Science fiction films have always delighted the imagination while pushing our sense of the world and its possibilities. Sometimes, we’ve been amazed. Sometimes, we’ve been scared. Sometimes, we’ve been inspired.
Through the history of cinema, there have been some sci-fi films that have been ahead of their time. They were trailblazers with their creators being pioneers of the industry. The result was films that would entertain audiences and challenge their contemporaries to explore new cinematic possibilities. Sometimes these films would enjoy immediate commercial and critical success. Other times, it was not until later that their influence was fully felt.
Here is our list of 12 Amazing Science Fiction Movies That Were Ahead Of Their Time
12. The Matrix (1999)
This 1999 sleeper hit was one the most financially successful films in the cyberpunk genre. A dark science fiction tale of a future where humans are made to serve machines, just by their very existence, The Matrix was a cultural phenomenon. Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) became the most popular sci-fi trio since Luke, Leia and Han. The film grossed over $400 million at the global box office and won four Academy Awards. But perhaps its greatest contribution to cinema was introducing major audiences to a visual effect that would be known as “bullet time.” The effect allows the action to move in slow motion while the camera seems to move at a normal speed.
11. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
In the early 1990s, James Cameron was a respected young director, but he was still far from reaching the “King of the World” heights that he would declare nearly a decade later. He had three feature films under his belt (including Piranha II: The Spawning). While he had made two bona fide hits in Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986), his more recent film The Abyss (1989) was a technological masterpiece, but a box office dud. The film grossed barely over $100 million at the worldwide box office, which might have been enough to be considered a winner if it hadn’t cost the studio nearly $70 million to make.
So when Cameron asked the studio to spend more than $100 million on his next project, a record budget at the time, it’s easy to imagine that being a pretty tough sell. In the end, Cameron was successful, and he got to make the film he wanted. And with Terminator 2: Judgement Day, everyone from audiences to critics to the studio had reason to applaud. A follow-up to his surprise 1984 hit (which was made on meager budget of $6 million), T2 would exhibit visual effects that no one had ever seen before.
A relentless killing machine from the future (played by Robert Patrick) would require ground breaking special effects to make Cameron’s vision a reality. Made of liquid metal and able to morph into anything and anybody, the filmmaker was asking his team to do something that had never been done before. And they did it. T2 was a worldwide hit and one of the most influential films of its era.
10. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Science fiction stories have often been dismissed as a purely fantastical method of storytelling that rarely achieves the level of serious discourse it deserves. This was the case when Hiram Gilmore “Harry” Bates III first started working as the editor of a pulp fiction magazine in the 1920s. Sci-Fi was some of the most disposable literature, often attracting only marginally talented writers. Bates believed that sci-fi stories needed to worry less about the science and more about the critical elements of good fiction. He put his money where his mouth was and had several of his own stories published under a variety of pseudonyms. His most famous story, Farewell to the Master, was published in 1940 and eventually became the basis for a major motion picture.
The Day the Earth Stood Still was released in 1951 and is hailed today by many film historians as one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time. And while the film’s costumes and special effects are all on par for its era, it is not the film’s technical elements that make it groundbreaking. Up until The Day the Earth Stood Still, alien visitors were almost always portrayed as alien invaders … hostile beings intent on human destruction and taking over our planet. The film, and Bates’ original story, changed that by infusing humanity into our extraterrestrial guests. Klaatu, the story’s chief protagonist, has not come to Earth to destroy the planet but with warning. In the end, he wants to help mankind keep from destroying itself.
9. Metropolis (1927)
German filmmaker Fritz Lang is appropriately credited with helping bring science fiction stories to the screen. His expressionistic 1927 film, Metropolis, was one of the first feature-length sci-fi films ever made. It is visually spectacular, especially given the era it was made. Furthermore, the film tells fairly complex story without the aid of spoken dialogue, seeing as it’s a silent film. It’s a story about social justice set in a world of the future where social class status is the difference between life and death.
Lang and his team were among the first to use model miniatures and they developed a filming process (known as the Schufftan process) where real actors are filmed and appear to be inside of models sets. None other than Alfred Hitchcock would be among the first filmmakers to copy this process.
