Not all science fiction films are blockbusters. Some of the very best sci-fi films are smaller, independent movies made by first-time directors who have to prove themselves before being entrusted by movie studios with big budgets and an A-list cast. Many filmmakers have done some of their best work early in their careers and on a shoestring budget. For these sci-fi movies, it is more about the concept, story, and themes than the special effects and action. Still, they are worth seeking out and viewing. You may be surprised at the hidden gems that are out there waiting to be discovered. Here are 15 obscure sci-fi films you should make a point of watching.
15. The City of Lost Children (1995)
An international co-production from French directors Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen), the 1995 sci-fi film The City of Lost Children is haunting, surreal, and an experience that will stick with you long after the credits have rolled. Starring Ron Perlman as a circus strongman whose younger brother falls prey to an evil being who feeds on the dreams of children, The City of Lost Children explores a world populated by a bizarre cast of characters and creatures including conjoined twins, a cyclops, a dwarf, and a disembodied brain housed in an elaborate tank. Featuring a steampunk aesthetic and incredible production design, Caro and Jeunet’s film explores the darker side of capitalism, as well as the exploitation of children and the loss of innocence. Just as much sci-fi as it is a macabre fairy tale, The City of Lost Children is one relatively obscure film that shouldn’t be missed.
14. A Boy and His Dog (1975)
Based on a short story by Harlan Ellison, A Boy and His Dog is a deep cut cult film from 1975 following a teenage boy named Vic (a young Don Johnson) and his telepathic dog Blood, who travel the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the Southwestern United States in search of food and, in the titular boy’s case, sex. Predating the Mad Max series and taking a much more twisted approach to the post-apocalyptic narrative, A Boy and His Dog is deeply unsettling, featuring an unlikeable lead character whose morals and ethics have been stripped away in the wake of nuclear holocaust. It’s never really made clear whether Blood is actually telepathic or if Vic is just hallucinating that he can talk but then, the entire film feels like a violent, sadistic fever dream of the nuclear era. If you can handle the rampant misogyny, there’s much to appreciate about A Boy and His Dog, if only because it’s so of a particular time and place.
13. Strange Days (1995)
Kathryn Bigelow wouldn’t reach the ranks of A-list director until her 2009 Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker won her a Best Picture Academy Award, but she had been quietly building an impressive filmography for decades prior. Featuring a script co-written by Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron, 1995’s Strange Days is a sci-fi thriller with film noir elements focused on a futuristic virtual reality system that allows users to experience life as other people, but with some dark consequences as well, including the introduction of new types of crime. The film can be read as a commentary on the city of Los Angeles in the 1990s, a decade that saw a rise in police brutality and racism. Featuring stellar lead performances from Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett, Strange Days themes arguably resonate just as powerfully today as they did more than two decades ago and is a must-watch for any sci-fi fan.
12. 2010 (1984)
You’d have to be crazy to try and make a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s genre-defining 2001: A Space Odyssey but it turns out someone not only had that idea but got it made too. Released in 1984, 2010 is an adaptation of author Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 sequel, 2010: Odyssey 2 (1982). The big reason why 2010 is so often overlooked is that Kubrick had nothing to do with it. Instead, the film was directed by Peter Hyams, who deliberately went out of his way to try and make something different that didn’t simply ape Kubrick’s filmmaking aesthetic. Whereas 2001 is a highly sensory viewing experience, Hyams’ film has more of a traditional narrative that is easier to follow. He also stuffs his sequel with characters who feel human, in a bid to create a more emotionally engaging film. Unfortunately for Hyams, this has helped make 2010 quite unpopular among fans of Kubrick’s film but if you can set aside the legacy of 2001, there’s a lot to like about the sequel, which is arguably a sci-fi classic in its own right.
11. Cube (1997)
This 1997 Canadian sci-fi horror film was the Canadian Film Centre’s first feature film project and follows a group of characters kidnapped and held a prisoner in a set of giant cube-shaped rooms. Featuring a cast of unknown actors, director Vincenzo Natali crafts a mysterious and horrifying viewing experience, in which you can never be quite sure who is going to be killed off next. In a way, the Saw series owes a debt to Cube, which introduced the room trap concept years before the first installment in the popular horror series was released. Fortunately, Cube is much more than just a torture porn horror experience, as the film’s true quality is its Twilight Zone-like premise, with Natali delivering on the film’s delightfully eerie premise. A cult classic, Cube went onto spawn two sequels but it’s the original movie that’s worth seeking out.
