Part five of our series covers sci-fi and fantasy movies. Of all our sections, this was the most difficult to create: not because we argued over the selections (though we did), but because we argued over where to draw the line on what constitutes sci-fi and fantasy. For instance, does Richard Linklater’s cerebral Waking Life count as fantasy? Does Iron Man count as sci-fi? After intense debate, we defined sci-fi’s and fantasies as “movies that portray the supernatural, otherworldly, and things otherwise outside our current reality”, leading us to say no to the former and yes to the latter. Additionally, you’ll notice that the list is skewed toward sci-fi — quick, name five great fantasy movies that aren’t in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Our final list reflects the best of both genres: well acted, well directed epics that transport us to the edges of human imagination.
Now, without further ado, grab some popcorn, sit back, and dim the lights. The show’s about to start.
Methodology: like our books piece, the selections for our Definitive Men’s Movie Collection represent our favorites, “considered in the light of how much they changed our lives, and might change yours.” If it makes you feel any better that your favorite flick didn’t make the cut, consider that one of our auditors, in a moment of weakness, tried to get Nick Cage’s Ghostrider on the docket. Taste is subjective, so take this for what it’s worth.
When Ridley Scott’s sci-fi noir debuted in 1982, it flopped at the box office. As it turns out, competing with E.T. was a bad idea. The film’s intensely detailed portrayal of 2019 Los Angles — retrofitted by designers Lawrence G. Paull, Douglas Trumbull and Syd Mead — as well as a thought-provoking story addressing what it means to be human quickly garnered a cult following whose fervency eventually transformed public opinion. During its 22 year journey from mistake to masterpiece, seven different versions of the film have been cut and shared with various audiences. If you haven’t already, make sure you watch The Final Cut 25th anniversary edition remastered by Scott himself.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesSound of My Voice
This recent release, which slipped past the radar of many sci-fi fans due to its ultra-low budget, is a powerful new addition to the time travel movie subgenre. The beautiful and brilliant Brit Marling, who co-wrote the screen play, stars as an enigmatic cult leader claiming to come from the future who’s set on preparing a select few for the wars of humanity to come. Forget about special effects — this movie is testament to the value of excellent writing.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesMoon
Newcomer director Duncan Jones proved like few before him that blowing minds is equally, if not more, compelling than blowing shit up in his indie sci-fi thriller about a solo helium-3 harvester at the end of his three year shift.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesMetropolis
The cultural legacy of Fritz Lang’s 1927 gamble on movies and visions of the future cannot be over stated. That’s a good thing, considering it took a budget worthy of 20 pictures of the day (easily making it the most expensive movie made at the time) to execute his singular vision of the urban dystopia. Oh, and it’s also credited as being the first feature-length movie in the sci-fi genre.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesCube
This 1997 indie flick from Canada is often lumped into the psychological horror category, but its fear factor seems mild by today’s standards. The plot involves a strange mixture of seemingly random characters who awake to find themselves locked in an elaborate booby trapped prison (guess the shape?). The acting is bad. The plot is thin. But the premise is oh-so-intriguing.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesBig Fish
Do tall tales qualify as fantasy? We think so. Based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, Tim Burton’s richly saturated portrayal of a dying man’s wild recollections is like Forrest Gump unhinged — and that’s a good thing.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesIron Man
Jon Favreau’s debut as a big-budget action director wowed audiences, revived Robert Downey Jr.’s career and kicked off one of industry’s most ambitious movie master plans ever. Get ready to watch Avenger films for the next 70 years.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesTron
Released during the dawn of the video game and computing industries, Disney’s foray into sci-fi set a new bar for visual effects. The story isn’t Shakespeare, but Jeff Bridges made the most of it. We’ll also give the movie credit for inspiring one of Dave Chapelle’s best characters, whether it deserves it or not.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Matrix
Though the concept of machines overthrowing humanity wasn’t a new theme in sci-fi when the Wachowski siblings made The Matrix, their breakout hit still felt wholly original. Its sequels were disappointments, but The Matrix left an indelible impact on action and fight cinematography. We’re grateful for the gratuitous slow-mo and Keanu Reeves’ lines like “I know Kung Fu”. Tight leather and Rob Zombie…not so much.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesStar Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope
Being the first film in (arguably) the best sci-fi series of all time should be enough of a reason to watch this movie. If you need others, there are the entertaining antics of Luke and crew — which also happen to be the roots of a genius plot — along with incredible action scenes like the destruction of the Death Star (whoops, we spoiled it).
