Science Fiction is multi-dimensional and no one criterion can be used to determine a best-of list. Hence, I must divide my favorites into categories. And yes, each choice would be worth many paragraphs of explanation, including the runners-up and tragic misfires. I'll be more concise.
1. Movies for grownups: I wish there were a lot more of these -- films in which the director and writer actually cared about the deep implications of their visual thought experiment -- their deliberate departure from reality. Works in which the creators paid close heed to logical what-if and (while delivering tasty action, plus biting social commentary) eschewed the lazy, "idiot plot"* assumption that civilization is automatically and entirely worthless. Some institutions actually function! Adversaries have plausible motives and no red, glowing eyes! Protagonists aren't chosen-ones but merely above-average people with difficult challenges to overcome, in part by using their heads.
Inception (2010) works harder than any film I ever saw. It can be overbearing, especially with the aggressive musical score cranked up! But I have never seen a director strive to juggle as many edgy intricacies as Nolan does in this mostly-successful tour-de-force.
Gattaca (1997) and Primer (2004) are much simpler films that nevertheless aim to tease your mind into real thinking. Gattaca isn't as dystopian as some lazily take it to be and the protagonist is actually a self-centered jerk… but a true hero nonetheless, whose triumph is largely one of character and mind. Primer is a delight of logic and an example of what can be done when very smart people have a filming budget of about eighty-five cents.
James Cameron gets a couple of mentions here. But the one that was for grownups is The Abyss (1989). Yeah, sure, the ending was… well, I don't care.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was epochal in its time -- it helped make me who I am, and remains a mind stretcher -- though it suffers a bit under close examination. So don't.
And Kubrick's other wonder…arguably the best motion picture ever made, though only marginally science fiction…Doctor Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).
Honorable mentions in this category would include the recent films Limitless (2011) and Moon (2009). The grownup in me says thank you.
2. Joyful slumming: At the opposite end are films that I could only watch by tuning my "dials" before entering the theater. Cranking IQ and science and even logic down to"popcorn" levels, without sacrificing my standards when it came to deeper values, beauty, esthetics, ethics. Admit it, some of your brains must be left outside the theater, in order to enjoy most flicks, and that's fine. In other words, appreciating as-if-stoned a movie-movie that is simply way-successful at delivering fun.
Noteworthy: all the fantasies are here. Show me one fantasy for grownups.
Conan the Barbarian (the original 1982) is simply the most successful film ever at delivering what it promised, while never promising what it couldn't deliver. Every scene is filled with visual and musical beauty amid a tale that hearkens to the deeply non-western, non-modern and joyfully brainless part of you and me, going back to the Iliad and Gilgamesh and the caves.
The Fifth Element (1997) is the single most joyful work of art I ever saw. Luc Besson's sheer pleasure leaps onto your lap like a great big, floppy-dumb retriever and licks your face for ninety minutes. I adore it. And it adores us.
Avatar (2009)… well, James Cameron would demand that we put Avatar in category number one or even number 3. Sorry. Nice try. It is beyond-brilliant in the popcorn category, but keep those neuron dials turned way down. And then murmur… "wow!"
In contrast, the Back to the Future (1985) trilogy comes that close to vaulting into category three. It's fantastic fun. bighearted, unabashedly logical and darn near perfect.
Honorable Mention in this category:
Lord of the Rings (2001)… all right, Peter Jackson delivered a superb work of art and it was definitely not "just popcorn." I have great respect for Tolkien's complex world building craft and Jackson's fealty to the original material. Still, neither the books nor the flicks bear adult scrutiny. So turn down the "adult" dials. Be a kid and enjoy. I know I did!
3. The whole package: Rarest of all -- films that take us beyond our familiar horizons on adventures that satisfy every age you contain within yourself, from awestruck kid to sober grownup to mystic dreamer.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) delivers from beginning to end. Not only a terrific motion picture but a love ode to the brash, Faustian, unbridled adolescent hopefulness that only Star Trek ever gave us, amid today's grotesque tsunami of grouchy-cliched dystopias.
Bladerunner (1982). Of course. Nothing need be said.
BEYOND THE TOP TEN … WE ALSO HAVE…
Runners-up: There are so many films that came close, or just missed. Dozens that were enjoyable and I'd have been proud to be associated with. Only nit-picking kept them off the top tier.
Contact (1997) was well worthwhile and inspiring, if a bit preachy in spots.
