Dark Phoenix has arrived to close out the 19-year X-Men movie saga, which has seen Certified Fresh hits like the 2000 original, Days of Future Past, Logan, and Deadpool. It’s a moment made even more bittersweet now that 20th Century Fox, the studio that has shepherded this Marvel franchise, has been acquired by Disney. Fox has a film library accumulated over 84 years as one of Hollywood’s majors, now finding a new home in the House of M(ouse).
X-Men started in the tenuous superhero years between Batman & Robin and the first Spider-Man. And though the mutants traded spandex costumes for leather (it was still practically the ’90s), the film still kept its outsider spirit, its theme of the status quo destroying the gifted, and the question of what happens when evolution disrupts a narrow-minded society. These concepts are some of the central bearings of science fiction, a genre Fox has had a storied history within, starting with black-and-white classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. Movies that followed, like Star Wars, Alien, Planet of the Apes, and Avatar, not only pressed up against the boundaries of sci-fi, but they shaped our pop culture as a whole.
As the sun starts to set on a historic studio, we take one last look back on 20 of the most groundbreaking science fiction movies of 20th Century Fox.
Fox kicked off the creature feature trend of the 1950s with this actually reserved sci-fi parable of a visitor from beyond the stars named Klaatu with a draconian message to humanity: Shape up or face annihilation. To this end, Klaatu has brought his eye-blasting robot, Gort. Day the Earth Stood Still laid down the template for sci-fi combining fantastic visuals with social commentary, that would have immediate influence on ’50s pop achievements like the original Godzilla and The Twilight Zone, and then well into the future.
In the race to getting color on the silver screen, the sci-fi grand prix came down between Fox and Paramount. The latter was gearing up to release the Technicolor War of the Worlds in August 1953. Fox, rearing to beat Paramount to the punch, put out Invaders From Mars in April, thus holding the record for first color depiction of aliens in theaters. Texas Chain Saw Massacre helmer Tobe Hooper remade the movie in ’86, with a screenplay by Alien writer Dan O’Bannon.
As science fiction became mainstream product in the 1950s, it expanded audiences’ taste for harder, deliberately shocking material. Enter The Fly, which revolted crowds and critics with its nasty transformation effects, effectively capping the swinging creature-feature ’50s with a swat of brutality. David Cronenberg broke into the mainstream in the ’80s with his Jeff Goldblum-starring Fly remake of the ’80s, going full-bore on his trademark body horror and psychosexual obsession.
With the ’60s, the sci-fi movie standard animorphed from atomic age monsters to epic and/or disaster expeditions, with Jules Verne the popular source author: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Master of the World, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Fantastic Voyage, though not a Verne story, took his sweeping style and turned it inwards, as a group of scientists shrink themselves down into a submersible to explore a human body. The rich concept has been done again many times over since, including 1987’s Innerspace, and in parodies in cartoons ranging from Family Guy to Futurama to The Magic School Bus.
First banana in the long-surviving series, with one of the most memorable and aped endings in history. Planet was the first sci-fi property to turn itself into a franchise in these pre-Star Wars years, with four direct sequels and several TV shows out by the mid-’70s. There was an unfortunate Tim Burton remake in 2001, before it was rebooted properly starting with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, highlighting the series’ enduring central theme of a three-way fight between man, science, and natural order.
In the post-apocalyptic future, red leather daddy Zed (Sean Connery) boards a gun-vomiting floating head named Zardoz, who deposits him in a paradise estate known as The Vortex, whose immortal inhabitants have grown bored with life. In a kind of psychedelic Pygmalion, the immortals use crude dude Zed for their amusement, while he secretly seeks to unravel the mystery of Zardoz and The Vortex. Director John Boorman decided to use his post-Deliverance cred to deliver this ambitious and goofy misfire that must absolutely be seen to be believed. It’s a reminder of the special kind of big-budget tomfoolery major studios are capable of putting out if they just put their heads together.
The most influential sci-fi trilogy in the galaxy. The first film, A New Hope, remains a perfect standalone distillation of the hero’s journey template. The Empire Strikes Back showed you can have an inconclusive AND downer ending, and still make money. And Return of the Jedi had Ewoks. Star Wars regenerated science fiction to appeal to the youngest crowd ever, hooking them with bright and poppy visuals, and all the merchandising you want to express that adoration. The Prequel and Sequel Trilogies have kept the Force alive, and with it tie-in video games, novels, comics, TV shows, and beyond.
Ridley Scott took a haunted-house-in-space script and turned it into a grimy, claustrophobic experience in terror, launching a media empire — or infestation — of xenomorphs that have crossed over to comic books, video games, and even other venerable sci-fi properties like Predator and Judge Dredd. Not to mention granting us an eternally badass female protag in the form of Ripley. The first sequel helped launched the career of James Cameron, while the second nearly killed David Fincher’s. Scott would return to the Alien series decades later with Prometheus and Covenant.