10. Time After Time (1979)
Nicholas Meyer is best known for penning the screenplays to the great movies Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. However, before these successes, Nicholas Meyer made his feature film directing debut in 1979 with the sci-fi movie Time After Time. This is a smart and engaging time-travel film about author H.G. Wells (played by actor Malcolm McDowell of A Clockwork Orange fame), who pursues Jack the Ripper to the 20th Century after the notorious killer uses the writer’s time machine to transport himself out of Victorian London. Tracking Jack the Ripper (played by Tron actor David Warner) to 1970s San Francisco, H.G. Wells meets and falls for a feminist bank teller named Amy (played by Oscar-winner Mary Steenburgen), and finds he must save her when she becomes Jack the Ripper’s next target. While not having the biggest budget, Time After Time is still a fun and interesting movie and one that holds up after all these years. Check out the hilariously dated trailer.
9. Primer (2004)
The 2004 sci-fi film Primer epitomizes what is meant by an “independent sci-fi film.” Made on a paltry budget of only $7,000, the movie is about two scientists who build a time travel machine. With no real budget for special effects to portray time travel, the movie instead focuses on something stranger, but ultimately more believable – they decide to use the time machine to beat the stock market (wouldn’t you?). The two main characters, who are both engineers, succeed at first, but eventually, things take a wrong turn. Made by first time director Shane Carruth, Primer is a smart and engaging movie that succeeds in making the viewer forget that there are no special effects to speak of in this movie about time travel. Instead, we have left with a thought-provoking morality tale that is the opposite of the dumbed-down, big-budget sci-fi films we mostly see in movie theaters today.
8. Slipstream (1989)
The 1989 sci-fi film Slipstream was barely released and is extremely hard to find today. This is a shame, as it features two genre icons in actors Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker, and Bill Paxton of Aliens fame. Mark Hamill plays a futuristic bounty hunter who kidnaps a wanted murderer from two police officers so he can collect the bounty himself. What follows is an epic chase across a world that has been ravaged by nuclear war, and where the best mode of transportation is riding gliders on giant winds that sweep across the Earth known as the “Slipstream.” Co-starring Bill Paxton, as well as British actors Robbie Coltrane and Bob Peck, this movie was barely released in the U.S. and is difficult to find on DVD or Blu-Ray today. But it is a fun and interesting movie that is worth seeing. One of the better post-Star Wars films Mark Hamill ever made. And the special effects are interesting. The world in this movie is like an airborne Mad Max landscape.
7. Stalker (1979)
The 1979 sci-fi movie Stalker was made by the Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky, who also famously directed the 1972 sci-fi classic Solaris. And while Stalker is not quite in the same league as Solaris, it is still worth checking out. But be warned that Stalker is a strange and intellectual movie that is challenging on first viewing. It is also pretty damn weird. It is set in the remnants of a world destroyed by nuclear war, and in a post-apocalyptic wasteland known as The Zone. A mutant child leads the main characters (a writer and a scientist) into the heart of the nuclear devastation in search of a mythical place known only as The Room. Anyone who enters The Room will supposedly have their earthly desires immediately fulfilled. But, as is typical of dystopian settings, a gradual disintegration begins before the eventual devastation and reality of The Room is revealed. Intellectual sci-fi, you bet. But also dark and grim. A movie that is not for the faint of heart.
6. No Blade of Grass (1970)
This thoughtful, low budget science fiction movie from 1970 remains relevant to this day. The movie is about a virus that attacks and destroys the world’s food supply, plunging humanity into anarchy and chaos, and forcing some people into cannibalism. British actor Nigel Davenport (best known for the film Chariots of Fire) escapes London with his family and heads to the Scottish Highlands for safety. There he runs into evil biker gangs and rapists and must fight for survival. Amid the dystopian backdrop and violence, the film expresses anti-government sentiments and environmental concerns. There is even mention of the death of bees and their importance to the food chain, a problem we are facing in real life. The clothes, music, and style might seem dated today, but this post-apocalyptic sci-fi film contains a message that is as eerily relevant today as it was back in 1970.
