Greetings, Manic Fans. Les here to ponder the ripple effects of milestone science fiction films. Every now and then, a film comes out that challenges the envelope, so to speak, and changes something profound. It can come in the form of advancing special effects technologies, concepts of realities, advancing makeup applications or pushing the boundaries of what we thought we knew. And so, I’d like to present for you the top 12 Science Fiction films that took the craft to the next level. Why 12?  Because I like to go one step beyond one step beyond.  These aren’t ranked, they’re done chronologically.


Warning:  Some spoilers and ground breaking science fiction ahead…


#1.  Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”(1927)


I’m starting at the beginning, my friends. This masterpiece in black and white is arguably the first full-length science fiction film(“A Trip to the Moon” is a short). It also went on to influence a lot of science fiction films that followed it through the decades(“Blade Runner” was clearly influenced by it). For 1927, the art design and special effects are amazing, and the story about 2 halves of a dystopian future society is quite compelling.


#2.  “The Day The Earth Stood Still”(1951)


While this film is, at its heart, a commentary on the US/USSR Cold War of the 1950’s, it’s message about galactic peace is timely in any era. It’s also one of the finest uses of film “Noir” to really give it a unique look and atmosphere in black and white. Michael Rennie, as alien Klaatu is mesmerizing and Lock Martin, as the 9‘tall robot, Gort, is intimidating and all kinds of awesome. I’m also fairly certain this was the first film to use an electro-theremin in the soundtrack and it’s really eerie.


#3.  “Forbidden Planet”(1956)


Based on William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Forbidden Planet was the first science fiction film to really be given the full studio treatment. This wasn’t slap-dash painted styrofoam and rubber masks(as was normal for science fiction films of this time), but full sets, full-scale props and a design department that really did it’s research to build the locations and devices used to tell this story(Looking at it, you can see how Television’s Star Trek TOS was influenced by it). It was, also one of the first science fiction films where the visiting Flying Saucer was Mankind exploring another world(as opposed to aliens coming to Earth in their Flying Saucers). Additionally, Forbidden Planet introduced the first robot character(Robby)that not only obeyed Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics, but looked plausible as a design-in other words, he looked like he really worked and wasn’t just a man in a suit. You’ll also be amazed at how good Leslie Nielsen is at dramatic acting portraying Commander JJ Adams.


#4.  “2001: A Space Odyssey”(1965)


Here’s a brilliant look at what our space age society might’ve been like if the Moon Missions had continued to be fully funded and advanced from 1969-2001. It’s also a fascinating story about a mysterious black monolith that shows up throughout Mankind’s history…almost testing us as we evolve). It explores other possibilities of existence and intelligence-both organic and synthetic(HAL-9000). And, for my money, this film has the best special effects ever done in a science fiction film. I’m serious! Using models and bluescreen techniques, they are absolutely flawless without evidence of matte boxes or fuzzy shadows around the ships. The moon landing scenes are beautiful and the Discovery mission to Jupiter really conveys the distance and solitude of space. While many modern filmgoers won’t appreciate the long runtime and gradual set up of the story, the payoff at the end is worth your time. This is an intellectual’s science fiction film.


#5.  “Planet of the Apes”(1968)


This film won a special technical achievement Academy Award for it’s makeup that transformed actors into evolved apes who could convey emotions and talk convincingly. The film is also a brilliant commentary on governmental/religious control over a society and how far it’s willing to go to protect its power at the expense of the truth. Having humanity moved down the food chain under their ape masters was also a brilliant way to make a statement about how we treat our experimental/zoo/circus animals.  The film also has, hands down, one of the greatest twist endings ever seen. Charlton Heston is magnificent in this movie.


#6.  “Star Wars”(1977)


Before “Episode IV: A New Hope,” this film was plain “Star Wars.” and it spawned one of the most influential franchises in science fiction history. It also changed how films are made with technical advancements in Special/Sound Effects and marketing(Merchandising(Mel Brooks voice)). Star Wars was the first science fiction “blockbuster” and really ushered in a new age of science fiction where the worlds were “lived in, dirty and breaking down,” as opposed to most earlier films where the future was clean, sterile and utopian.


