The thrilling excitement of writing a list of beloved works is easily counterbalanced by the brutal necessity of excluding some of them. While the usual member of the audience might find it difficult to believe a whole list of great old, science fiction movies from the era of practical special effects can be written at all, fandom of the genre is fully aware that a single life is not enough to dig into all the worthy science fiction films produced even just in the 50s-70s period.
There’s countless lists of the absolute masterpieces of science fiction on the internet, filled with possible interpretations, explanations, trivia, political contextualization, etc., and I am convinced that there is very little need to expand them, and adding any contribution to the subject would be very difficult and time-consuming. Instead, it would be interesting to look into those masterpieces – sometimes forgotten, sometimes never truly famous or even completely ignored – which very often manage to step out of the collections of the great ones.
In this list – not a ranking of films – you will find some slightly lesser-known films (or sometimes just famous by name, but never actually shown), very diverse in the themes, techniques, country of origin, and altogether worthy of attention. Therefore, acclaimed, preserved and firmly established masterpieces such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Planet of the Apes (1968), Solaris (1972), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Metropolis (1927), Close Encounters of the Third Kind, won’t be included, just like many others. Furthermore, I decided not to list any movie that was made after 1976 (with one exception!).
1. Zardoz (1974)
Let’s start with a very hot take. Starring Sean Connery at his first role after the James Bond series, Zardoz is a champion at polarizing the audience: apparently, it’s either complete and sincere hatred or unconditioned love. Useless to say, I belong to the latter category.
English John Boorman (who will later direct Excalibur in 1981) introduces us to a visionary post-apocalyptic scenario, where he’s able to prepare the ground for a journey through cultist mysticism and Nietzschean philosophy, theology and nihilism.
Set in the distant but not-that-distant future of 2293, the movie shows the division of mankind into the Eternals, i.e. an elite of immortal intellectuals who live forever young in their strictly isolated and regulated society, and the Brutes, which is the rest of mankind, living in misery in a world where technology has long been forgotten. Among the Brutes, we see an elite of warriors called the Exterminators, whose task is to kill and/or enslave the Brutes and force them to grow food for their big-headed god Zardoz (see the poster above).
A challenging, deeply epistemological work which does not follow the usual structural canons of the film. Fine achievement of non-Hollywoodian science fiction (despite the movie was partly funded by 20th Century Fox), which perfectly fits into the art-movie scene and taste which the European 1970s gifted the history of cinema with. Soundtrack by the missed archeomusicologist David Munrow.
2. The Time Machine (1960)
A rather banal title, isn’t it? Well, when science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells wrote his novella of the same name in 1895, that term had never existed at all. Wells’ short novel – an easy reading I suggest – marked the beginning of his brilliant career, establishing among the general audience the concept of time travel, and particularly with a man-made tool.
The book has since then been adapted into four different movies, the last of which was directed by the great-grandson of Wells himself (!) – but there is no doubt that the first film, by director George Pal, stands well above the other adaptations.
On New Year’s Eve of 1900, a brilliant English inventor embarks on a journey with the time machine he has built himself, claiming the times he’s living in are too violent, and mankind must somehow have reached a higher level of civilization in the far future. After a few stops in briefly later times (which I won’t have the bad taste of revealing), he winds up in the 8028th century. Yes, you read it well: he jumps eight hundred thousand years into the future, and the future itself might not be as safe and advanced as he imagined it to be.
With the fine soundtrack by Russel Garcia (which now and then borrows themes and hints from Debussy’s La Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin), George Pal manages to portray Wells’ tale both as childish and adventurous while preserving its mysterious and obscure sense of distrust in mankind’s capabilities to take care of itself.
3. Godzilla (‘Gojira’, 1954)
Nine years after the inhuman horrors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, Japan produces the movie that started them all: the infamous Godzilla, king of monsters, big clumsy puppet, giant flamethrowing lizard, longest-lasting franchise of all time, and so on. What is extremely important to stress from the very beginning, is that it is likely one of the most misunderstood movies ever.
Godzilla is generally known to the great audience as the initiator of the kaiju cinema genre, a subset of science fiction which portrays big monsters going around causing trouble to entire countries, if not to the whole planet. More than 30 films have followed the original Godzilla, movies that over time include a long series of monsters, each more puppetish and clumsy than the other. Battra, Mothra, Biollante, Anguirus, Ghidorah, KingGhidorah, MechaGodzilla, SpaceGodzilla – and the list goes on (including even Godzilla’s cute baby).
