Most science fiction movies have spaceships and quite a few have armed combat and outer space dogfights. Only a few have a real military heart at their core. We made a list of 10 of the best.
1. Predator (1987)
Predator might be the perfect ’80s action picture. Arnold Schwarzenegger leads a special forces team on a hostage rescue mission in the jungles of Central America. As they advance towards their target, they don’t realize they’re being stalked by an extraterrestrial equipped with cutting-edge thermal imaging technology. Former Navy SEAL and WWF wrestler Jesse Ventura makes his movie debut as the second man knocked off by the creature. The rest of the movie is a horror/military/sci-fi hybrid where the serial-killer alien kills the crew one-by-one until Arnold is left to confront the creature alone. Schwarzenegger has never been better and director John McTiernan followed with Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, one of the most impressive runs in movie history.
2. Starship Troopers (1997)
In the 23rd century, high school students must earn their citizenship by joining the Federal Service military. What they don’t realize is that they’re gong to be shipped off to the planet Klendathu to fight a race of Arachnid beings appropriately called “bugs.” The brass believes the insect army is being controlled by a Brain Bug and the troops set out to capture the intelligent being and neutralize the army. Directed by wildman Paul Verhoeven (original Robocop, Basic Instinct, original Total Recall, Showgirls), the movie veers between scary action picture and military satire. Definitely not for everyone but it’s also the movie on this list that’s most likely to be someone you know’s favorite of all time.
3. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Edge of Tomorrow (a/k/a Live. Die. Repeat.) is based on the Japanese war novel All You Need is Kill but also owes a big debt to Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Aliens have invaded Europe. Tom Cruise is a PAO who tells his superiors that a planned attack is sure to fail. They send him into combat, where he manages to kill a giant alien before dying himself. He wakes up in the same location he was at the beginning of his final day and lives the day again. And again. Over time, he gains fighting skills, finds allies and learns the weaknesses of his enemy. It’s thoughtful and complicated but one of Cruise’s best.
4. Aliens (1986)
Ridley Scott’s original Alien was set aboard a commercial spacecraft and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) was the only survivor of the alien attack. James Cameron’s sequel picks up 57 years later, when Ripley wakes up from space sleep and gets convinced to return to the Zeta Reticuli moon with a Colonial Marine unit led by Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn). Evil bureaucrat Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) has sent colonists to the moon and they’ve now lost contact. When they arrive, it turns out the colonists have become cocoons for incubating alien offspring. Ripley and the Marines have to take out the alien queen before they get incubated themselves.
5. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Skinny Brooklyn kid Steve Rogers can’t enlist to fight in World War II until a military scientist doses him with “vita-rays” and transforms him into Captain America. The Nazis have their own secret military programs administered by Hydra and Steve sets out to rescue his childhood friend Bucky Barnes. The last third of the movie is setup for future Avengers and other Marvel movies, but Captain America: The First Avenger is the movie that sticks closest to the character’s military origins.
6. Stargate (1994)
There seems to be an endless cycle of TV series and video game spinoffs but director Roland Emmerich’s original Stargate movie is still the best. Spec Ops Colonel Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell, happily chewing on the scenery) oversees a project that uses translated Egyptian hieroglyphs as a guide to opening a “stargate,” a wormhole to distant planets. Accompanied by Egyptologist Daniel Jackson (James Spader), O’Neil takes a unit through the wormhole to a faraway planet ruled by Ra, a god who had previously visited ancient Egypt. Conflict develops between the troops and Ra’s minions and the humans have to win the battle if they hope to return to Earth.
7. Universal Soldier (1992)
Roland Emmerich warmed up for Stargate by directing Universal Soldier. In 1969, Vietnam Special Forces leader Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren) goes full Colonel Kurtz in a remote village and Luc Devereaux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) tries to talk sense into his commanding officer, who’s also wearing a necklace made of severed ears. They end up killing each other, but the American troops who find them put their bodies in cryogenic suspension. They are eventually revived with their memories wiped and genetically modified to serve as part of a Universal Soldier program. Devereaux’s real memories start leaking back in and he rebels against orders. After many explosions and a few extended chase scenes, Devereaux and Scott eventually replay their confrontation from the beginning of the movie.
8. Independence Day (1996)
Aliens launch a full-scale invasion of Earth and the American military leads a brilliant counteroffensive on July 4th. Will Smith became a big movie star by playing Marine Corps pilot Captain Steven Hiller, who gets to blow the hell out of some invaders and alleviate the disappointment of being rejected by NASA. Bill Pullman gives one of the great inspirational movie speeches as President Thomas J. Whitmore and Jeff Goldblum plays the computer scientist who understands the tactical power of a computer virus. On release, it quickly become the second most successful movie of all time (up to that point) and it still represents the career high point for its director, Roland Emmerich, another guy who was enjoying an epic run of success.
9. Pacific Rim (2013)
Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s ode to Japanese monster movies wasn’t a big hit in the USA but had enormous success in the rest of the world. In the distant future, humans are at war with the Kaiju, giant monsters who invaded the earth through an interdimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Humans create Jaegers, giant robots who are capable of fighting the Kaiju with two pilots who are mentally connected. Government suits decide to shut down the program and put all of their defense efforts into building giant coastal walls. The Jaeger pilots decide to make a last stand against to Kaiju before they’re rendered obsolete.
10. Suicide Squad (2016)
David Ayer (Fury, Sabotage, End of Watch) loves to get his military details right and his new DC Comics movie is really the story of Captain Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and his efforts to oversee the unruly band of anitheros put together by government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). While Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) may be the film’s breakout character, David Ayer is just as interested in the military mechanics of the missions as he in the DC Comics mythology behind the story. Former Navy SEAL Kevin Vance, Ayer’s longtime military consultant, gets some serious camera time as one of the Spec Ops fighters supporting the Suicide Squad mission. Will Smith is the best he’s been in years and Jared Leto makes the most of his limited screen time as the Joker. It’s much better than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and far more entertaining than the reviews suggest.