Gravity (2013). I expect this one may challenge its way into the Top Ten, with time. Exquisitely done, even if Cuaron depicts Earthy Orbit as roughly the size of L.A. County.
Things to Come (1936). My kids were bored. I was moved almost to tears by its paean to the civilization we might (with difficulty) make, if we overcome the worse sides of human nature. Maybe its a generation thing.
James Cameron's Aliens (1986) is the best film about motherhood ever created. And Terminator II (1991) was even better than the first one.
(Note: All through the 80s and 90s there was a "third movie curse" in which the third flick in a franchise betrayed everything good about the wondrous second film. It happened to Star Trek, Star Wars, Terminator and especially the Aliens series. But not Back to the Future, somehow.)
I'm not done! And so let me roll off some of my favorites that fall just outside the top ten, each one funky and unique and different in its own way:
Forbidden Planet (1956), Rollerball (1975), Soylent Green (1973), Men in Black (1997), Galaxy Quest (1999), Logan's Run (1976), Source Code (2011), The Truman Show (1998), The Time Machine (1960), District 9 (2009), Alien Nation (1988), Charly (1968), Serenity (2005)... plus weirdnesses like Brazil (1985), SteamBoy (2004) and Solaris (1972)… illustrating the fantastic range and breadth and wondrous opportunities for creativity that science fiction offers to those who think bold.
Special Category: Faustian SF. I especially like films that buck a cliche. And the worst cliche of all is hopeless gloom. A few… a bold few… express confidence in us, in our ability and righteous right to go beyond what we were, and in our children to be better than us… call these the anti-Crichton movies that declare the opposite of Michael's endless chiding: "don't touch that!"
Also expressing this rebel sense of belief-in-us: Ghostbusters (1984), Brainstorm (1983), Altered States (1980), Dark City (1998), Quatermass and the Pit (1958), and eXistentZ (1999). And may I be honest? Kevin Costner's The Postman (1997) was harmed by a nonsensical last 20 minutes - and was uneven throughout - and it might have benefited from even 5 minutes of talking to the original author. Still, large swathes of it were terrific. It features some of the most gorgeous cinematography in the history of film. Also, its heart was pure and brave and it belongs in this category. Still. Compare to the book.
Special Mention: Surprisingly, no single Steven Spielberg film made my top ten sci fi films. But almost all Spielberg films would make it into my top fifty, while Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and War of the Worlds (2005) and Minority Report (2002) skate much closer. Spielberg and Zemeckis are the most consistent and skilled story tellers of our age. Nolan and Cameron, while much more uneven and less disciplined, did make it onto the list. Vive les differences.
The Empire Strikes Back is a fine film in its own right, and it shows what a wonderful epic we might have had, if George Lucas had stuck to his strength, as one of the greatest of all visionary Hollywood producers, and simply hired great writers and directors for his films, the way he did in Empire… and the way he hired terrific artists for all the other Star Wars flicks. (Their one strong suit was then endlessly voluptuous visuals.) Alas, his choices became our tragedy.
The Day the Earth Stood Still… could have explored the immorality of the other side. It's smarmy and unhelpful preachiness prevented adding another layer of potentially really interesting counter-preachiness. How tasty if one human had stepped up and said: "I know, I know we are all that… but what are you?"
Total Recall… you're kidding me, right? You can be this creative -- in BOTH versions (1990 and 2012) -- yet still timidly shy away from getting all Philip K. Dick on us and persuading us to actually fret that it might all actually an actual bummer recall-trip? You couldn't do that? Why? I mean, why not? It would have been so easy and so cool. Dang.
Dune (1984)… actually, I have no major complaints. It's a pretty good movie and deLaurentis was utterly faithful to Herbert, accurately conveying the complex world and characters. Alas, lo and behold, the silver screen made clear what most readers of the novel - captivated and immersed - failed to notice. That every single character in the story is loathsome and ought to die. Yes, the "good" guys, too. Please. As quickly as possible.
And so it goes. Let's all hope that there will be great new films in the next decade the outshine all of the above!
Hey, here's a pitch: "dolphins… in space!"
Eh? Who could possibly beat that?
The "Idiot Plot Cliche" that civilization must always be portrayed as worthless.
Other science fiction riffs by David Brin:
Speculations on Science Fiction: collected articles.
Speculations on Science Fiction: collected articles.
Exploring Pop Culture: Star Wars to Tolkien: collected articles
A video rant: Name the Villain...