10 Best Old-School Sci-Fi Movies

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Without a doubt, science fiction is one of the most expansive and fascinating genres in all of cinema. It tackles imaginative concepts such as futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life, while also containing elements of numerous other genres, including action, drama, romance, adventure, and mystery.

However, the modern sci-fi blockbusters of today wouldn’t exist if not for the classic, old-school trailblazers that laid the foundation for what’s become one of the most popular film genres of all time. What exactly qualifies as old-school? Well, for the sake of this list, we’ll only consider films made prior to 1975 (sorry, Star Trek and Star Wars fans). With that in mind, here are the 10 best old-school sci-fi movies:

  1. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

    Director: James Whale

    Cast: Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive

    The Bride of Frankenstein is an eccentric, campy, technically impressive, and frightening picture that has aged remarkably well, telling the classic tale of Dr. Frankenstein tempting fate once again by creating a suitable mate for his monster. After initially refusing to do a sequel to Frankenstein, director James Whale would eventually falter when Universal agreed to let him have complete artistic freedom, and it was a big gamble that certainly paid off in the end.  The classic characters from Mary Shelley’s iconic novel truly come to life in this film, and few directors have managed to blend horror, comedy and pathos as successfully as Whale. More so than the original, this film is regarded as the high point of the Universal horror series and stands as a testament to Whale’s genius.

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  2. Forbidden Planet (1956)

    Director: Fred M. Wilcox

    Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen

    In Forbidden Planet, a starship crew goes to investigate the silence of a planet's colony only to find two survivors and a deadly secret that one of them has. It delivers the powerful message that no matter how high humanity climbs on the evolutionary scale, no matter how advanced our technology becomes, we must never forget the primal instincts of our darker nature. Overall, this is a great piece of sci-fi that has stood up really well over the past 60 years. The film may look rather quaint by today's standards, but it’s intelligent, funny and thought provoking – true, it's not really high art, but it’s certainly heads and shoulders above the standards set by the rest of the genre.

  3. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

    Director: Robert Wise

    Cast: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, and Hugh Marlowe

    Much more so than the 2008 reboot that starred Keanu Reeves, the 1951 iteration of The Day the Earth Stood Still is a tasteful and stylistic adaptation of Harry Bates’ story Farewell to the Master. The film employs themes of communism and religion in a narrative that explores an extraterrestrial landing in the United States, which naturally sends citizens and the government into a panicked, soul-searching frenzy. What’s most intriguing about this film, though, is the question it poses to the viewer: what if all of our power is obsolete in the eyes of a powerful species that visits our planet? It’s a premise that has been explored countless times since then, but The Day the Earth Stood Still stands out as one of the original films to address humanity’s collective feeling of powerlessness upon learning that we’re not alone, and more importantly, we’re not the dominant race in the universe.

  4. The Fly (1958)

    Director: Kurt Neumann

    Cast: David Hedison, Patricia Owens, Vincent Price

    Unlike The Day the Earth Stood Still, movie buffs generally look upon David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly with kinder eyes than the original version from 1958. In any case, both films are successful adaptations of George Langelaan’s short story, and the ‘50s version is an incredibly thrilling reminder that the reckless exploration of science can have dire consequences. Like Cronenberg's remake, the movie's main theme is love, but unlike the modern version, here the focus is on Andre's wife Helene, who must face her fears in order to save her husband of the cruel fate his accident unleashed. At the time of the film’s release, the entire concept was original, clever, fascinating, and within the context of the narrative, utterly plausible, making it all the more chilling. 

  5. Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

    Director: Byron Haskin

    Cast: Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, Adam West, and The Woolly Monkey

    A film that set the precedent for recent blockbusters like The Martian, Robinson Crusoe on Mars follows the story of a man attempting to survive on the harsh red planet after a standard expedition ends goes horribly wrong. The film makes expert use of uses inventive, practical effects to retell Daniel Defoe’s tale of survival, using locations such as Zabriskie Point, Castle Dome Peak, and Death Valley National Park as stand-ins for the alien surface, which Paul Mantee’s Commander Kit Draper must scour tirelessly for breathable air, food, and drink. Despite the brilliance of modern day visual effects, it’s truly Robison Crusoe on Mars’ charming, scrappy aesthetic that adds to the film’s overall charm.

  6. Young Frankenstein (1974)

    Director: Mel Brooks

    Cast: Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman

    In this satirical homage to the classic Universal horror films, an American grandson of the infamous scientist, struggling to prove that he is not as insane as people think, is invited to Transylvania where he discovers the process that reanimates a dead body.  Young Frankenstein is silly, absurd, has some clever sight gags and cringeworthy puns, and while it may not contain the self-referential, breaking-the-fourth-wall humor that made Spaceballs a classic, it's still loads of fun on its own merits. This is a cult classic, a comedy classic, and a perfect example of Mel Brooks at his best.

  7. Gojira (1954)

    Director: Ishirô Honda

    Cast: Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata, Akira Takarada

    In Gojira (known in the United States as Godzilla), nuclear weapons testing leads to the creation of a seemingly unstoppable reptilian beast. More than just straight monster-movie fare, Gojira offers potent, sobering post-war commentary that was particularly relevant in 1954 Japan, with the titular monster depicted not so much as a creature, but rather as a walking metaphor for the atomic bomb. Plus, unlike many modern interpretations, the human characters are actually very well-served in this film, with a compelling love triangle and a dramatic sacrifice that adds enormously to the overall emotional impact. Still, what’s most impressive is that in later Godzilla films, the destruction he causes is almost incidental. Here, it's the whole point - he's a force of nature.

  8. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

    Director: Don Siegel

    Cast: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates

    One of the best political allegories of the 1950s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an efficient, chilling blend of sci-fi and horror, as a small-town doctor learns that the population of his community is being replaced by emotionless alien duplicates. And despite the heavy subtext, the film remains original and insightful without becoming preachy, which is a true testament to director Don Siegel’s talent. A top-notch thriller on par with the best Hitchcock films, Invasion of the Body Snatchers epitomizes the American outlook and cold war hysteria of the era as no other film from the decade does.

  9. Metropolis (1927)

    Director: Fritz Lang

    Cast: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich

    A visually awe-inspiring sci-fi classic from the silent era, Metropolis takes viewers to a futuristic city sharply divided between the working class and the city planners, as a man falls in love with a prophet who predicts the coming of a savior to mediate their differences. Metropolis challenges its viewers to think about their relationship with society, both as a whole, and with each individual person, as well as contemplate the rationale of divisions amongst peoples and groups. It’s a landmark film that has stood the test of time and one that served as a cornerstone of the evolution of the science fiction/fantasy film genre. 

  10. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

    Director: Stanley Kubrick

    Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester

    One of the most influential – and controversial – of all sci-fi films, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is a delicate examination on the ingenuity, and foolishness, of mankind. It’s a story of evolution, which allows humanity to progressively discover hidden monoliths, with Kubrick also presenting plenty of food for thought about what it means to be human, and where the human race is going. To get the most out of 2001, though, you must tune your brain to a different wavelength and succumb to the pleasure of pure beauty, unfettered by the trite conventions of everyday films.

    What about you? What old-school sci-fi films do you think should be on this list? Let us know in the comments section!