Do you like haunted houses? Roller coasters? Do you enjoy that rush that comes from physical thrills? That’s how I feel about a really good sci-fi movie–except all the loopty-loops happen in the head. Everyone should be a fan of science fiction films. It’s seldom that a film of any other genre (no matter how entertaining) will do what a science fiction film can do: surprise you, and really, really make you think. Here’s a tribute to, and a list of, all of my favourite science fiction films that will break your brain. Films that make you go:
Some I can’t tell you very much about at all, because it will totally ruin the movie for you. In fact, if you’ve never heard of these movies, don’t look up anything at all so you won’t hit spoilers. Just watch them. You should watch all of them. And some you probably ought to watch twice. You can trust me; I went to film school.
The utopia that is Metropolis in this German film is beautiful and cultured. But it hides a terrible secret that divides its society in two, and one boy decides that everything has to change.
Why it’s awesome: This movie is a classic, and has a lot of classic tropes–by which I mean to say, they became classic tropes in film largely after this film–Metropolis done did it first (in film, anyhow). People don’t really understand just how amazingly ambitious this film was for 1927. A lot of films prior to 1927 were very short, and 1927 was the first year films started figuring out how to have synchronized sound (this one is still silent), so it was really year 0 of modern cinema. Most of the movie was thought lost, and after some badly degraded footage turned up, they meticulously restored what they could. This one work inspired a whole host of tributes and spiritual successors, including influencing the appearance of C-3P0 in Star Wars.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Don’t bother with the 2008 version. Check out the original: An alien named Klatuu shows up on Earth, accompanied by a fearsome robot, Gort. He demands that humans figure out how to live peacefully without the threat of nuclear annihilation, and to prove that he’s not kidding around, he turns off the power all over the Earth.
Why it’s awesome: Not only does this movie open up some stellar (and depressing) questions about how us humans might behave when visited with another species, this movie is a great example of how assuming you have any clue what’s really going on makes ass-u-me.
Humanity was given an evolutionary nudge by unseen aliens: the monolith-makers. After a second monolith is found on the moon, mankind embarks on a journey to find them with the aid of the artificial intelligence HAL.
Why it’s awesome: I actually have a love-hate relationship with this film. It’s done by Stanley Kubrick, and parts of it are genius, but a lot of the film feels like he was shooting it with the barest doodle of a screenplay and while high (a distinct possibility). In a nutshell, the plot is: what would we do to survive, evolve, and get ahead? Still, meandering aside, this groundbreaker not only influenced the next 50 years of cinema with its human-AI interaction, it introduced us to some of the very first visuals of future technology we have today, like tablet computers.
A psychologist is sent to the space station orbiting the planet Solaris to investigate the psychotic breakdowns of some of the cosmonauts there and the death of a doctor.
Why it’s awesome: They’ve tried to make this book into a movie three times (the other adaptations happened in 1968 and 2002), but arguably the 1972 Russian film is the best. This film twines spirituality and science like few works (literary or film) manage. It’s beautiful, haunting, uplifting, and daunting all at the same time, and it totally trashes the typical vision of bipedal, humanoid (or even insect-like) aliens.
Blade Runner (1982)
Deckard is a burnt-out, ready-to-retire blade runner–a law enforcement official who tracks down and exterminates an artificially-created slave-class people known as replicants. The existence of replicants on this Earth is illegal and they are consigned to work menial labour in space colonoies. Four escape and are hiding in L.A. and Deckard agrees to one more assignment to track them down.
Why it’s awesome: You remember how I said Metropolis had a handful of spin-off spiritual successors? Blade Runner is the most notable, and considered to be one of the best SF films ever made in its own right. What begins with a simple black-and-white perspective ends waist-deep in moral grey forcing the viewer to ask questions like what does it really mean to be human? And if it acts like a human, thinks like a human, and talks like a human… does it really matter?
Terminator 1 (1984) & T2 (1991)
Someone’s trying to kill Sarah Connor. What begins as a struggle to stay one step ahead of her killer unfurls itself as a plot by a terrifying artificial intelligence to change the future… and not in humanity’s best interests.
Why it’s awesome: Note – I like to pretend anything after 2 doesn’t exist. Aquanet abuse aside, the first two films are finely crafted ticking-time-bomb pursuit thrillers. Terminator is a phenomenal feat of low-budget hardcore SF cinema–even more so if you continue that this was only the second film of James Cameron’s career. His FIRST film was the B-movie creature feature Piranha 2. Someone actually trusted him with millions of dollars after that train wreak, and I’m glad they did. And Terminator 2 is one of two sequels that I’d actually rate an improvement over the original. These two are a great pick for a marathon weekend.
12 Monkeys (1995)
James Cole is a prisoner in the year 2030, “recruited” by the powers that be with a mission to travel back in time to gather information about a virus that already wiped out most of humanity so they can cure it… or maybe even prevent it from destroying civilization.
