Sci-Fi; It’s probably my favorite genre in cinema, and it’s certainly one of the most varied on Earth. Since it’s only parameters are that it must concern, “imagined future scientific or technological advances, or major social or environmental changes,” it is basically broad enough to encompass any story under the sun. Now, if you’re like me, you’re not content with simply reading or watching sci-fi. You want to make it as well. But, of course, one can’t simply jump head first into the creation of art. One must study the works of others, learn what works and what doesn’t, and then, using this newly acquired knowledge, go forth and invent. But what films should you watch? That’s what I asked myself when I concocted this list. What movies advanced the sci-fi genre with their unique story lines, innovative visual effects, and ability to get audiences to ponder moral and philosophical questions? These ones, my friend. Not only are none of them sequels, remakes or spin-offs, but each, in their own way, changed sci-fi forever, be it with their unique premises, narrative structures, or filmmaking techniques. They also cover the vast spectrum that sci-fi can encompass; from horror, to action, to comedy, to noir. I might not be a fan of all of them, but I do have to commend them for their originality and influence, and, for that reason, I must insist you all give them a look.
The Matrix (1999)
Directed By The Wachowskis
What’s it about? Neo is a hacker who’s always sensed that there’s something wrong with the world; something not quite real. Then, when he is contacted by a mysterious man known as Morpheus, he learns that his suspicions are correct. There is something wrong with the world. It is, in fact, an illusion; a simulation generated by living machines to keep humans subservient. A select few people have been freed from this dream world, referred to by all as “the matrix,” and are now dedicating everything they have to fighting the machines. Neo decides to join their ranks, acquiring amazing skills, and uncovering some surprising secrets about himself, in the process.
What makes it unique? The matrix was one of the first big budget American films to touch upon the idea that our world is an illusion, and to play with what living in a computer-generated reality would be like. What rules could you bend? What rules could you break? It was also one of the first western sci-fi films to draw heavily from East Asian cinema, particularly Hong Kong action movies and anime. The elaborate Kung Fu fight sequences, cyberpunk visuals, these were things that American audiences hadn’t experienced before. The movie also pioneered certain special effects, like bullet time, and helped set a precedent for other action movies to follow; that being that films with gun fights, car chases and explosions didn’t have to be dumb. They could feature unique, thoughtful ideas. They could reference literature, and various philosophical concepts, such as Plato’s allegory of the cave, and choice versus destiny.
District 9 (2009)
Directed By Neill Blomkamp
What’s it about? When a massive UFO lands over Johannesburg, South Africa, a number of starving, destitute aliens are found inside. The creatures, referred to condescendingly as “prawns,” claim to have no knowledge of how to fly their ship, or use their technology. They beg the humans to grant them asylum, and the humans do so, but it doesn’t take long for interspecies hostility to arise. The aliens are herded into a massive ghetto, District 9, and forbidden from ever leaving, or interacting with people. But even this is not enough, as Johannesburg’s residents demand that the government force the aliens to go somewhere else. The film follows Wikus van der Merwe, an Afrikaner bureaucrat, whose been given the task of removing all the aliens from district 9. Wikus is initially disdainful of the aliens, and more than happy to see them go, but after an accident in district 9 starts to cause him to mutate, he finds himself forced to work with an alien, Christopher, who wants to return to his home world.
What makes it unique? District 9 is one of the few sci-fi films set in Africa, and one of even fewer films, period, to comment on Apartheid. It is also unique because, unlike many other sci-fi films, it is presented as a documentary, complete with fake interviews, stock footage and various other details one would normally see in non-fiction cinema. All this works to create a greater sense of realism, and helps ground this seemingly preposterous premise in plausibility. It’s also very rare for a movie to feature humans wanting to keep aliens on earth. Most other movies involve the humans wanting to force them off the planet. In District 9, though, the humans are determined to keep the aliens away from their space ship and away from their technology.
Directed By Christopher Nolan
What’s it about? In a world where humans can enter each other’s dreams, Dominic Kobb uses this technology to steal from CEOs. But when one of his intended targets catches and blackmails him, he finds himself forced to do the impossible, implant an idea, instead of just take one. Success means finally being able to go home to his children. Failure means life in prison, with no chance of parole. With the task, and stakes , firmly in place, Kobb assembles his team, and sets about planning their special reverse heist. But when they finally enter their target’s Mind, they find something unexpected, and terrible, waiting for them.
