With so many great sci-fi flicks out there, you’ve probably read a few lists on different movie sites that have touched on the forgotten gems of the genre. Certainly, some “underrated” movies have appeared so frequently on underappreciated lists that they’ve turned into the exact opposite; Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and George Lucas’ THX 1138 are no longer forgotten classics, but cult movies with gigantic fan bases.
For this list, we’re exploring science fiction titles that deserve just a little more recognition. These are the films that when you mention them to friends, they usually respond with, “What’s that?” Of course, if you’re a diehard cinephile, chances are you’ve heard of a few or most of these titles. While movie buffs certainly consider these masterpieces, they never got their due with the general public or critics. Perhaps it’s a movie that got unfairly skewered in reviews or just didn’t pull in enough cash at the box office. Whatever the case, the next 15 films on this list are overlooked sci-fi classics that deserve to be remembered instead of drifting off into the ether.
Here are the 15 Most Underrated Sci-Fi Movies.
15. Gattaca (1997)
Stylish and thought-provoking, Gattaca might be one of the most overlooked movies of the 1990s. Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, it takes place in the near future where advances in genetics determine the status of the social class. Ethan Hawke plays Vincent Freeman, a genetically inferior individual who assumes the identity of a genetically superior man in order to achieve his dream of becoming an astronaut.
In surprising fashion, Gattaca totally forgoes special effects in favor of a captivating story and subtle performances. Hawke and co-star Uma Thurman do a superb job of providing the audience with well-rounded, relatable characters, and the film’s cinematic artistry is akin to the likes of Blade Runner and Brazil, making the movie a feast for the eyes and the mind. Gattaca is the type of sci-fi film that deserves to be called a “classic” today, and almost demands repeat viewings for its breathtaking attention to detail.
14. Salute of the Jugger aka The Blood of Heroes (1989)
Written and directed by David Webb Peoples, The Blood of Heroes, also known as Salute of the Jugger, is a sci-fi gem that has almost faded out into obscurity. Like Blade Runner (which Peoples also wrote), it stars Rutger Hauer, but instead of playing an android looking for his creator, Rutger plays a disgraced former sports star in a post-apocalyptic world. In this world, entertainment comes from a new, brutal game that mashes up gladiator death matches with football.
Though you most likely have never heard of it, Salute of the Jugger contains pretty much everything that a great sci-fi movie should. There’s a deadly, futuristic sport that makes football looks like a game of freeze tag, a bleak Mad Max-esque post-apocalyptic setting, and big existential questions about human nature. Best of all, Salute of the Jugger feels inspired instead of coming off like a mere ripoff of other sci-fi classics, something that is sorely lacking in the genre today.
13. Rollerball (1975)
Speaking of dangerous games, nothing’s more dangerous than a match of rollerball, the futuristic death sport from this 1975 throwback staring James Caan. The film takes place in a futuristic society where corporations have taken the place of countries (it won’t be long now), and the game that has everyone hooked is Rollerball, a mismatched gladiator-like sport that combines street hockey, demolition derby, motorcycles, and flamethrowers.
For being more than 40-years-old, the action scenes in Rollerball remain surprisingly effective thanks to seasoned director Norman Jewison. There are several matches around the track that are completely brutal even by today’s desensitized standards. Like other sci-fi gems, Rollerball is not just a mindless action flick either. Its social commentary on consumerism is both satirical and profound, with Caan’s Johnathan E. embodying the spirit of the individual.
Jewison’s film might not be the greatest of all time, but it is an endlessly entertaining thrill ride that actually has something to say, which is far more than the 2002 abysmal remake with LL Cool J had to offer.
12. Mr. Nobody (2009)
In the year 2092, the last mortal man on Earth recounts his life events to a reporter. During this interview, the 118-year-old Nemo remembers three pivotal moments in his life: as a young boy when his parents divorced, as a teenager, and eventually his time as a 34-year-old. While trying to recount these important milestones, Nemo gives the audience the illusion of alternate timelines, playing certain scenarios differently by altering a few key aspects.
