We know what you’re asking; science fiction films were made BEFORE computer generated images made everything so shiny and spectacular? The answer is a definitive ‘yes.’ Granted, many of those films were dreck, but many have also become as rooted in our popular culture as Cheerios or AM radio because they captured the public’s imagination in a comprehensive and entertaining way. As difficult as it may be to imagine for those who have grown up on $300 million-dollar science-fiction bombs, there was a time when a good story and plausible special effects were enough to make it on screen. In fact, some of the most popular and enduring films in the genre were completed long before computer generated images were even a reality, and have still managed to remain just as relevant and thought provoking as the day they were released. However, for many young people, they are probably completely unknown, so in order to rectify that, let’s have a look at the ten best sci-fi films made before the invention of CGI.
10) Metropolis (1927)
This silent, black and white masterpiece from director Fritz Lang can legitimately lay claim to being the first ever feature length science fiction film, and it set an incredibly high standard for the genre. The story of a dystopian future that sees an oppressed mass of workers toiling to provide endless luxuries to a tyrannical, dilettante class of unconcerned elites, the film introduced a host of sci-fi elements that have become synonymous with it; massive cities with monumental skyscrapers, flying cars, androids, class warfare, rebellion of the oppressed and the triumph of decency over despotism. The film’s epic scale, including an as yet incomplete version that still runs over 3 hours, is a wonder to behold.
9) Things to Come (1936)
Adapted from the H. G. Wells’ classic ‘The Shape of Things to Come,’ this is science fiction as high art. The set designs, lighting and costumes were all heavily influenced by the art-deco movement and were all ahead of their time, while the special effects owed a great deal to Metropolis and were also state of the art. The film spans an entire century encompassing a ten-year World War that sees humanity nearly wipe itself out, followed by the dawn of a new age of peace and prosperity that culminates in a highly advanced civilization on the brink of space travel, though rife with social unrest. With Europe bracing for war and societies transforming all over the world from traditional agrarian to industrialized economies, the film was a prescient reminder of the fragility of the human species and was a major hit for the U.K.’s Denham Studios.
8) Forbidden Planet (1956)
From sci-fi’s golden age of the 1950s, Forbidden Planet introduced cinema audiences to the world’s favorite machine; Robby the Robot was a walking, talking sensation in 1956 who went on to star in a little-known sequel (The Invisible Boy, 1957) as well as television’s Lost in Space. The film is a re-telling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest; in the 21st century a spaceship commander (Leslie Nielson) and his crew are sent to investigate the sudden communication silence from an interstellar colony. They arrive to find only two survivors, the brooding Dr. Morbius, his beautiful daughter Altaira and their faithful servant Robby. The good Dr. is hiding a dark secret about the planet’s original inhabitants and the tension rises to a fever pitch as an inhuman force permeates the atmosphere. The film is a technicolor marvel that literally looks good enough to eat and even with some dated elements, still holds up as a true classic.
7) Soylent Green (1973)
The second in Chuck’s triple threat ’70s sci-fi-erama (the third being The Omega Man), Soylent Green is the ultimate tale of a future society gone mad through poverty, over-population, climate change, chronic unemployment, massive resource depletion and starvation. Charlton Heston plays a jaded New York City police detective in the year 2022 who unwittingly stumbles onto a horrific revelation about the origins of a popular new food substance during a routine investigation into the death of one of the manufacturer’s executives. The bleak, grittiness of the film gave it a stark realism that made an Orwellian future controlled by the likes of the soulless and omnipotent Soylent Corporation seem all too possible. With magnificent performances from Edward G. Robinson and the always reliable Heston, the film’s final line is second only to the next choice as probably the most recognizable in sci-fi movies.