What has been completely lost on the way is the essence of Gojira, the horrifying, underlying meaning of the king of monsters from the original movie, directed by Ishiro Honda: Godzilla is the atomic bomb. It represents the absolute, most efficient and self-unaware annihilating power of a weapon that cannot be controlled once it’s detonated – a monster which exists for the sole purpose of completely erasing any single being it’s going to find on its way, be they good or bad, strong or weak, friends or enemies.
All this could very hardly be sold to the United States, and that is why in 1956 the movie came out in the U.S. in a heavily, brutally edited version known as Godzilla, King of Monsters! in which, besides having dubbed all dialogues into English, scenes were added with Canadian-American actor R. Burr as a character (hilariously shooting all the scenes in which he interacts with the original characters of the movie by hiring actors and showing them from behind as body-doubles of the original Japanese actors) narrating and playing a major role in the plot.
Despite the further developments our friendly lizard had to endure over the years, this films remains an authentic and pure representation of an unknown and uncontrollable horror that suddenly awakes, somewhere, only to erase man. Score composed by the great Akira Ifukube, who partly adapted it from his earlier piano compositions (compare Godzilla’s military march with Ifukube’s “A Jolly School”, from his 1949 piano work “Rhythmic Games for Children”).
4. Things to Come (1936)
After jumping from 1974, to 1960, and then to 1954, we travel even further back into the past by facing a unique work of future history, prophetic on one side, visionary on the other, and the first major entrance of the United Kingdom in science fiction (with astounding special effects). The story is based on H.G. Wells’ novel The Shape of Things to Come from 1933, also echoing older works from the same author, first of all the 1897 short work A Story of the Days to Come.
Directed by W.C. Menzies, the plot and dialogues were written by Wells himself. Just like how he did with his above mentioned novels, Things to Come aims at showing the possible political and social developments in the future of Europe, more than building a cross-sectional motion picture in the traditional sense – hence, the movie spans over a hundred years of future history. Beginning at the time of its release, the film portrays the actually incoming World War II, depicting it as an event that would massively devastate the continent and England – where the movie is set – just as it came to be in real life, but as opposed to the latter, the movie does not show an end to the war, which instead endures until the 1960s, where the absolute destruction of civilization as we know it in Europe (also thanks to the spread of a biological weapon) pushes mankind into a bizarre Dark Age. The movie continues its journey over the decades, with conquests, revolutions, human achievements and failures, a journey that will bring the audience to 2036 A.D., exactly a century after the movie’s release year.
Among the many traits that make Things to Come an amazing work is the fact that, given the times it was made, it does not only show the view of back-then intellectuals and artists of Europe’s future, but also the fears, ironies and the impressions of their contemporary world: the acute observer will be able to see a character-parody of Italian fascist leader Mussolini in post-war 1970s England. I guess there’s already spoilers enough – but fear not! There’s plenty of content in this relic from a past, a work from times that came portraying the times that still are to come.
5. The Quiet Earth (1985)
So, here’s the exception I promised. I decided to include this film in the list because of the choking silence that surrounds its being largely unknown, even among science fiction lovers. A product of New Zealand, The Quiet Earth (dir. Geoff Murphy) explores the dangers of blind scientific discovery for the sake of itself. Remember Dr. Ian Malcolm’s (Jeff Goldblum) quote from Jurassic Park?
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn‘t stop to think if they should”
Well, this is exactly what this film is about. Physicist Zac Hobson, employed for an international project called “Project Flashlight”, wakes up one day to realize he’s the only person left on the planet.
This movie is very sensitive to spoliers, so I won’t reveal anything further. I will just say that, if curious, you will observe the quasi-realistic mental development and the actions of somebody who should experience such surreal happening – and much, much more. A very intimate trip re-proposing the nowadays overlooked question of the ultimate purposes of scientific discovery and the meaning of the common good.
Dark and meditative orchestral soundtrack by composer John Charles.
Note: below is the trailer to the film as I’m posting them for the whole list, but given the premise about the very sensitive plot, I would recommend not to watch it and just give a try to the movie instead.
6. The 10th Victim (‘La Decima Vittima’, 1965)
We now meet the only comedy – a rather bizarre and dark one – of the list. Directed by Elio Petri and based on the 1953 short story Seventh Victim by Robert Scheckley, The 10th Victim creates a colourful play (yes, it’s a colour movie, despite the poster) centered around the channelization of violence in the modern, globalized world. Scheckley would later write a whole novel out of the movie, and two sequels as well.
