As with horror and fantasy, science fiction has always been an incredibly popular genre, especially in the cinematic medium. Heck, one of the first major film productions was sci-fi, namely Georges Méliès’ Voyage dans la Lune, or A Trip to the Moon, based off the works of the godfather of science fiction himself, Jules Verne. But while sci-fi fandom is arguably the most sincere in the history of genre fiction, it has had difficulties finding acceptance among mainstream awards: in the history of the Academy Awards not a single science fiction movie has won Best Picture, though several—Inception and Gravity chief among them—have received the nomination.
Yet though these films might not win over the Academy voters as a whole, one cannot deny how well they have been received by the critical community at large. The following films are the most critically successful in the history of the sci-fi genre, as per aggregate movie review site Rotten Tomatoes.
(NOTE: percentages denote how many reviews have been positive, and while it seems that the higher the percentage is, the higher-ranked the film would be, RT also factors in the number of reviews for a given film. So while Alien and Gravity have the same percentage of positive reviews, Gravity is ranked higher because it draws from a larger sample size. Statistics!)
10. Forbidden Planet, Fred M. Wilcox, 1956 – 98%
Starring Leslie Nielsen in a pre-comedic role and introducing the world to one of the most famous automatons in sci-fi, Robby the Robot, Forbidden Planet draws inspiration for its plot and characters from, of all places, William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The film follows the crew of an interplanetary investigation, who land on a distant planet in hopes of discovering what happened to an earlier expedition. They find a lone surviving scientist and his daughter, and in time learn that the former conceals a secret about the planet’s very nature. Besides featuring one of the first anthropomorphized robots—who would pave the way for C-3PO and R2-D2 in time—Forbidden Planet also had a completely electronic film score, one of the first of its kind, composed by married musicians Bebe and Louis Barron. Today, it’s regarded as a seminal science fiction film, having been entered into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
9. Aliens, James Cameron, 1986 – 98%
The first sequel to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror film Alien, Aliens sees last survivor of the Nostromo Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) being awoken after nearly six decades in cryogenic hibernation, only to discover that the planet on which she and her crew discovered thousands of Alien eggs has been colonized by dozens of families in the interim. When contact with the colony goes dark, Ripley travels to the planet with a squadron of Marines, discovering to their horror that all but one of the settlers have been harvested by the parasitic creatures. Cameron’s sequel focused less on the horror and haunted house aspects of the first movie and turned it into a full-fledged action romp, complete with blazing machine guns and a constantly swearing Bill Paxton. But it wasn’t a dumb popcorn flick, with critics praising its intensity and the performance of Weaver as Ripley, who as the film progresses evolves from a traumatized survivor into a warrior. Weaver even received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance, though she lost out to Marlee Matlin.
8. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, Irvin Kershner, 1980 – 96%
Though not directed by Star Wars creator George Lucas, The Empire Strikes Back is regarded by many as the best entry in the franchise, ranking the highest of the series on the Internet Movie Database Top 250 at #12. In contrast to the adventurous, light-hearted affair of the first film, Empire takes a fairly dark turn, following Luke, Han and Leia as they flee pursuing Imperial forces and featuring one of the greatest twists in the history of cinema and storytelling as a whole (which, while over three decades old will not be mentioned out of courtesy for the young’uns). Surprisingly, it initially received mixed reviews, with the Washington Post’s Judith Martin criticizing it for lacking a conventional story structure. By the time the Special Editions of the Star Wars films were released in 1997, however, it had risen to become the best of the trilogy in the eyes of Roger Ebert among many others. While it missed out on major nominations at the Academy Awards, Empire won Oscars for Visual Effects and Sound Mixing.
