Science fiction has been around for more than 100 years, but it took a long time for the genre to get any respect. In the '50s, it was considered the domain of giant bugs, although some classics made their mark, like ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ and ‘Forbidden Planet.’ In the late '60s, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ became a benchmark, then ‘Star Wars’ became a game changer in 1977, making sci-fi the biggest genre of them all. But the innovations certainly didn’t stop there, as you'll see on our list of the 10 Best Science-Fiction Movies of the Past 30 Years.
It's the movie that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a superstar, launched James Cameron as a powerhouse director and made Stan Winston a major force in special effects. 'The Terminator' boasted a great concept for a sci-fi film -- an indestructible villain sent back to the past to prevent the future from happening -- and like the best sci-fi films, it transcended its B-movie origins, and set the template for many movies to come. And of course, it also launched Schwarzenegger’s status as the one-liner king with the immortal words, “I’ll be back.”
We've always enjoyed ‘Aliens’ much more than the first ‘Alien.’ This is certainly no dis on Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic, which is a great movie in its own right. But ‘Aliens’ added much needed humanity between Ripley, the crew and cute little Newt, and it was a fun roller-coaster ride that did the original justice, and stood strong as its own film as well.
From the ad campaign, ‘RoboCop’ looked like a typically stupid '80s action movie, but once you watched it, you realized it was far deeper and funnier than you’d expect, and there was far more than met the ad campaign. Like another Paul Verhoeven classic, ‘Total Recall,’ ‘RoboCop’ was inevitably, and inexplicably, remade, but in the case of both films, especially ‘RoboCop,’ it ain’t broke, so please stop fixing it.
'Independence Day' (1996)
OK, you can’t compare ‘Independence Day’ to the original 'The Day the Earth Stood Still’ or any true sci-fi classic. But ‘ID4’ is a great dumb, turn-your-brain-off-for-two-and-a-half-hours-and-have-fun movie that surprisingly had more heart than you’d think. ‘ID4’ has a great ensemble cast that recalled the days of Irwin Allen's disaster spectaculars, when everyone in Hollywood would line up to be in a burning building or a sinking ship. A long-awaited sequel to ‘ID4’ is still in the works, but it’s going to be hard to recapture the fun of the original.
One of the most underrated movies of the genre showed tremendous promise for writer and director Andrew Niccol, who went on to write ‘The Truman Show.’ It also showed great promise for Jude Law, who stole the show with a strong secondary role. The story of a future where your destiny is dictated by your DNA, and one man’s vow to rise above his physical limitations, is the kind of story we’ve certainly seen before, but Niccol did it with a lot of style and class.
A big game changer that influenced movies of all genres, especially with its bullet-time cinematography, ‘The Matrix’ gave the world a fresh, innovative epic sci-fi movie the same summer George Lucas let his fan base down with ‘The Phantom Menace.’ The Wachiowskis could never top the innovation of their original masterpiece, and much like Lucas, they’ve been chasing their tails ever since, which is a big disappointment considering ‘The Matrix,’ like ‘Star Wars,’ created a whole new world that could have gone in many incredible directions.
A wonderful animated gem that got steamrolled by ‘The Blair Witch Project’ in the summer of 1999, ‘The Iron Giant’ is still criminally underrated to this day, but it gave Brad Bird a strong launching pad for ‘The Incredibles,’ ‘Ratatouille’ and ‘Up.’ ‘Giant’ is a great retro story that captures the ‘50s well, and it also pays tribute to the Japanese giant robot genre with a lot of heart, along with a genuinely moving ending.
‘Blade Runner’ was a flop when it was released in 1982, but it became a classic years after, and it finally made Philip K. Dick a sci-fi mega author. A number of his stories have been adapted for the big screen since. While ‘Minority Report’ certainly isn't on the same level as ‘Blade Runner,’ it is one of Steven Spielberg’s best films in years, and it also featured some of the director’s best special effects work.
'Avatar' was a major leap forward for 3D technology, and proof that James Cameron could actually top himself again after becoming King of the World with ‘Titanic.’ Cameron subverted audience expectations for 3D, making the audience go deeper into the world of Pandora, and making it come to life on the big screen like no 3D feature before. Pretty good story too.
‘Gravity’ was another big step forward for movie technology, and it was used for an epic story about two people, mostly one person actually, lost in space. Director Alfonso Cuaron proved there’s still plenty of life in 3D technology if the story is right. It’s also nice to see -- gasp! -- an original movie not based on a previous movie, TV show or video game become a hit these days.