What makes it unique? Though the idea of entering people’s dreams had been explored in movies prior to Inception’s release, this was one of the first pictures to examine the concept in thorough, visual detail. The different levels of the human psyche, the means through which one can establish that something isn’t real, how time passes in the dream, all these are explained, and utilized, in the film. The movie also boasts some of the most Mind-blowing visual effects ever put to film. These include a sequence wherein two men fight each other in a rotating corridor, and a zero gravity moment where a group of people are tied together and forced into an exploding elevator.
Snow Piercer (2013)
Directed By Bong Joon-Ho
What’s it about? The world has become a frozen wasteland. The last remnants of humanity are confined to a giant train, and the occupants of said train are divided based on what car the live in. Those in the front live in the lap of luxury, whilst those in the tail dwell in total squalor. Twice before, the inhabitants of the tail staged uprisings, only for those in the front to beat them back into submission. Now, though, the tail Enders are smarter. They’re better organized. And they mean to go all the way to the front, where they intend to seize control of the trains eternal engine, and thus, the world.
What makes it unique? Not only is this the world’s first big budget Korean sci-fi movie, it’s also one of the few dystopian films to take place on a train, and depict dystopia in a realistic manner. Cannibalism, mass suicide, drug addiction, these are some of the ugly truths of a post apocalyptic scenario that are openly addressed in this film, and which are rarely seen in other dystopian action movies. The film also has a startlingly somber ending, with no real victory for the Tail Enders and everyone more or less dying, as they would in real life. The designs for the various cars is also incredible, with the seafood and aquatic life car deserving an extra special mention. The film also does a good job of getting its viewers to consider what is necessary for a society to thrive, the steps that have to be taken for balance to be maintained, and various other philosophical queries.
Directed By Ridley Scott
What’s it about? While making their way home from a job in deep space, the crew of the spaceship Nostromo receive a distress beacon from a nearby planet. When they arrive there, however, they find the place completely deserted. No plants. No animals. No intelligent life. What they do find, however, is a series of large, bird-like eggs, one of which hatches, releasing a small, squid like creature that attaches itself to the face of a crew member. Though they do manage to remove it, they quickly learn that their trials are nowhere close to being over, as another, more horrifying, monster bursts from his chest and begins terrorizing them.
What makes it unique? Alien was one of the first, if not the first, horror movies to take place in outer space. Sure, there had been movies about monsters from other worlds landing on Earth, and horrifying creatures birthed by science prior to this film, but this was the first to bring people into am alien environment, the cosmos. It took advantage of the fact that the victims are literally trapped inside a confined space, because, if they leave it, they’ll die. They can’t run away. So they’ve got to stay and deal with this creature. The film also does a great job of exploring the anxiety that accompanies going to a new place and encountering new things. We, like the victims, are never given context for what this creature is, where it comes from, or how to deal with it. And there is nothing more frightening than the unknown. The film also stands out as a chilling and effective rape metaphor. The vaginal architecture of the main spaceship, the penis-like design of the creature’s head, the fact that it is “born” from the chest of a man who was assaulted by a face hugger: all this indicates that we are meant to think of the film and it’s horrors in a sexual context. The film is also unique in its portrayal of gender roles. The main hero is a smart, competent woman. A man gets “raped” by a female monster. No one is given traditionally masculine or feminine jobs based on their gender. All this makes the film unique, both for its time, and now.
The Terminator (1984)
Directed By James Cameron
What’s it about? In the future, a sentient defense system, Skynet, has all but wiped out the human race. Only a few people remain, and they are led by John Connor, a brilliant strategist with a knack for destroying Skynet’s forces. Hoping to change the past, and undo his existence, Skynet sends a cyborg assassin, or Terminator, back to the year 1984 to kill John’s mother, Sarah. Unbeknownst to Skynet, however, Connor has sent back an assassin of his own, young Kyle Reese, a soldier who has sworn to protect Sarah, and stop the Terminator, at all costs.
What makes it unique? This film helped set the standard for how action could be shot, and how practical special effects could be used. Many of the film’s sequences, like the car chase, and visuals, like the terminator’s robotic eye, old up to this day. The film also did a great job of setting up mystery and tension. The audience, like Sarah, doesn’t know what’s going on, or who these men are that are following her, until about halfway through. The film also does a great job of playing with the concept of time travel, and choice versus destiny. Skynet sends the Terminator back in time to kill Sarah , so that John Connor won’t be born. But by doing so, it motivated John to send back Kyle Reese, the man who would become his father, in the first place. So was it chance? Or was it design?
