The 1970s were a monumentally important decade in the history of sci-fi cinema. Though some may point to the 1980s as the best decade for sci-fi, it was during the ’70s that the genre transitioned from a sideshow offering to a main stage event. Today, science fiction films are a cornerstone of summer blockbuster season, and we can trace this phenomenon back to the remarkable movies discussed in this list. To better understand what made it such a special decade, here are the greatest sci-fi movies of the 1970s, ranked.
7/7 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a remake and re-imagining of the 1956 sci-fi horror classic of the same name (which was itself an adaptation of a novel by author Jack Finney). The 1978 version brings a sense of campy fun to the original story while maintaining a pervasive creepiness throughout. It’s a masterclass in tonal balance: laughs and screams abound in equal measure. Although the above image probably gives it away, it’s worth mentioning just how stellar the cast of this movie is — we get Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Leonard Nimoy, Brooke Adams, and more. Their onscreen chemistry has to be seen to be believed.
6/7 Fantastic Planet (1973)
A remarkable work of French animation, 1973’s Fantastic Planet (La Planète sauvage) is both a visual feast and a stunningly creative sci-fi epic. Though the art and animation are the stars of the show here, the film’s narrative is no slouch either, telling the story of humanity in conflict with a despotic alien race: giant, blue, semi-humanoid creatures known as Traags. Traags keep human beings (known as “Oms” on their planet) as pets, slaves, and the film has been read as a rich allegory for human rights abuses and oppression in the real world. So, if the oddball visuals or funky prog-rock score don’t appeal to you, Fantastic Planet‘s egalitarian message might still win you over. Check it out to see why AV Club says it “earns the adjective [strange] in its title.”
5/7 Mad Max (1979)
The original Mad Max, a high-octane tale of cars and carnage from Australia, became the face of dystopian sci-fi cinema when it was released in 1979. It sowed the seeds for the massive post-apocalyptic action franchise to come, and would be followed by Mad Max 2 in 1981; Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in 1985, and Mad Max: Fury Road in 2015. The first Mad Max entry is perhaps the least well-known entry in the series, but it’s also one of the best. Mel Gibson stars as a (very) young police officer, “Mad” Max Rockatanskty, who butts heads with a hyper-violent motorcycle gang. When said gang takes the lives of Max’s wife and son, the film explodes into vengeance-fueled fireworks. For those who like their science fiction with a hearty helping of action, Mad Max may be the best pick on this list.
4/7 Solaris (1972)
Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky released his space drama Solaris in 1972 to widespread acclaim. At the Cannes Film Festival of that same year, it brought home the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury, and it has enjoyed a stellar reputation since (earning it an American remake in 2002). Solaris took a different approach to science fiction than many of the films on this list, as it chose not to focus on technological advancements — or the changes brought about by said advancements. Its intentions, then, were predominantly humanistic; it aimed to explore the human condition, a condition that has not changed very much in Tarkovsky’s imagined future. As a result, Solaris is one of the most psychologically complex sci-fi films ever made.
3/7 Stalker (1979)
Stalker is a brilliant puzzle of a film from Russian master Andrei Tarkosvky. One part mind-bending sci-fi mystery and one part religious odyssey, it charts the journey of three men into the “Zone,” an area that took on supernatural qualities after an unknown, possibly catastrophic event. As we follow the titular “stalker” character and his two companions into the Zone, we do not learn much about it beyond its supposed wish-granting power — and it’s all the more interesting as a result. The film is based on Roadside Picnic, a sci-fi novel by Russian brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, but it moves beyond its source material in fascinating, and characteristically Tarkovskian, ways. It’s a magical journey from start to finish.
2/7 Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott’s Alien holds a towering reputation. Considered to be one of the greatest sci-fi (and sci-fi horror) films of all time, it spawned a flood of sequels, prequels, and ventures into other mediums. From its beginnings as a slasher-in-space, Alien has morphed and multiplied in ways resembling the xenomorph itself, and it is now a tent-pole entertainment franchise. It deserves this status, as the original film is nothing less than a masterwork. Perfectly cast and perfectly shot, it raised pulpy science fiction tropes to the level of high art. It’s terrifying, too, thanks to the iconic design of the titular alien, who we see lurking in the shadows and air vents of the Nostromo spaceship. In a lot of ways, Alien speaks for itself, and it’s one of those rare films that seems to appeal to every generation.
1/7 Star Wars (1977)
The original Star Wars is the best science fiction movie of the 1970s. It’s a choice that’s both predictable and controversial; while the impact of Star Wars on the genre (and on the film industry as a whole) was unquestionably massive, there are those who claim that it changed sci-fi for the worse (per Pop Mythology). With its blockbuster sensibilities and epic scale, Star Wars gave the genre an appeal it had never had before, and audiences responded by making it one of the all-time biggest successes in cinema history.
Though some argue that it signaled the end of small-scale, speculative sci-fi productions, it was merely following in the tradition of other grandiose space epics, like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Put another way, science fiction as a film genre was already moving in the direction of the big-budget blockbuster when George Lucas emerged on the scene with Star Wars. Looking back on its singular impact, is it any wonder that Hollywood studios would chase the success of Lucas’s vision for decades to come? It’s hard to do sci-fi bigger, or better, than this.