As Neill Blomkamp’s new science fiction flick Chappie makes its way to theatres this weekend, I thought it would be time to look back at my personal top ten science fiction films.
It’s hard to truly define sci-fi because there is no set story structure. Narratives can be based around romance, action, drama, or mystery and a film can have sci-fi elements but not necessarily be sci-fi. I consider science fiction to be any story that deals with creative speculation on future events that are explained as possible through our current knowledge of accepted physical laws. This could include futuristic settings, advanced technology, imaginary scientific breakthroughs, as well as alterations of our present day world, but in the end, a great science fiction film aims to address the world we currently live in through imagining vaster and currently implausible scenarios.
This was a tough list to make. Many films that I wish were on here aren’t. So I will explain my reasons for including each title and if you haven’t seen all ten of these films, I strongly urge you to seek them out, not just as a science fiction fan but as a film fan.
10. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial
Steven Spielberg is no stranger to science fiction. He’s given us instant classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and Minority Report. But I think E.T. is the best of the lot. So many movies depict aliens as hell bent on destroying or colonizing humans. Technology is almost always perceived as an evil instead of a good. E.T. takes the angle of a young boy becoming friends with a young alien left stranded on Earth. The friendship is two-fold. As Elliott learns more about the alien, the alien is learning about humanity. While it gives us a glimpse on what aliens could take away from what it’s like to live on Earth, E.T. embraces several themes and concepts, but most of all, it simply makes us feel good.
And then there’s Metropolis. A high point of the German Expressionistic cinema movement, Metropolis has influenced almost every science fiction film that has come forth since its 1927 release. Kino has released a marvelous blu ray that restores the full 153 minute version, and this is the version I am referring to. You can see the idea of two class systems – the wealthy and the poor – operating in almost complete separation from each other reflected in many contemporary science fiction films, most recently in Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium. But few of these films are told in the visual splendor and structure that Metropolis so fully embraces, creating striking and unforgettable images, characters, time, and place.
Steven Soderbergh remade this film in 2002 with George Clooney. That film is very good. But it doesn’t touch the 1972 Russian original. Criterion re-released this gorgeous film on DVD and blu ray, and it’s a must own for any film collector. Solaris is about a planet that uses an astronaut’s memories and perceptions of his dead wife to reconstruct her both in a physical and emotional sense. What really speaks to me about the film is the way it got me thinking about the nature of love. When we express our love to someone, are we in love with that person or our idea of that person? This is an experience you must see for yourself.
I can’t think of a film in the last 20 years that has become more influential than The Matrix. It’s both a special effects blockbuster and an extremely masterful piece of filmmaking. No film has ever blended state of the art technology with ancient philosophy so seamlessly. You can criticize the story for borrowing elements from other narratives, and you can criticize Keanu Reeves’ performance as much as you want. The fact of the matter is The Matrix is a truly unique experience. And Yuen Woo-Ping’s martial arts choreography is quite simply incredible.
Initially a commercial flop, Donnie Darko is a shining example of a cult hit that has gained massive popularity through word of mouth. Its devoted fan base has every reason to love this film. Creating a completely unique philosophy on time travel, Donnie Darko is a film that will make no sense upon your first viewing. You will have to study it, reflect on it, read about it, and become engaged in the ideas that it presents to truly understand the plot. I love films like this because the experience reaches beyond just watching the movie. But even if you don’t want to think that hard, you can view Donnie Darko as a first rate film about growing up, because in the end, that’s what it really is about.
If Gattaca were made today, it would have car chases, explosions, special ops agents, and plenty of gun fights. Take Andrew Niccol’s last foray into science fiction – In Time. That film was a great idea dumbed down to a wannabe Bonnie & Clyde actioner. Gattaca presents a future where everyone’s entire life is determined by their cell structure. Ethan Hawke plays a young aspiring astronaut who was expected to die before the age of 30. In an unlikely turn of events, he is able to pass through the system using someone else’s genetically superior DNA. This is a smart, beautifully made and acted drama with just one extremely short chase scene that raises provocative questions about tampering with human genetics.
Ridley Scott’s final cut of Blade Runner is a masterpiece. It captures the look of the 80s cyberpunk subgenre perfectly. Set in a dystopian Los Angeles, Harrison Ford places Deckard, a blade runner who is charged with hunting down fugitive Replicants – androids who have developed their own emotional responses and can pass as human in virtually every way except for one. A stunning blend of film noir and action, Blade Runner addresses the most basic question: what does it truly mean to be human?
With this film, Stanley Kubrick didn’t just create an entirely new film language. He created one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. While it essentially tells four short stories, 2001 explores the endless possibilities in the relationship between man and space, technology and beyond. It is an immersive experience that engages you to create your own meaning.
Aside from endless Arnold quotes (“I need your clothes, your boots, and your motorcycle.” “I’ll be back.” “Hasta la vista baby.”), my favourite of all James Cameron’s films has already cemented itself as one of the greatest blockbusters of all time. It doesn’t just explore time travel in relation to the adage “The future is not yet written; there is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” All of its concepts are told through a brilliant story that blends incredible effects and action sequences with one of the strongest female characters in all of cinema and unexpectedly emotional moments. It also focuses on telling a story, using action and effects to enhance the experience.
In my opinion, A Clockwork Orange is the pinnacle of great science fiction. It’s quite simply a perfect movie in every way. Director Stanley Kubrick raises a very important and disturbing question: “What is more dangerous: a violent man who has the freedom to kill and rape, or the totalitarian government who has the ability to condition his, and anyone else’s, behaviour?) There are a lot of Orwellian ideas present in this adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ classic novel. The film ventures into its own territory through style, music, and the language used by its main character. This film certainly has its place in cinema history along with an impressive cult following of fans, but I think it really needs to be looked at again in the context of our present day world because the portrait it paints of an unspecified future is becoming dangerously similar to our own.
A Footnote: To me, as long as the films operate primarily as creative speculation as described above, I see it as a science fiction film. That’s why Star Wars is not on this list. While it has a lot of futuristic technology, it is primarily a fantasy since it deals with a completely imaginary universe that operates by its own set of rules. It has more in common with The Lord of the Rings than it does with Blade Runner. Alien, Predator, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are also absent from this list. Alien may take place in space and in the future, but its story about a crew hunted one by one by a monstrous force is first and foremost horror. Predator is also a slasher film built around many action elements, with its sci-fi aspects a distant third. Where War of the Worlds deals with scientific themes of evolution and technology, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, at least to me, functions primarily as a body horror film because it uses the destruction and degeneration of the human body to produce fear and anxiety. I don’t mean to downplay these films. They are all awesome in their own right, and they definitely have science fiction elements, but I see them as belonging to other genres.