Star Wars has been around since 1977 and fundamentally changed the sci-fi landscape, but a lot of people don’t realize how many science-fiction films have come before the tumultuous space opera. Admittedly, before Star Wars, science-fiction films were for more of a niche audience. Much of the genre was simply not taken seriously before George Lucas came around, and great genre films like The Blob and Godzilla did not receive as much love from the Academy Awards, being dismissed as B-movies by critics and cinephiles (until they received intellectual reappraisals over recent decades which explored their brilliance, with Godzilla now referred to as poetry).
Updated June 28, 2023: Curious about the best classic sci-fi movies made before Star Wars? You’ll be pleased to know we’ve updated this article with new entries.
However, there have been a handful of science-fiction films that have stuck out among the crowd and remain beloved to this very day. Star Wars might have redefined sci-fi, but it was also standing on the shoulders of what had come before. Here are the best science-fiction movies before Star Wars was released in theaters.
15 It Came From Outer Space (1953)
1953’s It Came From Outer Space tells the story of an alien spacecraft that crash lands on Earth while the main human characters – an astronomer and his fiancée are stargazing in the desert. The aliens then take human form and try to find parts to repair their ship to return to their home planet as the plot progresses. The film was particularly notable for being one of Universal’s first 3-D films, exploring the early advent of 3-D cinematic technology.
The movie, produced by William Alland and directed by Jack Arnold, was generally well received and was an early exploration of the sci-fi genre in the ’50s, which comprised and depicted largely peaceful aliens and a progressive storyline unlike the usual invasion concept while exploring how the extraterrestrials dealt with the event of their spaceship crashing on Earth.
14 Silent Running (1972)
Douglas Turnbull, an innovative visual effects supervisor, who created scenes for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and The Tree of Life, made his directorial debut with this compelling environmental sci-fi drama that rips your heart out. Set in the post-apocalyptic future, Silent Running tells the melancholic story of Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), a lone crew member of a spaceship maintaining a variety of plants for humans’ eventual return to Earth.
When Lowell is ordered to destroy the last of the planet’s botany, he rebels and attempts to save the greenhouse with the help of three robots. At the heart of Silent Running, which influenced many subsequent sci-fi films, including Pixar’s WALL-E, are feelings of sadness and hope.
13 THX 1138 (1971)
George Lucas revolutionized cinema forever with Star Wars, but his lesser-known first feature film THX 1138, might be a movie that not many people are aware of. The film performed abysmally after it was released in what was Lucas’ debut feature film, much before his success with the Star Wars franchise. The premise of the film is a dystopian world where humans are stripped of their identities and all kinds of pleasurable activities and are drugged on meds and made to conform to working jobs tirelessly.
The film was re-released by studios after the success of Star Wars in the hope that it would ride the George Lucas wave, but it still failed to draw any kind of notable audience. However, the movie was a glimpse into Lucas’ ingenuity and visionary thinking and was a precursor to his eventual success with Star Wars.
12 Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers (1956)
Produced by Walter Wanger and directed by Don Siegel, Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers depicts how alien plant pods get scattered on Earth, with each pod replicating human traits identically and converting people into pod humanoids. The pods threaten to take over humanity, converting humans into emotionless pod humanoids unless the protagonists find the root cause of the invasion and the solution to save the Earth.
However, there would be controversies surrounding the film’s ending, with different versions of the film’s conclusion added and altered to the original take by studio executives against Siegel’s wishes. Regardless though, the film was a revelation at the time and coincided with the advent of more elaborate scripting and concepts in the sci-fi genre.
11 Things To Come (1936)
Based on H.G. Wells’ novel The Shape of Things to Come, 1936’s Things To Come was a far cry from the concepts of sci-fi films (aliens, monsters, etc.) that would follow as cinema evolved but was perhaps an early indicator of the power of sci-fi storytelling. The film depicts how the human race survives a mass worldwide conflict and then learns from the mistakes of their war-ridden past to become a technologically advanced society.
The film was released in 1936 before WWII and perhaps served as an ominous indicator of the perils of a world consumed by war that forced humans to the brink of extinction while also reflecting on the power of progress in a world united by peace.
10 Them! (1954)
Portraying gigantic ants attacking the planet, Them! is a classic example of a sci-fi film about the oversized monsters vs. humanity theme. The film was one of the earliest renditions of the concept, which several films since would follow, with the Earth in turmoil as gigantic creatures threaten to overrun the planet. With innovative use of visual effects, sound, and technology at the time, Them! was a visual delight to moviegoers in its era, which kept audiences on the edge of their seats, leaving them enticed, thrilled, and engrossed with the on-screen drama. The movie pioneered the use of cinematic technology that pushed boundaries of production and direction and remains one of the hallmark classics of sci-fi cinema to this day.
9 Alphaville (1965)
Directed by perhaps the most important filmmaker of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard, 1965’s Alphaville combines the genres of film noir and dystopian science fiction. The movie follows secret agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), who arrives in the distant space city of Alphaville to free it from its evil ruler named Von Braun (Howard Vernon). Von Braun’s daughter (Anna Karina) helps Caution. It is a strange but beautiful sci-fi without special effects.