Amazon DVD / NetflixDistrict 9
Apartheid, with aliens.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesGravity
The anti-blockbuster, in some ways. Its simplistic yet terrifying plot and setting give us something we’re long due: a space disaster movie that’s as moving as it is visually arresting. Though it just came out, we predict it’ll be a classic.Total Recall
Arnold kills a lot of bad guys in this one, and the deaths are more unsettling than most of his homocides. Why? Because you don’t know whether he’s crazy or right for the majority of the movie. When we saw the three-breasted woman’s incredible bosom for the first time, our eyes popped out of their sockets like Arnold’s do in zero atmosphere.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesOblivion
Tom Cruise shows off his many faces as a truly versatile actor. It’s got the twist, the beauty of a post apocalyptic world and an awesome loft home with a see-through swimming pool.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesDonnie Darko
Don your indie kid gear and prepare for some depression. Plane crashes, promises of the end of days, incredibly creepy rabbit costumes, alternate realities — but, in the end, selfless victory.
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Ready to get damn heavy? Put on this Clive Owen beauty, wherein the world is coming to an end because women are no longer able to conceive. But wait! Someone’s got a glow about them…
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesGattaca
In the not-too-distant future, Ethan Hawke is a genetically inferior guy who dreams of going to space. In order to achieve his astro-dreams, he assumes the identity of a genetically perfect paraplegic named Jerome Morrow. Everything’s coming up Ethan until his perfect plan threatens to fall apart.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesSunshine
What could go wrong on a mission to restart the sun? We like to imagine that Boyle, once seeing his allotted budget from the studio, decided to take twice the recommended dosage of Zanex before beginning to direct his film. The movie is a wide detour from his other jump-cut, phrenetic style of filmmaking, and it’s all the better for it (arguably, until the last quarter of the movie).
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Fifth Element
Bruce Willis takes a break from Die Hard to play Korben Dallas, a taxi driver who accidentally becomes a central player in an intergalactic battle between good and evil. Is Milla Jovovich the sexiest alien ever?
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Fall
In a 1920s Los Angeles hospital, a young girl befriends a paralyzed stuntman. While they recover, the stuntman tells the girl a story about six men trying to kill a corrupt governor. Amazing cinematography complements the surreal plot.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesInvasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
It’s rooted in a terrifying premise: an unbelievable reality being mistaken for the gibberings of madness. The result is a classic of unsettling simplicity.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / NetflixWestworld
Ever wanted to visit an adult amusement park where you could live out your every fantasy with lifelike, animatronic robots? So did the guys in this movie, until a computer malfunction caused things to go terribly, terribly wrong. Given the plot, we’re lucky that this was made in the more conservative 1973, though we still fear a remake.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesContact
Based on a novel by the late, stellar Carl Sagan, this is the story of a woman who dedicates her life to finding life on another planet. She does, in the form of alien chatter that, when decoded, contains plans for a gargantuan transportation device. The nations of the world unite to build it. Questions arise: what is humanity? What is religion? What lies beyond our plane of existence? Why Matthew McConaughey?
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesStar Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Shatner, Nemoy, et al. get together to stop a devilish dude named Khan from using the Genesis Device as a weapon. If you liked the show, you’ll like the movie, though if you liked the show, you’ve probably already seen it.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesMinority Report
Thirty years in the future, police have the ability to predict crimes and arrest criminals before they act. Tom Cruise is an officer tasked with enforcing these pre-crime premonitions…until his name comes up as one of the criminals.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesPan’s Labyrinth
In Facist Spain, Ofelia escapes into a wicked-creepy fantasy world. A Guillermo del Toro classic, the movie blends surrealism, intrigue and entertainment into one beautiful film.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesWillow
A street-smart dwarf finds a special baby in a river and has to protect it from mean dog-esque monsters and an evil sorceress named Queen Bavmorda. Iceman from Top Gun shows up to help out.
Amazon DVD / NetflixWALL-E
Kicking off with the best 30 minutes of cinema Pixar has ever produced, Wall-E (eventually) follows a trash-compactor and an iPod who head into to space to save mankind. The movie pushes beyond traditional animated kid movie into serious filmmaking territory. It ends up back on familar Pixar ground, though even that’s pretty entertaining.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesBack to the Future
Marty McFly is accidentally sent 30 years back in time in a DeLorean by the crazy Dr. Emmit Brown. Once there, he has to make sure his parents hook up in order to ensure his future existence. Cue Johnny B. Goode guitar solo.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesSpirited Away
Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece makes one of the best efforts ever at capturing the essence of the fantasy genre. Chihiro, an unassuming girl, is transported to a sprawling, mystical world and has to find her way back home before it’s too late.
Amazon DVD / Netflix
Before he was Jack Bauer, Keifer Sutherland played Dr. Daniel P. Schreber in this nightmarish story about a group of aliens that experiment with an entire city of humans in hope of discovering the key to immortality. Hint — it’s eating more fruits and vegetables. Duh.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Dark Crystal
From the imaginative mind of Jim Henson comes the tale of Jen, a young Gelfling who sets out to find a shard of the dark crystal and restore order to his world.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesDestiny
A Fritz Lang classic from 1921. When a young woman begs Death for her fiancé’s safe return, the kind-hearted Death offers her a test: if she can save him from one of three scenarios, Death will return her fiancé to life.
