Perhaps more than any other genre, sci-fi leans towards an epic run-time. This has been the same since the very earliest days of cinema, where George Melies was producing sci-fi at lengths no-one had ever seen. Perhaps it’s because of all the ideas, themes, and awe-inspiring imagery that sci-fi contains? Maybe those drawn to sci-fi just like long stories? But for every 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Interstellar, or even The Last Jedi, there are sci-fi films which transport you to another world, and back again, all in under an hour and a half. Here’s our pick of the best of them…
Silent Running (1972) – 89 minutes
A true science-fiction classic, which has inspired a generation of modern filmmakers (see Moon), and continues to be every bit as powerful now as it was upon release. A film which places environmental concerns front and centre, Bruce Dern plays Freeman Lowell, a man in charge of looking after the only remaining Earth plant life in the galaxy. However, orders from Earth instruct the crew to destroy the domes housing the plant and animal life, and return the ship to commercial use. Rebelling, Lowell kills his fellow crew and hijacks the ship, determined to save the plant life with the help of three robotic drones. Director Trumbull, who worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey, created a practical effects masterpiece, but most importantly put heart at the centre of the film.
See also: Douglas Trumbull interview
World Of Tomorrow (2015) – 16 minutes
World Of Tomorrow is without a doubt one of the most beautiful meditations on the nature of mortality you could ever hope to watch. Which isn’t bad for a 16 minute stick animation film. From the genius mind of Don Hertzfeldt comes this Oscar nominated sci-fi which was many people’s pick for best film of 2015. It lives up to the hype. In it a little girl called Emily gets a video call from her future self. Except this future self is actually a third generation clone of little Emily who lives 227 years in the future. What follows is a tour through this future world, and Emily 3G’s life.
It paints a horrifying picture of how humanity has lost touch with itself (case in point, moon robots are producing the best poetry), and how we have to reach back into our past to find real emotion. While I don’t want to spoil anything more, the balance between young joyful Emily (played by Hertzfeldt’s 4 year old niece) and monotone sombre Emily 3G (Julia Pott) is the key to this film, always bringing the humour when future events threaten to get a little too bleak.
Fantastic Planet (1973) – 72 minutes
A stop-motion cutout animation, Fantastic Planet was a French-Czech production brought to mainstream attention in the USA by Roger Corman, who appreciated a high-concept piece of filmmaking when he saw one. In the far future, humanity has been removed from Earth by giant blue aliens called Draags, who have placed us on a world called Ygam and treat us as animals. Some are kept as pets, while others roam wild and face slaughter to keep numbers down. One such pet is a boy called Terr, who after illicitly learning Draag knowledge escapes into the wild to lead his people to freedom. Psychedelic imagery abounds, as the film explores themes of racism, violence, and war. Like all the best sci-fi, it’s allegorical in the extreme, but also tells a great story in its own right.
Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) – 85 minutes
Remember when we all thought Colin Trevorrow was a great director, and were even excited that he might be getting the Star Wars gig when he hinted at helming a resurrected franchise? Well then Jurassic World happened, and he did briefly get the Star Wars gig, but no one was happy. Still, think back to the happy halcyon days of Safety Not Guaranteed. A story based on a joke ad asking for a partner to time-travel with, Trevorrow proves a deft hand with the script, wisely letting the leads Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, and Jake Johnson (seemingly all culled from the best sit-coms on TV) charmingly interact and carry the slight story.
See also: Colin Trevorrow interview
Primer (2004) – 77 minutes
Initially playing out as a drama about four friends creating their own tech business, it changes a gear when they accidentally invent a time machine in the garage. Opting for the hard science route of how it works, writer/director/editor/star Shane Carruth doesn’t shy away from the moral and psychological implications of what time travel would and could do to a person. It’s a fictional film playing at being a documentary in many ways, so a science-factual could be a more accurate term for what’s on-screen. It probably needs a few views to get your head round it all, but it’s definitely worth the effort.
