While sci-fi films have always been popular with mainstream audiences, they have notoriously not been given the credit they often deserve from highbrow film critics. Even movies like Blade Runner and The Thing — which are now cited as highly influential entries to the genre, capable of inspiring prequels and sequels decades after their original release dates — were received negatively in the press at first, resulting in both films massively underperforming at the box office. While those two movies were lucky enough to receive a second life thanks to fans, plenty of sci-fi films have faded into obscurity after being deemed “bad” by critics and failing to find an audience while in theaters.
We’re taking a look at a number of sci-fi films that we believed were unfairly criticized at the time of their release. While these films may not be game-changers to the genre, they still offer up a number of original concepts, intriguing visuals, and quirky characters to serve as an unexpected treat for science fiction fans.
Don’t get us wrong, these films have their flaws (as most movies do), but that doesn’t mean they don’t keep the viewer thoroughly entertained from start to finish.
Here are 16 ‘Bad’ Sci-Fi Movies That Are Actually Great.
Set in a dystopian future where feelings are outlawed and the government knows all, Equilibrium may heavily borrow from George Orwell’s sci-fi masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four, but the film’s highly original action sequences and impressive set design still make it a must-watch for fans of the genre.
The film stars Christian Bale as John Preston, a high-ranking enforcement officer who stops taking his daily dose of Prozium — the government’s mandated emotion suppressor — and plots to join the Underground Resistance.
Despite a relatively small budget of $20 million, Equilibrium features its fair share of standout martial arts sequences that employ the unusual technique of gun kata. While you might think this would at least get audiences on board for the film, Equilibrium was a box office bomb, grossing just over $5 million worldwide. For whatever reason, critics failed to get behind the movie as well, resulting in Equilibrium being largely forgotten in the 15 years since its release.
15. Event Horizon
Event Horizon is one of those films that takes a hard left turn around the halfway point that audiences will either love or hate, as the story quickly switches from sci-fi thriller to a grotesque horror flick. While it’s understandable that this 1997 film will turn some viewers off, the movie definitely succeeds in making the audience feel as though they’re getting in over their heads.
The story follows the members of a space crew who are sent to investigate a starship known as the Event Horizon, which mysteriously reappeared after years lost in space. On board the derelict ship, they discover that the crew of the Horizon unwittingly opened a portal to Hell itself, and the proximity to the gateway begins to take its toll on the remaining crew members.
The graphic violence in the second half of Event Horizon may not be for everyone, but for hardcore sci-fi/ horror nerds, the film may be one of those lesser-known gems they’ve been waiting to discover.
14. Tron: Legacy
Much like the original 1982 film, Tron: Legacy is all about the state of the art visuals, meaning that the story and the characters are admittedly lacking in this 2010 sequel. However, the updated effects, coupled with a fitting soundtrack from Daft Punk, still make this sci-fi action film a visual treat, particularly when viewed on the biggest screen possible with the 3D in full effect.
Tron: Legacy acts as a direct sequel to the original cult hit, which finds Jeff Bridges returning to play Flynn while Garret Hedlund plays his adult son, Sam, who is transported into “the Grid” years after his father’s mysterious disappearance.
The film is a guilty pleasure in every sense of the phrase, which is likely to win over fans of the original Tron with pure nostalgia alone. Many critics admonished the film’s character and plot development (or lack thereof), and we really can’t disagree with them. But if you’re in the mood for some stunning eye candy and exhilarating sci-fi action sequences, then you could certainly do a lot worse than Tron: Legacy.
Released in 2013, this post-apocalyptic sci-fi film received lukewarm reviews from critics and was only a modest box office success. The film stars Tom Cruise as Commander Jack Harper, who is tasked with protecting Earth’s resources against alien scavengers, while Andrea Riseborough plays his communications partner, Victoria Olsen.
While Oblivion might not be quite as good as Cruise’s 2014 follow-up film, Edge of Tomorrow, it’s still an effectively made sci-fi thriller with a distinct production design and a number of unexpected twists that manage to keep the viewer on their toes.
However, many critics were unreasonably hard on the film, with some questioning if Cruise was “trying to beat out fellow Scientologist John Travolta for the honor of starring in the dumbest sci-fi epic ever?” Another critic asked if the movie’s title was “supposed to be the state of the characters, or the audience?”
12. John Carter
Released in March of 2012, John Carter was a box office bomb of epic proportions, grossing nearly $200 million less than its cost of production and advertising. The lack of a big star and the confusing trailers may have contributed to the film’s poor performance, while the critical reviews certainly didn’t help bring in audiences.
