The 25 Best Sci-Fi Movies on Max Right Now (Feb. 2024)

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The 25 Best Sci-Fi Movies on Max Right Now (Feb. 2024)

The first thing one notices, looking at the best sci-fi movies on Max, is that there’s an unusual level of genuine curation involved here. The overall scope of the service might not be quite as broad as something like Netflix, but you’re likely to have heard of far more of these films. That’s because unlike the catalog of Netflix, Hulu or (especially) Amazon Prime, the bulk of the selections here aren’t made up of modern, straight-to-VOD, zero-budget productions with vague, one-word titles. Rather, almost everything here received a wide release at some point.

That makes for an interesting sci-fi library indeed, one that balances total schlock with acclaimed works by the likes of Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick. There are alien classics here, and sentient robots, and plenty of action and horror crossovers as well.

In fact, of all the major streamers, HBO Max likely has the library most focused on what you’d call older “classics,” rather than newer releases—fine with us, considering that segment tends to be less well represented.

You may also want to consult the following, sci-fi centric lists:

The 100 best sci-fi movies of all time
The 100 best sci-fi TV shows of all time
The best sci-fi movies on Netflix
The best sci-fi movies on Amazon Prime

Here are the best sci-fi movies on Max:


1. A Clockwork Orange

Year: 1971
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri, Miriam Karlin
Rating: R

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As with most (well, probably all) of Stanley Kubric’s book-to-screen adaptations, A Clockwork Orange remixes several aspects from Anthony Burgess’s novel, and probably for the better (at least Alex [a terrifyingly electric Malcolm McDowell] isn’t a pedophile in Kubrick’s film, for example). It’s still a relentlessly vicious satire portraying a society permissive of brutal youth culture, one where modern science and psychology are the best countermeasures in combating the Ultra Violence™ that men like Alex and his fellow “droogs” commit. It’s painfully clear that when Alex is cast as a victim by the British Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharp) that—spoiler alert!—evil wins. Christ, can any of us ever hear ”Singing in the Rain” the same again after this nightmare? —Scott Wold

 


2. Stalker

stalker-movie-poster.jpgYear: 1979
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Stars: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimee
Rating: NR
Runtime: 140 minutes

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“Once, the future was only a continuation of the present. All its changes loomed somewhere beyond the horizon. But now the future’s a part of the present.” So says the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, somewhere deep in the Zone, contemplating the deeper trenches of his subconscious, of his fears and life and whatever “filth” exists within him. “Are they prepared for this?” he asks. In Tarkovsky’s last Soviet film, the director seems to be admitting that what he’s feared most has come to pass. What that means is of course nebulous for a viewer not steeped in the director’s life or in the history of the country that was both home and hostile to him and his work throughout most of his life. Based very loosely on Roadside Picnic, a novel by brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky (who also wrote the screenplay), Stalker imagines a dystopic future not far from our present—or Tarkovsky’s present, before the fall of the Berlin Wall or the devastation of Chernobyl—in which some sort of otherworldly force has deposited a place humans have called “the Zone” onto Earth. There, the laws of Nature don’t apply, time and space thwarted by the hidden desires and wills of all those who enter it. Of course, the government has set up cordons around the Zone, and entry is strictly prohibited. Guides/liaisons called “stalkers” head illegal expeditions into the Zone, taking clients (often intellectual elites who can afford the trip) into the heart of the restricted, alien area—in search of, as we learn as the film slowly moves on, the so-called “Room,” where a person’s deepest desires become reality. One such Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) is hired by the aforementioned Writer and a physicist (or something) known only as the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) to lead them into the Zone, spurred by vague ideas of what they’ll find when they reach the Room. The audience is as much in the dark, and through Tarkovsky’s (near-intolerably) patient shots, the three men come to discover, as do those watching their journey, what has really brought them to such an awful extreme as hiring a spiritual criminal to guide them into the almost certain doom of whatever the Zone has waiting for them. And yet, no context properly prepares a viewer for the harrowing, hypnotic experience of watching Stalker. Between the sepia wasteland outside the Zone (so detailed in its grime and suspended misery you may need to take a shower afterwards) and the oversaturated greens and blues of the wreckage inside, Tarkovsky moves almost imperceptibly, taking the rhythms of industry and the empty lulls of post-industrial life to the point of making the barely mystical overwhelmingly manifest. Throughout that push and pull, there is the mounting sense of escape—of Tarkovsky escaping the Soviet Union and its restrictions on his films, maybe—as equally as there is the sense that escape should never be attempted. Because some freedom, some knowledge, isn’t meant for us. —Dom Sinacola


3. Ex Machina

5-best-so-far-2015-Ex-Machina.jpgYear: 2015
Director: Alex Garland
Stars: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac
Rating: R
Runtime: 108 minutes

