“The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure.”
Science fiction films are big business now, but they used to be smaller, high-concept films. They didn’t always work. There are a good number of retro flying saucer sci-fi films from the 50s that we’ve mostly forgotten about (except for those “preserved” by Mystery Science Theater 3000). The ones we remember, the ones that stand out in history, are usually the ones that have made us think. The Day the Earth Stood Still is definitely a thinking sci-fi film with something to say. Directed by Robert Wise (West Side Story, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) and starring Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, and Hugh Marlowe, this is a classic of the genre that’s remembered today as one of the best science fiction films of all time. Now that’s not to say that everything in it is timeless. What was once considered a very tense thriller is now a rather dull affair, compared to modern films. The plot is predictable and the dialogue is clunky. But the primary strength of the film—the importance of its message—is just as true and relevant today as it was in 1951, and that makes this film important even in a modern context.
I was in college when Donnie Darko came out. Just about everyone around my age had that one friend who would not shut up about this film, how it was deep and mysterious. I didn’t get around to watching this film until the end of 2016, 15 years after its release. I’ll admit, on my first viewing, I wasn’t that impressed. There seemed to be too many loose ends and unexplained mysteries for me to take it seriously. I’m revising my review after a second viewing, not because I’ve figured out the many mysteries here, but because I think I’ve figured out why they’re in there. Is this a great film? I won’t say it’s one of the best on my list, but it’s unique and thought-provoking, to say the least.
Written and directed by Richard Kelly (Southland Tales, The Box) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, this is an independent sci-fi film that takes some serious risks. Some of them pay off, and some of them don’t, but this is markedly different than most other films out there, sci-fi or otherwise. There’s also a lot of depth lurking underneath the surface of this film, although some of it is buried a little too deep to make sense of. Is it brilliant? Is it nonsense? I think that’s really open to interpretation. That said, I’ll give you my take on it.
“Welcome to Altair IV, gentlemen. I am to transport you to the residence. If you do not speak English, I am at your disposal with 187 other languages along with their various dialects and sub-tongues.”
Old, classic sci-fi films bring some very specific images to mind, and Forbidden Planet has all of them in spades. Directed by Fred M. Wilcox (I Passed for White, Three Daring Daughters) and starring Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, and Leslie Nielsen (back before he was a comedic actor!), this film has flying saucers, clunky robots, strange monsters, alien worlds, and advanced technology—everything you’d expect from a classic sci-fi. I initially sat down to watch this for a bit of classic, campy fun, but the point it eventually makes is deep and thought-provoking, and I think even more relevant today than when it was released in 1956. The old sci-fi mechanisms and tropes may seem a bit goofy to today’s audiences, but the message and entertainment factor still have a lot to offer.
“But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings. There are days that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived.”
Science fiction is a genre that makes us think by asking questions about our advancement as a species. Some sci-fi movies eschew emotion to focus on the thoughts and ethics of their subject matter, like Ex Machina. Others dive head-first into emotion, making that the focus rather than the ideas, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Very few films do a good job of stimulating both the intellect and the emotions of the viewers; Arrival is a smart film that does exactly that. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Sicario) and starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, this film shows us a first contact between humans and aliens who have chosen to land here. This isn’t an action film—it’s a much more cerebral and thought-provoking experience, although it’s not hard to follow or boring. In fact, it’s rare that a film that makes you think like this is made for mainstream audiences, let alone made so well, earning it a spot on this list.
“He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.”
Movies about making contact with aliens ask a lot of different questions. What if they’re hostile? What if we’re hostile? What if they come to warn us? What if we can’t coexist? Close Encounters of the Third Kind asks and answers a much simpler question: wouldn’t it be cool? Director Steven Spielberg (E.T., Jaws) wrote the script to try to capture the mood of a childhood memory of him and his father going to see a meteor shower, and that childlike wonder shines through here. Unlike most sci-fi films, this doesn’t pose ethical dilemmas or ask us to consider the implications of modern society. This is more of a straight-up drama that uses sci-fi elements to elicit deep emotions of curiosity and wonder. It’s admittedly more of a kids film, but this is extremely well-done and can be a happy little escape from the harsh demands of the real world for adults as well.
