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50 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the 1970s

From cosmic head trips to adventures in galaxies far, far away

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It was the decade that gave the world the maverick New Hollywood drama, the Nixon-era paranoid thriller, the slasher flick, the all-star disaster movie, the gross-out comedy and the modern mega-blockbuster. But the Seventies were particularly kind to one specific cul-de-sac of cinema: the science fiction film, a subset category that was still buzzing from its late-Sixties head-trip phase courtesy of 2001: A Space Odyssey. As the Age of Aquarius slowly slid into the beginning of the nation's Watergate-and-disco period, you could still find sci-fi movies that wanted to blow an audience's possibly addled, probably enhanced mind. But by the end of the 1970s, it was possible to have checked out postapocalyptic action-adventures, future-shock case studies, technophobic nightmares, low-budget exploitation movies about what-if scenarios and big-budget space operas — all of which fell under the S.F. umbrella and helped turn the genre into a gamechanger. And as anyone who saw Guardians of the Galaxy or Interstellar last year will tell you, the influences of this period are still showing up in theaters near you.

So, in honor of the 10-year-period that made science-fiction filmmaking what it is today, we are counting down the 50 best sci-fi movies of the 1970s. Some of them belong in the greatest-of-all-time canon; others, we will fully admit, are the cinematic equivalent of a ripe Camembert. But each of these helped the decade redefine where science fiction could go on the big screen, whether it was in a grungy grindhouse or a state-of-the-art multiplex. This is where the genre genuinely started to boldly go where it had never gone before.

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10

‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1978)

Easily among the greatest remakes ever made, Philip Kaufman updates Don Siegel's McCarthy-era classic to 1978 San Francisco. Donald Sutherland's trench-coated health inspector discovers that citizens are transforming into dead-eyed replicas of themselves. Like a deathblow to the wounded remains of the Sixties, the mysterious affliction drives people to distrust their neighbors, their community, and the environment. Kaufman proves singularly adept at keeping multiple genres and tones in play, from noirish mystery to heady paranormal thriller to face-squishing sci-fi horror. There's truly no recovering from the film's final the enemy-is-us parting shot. EH

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9

‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977)

When was the last time you watched the first fruit of Steven Spielberg's post-Jaws harvest? Did you remember the extended, door-slamming scenes of marital discord between Richard Dreyfus and Teri Garr? Did you remember how long Spielberg delays the big reveal? Did you remember how easily Dreyfuss agrees to board the spaceship? Unlike 1977's other sci-fi blockbuster, Star Wars, the secret to Close Encounters of the Third Kind's greatness is how it takes the time to immerse us in a swirl of Seventies paranoia and Reader's Digest-derived mysticism before blowing us away with a Manhattan-sized mothership. Four decades after Orson Welles warned of marauding Martians, Spielberg gave us a wholly friendly alien visitation, complete with oh-hey totally harmless abduction of a toddler, frenzied keyboard-based attempts at communicating, and a luminescent, kind-eyed species of being that has the rare power to tame Francois Truffaut. EH

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8

‘Phase IV’ (1974)

The only feature directed by legendary graphic designer Saul Bass concerns a colony of hyperintelligent ants intent on taking over the world, but it's less a creature feature than the equivalent of taking mushrooms with a bunch of hip myrmecologists. As the ants trap a group of scientists in their isolated desert lab, it becomes clear they don't want to wipe out humanity so much as (literally) colonize it — an idea played out over the film's recently rediscovered ending, a heady montage that gives 2001's "Beyond the Infinite" a run for its money. SA

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7

‘Silent Running’ (1972)

A movie that has everything — if by everything you mean Bruce Dern as a long-haired homicidal intergalactic treehugger playing poker with droids, talking to bunnies, and feeling really passionately about salad. The directorial debut of visual effects wiz Douglas Trumbull, Silent Running is a deceptively grim environmentalist allegory about a conservationist who balks at destroying the greenhouses he’s immaculately maintained aboard a giant space freighter. Though in the moral right, Dern's crazy-eyed rants about his predicament foretell a very dark turn, which leaves him alone with nothing but his self-righteousness, guilty conscience, and the aforementioned droids. A singularly bonkers effort that nevertheless taught Star Wars a thing or two about dodderingly cute robots and gave Mystery Science Theater its bored in space conceit. EH

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6

‘Zardoz’ (1974)

It's 2293, and the world is divided between impotent, midriff-baring hippies and illiterate, bedraggled savages. To keep the latter in check, a giant stone head deity floats over the landscape and goads men in red diapers to kill people at will. One of these "exterminators" is a mostly naked, obscenely hirsute Sean Connery, who singlehandedly subverts the class system by infiltrating an anesthetized Garden of Eden and inducing ice queen Charlotte Rampling into obsessing over his erection. One half vintage acid trip and one half devious social satire (director John Boorman tellingly pits SoCal mystics against armed radicals), this legendarily ludicrous spectacle has more to offer than James Bond swinging around a braided ponytail for 105 minutes — and that's saying something. EH

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5

‘Star Wars’ (1977)

Even after close to 40 years of exhaustive reckoning, it's hard to overestimate the cultural and economic significance of George Lucas' pulpy, pop-inflected space opera. While it nostalgically riffed on Flash Gordon serials, Greek and Anglo mythology, and Leni Reifenstahl-cribbed triumphalism, the filmmaker was nevertheless prescient about both world and market building. That we're about to receive a third trilogy based on characters first introduced in 1977 certainly speaks to the film's enduring appeal — indeed there's never been anything quite like it. And while all other sci-fi films from the Seventies can't help but be products of their era, Lucas has done everything he can — from digitally upgrading analog effects to backdating the introduction of characters — to prevent it from becoming a relic. His project wasn't to make a movie about that or any other time, but rather a story that lives off the screen, all the time. We’re all still living in it. EH