The Five Underrated Sci-Fi Movie Masterpieces

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Watch the full list: The Underrated Sci-Fi Masterpieces

After seeing 300 or so films a year, I’ve learned quite a few things about the moviegoing experience: Popcorn on an empty stomach is bad news, the majority of movies released each year are formulaic drivel – a waste of time even when seen for free – and the only thing sadder than seeing incoherence rewarded at the box office is witnessing something truly brilliant trail off into utter obscurity.

It’s the forgotten (and ignored) greats that break my heart.

Over the last two months, we’ve set out on a mission to bring five underrated and unappreciated science-fiction masterpieces back from the shadows. To give them a second life on DVD. The task has been hard (see the first days of the debate here, and the 20 finalists here), but fun, and it’s led me to add some 40 films back into my Netflix queue, eager to take a second glance. Over the holidays, it was Silent Running and Predator that unleashed debates in my family’s Wisconsin living room, during my impromptu underrated film festival. Dad thought Silent Running was a treehugging disaster. There was much debate as to whether or not Predator counted as sci-fi. (We also argued plenty about my top 10 sci-fi films of the decade, as well as Tracey’s top 10 video games of the decade and Lev’s favorite sci-fi characters)

Needless to say, this project has left me conflicted. Why is it that so many smart movies fail to gain traction? How can stories of substance wither on the vine while fluff rakes in a windfall? How many other brilliant films from past generations have been lost due to a lack of distribution and ticket sales? If an epic plays to an empty theater, what’s the point?

According to Techland readers, Techland staffers and my own personal biases, here they are: The five most underrated sci-fi masterpieces.

Watch the full list: The Underrated Sci-Fi Masterpieces

521 comments
WilliamL
WilliamL

The Lathe of Heaven, The Thirteenth Floor, and Solaris (both versions, even though I know the Soderbergh version is 'Solaris Lite'). Steven's selection of Gattaca is on the money, and anybody who thinks this dystopia is impossible hasn't been paying attention.

UMMMHELLO
UMMMHELLO

I know it's relatively new but Europa Report was released with almost zero fanfare but was a brilliant film.

LouisWilliam
LouisWilliam

two of the most underrated sci-fi movies in this that have to be included or at least discussed are the brilliant films, Mr nobody and man from earth. man from earth on just a budget of $200,000 is a thought provoking film which discusses and makes you think about philosophy, religion, sociology and mankind's place in the world which after all is what you want from any good sci-fi movie. whereas my personal favourite, which is Mr. Nobody, combines a brilliant storyline with some of the most beautifully shot scenes from any sci-fi movie, in fact any genre of movie. the soundtrack is fantastic and the acting by jared leto is as always superb.  the use of chaos theory and butterfly effect work well within a confusing storyline that really pays off the more you watch, it is in my opinion a much better and more nuanced version of the fountain

siddabunneh
siddabunneh

Amanda and the Alien.  Fun,  bijou of a film that has a shape-shifting alien on the loose and the woman that helps it to it's rendezvous point in time to go home.  Very funny and witty, yet you want to see what will happen next.  


Nicole Eggert, Stacey Keach, Michael Dorn star in this very underrated TV Film that shows once in awhile, TV gets it right.

DarylTalbot
DarylTalbot

Now here is a real underrated classic, almost unknown, the original 1980 make of The Lathe of Heaven.  Completely exceeded all my expectations despite an obviously low budget and will probably exceed yours.  You need some patience initially but after that you'll be absorbed into the events quite quickly.


Honorable mention should go to 'FAQ about Time Travel'.  Loads of fun!

BrianBoru88
BrianBoru88

By far my favorite underrated future fiction film is the 1973 French classic Fantastic Planet.  It chuffs me up to watch humanity shown as the undermonkey that comes from nowhere to wreak havoc and claim it's true potential.   Great soundtrack, surreal visuals, cartoon violence and human ego boosting action.


Also, I've read most/many/lots of/too much future fiction stories and my favorite underrated written story is John Faucette's Crown of Infinity.  The evolution of humanity from modern ape to future space sex god in 200 pages. Everything that's standardized in the future fiction canon has it's roots here.

JoshuaWillman
JoshuaWillman

All good movies, but I guess I was expecting more obscure films. Silent Running, Dark City, Gattaca and even to a lesser extent Primer can be found on countless "best of" lists. 

chronically
chronically

I know your gonna laugh cause it got Timberlake in it but "In Time" was surprisingly good. It had some flaws but it was better than say Looper or the many sci-fi "reboots" they've attempted in the last few years. plus Olivia Wilde for 2 hrs. I'm not saying top 5 but definitely deserves a mention in the conversation.

aizolnai
aizolnai

Event Horizon (1997, Eisner/Anderson), Solaris (1972, Solyaris, Tarkovsky) and Sunshine (2007, Danny Boyle)

andyb0y
andyb0y

Moon. Absolutely the best sci-fi movie to come out in years.