Did that synopsis leave you a bit confused? Odds are it probably did, but Mr. Nobody is the type of movie that doesn’t spell things out in a linear manner. Its plot is chronologically jumbled, presenting multiple timelines and scenarios over the course of one man’s life. However, watching it is a totally different experience than explaining it. Director Jaco Van Dormael crafts a philosophical story that is immensely watchable and surprisingly fluid. His multi-layered movie touches on subjects like chaos theory and the butterfly effect, but remains emotionally compelling thanks to a mesmerizing performance by Jared Leto.
11. Repo Man (1984)
Alex Cox’s Repo Man is the kind of movie that will leave even the most experienced movie goer scratching their heads and asking themselves, “What did I just watch?” The film’s topsy-turvy plot involves Otto (a very young Emilio Estevez), a punk rocker who is leaving behind his ne’er-do-well lifestyle for a gig repossessing people’s cars. From there, atomic scientists, the CIA, and every other repo man in the area begin the hunt for a mysterious car that has the power to vaporize people using a green light in the trunk. And it only gets weirder from there.
Chances are you’ll be confused when watching Repo Man for the first time. You might still be just as confused the second or even third time. Part of why Cox’s bizarre look at 80s punk culture works is because it is so bizarre. Harry Dean Stanton and Estevez are both a joy to watch as two counter-culture outsiders, and the soundtrack including Black Flag and Suicidal Tendencies are the stuff of punk fans’ dreams. Repo Man perfectly blends humor, sci-fi, and exploitation using philosophical and intelligent dialog that has something to say, or at least we think it does.
10. Sunshine (2007)
From zombie-horrors (28 Days Later) to award-winning dramas (Slumdog Millionaire), director Danny Boyle has dabbled in just about every genre in his extensive career. In 2007, he decided to experiment with science fiction, and thank goodness he did. Sunshine is one of the best examples of modern sci-fi. Together with writer Alex Garland (Ex Machina), Boyle crafted a philosophically rich adventure that follows eight astronauts in their mission to reignite the dying Sun with a nuclear bomb.
Featuring a talented cast comprised of Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, and Chris Evans, Sunshine isn’t just a visually stunning movie, but an emotionally rich one. At its core, it’s a character study about isolated astronauts struggling to grip with their sanity, even though the third act turns into a slasher film of sorts.
For a plot about reigniting the Sun, Sunshine managed to reignite the sci-fi genre itself, even though it did rather poorly at the box office when released. Over the years, the movie has picked up a rather sizable following, but we say that Danny Boyle’s space odyssey still deserves far more recognition than it has.
9. A Boy and His Dog (1975)
A Boy and His Dog might sound like a sappy comedy about a teenage boy and his schnauzer puppy, but believe us, this movie is all science fiction. This underrated flick from 1975 takes place in a post-apocalyptic future (doesn’t most great sci-fi?) where a boy and his dog wander from place to place looking for food for the dog and women for the boy to have sex with. To add a bizarre twist into the mix, the boy and the dog have the power to communicate telepathically.
Based on a novella by Harlan Ellison, A Boy and His Dog is an interesting sci-fi adventure that is as unusual as it is compelling. It’s extremely low budget, but makes up for its lack of pizazz with a kooky premise. The conversations between the boy and dog are particular fun to watch, with the dog’s facial expressions usually matching the dialog. The acting is notably solid, with Miami Vice star Don Johnson as the boy, and Tiger from The Brady Bunch fame playing the dog. A Boy and His Dog is post-apocalyptic, satirical, psychological, completely original, and everything you could ask for in a science fiction movie.