Another idiosyncratic sci-fi movie from Fox somewhat in the vein of Zardoz, but this time on purpose. Peter Weller stars as multi-hyphenate Buckaroo, whose résumé includes New Wave rock god, neurosurgeon, and inter-dimensional crash test dummy, and who must root out in-hiding spacemen here on Earth. This film’s sense of humor is so specific and quirky, one can’t help but think there’s no way the guy who directed it ever got the chance again. And, yep, this is W.D. Richter’s sole movie as director. And now it belongs to zany film audiences who in the years since have propped it up as the ultimate cult movie, whose influence pops in the most unlikely places — like The Life Aquatic‘s end credits, which pays tribute.
Arnold Schwarzenegger had one of the most impressive hot streaks in the ’80s, and that includes rumble-in-the-jungle Predator. As military macho Dutch, he and his crew exterminate guerrillas in Central America before the real threat emerges: An outer-space hunter who stalks and skins its prey for sport, using invisible alien technology. Real honorable! Predator‘s minimal plot, maximum carnage remains a high point for a certain breed of ’80s filmmaking. Its sequels and Alien crossovers have kept the franchise in the conversation.
After the grungy Terminator and action-focused Aliens, James Cameron finally came into his own with The Abyss, which for the first time carries everything you imagine when you think of the director’s movies: Enormous budget, ecological message, and cutting-edge technology. Like Blade Runner, this is a major studio sci-fi movie that doesn’t rely on poppy hooks, but instead slowly submerges the viewer with some big concepts and methodical pacing.
Approaching something as momentous as the dawn of a new millennium takes a genre like science fiction to work through. Set during the final two days of 1999, Strange Days is a hard-boiled noir of parties, murder, and technology that can record and commodify memories and emotions. The film is a compelling document of ’90s progressive politics, advertising-induced cynicism, end-of-the-world race riots and relations, and the uneasy optimism of the future ahead.
In 1996, nothing felt bigger than Independence Day. The plot of evil space invaders was already decades old at that point, but the casting of Will Smith as lead felt fresh and in-the-moment, along with eye-popping special effects and quick pacing made it an all-new experience. With a sequel 20 years later, Independence Day has also become a poster movie for one of the major overriding emotions of the 2010s: nostalgia.
Comic book superhero movies had already found recent success with the Batman and Superman movies, but the whole ensemble thing had yet to be done successfully on the big screen. Enter X-Men, who were a natural choice to give it a try, with their popularity rising through video games and the animated series, and whose outsider status among humans gave the movie the necessary subtext to attract any viewer who felt maligned in life. The series has since been infamously inconsistent, but the original, X2, First Class, Days of Future Past, and Logan remain must-watches in the genre.
Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland suspected the time was right to bring back zombies into the zeitgeist. Choosing to forego soft voodooism or implied crashing satellites, 28 Days Later – which is technically a Fox Searchlight film – went directly into the science-fiction route starting with its opening scene, which sees group of environmental extremists free test monkeys infected with a highly contagious rage virus on an unsuspecting populace. Credit this one with making zombies cool with the kids again.
A literal average Joe is cryogenically frozen, only to be awakened well past his due date: 500 years into the future to be exact. The world has dumbed down to an alarming degree, with the nation on the brink of stupid disaster, and Joe suddenly finding himself the smartest man in the world. Though frequently set in the future, science fiction is a mirror that can reflect and warp our current selves, and to that end Idiocaracy is a resounding, hilarious success.
Pocahontas in space! Dances With Blue People! Sorry, Avatar can’t hear you over the $2.7 billion (in 2009 money!) we gave the studio. The long-developed James Cameron project transported audiences the world over to Pandora, a resplendent living word inhabited by the Na’vi, leonine blue creatures. As Pandora’s being invaded by Earth, a Na’vi warrior falls in love with one of the humans.Avatar remains the highest-grossing movie ever (a record once held by Cameron’s previous film, Titanic), and represents Fox’s final crowning achievement in the sci-fi genre.
Combining sci-fi, found footage, and horror, Chronicle explores the lives of three teenagers who develop powers of telekinesis after being exposed to a mysterious crystal. The film’s explosive terror and slick editing made it an immediate hit, launching the careers of Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan, and director Josh Trank, who later stumbled with the Fan4stic reboot.
Putting the science back in science fiction, The Martian stars Matt Damon as a NASA astronaut accidentally left behind on the red planet when his crew takes off during a sandstorm. As STEM fields increase in popularity across all genders, Ridley Scott’s Martian became the movie reference about the power of logic, science, and technology to overcome what look like insurmountable odds.
Almost like destiny, the final movie released by 20th Century Fox as an independent studio is Alita: Battle Angel, the cyberpunk adaptation of the anime of almost the same name. And, naturally, James Cameron is here too! Like all of his movies, Cameron was talking about making a Battle Angel movie for a long time before it finally became reality, ultimately under the direction of Robert Rodriguez. Critics were lukewarm but most of the relatively scant audience who watched it fell in love with Alita, and the movie looks to be another cult classic in the making.