#7.  “Blade Runner”(1982)


Ridley Scott’s cult classic about the future(that’s not so far ahead OR far-fetched anymore) really stopped to ponder what it means to be alive and whether artificial intelligence could feel real emotions and have real desires. With incredible sets, designs, wardrobe, props and effects by wizard Douglas Trumbull(Who also worked on “2001: A Space Odyssey”), this film set the new standard for cities of the future(Coruscant in the Star Wars prequels borrowed heavily from it, for instance…so did “The Fifth Element,” which was practically an homage, but I digress…). It also effectively showed the terror of having artificial humans(Simulants) that couldn’t be distinguished from real humans without an elaborate mechanical/psychological test 2 decades before the new “Battlestar Galactica”(2004) was dreamt up.


#8.  “The Last Starfighter”(1984)


Every CGI effect film in science fiction owes its existence to this film that first used a computer to do all its special effects with photo-realistic results(TRON was the first to use CGI to create environments and vehicles, but it used a lot of traditional effects in addition to it, and the CGI was severely limited, so wasn’t photo-realistic). The story is great too. Any arcade gamer will love the concept where if you got good at a game, you could be drafted into an actual starfleet of fighters to do the game for real on another planet. It’s, arguably, the best B-film in science fiction for how well designed and executed it is. It’s also a lot of fun to watch.


#9.  “Back to the Future”(1985)


With respects to George Pal, James Cameron, Leonard Nimoy and HG Wells, this is the best time travel film ever made IMHO. Exploring the concepts of time paradoxes and accidents that could erase one’s own existence, the heart of the film is in pondering a simple concept: If you could go back in time, would you be friends with your own Father? The town of Hill Valley, CA , shown in different time periods, is exceptionally realized in its design execution. Plus, Christopher Lloyd’s portrayal of Emmett “Doc” Brown is magnificent, setting a new standard for “mad scientists.”


#10.  “Jurassic Park”(1997)


Remember what I said earlier about CGI films?…well this was one of the great breakthroughs in the craft. Using CGI to show convincing dinosaurs, this film told a story about man’s arrogance getting himself in over his head in an attempt to control nature while playing “God” with technology advanced too quickly….and unwittingly unleashing forces he couldn’t control.


#11.  “The Matrix”(1999)


Artificial reality had been done before in science fiction, but this film took it to a whole new level. In this film the “real world” is a virtual reality prison built by a machine race to reduce humanity to the batteries that powered their cities in actual reality.  Both worlds are amazingly realized in, what can be considered, the first “Live action Anime” film. Technically, this film also invented a new effects style called “Bullet Time.” Where using a green screen room and hundreds of cameras lined up, the action could be panned around, slowed down, frozen and sped up, the imagery and action was unlike anything that came before it. This film could also be considered one of the great “Noir” films that was filmed in color(“Blade Runner” is the other one). So, are you going to take the red or the blue pill?


#12.  “Inception”(2010)


Here’s another few brilliant new concepts: A machine that can connect people into “shared dreaming.” Using that technology to steal information from another person’s mind(Extraction). Planting a new idea in their mind(Inception) and layers of dreams where you can have a dream within a dream….within a dream….all the way down to a dream “Limbo” where the world is whatever you build with your mind where time moves so slow compared to the real world, that you could live 50 years in it and wake up only hours later. This film challenged the concept of how could you tell if you were dreaming or not.  This suspense thriller is amazing in its creativity, action scenes and dreamworld designs. It’s also really clever how the stories are set up and moved through.


And those are the 12 science fiction films I feel advanced the craft influencing the films that came after them. Did I miss a film you feel should’ve been on this list? I’d love to hear your opinions, my friends. Peace.

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