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While popular science-fiction films have taught us that, no matter what we do, robots that become self-aware will eventually rise up and kill us, recent advances in artificial intelligence in the real world have confirmed something much seedier about the human imperative: If given the technology to design thinking, feeling robots, we will always try to have sex with them. Always. Alex Garland’s beautifully haunting film seems to want to bridge that gap. Taking cues from obvious predecessors like 2001: A Space Odyssey and AI—some will even compare it to HerEx Machina stands solidly on its own as a highly stylized and mesmerizing film, never overly dependent on CGI, and instead built upon the ample talents of a small cast. The film’s title is a play on the phrase deus ex machina (“god from the machine”), which is a plot device wherein an unexpected event or character seemingly comes out of nowhere to solve a storytelling problem. Garland interprets the phrase literally: Here, that machine is a robot named Ava, played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, and that nowhere is where her creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), performs his research and experiments. Ava is a heavenly mechanical body of sinewy circuitry topped with a lovely face, reminiscent of a Chris Cunningham creation. Her creator is an alcoholic genius and head of a Google-like search engine called Bluebook which has made him impossibly rich. Enter Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who is helicoptered in after winning a lottery at work for which the prize is a week at Nathan’s house. Nathan also intends to use Caleb to conduct something of a Turing test on steroids with Ava to determine if she can truly exhibit human behavior. In fact, Ex Machina seems designed around the performances of its excellent mini-ensemble; it’s an awfully attractive film, appropriately seductive. No doubt it was intended to provoke conversations about the morality inherent in “creating” intelligence—as well as whether it’s cool to have sex with robots or not. —Jonah Flicker

 


4. Aliens

Year: 1986
Director: James Cameron
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Michael Biehn
Rating: R
Runtime: 138 minutes

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James Cameron colonizes ideas: Every beautiful, breathtaking spectacle he assembles works as a pointillist representation of the genres he inhabits–sci-fi, horror, adventure, thriller–its many wonderful pieces and details of worldbuilding swarming, combining to grow exponentially, to inevitably overshadow the lack at its heart, the doubt that maybe all of this great movie-making is hiding a dearth of substance at the core of the stories Cameron tells. An early example of this pilgrim’s privilege is Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s horror masterpiece, in which Cameron mostly jettisons Scott’s figurative (and uncomfortably intimate) interrogation of masculine violence to transmute that urge into the bureaucracy that only served as a shadow of authoritarianism in the first film. Cameron blows out Scott’s world, but also neuters it, never quite connecting the lines from the aggression of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation to the maleness of the military industrial complex, but never condoning that maleness, or that complex, either. Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) story about what happened on the Nostromo in the first film is doubted because she’s a woman, sure, but mostly because the story spells disaster for the corporation’s nefarious plans. Private Vasquez’s (Jennette Goldstein) place in the Colonial Marine unit sent to LV-426 to investigate the wiping out of a human colony is taunted, but never outright doubted, her strength compared to her peers pretty obvious from the start. Instead, in transforming Ripley into a full-on action hero/mother figure–whose final boss battle involves protecting her ersatz daughter from the horror of another mother figure–Cameron isn’t messing with themes of violation or the role of women in an economic hierarchy, he’s placing women by default at the forefront of mankind’s future war. It’s magnificent blockbuster filmmaking, and one of the first films to redefine what a franchise can be within the confines of a new director’s voice and vision.–Dom Sinacola


5. Her

Year: 2013
Director: Spike Jonze
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde
Rating: R

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Spike Jonze’s colossal talent was far too great to remain trapped in MTV’s orbit; that became immediately clear when his breakout feature-length debut, Being John Malkovich, earned him an Oscar nod for Best Director. Following that minor postmodern masterpiece, he and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman continued their journey into solipsism with the hilariously unhinged Adaptation. As challenging, yet fun and accessible as Kaufman’s screenplays are, Jonze’s Her answers any lingering questions of whether those two movies’ (well-deserved) acclaim sprang solely from the power of Kaufman’s words. Retaining the sweetest bits of the empathetically quirky characters, psycho-sexuality and hard-wrung pathos of Malkovich, Her successfully realizes a tremendously difficult stunt in filmmaking: a beautifully mature, penetrating romance dressed in sci-fi clothes. Eye-popping sets and cinematography, as well as clever dialogue delivered by a subtly powerful Joaquin Phoenix, make Jonze’s latest feature one of the best films of 2013. It also serves as confirmation that—much like Her—the director is the complete package. —Scott Wold

 


6. Godzilla

godzilla-criterion-movie-poster.jpgYear: 1954
Director: Ishir? Honda
Stars: Sachio Sakai, Takashi Shimura, Momoko Kochi, Akira Takarada
Rating: NR
Runtime: 95 minutes

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Early in Godzilla, before the monster is even glimpsed off the shore of the island of Odo, a local fisherman tells visiting reporter Hagiwara (Sachio Sakai) about the play they’re watching, describing it as the last remaining vestige of the ancient “exorcism” his people once practiced. Hagiwara watches the actors “sacrifice” a young girl to the calamitous sea creature to satiate its hunger and cajole it into leaving some fish for the people to enjoy—at least until the next sacrifice. Ishiro Hondo’s smash hit monster movie—the first of its kind in Japan, the most expensive movie ever made in the country at the time, not even a decade after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—is, after 20-something sequels over three times as many years, a surprisingly elegiac exorcism of its own, a reminder of one nation’s continuing trauma during a time when the rest of the world jonesed to forget.

