Classic Movies

Following are John Ebert’s dozen most important Visionary movies since the 1960s. We welcome your thoughts and feedback. Please send us your own list of Visionary movies, or use the Comment area below.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey

Without a doubt the single most important Visionary movie ever made. And the reason for this is that if this movie had not been made, there very well might not be a category which I think of as ‘Visionary,’ since this is the first highbrow science fiction movie. While Visionary movies do not have to be, and usually are not, highbrow, it was only because Kubrick took science fiction seriously as a literary modality that he was also to take seriously the means of making it. And that meant taking the time and money to invest properly in the creation of special effects that would look convincing to the eye. Once, through Kubrick’s earnestness, the medium had learned how to render such fantastic imagery realistically, those with less highbrow sensibilities could then take for granted the means of conveying their images onscreen without having to risk being laughed at. Indeed, in any biography of George Lucas, just read how his friends laughed at and ridiculed his early cuts of the movie shown in private screenings (everybody except Spielberg, that is, who had the wit to know that his peer was onto something that might benefit them all as filmmakers). I think of the optical effects of film as having four thresholds that turned everything around: Melies’s A Trip to the Moon which invented the very concept of the special effect; Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, which reinvented the medium optically, showing just how fundamentally different this medium was and could be from theater, up to which point film had been visually beholden; Kubrick’s 2001; and Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, to which we owe the currently controversial CGI revolution. The subsequent history of movies was never the same after these movies.

But all this has to do not with content, but with the technicalities of the medium. 2001 is also important for its content, which was the first movie to take mythology and apply it consciously toward the creation of a narrative. Up to this point, Visionary movies had been naively mythological. Filmmakers, that is to say, were just out to make entertaining movies like King Kong, without having any knowledge of the mythological dimensions involved. But Kubrick had read Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, which he told Clarke to read while they were structuring the story. The result was the conscious, intentional creation of a modern myth, analogous in every respect to Homer’s Odyssey, after which the movie is named. Every important Visionary filmmaker who comes after Kubrick presupposes him visually, especially Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and James Cameron.

2. Jaws

Spielberg’s first great movie is to a large extent a democratization of Moby Dick, in which the Heroic Epic-style action scenes have been brought to the foreground, while the philosophical digressions that are de rigeur for the novel as a medium, are excised. The result is a modern updating of one of the world’s most ancient myths: the heroic slaying of the dragon. This myth was invented by the Egyptians as a way of domesticating the old great Paleolithic hunt of the Beast, which, in the context of settled, sedentary agrarian high civilization must be reimagined as the victory of Cosmos over the wild, untamed instincts of Nature. The price paid for the erection of a civilization is the exclusion of The Other, and in this case, the Other is the great sea beast Leviathan, who will not allow life to flourish in Amity Beach without human sacrifices. As a result of this scaling down and miniaturizing of the giant monster movies of the fifties, Spielberg inaugurated a new epoch of monster movies which followed, including Alien, Piranha, Gremlins, and every third rate B movie which followed, such as Anaconda, Lake Placid, Species, etc.

3. Star Wars

This is the second movie, after Kubrick’s 2001 , that involves the director’s conscious application of mythology toward the creation of a modern myth. Lucas, as he puts it, set out to create a fairy tale for twelve year olds, and in the process scaled down and miniaturized the entire history of pulp cinema and comicbooks: the movie is loaded with visual quotations from the popular culture of the thirties, forties and fifties, from Flash Gordon comicstrips (which Lucas originally wanted to film, but couldn’t get the rights) to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels, Frank Herbert’s Dune , the samurai movies of Kurosawa, the westerns of John Ford ( The Searchers , in particular) and the World War II movies of John Wayne. But Lucas, in reading Campbell’s hero journey narrative, saw the archetypal structure common to all these hero journey genres, and in pulling it out and making it visible for everyone else, became a textbook example of how to make a movie consciously based on mythological archetypes. The other important aspect of the movie is its carrying on and developing of a theme introduced by the HAL 9000 sequence of Kubrick’s 2001, namely, of the problem of technology and the danger to the Humanities of living in an overly technologized society. The movie poses and then answers the problem of what it means to be human properly speaking in a technological society.

4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind

This came out the same year as Star Wars, in November, while Star Wars had, as always, been released in May. This movie is Spielberg’s response to the kind of wonder and awe that was evoked in him by Kubrick’s 2001 and which he then turned around and tried to communicate to the audience in his inimitable Everyman lowbrow fashion. The movie also picks up on 2001 ‘s millenial anxieties and amplifies them into a vision that retrieves directly from the Book of Revelation the descent of the New Jerusalem from the heavens at the top of a mountain at the end of history. For Kubrick’s movie, you had to go to outer space if you wanted to experience a transformation of consciousness; for Spielberg, the spiritual beings come down to the earth, as, in fact, they always have in Biblical mythology. Spielberg, like Lucas in Star Wars, is also providing an updating of ancient mythology and cosmology, in this case, that of the Biblical descents of angels from the heavens who descend to select special seers like Enoch for huge and grandiose revelations of history, time and destiny. This movie is elitist eschatology for Everyman, the Disneyification of the Book of Revelation, and as such, is one of cinema’s monumental achievements. It is a celluloid ziggurat in which, not just priests, but the masses may ascend the grand staircase in order to commune with the gods in the temple at the summit.

