Some movies defined what science fiction cinema is today. Their production teams pushed the boundaries of technology, inching our world closer to the future their stories imagined. The visuals in these movies are so iconic, sci-fi films and even music videos still pay homage to their imagery today.
So if you want to be in-the-know in the science fiction world, you need to check out these classic sci-fi movies every cinephile should see.
A Trip to the Moon
The first science fiction film. The most influential. If you see any film on this list, watch this one.
Georges Méliès, a French illusionist, actor, and one of the earliest film directors, created this short film in 1902. He was inspired by Jules Verne’s novels From the Earth to the Moon and Round the Moon.
Méliès’ filmography is well-known for its innovations in special effects. He made full use of the film’s physical medium. Multiple exposures were used to superimpose many images on a single shot, and Méliès invented the substitution splice—cutting in a new frame of film—to create mystical metamorphoses. Méliès even hand-painted black and white film to give his shots some color.
A Trip to the Moon plays out its director’s marvelous mind through its fantastical plot. A group of astronomers create a bullet-shaped space capsule and fire a huge cannon to launch it to the moon. The Man in the Moon watches over the whole adventure until their cannon hits him in the eye, at which point the astronomers disembark safely and watch the earth rise in the distance. Stars appear, with human faces, watching them back.
All is not peaceful, however—Selenites, insectoid moon aliens, try to capture the astronomers to take them back to their king. The astronomers now have to fight off the Selenites to make it back home safely.
Unfortunately, Méliès’ directing career ended tragically, as he became bankrupt due to debts owed to burgeoning film monopolies, including Thomas Edison’s. He could no longer make movies. After losing his company, Méliès burned his film negatives, sets, and costumes in a fit of rage. As a result, most of his films are lost to time.
But A Trip to the Moon lived on. While he died largely forgotten, Méliès has received much more acclaim since people have discovered this movie’s influence. Now, A Trip to the Moon is the first film listed in 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret and its film adaptation Hugo pay extensive tribute to Méliès.
Even the Disney Channel got in on the action, with a musical episode of Even Stevens featuring a parody of the Man in the Moon shot.
While A Trip to the Moon is the first science fiction film, Metropolis is the first feature-length science fiction movie. It’s based off of German writer Thea von Harbous’s 1925 novel, written as a treatment for her husband Fritz Lang’s eventual 1927 adaptation.
Von Harbou was educated in a convent, and she was by all accounts a child prodigy. She devoted her life to building a writing career of her own. Lang developed an interest in her novels and started adapting them to the silver screen.
Metropolis is their most famous collaboration. It’s set in a futuristic dystopia, where wealthy industrialists and business tycoons reign over the city of Metropolis in a colossal skyscraper. Lower income workers toil away underground to operate machines that control the city.
The city master’s son Freder meets a young teacher named Maria when she brings a group of worker’s children on a field trip to the upper levels. Freder falls in love at first sight and follows her back to the lower ring. In his search for Maria, he witnesses the brutality that keeps their civilization afloat.
Meanwhile, a group of workers kidnap Maria and use her likeness to create a Maria-robot that spreads dissent and threatens to destroy the entire city. Freder and Maria must find a way to save the city while also freeing the workers from their lifelong toil.
The film’s special effects expert Eugen Schufftan pioneered many visual effects we know and love today. Notably, he used a camera on a swing, miniature sets (which were instrumental in Star Wars and Titanic), and he invented the Schufftan Process, which uses mirrors to project actors into miniature sets, a major inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s film Blackmail.
Metropolis’ iconic design has inspired visuals for subsequent generations of artists. For instance, C-3PO takes his look after false-Maria. Janelle Monae based her concept albums Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) and The ArchAndroid after the film, paying homage with her cyborg design as well.
Lady Gaga has referenced the film in her music videos for “Alejandro,” “Born This Way,” and “Applause.” The song her stage name comes from, Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga,” even features clips from the movie in its music video.
The longest running film franchise, Godzilla emerged from the Pacific Ocean in 1954 and came back to life in 35 more films, not to mention the dozens of stories inspired by it.
In the OG Godzilla, directed by Ishiro Honda, freighter and fishing boats keep surfacing near Odo Island, destroyed. Local marine life becomes depleted. An elder blames an ancient sea creature and reporters arrive on Odo Island to investigate. That night, 17 homes are destroyed.
Odo residents flee to Tokyo for disaster relief, and the government sends paleontologist Kyohei Yamane to study the island. Kyohei discovers radioactive footprints among other prehistoric creatures. Suddenly, Godzilla emerges, a 50-meter-tall dinosaur. He’s been disturbed by underwater hydrogen bomb testing and now he’s out on a rampage.
The government throws all of its military power at Godzilla while Kyohei tries to stop them. In the conflict, Kyohei’s daughter Emiko discovers a horrifying superweapon that she needs to destroy before it can be used against people.
The filmmakers created Godzilla to represent the horrors of nuclear holocaust. The monster’s radioactive waste and atomic breath are remnants of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The government’s escalation of force also reveals the terror of living during a cold war.
Special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya established the technique of suitmation—the use of a human actor in a costume to play a giant monster—combined with miniatures and scaled-down city sets.