As J Hoberman describes in his essay for the film’s Criterion release, much of Honda’s disaster imagery is “coded in naturalism,” a verite-like glimpse of the harrowing destruction wrought by the beast but indistinguishable from the aftermath of the Americans’ attacks in 1945, especially when the U.S. and Russia, among other powers, were testing H-bombs in the Pacific in the early 1950s, bathing the Japanese in even more radiation than that in which they’d already been saturated. And yet, Godzilla is a sci-fi flick, replete with a “mad” scientist in an eye patch and a human in a rubber dinosaur suit flipping over model bridges. That Honda handles such goofiness with an unrelentingly poetic hand, purging his nation’s psychological grief in broadly intimate volleys, is nothing short of astounding. Shots of Godzilla trudging through thick smoke, spotlights highlighting his gaping maw as the Japanese military’s weapons do nothing but shock the dark with beautiful chiaroscuro, have been rarely matched in films of its ilk (and in the director’s own legion of sequels); Honda saw gods and monsters and, with the world entering a new age of technological doom, found no difference between the two. —Dom Sinacola


7. Robocop

Year: 1987
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Miguel Ferrer, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith
Rating: R

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Throughout the late-’70s and indulgent 1980s, “industry” went pejorative and Corporate America bleached white all but the most functional of blue collars. Broadly speaking, of course: Manufacturing was booming, but the homegrown “Big Three” automobile companies in Detroit—facing astronomical gas prices via the growth of OPEC, as well as increasing foreign competition and the decentralization of their labor force—resorted to drastic cost-cutting measures, investing in automation (which of course put thousands of people out of work, closing a number of plants) and moving facilities to “low-wage” countries (further decimating all hope for a secure assembly line job in the area). The impact of such a massive tectonic shift in the very foundation of the auto industry pushed aftershocks felt, of course, throughout the Rust Belt and the Midwest—but for Detroit, whose essence seemed composed almost wholly of exhaust fumes, the change left the city in an ever-present state of decay. And so, though it was filmed in Pittsburgh and around Texas, Detroit is the only logical city for a Robocop to inhabit. A practically peerless, putrid, brash concoction of social consciousness, ultra-violence and existential curiosity, Paul Verhoeven’s first Hollywood feature made its tenor clear: A new industrial revolution must take place not within the ranks of the unions or inside board rooms, but within the self. By 1987, much of the city was already in complete disarray, the closing of Michigan Central Station—and the admission that Detroit was no longer a vital hub of commerce—barely a year away, but its role as poster child for the Downfall of Western Civilization had yet to gain any real traction. Verhoeven screamed this notion alive. He made Detroit’s decay tactile, visceral and immeasurably loud, limning it in ideas about the limits of human identity and the hilarity of consumer culture. As Verhoeven passed a Christ-like cyborg—a true melding of man and savior—through the crumbling post-apocalyptic fringes of a part of the world that once held so much prosperity and hope, he wasn’t pointing to the hellscape of future Detroit as the battlefield over which the working class will fight against the greedy 1%, but instead to the robot cop, to Murphy (Peter Weller), as the battlefield unto himself. How can any of us save a place like Detroit? In Robocop, it’s a deeply personal matter. —Dom Sinacola

 


8. Under the Skin

under-the-skin-poster.jpgYear: 2013
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Stars: Scarlett Johansson
Rating: R
Runtime: 108 minutes

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Under the Skin is unified in purpose and in drive. It is a biting examination of sexual politics and a dissertation on the bodies we inhabit—how those bodies create a paradigm of ownership. Scarlett Johansson plays the alien avatar, the predator, the cipher whose weakness is her awakening humanity. When she looks in a mirror, lost in a gaze at her own body, it’s a reminder to us to find some remove from our weary familiarity with ourselves, to think, “Golly, what strange things we are.” The film’s tragic conclusion is an assertion that we achieve some positive ideal of what it is to be human when we accept a state of vulnerability, when we forsake the power position in our sexual communication. When we allow for the reality of our frailty, we can care for the frailty in all around us—and this is a very dangerous thing to do. Especially in a world riddled with corruption and malice that seeks to press its advantage. Under the Skin shows us these truths with images that are impossibly beautiful, terrifying and ultimately haunting. There is no exposition, only voids which suspended shells of victims float in, laser sharp lights piercing darkness, menacingly stoic bikers, snowflakes falling into lenses. There is a scene on a beach that plays out like a Bergman or Haneke set-piece and is just as heartbreaking as that would entail. Under the Skin is a soul-crushing work and yet, somehow, the film reiterates that we must continue working towards finding our souls. An artful cascade of multiple exposures of random people, about midway through the film, would seem to symbolize the birth of empathy in Johansson’s femme fatale, and while this is the beginning of the end for her, it can’t help but resonate in Under the Skin with all the radiance of beatitude. These are scenes, statements, questions that are only possible within the framework that the film’s science fiction aspect provides, for these are not the thought processes bound by what is real, but what could be. —Chad Betz