Anonymousish
Anonymousish

I can't believe no one has mentioned 12 Monkeys yet. Maybe I missed it or people consider it not underrated but I feel like I don't hear it mentioned often enough and it is easily in my top five for sci fi movies.  Another that I think was misadvertised and ultimately a sci fi movie though very subtly is The Adjustment Bureau which especially when viewed in that genre is really an underrated movie.

Manalive
Manalive

Good choices. Liked Silent Running when it came out, but now it's too slow for me. I'd add the French film, City of Lost Children to the list.

RachWit
RachWit

Love your picks! I'd add Lockout as a solid candidate, though.

ValStJohn
ValStJohn

Definitely agree with Dark City on the list - Great film that was mistakenly billed as a "Horror" film. As previously suggested, the Director's Cut is the best version.

Without saying too much, it is possible to easily confuse the end of Dark City and The Thirteenth Floor (If you have seen both films).

Other great additions would be Solaris (Original 1972, Andrei Tarkovsky), Soylent Green (Classic), Westworld (1973, Yul Brynner), and District 9.

BeeZ.Evans
BeeZ.Evans

One film many Americans have never seen, which seems to be missing from many futurist/SciFi lists, is "Zardoz" starring a near-naked Sean Connery.  Zardoz a giant floating God-head which dispenses guns.


John Boorman film set in 2293, examines violence & decadence, sexuality & security in the vein of "Hunger Games" & whatever that latest one w/ Matt Damon & Jodie Foster is called.


Creative portrayal of future language & telepathic powers, did we mention Sean Connery as a near-naked "Outlander"?

Want to see? click here: http://is.gd/pgUvlO

=^.^= https://rebelmouse.com/CosmoCorps/

MattWhitby
MattWhitby

I'd seen three of the five.  I'll try the other two.  Thanks.

The_Rizz
The_Rizz

Moon was a very good movie, and almost completely unknown even though it stars Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey.

Dark City definitely should be on this list, but if you haven't seen it, make 100% sure that you watch the Director's Cut. The theatrical cut had a voiceover added to the beginning of the movie that ruins much of the mystery; it tells you exactly who The Strangers are, who Sutherland's character is, and the motivations of both - which is the primary mystery in the movie.

I find it bewildering that they mention Serenity (which was fairly lackluster) without mentioning the Firefly TV series (which is absolutely amazing) that spawned it. Haven't seen Firefly? Go rent/buy/stream it now. You will not be let down.

Silent Running I found to be both horribly boring, and the driving point of the plot (that Earth isn't trying to save the plants, but actually want them destroyed because... well, no real reason) to be nonsensical.

Another honorable mention should be The Thirteenth Floor, which is a good scifi tale that got completely overshadowed by having The Matrix come out the same year.

BassGuyGG
BassGuyGG

There are quite a few but I will limit myself to top picks. "Sunshine" was absolutely incredible, with its CGI and the voyagers trying to deal with the incomprehensible heat and power of the Sun.  I really liked the premise of "Menancholia," with a rogue planet headed directly for Earth.  Call me a dork but I LOVE "The Fifth Element" and although I've seen it 100 times I still have to watch it every time it's on cable.  Especially the "Diva" scene where "Lucia de Lammermoor" morphs into Techno music which is just awesome and forced me to IMMEDIATELY buy the soundtrack.  "Moon" and "District 9" and "Repo Men" all tell harsh truths about the human condition.  In the Classics dept. I definitely nominate "Farenheit 451" and "Soylent Green," which seem to have been forgotten these days.

Alex_Yound22
Alex_Yound22

Personally I think the 2007 flick "Sunshine" by director Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting", "127 Hours", "Slumdog Millionaire") is easily one of the most underrated sci-fi movies out there. It's more "hard" science fiction in the sense it's very much based in reality, ie there's no aliens or laser guns etc. and is very plausible in the sense that it could very well happen in real life. The acting is top notch, Cillian Murphy ("Inception") gives one of his most bold performances and to be honest you can see the way writer Alex Garland ("Dredd", "28 Days Later") took one idea and stretched it in as many different directions as possible while developing the characters and the plot line simultaneously. Definitely check this out if you haven't seen it, it starts a little slow and builds into an intense visual crescendo with a complete jaw-dropping ending. 

