There is no purer cinematic genre than the adventure movie. If you come to movies for escapism, for stories about good versus evil, then adventure movies are what you need. The best thing about this genre is that it’s bigger than you think. Adventure movies come in all shapes and sizes: such as superhero movies, monster movies, time travel movies, or battles between the dark side and the light in a galaxy far far away. With this in mind, here is a countdown of 10 of the best adventure movies for that dose of heroism that is needed to defeat evil.
Who would have thought that the creative team over at DC would realize that in order to make a great superhero movie you have to give it to a director that not only cares about the character in question, but also understands the cultural appeal of said character. That is why Patty Jenkins take on Wonder Woman is one of the best superhero adventure movies of recent times. The three movies that preceded Wonder Woman, and the disaster that came after, tried to reconstitute popular characters for a post-Nolan cinematic landscape. Which means Batman murdered more people than the Joker, and Superman was a self-serious dullard. So, thank the New Gods for Wonder Woman, who brought back the joy of heroism thanks to Jenkins’ reverence to the character and Gal Gadot’s spot on performance. Bring on the 80s sequel, and don’t answer the next time the Justice League calls.
Aliens is unquestionably one of the best adventure movies of all time. While its predecessor fits snuggly into the horror genre by way of science fiction, James Cameron’s bombastic sequel is pure adrenaline-charged adventure. Horror sequels are never as good as the original, mainly because you can never recreate the same fear of the monster, even if it’s the xenomorph, for the first time. Cameron knew this all too well, so he turned a haunted house in space franchise into an action-adventure movie. Another reason this works so well is that, unlike lighter examples of adventure movies, there is never any sense that the characters are having fun. Instead it’s wall to wall terror as Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, who was nominated for an Oscar for playing Ripley for the second time) leads a crew of soldiers back to the planet where her crew came across the xenomorph for the first time.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Any of the three movies of the Lord of the Rings trilogy could have made this list. Fellowship of the Ring is arguably the best, scariest, and most well-paced. The Two Towers features Helms Deep, one of the most famous cinematic battles that has become a go-to comparison for epic battles since its release. Finally, The Return of the King caps everything off with a blistering finale, one of the purist examples of heroism from the Fellowship (I dare you no to well up when Aragon says “for Frodo”) and swept at the Oscars. That’s why it’s easier to treat the trilogy as one big adventure movie. The quality and success of the trilogy showed Hollywood that fans could stay in their seats for over three hours at a time if what they were watching was made with as much love as they have for the property.
In the battle of the cinematic super-spies, Ethan Hunt and Jason Bourne only just lose out to Daniel Craig’s finest James Bond movie. Skyfall is an adventure movie that keeps the grit of Casino Royale, while telling a much more focused story. Skyfall is a perfect modern James Bond movie, one that reinvigorated the franchise after the huge misfire that was Quantum of Solace (what the hell does that even mean?) thanks to the hiring of Sam Mendes in the director’s seat along with cinematographer Roger Deakins: the man responsible for the marvel that is Blade Runner 2049. The action is spectacular, thanks in part to the movie shedding the Bourne trilogies influence, the villain, played by Javier Bardem, was suitably creepy and more than a match for Bond, and the movie also leaned into its place within the franchise history by introducing Q (who became an unlikely sex symbol thanks to the casting of Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny.
When talking about the best adventure movies, The Matrix is one of the moves that has a guaranteed spot on the list. The Wachowski’s sci-fi adventure is a masterpiece of effects-driven cinema that has had a huge impact in mainstream releases since its debut to critical acclaim in 1999. Keanu Reeves stars as Neo, a man who discovers that the world he thinks is real is actually a computer programme called The Matrix. With the help of Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie Anne Moss) Neo discovers that he can manipulate the Matrix like no one else, making him the best hope for humanity against the machines that have enslaved them. Most of that is in the sequels, as The Matrix plays as a superhero origin movie, complete with an iconic villain in the form of Agent Smith. It’s still a fantastic movie, that keeps its themes and underlying philosophies simple enough for wide audiences, which is exactly where the sequels fell down.
Mad Max: Fury Road
In terms of straight action, there is no better adventure movie released in the 21st century that comes close to Mad Max: Fury Road. With the original, Mel Gibson-starring, Mad Max trilogy nothing but a distant memory (though Road Warrior is awesome), director George Miller settled into life as a director of family films, including Babe, which is excellent, and Happy Feet. After failing to get his own Justice League movie off the ground, Miller went back to his most famous creation, and after years in development hell, Fury Road was released to huge acclaim in 2015. It wasn’t just the Fury Road was perfect, though that was surprising considering how many cash-grabbing reboots are released these days, it was a lesson to filmmakers and audiences alike that adventure movies could be exciting and unpredictable again. Miller’s insane action seems tailor made to kill stunt men, but the movie’s greatest achievement is the debut of Charlie Theron’s now iconic Imperator Furiosa.
For this list to be a little fairer, there is only room for one Steven Spielberg movie. You could easily fill a full list of the best adventure movies with Spielberg’s work, but we only have room for one. This means that Jaws and Indiana Jones miss out because Spielberg couldn’t stop redefining blockbusters. Which means that Jurassic Park takes the spot, because dinosaurs are slightly cooler that killer sharks and last crusades. Jurassic Park is a perfect blockbuster, with great characters, played by great actors, amazing special effects, and a palpable sense of both wonder and horror: sometimes in the same scene. Case and point is the T-Rex introduction. Not only is it a wonder to see a realistic killer dinosaur, it’s terrifying to watch it try to eat the children. They should have listened to Jeff Goldblum’s character, but I’m glad they didn’t.
Back to the Future
One of the Terminator movies nearly made it on to this list, but since it’s my list (and that Aliens is James Cameron’s best movie) I decided to include another time travel movie to split the difference. That movie is Back to the Future, a tightly plotted thrill ride about a time-travelling teenager that is trying to stop his mother from having sex with him. Ok, that’s an oversimplification (that came from my mind’s gutter) since Back to the Future is so much more than that. It has a plot that is so finely tuned, character’s who have become icons (and who helped create Rick and Morty) and given the Doctor a simple and understandably way of explaining the rules of time travel in Doctor Who.
Again, it would have been simple to fill a list of the best adventure movies with movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but there is only one spot and that goes to Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. The Avengers works because it has an incredibly simple plot: heroes come together to stop a world ending threat and uses this to give nearly every character a satisfying arc (sorry Hawkeye). While The Avengers builds on the work of five previous standalone movies, it is easily the finest appearance from Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, and Black Widow, as well as making Loki the franchises first truly great villain. Not only that, but the success of The Avengers changed cinema as we know it, with shared universes becoming the new normal in Hollywood, even if most of them never got off the ground.
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
There really is no adventure movie as good as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. While the Empire Strikes Back is a superior movie, that’s more for dramatic reasons than in terms of action. A New Hope was a game changer and may be the most obsessed about movie of all time. The current Star Wars movies can’t get enough of A New Hope: The Force Awakens is deeply indebted to it (though it does put a different spin on some aspects), Rogue One exists to fix one of A New Hope’s biggest plot holes, and Solo begins Han Solo’s journey towards meeting Luke and Obi Wan on Tatooine. What’s amazing about all of this is that A New Hope’s magic isn’t diluted by this obsession, I am talking about the original cut and not (NEVER!) about George Lucas’ updated versions.