9. Solyaris

solaris-movie-poster.jpgYear: 1972
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Stars: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Jüri Järvet
Rating: PG
Runtime: 168 minutes

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In 2002, Steven Soderbergh adapted Stanislaw Lem’s classic science fiction novel into a perfectly fine and handsome movie. It’s the one time that the story of a Tarkovsky film has been duplicated, sharing source material, and it illustrates an important truth: Andrei Tarkovsky’s vision is singular, inimitable; it towers over all others. Where an accomplished director like Soderbergh made a serviceable sci-fi flick, Tarkovsky made visual poetry of the highest order. Tarkovsky’s artistic instincts rarely failed him, and even though it was a big budget genre picture, Solyaris takes risks with the same confidence of expression and the same depth of resonance as any other Tarkovsky film. The science fiction concept of the titular planet-entity allows Tarkovsky a new angle at the same themes pondered in many of his works: the pivotal roles of history and memory in our present and future; the fraught responsibility of the individual in responding to the calls of the sublime; the struggle to know truth. Tarkovsky’s long-take, free-associative aesthetic was predicated on his philosophy of filmmaking as “sculpting in time,” and in Solyaris there is a fascinating confluence between the way time and perception is manipulated by Tarkovsky, and the way those things are manipulated by Solyaris itself. Solyaris gives back the protagonist, astronaut psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), for what purpose is unclear. But Tarkovsky’s films work in a similar fashion; difficult to say exactly why they do what they do, yet they pull at the deepest roots of ourselves. They elicit emotional, meditative realities unlike any other. Like Kelvin’s resurrected Hari, the stimuli are simulacrums, symbols mined from a collective dream, but this does not diminish the worth of experiencing them. Sometimes they lead you to a place like Solyaris leads Kelvin: an island of lost memory—or perhaps of an impossible future, awash in the waters of some Spirit. That makes the unreal real; that gives the dream life. —Chad Betz

 


10. The Lobster

the_lobster_movie_poster.jpgYear: 2015
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Stars: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman, Ashley Jensen, Ariane Labed, Angeliki Papoulia, John C. Reilly
Rating: R
Runtime: 118 minutes

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Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up to international break-out Dogtooth ditches that film’s knotted familial pathology, but refuses to be any less insular. Instead, it expands, even bloats, Dogtooth’s logic as far as it’ll stretch. I know: That doesn’t make much sense, but stay with me—which is exactly how Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou assume the audience will approach The Lobster, starting with the familiar, leading man visage of Colin Farrell, gone full dad-bod for a role that is debatably the actor’s best example for his still unheralded genius. With a remarkable dearth of charm, Farrell inhabits David, a man who, upon learning that his wife has cheated on him and so must end their relationship, is legally required to check in to a hotel where he has 45 days to find a new mate, lest he be transformed into an animal of his choosing. David easily settles upon the titular namesake, the lobster, which he explains he picks because of their seemingly-immortal lifespans, the creatures like human ears growing and growing without end until their supposed deaths. At the hotel, David tries his best to warm to a beautifully soul-less woman, knowing his remaining days are numbered, but the depths to which she subjects his resolve eventually encourages him to plan an escape, through which he matriculates into an off-the-grid conglomerate of single folk, led by Léa Seydoux. There, of course, against all rules he has a meet-cute with another outsider (Rachel Weisz) involving elaborately designed sign language (a metaphor maybe, like much in Lanthimos’s world, for the odd ritual of dating), and they fall in love. The world of The Lobster isn’t a dystopian future, more like a sort of mundane, suburban Everywhere in an allegorical alternate universe. Regardless, Lanthimos and Filippou find no pleasure in explaining the foundations of their film, busier building an absurdly funny edifice over which they can drape the tension and anxieties of modern romance. In that sense, The Lobster is an oddly feminist film, obsessed with time and how much pressure that puts on people, especially women, to root down and find someone, no matter the cost. If you’ve ever had a conversation with a significant other concerned about the increasing dangers of becoming pregnant in one’s late 30s, then The Lobster—and its ambiguous but no less arresting final shot—will strike uncomfortably close to the home you’re told you should have by now but probably can’t afford. —Dom Sinacola


11. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

nausicca-poster.pngYear: 1984
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars: Alison Lohman, Patrick Stewart, Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman, Chris Sarandon, Edward James Olmos
Rating: PG
Runtime: 117 minutes

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is, quite simply, the film responsible for the creation of Studio Ghibli. It not only signaled Miyazaki’s nascent status as one of anime’s preeminent creators, but also sparked the birth of an animation studio whose creative output would dominate the medium for decades to come. Following the release of The Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki’s odd Lupin III adventure, the director was commissioned by his producer and future long-time collaborator Toshio Suzuki to create a manga in order to better pitch a potential film to his employers at Animage. What resulted was Nausicaä, a fantasy-sci-fi epic inspired by the works of Ursula K. Le Guin and Jean “Moebius” Giraud, starring a courageous warrior princess trying to mend a rift between humans and the forces of nature while soaring across a post-apocalyptic wilderness.