7. The Terminator, James Cameron, 1984 – 100%
While its first sequel, T2: Judgment Day is more bombastic and quotable, James Cameron’s The Terminator was essential in making Arnold Schwarzenegger a household name in North America. Here, Arnie plays an emotionless android sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of a future human resistance leader, thus preventing the machines’ defeat in a devastating Third World War. Kyle Reese (played by Michael Biehn, one of Cameron’s go-to actors), is likewise displaced in time to protect Sarah. Explosions, a riveting synth score and chronological paradoxes ensue. The Terminator. Upon its release and even to this day, it has been praised for its top-notch pacing, “tech-noir savvy,” as Time’s Richard Corliss put it, and Schwarzenegger’s fittingly robotic performance.
6. WALL-E, Andrew Stanton, 2008 – 96%
Pixar’s ninth animated feature was its first to fully embrace the sci fi genre, focusing on the exploits of WALL-E, a small garbage-collection robot and, along with cockroach, the last form of sentience on an Earth that has been long-abandoned by the human race. Along with futuristic probe robot (probot?) EVE, WALL-E is inadvertently tasked with protecting the last known specimen of plant life on the planet, which could make Earth habitable for humans once again. WALL-E won over critics through its sparse dialogue, its environmentalist message and what Variety’s Todd McCarthy described as an optimistic post-apocalyptic scenario. It won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, though critics such as Peter Travers opined that it was deserving of a proper Best Picture nomination.
5. Star Trek, J.J. Abrams, 2009 – 95%
Star Trek films are on and off, with odd-numbered films in the series suffering a “curse” of being less critically acclaimed than their even-numbered brethren, as noted in a 2009 MSNBC article. The financial and critical failure of Star Trek: Nemesis threw a wrench into the theory, and to cap it all off, J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the franchise was its most successful in years. Some Trekkies, namely those on TV Tropes, have rationalized the misstep in the curse by counting Star Trek parody Galaxy Quest among the franchise, making Nemesis and Abrams’ Trek odd- and even-numbered, respectively.
4. Alien, Ridley Scott, 1979 – 97%
Ridley Scott’s first foray into sci fi successfully melded the genre with horror, drawing as much on haunted house and slasher films as extraterrestrial sagas like It! The Terror From Beyond Space. It featured Sigourney Weaver in her first major—and most iconic—role of Ellen Ripley, warrant officer on a starship whose crew is hunted down one by one by a parasitic creature. Alien actually had a mixed reception, namely from reviewers like Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin, though Ebert would later give it four stars in his Great Movies compendium. Its infamous “chestbursting” scene is still famous, though we’ll omit details of the sequence for the sake of propriety.
3. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg, 1982 – 98%
In contrast to Spielberg’s earlier and more mysterious Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. was a playful and heartfelt look at alien life, following the escapades of a wrinkled little creature that is accidentally left behind on Earth and finds shelter in a family’s suburban home. The family sci-fi film received overwhelming critical acclaim, including from then-president Ronald Reagan, though Parks & Rec character Perd Hapley panned it for what he saw as a lack of believability. And while it did not win Best Picture at the Oscars that year, Richard Attenborough—who directed the actual winner, Gandhi—said he thought that it should have. Spielberg and Attenborough would later collaborate on the first two Jurassic Park films.
2. Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón, 2013 – 97%
Cuarón’s dizzying sci-fi tale was a stark departure from earlier works such as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men and Y Tu Mamá También, focusing on a rookie astronaut—Sandra Bullock in an Oscar-nominated role—who must reach a nearby station after a debris shower leaves her stranded out in space. Gravity was universally—ha ha—acclaimed and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, taking home the most on Oscar night though missing out on statuettes for Bullock and the movie itself.
1. Metropolis, Fritz Lang, 1927 – 100%
Rotten Tomatoes’ highest-rated sci-fi film was a masterpiece of the early silent era, depicting classism in a sprawling dystopian city. Among its many distinctions, Metropolis features one of the first depictions of a robot in fiction and also utilized miniatures to depict the sweeping urban centre.
Though it received a mixed reception upon its release, even from sci-fi giant H.G. Wells, it is now considered one of the most ground breaking films in all of cinema, with the late Roger Ebert arguing that its social message is more powerful today than it was for contemporary society.