specific appropriations.
Nick Davis


5. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

“This is not another flying saucer scare,” we are told in the opening scene of the film. True to its word, what follows manages to be a keen meditation on another type of scare altogether. After a humanoid alien lands his saucer in Washington hoping to discuss Earth’s newly nuclear capabilities with all global chiefs of staff, we get a Cold War infused allegory about fear-mongering that is also, somehow a thinly-veiled Judeo-Christian parable. The Day the Earth Stood Still remains a classic of the genre not only because of its potent subtext, but also because of its recognizable imagery (giant robot Gort lasering off military guards), its memorable score (Bernard Herrmann’s sole Golden Globe nominated work) and, of course, its instantly iconic line, “Klaatu barada nikto!”
Manuel Betancourt


4. Solaris (1972)

Arriving just four years after 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris was never able to escape being compared (and contrasted) to the Stanley Kubrick picture. It's a shame, because this adaptation of Stanisław Lem's novel stands just fine on its own. In his third feature film, Tarkovsky explores humanity's existential mysteries - love, loss, grief, obsession - by sending man (Donatas Banionis) to a strange, far away world that offers an irresistible Faustian bargain (manifested in the form of his late wife, played by Natalya Bondarchuk) in an effort to communicate and understand what he himself cannot explain. It's cerebral stuff, for sure. But for the cosmic distances it spans, Solaris, through Banionis and Bondarchuk's haunting performances, remains rooted in emotion and, indeed, on Earth.
Sebastian Nebel


3. La Jetée (1962)

The best science fiction films are the ones that resonate emotionally; the films that unlock our imagination but grasp at something deeply internal; the ones that transcend our understanding of the world not by showing us what is beyond our physical, scientific comprehension, but by using those elements of science and fiction to arrive at worldly truths from new angles. Chris Marker’s reflection on love, grief and mortality in this photo essay is a case in point. An operatic, minimalist masterpiece, La Jetée proves that one need not have extensive visual effects, hell, even so much as simple movement, to produce outstanding science fiction cinema. In the hands of a visionary filmmaker like Marker, a simple concept – “Only in retrospect do memories become memorable by the scars they leave” – can be shaped into a film that is at once delicate and challenging, ground-breaking and heartbreaking.
-Amir Soltani 


2. Metropolis (1927)

No film has cast such a long shadow over a single genre as Metropolis did for science-fiction. The design of Fritz Lang's futuristic political fable – let's nod our heads to the art directors, Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut, and Karl Vollbrecht, for without them this movie would be nothing – is plainly echoed in everything from C-3PO in Star Wars to the gothic Gotham of Tim Burton's Batman to fantastic worlds yet unimagined. It's a credit to the superlative organic ingenuity of the original that, 90 years of imitators later, it still feels totally unique and spectacular, a triumph of Expressionist geometry and Art Deco glitz alike. Like many a later popcorn epic, it's not without its hokey limitations as a story (it shouts its themes, it has concepts instead of characters), but its combination of immaculate world-building and feverish thriller plotting are as enthralling as anything the genre has produced since.
Tim Brayton


1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Covering the entire span of human history from savannah apes inventing tools all the way to a civilization of space travelers, the film's ambition can't be faulted, even if its cryptic final 20 minutes have earned it generations of criticism. But it's just as easy to say that the film's obscurantism is part of its attempt to depict humanity transforming into something beyond human understanding, the boldest idea that can be explored in speculative fiction. Of course, 2001 presents a laundry list of classical sci-fi tropes beyond The Big One: the difficulty (and boredom) of space travel, what happens when we create an artificial intelligence so advanced that it can go crazy, where  human beings fit in a future where we've made ourselves redundant. Add to that its revolutionary visual effects, and the result is the most densely packed and artistically triumphant work of cinematic sci-fi ever made.
Tim Brayton

We'd love to hear your thoughts on these 11 classics. Are you a Robbie the Robot kind of guy or do you prefer the Body Snatchers? Apes or False Marias? Kubrick or Tarkovsky? Any others you feel should have found a place on this list?

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Reader Comments (30)

Nothing from Ed Wood?

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Those top 4 films are pretty much the best sci-fi films ever made before 1977 but I think they're the standards of that genre.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

i know it's regarded as a musical but the aliens from the planet transsexual in the galaxy of transylvania in the rocky horror picture show surely count

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterpar

La Jetee is arguabky the best short ever made, and it'd be a great movie for Hit me with your best shot, since you can find it everywhere, even youtube.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Excellent list you have put together. Personally, I prefer the '78 Body Snatchers, but since that doesn't qualify, the original fits nicely. The Fly is another movie to consider.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterWendell

par - well, *I* voted for it.

henry - lol. Best, not "most infamous"

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

One qualifier - "Godzilla" in the original version, not the one released in the United States with Raymond Burr spliced in.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCarl

Be curious to know if anyone had seen or voted for THX-1138

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

Par - I counted Rocky Horror as a sci-fi, no question, it simply got nudged off my ballot, which looked like this:

