The greatest science fiction movies don’t just have cool ideas or an unforgettable story — they also have a distinctive visual style. And a lot of our favorite films reach back into the past, for retro visions of the future that look even cooler than ever, because they’ve become classic.
You might have noticed there are a lot of retro design touches in some recent films. But here are XX amazing retro science fiction science fiction movies that everybody must watch.
Top image: Brazil art by Zach Allen/Cinematology
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Kerry Conran’s amazing vision of an alternate, more advanced 1938 includes zeppelins, ray guns, rockets, holographs and genetic engineering. Plus a posthumous appearance by Laurence Olivier as a mad scientist! It’s the ultimate apotheosis of a certain pulpy 1930s visual style, especially the 1939 World’s Fair. And it’s full of goggles and cool outfits.
Tim Burton paid tribute to the cult trading card series, with an ultra-pulpy spoof of classic science fiction B-movies in which the big-headed Martians come to conquer us, and some foolish humans just want to negotiate. Puny humans. There are so many great visual touches in this movie from old science fiction “B” movies, including the ray guns and alien designs.
Long before Joe Johnston directed Captain America (see below), he adapted Dave Stevens’ comic about a guy who finds a rocket pack and becomes a 1930s superhero — and he injects so much insane Art Deco style into this film, including the amazing helmet and awesome visuals of the Rocketeer soaring over the 1930s landscape. Disney wanted to change the helmet into a more standard astronaut helmet, but Johnston resisted, and we’re all glad.
Men in Black
Obviously, the new Men in Black movie, traveling back to the 1960s, is full-on retro. Especially Rick Baker’s monster designs. But the first Men in Black movie is already kind of retro, with its sleek Cold War headquarters and Blues Brothers suits — plus the insistence on having practical aliens wherever possible. There’s a very “old school” feel to the first two films, that’s only accentuated by this third one actually going back in time.
We really enjoyed Andrew Stanton’s homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs, despite its status as one of history’s biggest flops. Stanton used mo-cap, CG and tons of technical wizardry to bring the visions of Mars from 100 years ago to life, complete with many-limbed Tharks and Woola the weird giant toad-dog. And the city of Helium looked absolutely transcendant — it was an early 20th Century interplanetary fantasy brought to glorious life.
X-Men: First Class
One of a few superhero films to take place in the past, the latest X-Men movie featured a lot of nifty 1960s visual elements, from the “Playboy Club”-esque headquarters of the Hellfire Club to all the spy facilities. It was like classic James Bond and Robert Mitchum and a million other great 1960s influences, thrown into a mutant blender. Like Our Man Flynt with teleporting devil dudes.
As people mentioned in the comments on our post about Space: 1999 this morning, the stark white feel of Gerry Anderson’s groovy-but-sterile bases lives on in Duncan Jones’ movie about an isolated miner on the Moon. Along with shout-outs to movies like Silent Running and Outland. Jones actually built the entire base as a closed set, locking Sam Rockwell and the camera crew inside, so the claustrophobia is real as well as retro.
Pneumatic tubes and noirish cityscapes pervade Terry Gilliam’s best film — the buildings where government functionary Sam Lowry works are great homages to Modernism as well as a kind of stark Socialist architecture of the 1930s through 1950s. The whole thing feels like a world that’s been swallowed up by the nightmares of George Orwell, and the retro design is a huge part of making that work.
Another film which uses noir to great effect, Alex Proyas’ Dark City manages to create a German expressionist city full of spooky weirdness — even before everything starts moving around while people sleep. The film freely mixes up modern-day elements with stuff from the 1940s, including a torch singer and classic cars, and the result is both more dreamlike and more memorable.
More overtly campy than the other films on this list, Flash Gordon still manages to showcase a lot of amazing production design and pays homage to the 1930s comic strip and movie serial, with tons of over-the-top but lovely costumes, and some visually stunning sets. Plus the immortal Brian Blessed as a Viking-esque hawk guy. “Gordon’s alive!”
Captain America: The First Avenger
Johnston’s other great retro superhero film, this one mixes 1940s mad science with war-movie imagery, and then throws in some super-science criminals with awesomely pulp-inspired weapons. Once again, Art Deco design dominates, and there are also some fantastic aircraft, including one inspired by the classic Northrop “Flying Wing” design. A great blend of 1940s imagery, weird science and heroism.
We already included a shout-out to Brad Bird’s retro designs in The Incredibles earlier today, but The Iron Giant is even more awesomely retro — and it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Joe Johnston did a lot of the early production sketches for this film. The giant robot is based on movies like The Day The Earth Stood Still, and deliberately invokes a 1950s B-movie aesthetic, while a lot of the rest of the movie’s designs invoke Norman Rockwell.
As one site puts it, this is “the story of a boy, a girl, and a car with a trunk full of dead aliens.” And it’s basically a metaphor for the fear of nuclear war, viewed through a punk-rock prism, with a timeless vision of Los Angeles, recalling Ross MacDonald and Raymond Chandler, at its heart.
This is one of two movies that came out in 1998 in which someone is trapped inside a kind of televised nightmare of the 1950s, and must rebel. Director Gary Ross turns the stylized trappings of a 1950s comedy show into a whole sterile world, full of amazing 1950s design touches that wind up seeming both oppressive and poignant as the film goes on.
The Truman Show
And this is the other 1998 movie about someone trapped in a sterile, perfect 1950s world, viewed through the lens of television. Except that Truman’s world bursts with color and fakery, and its very friendliness becomes horrible and overwhelming after a while — Peter Weir’s visuals do an amazing job of capturing something about the 1950s, filtered through the lens of late twentieth-century technology and omnipresent surveillance.
Back to the Future
This film actually travels backwards in time to the 1950s (and in the third movie, to the Wild West) — and it also creates a believable setup for “Doc” Brown as a 1950s inventor who is creating classic Mad Science of the highest order. And then there’s all the steampunk insanity once they get to the Old West, including that train.
Basically, a huge tribute to the “Doc Savage” adventure stories — like many 1980s films, this has elements of rockabilly thrown in, but to see it mixed with classic pulp adventure and weird aliens is a whole nother kind of retro.
Thanks to R.C. Schmidt, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, Kevin Lovelace, Reece Morehead, Laur Uy, Annalee Newitz, Terry D. Johnson, Kat Howard, Jay Tomio, Deb Chachra, Dan Waidelich, Dave Goldberg, Tami Anderson, E.C. Myers, Kiyash Monsef, Piglet, William Alexander, M.K. Hobson, Kiah Pierson, Dave Fraser, Chris Farnell, Jennifer Marshall, David J. Schwartz, John Zeleznik, Paul Weimer, Anthony Ha, Andrew Liptak, Andrew Plotkin, Michael Brines, Kiplet and everyone else who responded.