In the near future, the threat of war has been eradicated from the whole world through the legalization of individual murder – strictly regulated under the rules of the Great Hunt, a contest everybody is free to partake in. Once signed up, every participant will be either a hunter or a victim, and has to kill the other one (which is randomly assigned). The survivor, let’s say a hunter, will become a victim in the next round. When someone manages to kill 10 people in this very risky challenge, they have completed their game and are rewarded by the Great Hunt’s institution with highest honours, including life-long financial support and many privileges. The Hunt happens anywhere and at any time: there is no special arena for this, and you – let’s say a citizen in Berlin, might have to face the danger of being killed by your hunter, who’s a person from Ulaanbaatar (whom you know nothing about). Just an example.
The film stars an unusually blond Marcello Mastroianni – at the peak of his fame in Italy following his major roles in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8½ (1963) – still loaded with his usual bag of charisma and mystery. Other major role is played by Ursula Andress. The two are participating in the Great Hunt, and Ursula Andress’ character has come to her last round, only missing the last victim – the 10th – to win her game. Who’s her randomly designated victim? Yeah, you got it.
The whole aesthetics of the movie, set in Rome (except for a few shots in New York City), will have you immersed in a slightly futuristic 1960s, fueled with the Hammond-organ acid jazz melodic patterns by Piero Piccioni. The ironic, satirical and subtly comedic aspects of this Italian sci-fi, summed to its grotesque plot themes, the spectacularization of violence and the joyful bourgeois aesthetics, make the movie a bizarre product which at times seems to be making fun of itself.
Trivia: Mastroianni is not the only character in the movie to wind up in a major Fellini film. Salvo Randone – whose role is the self-defense trainer of Mastroianni’s character – will interpret the poor and hedonistic poet Eumolpus 4 years later in Fellini Satyricon (1969)
Note: I haven’t found a decent international trailer for the film, therefore I’m going to link the Italian one – which despite not being understandable for the English-speaking audience, shows the visual capabilities of the movie.
7. Forbidden Planet (1956)
I was in doubt for a while on whether I should include this movie to the list, but the do it reasons eventually outnumbered the don’t you dare ones. The biggest reason against listing it is that, as I mentioned in the preface to this post, I was not going to add established and popular masterpieces – which this movie is…or is it really? Truth is, science fiction lovers will usually say that this is one of most beautiful films ever made, regardless of the genre – but still it is nowhere near to be as celebrated as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Alien are, while its significance in the history of science fiction is not inferior to that of these two movies.
Forbidden Planet (dir. Fred Wilcox and starring a young Leslie Nielsen) lays the foundation for what will be the aesthetics and the general atmosphere and themes of the revolutionary TV series Star Trek (1966-1969). The claustrophobia of far lost colonies in the cold depths of space, the relationship between man and machine, the fear of and fascination for the unknown, the vibrating necessity to know that somewhere, out and far away – perhaps at some other points of time – there is or there has been somebody else, somebody that can understand, and maybe somebody who can help us give ourselves an answer to all the uncomfortable existential questions of the human life. All these themes are present here, in Forbidden Planet, incapsulated in a plot which many claim to be a loose character-adaptation of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.
Two hundred years from now, a starship lands on planet Altair IV in order to research the outcome of a scientific expedition that took place there 20 years in the past. Upon their arrival, the explorers realize that only a scientist of the old expedition, Dr. Morbius, and his daughter Altaira (born on the planet) still survive. They spend their life in a comfortable and highly technological house among the deserted wastelands of the planet, served by the exceptionally strong and loyal robot Robby. The members of the crew are surprised by and suspicious about the two people’s survival, especially when they come to understand that the rest of the old expedition perished while trying to fly away from the planet. While investigating on the case, the starship’s captain (Leslie Nielsen) understands more and more that unknown and ancient forces are present on the apparently dead planet.
8. Planet of the Storms (‘Planeta Bur’, 1962)
Eventually, some Soviet science fiction was destined to pop up on this list. And there is a precise reason why I had to include it right after Forbidden Planet.
