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Best classic sci-fi movies from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, ranked

These movies set the template for what sci-fi is today.

Sci-fi classics
Images via Star Wars/Mad Max/Alien

Sci-fi movies are not new, but the proliferation of high-budget films with outlandish, futuristic premises is a relatively recent phenomenon in Hollywood. For a long time during their early history as a genre, sci-fi movies were B-movies. Eventually, though, a generation of directors who grew up watching those B-movies came to Hollywood and began commanding massive budgets to tell similar stories.

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The early history of sci-fi movies features lots of truly strange movies, but there are also plenty of gems buried in Hollywood’s history. These science fiction movies helped establish what the genre would ultimately become, and have had a lasting legacy on both audiences and the creative minds making new science fiction today.

15. Soylent Green (1973)

It’s campy as all get-out, and could easily win awards for that piled-on melodrama, but Soylent Green is worth any sci-fi fan’s time. The 1973 flick certainly shows its age — after 50 years, what film doesn’t? — but its’ genuinely plausible — and intriguing — take on the classic dystopian future format pays off. If you’ve never heard the iconic quote that polishes this particular gem off, I won’t ruin the big surprise for you, but in a sea of robotic overlords and zombie outbreaks, Soylent Green is a breath of fresh air.

14. The Fly (1958)

Not to be confused with the ’80s remake of the same name, The Fly is a classic B-movie with remarkably solid effects considering its 1958 release. The film tells the story of a scientist testing a matter transporter who finds himself transforming into a fly after one buzzes into his machine just before he turns it on. The Fly is early body horror at its finest, and the prosthetics used to make Al Hedison seem like a man transforming into a fly still feel horrific today. While it may not be for everyone, those who are into some pretty icky body horror will find a lot to love in the original version of The Fly.

13. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters is equal parts family drama and sci-fi blockbuster. It follows a group of people who become obsessed with proving the UFOs actually do exist. Roy, played by an extraordinary Richard Dreyfuss, begins to blow up his family because of his singular obsession with the UFOs, and the movie is as much about having a mid-life crisis as it is about extraterrestrial life. The best sci-fi knows how to take an outlandish premise and make it feel both vivid and plausible, and that’s exactly what Close Encounters does so well.

12. Westworld (1973)

Most modern viewers are already well familiar with the plot of Westworld, thanks to an award-winning HBO adaptation of the popular story. The intriguing tale of a high-tech amusement park inhabited by androids first made its way to screens several decades before HBO’s attempt, however, with the release of 1973’s Westworld. The film continues to earn high praise from viewers, who tend to zero in on Yul Brynner’s absolutely delightful depiction of the Gunslinger.

11. Mad Max (1979)

Any story that manages to captivate its audience over multiple generations is bound to be a winner, and such is certainly the case for Mad Max. The 1979 film manages to pack in all the requirements of a contemporary action flick, offering up crashes, car chases, and police violence in droves. The effects are particularly impressive when you consider the time period in which the original Mad Max was filmed, which leaned on exclusively practical effects to pull off all those wild collisions.

10. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

A Cold War fable about the foolishness of violence, The Day the Earth Stood Still tells the story of an alien and his robot who travel to Earth after watching the proliferation of nuclear weapons on the planet. Ironically, these aliens are greeted with hostility by humanity, and it’s up to a single mother and her son to remind all of us to reach for our better angels. It’s a simple movie, but profound in the way it speaks to the fears that were constantly present in the early 1950s as the Cold War became the dominant threat to humanity.

9. Solaris (1972)

In a decade filled with incredible films from Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris ultimately proved to be the most influential. Following a psychologist who is asked to travel to a space station orbiting a planet called Solaris, the movie follows him as he realizes that the planet brings out repressed memories and obsessions from your past. Solaris is not the most thrilling sci-fi movie ever made, but it is undeniably moving, and its exploration of loss and grief make it well worth its runtime of close to three hours.

8. The War of the Worlds (1953)

One of the most recognizable sci-fi offerings out there, the story of War of the Worlds has been attempted on several different occasions. While most audiences are likely most familiar with the Tom Cruise-helmed 2005 version (or maybe the more recent television series) the story was first captured on film in the early ’50s. Out of all seven adaptations of H. G. Wells’ late 1800s novel, many would argue the first is the best. It’s dated in certain areas, but the flick does a wonderful job of capturing the unnerving and distressing intent behind the timeless staple of sci-fi literature.

7. La Jetée (1962)

On a list filled with massive artistic swings, La Jetée is undoubtedly the biggest swing. The movie is told as a series of still photographs, and follows a man who travels to the past and discovers that he witnessed his own murder on the beach as a boy. Although it’s told in a remarkably lo-fi manner, La Jetée gets at the memories that shape who we are, and remains an enduring time travel story to this day. There’s a reason it was remade as Twelve Monkeys decades later, and it’s because this first film has had such a lasting legacy.

6. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

This movie is pretty undeniably about America’s paranoia about Communist infiltration, but it’s also a pretty great thriller. Telling the story of a doctor who slowly realizes that his community is being replaced by aliens who have no personalities or souls, the movie is about his attempt to escape from the monotony. The movie is told as an extended flashback, and it isn’t until the movie’s final moments that someone finally believes the good doctor and realizes that the entire nation is being invaded by these aliens who look so much like the people you know and love.

5. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

This list is populated by quite a few classics, many of which have already earned remakes, but A Clockwork Orange is not among them. The film’s dark premise and challenging structure could by the primary culprit behind its lack of a modern retelling, but I’d like to think its more due to the original’s staying power. While it, like many of the films on this list, is inevitably dated, it maintains the thought-provoking nature that made it a hit in the first place. Don’t turn to Clockwork Orange if you’re looking for a lighthearted romp, but if you’ve never enjoyed everything that makes the film a classic, it certainly deserves a spot on your list.

4. Alien (1979)

Alien tells the story of a cargo vessel and its working-class crew drifting through space in the distant future. It’s arguably a horror movie with a sci-fi twist. After responding to a distress signal, the crew finds that a member of their team has been infected with a beast capable of killing all of them with ease. The movie then takes delight in watching the crew get picked off one by one until only Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is left standing, and is forced to flee the ship with her cat in tow.

3. Planet of the Apes (1968)

It may be widely thought of in relation to its final twist these days, but Planet of the Apes is great long before you realize where Charlton Heston’s main character actually is. Telling the story of one astronaut’s journey into what turns out to be a future in which earth is ruled by apes, the movie is a wonderful allegory for racial prejudice even before it’s final warning about nuclear holocaust. The makeup and practical effects used to create the film’s talking apes are phenomenal, and the movie still looks great more than 50 years after it was released.

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

You may not understand 2001, but you’re almost guaranteed to be awed by it. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, the movie tells an epic story that stretches from the distant past into the future, and chronicles an investigation into mystical black monoliths that have begun showing up all over the galaxy. Hal-9000 may be the most iconic character in the film, but its mind-bending final sequence totally defies explanation — intentionally so. 2001 is filled with massive ideas, and it’s only by watching it over and over that you can begin digging beneath the surface of them.

1. Star Wars (1977)

Although some may define it as a space opera first, Star Wars is the undeniable moment when science fiction storytelling fully entered the mainstream. The movie was a phenomenon, and that’s in part because of its completely immersive aesthetic. This wasn’t a world in which everything was sleek and shiny. In fact, Star Wars is notable in part because of how run-down and beat up everything looks. It’s a movie that redefined what movies could be — even before a whole universe of movies sprung up around what’s now known as Episode IV – and it likely remains the greatest science fiction film ever put to screen.