13 Essential Sci-Fi & Fantasy Films in the Criterion Collection

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

The Criterion Collection professes to bring together “important classic and contemporary films,” and it doesn’t discriminate based on genre snobbery. Recognizing a great many science fiction and fantasy films among its carefully curated collection, Criterion understands that SFF movies can be as brilliantly thoughtful and entertaining than their non-genre counterparts. (Often more so, if you ask us.) And naturally, SFF films often especially benefit from Criterion’s top-notch presentation.

In celebration of our ongoing Criterion 50 percent off sale, here is ample proof, in the form of 13 essential films, of the wide and wild diversity of SFF from around the world meets the standards of cinema’s own black label.

The Blob
By right, The Blob should be a silly and forgettable bit of ’50s sci-fi schlock. But the film’s pedigree has made it a classic: this is the movie that introduced the world to Steve McQueen, and it opens with a catchy Burt Bacharach-written song that makes clear that it’s all in good fun. The story of an alien amoeba crashing down in small-town Pennsylvania, with teenager McQueen in hot pursuit, has become an absolute cult classic.

The ultimate kaiju movie also happens to be a brilliant bit of filmmaking and a very pointed take on the perils of the nuclear age from a country with good reason to fear the bomb. The plot is familiar: radioactive beast terrorizes Tokyo, but this first outing is also deeply human. The Criterion edition includes the original Japanese version, as well as the American cut with Raymond Burr.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars
works on two levels, and they’re somewhat contradictory: on one level, it’s a lush and gorgeous technicolor fantasy about a man and his pet monkey lost on Mars featuring some truly imaginative special effects from master Byron Haskin. On another, it’s surprisingly realistic, taking its lead character’s plight seriously and offering up a vision of Mars that’s maybe not scientifically accurate, but well considered and plausible, at least circa 1964.

La Jetée
The experimental film covers a lot of science fiction ground in its short running time, some of which will be familiar if you’ve seen the movie or TV versions of 12 Monkeys, which are quite loosely based on this film. A prisoner in post-WWIII Paris becomes the subject of a plan to send people into the past and future to bring back help for the apocalyptic present. The prisoner visits a memory of his own childhood before seeing the far future in the twisty-turny story. The Criterion edition comes with Marker’s follow-up travelogue, Sans Soleil.

Things to Come
Inexplicably forgotten, Things to Come isn’t just a triumph of design, it also boasts one of the most impressive screenwriting credits in science fiction film history: H. G. Wells himself wrote the screenplay and collaborated on other aspects of the movie. Tracing the path of human history from 1940 (the film came out in 1936) through to 2036, it’s surprisingly prescient about some of the challenges (world war and dictatorship among them) to be faced by humanity in the century to come. The megabudget production was one of the very first serious sci-fi films.

Repo Man
Grizzled repo man Harry Dean Stanton takes young and rowdy Emilio Estevez under his wing in this supremely weird, very funny cult film. The two wind up on the hunt for a 1964 Chevy Malibu with aliens in the trunk. The punk soundtrack is killer, and the movie’s take on Reagan-era America is biting. It’s one of the quintessential punk films, and there’s been no other movie like it before or since.

If its not already clear, any Criterion reputation for fussiness should be dispelled by Scanners, a movie with much to recommend it, but that’s most famously about people blowing up other people’s heads with their brains. Of course, this was the breakout film of legendary director David Cronenberg, combining shocking and gruesome special effects with deeper ideas about corporate hegemony and the uncharted limits of the human mind. A renegade “scanner” with powerful telepathic and psychokinetic abilities wages war on the company trying to control his kind and, yes, he does so by blowing up heads.

Also from David Cronenberg, this surreal film has all of the director’s trademarks: there’s transgressive violence, grotesque body horror, and sadomasochistic sex. The CEO of a small Toronto television station goes on the hunt for for new material, only to stumble upon the pirate broadcast of a hyper-violent torture show. Digging deeper, he quickly finds himself on a journey deep into a shadowy and hallucinogenic world of right-wing conspiracies, losing touch with his own reality.

From John Frankenheimer, Seconds follows a middle-aged banker who elects to undergo a revolutionary procedure that will give him a new life: specifically, a new body that looks an awful lot like Rock Hudson in his prime. Adjusting to his new life isn’t as easy as he expects, and, of course, he learns that the miracle procedure hasn’t come without a cost. Like many of Frankenheimer’s films, this is one that’s only grown in stature over the decades.

Terry Gilliam’s legendary dystopian masterwork finds everyman Jonathan Pryce caught in an utterly soul-crushing bureaucracy full of barely functional machines. It’s one of the best, and most effective, anti-authoritarian works in any medium, brilliantly satirizing the dehumanizing elements of the industrial world. The Criterion edition features a restored director’s cut supervised by Gilliam himself, as well as a fascinating documentary on its behind-the-scenes struggle.

Time Bandits
Slightly less substantial than Brazil, but even more fun, Gilliam’s Time Bandits is a surreal and silly (in the best way) voyage through time and space. A boy named Kevin escapes his parents in favor of traveling with a band of time pirates conducting raids throughout history. Unfortunately, the Evil Genius played by David Warner is watching their every move. Monty Python alums Gilliam and Michael Palin teamed up on the script, and it shares the darkly funny sensibilities of that series.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s stately film eschews science fiction tropes in favor of a deep exploration of the lives and minds of scientists in the isolated and extreme environment of a space station orbiting the fictional planet Solaris. A psychologist travels to the station to seek out the reasons for mysterious messages from the station, only to find himself experiencing the same phenomena that have affected the crew. It’s a haunting film that uses sci-fi to probe ideas of love and humanity. (Tarkovsky’s follow-up, Stalker, also in the collection, took his ideas even further.)

The Princess Bride
Another reminder that Criterion’s idea of what makes a film “important” isn’t at all snobbish, as one of the most beloved films of the modern era has just joined the collection. The silly, sweet, and very quotable fantasy adventure starts with a sick kid and the grandpa who just wants to read him a story… minus the kissing parts. He gets a lot more than he bargained for. In addition to an array of new and classic extras, this edition boasts a brand-new 4K digital restoration.

The entire Criterion Collection is currently 50 percent off at Barnes & Noble.

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