10 great British sci-fi films

As Stanley Kubrick’s spectacular epic 2001: A Space Odyssey returns to cinemas nationwide, we fly the flag for homegrown science fiction with a list of 10 of the best British sci-fi movies.

John Oliver
Updated:

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

With his growing interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, Stanley Kubrick became determined to make the ultimate science fiction film, both in credibility of concept and scientific technical accuracy, and had first met with esteemed author Arthur C. Clarke to discuss possibilities over storylines in 1964. The end result would be one of the greatest and most influential science fiction films ever made, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Possibly the most controversial aspect of the film was Kubrick’s decision to eschew conventional narrative technique and instead approach the story primarily visually while leaving dialogue to a minimum. The enigmatic end result, while leaving some bewildered and alienated, was to captivate (while still bewildering) many more. The intelligent approach to the genre and the groundbreaking special effects (for which Kubrick was to win his only Oscar) instilled in audiences a sense of wonder and awe, especially when seen in its original 70mm Cinerama presentations.

In a four-part structure – which, considering the film’s dependence on various pieces of existing orchestral works to evoke moods and generate emotional reactions, may be considered as being more like movements – the film considers how extraterrestrials have influenced and monitored the evolution of human life, from the dawn of man through to his first steps in the exploration of outer space.

Often ranked as one of the top 10 films of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey (US-financed but British made and registered as such with the Board of Trade) is certainly among the very best British science fiction films. Here, for your consideration, are 10 other contenders to highlight the best that this country has offered in the genre.

The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936)

Director Robert Stevenson

The Man Who Changed his Mind (1936)

The Man Who Changed his Mind (1936)

If you were going to emulate the horror/science fiction films that Hollywood’s Universal Studios had been having such a success with in this period, you couldn’t go far wrong by using one of that cycle’s main stars, Boris Karloff, to headline your production. And Karloff is seen here at his crazed, ghoulish best.

After being publicly mocked by his peers over his theories on transferring minds between bodies, Dr Laurience (Karloff) becomes even more deranged than he was to start out with as he intensifies his experiments, progressing from chimpanzees to humans in his mad quest to perfect his mind transfer apparatus. The influence of the Universal films (other than the use of Karloff himself of course) is unmistakable: from the unhinged doctor’s sparkling and flashing laboratory equipment to the ‘tampering with nature’ plot. Yet the assured direction from Robert Stevenson, imaginative script, and the wonderful low-key cinematography of Jack Cox, ensure that this British entry is a stylish, intelligent and witty film in its own right.

Things to Come (1936)

Director William Cameron Menzies

Things to Come (1936)

Things to Come (1936)

A history of the world through to the early 22nd century, outlining its development into a global socialist state ruled by a technological elite, may not sound like perfect film material, and producer Alexander Korda’s enthusiasm for the works of H.G. Wells may well have blinded him to the difficulties that adapting the author’s 1933 novel for the screen would pose (the hiring of Wells himself to create a story and write the screenplay did not help).

Yet the project’s lack of commercial potential did not prevent Korda from producing one of the most ambitiously mounted of all British science fiction films (and the most expensive film made in the country up to that point), and while the production’s weaknesses may be writ large – a lack of dramatic impetus, the often declamatory dialogue and the film’s overly didactic promotion of Wells’s faith in science and technology – it is nonetheless a landmark film that is spectacular, conceptually audacious and one sporadically lit by flashes of genius.

Quatermass 2 (1957)

Director Val Guest

Quatermass II (1957)

Quatermass II (1957)

In October 1955, shortly after Hammer Films had released their film adaptation of the Nigel Kneale television series The Quatermass Experiment, the BBC began broadcasting the sequel Quatermass II, with Professor Bernard Quatermass once again saving the Earth from an alien threat. The public reaction to the new series, with its story of aliens secretly arriving on Earth and using humans as hosts prior to colonisation, virtually ensured that Hammer would wish to bring the character to the screen again in an attempt to replicate the first film’s success.