Nausicaä was the film that introduced the world to the motifs and themes for which Miyazaki would become universally known: a courageous female protagonist unconscious of and undeterred by gender norms, the surmounting power of compassion, environmental advocacy and an unwavering love and fascination with the phenomenon of flight. It spawned an entire generation of animators, among them Hideaki Anno, whose lauded work on the film’s climactic finale would later inspire him to go on to create Neon Genesis Evangelion. The essentialness of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’s placement within the greater canon of animated film, Japanese or otherwise, cannot be overstated. —Toussaint Egan

 


12. Belle

Year: 2022
Director: Mamoru Hasoda
Stars: Kaho Nakamura, Ryo Narita, Shota Sometani, Tina Tamashiro, Lilas Ikuta
Rating: PG
Runtime: 124 minutes

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Belle explodes onto the screen with a bombastic concert in a virtual world. Known simply as U, it’s the ultimate virtual community where users can become entirely different from their dull real-life counterparts. Among them is one singer that has captured the love and adoration of billions. As the starlet Belle begins belting out her opening number, center stage on the back of a giant whale, it’s easy to be swept into this vibrant world. Thankfully, Belle has enough substance to back up this spectacle. The crux of writer/director Mamoru Hosoda’s latest film is a reimagined Beauty and the Beast mixed with teenage adversity in a digital wonderland. It’s a potpourri of hormones, misunderstandings and animation styles that recall his 2009 breakthrough Summer Wars. Belle even relies on the family dynamics seen in some of his later movies—like the lone outcast Ren in 2015’s The Boy and the Beast or the wolf siblings in 2012’s Wolf Children. Hosoda’s children have always had to endure great tragedies. It’s within this combination of family struggles and virtual reality that Belle finds its groove. Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a 17-year-old high school student who lives in the countryside with her father (Koji Yakusho). Although a few years have passed since the death of her mother, Suzu is still traumatized. She’s shut out the world around her, her despair sapping her of her joy and love of singing. Her relationship with her father is nonexistent, and she’s a certifiable pariah at school. Suzu takes the plunge and joins the world of U. This new world—free of the pressures of reality—allows Suzu to pursue singing once again. That’s until trouble arises in the form of a violent avatar known as “The Dragon.” Belle’s most spellbinding sequences come from inside the virtual world of U. Colorful 3D figures float through a kaleidoscope of colors and towering structures. The biggest setpieces in the movie take place here: An epic concert for billions of eager spectators, a battle through a castle—these are only a few of the memorable sights and sounds of U. To get an idea of what it sounds like, Nakamura’s contributions are like a mixture of rap and pop that becomes an instant earworm like on the opening title, “U.” The song brings in a wild rhythm while Nakamura races to keep up with the beat. It’s the perfect introduction to this futuristic virtual world. Other songs, like the ballad “Lend Me Your Voice” and the soaring anthem “A Million Miles Away,”Beauty and the Beast, it’s also a moving story about overcoming grief and seeking help when everything seems lost. Though it tackles a little too much, Belle is a triumph.—Max Covill


13. Spaceballs

SpaceballsYear: 1987
Director: Mel Brooks
Stars: John Candy, Rick Moranis, Bill Pullman, Joan Rivers, Mel Brooks, Daphne Zuniga
Rating: PG
Runtime: 96 minutes

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Originally perceived as one of writer/director Mel Brooks’ lesser works, this loving send-up of the sci-fi/fantasy genre (specifically, Star Wars) has, over the years, wormed its way into the hearts of a new generation of fans catching it for the first time at home. “May the Schwartz be with you,” “Ludicrous Speed,” “Mawg”—if these are all terms that mean nothing to you then it’s high-time you checked this movie out and see what all the fuss is about. —Mark Rozeman

 


14. The Matrix

matrix.jpgYear: 1999
Director: Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski, Bruce Hunt
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving
Rating: R
Runtime: 136 minutes

