Essential Sci-Fi Movies

Science-fiction movies aren't for everyone -- or at least it may seem that way if you happen to be a film fan who's never really considered yourself a fan of the genre. The truth is, though, that sci-fi is an extraordinarily rich and versatile genre, and there's something for everyone. If you're not already a fan but you've always wanted to get into the genre, we've got you covered.

Welcome to the Sci-Fi Primer for Newbies, a beginner's guide to sci-fi movies. Here you'll find a dozen different films that will serve as great entry points to various aspects of the genre. Just keep in mind that this is not necessarily a definitive list of the 12 best sci-fi movies ever (although some that would be on any best-of list worth its salt do appear here). Rather it is a mixture of films that are important to know about for a variety of reasons but that a sci-fi newbie might not have seen on his or her own.

Think of it this way: The Sci-Fi Primer is a list of cinematic talking points, of films that you'll want to be able to discuss should you ever suddenly find yourself at a sci-fi cocktail party. (Hey, they exist.)

'2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968)

Who Made It: Directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke

Who's In It: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Douglas Rain

What It's About: After a mysterious obelisk is discovered buried on the moon, a team of astronauts set out on a secret mission to uncover its meaning.

Why It's Important: '2001: A Space Odyssey' is the granddaddy of all sci-fi films. Not in the sense that it was the genesis of the genre, but that it's the older, slower family figure that you're obligated to visit from time to time. Calling it slow is hardly a slight against the film, either -- it's just a simple truth. Stanley Kubrick's voyage into deep space is the embodiment of deliberate -- a movie that never, ever compromises its artistic vision. Yes, it may be a sluggish watch by today's breakneck standards, but it's an unquestionably incredible filmmaking accomplishment that pushed the sci-fi genre forward in irrevocable ways.

'12 Monkeys' (1995)

Who Made It: Directed by Terry Gilliam, written by David Webb Peoples & Janet Peoples; based on Chris Marker's short film 'La jetée'

Who's In It: Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, Madeleine Stowe, Christopher Plummer

What It's About: A convict (Willis) is sent back in time to find the cure for a disease epidemic that has forced the people of the future to live underground.

Why It's Important: Time travel is a familiar plot point in science fiction, but rarely is it used to the profound effect found in '12 Monkeys.' Terry Gilliam's film isn't just about the cause-and-effect relationship of altering the past; it's about how our own memories, our own personalities are all the product of a very specific set of events. Combine that curious distrust of our own memories with Gilliam's blatant distrust of technology, and '12Monkeys' becomes a wondrous and uniquely weird tale of living with inevitability.

'Blade Runner' (1982)

Who Made It: Directed by Ridley Scott, written by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, based on the Philip K. Dick novel

Who's In It: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah, M. Emmet Walsh, Edward James Olmos

What It's About: Deckard (Ford), a type of bounty hunter known as a Blade Runner, is tasked with finding and eliminating four fugitive replicants -- highly advanced and anthropomorphic robots -- who are hiding out on Earth.

Why It's Important: Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner' is often considered the best science-fiction film of all time, and with tremendous reason; it's an unequivocally brilliant examination of what it really means to be uniquely human all within a genre chimera that seamlessly breeds noir stylings with hard sci-fi philosophies. Not only that, but its dim outlook at a future Earth where nature has been ravaged by a technological epidemic is downright haunting.

'Metropolis' (1927)

Who Made It: Directed by Fritz Lang, written by Thea von Harbou

Who's In It: Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge

What It's About: A futuristic dystopia that suffers from a drastic divide between the working class and the city's capitalist drivers.

Why It's Important: 'Metropolis' is one of the most influential films of all time, and not just for sci-fi as a genre, but for film as an art form. Its story of class division is a timeless one that's been echoed in countless films in the 80+ years since Fritz Lang's film first wowed the world. Even beyond the script, Lang's devotion to elaborate special effects and art design planted the cinematic seed for stylish futurism in sci-fi.

'Forbidden Planet' (1956)

Who Made It: Directed by Fred M. Wilcox, written by Cyril Hume

Who's In It: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly

What It's About: A space cruiser in the 23rd century is sent to investigate the fate of a planet-colonizing expedition that hasn't been heard from in 20 years.

Why It's Important: Around the middle of the 20th century, imaginations young and old the world over became consumed with a passion for pop-sci-fi: stories that found mankind, for better or worse, adventuring headstrong into new frontiers. And few films elevate this pulpy period for the genre -- an era that made astronauts and scientists out to be bold explorers (as opposed to the neebish nerds that emerged in the '80s and '90s) -- more so than 'Forbidden Planet.'

'The Matrix' (1999)

Who Made It: Written and directed by Andy Wachowski & Lana Wachowski

Who's In It: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster

What It's About: A hacker (Reeves) learns that the world around him is not quite what it seems.