Having made his mark in the first film, American actor Brian Donlevy (who is actually much better than Kneale’s oft-repeated criticisms would suggest) returned to play the irascible professor, and the resultant film, tautly handled by director Val Guest (another returnee), is an unsettling and often disturbing work (a character’s horrific death by immersion in ‘synthetic food’ remains a particularly chilling moment) and ultimately one of the most spine-tingling of all alien invasion films, British or otherwise.

The Damned (1961)

Director Joseph Losey

The Damned (1963)

The Damned (1963)

Director Joseph Losey, by his own admission, may have had zero interest in science fiction, but that did not prevent him from producing one of the finest of all British science fiction films.

With its initial focus on leather-jacketed bikers in the seaside resort of Weymouth (led by the splendid and more sartorially refined Oliver Reed), the film begins as if it is going to be a teen gang film. But it suddenly segues into darker and certainly more frightening territory as an American tourist and a female gang member inadvertently stumble into a military establishment holding a terrifying secret: a group of irradiated children are being reared and educated within its walls to enable them to survive in a world decimated by a future nuclear war.

Aghast at its downbeat tone, Hammer Films shelved The Damned for two years before granting it a release, and only then in a cut form, but, despite this fate, Losey’s disquieting film remains one of that company’s finest and most haunting productions.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Director Val Guest

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Few films of its period presented a more intelligent, plausible and chilling depiction of the destructive potential of atomic power than director Val Guest’s gripping excursion into apocalyptic cinema. A down-on-his luck journalist investigates the reasons behind the world’s unusually changeable weather conditions and uncovers the alarming cause: the Earth has been knocked off its axis by worldwide nuclear testing and the planet’s climate zones have been displaced. Cue tropical storms in London.

Guest was determined to imbue the film with the ring of authenticity, from shooting on London locations as much as possible to providing a realistically realised newspaper background. This determination extended to recreating the newsroom of the Daily Express in meticulous detail in the studio, something that no doubt helped the large cast of familiar faces, aided by a British Academy Award-winning script by Guest and Wolf Mankowitz, give believable, sure footed performances as the staff of a national newspaper. A work of compelling power, the film remains the most accomplished of all Guest’s works.

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

Director Roy Ward Baker

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

No apologies are offered for including another Quatermass film as being among the best that British science fiction cinema has to offer, as this adaptation by Hammer Films of the third BBC television series to feature the indomitable scientist is fully deserving of its place and is arguably writer Nigel Kneale’s finest work.

When a large, unidentified metallic object is unearthed during extension work on the London Underground, Quatermass (a superb Andrew Keir) is called in to investigate and determines that it is a craft of alien origin that had arrived on Earth five million years ago. It is a discovery that throws a devilish new light, not only on the evolution of the human race itself (compare with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) but on its future survival. In an intriguing and exciting blend of science fiction and folklore, director Roy Ward Baker impeccably ratchets up the tension as the film builds to its devastating climax, with the reactivated craft resurrecting latent hostility buried deep within humanity’s subconscious.

Alien (1979)

Director Ridley Scott

Alien (1979): Sigourney Weaver as Ripley

Alien (1979): Sigourney Weaver as Ripley

American funded, but made by Twentieth Century-Fox’s British production subsidiary, Ridley Scott’s tour de force of terror was the antithesis of Star Wars (1977), Fox’s earlier cinematic blockbuster that had made films set in space a more commercially viable proposition.

Scott’s astute and visionary direction serves as a masterclass in how to construct tension and suspense, as the crew of the commercial spaceship Nostromo investigate a distress signal being emitted from an inhospitable planet, only for their actions to result in one of cinema’s most terrifying alien creations gaining access to the ship in a particularly novel and shocking manner, before embarking on a killing spree that leaves a trail of bloody horror in its wake.