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There is little to add about what’s been already codified about the film that made cyberpunk not stupid—and therefore is the best cyberpunk movie of all time, amidst its many accomplishments—or that made Keanu Reeves a respectable figure of American kung fu, or that finally made martial arts films a seriously hot commodity outside of Asia. The story of a computer hacker who woke up to the reality that everything he knows is an illusion constructed to placate humanity under the reign of a super-race of robot squids, The Matrix is—next to the Wu-Tang Clan—what proved to a new generation that martial arts films were worth their scrutiny, and in that reputation is bred college classes, heroes’ journeys and impossible expectations for special effects. Even today we still have this film to thank for so much of what we love about modern kinetic cinema, about how malleable genius science fiction can be, about just how deeply our connection to mythmaking—to the religiosity of civilization’s symbols—can reach. This is our red pill; everything else is an illusion of greatness and everything else is an allusion to what the Wachowskis accomplished, including the two sequels—bloated and beautiful and unlike anything anyone could have expected from the relatively self-contained original—which in turn earned the distinction of setting the course for every multi-part franchise to come —Dom Sinacola


15. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Year: 1982
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Stars: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols
Rating: PG

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Evoking the most memorable anguished cry in cinema, Khan (Ricardo Montalbán) is a Nietzschean nightmare, a science-grown Übermensch bent on causing interstellar calamity, and arguably captain Kirk’s (William Shatner) most memorable adversary (Gorn included). What’s more scary than a villain designed to be better than you…at everything? With the franchise’s film count now in double digits, including admirable reboots from J.J. Abrams, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is still the greatest of them all. —Darren Orf

 


16. High Life

Year: 2018
Director: Claire Denis
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Andre Benjamin, Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Lars Eidinger
Rating: R

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High Life begins with a moment of intense vulnerability, followed immediately by a moment of immense strength. First we glimpse a garden, verdant and welcoming, before we’re ushered to a sterile room. There we realize there’s a baby alone while Monte (Robert Pattinson), her father maybe, consoles her, talking through a headset mounted within his space helmet. “Da da da,” he explains through the intercom; the baby starts to lose her shit because he’s not really there, he’s perched outside, on the surface of their basic Lego-piece of a spaceship, just barely gripped on the edge of darkness. They’re in space, one supposes, surrounded by dark, oppressive nothingness, and he can’t reach her. They’re alone. Next, Monte empties their cryogenic storage locker of all the dead bodies of his once-fellow crew members, lifting their heavy limbs and torsos into space suits, not because it matters, but maybe just because it’s something to do to pass the time, as much a sign of respect as it is an emotional test of will. Monte looks healthy and capable, like he can withstand all that loneliness, like he and his daughter might actually make it out of this OK, whatever this is. High Life lives inside that juxtaposition, displaying tenderness as graphically as violence and anger and incomprehensible fear, mining all that blackness surrounding its characters for as much terror as writer-director Claire Denis can afford without getting obvious about it. Pattinson, flattened and lithe, plays Monte remarkably, coiled within himself to the point that he finishes every word deep in his throat, his sentences sometimes total gibberish. He doesn’t allow much to escape his face, but behind his eyes beams something scary, as if he could suddenly, and probably will, crack. He says as much to Willow, his kid, whispering to her while she sleeps that he could easily kill them both, never wanting to hurt her but still polluting her dreams. He can’t help it, and neither can Denis, who, on her 14th film (first in English), can make an audience believe, like few other directors, that anything can happen. Madness erupts from silence and sleep, bodily fluids dripping all over and splattering throughout and saturating the psyches of these criminal blue collar astronauts, the overwhelming stickiness of the film emphasizing just how intimately close Denis wants us to feel to these odd, sick fleshbags hurtling toward the edge of consciousness. —Dom Sinacola


17. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Year: 2014
Director: Matt Reeves
Stars: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Kodi Smit-McPhee
Rating: PG-13

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Directed by Matt Reeves, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes a Shakespearian approach to the familiar franchise with surprisingly successful results. The film is set ten years after the AZL-113 virus has exterminated 90% of the human population. One group of surviving humans has taken refuge in an abandoned shopping center in the heart of San Francisco. While the humans hold on to what’s left of their dignity, Caesar has established a thriving Ape colony in the redwood forests of Marin. Conflict arises when a band of humans tries to repurpose an old dam located in the outskirts of ape country. What follows, of course, is a whole heck of a lot of conflict between the apes and the humans … and between the apes and other apes … and between the humans and other humans. What really makes this movie zing, however, is Reeves approach to Ape politics. His depiction of what is essentially a fantasy culture never feels corny or campy; it’s subtle, authentic and really intriguing. —Leland Montgomery

 


18. Avatar: The Way of Water

Year: 2022
Director: James Cameron
Stars: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 192 minutes