Blade Runner (1982)
Directed By Ridley Scott
What’s it about? In a dystopian Los Angeles, the Tyrell Corporation manufactures humanoid robots, or replicants, to perform tasks too dangerous for ordinary people. However, the use of replicants is illegal in Earth, so whenever they are found on the blue planet, special assassins known as Blade Runners are deployed to kill, or “retire,” them. When four recently escaped replicants arrive on Earth, Blade Runner Rick Deckerd is given the task of “retiring” them. But as he tracks them down, and does more research into the Tyrell corporation, and the nature of replicants in general, he finds himself questioning their, as well as his own, humanity.
What makes it unique? Though a critical and box office flop at the time of its release, Blade Runner’s dark style, futuristic designs, and themes of identity and free will have had resounding impacts across the sci-fi genre. Everything from TV shows–Battlestar Galactica–to anime–Ghost In The Shell–to video games–Cypher–has, in some way, been influenced by this film’s look, tone, or ideas. And for good reason. Nearly forty years after its release, the effects and sets of Blade Runner hold up as some of the best in cinematic history. The movie is also unique in terms of its genre. With its grizzled protagonist, Los Angeles setting, and dark, morbid tone, Blade Runner is one of the first examples of a genre known as future noir, meaning film noir set in a sci-if context. It’s also one of the first films to get its hero, and it’s audience, to ask the question, “what is it that makes us human?”
Ghost In The Shell (1995)
Directed By Mamoru Oshii
What’s it about? In the future, the line between man and machine has blurred. Virtually everyone has been “enhanced” in some way–be it possessing cybernetic limbs, eyes, or, in some cases, entire bodies. These individuals are referred to as “ghosts,” or living consciences, in “shells,” their robotic bodies. Motoko Kusunagi, an officer in the elite crime fighting unit, Section 9, is one such entirely enhanced individual,and she often finds herself questioning her own humanity. One night, while carrying out an assassination on a foreign diplomat, she sees the man’s interpreter get hacked by a mysterious individual known as “the puppet master,” and she and her team set out to catch him. But as she gets closer to solving the case, and uncovers more and more about the puppet master and his scheme, she finds herself questioning her own purpose, free will, and existence.
What makes it unique? Everything about Ghost in the shell, from its gothic, philosophical tone, to its Hong Kong-inspired, cyberpunk setting, to its unusual technology–people with USB ports in the back of their heads, and mechanical fingers that can break down into smaller, pincer like appendages–was unheard of, and revolutionary, at the time of its release. The impact that the movie had on science fiction, and pop culture in general, cannot be overstated. Countless other films–The Matrix, Avatar, Surrogates–have been directly inspired by this movie. And, to this day, it is held up, not simply as one of the best animated films of all time, but one of the best movies of all time. The film is also very unique in how it deals with gender and sexuality. This is a future where sexual reproduction is all but gone, and where mechanical replication has taken its place. Motoko, though technically a woman, has an entirely robotic body, which does not menstruate, and therefore does not view herself as a sexual being. She’ll often undress in front of other people, without ever acknowledging how that might effect them. And yet, she’s never reduced to eye candy. She’s considerably more rough and commanding than her male counterparts, and finds herself questioning femininity and what it means to be a woman. There’s a great scene where she’s walking through a mall, and sees a dummy in a department store window that looks exactly like her. This deeply effects her, because she, being almost entirely robotic, feels like a doll, like a replication, or pale imagination, of what a woman should be. The film also uses lots of imagery that’s evocative of birth and sexual reproduction, and really haunts you with its queries into what it means to be alive, conscious and female. The movie was also one of the first sci-fi films to comment on the internet, and how our reliance on technology has cause us to become detached from each other.
Back To The Future (1985)
Directed By Robert Zemeckis
What’s it about? It’s 1985, and Marty Mcfly is just your average American teenager. He’s got a girlfriend, a family, a best friend in the form of his neighbor, mad scientist Emmett Brown, and a pocket full of dreams as a rock star. But Marty’s hopes aren’t high, as he’s seen by more or less everyone, including himself, as a loser. He’s failing in school, his band isn’t getting noticed, and his parents are both spineless and neglectful. If only there were something he could do. Well, as chance would have it, Doc Brown calls him out to the mall one night to show him something special. The something special in question turns out to be a time traveling DeLorean, which Marty decides to take for a spin. But when Marty finds himself transported back to 1955, and Doc winds up murdered by Libyan terrorists–long story–the former must find a way to get himself back to the future, and, hopefully, change the past so that his life will be better.