5. Apocalypse Now

Coppola’s epic retelling of The Odyssey combined with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a totally unique, absolutely original cinematic vision. Again, as with Kubrick and Lucas before him, the mythic structures are consciously intended, as Coppola shows us in the climax when his camera pans over a shelf of Kurtz’s books to reveal copies of Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and The Golden Bough . The central myth of Coppola’s movie is the death of the old, sick king and along with him, his entire crumbling kingdom of Iron age madmen. The look of the movie has been imitated again and again, but never successfully, for Coppola creates a Visionary landscape of something out of a fever dream, in which the sinking ruins of Western civilization are caught in a terminal moraine of dying gods and ageing heroes, like the conclusion of Wagner’s ring cycle from which Coppola borrows. It is a millenial journey through the land of the dead, a movie made by a man who was himself at the time nearly insane. After this movie, Coppola went on his lithium, and his creativity has unfortunately never been the same since.

6. Alien

This movie is part of the new wave of monster movies inaugurated by Spielberg’s Jaws, but unlike all the others, this is pure visual genius. Journeys through outer space by the working class never looked so convincing, and the life cycle of the monster here never taken so deadly seriously. Upon closer examination here, we realize that the movie is a misogynist’s journey through the landscape of the female body, its imagery bursting with eggs, toothed vaginas, serpents, wombs and the dark suffocating fear of the Terrible Mother. On the other hand, all this is redeemed by the fact that this movie features cinema’s first ever female dragon slayer, the first of a horde of such female monster slayers to follow.

7. Raiders of the Lost Ark

This movie was a joint creation of Philip Kaufmann, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Lawrence Kasdan. Like Star Wars before it, it is a nostalgia trip through the world of the pop culture of the thirties, forties and fifties, including Captain America comicbooks from the Golden Age, serial movies that ended on cliffhangers, and pulp fiction novels like Doc Savage. Mythically the movie is a retrieval of the solar hero’s night sea journey through the abyss, in which he encounters and fights monsters in order to get through to the dawn. Hence, the hero’s fear of snakes–the archetypal night sea monster–and set pieces such as his descent into the earth in snakepits guarded by huge statues of the god Anubis, one of the great gods of the Egyptian underworld. This movie was so influential on subsequent action adventure movies that scarcely any such movie made after it does not in some way presuppose Spielberg’s staging of huge, Will Eisner style hand-to-hand combat sequences. This is perhaps the closest that celluloid has ever come to capturing the feel of a good comic book, and this is ironic since this movie is a better superhero movie than all those which have been made since based on actual superheroes.

8. Blade Runner

Two essential works of science fiction came out right at the start of the 80’s: William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, and Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner. Gibson claims to have walked out of Blade Runner, so similar was it to the kind of world that he had been imagining in his novel. And indeed both narratives are similar in their depiction of a futuristic America governed entirely by huge corporations with a concern for creating the simulacrum and the artificial product at the expense of the authentic and the culturally genuine. Of the two, however, Blade Runner is more concerned with mythic themes, in particular, the anxiety of the king who is about to be killed and wishes to break the life cycle imposed upon his reign by the priesthood of science. (The four year life cycle of the replicants is an echo of the four year cycle imposed upon kings in Greece; the Olympics are a vestigial holdover of this tradition). Also, the movie is an updating of Gilgamesh’s quest for the plant of immortality that will allow him to escape death. Bound up with these ancient archetypal themes are modern themes which question the value of the corporate replacement of nature with cheap, disposable artificial crap.

9. Videodrome

The philosophy of Marshall McLuhan is here plugged into the Kafkaesqe paranoid narrative, and the result is a disturbing vision of the violation of the body by modern electronic technology, and of the mind, by degraded and degrading images. Cronenberg, in one of his finest movies, questions the whole nature of the modern electronic media, seeing them rather as neural disruptors that invade, isolate and disorient the mind and the body. As with Blade Runner, corporations are seen here as shadowy and evil institutions run by sadists with no concern for the effects of their wares on the health of their customers. The movie is a foreshadowing of the kinds of media mental hi-jackings that will later lead to the Columbine killings.