The astounding creature and derelict spacecraft designs by H.R. Giger, replete as they are with disturbing yet beautiful sexual imagery, are ravishing to the eye, and while the film’s success spawned a media franchise and numerous cinematic offspring, it is the original that remains the definitive blend of science fiction and horror. 

Children of Men (2006)

Director Alfonso Cuarón

Children of Men (2006)

Children of Men (2006)

Based on the 1992 novel by P.D. James, this American/British co-production paints a bleak picture of life in 2027 Britain, where the country, the only nation left with a functioning government, has become a militarised police state in a world where humanity is on the brink of extinction owing to global infertility.

Clive Owen plays Theo, an activist turned jaded bureaucrat who embarks on a journey of self-awareness when he finds himself escorting the world’s only known pregnant woman from London to the south coast in order to rendezvous with a ship that will take her to safety.

Alfonso Cuarón’s imaginative direction keeps the tension taut, and his logistically complex single-takes during the car ambush and Bexhill battle sequences are – even allowing for digital manipulation – astonishing. The director refused all proposals to foreground advanced technology in order to retain a sense of the familiar, rendering the impending breakdown of civilisation as depicted here all the more unsettling. While his later Gravity (2013) may have netted all the Oscars, Children of Men remains the greater achievement.

Monsters (2010)

Director Gareth Edwards

Monsters (2010)

Monsters (2010)

If you wanted to make an impression with your feature directing debut, this was the way to do it. Gareth Edwards earned well deserved accolades for his original, inventive and resourceful (shot on a very low budget) foray into monster movie territory. He also created the visual effects, achieved, quite astonishingly considering their quality, on a computer in his bedroom using off-the-shelf software.

Years after a NASA probe carrying a sample of alien earth crashed in Mexico, which gave rise to the proliferation of giant tentacled creatures in what is now called the Infected Zone, a photojournalist has to escort his employer’s daughter through this monster-infested terrain to the hoped-for safety of the US border. The strength of the film is that, while the dangers of the journey may take centre stage, at its heart is a strong believable story about the growing bond between two credible and well-rounded characters. With shooting largely improvised while travelling in five countries, Monsters is the ultimate in guerrilla science fiction filmmaking.

Under the Skin (2013)

Director Jonathan Glazer

Under the Skin (2013)

Under the Skin (2013)

If ever a film divided audiences, it was director Jonathan Glazer’s cryptic examination of an alien travelling around Scotland while it (she?) picks up suitable male specimens for ingestion – or something. You either loved this or hated it, there was little middle ground.

Loosely based on Michel Faber’s 2000 novel, Glazer conjures up a disquieting and menacing atmosphere, aided by Mica Levi’s unnerving score, as Scarlett Johansson’s alien (wearing a black wig and sitting behind the wheel of a Ford Transit van) induces unsuspecting men into a dilapidated house to meet their fate, while she looks quizzically on the strange world around her and begins to question what it means to be human.

Plot elements (what exactly happens to the alien’s victims, and who is the motorcyclist?) and its overall intent may have been elusive to the end, factors which infuriated some viewers, but the boldness of its vision, stunning imagery and mesmerising performance from Johansson help to make this an unforgettable and haunting experience.

Your suggestions

We asked you to vote for the films you thought we’d missed out from this list. And the winners are … 

Moon (2009)

Moon (2009)

  1. Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)
  2. The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)
  3. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)
  4. Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007)
  5. The Quatermass Xperiment (Val Guest, 1955)
  6. Zardoz (John Boorman, 1974)
  7. Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla, 1960)
  8. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
  9. Friendship’s Death (Peter Wollen, 1987)
  10. The Man in the White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick, 1951)

It was a family affair at the top of our poll this week, with writer-director Duncan Jones taking pole position with his 2009 debut film Moon, and his father David Bowie’s outing as an alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) the second most popular omission from our original list. Two Quatermass films on our list wasn’t enough either; some of you thought the original 1955 The Quatermass Xperiment deserved a place too.

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