This is part of an effort to list out my favorite films in various main genres. I’m doing them decade by decade to accomplish a couple things. First, it makes it more of an apples-to-apples kind of comparison. Second, it makes it easier to come up with the lists, as doing all-time type lists makes it tougher to make selections and to rank them. I start the decades on the zero year, so this would be movies released from 1970 through 1979. Also, there are some movies that occupy multiple genres. Some of them fall somewhat into sci-fi, but I’m saving them for a different genre’s list (Superman, Mad Max, Capricorn One, etc). Also, since I’m only going back to the 1970s in these decade lists, I wanted to also single out a few pre-1970 sci-fi films for special mention: 2001 – A Space Odyssey (1968), Metropolis (1927) and Planet Of The Apes (1968).
#1 – Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
What can one say of one of the biggest revolutionary movie milestones, sci-fi or otherwise. Yeah, I prefer Empire Strikes Back a bit more, but there’s no denying the fun of the birth of the franchise. There just isn’t a “sci-fi” or the ’70s list without this one at the top.
#2 – Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
After striking it big with Jaws, Spielberg went for an ambitious and unique follow-up in this sci-fi classic. And also unlike most of the genre movies that came before it, he takes a more optimistic approach to alien contact. And just like the item above on this list, Star Wars, this movie benefits in a huge way from the work of John Williams. During the late ’70s and early ’80s, Williams was on such a creative and career high, pretty much nobody else could ever hope to compare.
#3 – Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott broke onto the scene and made a real name for himself with this claustrophobic sci-fi horror film. It also put Sigourney Weaver on the map, and she would follow up in a major way 7 years later in James Cameron’s sequel. Like Blade Runner that would follow, Ridley Scott opts for a run-down, industrial style for his sci-fi future, never afraid to get gritty.
#4 – Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
While this movie may not be perfect, I have a big soft spot for it. The story is kinda simplistic, and some of the dialog is a bit weak, but it more than makes up for it in production. The VFX work in this one is fantastic, taking the Trek franchise to a new level. There’s little doubt that it probably has Star Wars to thank for it, with the studio wanting to get in on a piece of that action. And like John Williams on the first two entries of this list, legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith really hits it out of the park with this one, and his score to the previous film on this list, Alien, is excellent as well.
#5 – The Black Hole (1979)
Yeah, OK, some of this one is quite cheesy and made-for-kids, but other parts of it are definitely not. Honestly, it’s a rather bizarre mix in terms of tone. Never mind its attempt to use 2001: A Space Odyssey’s cryptic final reel. Back in 1979 when this came out, Disney was little more than a bad punchline, not the powerhouse they are today. This was their attempt to cash in on the whole sci-fi craze that hit after Star Wars, and it was racing to get out before Star Trek: The Motion Picture. As it turns out, neither would end up a huge hit, but The Black Hole certainly got lost to time much quicker. It features some absolutely fantastic model and matte painting work, not to mention a lovely score from none-other-than John Barry.
#6 – Logan’s Run (1976)
Another fairly cheesy sci-fi movie that I have a soft spot for. This one at least has a genuinely solid plot idea at its core. This one, like Rollerball listed below, is unmistakably ’70s in look and feel. As Ross Geller proclaimed, it’s “the sexiest movie ever.” Seriously, though, the best-lasting element of the movie is Jerry Goldsmith’s music score.
#7 – Dark Star (1974)
As a punched up student film by John Carpenter, this movie is understandably a bit slow-moving and very obviously low budget, but it is hilarious and kinda genius when it wants to be. Even more fascinating, Dan O’Bannon (who is also one of the main cast) kinda reworked some of this movie into what became the script for Alien. It’s just that in this movie, that alien roaming around the ship just so happens to be a beach ball.
#8 – Silent Running (1972)
A flower-power sci-fi movie kinda made for the hippie generation that somehow actually works. Pretty solid production and direction from the great Douglas Trumbull certainly helps, but the real reason this movie works it the casting of the fantastic Bruce Dern in the lead role. Heck, it’s more than just a lead role. It’s almost a one man show.
#9 – Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972)
Perhaps my favorite of the classic Planet Of The Apes films, this one is somewhat less “sci-fi” than something like the original film, in terms of setting and story, but it’s certainly some of the most dynamic of the franchise.
#10 – Rollerball (1975)
As I said on the entry above for The Black Hole, this is a movie that is unmistakably ’70s in style and feel. James Caan is one of the main reasons this film works. Casting John Houseman as the antagonist gives it an unusual and fun feel as well.