6) Planet of the Apes (1968)
Adapted from French author Pierre Boule’s acclaimed novel, Planet of the Apes has become one of the most iconic films in the history of science fiction. The story of 3 astronauts who crash land on an unknown planet ruled by intelligent but brutal apes, can rightfully claim to be a living legend. The film seems to grow more popular over time, due in large part to a screenplay co-written by Rod Serling and a stellar cast including Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, James Whitmore, Charlton Heston and Maurice Evans. The film’s incredible makeup, set design, musical score, costumes, locations and direction have made it one of the most popular sci-fi films of all time and beloved for perhaps the greatest closing line in the history of motion pictures.
5) The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Director Nicholas Roeg’s inspired casting of David Bowie as the main character Thomas Jerome Newton helped to make this one of the freakiest science fiction films ever. Based on the novel by Walter Tevis about an alien visitor that comes to Earth seeking water for his arid and dying planet but instead becomes corrupted by addiction and finally imprisoned as a government secret, the film is a stylish vision of human weakness and predation. Bowie’s sense of discomfort is palpable throughout the movie, highlighted by the ground-breaking documentary format that foreshadowed reality television. With a great cast including Candy Clark and Rip Torn, the film is a dark look at what happens when the worst of humanity is all we may choose to offer a benign visitor.
4) Alien (1979)
Okay, now we’re talking; director Ridley Scott‘s innovative mixture of horror and sci-fi gave movie audiences everything they could hope for and more. With incredible set designs and special effects highlighted by the insane creature created by artist H. R. Giger, this film is about as creepy as a vicious, monstrous killing machine in a claustrophobic spaceship environment of doom can get and it was a huge hit when it was released. Featuring a female protagonist in the kick-ass Ripley, the picture has an intensity that remains riveting thanks to Sigourney Weaver‘s signature performance. The creature itself is a masterpiece of demonic beauty and revulsion and remains the single most popular sci-fi monster ever. The slow, rising tension that builds to sheer panic and terror is unavoidable no matter how many times you see it, which has made Alien among the most highly regarded science fiction films of all time. One thing’s for sure; you’ll never look at an egg the same way again.
3) Star Wars (1976)
There’s a reason this remains the only one of the entire franchise worth seeing; for a sentimental, clichéd space western, it’s a freaking classic that became a phenomenon. It’s hard to underscore the impact this film had on the known universe – it literally changed everything about science fiction, film production, merchandising, spin-offs, you name it. Suddenly studios were interested in shelling out huge money for sci-fi films, none of which, including the SW sequels and prequels, can hold a candle to the original. There’s just something righteous about this movie that seems to make it more enjoyable every time you see it, and it’s hard to think of a more recognizable cast of characters in the entire history of cinema. The timeless battle of good versus evil played out against a backdrop in a galaxy far, far away meant audiences just couldn’t get enough of the state-of-the-art special effects wrapped in an old fashioned adventure that makes it probably among the top 5 most popular films of all time.
2) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Steven Spielberg‘s gripping story of some everyday people who become obsessed with forces they don’t understand was a uniquely positive vision of interstellar contact from a decidedly human perspective. With an award-winning score by John Williams, the brilliant pacing, dazzling special effects and emotionally stirring performances make this a timeless classic in the true Speilbergian sense. Combining mystery, adventure, comedy, horror and science fiction with a feel-good vibe, this movie just gets better with age. Featuring a brilliant cast including Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr and director Francois Truffaut, the film is a roller coaster ride from start to finish encapsulated by the most memorable screen appearance in the history of space craft. Boop beep beep boop boop…
1) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Well, this is simply the one folks, the one that defined the genre that’s all. Stanley Kubrick‘s mind-blowing epic partially inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel”, 2001: A Space Odyssey was like nothing movie goers had ever seen before. The story of an astronaut (Keir Dullea) who must outwit his computerized spaceship’s custodian HAL, intermingled with recurrent episodes involving a mysterious black monolith that appears to have been the catalyst for the development of human intelligence, the film remains a trippy, psychedelic masterpiece. Everything about it, the set design, costumes, musical score and special effects had a tangible realism that has lost none of its futuristic appeal, while HAL will forever embody the potential horrors of intelligent machines which outgrow our control. This movie is pretty damn near perfect and is simply one of the best films ever made.