8 The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
No, this isn’t the off-beat, if visually stunning, Keanu Reeves movie. The original The Day the Earth Stood Still centers around a flying saucer that landed in Washington, D.C. The saucer harbored an alien named Klaatu and his robotic companion named Gort. Looking at it from a contemporary time period, the film is very dated, and the robot costume for Gort is laughable, but beyond that, the film is noteworthy for its detailed exposition of the human race and how the ideologies of peace are often traded for war and avarice. The film was selected for preservation at the National Film Registry in 1995.
7 The War of the Worlds (1953)
Another original, alien-centric film remade in the 2000s (with Tom Cruise) was The War of the Worlds, the 1950s flying saucers classic based on the groundbreaking H.G. Wells masterpiece. The aliens don’t come in peace, and as soon as they land on Earth, all hell breaks loose as the monsters go on a killing spree to take over the world. The aliens are foiled by the bacteria in the atmosphere foreign to them as they die off. Potent, riveting, and ambitious even for a B-flick, the film was a step forward in science fiction and even won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
6 The Time Machine (1960)
Before Star Wars and, more appropriately, Back to the Future were released, Rod Taylor starred in the classic movie The Time Machine. It explored the themes of time travel and progress for the sake of science. George Wells (an obvious nod to the author H.G. Wells in this other adaptation of his) is a genius inventor who convinces his science-minded friends that he has discovered the secret of time travel. After his friends rebuff his claims, Wells decides to travel into the future, seeing what progress mankind has made. The movie is nostalgic, clever, and wonderfully acted by Taylor. It proves to be thought-provoking and stellar in its storytelling and structure.
5 Planet of the Apes (1968)
Keep your bad reviews off this movie, you damn dirty critics! This gorilla-sized fable tells the tale of a small group of astronauts who land on a different planet that is inhabited and run by walking, talking primates. In all fairness, while it is somewhat ridiculous, it did actually spawn tons of merchandise and a franchise.
Planet of the Apes, despite its now-cheesy makeup and effects, has become a hallmark in movie history. It was a feat of provocative intellectualism, which showed that sci-fi could be heavily conceptual and engage deep political and social issues, and has transcended its time period and subverted the genre with a twist ending that left jaws agape.
4 A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Admittedly, the film is only fifteen minutes long, but in that short amount of time, audiences were brought into a brand new world of imagination and innovation – science-fiction cinema. The short film sees a group of astronomers traveling to the moon, where they find a slew of other life forms. Given that A Trip to the Moon was released in 1902, it’s inventiveness and visual effects are fantastic. Director Georges Melies planted an idea of exploration beyond that of the Earth’s exosphere long before space travel was even feasible and changed the film industry forever in the process.
3 Solaris (1972)
Directed by the Soviet master Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris is often called the reply to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and one of the most disturbing science fiction films ever. The plot follows a psychologist Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), traveling to a troubled space station circling Solaris to discover what has caused the crew to go insane. Once there, Kelvin is forced to meet his wife, who has been dead for ten years. It is dream-like celluloid poetry, which reminds us what it means to be human.
2 Metropolis (1927)
This 1927 epic was a brilliant metaphor for both industrialization and capitalism and proved to be Fritz Lang’s magnum opus. If A Trip to the Moon was the beginning of science-fiction films, Metropolis was its first masterpiece and began to shift sci-fi toward the mainstream. It has a sense of wonder, using technology as one of its themes throughout the runtime, and its awe and majesty have been inspirational to countless films since.
1 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Yet another 1968 classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, used technological progressivism in a way that has redefined every sci-fi trick in the book and has been remembered for generations after its release. The film explores deep philosophical issues of existentialism and the evolution of technology, humanity, and the universe; it may even hold the true secrets of the cosmos, which have probably just flown over people’s heads.
It also sports HAL 9000, the calmest villain ever put on the big screen. The machine’s collected demeanor and sophisticated, condescending tone and voice are enough to anger anyone, and it makes it that much more satisfying to see his downfall. Nevertheless, the film is a testament to the intellectual and visual power of science-fiction and paved the way for movies like Star Wars to be beloved by critics and audiences alike.
In conclusion, this film has captivated audiences with its mesmerizing storytelling, compelling performances, and stunning visuals. It has transported us to worlds both familiar and unknown, evoking a range of emotions that have left a lasting impact. The director’s artistic vision and the collaborative efforts of the cast and crew have brought this story to life in a truly extraordinary way. From the gripping plot twists to the heartfelt moments of connection, this film has reminded us of the power of cinema to inspire, entertain, and provoke thought.
Whether you’re a fan of the genre or simply a lover of great storytelling , this film is not to be missed. It’s a testament to the magic of filmmaking and serves as a reminder of the profound impact that movies can have on our lives. So grab your popcorn, sit back, and immerse yourself in this cinematic masterpiece.