Ten Great Science Fiction Films

With the release of Blade Runner 2049, it’s time for a sci-fic pick list. Here are my ten favorites. There are no Star Wars or James Cameron films here, just to get that out of the way.

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1. Sunshine. Danny Boyle, 2007. When I saw Sunshine I bought another ticket and saw it again right away, which is something I’ve never done with any other film. The visuals and punishing sound blew me right back in my seat. And the scoring is genius, with earworms as compulsive as the themes of True Romance. It’s set in the year 2057 when the sun is dying, and a space crew embarks on a mission to drop a nuclear bomb into the sun’s core, which will hopefully reignite it. Right from the start the mission is one calamity after another, and the crew members have to sacrifice themselves, even to the point of contemplating murdering the one of them “least fit” in order to save oxygen. One crew member is roasted by the sun’s rays when he goes EVA to repair ship damages. They respond to a distress call from another ship, which leads to more disaster, and to being stalked by a disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die. There are homages to Alien and outer space claustrophobia, but for my money, Sunshine is even better than Alien, and I adore that masterpiece to begin with (which is my #2 pick, below). Captain Kaneda’s death scene captures the visuals, scoring and dramatic intensity of the film, and a good illustration why it’s my favorite sci-fic film.

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2. Alien. Ridley Scott, 1979. Even after decades and so many viewings I’m still terrorized by Alien. It’s a horror film with science-fiction dressing, and a ’70s product in every way, nothing like the quickfire plotting of the inferior sequels (making some allowances for the underrated Alien 3). Cameron’s sequel was an ’80s film in every way, an action blockbuster that made the mistake of altering the most terrifying aspect of the alien: its ability to cocoon a victim and cause it to morph into an egg/facehugger. In Aliens the eggs come from a queen, but Scott had envisioned a horrifying process by which any alien “laid eggs” by transforming captives. Cameron’s film also involved military personnel going after the alien threat, and while it’s not pleasant that they all die, that’s their job. In Alien we feel the raw terror of six civilians stranded alone in space, hunted and devoured one by one. It’s a film crafted with the care and discipline that’s rare these days, and it delivers genuine terror. Kane’s chestbursting remains the most pulverizing scene in the history of sci-fic cinema.

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3. Blade Runner 2049. Denis Villeneuve, 2017. I was worried this would be another Mad Max: Fury Road, but not only does Blade Runner 2049 live up to its predecessor, it supersedes it. It’s a stunning visual aesthetic. It has the ambitious concepts of the original, and it takes them at the slow pace they deserve, so patiently that it feels like a ’70s film. I’m not surprised it bombed at the box office. Few people these days have the wherewithal — and by that I mean the intellectual wherewithal from above, and the physical fortitude from below — to sit still on their sweet asses for 2-3 hours and enjoy good artistry. The only criticism you can make are the plot holes which leave glaring coincidences unexplained. For example, from the start K is investigating the farmer replicant whose home supplies the clues for Rachael, while K already has memories implanted in him that relate to those very clues. But even here the plot holes seem more part of the overarching Blade Runner mystique. The best character is the hologram Joi, and she serves an oblique existential function: if software can fall in love and fear death, then the objection to replicants having these soul-like traits becomes even more strained. Her merging with the woman for K’s sexual pleasure is an incredible piece of choreography — as is virtually every other scene in this masterpiece.

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4. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick, 1968. Objectively I would call this the best sci-fic film of all time. I doubt there will ever be another as culturally significant. It’s a visual piece; in its two hours and 19 minutes, there are less than 40 minutes of dialogue. Kubrick said he wanted to reach a wide spectrum of people and make them think about humanity’s destiny, its role in the cosmos and its relationship to higher forms of life. I continue to marvel at the interplay between the start and finish. The Monolith appears among the primitive apes radiating its terrifying noise; they surround it, worship it, and learn to kill with intelligent purpose. At the end Bowman is transfigured into the Starchild, suggesting another evolutionary step. In between we are subjected to a visionary epic plumbing the vastness of space through some of the most ecstatic imagery ever put on celluloid. There are shots of pure genius — like the falling bone from the primitive chimpanzee age “becoming” the space shuttle in the 21st century — the sort of inspirations that come once a decade in film making. I can think of one film only — Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life — that has come close to doing what Kubrick did here, in showing humanity humbled by celestial mysteries.

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5. Gattaca. Andrew Niccol, 1997. This film flew under the radar when it was released and it deserves more recognition. It’s not set in space at all, for space is the wishful fantasy of its lead character. He is barred from pursuing that dream on account of bad genes. In the world of 2022 (scary to think that’s only five years away now), it’s not white heterosexual men who are the superior elite, but rather the bioformed. Men and women of all ethnicities are born in test tubes to be engineered for ideal health, high IQs and a long life-spans. People who are born naturally are called “In-Valids” and consigned to a life of menial labor. Vince is one such In-Valid who refuses to accept his lot on life, and manages to work out a deal with a crippled elite. He uses Eugene’s genetic samples to get past Gattaca’s daily security checks, and undergoes training for a mission in space. Gattaca explores privilege by genetic purity in the context of Vince’s personal family baggage, and it’s a very moving drama.