Amazon DVD / NetflixThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
In this film adaptation of the third installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Aragorn, Gandalf, Gimli and Legolas continue their orc-slaying spree, this time with help from the armies of men. Featuring the Battle of Minas Tirith and an epic, epic soundtrack. How humorous that Sauron thinks he has a chance.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Thirteenth Floor
Old man discovers that his computer simulations possess real feelings and emotions. Old man leaves a letter for his colleague explaining his discovery inside the simulation. Old man gets murdered. And that’s just in the first five minutes.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesStar Trek (2009)
This re-up of the original movies makes us fans privy to the career origins of Commander James T. Kirk (that cocky rapscallion), his right-hand man Spock, Scotty, Uhura, and Bones…There’s a big Romulan/human/Vulcan/everyone disagreement over what year it actually is. J. J. Abrams knocks it out the the park/universe.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes2001: A Space Odyssey
Dun. Duuun. Duuuunnnn…DUN DAHHHHH. This Kubrickian masterwork transcends the genre because in many ways it defines the genre. Calling into question what evolution actually means and where our species is heading, the film is at once beautiful and horrifying, timeless and dated, but most of all, epic.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesPlanet of the Apes
Basically an allegory warning humans to be nicer to monkeys (just kidding…sort of), this film about a dystopian future finds Charlton Heston at his gun-toting, holier-than-thou best. Even when he makes out with a primate.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesTerminator 2: Judgement Day
There are few things cooler than watching Arnold flip cock a shotgun, but some of them are: a) watching a liquid metal terminator not die multiple times, b) watching Sarah Connor kick ass in an asylum, c) Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesRoboCop
In a [vaguely fictional] dystopian future, Detroit Police Office Alex Murphy gets his ass kicked in half, but luckily (sort of), the Detroit PD has signed a deal with Omni Consumer Products to allow them full control of the force. They introduce a cyborg law enforcement prototype that essentially resurrects Murphy, who kicks more ass and uncovers a wee bit of corruption along the way.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesIndependence Day
When aliens invade the earth, only Jeff Goldblum can figure out what they’re up to. Good thing he punched the president once, and good thing that Will Smith is PISSED at the aliens for killing Harry Connick, Jr., and good thing crazy ol’ Russell is eager to avenge his formerly-probed-by-aliens self because those suckers aren’t gonna get this planet without a fight. Not on our…Independence…DAY.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Day the Earth Stood Still
Klaatu arrives on Earth to forewarn our us that our constant warring will grant no us no favors in the future. But, silly humans that we are, we go all “scared, violent primitive race” and nearly kill the poor guy. It’s a lesson in humility and peace, and also the granddaddy of alien flicks — not to be missed by film aficionados and/or sci-fi nerds the universe over.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesLabyrinth
Jim Henson and George Lucas teamed up to make a movie that has nothing to do with talking frogs or Jedis. Instead, a young Jennifer Connelly wishes her defenseless kid brother would be taken away by goblins because he took her teddy bear. Naturally, David Bowie, King of the Goblins, shows up to tell her she can have the brother back if she solves his Labyrinth within 13 hours and then proceeds to sing and dance on M.C. Escher staircases.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesStar Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
The Empire wins one, the Rebel Alliance is in shambles and Han Solo overshadows Luke as a true hero. This is storytelling at its finest, before George Lucas lost his mind.
Amazon DVD / NetflixAlien
The fear of the unseen will always be more effective than creature overload. Ridley Scott knows this better than most, and showcases it here — his best work.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesPredator
The movie that taught us that dry shaving in the humid jungle isn’t a great idea, because it makes you look crazy. It also taught us that if something bleeds, you can kill it. ‘Nuff said.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesMad Max
Mel Gibson plays an Australian policeman who sets out to avenge his partner, his wife and his son whom were murdered by a motorcycle gang in retaliation for the death of their leader. Oh, yea — dystopia.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesAvatar
James Cameron’s long awaited sci-fi project is a visual marvel, pushing the envelope of the aesthetics of film. A Marine who’s been paralyzed is pushed into an “avatar” of another intelligent species that humans are battling to conquer. Like John Smith before him, he realizes his perspective isn’t the only viable one.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunes12 Monkeys
Bruce Willis time travels to stop a deadly virus that’s wiped out most of the population. Brad Pitt makes for a remarkably good crazy person.
Amazon DVD / Amazon Download / Netflix / iTunesThe Prestige
Interestingly enough, Nolan has made the practice of his namesake act in magic (The Pledge, The Turn, The Prestige) a hallmark of his films. Jackman called The Prestige “the most perfect movie I have ever worked on”, and this often overlooked — yet arguably Nolan’s best — is a movie that to us explains exactly how Nolan crafts his films. He draws us in with a premise, distracts us with expertly filmed tropes, then leaves us realizing that we were wrong about everything as he reveals his plot in a final spellbinding montage.
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