The Most Underrated Science Fiction Films of the 1960s

The 1960s were a fascinating era for scifi, with some of the genres best gems.
Odin Odin (77)
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Once upon a time, Netflix’s DVD library hosted well over 100,000 titles and sent out roughly 12 million DVDs per week. Now, with the advent of easy-to-use streaming services, the amount of content viewers have available has shrunk to the low thousands. Look up any list of “films to watch” and you’ll find a tiny selection of movies, usually curated by people all reading the same lists and commenting on the exact same hot new show or film.

But, is that all there is? With over a hundred years of incredible filmmaking on the planet, isn’t there something missed when we only pay attention to the latest and greatest? This series is dedicated to answering that question and to exploring a small handful of the unsung films from decades past. I’ll examine each decade in turn, all the way back to the earliest days of film, and I’ll be exploring every genre of film there is! From science fiction, to drama, to romance, to comedy—I’m going to cover the entirety of film history for you, bringing out the golden nuggets for you to enjoy.

1960s Science Fiction

Obviously, when you think of 1960s science fiction, you probably think of the original Planet of the Apes, or the utterly incomparable masterpiece 2001: a Space Odyssey. These were genius works of the time, for sure, but they were not the only science fiction films being made.

The 1960s was an interesting era for science fiction cinema. This was before the concept of blockbuster films even existed, and science fiction mostly lived in the world of “B films,” that shared much in common with flashy and low-budget horror. These genres were the popular entertainment of the era, not the high art, though the efforts in some of them managed to amount to something wonderful.

This decade saw the first major shift from the far campier 1950s science fiction, to something a little more serious, a little more intense, and featuring larger budgets and more complex stories than would have been dared just a few years before. What happened here would set the stage for everything to come, making it one of the most important transition periods in the history of the genre.

As always, with these articles, I love hearing your feedback in the comments section, or on Twitter @indubitablyodin. Let me know what your favorite films of the decade were, which ones you think I should have included, and which you hope I’ll mention in one of my next decades!

The Time Machine (1960)
The Time Machine (1960)

There is no doubt that the stories of H.G. Welles are some of the greatest feats of imagination in the western science fiction canon, bringing the fantastic futures to life from within his unique perspective of the other side of the 19th century. But, of his stories that have successfully maintained a huge impact on the world, few are as grand as The Time Machine, a tale of an 1800s inventor who discovers a means to travel through time, and the horrors of the future he discovers along the way.

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The Time Machine (1960)

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The Time Machine (1960)

The Time Machine (1960) is absolutely a product of its time, but it was also a big-budget production for the early era of sci-fi, even with its measly sub-1-million-dollar budget. George Pal, the genius behind the film’s special effects, deserves the true credit for making the film what it his: he and the set designers and artists created a vibrant world of the future through combinations of matte paintings and extraordinary stop-motion photography.

Master of the World (1961)
Master of the World (1961)

Robur is a fanatical inventor who has designed an advanced airship with the desired goal of ending war. Long before the S.H.I.E.L.D. folks in Marvel’s franchise set about creating advanced airships that could eliminate threats, Robur set out out to force the governments of the world to give up war… or risk destruction via his own military might.

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Master of the World (1961)

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Master of the World (1961)

Master of the World (1961) stars the incredible Vincent Price as Robur, and it is largely due to his charisma that the film works. Many aspects of this film are common from small budget films of the fantastic of this era in that they reused footage from other, larger-budget films, and superimposed the Albatross airship over them.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)

The advanced submarine Seaview is on a mission in the arctic when a natural disaster occurs that threatens all life on Earth! Swiftly rising temperatures have caused the ice caps to melt, and the heat threatens to kill off the whole world’s population! Luckily, by lobbing a nuclear warhead at the problem, everything can be solved… if only the dang saboteurs will stop mucking about!

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Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)

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Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) came out at a unique time in history, not just because there was a renewed interest in science fiction at the time, but because actual milestones in scientific discovery and exploration were still being made. In 1958, USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, became the first vessel to reach the North Pole. This, and other accomplishments of the era, made sci-fi films like this all the more believable to the public audiences who felt that anything might be possible.

Panic in Year Zero! (1962)
Panic in Year Zero! (1962)

It’s the 1960s and the Cold War reigns. While on a vacation, a family witnesses the destruction of L.A. via nuclear assault, and what follows is a harrowing struggle for survival against the worst elements of society that arise to take advantage of the destruction.

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Panic in Year Zero! (1962)

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Panic in Year Zero! (1962)

Panic in Year Zero! is a film that drove at the heart of a terror filling the post-WWII generation. Looking back, it’s easy to remember the hoped-for futures of the 1950s and 1960s, where technology solved all societies ills, but by the mid-60s the cold war and threat of constant nuclear destruction. It’s the template for movies like The Purge, and generally speaks to a strange and violent insecurity in the American psyche that was fostered and enriched by the elements of the Cold War.

The Day of the Triffids (1963)
The Day of the Triffids (1963)

Strange lights from a meteor shower have blinded most of the population on Earth, making them easy prey for a species of carnivorous plants who emerge and begin hunting down the helpless survivors.

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The Day of the Triffids (1963)

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The Day of the Triffids (1963)

The Day of the Triffids was forever cemented in its place in history by another favorite of mine: The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with the line in the song “Science Fiction/Double Feature”: "And I really got hot when I saw Janette Scott/Fight a Triffid that spits poison and kills.”

This film is nowhere near as good as the 1981 BBC miniseries, but it has its charm, and is absolutely an important early piece of science fiction.