8. Moon (2009)
Though he’s responsible for last year’s Warcraft, director Duncan Jones got his start in the business by creating low-budget sci-fi movies significantly smaller in scope. While we enjoy his 2011 mindbender Source Code, a movie that deserves far more praise than it received is Jones’ 2009 effort, Moon. This sci-fi flick stars Sam Rockwell as astronaut Sam Bell, a caretaker for a mining outpost on the moon. After a freak accident, Bell discovers that he’s entangled in a much deeper conspiracy, and fights against all odds to retain his freedom and sanity.
Though it’s small in scope, Moon is a surprisingly intriguing movie that is guaranteed to surpass expectations. Sam Rockwell is casting perfection as the lone astronaut on the moon who tries to differentiate between what is really happening, and what might be only happening in his mind. Kevin Spacey plays the voice of GERTY, a dry yet friendly robot reminiscent of 2001’s HAL 9000. Though it’s definitely a slow burn, Moon delivers an emotional payoff that makes you think about complex human emotions, and that’s exactly what good science fiction should do.
7. Primer (2004)
If there was ever a sci-fi movie that immediately made you compelled to re-watch it after the credits start rolling, then that movie would be Primer. Shane Carruth’s 2004 mindbender involves four engineering friends who inadvertently create a time machine after working on one of their new prototypes. Using themselves as guinea pigs, the two main engineers transport themselves back in time, continually pushing the limits of the machine’s capabilities. Like most time-travel movies, things begin to unravel as the friends’ timelines starts to deteriorate.
Primer proves that you don’t need a massive, inflated budget to make a compelling sci-fi movie. Produced for a shoestring budget of just a rumored $7,000, director and writer Shane Carruth weaves an intoxicating time-travel plot that doesn’t skimp on the scientific details. In fact, you could say that Primer is at times so scientifically dense, that it may be off-putting to a lot of casual moviegoers. However, for those who enjoy creative, imaginative sci-fi that sparks the mind and gets the brain juices flowing, then Primer is a must-watch.
6. Mothra (1961)
Godzilla is one of the biggest movie monsters to ever grace cinema screens (both metaphorically and physically), but people forget that Japanese production company Toho has a whole stable of awesome kaiju characters. Unfortunately, most of them get overshadowed by the Big G, and that includes the giant insect Mothra. Having appeared in 12 films, 14 video games and various comic books, the humongous moth is certainly not forgotten, but often takes a backseat to the King of the Monsters himself.
Though she’s been in various movies and spinoffs, one of the more underappreciated is Mothra’s very first outing in 1961. When Mothra’s home island in the Pacific is continuously hit with nuclear testing, the guardian kaiju awakens to fight back against the ignorance of man. Though the theme of nuclear backlash is essentially recycled from 1954’s Gojira, the story is still involving enough to resonate with the viewer. Sure, the special effects don’t quite hold up like other movies on this list, but director Ishiro Honda (also responsible for directing Godzilla) creates a compelling B movie that is still a whole bunch of fun to revisit today.
More than 60 years later, and Mothra will finally make her American theatrical debut with next years Godzilla: King of Monsters.
5. Silent Running (1972)
In a distant future where Earth is all but barren, the planet’s last remaining ecosystems exist only in large containers attached to a spacecraft. When orders come down to return to earth and jettison the ecosystems into space, all the astronauts rejoice. Well, all the astronauts except one. Freeman Lowell loves the forest and creatures so much that he decides to kill his fellow co-workers and hijack the ship into deep space. His only compatriots are three small robots and the wonders of nature.
Silent Running is another underappreciated sci-fi picture that doesn’t rely on million-dollar special effects to tell its story. Rather, it relies on its visuals and a heart-wrenching performance from Bruce Dern to tell a saddening story about isolation and loneliness. Dern is perfectly cast as Freeman, an astronaut suffering from a serious nervous breakdown, and the robot companions provide some much need comedic relief and a touch of humanity. It may be a tad dated by today’s standards, but Silent Running is still a worthy film for all fans of science fiction.