Metropolis turned out to be a landmark film that almost wasn’t preserved. Many critics of the time lambasted the film’s extended running time and political message. After its premiere in Berlin, major sections of the film were removed before it was distributed widely. This led to many incomplete copies floating around for years. In 2008, a more complete copy of the film was discovered in a museum in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This led to a 2010 video release called The Complete Metropolis, which is believed to be the closest version yet to Lang’s groundbreaking original.
8. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Director Don Siegel may be best remembered for his films featuring some of Hollywood’s most memorable tough guys. John Wayne, Lee Marvin, and Clint Eastwood were all featured in classic films directed by Siegel. But it could be argued that his most influential film was a sci-fi horror picture made in 1956. Invasion of the Body Snatchers did not feature any screen legends of the caliber of Wayne, Marvin or Eastwood. It did present a compelling and terrifying tale of an alien invasion that came not by flying ships and skyscraper sized creatures, but a quiet invasion where human beings were simply replaced.
Filmed in a remarkable 23 days with a meager budget of $380,000, Invasion was a testament to Siegel’s proficiency as a filmmaker. It terrified audiences and inspired generations of filmmakers for years to come.
7. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
In the late ’60s, a pairing of two talented storytellers produced one of the most epic science fiction films of all time. Arthur C. Clarke, one of the greatest sci-fi writers of the 20th century, and Stanley Kubrick, one of the greatest filmmakers in Hollywood history, teamed up to adapt a story Clarke had written nearly twenty years prior. In 1948, Clarke submitted his story, The Sentinel, as part of a BBC competition. Although he didn’t win, the manuscript would prove immensely useful years later when he and Kubrick would transform it into 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The story follows the spaceship, Discovery One, on its mission to Jupiter. Things begin to go awry as the ship’s A.I. (HAL 9000) seems to exert its own will with murderous results. A film that is mixed with themes of existentialism, evolution, and man’s relationship with machine, Kubrick’s vision was lost on some early critics who called it “dull” and “plodding.” Nonetheless, it became one of the most meaningful films of its generation, with many considering it the pinnacle of a science fiction story. Clarke went on to publish several literary sequels and a film sequel (2010: The Year We Make Contact), which was made without Kubrick and released in 1984.
Some of the Hollywood’s best filmmakers credit 2001 as a major influence on their own work. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Ridley Scott all point to the film as an inspiration. The American Film Institute has repeatedly recognized 2001 as one of the greatest films of all time and in 2008 ranked it as the #1 science fiction movie of all time. Only a couple of years away from its 50th anniversary and this classic film continues to awe audiences and inspire the next generation of filmmakers.
6. Alien (1979)
Director Ridley Scott was not the first filmmaker to blend the genres of horror with science fiction. Such a marriage was one that Hollywood had toyed with almost since sci-fi films first hit theaters. But Scott can be credited with redefining that age-old approach. Before Alien, monster driven sci-fi had always taken place on Earth …the monsters always came looking for us here. But Scott does something truly groundbreaking with Alien, he uses the vast darkness of space has the setting for horror.
Alien would spawn multiple sequels and spinoffs and countless imitators. Sigourney Weaver would become one of the most sought after actresses in Hollywood. While Alien was only Scott’s second feature film, he would go on to direct many more blockbusters and become of the most prolific filmmakers in Hollywood history. Moreover, even now in the later years, Scott is still respected among critics and fans alike as one the foremost masters of science fiction filmmaking.
5. Akira (1988)
One of the greatest animated films of all time was actually overlooked by most American audiences for quite some time.With its futuristic setting and cyberpunk themes, the film was something a genre juggernaut. Internet lore has it that both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg passed on the opportunity to purchase the film’s US rights while labeling it as “unmarketable.” American audiences lucky enough to see the film in a movie theater likely saw it at a film festival or a midnight showing at an obscure locale.
But in the years that followed its 1988 theatrical release, Akira was able to garner a cult following as western audiences discovered this modern Japanese classic. Its release on VHS and strong buzz among both comic fans and serious cinephiles helped to build the film’s lore to almost legendary status. While Akira is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, what cannot be denied is the lasting impact it had on cinema – specifically on animation. Anime could be dark, violent, and flush with adult themes.