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Avatar: The Way of Water is a promise—like the titular Way as described by a beatific, finned Na’vi fish-people princess, the film connects all things: the past and the future; cinema as a generational ideal and one film’s world-uniting box office reality; James Cameron’s megalomania and his justification for Being Like That; one audience member and another audience member on the other side of the world; one archetypal cliché and another archetypal cliché; dreams and waking life. Avatar’s sequel can be nothing less than a delivery on everything Cameron has said, hyperbolic or not, he would deliver. What’s less clear is exactly what Cameron’s intending to deliver. The Way of Water’s story is a bare bones lesson in appealing to as many worldwide markets as possible, the continuation of the adventures of Bostonian Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, who’s spent the past decade trying not to sound like an outback chimney sweep) as he raises a Na’vi family with like-warrior-minded Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña, screaming from inside her golden prison) and realizes that Earthlings aren’t going to stop colonizing Pandora just because they had their shit kicked in a lifetime ago. The Way of Water’s true achievement is that it looks like nothing else but the first Avatar, unparalleled in detail and scale, a devouring enterprise all to itself. Watching The Way of Water can at times feel astonishing, as if the brain gapes at the sheer amount of physical data present in every frame, incapable of consuming it, but longing to keep up. We believe that this film will redefine box office success because Cameron presents it—making the absolute most of high frame rates, 3-D, and IMAX, normalizing their use, acclimating our brains in ways Ang Lee could only wish—as the next evolutionary step in modern blockbuster filmmaking. This is immersion for its own sake, moviegoing as experience vaunted to the next level, breathtaking in its completely unironic scope. After so many hours in Pandora, untroubled by complicated plot or esoteric myths, caring for this world comes easy. As do the tears. The body reacts as the brain flails. Avatar has consumed James Cameron; it is his everything now, the vehicle for every story he wants to tell, and every story anyone may want to tell—the all-consuming world he’s created is such a lushly resourced aesthetic wonder that anything can be mapped onto its ever-expanding ecosystems. Pandora is a toolbox and ready-made symbol. No film will ever be this beautiful in my lifetime, at least until the next Avatar.—Dom Sinacola


19. Predator

41-starz-predator-poster.jpgYear: 1987
Director: John McTiernan
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura
Rating: R
Runtime: 107 minutes

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A slasher film where battle-hardened soldiers replace the traditional nubile teens. Sounds like a recipe for a good time. And, indeed, Predator delivers on all fronts, from its cheesy approximation of “manly” dialogue (“I ain’t got time to bleed”) to the dated-yet-still-impressive special effects to the abundance of gory, creative violence. Subsequent installments in the sci-fi franchise have never truly captured the original’s meathead appeal. Besides, as any frequent viewer of VH1’s I Love the ‘80s can attest, the decade just wouldn’t have been the same without it.—Mark Rozeman

 


20. Edge of Tomorrow

edge-of-tomorrow-poster.jpgYear: 2014
Director: Doug Liman
Stars: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson
Rating: R
Runtime: 113 minutes

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Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) spends his days in the film’s near-future setting spinning the armed forces’ ongoing efforts against a hostile alien race (dubbed Mimics) without ever setting foot on a battlefield. At least until a gruff general (Brendan Gleeson) sends him on a particularly dicey mission. The result is Cage’s death, but the story doesn’t end there. Instead Cage awakes at the beginning of the day he died with his memory intact, and quickly discovers the resurrections will recur every time he dies. His only hope of escaping the endless cycle lies with super-soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who knows from experience exactly how Cage might be able to use this new ability to help humanity win the war of the worlds.

Based on the manga All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka and adapted for the screen by Christopher McQuarrie (Cruise’s current go-to director completely in sync with his physically-defying action spectacle) and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, Edge of Tomorrow recalls other notable time loop sagas, including Groundhog Dayand Source Code in the witty and engaging way it moves its story forward piece by piece. As Cage relives the same day over and over again, he also learns how to become a true soldier, trains with (and falls for) Rita, discovers how the aliens function and ever so patiently formulates the perfect plan of attack. Like a video game hero with infinite lives, Cage has the opportunity to refine and correct every mistake he makes along the way. However long Cage is on that journey, Edge of Tomorrow is a blast, and Cruise carries the surprisingly amusing action like a pro—his skill with deadpan comedy proving even more valuable than his infamous enthusiasm for sacrificing his flesh over and over and over. —Geoff Berkshire


21. Dune

dune-poster.jpgYear: 2021
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Zendaya, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Jason Momoa
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 155 minutes

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Both technologically innovative and narratively faithful to the original text, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is bolstered by its seamless special effects and starpower above all else. Considering the director’s previous work in these arenas—namely Enemy, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049—he should be totally adept for the challenge. Yet there exists a nagging query that begs to be quelled: How much of this film is predicated on the sheer fact that cinematic advancements have finally rendered Dune an attainable possibility? Though it remains true to the first part of the text’s unhurried pace and detailed world building, Villeneuve’s adaptation feels overlong and void of subtext. It’s important to note that the film only adapts the first part of Herbert’s novel, which is notoriously kind of a slog. Much of the plot is focused on worldbuilding and creating an incremental immersion into the immaterial political hierarchies that shape this unknown yet familiar world. Admittedly, Villeneuve evokes and embraces this unhurriedness—a choice that just might predicate Dune’s future fortune. By limiting the scope to Part I, Villeneuve’s Dune maintains a consistent tone and sense of time—though it invariably drags over the course of two and a half hours. However, the meandering pace may perfectly suit fans of the original novel, which captures a certain pensive density indicative of the text. To be fair, there is a plain reason as to why Villeneuve opts for a subdued and sedated Dune. With so many failed attempts at adapting Herbert’s novel preceding it, how could the project ever fully embrace auteur-driven artistic risk? It translates as Villeneuve playing it safe, expending all of his energy on ensuring that his remake can’t possibly flop. Though Dune is faithful and fantastical in vision, its existence is merely proof that the enduringly popular novel can, in fact, be adapted into a box office hit.—Natalia Keogan