City Of Ember (2008) – 90 minutes
Based on the series of books by Jeanne DePrau, City Of Ember was a hugely ambitious if flawed sci-fi fantasy. In the future, an underground city has been built to help humans escape a catastrophe on the surface. A box was entrusted to the Mayor of the city, with instructions to watch when it opened in 200 years. But now that time has come, the box has been forgotten, and the food and power are running out.
Saroise Ronan is excellent as protagonist Lina, a young girl who discovers the box and tries to decode it, while Bill Murray is up to no good as the villainous current Mayor. While it looks spectacular, it never quite ramps up enough in the excitement stakes sadly, but still remains an excellent and overlooked young-adult adventure.
Attack The Block (2011) – 88 minutes
Set on a London council estate on Guy Fawkes night, a group of tower block teens have to defend themselves from “big gorilla wolf motherfuckers,” who in reality are aliens intent on killing and eating everyone in sight. You would expect an excellent script from debut director Joe Cornish, but he also provides confident and exciting action sequences, albeit on a small scale.
While excellent in its own right, Attack The Block seems to have turned into something of a calling card for those involved. First Joe Cornish was snapped up by Hollywood, going onto gain writing credits for Tintin and Ant-Man. But more visibly, the young lead of the film was one John Boyega, better known to millions as Finn in Star Wars.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956) – 80 minutes
Proof that it’s a brilliant concept, the original Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is every bit as good as its 70s remake, which is often considered one of the greatest remakes of all time. A sleepy Californian town finds itself under a subtle alien invasion, as one by one its residents are taken and replaced by duplicate ‘pod people’. A small group of townsfolk, led by local doctor Miles Bennell, realise what’s happening and try to get the word out. What makes Invasion Of The Body Snatchers live up to its premise so effectively is how it builds tension all the time on that one fear, something bad will happen if you fall asleep. It leads to crazed behaviour, nail-biting stress, and a truly superb ending.
Love (2011) – 86 minutes
Love is the story of astronaut Lee Miller, trapped aboard the International Space Station and unable to do anything but watch as humanity destroys itself on the planet below. But at the same time, it is the story of a American Civil War captain investigating a mysterious object in the desert. Both are related, and the film doesn’t rush to explain its mysteries too quickly, instead taking its time to explore the nature of loneliness and our own humanity. It’s sci-fi by way of arthouse, scored beautifully by the band Angels and Airwaves, and invokes the classic era of sci-fi literature.
Space Is The Place (1974) – 85 minutes
And now for something completely different. Written, starring, and with music by acclaimed jazz artist Sun Ra, Space Is The Place is a ‘afrofuturist’ blaxploitation sci-fi film in which Sun Ra goes missing while on tour, and ends up on a new planet. Deciding to settle this world with African-Americans, he returns to Earth to duel ‘The Overseer’ for the fate of black people everywhere. Mixed up in all of this is a quasi musical documentary about Sun Ra, as well as his mythological interests. It’s low-budget fun for sure, but with some serious points hidden in there.
Videodrome (1983) – 89 minutes
A sci-fi body horror which is hypnotic, surreal, and full of invention, Videodrome is Cronenberg at the top of his game. James Woods is Max Renn, president of a Toronto television station which specialises in sensational programming. Fearing his programming is becoming stale however, a colleague shows him a pirate signal they’ve picked up. A show called Videodrome featuring staged snuff films. After agreeing to broadcast it, Renn quickly find himself caught up in a conspiracy involving the future of television and its audience.
Woods turns in a suitably unhinged performance, but it is Debbie Harry who stands out here, as psychologist Nicki Brand. The mind-bending practical effects come into their own in the second half, as the brainwashing kicks in and the mutilations begin. Long live the new flesh.
Night Of The Creeps (1986) – 88 minutes
A mash of many genres, including alien invasion, slasher, zombie, and high-school, wrapped in an affectionate sci-fi B-movie embrace, Night Of The Creeps is Fred Dekker on his finest form. Beginning in 1959, three aliens are engaged in a fight aboard a spacecraft. During it, a canister is released and falls to Earth, right into the path of a couple being attacked by a axe-wielding maniac. Cue an alien slug leaping into the boy’s mouth just before he is killed. Flash forward twenty seven years, and his frozen body is stolen, leading to the alien slugs that control his brain multiplying and unleashing a zombie horde on the town. If that doesn’t make you want to go and immediately watch it, then I think you’re on the wrong site.
Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972) – 88 minutes
The fourth in the original series of the Planet Of The Apes films, this is the only one that sneaks under the 90 minute mark, although all of them are pretty compact pieces of filmmaking. But that’s not to say this is only here for that reason, as Conquest may end up to be the most important Apes film after the original classic. Why, you ask? Because it is the basis for the reboot Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, which breathed new life into the franchise and created a whole new generation of talking ape fans.
The Transformers: The Movie (1986) – 85 minutes
The original and by far the best big-screen adventure for the eponymous giant robots. Not only are all the classic designs in place, and the characters acting as they should, but the story actually makes coherent sense. Renting this from the local video store was the greatest thing that happened to me during my childhood, and watching the noble Optimus Prime bite the dust in the opening act was probably the worst. So noble. So very noble.
Robot Jox (1990) – 85 minutes
Speaking of giant robots fighting, here’s the film Pacific Rim was based on or inspired by perhaps. Fifty years after a devastating nuclear apocalypse, humanity has finally decided war is a terrible idea. All the countries have also merged into two mega-states, the Market (USA) and the Confederation (Russia). To settle their differences, they get giant robots piloted by humans to fight in gladiatorial combat. Without spoiling too much, any film that ends in a fist bump after untold destruction is probably worth your time.
Cloverfield (2008) – 85 minutes
What an amazing shelf-life Cloverfield has proven to have. With semi-sequels announced out of nowhere, the original should be revisited and found to be pretty damn good. Released at the height of the found-footage craze, Cloverfield was always the most ambitious and best of the bunch (sorry Blair Witch). Capturing the night of a giant monster invasion via the lives of six friends caught up in the chaos, Cloverfield is a concentrated and sustained assault on the senses. It also has what I think is one of Michael Giacchino’s best pieces of music ever, placed over the end credits of what had been a soundtrack free film.
Westworld (1973) – 88 minutes
Set in a futuristic theme-park where androids can fulfil your every desire, adventurous or carnal, but then run amok when their programming goes wrong, Westworld marked writer Michael Crichton’s theatrical directing debut. His knack for propelling the story and hitting the right beats is in full force here, as anything unnesscary to the central conceit of a deranged android gunslinger (the incomparable Yul Brynner) hunting down his prey considered superfluous. That’s not to say it’s one-dimensional though, Crichton is a canny enough writer to make sure you’re entertained and engaged when not on the edge of your seat.
The Iron Giant (1999) – 87 minutes
If you read Den of Geek regularly then you’ll know the huge love we have for this film. Simply put, it’s one of the finest animated films of all time. The story of a young boy and his giant alien robot friend (based on the Ted Hughes novella The Iron Man), The Iron Giant is breathtakingly bold in its economy of storytelling. The meeting between the two is set-up quickly, with no drawn out games, the scenes are all in service to the story of friendship, with no frivolous talking animal sidekick subplot, and the film delivers big set-pieces in a way which also effectively enhances both plot and the core relationship. It’s truly masterful. It’s also brilliant sci-fi, with the Iron Giant realising he must fight his basic programming to become ‘human’ a key theme in many sci-fi stories. It’s just done to perfection here.
THX 1138 (1971) – 86 minutes original cut, 88 minutes directors cut
So here’s an almost counterintuitive suggestion – THX-1138 is George Lucas’s most personal film. While the obvious choice might be the nostalgia soaked American Graffiti, or the return to the serials of his youth in Star Wars, THX 1138 is Lucas being the truest filmmaker to himself. It’s an extended version of the short film he made in college, full of all the technical wonder and themes that subsequent interviews have shown him to to be most passionate about. While American Graffiti and Star Wars were reactions agains the lukewarm reception THX 1138 received, a ‘fine, I’ll prove to you I can make films millions can enjoy’, I suspect this colder, more cerebral sci-fi is the film Lucas will truly want to be remembered for.