“What if there were some mistake and the progression went wrong and something like an amoeba was given power like a human’s?”
I wouldn’t describe myself as an anime fan. I like some of the better movies and series, but there’s a lot of the genre I don’t particularly enjoy. The few other anime on this list, I’ve described as being different than your typical anime—full of rich drama and characters that will appeal to movie-watchers who wouldn’t normally get into anime. Akira, on the other hand, is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from an anime: a psychic guy attacks a futuristic city and it’s up to a teenage boy to stop him. This seminal anime film is written and directed by Katsuhiro Ôtomo (Steamboy, Mushi Shi: The Movie), and the fact that this feels like a lot of other anime is a testament to how influential it was in 1988, before the typical anime really existed. This film was huge in Japan, and it opened the door to the Western world for anime, where the genre had previously gone largely unnoticed. Is it good? Well, yes, it’s very good. It’s got a great sci-fi plot, a gritty dystopian setting, and action that’s entertaining without being so over-the-top that it’s ridiculous. It feels a bit like a cross between an action movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 1984. Again, I wouldn’t describe myself as an anime fan, but this is one of the best movies the genre has to offer, and it’s endured as a classic for a reason.
“Do you have someone who switches you off if you don’t perform as you should? … Then why should I?”
If you mixed together Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein with the 1982 film Blade Runner, you might get something kind of like Ex Machina. Written and directed by Alex Garland (his first effort as a director, writer of 28 Days Later and Annihilation) and starring Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, and Oscar Isaac, this philosophical film is one of the best I’ve seen on artificial intelligence. In true sci-fi fashion, this film is not content to simply explain what AI is—it also asks what it means. But it’s also not content to be a boring discussion of ethics. This is a thriller just as much as it is a philosophical film, and I found it gripping.
“People are being duplicated. And once it happens to you, you’re part of this… thing. It almost happened to me!”
(Yes, I’m reviewing the 1978 remake, not the 1956 original. Don’t judge me!)
Alien invasion movies were a pretty big thing in classic film. They asked lots of questions: What if they’re good? What if they’re bad? What if they think we’re bad and come to judge us? Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Philip Kaufman (mostly known for writing the Indiana Jones movies) and starring Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams, puts a bit of a different spin on it: what if they’re neither good nor evil, but so different that we can’t coexist? But this is not a boring morality study—this is a tense thriller! It doesn’t take the time to ask and answer a lot of deep questions, as many sci-fi movies do, but it moves quickly and is definitely not boring. If you’re in the mood for a tense and somewhat scary look at an alien invasion, this might be just what you’re looking for.
“Perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.”
Ask someone today to list off famous sci-fi movies and you’ll get an eclectic list: Star Wars, Alien, E.T., Avatar, and many more. Science fiction was, at one point, an interesting but rather dry genre. Thematically, it was an exploration of the spirit and ethics of science—it provides answers, but it also provides questions, and those questions often end up being just as important as the answers. Classic sci-fi movies like 2001 and Planet of the Apes asked questions more than they provided answers, and that was the beauty of them. Soon, the lines blurred and sci-fi movies became more about incorporating scientific solutions into fast-moving, genre-mixing plots than asking questions.
In 2014, Interstellar brought sci-fi back to its roots. Directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception) and starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Jessica Chastain, this is a movie that uses the answers we have to uncover greater questions. It invokes a sense of wonder, even though it doesn’t answer all (or even most) of the questions it raises. But unlike classic sci-fi films, Interstellar is filled with suspense, drama, and plot twists that don’t detract from the traditional sci-fi elements. It’s a great modern take on classic sci-fi and there aren’t many movies like this being made today.
“My mommy always said there were no monsters—no real ones—but there are.”
It’s rare that a sequel surpasses the original. Terminator 2 and The Dark Knight come to mind. I’m actually pretty new to the Alien franchise, but, after watching the second installment, I believe Aliens fits that bill too. Alien was a brilliant movie, but the sequel Aliens was phenomenal. Directed by James Cameron (Terminator 2, Avatar) and starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, and Paul Reiser, this is an action-packed sci-fi thriller that maintains the depth and suspense of the original but brings the energy up to the highest frenetic levels.