Why It's Important: Even if you're not a sci-fi fan already, there's no doubt you've heard of 'The Matrix.' It's one of those rare sci-fi flicks that so perfectly walks the line between heady ideas and sheer movie magic entertainment that its viral popularity causes it to infect all manner of pop culture. It's hands down the most influential sci-fi movie of the past decade or so both for its special effects (thank the film's "bullet time" for the boom of elaborate, revolving slow motion in films, TV, video games and even commercials) and obsession with questioning reality.

'Alien' (1979)

Who Made It: Directed by Ridley Scott, written by Dan O'Bannon

Who's In It: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skeritt, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Veronica Cartwright, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton

What It's About: The crew of an intergalactic mining ship is redeployed to investigate a distress beacon on an unexplored planet.

Why It's Important: Horror and sci-fi go together like blood and guts, but they don't always have to emphasize the actual blood and guts. To that end, 'Alien' is the perfect horror-sci-fi hybrid: a film that dazzles with production design when it's not luring you to the edge of your seat. Ridley Scott's film is an incredibly intelligent marriage of haunted-house stylings with outer-space explorings (not to mention its healthy dose of corporate paranoia, a recurring theme found throughout the genre) that manages to fascinate as often as it frightens.

'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' (1977)

Who Made It: Written and directed by Steven Spielberg

Who's In It: Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Terri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Cary Guffey

What It's About: Following a visitation by a UFO, Roy Neary (Dreyfuss) is inexplicably compelled to migrate to an isolated spot in the desert.

Why It's Important: Well, for starters, no discussion of sci-fi talking points is completely without at least one Steven Spielberg film, and since no one needs to be told to watch 'Jurassic Park' or 'E.T.,' 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' best fits the bill. It doesn't hurt that it's brimming with indelible images and ideas (and sounds!) concerning what contact with alien life would be like and how it might change us. It's a beautiful and tender film about mankind's place not just on Earth, but the entire universe.

'Planet of the Apes' (1968)

Who Made It: Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling; based on the Pierre Boulle novel

Who's In It: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, James Whitmore

What It's About: After a space anomaly disrupts their ship, a crew of astronauts crash-land on a planet ruled by talking apes.

Why It's Important: Forget Tim Burton's lifeless remake of this classic piece of sci-fi; Franklin J. Schaffner's original film is a brilliant and thrilling variant on the "transplanted man" themes that often crop up throughout the genre. 'Planet of the Apes' most memorable scenes have been referenced and re-purposed so many times in pop culture that it may be hard for a sci-fi newbie to go into it with a clean slate, but take that only as a testament to how beloved a film it is.

'Children of Men' (2006)

Who Made It: Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, written by Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby; based on the P.D. James novel

Who's In It: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Claire-Hope Ashitey

What It's About: A miraculously pregnant woman (Ashitey), in a future in which mankind can no longer procreate, must be protected at all costs.

Why It's Important: 'Children of Men' arrived at a creative sci-fi drought in Hollywood -- a time when studios had resigned to the belief that for sci-fi to be popular it had to be brainless popcorn fodder. But with an adaptation of P.D. James' novel, director Alfonso Cuarón proved that we hadn't seen it all before. Unfortunately his film didn't ignite box office numbers, but it has since gone on to be a word-of-mouth hit. Cuarón's meticulously crafted visuals and harsh action yield an experience that refuses to fade easily for memory, reminding us that the genre can be simultaneously dark, uplifting and, above all else, grounded, no matter how fantastical the premise.

'Gattaca' (1997)

Who Made It: Written and directed by Andrew Niccol

Who's In It: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Alan Arkin, Gore Vidal

What It's About: In a chromosome-obsessed future a genetically inferior worker (Hawke) colludes with a genetically pure man (Law) to assume his identity and go where society won't let him.

Why It's Important: Unlike most of the films on this list, which can be cited as highly influential whether in pop culture by or other filmmakers, 'Gattaca' is a bit of a loner. Though it's garnered a great deal of credibility for being one of the best "hard sci-fi" movies of the '90s, its relative lack of popularity has consigned it to be the kind of film pure sci-fi fans love, but that most moviegoers would never go out of their way to see or talk about. And that's a shame, really, as Andrew Niccol's film boasts a powerful message about the indestructibility of the human spirit wrapped inside an ever-prescient sci-fi story that may have been wild speculation in 1997, but may prove to be alarmingly accurate in another 20 years.

'The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!' (1984)

Who Made It: Directed by W.D. Richter, written by Earl Mac Rauch

Who's In It: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd

What It's About: Buckaroo Banzai (Weller), the world's foremost adventurer/surgeon/rocker, must stop an alien invasion from the 8th dimension.

Why It's Important: 'The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai' is an important part of the sci-fi puzzle precisely because it isn't important. It's an irreverent curio from the '80s that represents the silly side of the genre that, unfortunately, we just don't have enough of. All too often sci-fi is associated with either stern, disciplined films like 'Blade Runner' or big spectacle blockbusters like 'The Matrix.' W.D. Richter's hilarious oddity just goes to show that sci-fi is a remarkable flexible field that takes all kinds.

categories Features, Sci-Fi