5. The Blood of Heroes (1989)
Writer David Webb Peoples and actor Rutger Hauer are best known for their work on the 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner. However, the two also collaborated on another excellent science fiction film – 1989’s The Blood of Heroes. Little seen during its initial release and largely forgotten since, The Blood of Heroes is a Mad Max type movie set in a post-apocalyptic world where a brutal, futuristic game resembling football is played. Rutger Hauer stars as a disgraced former star leading a ragtag group of Juggers, as the players of the game are known, to one of the remaining nine cities on Earth for glory and personal redemption. Co-starring actors Vincent D’Onofrio (fresh off his success with Full Metal Jacket), Delroy Lindo and Joan Chen, this movie is weird, wonderful and criminally hard to find. Fans of Blade Runner should pay homage to David Webb Peoples and Rutger Hauer and see this largely forgotten movie.
4. Alphaville (1965)
Made by French auteur Jean-Luc Godard, the 1965 movie Alphaville is about as intellectual a science fiction film as you can find. It is a protest against people who are obsessed with science and logic. The movie takes place in a future world where emotions are considered obsolete and public exhibition of them is illegal. But lest you think the movie will be all philosophizing and talking, it is set against a hardboiled film noir backdrop and a futuristic sci-fi dystopian society. In the film, secret agent Lemmy Caution travels to the technocratic dictatorship of Alphaville on a three-tiered mission: To search for missing agent Henry Dickson, to capture and kill the creator of Alphaville, and to destroy the futuristic city’s dictatorial computer known as “Alpha 60.” While not a conventional sci-fi movie, Alphaville, surprisingly, works. The black-and-white cinematography turns mundane objects into a convincing future world. A sci-fi film for people who don’t mind English subtitles.
3. Quintet (1979)
Given that Quintet was directed by Robert Altman and starred Paul Newman, you would assume that it would be a more mainstream sci-fi film. But this 1979 movie, set in a wintry post-apocalyptic future where a new ice age has ravaged Earth, confounded critics when released and ended up leaving audiences cold (pun intended). As a result, Quintet quickly left theaters and fell into obscurity. Yet time has been kind to this movie and it is worth finding now. Paul Newman plays a man named Essex, who is a survivor in a frozen wasteland. Essex lives day-to-day until he is drawn into a mysterious game called “Quintet.” The game, it turns out, is a kind of role-playing one, but if you’re killed in the game, you’re also murdered in real life. (It’s a similar theme to the Stephen King story The Running Man). As the director, Robert Altman does a solid job of creating atmosphere and a constant sense of impending doom. There are long stretches in Quintet where nothing happens before the screen is punctuated with action and violence. As the star of the movie, Paul Newman gives a tightly coiled performance full of nerves and raw instinct. The international supporting cast includes Fernando Rey of The French Connection and Swedish model Bibi Andersson. Not the most exciting of sci-fi movies, but one worth seeing for the director and star, if nothing else.
2. The Terminal Man (1974)
Written by author Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain), The Terminal Man stars George Segal (playing against type) as Harry Benson, a genius computer programmer who suffers from seizures that cause him to act violently, leading to him killing two people. To curb his violent tendencies, he volunteers to have a tiny computer implanted in him that’s meant to control his behavior. But he finds that he enjoys being calmed down so much that he starts instigating more violent seizures to experience the calming down effect more often. Directed by Mike Hodges, who famously made the first Get Carter film, The Terminal Man was poorly received when released in 1974. Yet this is another movie that has aged well. George Segal gives one of his most atypical and impressive performances in this film, and the thoughtful tone is intriguing for what is, essentially, a cyborg movie.
1. Dark Star (1974)
In the 1974 film Dark Star, we see the seeds of the movie Alien. Dan O’Bannon, who both wrote and acted in Dark Star, went on to write the screenplay for Alien. And both films are about a crew in deep space who have to contend with an alien creature on board. The difference is that Dark Star is played more for laughs and Alien more for horror. The first full-length film to be directed by genre legend John Carpenter, who would go on to direct Escape From New York and a remake of The Thing, Dark Star is a low-budget sci-fi movie about four astronauts in deep space, whose mission is to destroy unstable planets in star systems that are to be colonized. As their mission nears completion, the astronauts must deal with a runaway alien on the ship that resembles a beach ball (it is a beach ball), a faulty computer system, and a smart bomb that thinks it is God. If this sounds weird, it is because it is weird. Dark Star is kind of a stoner sci-fi film. The movie’s tagline is “Dark Star: The Spaced Out Spaceship.” Still worth seeing to appreciate the beginnings of John Carpenter’s career and to see the direction that sci-fi movies were heading in the 1970s.