Icarus XB 1 (1963) (Voyage to the End of the Universe)
Icarus XB 1 (1963) (Voyage to the End of the Universe)

A multinational crew is sent aboard a spaceship to nearby Alpha Centauri., to explore a planet in that system. But things are going wrong, and whether through natural disaster or insanity-induced sabotage, the crew’s survival is in doubt.

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Icarus XB 1 (1963)

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Icarus XB 1 (1963) (Voyage to the End of the Universe)

Icarus XB 1 was released in the United States as Voyage to the End of the Universe, with major changes made to the story, as well as overt attempts to remove Soviet influences. The original, however, is a masterpiece of early science fiction, an early sign of true advancement in the genre. Everything from the script, to the characterization, to the camera angles and intelligent sets, make this a unique gem among a whole swath of lesser American products from the same era.

The Last Man on Earth (1964)
The Last Man on Earth (1964)

The 1954 novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson would go on to spawn many adaptations, including the famous Will Smith version, but this much earlier take on the story has a haunting quality that cannot be denied. Vincent Price is Dr. Robert Morgan, the last man alive in a world where a plague has killed most and turned the remainder into vamperic beasts.

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The Last Man on Earth (1964)

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The Last Man on Earth (1964)

The Last Man on Earth (1964) is definitely better than other remakes, if only because Vincent Price’s incredible performance makes it so.

Alphaville (1965)
Alphaville (1965)

Lemmy Caution is a secret agent sent to the technocratic city Alphaville on a mission: discover the whereabouts of another missing agent and do whatever is necessary to destroy Alphaville’s dictatorial hold over its people.

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Alphaville (1965)

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Alphaville (1965)

Alphaville is a masterpiece by New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, a film-noir epic that imagines a the future within the enshadowed world of Parisian streets. The performances and dialogue in Alphaville were heavily improvised, something common with Goddard’s works.

Fantastic Voyage (1966)
Fantastic Voyage (1966)

A scientist vital to the nation’s defense is injured and the only hope he has is a futuristic new technology that will shrink the crew of a special submarine so they can enter his body and repair the damage directly… but they only have an hour to do it before they begin to revert in size… and kill the scientist in the process!

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Fantastic Voyage (1966)

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Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Fantastic Voyage (1966) has now become a common trope, but in its heyday the concept came across as new and lavish. I highly recommend the novelization by Isaac Asimov for a really fun way to experience the plot.

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

In an all-too plausible future, people are glued to wall-sized televisions, ignoring the world around them, and determined to ban the books with which they disagree, the task of which falls to the “firemen.” But what happens when one begins to read, to expand their minds? Can one still act in limited fashion once one has access to the whole realm of human experience?

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Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

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Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

Fahrenheit 451 was François Truffaut’s only non-French film, and has become a bit of a cult icon in recent years, with director Martin Scorsese directly citing it as one of the influences for his own work. This absolutely isn’t as deep as Ray Bradubury’s novel, especially with some odd casting choices. But the overall impression is more intriguing and unique than modern adaptations.

The Sorcerers (1967)
The Sorcerers (1967)

A doctor of medical hypnosis invents a device that allows him to control another person, and to feel everything they feel. The young man who is subject to their experiment believes he is going mad as the temptation to use this incredible power repeatedly becomes too much for the scientist’s wife.

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The Sorcerers (1967)

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The Sorcerers (1967)

The Sorcerers (1967) is a really superb little horror film, though its science fiction aspect is true dressing for the plot. As a late film for the incredible Boris Karloff, however, it succeeds, and manages to be alarming and gripping in equal measure.

The Power (1968)
The Power (1968)

When tests reveal that a man might have superhuman psychic abilities that allow him to control the minds of others and maybe even influence physical reality, a grim adventure begins that can only end in murder.

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The Power (1968)

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The Power (1968)

The Power (1968) is a potent little film that draws a lot of inspiration from earlier B-films, but manages to catapult itself into a more intriguing and artistic space, thanks in part to a strong script and unique attempts to expand beyond its limits.

Marooned (1969)
Marooned (1969)

When a NASA spaceship’s main engine fails to fire, the crew is stranded in space with little hope of rescue. Slowly suffocating in space, they must wait and hope that the minds on the ground can figure out some way to send help before it’s too late.

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Marooned (1969)

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Marooned (1969)

Marooned (1969) came out just following the Apollo 11 Moon landing, and the designs and special effects of this film were conceived to be as close to the real footage coming back from those and prior missions as possible given the limitations of the technology of the time.

The Illustrated Man (1969)
The Illustrated Man (1969)

Based on short stories by brilliant author Ray Bradbury, the Illustrated Man tells the story of a traveler named Willie who encounters a mysterious tattooed man who claims that his skin illustrations tell the future.

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The Illustrated Man (1969)

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The Illustrated Man (1969)

The Illustrated Man is one of those largely unfortunate films that nevertheless manages some moments of excellence and beauty. It’s worth watching for those moments, mind, when the film does work, though on the whole it falls flat. I think it’s worth seeing but definitely only after reading the original stories.

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)

A young man attending a small college attempts to install a computer during a thunderstorm, only to have a lightning surge supercharge his mind with all the power and information in the computer he was working on.

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The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)

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The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) might have died in obscurity if not for the fact that Kurt Russel appears in the lead role. It’s not an especially good film but it manages to be funny and silly, and holds up well as a light family comedy from the era.

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Odin Hartshorn Halvorson is a writer, geek, and hopeful futurist. A graduate from Stonecoast MFA, his work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is the founder of Round Table Writers, an organization dedicated to "writers helping writers." Odin's love of Roddenberrian and Straczynskian ideals leads him to contemplate technology's role in our evolving philosophic landscape, a line of inquiry threaded through both his fiction and non-fiction writing. Learn more at OdinHalvorson.com
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