“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.
“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”
The sci-fi genre has produced some brilliant movies; but for a long time, it failed to produce one thing: heightened suspense. Sci-fi movies made you think, but they rarely got your heart racing. Alien, directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator) and starring Sigourney Weaver and John Hurt, changed the genre. With a tagline like, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” you know you’re in for a wild ride. It’s not just a great sci-fi suspense movie—it’s probably one of the best suspense movies ever made. It doesn’t skimp on the science fiction, but this movie is downright terrifying, and it does it without resorting to cheap jump scares or excessive gore. Though often imitated, this is a movie that stands up very well today and earns its spot on the watch list of any serious cinema fan.
“Best action movie of all time” is a hotly-debated title, but it would be hard to argue that Terminator 2: Judgment Day is not in the top three. Directed by James Cameron (Aliens, Avatar) and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton, this follow-up to the competent 1984 original was an ambitious endeavor. When it was made, it was the most expensive film in history, with a budget over ten times its predecessor. And it paid off in a big way. It made back double its enormous production budget and held the world record for highest opening-weekend gross of an R-rated film until 2003. This was the first sequel to receive and Academy Award when the previous installment had not even gotten a nomination, and it’s one of the most iconic and memorable action movies ever made.
“John, if The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”
It’s hard to think of a 90s movie more iconic than Jurassic Park. Directed by the legendary Steven Spielberg (E.T., Jaws) and starring Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum, this is a movie that captivated everyone who saw it in theaters. Like all great sci-fi movies, it sparked our imagination for what science could do while also reminding us of the importance of ethics. It has all of the classic sci-fi qualifications along with a thrilling plot, great special effects, and a better original score than most sci-fi films. And it’s just as impressive today as it was when it came out 24 years ago.
“The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart.”
Tracing a genre of art to an original source can be murky, but the 1927 film Metropolis was definitely the first real sci-fi movie. Directed by Expressionist Austrian-German director Fritz Lang (M, Fury), Metropolis wrote the formula that would be followed for years to come. Being 90 years old, there are technical and artistic aspects of the movie that don’t hold up well; but the message and style of the movie, as well as its historic significance, merit viewings even today.
“This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.”
2001: A Space Odyssey is a masterpiece of cinema. Directed by Stanley Kubrick (The Shining, A Clockwork Orange), this 1968 film is widely regarded as one of the most influential science fiction films of all time. That said, it helps to have appropriate expectations for this film. If you’re expecting a gripping plot or a coherent message, you’re going to have a bad time. 2001: A Space Odyssey is more like a trip to an abstract art museum than a trip to the movies: it’s beautiful and stimulating, but it’s ultimately up to you to imply meaning based on your personal interpretation. Kubrick himself has refused to offer any explanation for the baffling ending, and, although many have put forth theories, none have completely resolved all of the mysteries presented here.
Back to the Future was, and still is, a cultural icon. Written and directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) and starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, and Lea Thompson, Back to the Future brought time travel from the deep recesses of science fiction into the mainstream spotlight. Although The Terminator had dabbled in time travel just the year before and a few other major movies had sent people forward in time, no other mainstream movie had dealt with things like a time paradox—let alone in a way that made sense to virtually every viewer. Back to the Future made this hard science fiction concept cool and fun and brought it into the common vernacular. Many time travel movies since then owe part of their success to this groundbreaking movie.
“The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”
Blade Runner is an iconic 1982 sci-fi film directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) and starring Harrison Ford. It walks a fine line between hard sci-fi and mainstream cinema, managing to keep the best parts of each: it poses some interesting moral and philosophical questions without overdoing it or sacrificing the plot for its message. If you’re not looking for the deeper questions, this is perfectly viable as a straight sci-fi detective story. But those questions are the most interesting part of the movie. It brings to mind a question from a character in Mass Effect, another sci-fi series that was likely influenced by Blade Runner: “Does this unit have a soul?”
“You said it, bitch. We’re the Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by James Gunn (Super) and starring Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper, and Zoe Saldana, was a risky movie to make, especially for the budget Marvel Studios gave it: $170 million. Gunn, the director, had no major successes and only one movie to his name, and Pratt, the main star, was untested as an action hero. The source material, the Guardians of the Galaxy from Marvel Comics, was a relatively unknown franchise. Did the risk pay off? Yes. It paid off in a big way.