The Man From Earth (2007) – 89 minutes
40 years in the making, The Man From Earth was first conceived of by Jerome Bixby in the 1960s, before a script was completed by him on his deathbed in 1998. In the 00s, director Richard Shenkman took up the baton and finally completed the film. Set entirely at the house of Professor John Oldman, who is leaving his teaching role and throwing a farewell party, Oldman reveals to his guests that he is in fact a caveman who is over 14,000 years old. To a disbelieving crowd, he narrates his life to date.
The film is full to the brim with astonishing ideas, and even more astonishing is the fact that these ideas are discussed through dialogue heavy scenes rather than shown in flashbacks. It’s a brave move, but pays off with it’s intellectual story-telling, trusting the audience to follow where the characters lead.
Destroy All Monsters (1968) – 88 minutes
With a title this good, the film could have probably coasted and people will still have flocked to watch it. However, that’s not Gojira’s style, and in what was designed to be his final battle director Honda certainly goes all out to give the big guy a fitting send off. At the end of the 20th century, all of Earth’s kaiju have been captured and placed on an island known as Monsterland. But when the scientists controlling them are mind-controlled by an alien race, the kaiju are released, and start attacking all the world capitals. After getting them back under control, the stage is set for Earth kaiju vs alien monsters, with Godzilla leading the fight. While the plot is pretty paper thin, the scenes of destruction are truly epic, and the final fight is perhaps the first example of its kind.
Death Race 2000 (1975) – 80 minutes
A cutting satire on America, Death Race 2000 pits drivers against each other in a, yes you guessed it, race to the death in the year 2000. The USA collapsed in the late 70s, and now to maintain order the population have been given the Transcontinental Death Race. It’s a well from which many other sci-fi films have drawn their ideas from, most notably The Hunger Games, but Death Race 2000 pitches it perfectly. It’s comically absurd, especially with the drivers outlandish personas, but also horrifyingly plausible.
Wizards (1977) – 80 minutes
I used to go to a friends house when I was a kid, and for some reason their mum would rent this film out for us. I guess maybe they looked at the cover, saw it was a cartoon and thought ‘that’s fine for these 8 year old kids’. A post-apocalyptic sci-fi fantasy from the masterful Ralph Bakshi, 2 million years after bombs have devastated the Earth, the survivors of humanity has evolved into faeries, mutants, and elves and dwarves. Two brothers are born to the Queen of the Faeries, one good one evil. Blackwolf, the evil wizard, discovers Nazi propaganda on an old film reel, and uses it to inspire his technological driven army to conquest over the whole world, and cause a new Holocaust.
With that as your starting point, you know this isn’t your average sci-fi fantasy, cartoon or not. Filled with shocking imagery, great voice acting (including a certain Mark Hamill) and paved the way for the rotoscoping technique Baksho would use to great effect on Lord Of The Rings.
Robots (2005) – 90 minutes
Years later, I’m still surprised by just how much I enjoyed Robots. A tag reading ‘from the creators of Ice Age’ didn’t inspire much confidence in a know it all film studies student, but from start to finish I was genuinely entranced by this Ewan McGregor led animated film. For me, it’s the world building of the robots world which stands out, with every detail of Rivet Town carefully thought out and executed. The design of the robots is second to none, with a wide variety of machines to delight. What the film sadly falls down in though, is a really great story. It’s not bad per se, but as much thought here as went into the design would have made this a classic for the ages.
Chronicle (2012) – 84 minutes
Forget for one moment the subsequent career moves and public remarks by director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis. Instead remember how you felt when you first watched Chronicle. Even with the hype surrounding it, it was a breath of fresh air in a superhero genre which can sometimes feel a little stale in its ideas and execution. Here was a genuinely believable ‘real world’ story of three teens finding themselves with powers after discovering a mysterious object in the ground.
With stand-out performances from Dane DeHaan and Michael B. Jordan, the film explores the emotional complexity of having these new powers, all the while building to a satisfying conclusion which carries more weight, both in storytelling terms and physicality, then several of its more illustrious superhero brethren.