While science fiction may summon up images of desolate dystopian wastelands or marauding alien invaders, the genre is actually ripe for family viewing. Delve into the archives and there’s a wealth of wonder for audiences of all ages, from intergalactic adventures to time travel and close encounters of the dino kind. Exploring these worlds is an ideal way to introduce the power of film to a younger audience, and below is our pick of 10 films that demonstrate sci-fi’s endless cross-generational appeal.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Forget the slick modern remake starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Wise’s black-and-white 1951 original is far superior, with plenty of action and adventure to thrill all ages. The scenery and effects are dated but still utterly charming, and the story – about an alien and his robot sidekick who arrive on earth to warn humankind that they must live peacefully or will be destroyed – is simple enough for youngsters to follow, and resonant enough to spark plenty of post-viewing debate.
Star Wars (1977)
While J.J. Abrams’ stellar The Force Awakens (2015) has introduced a whole new generation to the wonders of George Lucas’s genre-defining franchise, the original remains the perfect place to start. Following the intergalactic adventures of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) as he finds his true place in the universe as a Jedi master, and featuring a plethora of colourful characters and an ever-changing interplanetary landscape, Star Wars remains such bombastic, action-packed viewing that the kids will be clamouring to discover what happens next.
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
That Steven Spielberg has two films on this shortlist is testament to the fact that he is a masterful director of family films, and his 1982 classic about a loveable alien who befriends a young boy is one of his most enjoyable. A timeless mix of action (the airborne bike chase is a particular highlight), adventure hijinks and that signature Spielberg pathos make this endlessly (re)watchable, and that E.T. himself is a master of pratfall comedy means the laughs are guaranteed. Expect some tears at the moving climax, for this is a heartrending tale of loyalty and friendship that spans the galaxies.
With schlocky effects still too intense for young children, Ivan Reitman’s spooktacular comedy about a bunch of hapless New York ghost hunters is still must-see family viewing. The script, by stars Harold Ramis and Dan Ackroyd, is light and hilarious, as are the performances; most notably by the brilliant Bill Murray, at his laconic best as quick-witted buster Peter Venkman. Sigourney Weaver also puts in a wonderful turn as possessed New Yorker Dana Barrett. But it’s the gigantic marshmallow Mr Stay Puft who undoubtedly steals the show as he rampages through the Big Apple.
Back to the Future (1985)
The 1980s produced a slew of family adventures, and this mid-decade fantasy from director Robert Zemeckis remains one of the best. The charismatic Michael J. Fox makes for a brilliant young hero as Marty McFly, the skateboarding teen who travels back in time to the 1950s and helps his parents fall in love. His energetic performance, along with Christopher Lloyd’s wonderfully eccentric inventor Doc Brown, keeps things moving apace, the production design is bright and absorbing and the effects are still a thrill. (The other two films in the franchise are also recommended, with much of the fun of Part II in finding out what 2015 looked like to the filmmakers of 1989.)
Flight of the Navigator (1986)
Featuring an intrepid pre-teen hero, time travel and alien spaceships, Randal Kleiser’s film has much to delight a young audience. After plucky protagonist David (Joey Cramer) wakes up after a minor accident to find that eight years have passed, and that he has interstellar maps embedded in his brain, he sets out to discover what happened to him. With a traditional family narrative at its heart, and bolstered by charming effects and wise-cracking aliens, Flight of the Navigator remains traditional family entertainment of the best kind. It’s no wonder Hollywood has been trying to remake it for years.
Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989)
Five years after his geeky turn in Ghostbusters, diminutive 1980s hero Rick Moranis pops up again as hapless scientist Wayne Szalinski, whose latest invention accidentally shrinks his kids – and the kids next door – to pinhead size. As the plucky youths fight their way through the garden, now a jungle with giant creepy crawlies, the simple story, silly humour and charming practical effects – one memorable scene sees the kids swimming in a bowl of gigantic Cheerios – make for some immersive family fun. Ideal in a double bill with fellow brilliant shrinkage sci-fi comedy Innerspace (1987).
Jurassic Park (1993)
Ground-breaking at the time of release for its gargantuan special effects, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Michael Crichton bestseller is as visually impressive today as it was two decades ago. While this story of a theme park full of genetically modified dinosaurs who run amok may be overwhelming for the very young, its mammoth stars and kids in peril narrative still deliver the thrills in abundance. It’s also a fascinating, if cautionary, tale of the possibilities of scientific discovery.
The Iron Giant (1999)
While there are many animations housed within the sci-fi genre, including Pixar’s Wall-E (2008) and Shane Acker’s post-apocalyptic 9 (2009), The Iron Giant ticks every single box for timeless family viewing. Every young boy and girl will connect with this beautiful, evergreen tale of a young child’s friendship with a giant robot from outer space – the screenplay by Tim McCanlies is so genuine and tender that it’s impossible not to get swept up in their story. It’s all brought to life in some stunning animation, and overseen by the assured directorial hand of Brad Bird.
Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (2015)
Sixteen years after The Iron Giant, Brad Bird took the helm of Tomorrowland, a film based on the progressive Space Age optimism embodied by Disney’s EPCOT Centre. The uplifting story sees science-mad teen Casey (Britt Robertson) embark on a voyage of discovery when she discovers a secret futuristic city in which anything is possible. The effects are, of course, flawless, but the real draw is the positive message about the importance of ambition and the excitement of exploration, and the fact that it has a plucky, confident and courageous young woman driving the narrative.