Scientists attending a recent meeting at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory picked their top seven worst and best science fiction movies of all time. Their lists (clips can be seen here):
1) 2012 (2009): Neutrinos from a solar flare heat up the Earth's core, setting off the end of life as we know it. The plot conveniently ignores the fact that neutrinos pass straight through matter—even us—without doing much of anything.
2) The Core (2003): The Earth's core has stopped rotating and scientists have to drill into it to start it back up. The moviemakers go nuts with basic geology, ending up with something the New York Times called “monumentally dumb.”
3) Armageddon (1998): A team of drillers is sent to an asteroid on its way to strike Earth to split it into two parts they say will fly safely past the planet, completely ignoring Newton's First Law of Motion ("an object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an external force"), which says that all they did was make two asteroids that would hit the Earth.
4) Volcano (1997): Los Angeles is destroyed by a volcano that springs up in the city. Bad science mingling with cheesy dialogue and effects.
5) Chain Reaction (1996): Keanu Reeves. Bubble fusion. A government plot to prevent the spread of the technology. The perfect recipe for bad.
6) The 6th Day (2000): Arnold Schwarzenegger is cloned. Because one of him just wasn't enough?
7) What the #$*! Do We Know? (2004): Read the synopsis on Wikipedia. It'll make your head hurt.
And the Best:
1) Gattaca (1997)
2) Contact (1997)
3) Metropolis (1927)
4) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
5) Woman in the Moon (1929)
6) The Thing From Another World (1951)
7) Jurassic Park (1993)
After looking at the lists, I think we can conclude that the last couple of decades has been both good and bad when it comes to sci-fi in the movies. Special effects can make our imagination come to life on the screen, as in "Jurassic Park," but it's no substitute for good storytelling, which is what the worst of the worst all seem to lack. It wasn't that the science itself was bad—that can be ignored if there's a payoff—but there wasn't anything good to balance it out.
As for what the lists may be missing, I'd add to the "worst" list "The Day After Tomorrow," the 2005 version of "The War of the Worlds" and "Jurassic Park 3," the only dinosaur movie that made me wish the dinosaurs would eat the people and stop annoying me. As for the "best" list, there are plenty they missed, particularly in the modern era, but I particularly liked "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "WALL-E."
What are on your lists of best and worst sci-fi films?