10. The Road Warrior

If you thought that by the early 1980’s the Western was dead, you’d be right! Here, George Miller reimagines of the genre as a post-apocalyptic society in which civilization has vanished, only to be replaced by marauding nomads and sedentary villages, precisely the structures taken for granted by the Western. This movie is the apotheosis of the 80s vision of the tribal outcast dressed in leather, showing that these tribal sub-structures are slowly thrusting up through the fabric of our highly civilized mode of living, and may eventually arise to overthrow it altogether. As Toynbee pointed out, once a society generates a disaffected internal proletariat, eventually there will be a social schism in which the new proletariat secedes to create a Volkerwanderung, or epic-nomadic age, in which the barbarians sweep the dying ruins from stage of history in order to clear it for the coming of the next great Age of a new civilization.

11. Solaris (1972 Tarkovsky version)

This film was made by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky in the wake of Kubrick’s 2001, and mostly because Tarkovsky hated it. Kubrick’s technological vision seemed too grand to him; the human beings in his landscapes rendered too ineffective by the Jack Kirby-esque Gigantism of his machines. In response, Tarkovsky made a film about human beings having spiritual problems in an environment that just happens to be in outer space, because that is the only way the Tarkovsky could have gotten his metaphor across, and in this respect, his film also differs from Stanislaw Lem’s novel, which is, like Kubrick’s, more concerned with cosmological issues than human ones. But Tarkovsky’s sensitivity to the Visionary dynamics of the human psyche is what makes this film so special, for its lead character Kelvin is a man of science who is skeptical of the possibility of having dreams and visions in which spiritual beings communicate to humanity, until he himself has one. This encounter with a spiritual being from the otherworld in the form of a planetary mind capable of incarnating itself as a human avatar is so disturbing to him that it changes his entire life.

12. Nosferatu (1979 Herzog version)

Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu is not only the best vampire film ever made, it is also a Visionary imagination of how plagues enter towns and destroy whole populations. The vampire, Nosferatu, played brilliantly by Klaus Kinski, migrates to a nineteenth century German town along with his plague of rats, which soon have spread a plague killing off the entire population. Jonathan Harker’s quest, unlike traditional versions of the story, ends in total failure, with him becoming a vampire who rides off in the end to infect the rest of civilization. The film is a dizzying celebration of death, destruction and pure chaos, a modern version of the Medieval Dance of Death.

There are many lists of key, great, and must movies. Here is The American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movies site.

Please send suggestions for others.


  1. Benton says

    I would love to hear your opinions on movies like The Cell and Strange Days — both of which I have yet to see — and how they relate to Cyberpunk mythology, virtual reality/the simulacrum ect. Also, do you like Cameron’s sequel to Alien?

    Looking for more movies that deal with the entrapment of The Machine/electronic reality structure of simulation.. the great western cultural nightmare and fantasy.

    Loving the book so far!

  2. John David Ebert says


    I loved Cameron’s sequel to Alien. Saw it many times and thought it was a first rate work of sci-fi cinema, although it, too, was kitschy, like Avatar. However, the difference here is that the story is not a self-conscious attempt at moralizing, but just an attempt to make good popcorn cinema. Consequently, it works.

    I also love The Cell, which, if you continue to read Celluloid Heroes all the way through, you will find some comments about.

    Strange Days I didn’t care much for. Cameron wrote the screenplay, but it was a rip off of William Gibson’s short story “New Rose Hotel.” The film was lacking in any kind of ironic distance from itself and was grim and gritty with no real zeal or enthusiasm. It felt to me like someone just showing up and punching the clock for a day’s work. There was no real love of cinema in it at all. And it, too, like Avatar, tries too hard to manufacture relevant social commentary.

    Hope you’re enjoying the book. Do let me know your thoughts.

    John Ebert

  3. Benton says

    Yes I saw this later when I did a quick search of the text, your comments on the films helped me decide which ones to watch, thank you. :)

    Would it be ok to email you my response to the book so the comment doesn’t get lost in the shuffle?

    Going to watch the Cell now, excited about the visuals.


  4. says

    Nietzsche:”Whereas Dionysianism [eg classic Aryan religion] was based on works of theater claiming allegorical truth, the Levantine religions [eg Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Islam] were based on works of literature claiming literal truth.”

    Movies once tried the Levantine model, with generally inept results, have switched to the Aryan model, and present us with resurrected cosmology that is much harder to debunk that also have sometimes been great artistic achievements.

    But has anyone looked at the canon of Aryan mythic work and the films made of it to outline for us its evolution since it began, say from 1922’s “Metropolis” to recent productions? Would such analysis show us where we’re headed?

    Without supporting any of the apocalyptic visions, its hard to argue that the game has not, indeed, changed.

  5. Daniel says

    Would love to read your analysis of Paul Verhoeven’s science fiction trilogy;
    ‘Robocop’, ‘Total Recall’ and ‘Starship Troopers’.

    Also teen witch movie ‘The Craft’ and Danny Boyles’ ‘Sunshine’.

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