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6. Snowpiercer. Bong Joon-ho, 2013. The film is many things: post-apocalyptic sci-fic, a social class war, a claustrophobic horror piece, and bat-shit insanity that would make David Lynch envious. (To get an idea as to how insane, just watch this scene.) It’s set in 2031, long after an attempt to counteract global warming backfired and brought down an ice age. The only survivors boarded a train called the Rattling Ark, and after 17 years it keeps people alive in an extremely perverse state of affairs. The train is powered by a perpetual motion engine that travels a circumnavigational track (around the globe). The wealthy elite live in the front cars and the “low-lives” live in the back cars, in hideous conditions, under watch by guards, and given only protein bars to eat. Each carriage forward presents a deadly challenge for the protagonist who aims to get to the front and put things to right. Snowpiercer is a sci-fi thriller with plenty of rapid-fire action, but also intelligent artistry and off-the-scales craziness.

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7. Event Horizon. Paul Anderson, 1997. This was panned by critics who had the wrong expectations for a sci-fic film. Today it has a major cult following. It’s basically The Shining in outer space, set on a ship that’s equipped with a gravity drive that sends you to hell. As the crew explores the ship, an evil presence begins to exploit their darkest personal secrets and torture them with hallucinations. The scientist who created the Event Horizon soon realizes that it’s penetrated beyond the boundaries of the universe and in to hell itself. The crew members stumble on incredibly frightening footage of the ship’s previous crew, which shows them killing and cannibalizing each other in some kind of demonic fury. I would call this the most terrifying sci-fic film I’ve seen (even more than Alien), and a bold depiction of inter-dimensional evil. I watch it almost every year.

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8. Blade Runner. Ridley Scott, 1982. It’s hard for me to rank Blade Runner, because the question is which version. The theatrical cut was cobbled together by studio executives who wanted a happy ending to please moviegoers; it also contained voiceovers from Deckard to explain his backstory, which in my view condescends to the audience. In the director’s cut, Deckard’s voiceovers disappear (a plus), as does the happy ending (a plus), and restores the intended ambiguous ending about Deckard and Rachael’s fates (a big plus). But now there are scenes which call into question whether Deckard is human; he may actually be a replicant. I continue to have mixed feelings about this. Deckard’s humanity was never in question in Philip Dick’s novel, and the only reason Scott ran with the idea is because of a fluke — one of his film crew suggested the idea off-the-cuff. The Final Cut is the one that most closely matches Scott’s original vision, and also happens to align with the tone and style of the sequel Blade Runner 2049; it includes some more violent scenes that were left out. That’s the best version, but weighing all them together, I put Blade Runner at #8. It’s a great film in any case.

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9. Europa Report. Sebastián Cordero, 2013. This came out the same year Gravity did. It was a good year for outer-space dramas, but Europa Report went unheard of, while Gravity got all the praise. It should have been the other way around. It takes a quasi-documentary approach, but don’t fear the “found footage” format. The film is neither stingy nor confusing in its visuals, and it exudes the wonder and terror as a piece like this should. A mission to Europa inevitably falls in Kubrick’s shadow, but Cordero’s approach is his own, more gritty and less visionary than 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even though all six astronauts end up dying, it’s uplifting by what they witness, recorded for posterity. Their mission was to look for organisms, and the luminous octopus-creature revealed in the last frame (see above image) will forever change the context of how scientists view life in the galaxy. This film really made me want to walk on the ice moon. It’s that powerful in transporting you.

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10. The Matrix. The Wachowski brothers, 1999. Few people know that The Matrix didn’t start with Keanu Reeves. It started with Tom Baker in Doctor Who. That story is The Deadly Assassin, which first aired in 1976, and the Matrix is even called that in the story, functioning exactly like the model we know — an electronic neural network that turns thought patterns into virtual reality. The Doctor subjects himself to the Matrix and enters a horrifying virtual reality to learn the identity of a political assassin. The Wachowski brothers took the idea and made a blockbuster franchise from it, but if you ignore the trashy sequels, the first Matrix still holds up well. The idea that we’re nothing more than batteries powering machines who rule over us (see above image), and that our lives are just dreams, is something I’ve found eerily plausible.


4 thoughts on “Ten Great Science Fiction Films

  1. Great list! I like the way you mix acknowledged classics with some lesser known (some of which I now really want to see). Totally with you on Alien and Blade Runner (1982). I am also a huge fan of Tree of Life, and see the connection to 2001. Not sure if Inception counts as sci-fi but that merits mention. Thanks

  2. No Paul Verhoeven? Even disregarding ‘Robocop’, ‘Total Recall’ and ‘Starship Troopers’ are both films that transcend their trashy, pulp sensibility. Largely due, I reckon, to a European director trying to please audiences on both sides of the atlantic at the same time – with the result that each film slyly subverts itself.

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