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The early 1980s were especially filled with sci-fi releases hoping to find similar success, and many of them did, especially if they involved Steven Spielberg or were sequels to those hits of the previous decade. Others like ‘Blade Runner’ were flops at their time of theatrical release but have become cult or genuine classics, essentials of the genre’s canon. Both the VHS boom and the increased subscription of cable channels like HBO allowed for such titles to be discovered and appreciated later.
Thirty years on, with home entertainment not like it used to be, some of the hits have faded and the briefly beloved have fallen to the background again, only recalled by those with personal nostalgia for the movies of their youth. While a number of exceptional sci-fi releases of the early 1980s remain monuments of the genre, too many good ones are barely remembered let alone rediscovered by new generations. And unfortunately a few have kept afloat for wrong reasons, enjoyed ironically rather than fully respected.
Many of the forgotten and forsaken and misappreciated happen to be movies that look like copycats, and frankly some of them are. Deliberately so. But that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. The following five examples are enjoyable both in their familiarity and for their unique imagination, each of them representative of one or two of the more famous sci-fi movies from a few years prior.
If the United States falls under attack our job is to defend her in the past, present and future…
That title probably has you hearing Europe in your head right now, but it should have you picturing a nuclear aircraft carrier traveling through a time storm. Once you see ‘The Final Countdown,’ it’s hard to get images of the vessel out of your head, actually, given that the movie is pretty much a literal U.S. Navy recruitment ad (the production had the full cooperation of the military branch) crossed with a time-travel film.
Dismissing the parts that Peter Berg wishes he’d shot, this is more of a cerebral movie than a spectacle for air and sea craft enthusiasts. That ship comes out the other end of the storm in the past, specifically the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Does the crew of this highly advanced carrier and its many jets try to stop the day of infamy from happening? Or would that create a new timeline with too many unknown variables for the next 40 years of history, as well as a paradox?
The essential duo of Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen lead a thinking person’s sci-fi story, with a mind-bending time loop and hard-question what ifs, and while none of what it poses is fully dealt with, that aligns it just fine with ‘Close Encounters’ and its starship-gazing, ask-questions-about-the-time-traveled-airmen-later priorities.
Flash. A-Ah. He’ll save every one of us…
Based in the same nostalgia-driven love for old comic strips and film serials, ‘Flash Gordon’ is basically a cross between ‘Superman: The Movie’ and ‘Star Wars,’ the latter being ironic since George Lucas apparently made that when he couldn’t get the rights to this. You’ve got your hero plucked from his planet and fated to save another, here again from a villain played by an actor (Max von Sydow) much more talented than his adversary (Sam J. Jones). The journey is familiar, the visuals less so. And the soundtrack by Queen is just so incredibly catchy.
A lot of fans of the movie like it for its camp, thinking that the cheesiness makes it a guilty pleasure rather than a legitimately good movie. Even if not always intentional, though, the movie is on its own a thrilling homage to the style of the old matinee cliffhanger series using some cheap-looking yet very memorable costumes and simple but vibrant set design (both from Oscar winner Danilo Donati) mixed with very cool state-of-the-art practical special effects. And Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan is just so incredibly awesome.
In space, the ultimate enemy is man…
Peter Hyams, who made one of the most underrated sci-fi movies of the 1970s (the Moon Landing hoax thriller ‘Capricorn One’), also directed this, one of the most underrated sci-fi movies of the 1980s. It stars Sean Connery as a kind of outer space Gary Cooper, because ‘Outland’ is a clear, intentional sci-fi version of the classic Western ‘High Noon’ – an idea that was becoming more popular following all the Western genre influences on ‘Star Wars.’
‘Outland’ has also drawn a lot of comparisons to ‘Alien,’ in its practical blue-collar look and premise (and of course its score, also by Jerry Goldsmith), except for the main difference being that there are no aliens, only human villains. The marketing seemed to even address how the movie was like an answer to Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror hit, showing audiences how they don’t need scary creatures, as in ‘Alien,’ because man can be bad enough for man.
Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada…
In case ‘Star Wars’ isn’t identifiable enough for Earth kids, here’s a movie about interstellar battles where the Luke Skywalker type, who again goes into space and becomes a hero for an anti-Galactic Empire squad, is from the viewer’s own planet.
The premise is quite simple and still relevant: a video game planted on Earth is a test to see if any humans are worthy of becoming a Starfighter – not unlike recruitment puzzles used by MI8, the NSA and private security companies to find codebreakers and hackers – and a trailer park kid named Alex (Lance Guest) has what it takes. Robert Preston plays the alien who designed the game and immediately swoops down and steals Alex away to pilot a spaceship, because obviously that’s no different than being good on an arcade machine.
The early, then-groundbreaking computer effects used in the space battles look crude and ill-fitting now, by today’s standards, but seeing as this is movie involving video games we have to appreciate the retro graphics here just as we do with the old Atari and Nintendo games. Or at least accept them as a part of film history.
We’ll never get sick, we won’t get any older, we’ll never die…
A lot of science fiction of the 1970s and 1980s focused on kids making pals with aliens, as with ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,’ because good aliens were the norm at the time and that meant they and their movies were kid-friendly. It was also younger characters traveling through time or space or being the dominant population in an age-limit-based utopian/dystopian future (see ‘Logan’s Run’). This movie took a very different approach by centering on the other end of life, a group of elderly folks, who become more youthful through energy given off by a bunch of alien cocoons found nearby.
Thirty years ago, the novel idea was a huge hit, coming in sixth at the box office for 1985, receiving mostly positive reviews and even earning Oscars for acting and visual effects. An unnecessary sequel was made a few years later, and since then the movie has seemed to stop being talked about.
Is it because the main cast is almost all deceased and can’t do reunions in the media to remind us that it exists? Like most of Ron Howard’s work, it’s very good but not quite great, still enjoyable and worth discussing for its treatment of the everlasting desire of humans to be young again.
Out of all the film genres, sci-fi is perhaps the most difficult to stand the test of time. Anything from the ideas and questions that drive them to the special effects that execute those ideas can become dated in the course of only a few years. However, none of the above examples, even those with some antiquated visuals, is obsolete and disposable because their themes are timeless and their stories are told well.
It helps that they’re not too original, a word that we like to see next to sci-fi but one that can be problematic for the genre. Good sci-fi movies are distinct but also descendents of earlier sci-fi movies and books, which themselves were descendents of even earlier works.
These five probably have spawned other good derivative sci-fi features, too, but of course those will have to wait for another list for their spotlight.