In the early 1970s, it was rather common – and very wrong – to label Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Solaris “the Soviet answer to Kubrick’s 2001“. As hinted, Solaris had very little to answer to 2001. Surely both movies were made by two masters of cinema, and the second followed the first by three years, and they both share, among the many themes, the topic of Man vs. rest of the Universe (which basically means Man vs. Himself) – but they do it by completely different means and, it needs to be said, Solaris is based on the novel of the same name by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, released 7 years before the making of 2001.
With Planeta Bur and Forbidden Planet, the interrelationship cannot be so easily denied. In fact, it doesn’t need to: Planeta Bur explores the same themes of Forbidden Planet in a rather close way – but always in its own special way.
There is much to say about this movie and often its trivia takes more space than the actual contents of the film, but let’s start from the latter: three USSR spaceships attempt landing on planet Venus, but one of them explodes due to a meteor collision. All of the two ships’ crew decide to land on the planet and explore it – except for the only woman of the mission, who remains in orbit and with whom the cosmonauts lose all contacts shortly after landing. Together with them there’s the robot John, an exceptionally powerful machine – one of the closest points of contact with Forbidden Planet. The movie continues among strange, primitive wildlife on the planet, and recurring philosophical themes: the members of the crew become more and more entangled in the eternal question of Are we alone in the universe?, while the figure and the actions of robot John provide very different perspectives on Asimov’s laws of robotics than those that were shown in Forbidden Planet.
Despite the clearly unrealistic Venus landing (the planet is the hottest in Solar system, 96% of its atmosphere is carbon dioxide, and the pressure at surface level is 92 times that of Earth – shortly, it’s hell and damnation itself) and the very outdated puppets as special effects, Planeta Bur holds fairly well. It surely is not a movie you would like to watch for the shocking visual innovations or a fast pace, but rather a slow introspection of mankind’s will of exploration and search for an answer – in a very Russian way.
Now, the story behind the film’s release abroad: the year is 1962, and space exploration is about to hit its hottest years. Soviet pilot and astronaut Yuri Gagarin has made history one year before by becoming the first human being to ever reach outer space, aboard on the Vostok 1 capsule. Soon, both the USSR and the USA will prepare for the ultimate race – man landing on the moon. Furthermore, the United States have just experienced the stressful years of McCarthysm (aka the “Second Red Scare”), where paranoia of communist influence and infiltration created a toxic environment in the land of the Free. It surely does not seem the perfect moment in the West (and especially in the US) to show a Soviet-made space exploration movie – or at least in the way it was originally created. Yes, if 1954 Godzilla has taught us anything about filmmaking, is that there is no limit to creativity when torturing a motion picture: a first Americanization of the movie was released in 1965, under the title Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet. Just like what was done with Godzilla, scenes portraying US actors were shot and added to the movie, with changes in plot and the complete replacement of Russian names in the film’s credit section with made-up names.
As if that wasn’t enough, a second Americanized version was released in 1968, titled Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, which doesn’t promise anything good – and the movie surely meets its expectations: a very introspective film about quasi-realistic space exploration has suddenly become a trip to a planet where a group of super-women with incredible powers attempt to kill the astronauts, only to later kidnap their poor robot John and praise him as their new god. And that’s all that needs to be said about it.
The original Planeta Bur was first published in the US in the early 1990s, thirty years after its original release. Funnily enough, it should be pointed out that 1962 was the year of the first successful probe flyby of Venus – a NASA achievement. The Soviet Union had attempted a flyby the previous year, but a malfunction made it lose all its contacts with Earth when about 100 000 kilometres from Venus.
Note: I couldn’t find any trailer for it. Here’s a video in which they explain some parts of the movie’s making.
9. Logan’s Run
From the ’60s to the ’70s, from outer space back to Earth – literally: the space race had seen a parallel push from science fiction at cinema, where great adventures beyond the Earth’s orbit would show mankind’s true potentials and skills. At the end of the decade, some major events happened, as if a massive stone was dropped in front of a door to lock it forever: on July 21st, 1969 man lands on the Moon, on behalf of all mankind – but slightly more of its Western block. The year before, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes have come out. The Star Trek original series has also come to an end. All this has a very clear meaning for the science fiction genre:
- Launching a man into space (and landing on the Moon) is possible
- We’ve done it
- We found nothing
The 1970s witness a radical turn towards a darkly sociological kind of science fiction, where the question is not how to reach the stars, but how and if mankind will ever manage to survive itself on its own planet. The dystopian, post-apocalyptic becomes the dominant current within sci-fi cinema – fueled by the omnipresent eye of the Cold War – including that which would later in years be popularized and labeled as environmentalism, instead of just good and basic common sense. Among these movies we can name Solyent Green (1973, starring Charlton Heston) and Silent Running (1972). I specified cinema, because the post-apocalyptic current was already well developed in science fiction literature, and the big-screen had experienced some adaptations of the genre: The Last Man on Earth (1964), adapted from Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) and later to be re-adapted in 1974 as The Omega Man; On the Beach (1959), adapted from Shute’s novel of the same name (1957).