Mutha_Superior
Mutha_Superior

Everyone here should check out the movie Beyond the Black Rainbow. It is excellent, especially if you have patience to see the story unfold.  It's unpredictable but it a great sci-fi, psychedelic flick. It's directed by Panos Cosmatos and release in 2010.  Let me just say that you can tell that Stanley Kubrik was a huge inspiration for Cosmatos.  The film has that slow and deliberate feel of 2001, with a strong 80's music, architecture and fashion style (considering it is set in the 1983) but at the same time you almost can't compare the 2 films.  They are completely different.  But its extremely beautiful and thoughtful and you can tell that Cosmatos and his crew took their time to create an underrated masterpiece. And though it may not be considered sci-fi, Enter the Void is another great cerebral, psychedelic treat from Gaspar Noe.  It you enjoyed Donnie Darko and exploring the possibilities of what happens after death then Enter the Void is the flick for you.

kashif
kashif

I don't know how many of you will agree, but "Star Trek - The Motion Picture" is possibly the most under-rated sci-film of the 80's. Maybe because it's a Star Trek film, but I really liked the concept - we (Earth) launch a probe (Voyager 6) into space - it disappears into a black hole and 300 years later it returns (rebuilt by a super intelligent race of machines) as a living machine consciousness, searching for its creator. I do believe that this is one movie that would be worthy of a remake if done properly.

dave4
dave4

I've seen all five films, and every one of them is worth your time, no doubt about it.  I might quibble with "Silent Running" being on the list instead of "Moon", but choosing Primer for the #1 spot makes all forgiven.

My favorite underrated sci-fi is one from 1970: "Colossus: The Forbin Project". This is the mother of all deus ex-machina story lines, a very intelligent movie with a terrific character arc.

Mouse
Mouse

Millennium: It's just got everything it takes to be a bad film and somehow it all comes together to make a really good movie.


Adeyfk
Adeyfk

Definitely agree with THX1138 being on a longer list.  I'd also like to see 'Love', 'Strange Days', 'another earth', and my number 1, 'Dark Star'. I bask in the glory of a film that manages to show man's complete lack of understanding of his place in the universe, in a deep and incredibly insightful way.  For me it's like he's holding the bridge of his nose and shaking his head, eyes closed, at how we deal with our environment. all this, and on a $60,000 budget!!!

ELBSeattle
ELBSeattle

The Bothersome Man is an awesome Norwegian sci-fi/comedy/dark/bizarre flick. I've seen it several times (it's on Netflix) and is one of my favorites. I enjoyed Primer okay, but I loved Upstream Color to the max.

Luc
Luc

The Fountain is fantastic. I saw it almost on accident in theaters and I've watched it so many times since. Also, The Host, a Korean film, is absolutely amazing. I saw it on DVD probably in 2007. It's on Netflix now so watch it. And Soylent Green is good too, though probably not underrated now.
And I know this is for movies, but I loved the tv show Farscape.

MichaelTotin
MichaelTotin

I'm sure it has been mentioned, but "Moon" is definitely in my top five.  

The climax and ending may be a bit predictable, but it's a classic tale presented in a fantastic manner.  And with a budget of only $5 million.  Not to mention an amazing performance by one of my top 5 underrated actors.

With hints of THX 1138, 2001, and Clonus, it's definitely a classic.


jgottwig
jgottwig

Every see a little indy scifi film called Hunter Prey?  Happened across it on Netflix a year or so ago and loved it.  Very clever piece full of little twists and surprises.

Other than that, I agree with a lot of what's been mentioned.

JohnFuller
JohnFuller

What about Disney's  1979 The Black Hole? In spite of some hokey special effects,  leaky science, wooden acting, and tone problems with the movie (Disney couldn't decide whether to aim the movie at kids or adults), I always thought this was a half-brilliant masterpiece. One reason it got snuffed is it was released the same weekend as Star Trek:The Motion Picture, but I always thought this film deserved more kudos than it ever got, and is, more than any other film, basis for my interest in science.

The positives are an ever-increasing sense of dread, a truly terrifying murderous robot in the form of Maximillian, some deeper questions about artificial life and what it means to be human, and one of the most iconic, recognizable starship designs of all time, in my opinion, with the U.S.S. Cygnus .

RobertG.Berke
RobertG.Berke

Proof of its under-rated-ness is the fact that "The Stuff" does not even seem to have made it into the comments even though it is truly one of the most thought provoking movies I have ever seen. Its metaphoric properties have only become more profound as the Madison Avenue becomes more aggressive at pushing miracle foods, drugs, and technologies down our throats without adequate testing or full knowledge of the consequences (GMO foods, for instance). Based on a Ray Bradbury story if my recollection serves. Continues to haunt me even 30 years or so later. Great performance by  Michael Moriarty, and a star turn by Garrett Morris in what may have been his first post-SNL film role.


ekiza23
ekiza23

Serenity and Gattaca, I wouldn't say they are underrated. Maybe they did not do as well in the box office, but they are pretty mainstream movies. To make my point:

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/underrated

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/serenity/

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/gattaca/

The Fountain, I loved it. I recently watched it again with my GF and a friend of her and neither of them liked it. I still love it.