The original Godzilla has impacted many monster films and series after its time, notably the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers series. Furthermore, it kickstarted the kaiju genre in Japan, called the Monster Boom, which is still popular to this day with films like Pacific Rim and Cloverfield.
Creature from the Black Lagoon
In 1941, film producer William Alland attended a dinner party with Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. Figueroa told Alland a myth about a half-fish, half-human creature who haunted the Amazon river. This story stuck to Alland’s imagination, and over a decade later, in 1954, it finally surfaced as Creature from the Black Lagoon.
In this movie, geologists in the Amazon discover fossils revealing the missing link between land and sea animals. Dr. Carl Maia leaves camp to get more funding to study these fossils. When he returns, he finds his assistant, slain by a creature with huge claws.
Carl’s colleagues convince him it was a jaguar attack. It’s a tragedy, but they must continue searching for fossils. They explore the black lagoon—a tropical paradise that has taken the lives of everyone before them. As they adventure, they realize they’re not looking for fossils anymore: there’s a real amphibious monster sharing the swamps with them.
The Creature picks off crewmembers one by one. It stalks Kay, the team’s only woman, and abducts her, taking her to its cavernous lair. Carl and the other scientists must rescue Kay and escape the lagoon before the Creature can kill them all.
This movie’s gill-man has inspired every subsequent amphibious monster in sci-fi films. He has even joined other films to duke it out with iconic monsters, most famously in Frankenstein vs. The Creature from Blood Cove. Pennywise the Clown even morphs into the gill-man to kill a victim in Stephen King’s novel It.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick directed this 1968 film, and its ground-breaking, shockingly realistic visuals cemented his place as one of the greatest filmmakers in cinematic history. While he’s renowned for his entire body of work, this movie is the only one that would win him an Oscar, for Best Visual Effects.
Steven Spielberg refers to this film as his generation’s “big bang.” That’s how unprecedented it was.
2001: A Space Odyssey’s winding plot defies concise summary. Basically, a team of astronauts are bound for Jupiter in a spaceship controlled by HAL, a computer with a human personality. As HAL sabotages their spaceship, the humans realize they’re really on a physics-defying journey to uncover a monolith that has appeared in human history for millennia.
Many fans love this film’s unorthodox story, which uses sparse dialogue and eludes standard film narrative techniques. But it’s the visual effects that make this movie a classic. It portrays a gorgeous, scientifically-accurate depiction of space flight—in 1968.
No visual in this film is computer-generated—it’s all practical effects.
Kubrick simulated artificial gravity by strategically rotating cameras and sets using a specially-designed, 27-ton Ferris wheel rig; astronauts went for jogs on ceilings and walls while floating through space. He crafted zero-gravity effects by hiding wires with camera angles; astronauts bounded through their spaceship, unfettered by earthly forces.
Kubrick’s intense attention to detail is perhaps why his visuals stand the test of time. While other films’ CGI effects become cheesy over time, 2001: A Space Odyssey remains beloved and beautiful.
Star Wars IV: A New Hope
By the late 1970s, science fiction films were kind of on the way out. People associated sci-fi with rubber costumes and pulpy plots, like Godzilla or Creature from the Black Lagoon. What used to delight moviegoers was now cringe. And sure, 2001: A Space Odyssey was beautiful, but its storyline was admittedly heady and bleak.
It was the Cold War. People were over existential threats. Science fiction was a dead genre walking.
But then in 1978, everything changed when Lucasfilms released Star Wars IV: A New Hope. Not only was it full of stunning lightsaber battles, gorgeous spacecraft flights, and dreamy Mark Hamill, but also it had a story brimming with optimism, love, and—well, a little cheese is okay—hope.
You probably know the premise. In case you don’t, here it is.
Young Luke Skywalker is growing up on the dusty desert planet Tatooine while galactic war looms over his head. He dreams of adventure—and adventure finds him when he discovers the robot R2-D2 in the clutches of Jawa traders. From R2-D2, Luke uncovers plans to the Death Star, a weapon capable of destroying planets. These plans were smuggled into R2’s memory bank by rebel leader Princess Leia just before her capture at the hands of Darth Vader, an imperial Sith Lord.
Elderly hermit Obi Wan Kenobi rescues Luke and R2 from scavenging Sand People, and he reveals to Luke the lost history of the Jedi, peacekeeping knights who drew mysterious abilities from the force, a metaphysical energy that guides everything in the universe. Obi-Wan offers to teach Luke how to be a Jedi, and they journey to rescue Princess Leia and save the universe.
George Lucas crafted a universe full of strange creatures, cinematic planets, beloved characters, and iconic soundscapes. Even people who have never seen Star Wars can recognize the glowing thrum of a lightsaber, the mechanic gasps of Darth Vader’s mask, and R2-D2’s chirpy droid whistles.
And Lucas reinvigorated movie-goers’ love of science fiction with this dramatic space opera.
A New Hope is the fourth-highest grossing movie in history, and it paved the way for popcorn-munching blockbusters like Jurassic Park and The Avengers. Just as Luke provided a new hope for the galaxy, so Star Wars gave new dreams to science fiction fans around the world.