 


22. Fantastic Planet

fantastic-planet-poster.jpgYear: 1973
Director: René Laloux
Stars: Jennifer Drake, Eric Baugin, Jean Topart
Rating: PG
Runtime: 71 minutes

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It doesn’t matter if you’re watching René Laloux’s excellent, eccentric Fantastic Planet for the first time or the fortieth, under the influence or stone sober: The film is such a one-of-a-kind oddity in cinema that each viewing feels like its own wholly unique experience. Put simply, there’s nothing quite like it. If you’ve yet to see this masterwork of 1970s psychedelia-meets-social-commentary, you’re missing out. If you have seen it, chances are you haven’t seen anything quite like it since, because there isn’t much in animated cinema to match it. The closest you’ll get is Terry Gilliam’s paper strip animation stylings in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, or maybe the still painting approach of Eiji Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Sadness. Neither of these equate with Fantastic Planet’s visual scheme, though, which just underscores its individuality. Where does a movie like Fantastic Planet come from? How does it even get made? Laloux has offered few answers over the years, though the documentary Laloux Sauvage holds some insight into how his mind works. Maybe the answers aren’t worth pursuing in the first place, and maybe the best way to understand Fantastic Planet is just to watch it, and then watch it again. —Andy Crump


23. Fire in the Sky

Year: 1993
Director: Robert Lieberman
Stars: D.B. Sweeney, Robert Patrick, Craig Sheffer, Peter Berg, James Garner
Rating: PG-13

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Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney) may or may not be a rambling loon who said he was abducted by aliens in 1975, but at least we got Fire in the Sky out of it. Robert Patrick appears against type as a guy who isn’t a liquid metal killer robot from the future, in a role that probably set him up for a permanent spot on The X-Files. You can call it a mystery, in a vaguely Twin Peaks-like fashion, but there’s also a pretty deep vein of existential horror in Fire in the Sky, amplified by the truly terrifying “probing” scenes with the aliens, which are presented in graphic detail. It’s a film about our powerlessness and insignificance on a cosmic scale, made only worse by our indifference toward the buried pain of our friends and neighbors. —Jim Vorel

 


24. Time Bandits

time_bandits_poster.jpg
Year: 1981
Director: Terry Gilliam
Stars: John Cleese, Sean Connery, Shelley Duvall, Michael Palin, Katherine Helmond, Ian Holm
Rating: PG
Runtime: 110 minutes

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The first in Terry Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination,” Time Bandits breathes with the unfettered glee of cinematic magic. Told through the eyes of Kevin, a neglected 11 year-old (Craig Warnock), the film details a literal battle between Good and Evil, between God (Ralph Richardson) and the Devil (David Warner)—though they’re never explicitly referred to as such. What Gilliam accomplishes, as Kevin meets such luminaries as Robin Hood (John Cleese), Napoleon (Ian Holm) and an irrepressibly charming King Agamemnon (Sean Connery, of course), is the perfect ode to imagination, wherein a kid’s bedroom musings gain the seriousness and weight of world-shaking war. Like a much weirder step-cousin to Bill & Ted, Time Bandits employs nostalgia and pseudo-history in equal measure to capture, with boundless invention, what it feels like be 11 again. —Kenneth Lowe


25. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla

godzilla-vs-mechagodzilla-poster.jpgYear: 1974
Director: Jun Fukuda
Stars: Masaaki Daimon, Kazuya Aoyama, Akihito Hirata, Hiroshi Koizumi
Rating: PG
Runtime: 84 minutes

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The first-ever appearance of Mechagodzilla in Godzilla’s Showa series is still the best. I have such fond memories of this film, and it truly embodies the high points of the earliest series of Godzilla movies. Mechagodzilla is presented as an absolutely devastating opponent with abilities that outclass Godzilla in every way, and he beats Godzilla to within an inch of his life during their first battle. My favorite bit though, is the inclusion of a Godzilla ally named “King Caesar,” some kind of bizarre lion-dog hybrid who needs to be woken from a long slumber by singing Japanese adult contemporary music. Then, after all that build-up, he immediately gets WRECKED by Mechagodzilla, in a sequence that plays like sublime, unintentional comedy. That, and the aliens controlling Mechagodzilla are secretly ape people, for some reason! Seriously, this one is as nutty as it is entertaining. —Jim Vorel

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