And it is kind of underrated: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_fountain/

From the list, I did not like Silent Running, which I watched after learning of it in an episode of "Six Feet Under".

And Primer, the problem with it may not be that it is underrated, but misunderstood. The plot is SO convoluted that I know of no-one who wouldn't have a headache just by trying to understand all of it at once...  Even with help:

http://unrealitymag.bcmediagroup.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/primer-chart.jpg

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/0/03/PrimerTimeline.gif

http://xkcd.com/657/large/

I would say that Primer is not underrated as a movie, but as the great puzzle it is.


And since we're at it, I would like to suggest one of my favorites for life, which is not underrated, but almost undiscovered: 

****  MR. NOBODY **** by Jaco Van Dormael


tintinmilou
tintinmilou

BRAZIL!   

And The Fifth Element.

And Contact.

And A Boy and his Dog.

And CUBE!

And The Man Who Fell to Earth should be on some list, somewhere.  Worst?  Best?   Most obscure?


ChrisVetter
ChrisVetter

Run Lola Run. Essentially a case study in chaos theory. Brilliant. But it has to be watched in the original German. It suffers in translation.

Åkerhjelm
Åkerhjelm

Definitely Gattaca. Such an underrated movie.

I would like to add spanish time travel movie "Timecrimes" to the list (Los Cronocrímenes, 2007).

dimitrim
dimitrim

Hi Steve, you've listed some of my preferred sci-fi movies: Dark City, which I find very intriguing, and Gattaca, which I consider one of the smartest way to let sci-fi talk face with nowadays's problems, in this case discrimination.

Let me suggest you to add another minor production which has tried to deal with conflicts among different races: Enemy Mine ( 1985 ).


Thank you Steve.

lindsaywreilly
lindsaywreilly

Donnie Darko

Brazil 

Never Let me Go 

City of Lost Children

District 9

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Flatliners

Another Earth 

The Fifth Element 

Alphaville 

JIMNJCIL
JIMNJCIL

Great list except for Primer,which I found unwatchable. Dark City is an astonishing movie-on my all time list and I am 66. I also loved The Road Warrior,which I am not sure is considered underrated and Soldier with Kurt Russell.

RichardPozzuto
RichardPozzuto

I'd like to see a list of the five WORST Sci-Fi movies of all time... I got the top two: 1) Battlefield Earth  2) The Black Hole (Disney)

koumorijin
koumorijin

This is a terrible list, not because of the movies in it (they are all great movies) but because I would hardly consider them under rated.  Serenity, really?!  The movie that was made soley because of a clamoring fan base, really?!

I like how The Fountain was in your video but didn't make the list, it may be one of your favortie films but it was pretty universally panned by critics and audiences, and would deserve to be on your list over any of the other movies on your list because it was in fact under rated.

JeremyTurner
JeremyTurner

The Man from Earth and Safety Not Guaranteed

MarkHarcourt
MarkHarcourt

Brainstorm (1983) Natalie Wood's last film with Christopher Walken.

oscarian
oscarian

@Adeyfk Yeah I'd have to agree with the THX1138 comment, I've only seen it once but it was very memorable. I saw it in 1990 after renting it on VHS. I think the director could well do with some lessons on himself if he would return to this movie for inspiration. Lucas' latest work speaks more of a guy with too much money and not enough "that's a bad idea George, and let me tell you why" personalities to guide him, despite his "experience".

seltz.design
seltz.design

@ekiza23  I was also thinking Mr. Nobody. Its a great film and i never understood why it hadn't gotten the praises it should. Turns out its only coming to cinemas in the States right now - even though it was first released in 2009. If you go to their facebook page you can see there is a lot of advertising going on for it, new posters and all. So lets hope it now gets some more attention :)

BassGuyGG
BassGuyGG

Oh yeah! That was awesome and definitely one I need to go and re-watch.  Preferably any director's cut, if any such thing exists.

dave4
dave4

@MarkHarcourt  How could I forget this one! Yes, definitely one of the most under-rated sci-movies of all time.  A rare treat as far as the actors are concerned, with a very young Christopher Walken in the lead, and the last movie made by Natalie Wood before her accidental drowning.

MeganMcKay
MeganMcKay

@seltz.designI only recently heard of Mr. Nobody, and I can't wait to see it when it comes out.  I had thought it wasn't out yet, but when I looked on imdb it said it came out in 2009, but I couldn't find it anywhere, then I saw somewhere that it's not out yet.  So I have been really confused about that.  Where did you see it?