Logan’s Run, as well, is based on William Noal and G. Clayton Johnson’s novel of the same name from 1967 – first of a trilogy of which only the first novel has been adapted.
In the 23rd century, the members of the (possibly) last human community spend their existence in an enclosed city (City of Domes), indifferent towards and unaware of everything that might happen outside of it, as they believe the outside to be a deadly wasteland – likely reminiscent of some past atomic wars. In this enclosed city, everybody experiences a life of complete pleasure without the need to work – as all labour is automatized. Quoting the movie’s poster, there’s just one catch: at the age of thirty, everybody must participate in a ritual called Carousel, in which their thirty-years-old bodies will be destroyed (to prevent population from aging) and they will consequently be reincarnated into newborn babies, and re-start their hedonistic life as usual. Supposedly – because some members of this community, understandably, are not completely convinced that this mechanism works the way they are told. Hence, they run away before their Carousel is due. Logan is an exterminator, a guardian, a policeman: his duty is to kill anybody who tries to run – until he is forced to run himself.
Logan’s Run functions as a perfect exemplification of the 1970s dystopian science fiction: the true mysteries and questions do not lie in the far distant depths of the universe, but here, on the beautiful planet of ours which we sooner or later will transform into something different, most likely worse, but certainly fascinating. Birth control, slavery to one’s own pleasure, the lack of profound social bonds (all traits that echo Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World) define Logan’s Run‘s claustrophobic and futuristic society, combined with and opposed to the call of pure wilderness and open nature which is present in all humans. Similarly to Zardoz, this movie employs post-apocalyptic settings as a fictional device to explore the possible outcomes of a human society self-ruled through otherwise impossible parameters.
Trivia: a rather overlookable spin-off TV-series of Logan’s Run was produced in 1977 for only one season, with 14 episodes in total. Despite its low-level production, the show has its considerably interesting moments (Episodes 5-6-7, if you’re in a hurry), slightly kept up by the effective acting of Donald Moffat as the android Rem.
10. Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)
The last movie of the list is an unmissable adaptation from an unmissable classic of early science fiction literature, Jules Verne’s novel of the same name, written in 1864.
This movie is the first of many adaptations of Verne’s work, and undoubtedly the best: starring James Mason and with a diverse and haunting soundtrack by the legendary composer Bernard Hermann (Psycho; Vertigo; Taxi Driver; The Day the Earth Stood Still; Citizen Kane; Mysterious Island; Farenheit 451; The Birds, and countless others), Journey to the Center of the Earth perfectly fits into the highly colourful and adventurous stream of early-science fiction novel adaptations which flourished between the late 1950s and the 1960s, along with the above presented The Time Machine, which would come out the year after, and First Men in the Moon (1964, based on Wells’ novel of the same name).
The plot tells of the iconic journey of a Scottish geologist (German in Verne’s novel) and his companions through the interiors of the Earth, aiming to reach its centre (whose actual characteristics where only realistically hypothesized in the 1930s), based on the centuries-old cryptic writings of an Icelandic scientist, Arne Saknussem, who claimed to have reached the core of the planet.
Journey to the Center of the Earth stays a perfectly functional work of cinema to this day. The visionary practical effects, the diverse construction of the few characters that populate the plot, together with its impeccable soundtrack, make the movie deserve its title of Journey, transporting the audience into a world of untouched mystery, in which the limits of imagination – and not scientific accuracy – are the only boundary.
Trivia: actor James Mason and composer Bernard Hermann had both worked the previous year in Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic thriller ‘Vertigo’. The latter film also stars a young Martin Landau, who would later act in the British-Italian science fiction TV-series ‘Space: 1999’ (1975-1977).
Is there any forgotten classic of vintage sci-fi I might have missed? Do you wish to complain for not having mentioned THX 1138 (1971)? Did you spot any mistake? Or more simply, would you like to say hi? All comments are welcome and appreciated.