John Carter currently holds a 51% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with most critics calling the film derivative and lacking any serious character development. But upon revisiting the film, John Carter is nowhere near as bad as its initial debut made it seem; and, in fact, the film is a lot more enjoyable than your average summer blockbuster.
We gave the film a mostly positive review back in 2012, citing that “scene by scene the film is generally well-crafted, and offers a sense of both fun and adventure,” meaning that this is one sci-fi film that’s still worth checking out if you ended up skipping it (along with everyone else) during its initial run.
11. Pitch Black
In this sci-fi horror film released in 2000, Vin Diesel plays Richard Riddick, an infamous criminal/ mercenary, who is being transported to prison when the spaceship he’s traveling on crash lands on a desert planet crawling with bloodthirsty alien creatures. Unlike his fellow travelers, Riddick has surgically altered eyes that help him see in the dark, which comes in handy when the alien creatures embark on a feeding frenzy during an eclipse.
Pitch Black turned into an unexpected hit with audiences, grossing over $50 million at the box office on a $23 million budget. However, critics were mostly underwhelmed by the film along with the two sequels.
While we agree that both 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick and 2013’s Riddick were both a bit of a letdown, the original film remains surprisingly entertaining and well put together, especially for a Vin Diesel action flick.
10. Titan A.E.
Originally conceived as a live-action film with input from writers including Joss Whedon (The Avengers) and Ben Edlund (The Tick), Titan A.E. was handed over to Fox Animation after losing $30 million during the story development. If that wasn’t already bad enough, the film eventually proved to be a massive box office bomb, grossing only $36.8 million and resulting in a $100 million loss for Fox.
Most critics were also unreasonably hard on the film, calling it unoriginal and nothing more than a Saturday morning cartoon. However, at the time of its release, the animation of Titan A.E. was truly something to be marveled over. The filmmakers seamlessly meshed together classic animation with CGI to tell the story of a spaceship of humans desperately searching for a lost space station following the destruction of Earth by an alien race. Not to mention that the characters in Titan A.E. are surprisingly smart and well-rounded for a film aimed at children and young teenagers.
9. The Fountain
Like most Darren Aronofsky films (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, and now mother!), you’re either going to love or hate The Fountain — a 2006 sci-fi/ fantasy film that intertwines three stories about man’s search immortality.
The film stars Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz as various couples throughout time, linked together by love and loss, and the film employs non-linear storytelling by continuously cutting between 16th century Central America, the present day, and deep space nearly 500 years into the future.
For many, The Fountain is a perplexing undertaking film, to say the least, which resulted in lackluster reviews and an underwhelming box office performance. However, the film has since attained a cult following as The Fountain can prove to be a rewarding film for those that continue to connect the dots between the themes of each intertwining story, making this a must-watch for those who enjoy a thought-provoking experience at the movies.
8. Starship Troopers
For a movie that didn’t do exceptionally well at the time of its release and was also lambasted by critics, 1997’s Starship Troopers has certainly had its fair share of staying power, spawning a strong cult following as well as four sequels and a short-lived animated series.
Based on the 1959 book by Robert Heinlein, director Paul Verhoeven’s film adaptation wildly deviates from the original source material, turning the story about a futuristic infantry unit and their battle against a species of alien insectoids into a military satire, as opposed to a deadly serious sci-fi war film.
The black humor and overall camp of the film didn’t seem to land well with most movie critics, who saw the movie as a dumbed down version of Heinlein’s novel, as opposed to a parody of military propaganda and right-wing fascism, which Verhoeven experienced first hand while growing up in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands.
7. Battlestar Galactica
This 1978 film marks the beginning of the Battlestar Galactica franchise, which went on to be made into a weekly series throughout the late ‘70s before being rebooted into the critically acclaimed 2004 SyFy show. However, the original film was not quite as beloved by critics, who called Battlestar Galactica a cheap rip-off that was only looking to capitalize on the Star Wars hype.
The special effects are indeed laughable by today’s standards (and well below the quality of Star Wars). However, the $7 million budget actually made the film the most expensive TV pilot ever made, which still managed to impress home audiences at the time of its release.
While Battlestar Galactica is undoubtedly dated and unintentionally funny at times, the story at the center of the film was enough to launch one of the most renowned sci-fi franchises of all time. And while it may not be for everyone, it will certainly be worth the while of series fans.