What makes it unique? Not only was this the highest grossing film of 1985, not only was it vital in helping to create the skateboarding subculture, not only was it quoted by the president in his 1986 state of the union address, but In a genre dominated by dark, brooding stories full of deep, philosophical queries, Back To The Future offers a more light-hearted, comedic take on science fiction. It’s also one of very few films in which a character interacts with his parents when they are the same age as him, and that hinges upon him getting them together so that he will even exist.
E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982)
Directed By Steven Spielberg
What’s it about? One night, while bringing home a pizza, a ten year old boy named Elliot sees a bizarre alien creature hiding in his tool shed. Though the being promptly flees, Elliot manages to lure it back to his room with Reese’s pieces candy, and the two become friends. Elliot learns that the creature, whom he and his siblings refer to as “E.T.” Is an alien botanist who was stranded on Earth when government agents found his spaceship, and that he has many powers,including reanimating plants, and telekinesis. Elliot vows to return ET to his own people, and keep him hidden from the government and army, tasks which prove considerably more difficult when he discovers that the two of them have become psychically linked.
What makes it unique? Like Back To The Future, E.T. The Extraterrestrial stands out as a more lighthearted, family friendly entry in the sci-fi genre. Most of the time, Aliens are shown as strange, terrifying monsters who want to kill or eat humans. But not in this film. Here, they are shown as intelligent, loving, and with distinct personalities and jobs. The story is all about friendship, about the bond that Elliot has with this visitor from another world. This is also one of very few sci-fi films, not made specifically for children, that stars children, and that portrays children in a realistic manner. There’s absolutely no dumbed down, sugar-coated baby talk in this picture. The kids in this movie shout, swear, lie, sneak booze, pull pranks, and behave like real kids do. And that’s always nice, and refreshing, to see. The film also possesses many now iconic moments, like the one where ET, using his telekinesis, lifts Elliot’s bike off the ground, and flies them in front of the moon, an image that has been parodied in countless other forums.
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
Directed By Michel Gondry
What’s it about? Ever had a bad break up? Ever wish you could just erase certain memories, or people, from your head? Well, in this world, you can. And that’s precisely what Joel does after he and his girlfriend clementine split up. He goes into Lacuna, a company that specializes in memory erasure, and undergoes a procedure wherein all his experiences with Clementine are removed from his mind. As he does so, however, both he and the technicians operating on him start to learn about the importance of remembering things, even painful things, and set off on individual missions to recreate the past.
What makes it unique? Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind is one of only two sci-fi films–the other being Her–to win the academy award for best screenplay. And for good reason. The film’s nonlinear structure, likable, well- rounded characters, and unique explorations of memory and the past help it stand out, not simply as a work of science fiction, but as a story in general. The movie also does a very good job of getting us to consider what it would be like to live in a world where one could erase other people’s memories, as well as your own. Would you use other’s lost memories to blackmail or seduce them? Would you get others, and yourself, to forget your most shameful mistakes? Would you, by not remembering the things that you’d done, make the same mistakes over and over again? Science fiction has, since it’s inception, been used as a creative means of getting people to think, and Eternal Sunshine does that beautifully.
Directed By Spike Jonze
What’s it about? In the future, Theodore Twombly is a depressed letter writer, going through a messy divorce. At the behest of a friend, he purchases a Sentient Operating System, or OS, to help organize his life and schedule. Because OS’s are designed to suit their individual owner’s needs and preferences, Theodore’s system, Samantha, ends up being everything he could ever hope for in a woman. And, much to the chagrin of his friends and ex-wife, he winds up falling in love with her. But seeing as Samantha is just a voice on a computer, their relationship is anything but easy, and, as time goes by, Theodore begins to realize that maybe this isn’t the best thing for him.
What makes it unique? Like Eternal Sunshine before it, Her holds the rare distinction of being a sci-fi film that won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. It’s also unique for being one of the first mainstream films to show a romantic relationship between a man and a computer, something that is especially relevant now in our social media obsessed age. And while I myself might not enjoy some of the script’s attempts at humor, and the more bizarre aspects to the story, the movie is undeniably original, both in concept, and execution. For that reason, it should be noted as a unique work of science fiction.
Minority Report (2002)
Directed By Steven Spielberg
What’s it about? In 2054, Captain John Anderton heads “PreCrime,” a special unit of the DC police department that apprehends criminals based on foreknowledge provided by three psychics called “pre cogs.” Anderton’s team has been so effective at stopping murder that the federal government is seriously considering adopting PreCrime’s method on the national level. While the Department of Justice is investigating PreCrime for any possible errors, however, the pre cogs predict that Anderton will murder someone in the next 36 hours. Anderton, claiming that this is a set up, since he doesn’t even know the person he’s supposed to kill, goes on the run, and, at this point, it is revealed that the pre cogs aren’t always uniform in their perception of things to come. From time to time, PreCrime receives a so-called “Minority Report,” wherein one of the pre cogs predicts an alternate future. Realizing that this could prove his innocence, Anderton goes on the run, determined to find the report and clear his name.
