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50 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the 1970s

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


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.


‘The Incredible Melting Man’ (1977)

An astronaut named Steve West (why yes, that is the most astronaut-y name you've ever heard) returns from a trip to Saturn's rings, only to find that…well, he's a little trouble with his skin. Like, for example, getting it to not drip off his body like hot candle wax. Also, he seems to be craving human flesh. William Sachs' drive-in cheapie was rumored to have been conceived as a comedic take on monsters-from-space movies, only to have the humorous bits taken out and repositioned as a horror flick. It does succeed as a comedy, of course, just not necessarily an intentional one. DF


‘Starcrash’ (1978)

"A space adventure for all time" claims this Italian import's poster — though to be fair, it's really a film made for a very specific moment in which even the cheapest Star Wars knock-off meant potential box office. How much does this film owe to George Lucas' pop phenomenon, you ask? There are spaceship dogfights and sabers that appear to be made of light. There's a bad guy named Count Zarth Arn [cough, cough] from "the League of the Dark Worlds" who's concocted a deadly weapon the size of a small planet. Christopher Plummer plays someone named the Emperor [COUGH, COUGH]. Unless you nostalgically remember seeing this as a kid, this cinematic slice of interstellar Velveeta is best seen as a souvenir from an age when everybody was out for that galaxy-far-far-away moola. DF


‘Welcome to Blood City’ (1977)

Five people — including 2001's star child himself, Keir Dullea — wake up in what seems to be a typical frontier town circa the late 1800s. They've got a lot of questions: Where are they? What, exactly, are they doing here? Why do they have to kill someone to get out of "Blood City"? And is there a reason that the bad guy from Shane (big up, Jack Palance!) wants to fill them full of lead? Suffice to say, everything is not what it seems; it should also be mentioned that this odd hybrid of Western and sci-fi owes a lot to Westworld and that its B-movie cheesiness often gets the best of it. Still, this exploitation flick's reveal, which we won't mention here, does predict a theme that will preoccupy the genre for years to come. DF


‘Beneath the Planet of the Apes’ (1970)

The craziest installment of the Apes series starts out as an almost point-for-point remake of the 1968 original. Astronauts fly through a time-warp, and land on a future-Earth ruled by talking simians, where one of the men (James Franciscus) gets captured. But once the hero escapes, the plot takes a dramatic turn, leading to a New York City subway tunnel where the first movie's protagonist (Charlton Heston) has been imprisoned by a mutant cult of telepathic humans who worship an atomic bomb. Made during the first year of the Seventies, Beneath sets the tone for the decade's sci-fi to come by taking a story audiences already knew and somehow making it even darker and stranger. NM


‘Deathsport’ (1978)

Nobody was better at creating Z-grade knockoffs of others' successful films than Roger Corman, but he was arguably even better at creating Z-grade knockoffs of his own successful films. After Death Race 2000 became something of a hit, Corman re-teamed with star David Carradine to quickly exploit the earlier film's success, with something that looked even cheaper. This time, it's 1000 years in the future, and a loincloth-clad Carradine finds himself mixed up in a battle to the death involving motorcycles. The whole thing looks so cheap that it might as well be a home movie, and all the running, jumping and fighting in the desert actually looks like everybody's greatly enjoying themselves. When you and your friends grabbed the movie camera when you were kids and rolled around the backyard, this is essentially the film you were making. BE


‘Message From Space’ (1978)

Credit Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale) for the energetic style displayed in this Star Wars knockoff's fight and battle scenes. You just need to overlook the ridiculous effects, the hilariously awful dialogue, and the mostly indecipherable plot, which involves magic seeds, mighty warriors and a fiendish, Samurai-like Emperor. But the movie does have its weird little charms, from the imaginative costumes to the presence of a drunken, slurry Vic Morrow. Even Janet Maslin of the New York Times, panning the film during its initial release, had to admit: "If you were spinning your television dial at 1 A.M. and happened upon Message From Space, you would undoubtedly consider it as lively as it is preposterous." BE


‘Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’ (1979)

In the wake of Star Wars, studios scrambled to reverse-engineer the formula, trying to figure out if it was the space travel, the special effects, or the callbacks to old serials that were drawing such huge crowds. Glen A. Larson placed his bets on all three: The Battlestar Galactica producer updated the 1920s pulp hero Buck Rogers for a TV series that he launched with a pilot movie, which got a theatrical release six months before the NBC show debuted. Square-jawed stud Gil Gerard plays the hero: a NASA shuttle-pilot who's frozen in the Eighties and wakes up in the year 2491, where he's embroiled in a war between Earth and a warrior race called the Draconians. The film manages to sprinkle everything with disco glitter — especially Twiki, Buck's wisecracking robot buddy who's like C-3PO after a weekend at Studio 54. NM


‘Escape From the Planet of the Apes’ (1971)

Three future-apes — Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), Zira (Kim Hunter), and Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo) — fly back through the same time-warp that brought astronauts to their Earth in the first Planet of the Apes. They land in 1973, where they're treated first as curiosities, then as celebrities, and finally, as public enemies. The simple premise-flip doesn't just retool the series and bring new energy to the franchise; it gives director Don Taylor a chance to introduce some striking new imagery, placing Cornelius and Zira against the backdrop of a Seventies America already beset with paranoia and generational conflict. NM