6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is understandable not the type of movie that critics would be dying to see. But even after the turtles were given a much-needed make-over and a bigger budget with their latest return to the big screen, the original 1990 film easily remains the most enjoyable live-action adaptation of the characters to date.
Despite the film becoming one of the highest-grossing independent films of all time, bringing in over $200 million against a $13.5 million budget, critics couldn’t help but tear into the picture, with many calling it immature, dismal, and even racist — this last point due to the villains being of Japanese descent.
For fans of the comics, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles actually did a great job of bridging the gap between the childish animated series and the grittier tone of the source material. Sure, the film may be over-the-top and extremely cheesy, but that doesn’t mean it’s also not wildly entertaining from start to finish.
5. Heavy Metal
An animation movie for adults, Heavy Metal is an anthology film that intertwines a number of outlandish tales that are strung together by a central villain known as the Loc-Nar along with a top-notch soundtrack that inevitably contains a lot of heavy metal music.
Taking many concepts from the magazine of the same name, Heavy Metal shows many of its cartoon characters partaking in obscene acts — resulting in most critics dismissing the movie as pure trash. However, thanks to a small but strong following, Heavy Metal has since become a cult classic with plenty of A-list filmmakers — including David Fincher, Zack Snyder, Robert Rodriguez, and Guillermo del Toro — who have expressed interest in collaborating on another animated film after the disastrous 2000 sequel.
Since adult-skewed animation has since become a stable in entertainment with shows like South Park, Family Guy, and Rick and Morty, this 1981 classic is definitely worth checking out for sci-fi (and heavy metal) fans.
4. Weird Science
Despite being one of the few John Hughes movies to receive negative reviews from critics, Weird Science is a massively entertaining ‘80s flick that explores the ridiculous premise of a couple of high school nerds who accidentally create the perfect women when a lightning storm strikes their computer.
Teenage actors Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith turn in two truly entertaining performance as Gary and Wyatt. While the film was a success with audiences at the time of its release, harsh reviews from critics have left Weird Science in the shadow of other John Hughes movies simply because the story refuses to take itself as seriously as films like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, but that doesn’t make it any less of an entertaining experience.
3. Vanilla Sky
It’s hard to believe that critics, of all people, did not find 2001’s Vanilla Sky to their liking. While a few praised the movie as one of the year’s best, the overwhelming majority found the film to be an incoherent mess, earning the movie only a 42% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The film follows David Aames (Tom Cruise), a wealthy publishing firm owner who has the perfect life until a tragic automobile accident leaves his face severely disfigured. Plagued by vanity, David’s life begins to spiral out of control, resulting in him wearing an unsettling mask to conceal his scarred face while his grasp on reality begins to slip, leaving the audience to wonder just how much of the story has taken place in David’s mind.
The performances from Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Kurt Russell, and Penelope Cruz are captivating across the board, while writer/director Cameron Crowe keeps the sci-fi elements at a minimum, making the whole film feel like a two-hour lucid dream.
2. The Omega Man
The groundbreaking 1954 novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson has been adapted into a feature film four times to date, each one sadly falling short of the original source material.
While the original 1964 adaptation, The Last Man on Earth, may be the closest to the book, and the 2007 film starring Will Smith may be the most well known, in terms of pure entertainment, Charlton Heston’s 1971 The Omega Man has to take the cake.
Heston stars as Dr. Robert Neville, a U.S. Army Colonel who injects himself with a vaccine in a midst of a biological war that eradicates most of the world’s population. What follows is one of Heston’s most enjoyable performances, as Neville fights to survive a life of isolation while also fending off against “The Family” — a mutant cult of plague victims who wander Los Angeles by night.
In this 1981 sci-fi thriller, Sean Connery stars a William O’Neil, a Federal Marshal newly assigned to a mining outpost on lo – one of Jupiter’s moons. William quickly discovers that life on lo is extremely difficult and that there have been a number of mysterious deaths surrounding the overworked miners. While others believe the workers simply committed suicide, William’s investigation discovers that the men used a highly powerful amphetamine that resulted in their psychosis, which pits William in a bloody standoff against the mining town’s general manager.
Outland is quite obviously a reimagining of the 1952 western High Noon, which may have contributed to the film’s mixed reviews at the time of its release. The film also suffered from a modest box office performance, resulting in the film largely being forgotten by mainstream audiences today.
However, with an immaculate soundtrack, impressive practical effects, and a solid performance by Connery, Outland holds up impressively well today, making it a movie well-worth digging up for fans of the genre.
So which sci-fi movies do you think get a bad rap? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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