What makes it unique? As stated before, science fiction, at it’s best, is supposed to get audiences to consider various moral and philosophical questions, and Minority Report does that extremely well. For while a story about someone being framed for a crime is hardly original, it is far less common to see a story about someone getting framed for a crime that hasn’t even happened yet. This raises a whole bunch of fascinating questions: are we justified in imprisoning people who haven’t, technically, done anything? If we can predict future events, and stop them from happening, would they have actually happened at all? Is the future set? Do we have any free will? All of these questions are addressed in thorough detail throughout the film, which sets it above many other pictures with similar premises. The movie also does a great job of getting the audience to consider issues like privacy in a media-dominated world, and the nature of self perception. And none of this is even getting into the look of the movie, which, with its washed out color palette, holographic screens, and advanced vehicles, stands out as yet another classic example of future noir.
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
Directed by Robert Wise
What’s it about? When a UFO lands in Washington DC, and a humanoid alien emerges, no one knows what to do. Does he come in peace? Does he come as a conquerer? People are so nervous that before the alien, Klaatu, can speak, they shoot him, temporarily rendering him unconscious. After he is brought to a hospital and revived, however, he demands to be taken to Earth’s leaders, but is told that the world is too divided for him to do that. “There is no way that such a thing can be done,” they tell him. This, however, does not dissuade Klaatu, who leaves the hospital, disguised as a regular human, and walks amongst us, hoping to get a better sense for our species. And all the while this is happening, Klatu’s indestructible robot guard, Gort, watches the humans, a silent sentinel with unknown powers and intentions.
What makes it unique? Though its very much of its time, with the central themes being mankind’s fear of nuclear annihilation, and the need for global unity, The Day The Earth Stood Still stands out as an unorthodox portrayal of alien visitors. For while most films show aliens looking totally different from us, and arriving on Earth as conquerers, refugees, or simply by mistake, Klatu looks completely human, and comes to Earth as an emissary of peace. He’s here to get us to stop fighting one another; to stop building weapons of mass destruction. Yes, his message is downright obvious by today’s standards, but, back in the 50s, when the Cold War was in full swing, and when fear of nuclear annihilation was a very real thing, such stories really resonated with people. And to this day, Klaatu and his mission stand out as very unique in the sci-fi genre. We’ve had many alien invaders, but not so many alien ambassadors. And the fact that this film has one makes it worth mentioning.
Directed By Fritz Lang
What’s it about? In the futuristic dystopia of Metropolis, wealthy industrialist reign from high rise complexes, while poor workers labor below ground to keep the machines that power the city running. Freder, the bored son of the city’s ruler, spends all his time in pleasure gardens, never interacting with common people, or knowing what to do with himself. His world changes, however, when he sees a young woman, Maria, taking a group of children on a field trip to see how the rich live. Instantly taken with her, Freder leaves the comfort of the high rise complexes to find her on the lower levels, where he becomes aware, for the first time in his life, of the horrible conditions in which the poor live. Realizing that he must do something, and hearing a prophecy that says a mediator will one day come, and bring together the rich and the poor, Freder sets out to help the workers and change Metropolis. Unbeknownst to him, however, are other forces, which have their own agendas, and which threaten his and Maria’s love.
What makes it unique? This was one of the first, if not the first, feature length movies in the sci-fi genre. Never before had a film depicted the future in such grand, exquisite, and thorough detail. It set the standard for every science fiction film to follow. Everything about its style and look, from the giant, gothic skyscrapers, to the flying cars, to the humanoid robots, has been replicated or mimicked in other works. C-3PO’s design from the original Star Wars is taken from Metropolis. Madonna’s music video “Express Yourself” draws heavily from Metropolis. Lady GaGa, Queen, Cult of Luna–all have adopted the aesthetic of Metropolis in some form or another. Metropolis also set the precedent of sci-fi movies using allegories and alternate realities to comment on real-world issues, with many critics in the 20s actually saying that the film was pro-Communist. And as if it didn’t set the standard for subsequent sci-fi enough with its visuals and messages, Metropolis also set a precedent for future films, like Blade Runner and John Carpenter’s The Thing, by being under appreciated at the time of its release. In short, if you want to see where the modern sci-fi movie began, look no further than this silent masterpiece.