4. The Omega Man (1971)
Any fan of Richard Matheson’s popular book I Am Legend knows that that the most faithful movie adaptation is 1971’s The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston. Vincent Price’s Last Man on Earth was a tad on the campy side, and the Will Smith version is alright, but both miss the rich subtext and the shocking ending featured in this sci-fi dystopian throwback.
The Omega Man stars Heston as one of the last remaining humans on Earth after a cult of zombie-like vampires start to take over the world. It is their goal to weed out and convert what remains of the human race. Throughout the movie, Heston bombards the creatures with bombs, flame throwers, machine guns, and even hard liquor, while at the same time searching for a cure to the vampiric disease.
What’s interesting about The Omega Man is that it’s the only version of Matheson’s novel that actually gives the vampire creatures some sort of humanization. We won’t spoil anything, but the ending of the movie has Heston’s character discover that they may not be as evil as they seem. Bleak, frightening, and a whole bunch of fun, The Omega Man is just as good as other Heston sci-fi classics like Planet of the Apes or Soylent Green.
3. Naked Lunch (1991)
Cinema history has provided a long line of fantastic sci-fi directors. Paul Verhoeven, James Cameron, and Ridley Scott are certainly at the top of the list, but the king of them all might just be David Cronenberg. A pioneer of the body-horror genre, the Canadian filmmaker is responsible for classics like The Fly (1986), Videodrome, Scanners, and The Dead Zone. He’s boggled minds and churned stomachs for decades, but one of his most darkly twisted movies is the little known 1991 flick Naked Lunch.
The film, based on the semi-autobiographical book of the same name, stars Peter Weller as a writer who becomes addicted to a bizarre bug drug that makes him hallucinate giant insect creatures. If that short summary hasn’t caught your attention, then one only needs to look at the still of Weller and the horrifying alien creature from above to peak your interest. Cronenberg’s film is grotesque, disturbing, and downright fascinating, featuring giant centipedes, talking cockroaches, and typewriters that turn into bugs that talk out of their butts. It’s about as bizarre as they come.
2. Snowpiercer (2013)
Joon-ho Bong has all but cemented his place as one of the best sci-fi directors working today. His 2013 effort Snowpiercer is well-regarded as one of the freshest sci-fi flicks in recent years, even though it had trouble finding a core audience upon its initial release. The plot involves a high-tech train that houses the last of the human population as it circles the globe in an endless loop. Fed up with their living conditions, the lower-class citizens on the back of the train start a rebellion to overthrow the elitist regime.
Like most science fiction, good sci-fi anyways, Snowpiercer is a gorgeous film to look at, but beneath its surface is a resonating exploration of class distinctions. It boasts one of the best casts ever put together including Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer, Kang-ho Song, and Chris Evans in quite possibly his best role ever. Jam packed with hair-raising action sequences and eye-popping set design, Snowpiercer is truly one of the most enriching and though-provoking sci-fi films in years.
1. Dark City (1998)
Movie history is littered with forgotten gems and unsung masterpieces, but out of all of them, nothing is more criminally underappreciated than Alex Proyas’s dark sci-fi thriller from 1998, Dark City. This neo-noir starts with our hero, John Murdoch, waking up in a hotel with a serious case of amnesia. John soon finds out that he may or may not be a serial killer, and during his journey to find the answers he seeks, he uncovers a secret race of psychic evildoers lurking below the depths of his city.
Dark City is the kind of sci-fi epic that oozes creativity, almost making it impossible to peg in one concrete genre. It’s one part noir, one part sci-fi, one part horror, and another part thriller. It’s a movie with a resounding amount of confidence provided by Proyas, whose vision combines bizarre B-movie madness with an Art Deco aesthetic reminiscent of old hard-boiled private eye pictures. It’s amazing to see how ahead of its time it really was, providing the world with a Matrix-esque formula a year before that movie was even released. With breathtaking visuals and a clever script, Dark City is a treat for the mind and eyes, and gets our vote as the most underrated sci-fi movie ever made.
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