1. Metropolis
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey
3. Bride of Frankenstein
4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
5. Solaris
6. A Trip to the Moon
7. The Day the Earth Stood Still
8. La Jetee
9. A Clockwork Orange
10. Alphaville

I was also sorry I couldn't find room for Sleeper, Seconds or Westworld. I agreed with Nathaniel that Plan 9 is a film for a different list.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

michael - I voted for Westworld due to my Yul Brynner fetish. but ARGH. I forgot about A Trip to the Moon which I should've had on my list.

wendell - the fly is another one, like body snatchers that is eligible for both lists since it has different version for different eras.

ryan -- i have seen it but didn't vote for it - i remember it as being stultifyingly dull but perhaps I was too young for it when i saw it (very young... saw it in the throws of star wars pleasure in the early 80s I think?)

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

par - I also voted for Rocky Horror! It was 10th on my list, which looked like this:

1. Metropolis
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey
3. Forbidden Planet
4. Westworld
5. The Day The Earth Stood Still
6. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
7. Godzilla
8. Fantastic Planet
9. The Nutty Professor
10. The Rocky Horror Picture Show

With apologies to Alphaville, Planet of the Apes (which I somehow forgot!), and A Trip to the Moon.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

I'm very surprised--although not necessarily disappointed--that A Clockwork Orange didn't make the list. I was expecting to see it in the top 3 or 4.

Really good list. I'd just like to give a quick shout-out to The Incredible Shrinking Man, my personal favorite '50s sci-fi film.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEdwin

Every time Team Experience does one of these lists I get something new for my Netflix list. Thanks for pulling this together! :)

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Excellent list. I wish it had included John Frankenheimer's and Rock Hudson's Seconds, but there's nothing on the list I'd bounce to give it a place.

The War of the Worlds also coulda been a contender. We won't discuss Soylent Green,

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterbcarter3

Ryan, THX 1138 made my Top Ten, which looked like this:

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
2. Metropolis
3. Solaris
4. La jetée
5. THX 1138
6. Welt am Draht
7. Planet of the Apes
8. Forbidden Planet
9. The Day the Earth Caught Fire
10. The Time Machine

April 22, 2015 | Registered CommenterSebastian Nebel

I suspect THX-1138 wouldn't have been interesting for youngsters, but it has gotten some critical re-evaluation in recent years.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

Incredible list. So happy to see Solaris and Hidden Planet ranking here, but La Jetée is easily my choice for best of the best. I know that 2001 has a MASSIVE fanbase, but I don't LOVE it like so many do. I really, really like it...but that's about all.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

My favorite of these is easily Planet of the Apes. I was obsessed as a kid. I loved the entire series, and I consider Escape From the Planet of the Apes to be nearly as great as the first film.

I have never seen 2001 all the way through; I consider it quite daunting. But I'm sure the experience in the theater is much different than DVD, for better or worse.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Eyes Without a Face is another strong candidate for such a list. Beautiful and disturbing in equal measure, and driven entirely by then-experimental science.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

A Clockwork Orange was in the running, as I recall, even though it didn't make the top ten. I didn't vote because I hadn't seen enough of the films, but if I had, it would definitely be in my top 10.

That said, this is an excellent list that caught all the candidates I most want to see. And I'm in total agreement with #1 and #2.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

Another fine 50' movie is THEM! The one with the giant ants in the dessert and the catatonic little girl.
no seriously, it's really quite good.
It would at least be a candidate for Top 20.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRob

brookesboy- Certainly for better!

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

Yes, the original Solaris was best. Also a Japanese 'anthology' film--Kwaidan ? if this is the correct
spelling. Although I remember the colors in the young emperor's posse as most impressive.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlen Risdon

I've always wondered why is Solaris considered sci-fi and other movies in which ghosts of girlfriends past show up , aren't. I consider it one of the best movies in general, not only sci-fi.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteradelutza

I'm a major sci-fi movie fan and few classics are missing from your list "Them" and "The Thing"

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Cool list, but I would have added War of the Worlds (53) and The Thing From Another World (51).

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

LA JETEE would have been my no. 1 if I'd gotten my shit together and remembered to actually submit a list. I have been so scattershot lately.

Anyway, great list. Can't really argue with any of them other than wishing it could be a top 20 so that ROCKY HORROR and A TRIP TO THE MOON and so on could have found a place.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Rob & Jaragon- Them! would have been my #11, if we'd gotten to have 11. But between that and Godzilla, I didn't want to overload on giant radioactive monsters metaphorically evoking science run amok in films from 1954.

April 22, 2015 | Registered CommenterTim Brayton

Sleeper! I LOVE that movie.

April 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

I really don't think "The Bride of Frankenstein" belongs on the list- yes it's a cinematic masterpiece not just a classic horror movie but it's not sci-fi from the thirties I would have picked the still twisted " Island of the Lost Souls" or "The Invisible Man" which both deal with mad scientist .

April 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

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