‘Damnation Alley’ (1977)

Twentieth Century Fox, the studio behind this adaptation of Roger Zelazny's novel, assumed that a film about ex-military operatives rolling across a bug-infested, postapocalyptic landscape would satisfy the public's appetite for both disaster pictures and gearhead fantasies. (Did we mention that they're rolling in a cool-as-hell armored van?) Then, a few months before the premiere, they released Star Wars, and guess what suddenly became an afterthought? Though the movie still looks somewhat dated today, it anticipates the likes of Dawn of the Dead and Mad Max in its story of human survivors fighting like mad to hold on to whatever they have left. NM


‘Futureworld’ (1976)

As a general rule, if the robots in your theme park begin murdering your guests (as they did in the 1973 cult classic Westworld), maybe you shouldn't try to rebuild and start again. Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner star as investigative reporters in the sequel to the 1973 film, which finds the company behind the original vacation-destination hotspot attempting to clone political and military leaders for nefarious control of the world. While not as memorable as its predecessor, Futureworld ratchets up the camp, adding samurais, space travel and, most terrifying of all, an erotic dream sequence with Yul Brynner. JN


‘Wizards’ (1977)

Animator Ralph Bakshi's first "family film" concerned twin brothers — Avatar (a magic wizard) and Blackwolf (a half-demon) — who were born millions of years after terrorists ignited the earth with atomic fireballs and left half of the planet to live as mutants on radioactive land. A cartoon fantasy with post-WWII-themes and a city fit for Tolkien, the film weaves pen and ink illustration, actual Hitler propaganda films, and painted-over live-action footage in a final battle scene where magic overcomes technology. Bakshi liked to joke that this artful combination of magic, fairies, and assassins was made for the "same budget of the first minute and a half of a Pixar film." It remains one mindfuck of a fantasy/sci-fi mash-up. CC


‘Hardware Wars’ (1978)

"You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll kiss three bucks goodbye." That was the pitch for this 13-minute faux-trailer parody of what was then the only Star Wars film. (Imagine!) With nothing but a measly $8,000 budget, director-star Eddie Fosselius cobbled together a charmingly cheap-looking but comprehensive spoof that was like a Mad magazine strip come to life. Spacefaring steam irons and eggbeaters do battle while the fate of a planet that looks like a deflated basketball (because that's what it is) hangs limply in the balance. The adventures of Fluke Starbucker & Co. eventually grossed a million dollars, a ratio of money spent-to-profitability that not even George Lucas can touch. SA


‘Battlestar Galactica’ (1978)

Long before Ron Moore turned the story of man vs. machine into a potent, powerful 9/11 metaphor, we had Glen A. Larson's ABC show, featuring Lorne Greene leading the 12 colonies of humans in their fight against killer robots known as Cylons. (Any resemblance between these cybernetic soldiers and the stormtroopers from a popular movie were not coincidental in the slightest.) This expanded theatrical release of the show's pilot was largely intended for foreign markets; it eventually made its way into U.S. theaters, where you could watch Starbuck and friends shoot down disc-like spaceships on a big screen instead of a small one. For anyone who owned the lunchbox back in the day, that warm, fuzzy feeling you get rewatching this should not be discounted. DF


‘The Omega Man’ (1971)

Based on the oft-filmed novel called I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, The Omega Man begins with an Army doctor (Charlton Heston, in the second film of his unofficial last-man-standing trilogy) walking alone among the empty ruins of Los Angeles, apparently the only person left alive after a biological plague. Soon he encounters a fleet of murderous albino mutants, as well as gangs of vengeful survivors. Outside of a notable interracial kiss between Heston and Rosalind Cash, the film is best remembered for post-apocalyptic set pieces in garbage-strewn streets, fully stocked shopping centers, and charred Dodger Stadium, as well as for Heston's pimp-level wardrobe, highlighted by a green velvet blazer and blue zipper tracksuit. This future totally blows, but at least it's got flair. EH


‘Crimes of the Future’ (1970)

David Cronenberg's favorite themes were already in place with his second feature, set in a future where a cosmetics-borne sickness has wiped out the adult female population and the remaining men have organized as a pedophile cult. Androgynous hero Adrian Tripod leaves the mysterious institute known as the House of Skin and wanders a vacant modernist landscape, which is worth gazing upon even when the movie's narrative occasionally fizzles. Although it looks like it was financed with spare change, Cronenberg's mind was way ahead of his means; you can start to sense the brilliant sickness that lay just beyond the horizon. SA


‘The Terminal Man’ (1974)

This overlooked thriller based on Michael Crichton's book of the same name finds George Segal trying to curb his violent epileptic seizures with a computer surgically implanted in his brain. What could possibly go wrong? Director Mike Hodges and cinematographer Richard Kline infuse the film with a disturbing, claustrophobic feel mirroring the unrelenting dark impulses of its protagonist. As doctors futilely try to control Segal's mind from afar, the impending sense that this will not end well builds throughout the film up to its tragic, if inevitable, conclusion. JN