Why it’s awesome: When I first watched this film with a friend, our jaws were on our chest when the credits rolled. We immediately had to rewind the movie and watch it again. 12 Monkeys is an amazingly written film, definitely in my top 5 films of all time, and features one of my favourite tropes: no matter how smart you think you are, time travel will mess your sh*t up. If you watch nothing else on this list, watch this one.
Also, it has crazy Brad Pitt, and I always love Brad Pitt best when he’s crazy.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
In a hard-wired, highly technological society, a hacker who goes by the name “The Puppet Master” is infiltrating the minds of androids and people with cybernetic implants. Maj. Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg federal agent, is out to stop him.
Why it’s awesome: Disney doesn’t have anything on the Japanese for traditional animation, and Ghost in the Shell is a beautiful example of it. Like Blade Runner, GitS’ B-plot arc ends up being an exploration of identity. Except it goes a few steps further. When technology and humanity begin to intertwine so extensively… gender, “souls,” all the lines get blurred.
Starship Troopers (1997)
Humanity is at war with an insect-like race they call the Bugs. After Earth was attacked, humanity decided to take the war to the Bugs themselves and mobilized an army to go fight on their planet.
Why it’s awesome: This movie was one of the most uncomfortable films I ever had the chance to watch in a theatre. Not because it was gross (although it kind of was), but because the people in the theatre were cheering humanity’s attempts to exterminate the Bugs. Despite the film’s not-in-the-least-subtle use of classic propaganda, the WWII references went over many people’s heads, proving that a) people don’t actually learn from history all that much (and so we’re going to be doomed to repeat it, and b) with the right incentive, most people would become just like the Germans who went along with the Nazi party.
A pretty freaky social experiment / commentary.
Event Horizon (1997)
Humanity’s first attempt at interstellar travel vanishes without a trace. When the ship mysteriously re-appears years later next to Neptune, a team is sent to explore it and figure out what happened.
Why it’s awesome: Denounce me if you will; this film is in some ways a better space-horror flick than Alien. Everyone knows Alien. Nobody knows Event Horizon, which had to have excessive gore scenes cut, tanked at the box office, and went quietly underground to become a cult classic. There are some places in the universe where humans just might not be able to go, but few films ever go head to head with that concept.
The Matrix (1999)
Neo is a hacker by night, and Joe-blow programmer by day, living an unsatisfactory life. When federal agents come to him asking about whether he’s involved with another hacker who goes by the name of Morpheus (the most dangerous man alive), Neo gets a little bit more of an adventure than he bargained for.
Why its awesome: When The Matrix came out, it was accompanied by a marketing campaign the likes of which haven’t really been seen since. “What is the matrix?” it kept asking us. “We don’t know!” we yelled. “But tell us more, darn it!” The teasers we saw hinted at a film that would turn our world upside down. And baby, did it deliver. While the story itself (while solid) was nothing that hadn’t exactly been done before, The Matrix was huge evolutionary leap forward in animation and special effects that had everyone glued to the seats.
Donnie Darko – Director’s Cut (2001)
An angsty teen who survives a freak accident discovers that he’s developing unusual powers… and that something’s quite wrong with the world he lives in.
Why it’s awesome: While it doesn’t look like it, Donnie Darko is actually a science fiction film with a plot and its own set of physics that eventually becomes clear. Just sit tight and keep an open mind. It’s pretty hard to say anything about the movie without spoiling this very trippy ride, so you’ll just have to take my word on it.
Two engineers, Aaron and Abe, invent a real, legitimate way to time travel right in their own garage. They decide to use it to make themselves rich.
Why it’s awesome: When greed is the motivation for time travel, ethics and morals start to fly out the window pretty quickly. Of all the movies on this list, this is the biggest head-breaker, despite having one of the simplest concepts. This is the one you’re likely never going to put together all the puzzle pieces on. In fact, some parts you can’t. That’s the “fun” part about time travel. But don’t let that stop you from watching it. It’s an amazing film. It was made for about $7,000, and the writers refused to “dumb it down” for anybody. It’s one of the most hardcore science fiction films you’re ever likely to see.
“Time Travel Method-2” by derivative work: Tom-b (Wikipedia commons)
After a long and lonely three year stint working a lunar mining base by himself with only video messages and the robot GERTY for company, Sam is looking forward to going home. Shortly before his return trip, however, he begins to hallucinate and get sick, has some near-fatal accidents, and he starts worrying that he’s losing his mind. Is he going crazy, or is someone out to get him?
Why it’s awesome: This film is the worst (best) kind of mind-screwing mystery, since you cannot trust anything as being the truth. Also, GERTY’s voice is Kevin Spacey. He’s about as creeptastic as it gets.