10 Classic Sci-fi Films You May Have Never Seen

There are few things a hardcore sci-fi fan enjoys more than discovery. What a joy to discover a film that has lived under the radar that is smart, provocative, surprising, innovative, and entertaining. Each of these films are must-sees for the serious sci-fi fan looking for something fascinating.


1. The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

The Day the Earth Caught Fire

Here is an utterly unique film, a mash-up of genres rarely scene: a sci-fi disaster film/newsroom comedy. What happens when the Soviet Union and the United States both detonate nuclear bombs at the same time? They knock the Earth off its axis, triggering an extreme global heatwave so strong it evaporates the world’s water.

The crazy element here is that the story is told through the POV of a London Fleet Street newsroom where we get some crackling reporter banter right out of THE FRONT PAGE/HIS GIRL FRIDAY. Cub reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) and his science reporter cohort, Bill McGuire (Leo McKern) break the story as the world melts down. Stenning meets-cute government employee Jeanie, (the lovely Janet Munro)… and now we have a rom-com amidst the end of days.

Directed by Hammer and sci-fi veteran Val Guest, the film moves at a terrific pace, balancing tone from end of the world to light comedy romance to the cliffhanger ending.

This all-British low budget production puts every pound on the screen with its location shooting, artistic matte paintings and classic ‘60s-era miniatures. This is truly one of those films that surprises, and entertains, throughout. Keep an eye out for a young Michael Caine as a copper.


2. A Boy and His Dog (1975)

A Boy and His Dog

This lively indie is a delicious black comedy post-apocalyptic adventure that gave Don Johnson his breakout role at 26. Based on the novella by irascible sci-fi legend, Harlan Ellison, this film, too, features some big surprises.

Vic (Johnson) roams the wasteland with his trusty sidekick, a telepathic dog named Blood, voiced by the gone-much-too-soon brilliant, Tim McIntire. Blood is actually the brains of the duo, and it’s their back and forth that highlights the first half of the film. Blood sniffs out women for ever-horny Vic, in exchange for food.

Vic is lured by the comely Quilla (Susanne Benton) to an underground community (Downunder – Topeka) that is trying to survive and repopulate the world. With their men sterile, they greet Vic with open arms, inviting him to inseminate the young ladies of their community.

Quilla tries to convince Vic to join a rebellion to take over the community (led by the chilling Jason Robards), and destroy their android security men. Vic has no interest is staying, and flees with Quilla who has pledged her love for him.

Back on the surface, Vic discovers his old pal, Blood, wounded, starving and near death. Which leads to a shocking and hilarious conclusion, with one of the best final lines in any sci-fi classic: “Well, I’d certainly say she had marvelous judgment… if not particularly good taste.”

Directed by longtime character actor, L.Q. Jones (THE WILD BUNCH), the film is another post-apocalyptic treat.


3. Quintet (1979)

Quintet (1979)

Paul Newman was in a science-fiction movie? Directed by Robert Altman? Wait, what?

The 1970s were unquestionably Altman’s golden period with such true classics as M*A*S*H, BREWSTER MCCLOUD, MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, THE LONG GOODBYE and NASHVILLE.

By 1979 he’d earned the power to make whatever film he desired, and he chose this mind-boggling post-apocalyptic “game” story, set in a frozen wasteland. Newman, too, was looking to shake up his persona after SLAP SHOT, and he couldn’t have chosen a more unique vehicle.

Quintet is a casino game where the losers are executed, and Newman has unwittingly joined a game at an icy resort, masquerading as one of the established players. Newman’s challengers are played by an array of excellent international talent: Vittorio Gassman, Fernando Rey and Bibi Andersson (one of Ingmar Bergman’s favorite actors).

His cat and mouse interplay with Andersson is particularly intriguing, leading to a shocking confrontation as they both attempt to slit the other’s throat. You can guess who wins that one.

The story unfolds at a leisurely pace, with the plotting fairly perplexing, at times. It’s not a great film, it’s actually not very good, either. However, there are more than enough fascinating elements to keep us engaged, not the least of which being the compelling performances and impressive ice age production design. Every Altman and/or sci-fi fan should give it a try.


4. The Last Starfighter (1984)

The Last Starfighter (1984)

Imagine you’re a 14 year-old gamer who spends hours and hours at the local arcade in 1984, and you’ve just conquered the super-challenging Star Fighter video game… only to discover the game is a recruiting tool for an alien civilization desperate for pilots to join an interstellar war.

Witnessing their ultimate fantasy on screen, the target audience, 8-18 year-old boys, ate it up. Trailer-park teen, Alex (Lance Guest), is tapped by alien recruiter Centauri (Robert Preston) to join the space force, Star League, far across the galaxy. The plotting is quite predictable, but still good fun. Alex joins a “mixed-alien-race” group of pilot recruits, then is paired with his reptilian alien trainer, Grig (Dan O’Herlihy). He’s quickly thrust into battle where he unsurprisingly helps save the day.

In an amusing subplot, Alex is replaced on earth by an android replica of himself who must fend off the advances of his girlfriend, Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), with enemy aliens nearby on the prowl.

Director Nick Castle (co-writer of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK) delivers a rousing space adventure that is mostly family-friendly with just enough danger and edge to keep teens interested. Robert Preston is charming as always, and distinguished British actor O’Herlihy has a blast submerged under his alien prosthetics. The film also boasts being one of the earliest films to exploit the burgeoning computer-generated effects biz.


5. The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988)

The Navigator A Medieval Odyssey (1988)

Kiwi Director Vincent Ward burst onto the international indie scene with his stirring first film, VIGIL, following it up with NAVIGATOR.

The story begins in Medieval England during the Black Plague where a small village is desperate for survival as death creeps to their doorstep. All eyes turn to a young boy, Connor (Bruce Lyons), who has mysterious, mystical visions. They decide they must dig a deep tunnel in the hopes of emerging somewhere they can place a cross on a giant steeple as a monument to the church to appease God and keep the plague at bay.

Connor and a team dig their way through the Earth, and emerge in New Zealand… in the 20th Century. The film then shifts from black and white into color, and we realize we’re in a momentary ode to WIZARD OF OZ… except far more bleak. The fish out of water Medieval characters are amazed and terrified by the modern world as they race against Connor’s visions of death to save their village back home.

Ward’s visuals were so stunning, and the story so imaginative, that he gained the attention of Walter Hill and the team developing ALIEN 3. He would ultimately leave that project (retaining a story credit) and move on to make the wonderful and heartbreaking, MAP OF THE HUMAN HEART, and the visually arresting, WHAT DREAMS MAY COME.