4. Planet of the Apes (1968)
Many people would likely be surprised to learn that the Planet of the Apes story originates from a book written by the same French novelist who also wrote Bridge Over the River Kwai. The later book was adapted into an Oscar-winning film, but it was Pierre Boulle’s dabble in science fiction that led to a film that would influence a genre for generations to come. The first attempt at a screen adaptation was undertaken by none other than Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) himself.
The film takes audiences on a journey through a mysterious planet where humans are no longer the dominant species. Made to suffer the rule of apes, Charlton Heston delivered what many might argue was his finest role. It was a commercial success in 1968 and led to several sequels. The series has been rebooted twice, including a current series that will see its latest chapter (War for the Planet of the Apes) arriving in theaters in 2017.
3. Blade Runner (1982)
Once again, director Ridley Scott receives credit for creating a sci-fi film that was ahead of its time. Blade Runner was based on a short story by prolific sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick. On a surface level, the film is reminiscent of the detective noir stories of the 50s and 60s. But Scott’s film stays true to Dick’s original story in begging even deeper, more philosophical questions about artificial creation and the existence of a soul. The story’s synthetic beings, or “skins”, ponder their own existence and mortality. In addition to another top-notch performance from Harrison Ford as the main protagonist, Blade Runner features some undervalued work by Rutger Hauer and Daryl Hannah as two of the film’s central artificial beings.
The dark, dystopian urban setting that is the backdrop for Blade Runner would be imitated time and again by future filmmakers. The mixing of science fiction with questions of humanity and the soul would also be examined by many other future films including Spielberg’s A.I. In the end, it comes as no real surprise that this influential film would be ripe for a sequel (set for 2018 with Denis Villeneuve to direct). The only surprise is that it took so long to come about.
2. Avatar (2009)
Never satisfied to merely make a great film, James Cameron is seemingly obsessed with always making the next big cinematic breakthrough. He was successful in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day (#11 on our list) and in many ways, topped himself with 2009’s Avatar. A project that was over a decade in the making, Avatar was the very definition of a labor of love for the celebrated filmmaker.
A fairly simple story about human colonists exploiting an alien world for needed resources, Cameron would not make the film until he felt the technology existed to do it right. The biggest twist to his story was having the film’s hero (Sam Worthington) play a disabled marine who transfers his consciousness to a three-dimensional avatar of an alien native. While there would undoubtedly simpler ways to accomplish this feat, Cameron didn’t have the film he wanted until cinematography and special effects technology caught up with his vision. In the end, he not only created the second highest grossing film in history, but also reintroduced audiences everywhere to 3D films. Starting a cinematic renaissance of sorts, which still hasn’t ended, every major studio began to follow Cameron’s lead and find ways to make their latest feature film a 3D experience.
Now, seven years later, audiences are still awaiting a promised set of sequels to Avatar. It should be no surprise that the notoriously obsessive filmmaker is again holding his own project up. Here’s to the possibility we’ll actually get Avatar 2 in our lifetime …
1. Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
It’s easy to overlook the fact that the most influential sci-fi film of our time was actually panned by many critics. As Screen Rant’s Margaret Maurer recently wrote, many of the most prominent publications at the time lambasted Star Wars: A New Hope and refused to take George Lucas’ film seriously. In one of the best cases of being on the wrong side of history, critics simply proved how much Lucas was a filmmaker ahead of his time. His little space opera redefined a genre for generations to come and grew into a multi-billion dollar business.
Even more, American pop culture was changed forever by Star Wars. It remains one of the most quoted films with some of the most recognizable characters of all time. From the subtle to the obvious, references from “a galaxy far, far away” have invaded nearly every facet our daily lives. It’s become much more remarkable to find someone who hasn’t seen at least one Star Wars film than to meet the devoted fan who can recite nearly every movie verbatim.
In 2012, George Lucas did what many would have never dreamed he would do … he turned over the keys to his empire. He sold Lucasfilm (included the rights to Star Wars) to Disney in a $4B deal. Immediately Disney announced their intentions to continue the Star Wars saga in film. This past December’s release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the first in what is promised to be at least six new feature films. If you take Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy at her word, the possibilities of where audiences will see Star Wars go from there are literally endless.
What do you think Screen Ranters? Did we miss any sci-fi films ahead of their time? Let’s hear your comments.