To celebrate the release of Skyline this week (as well as a couple of other potentially great SF films heading our way soon such as Monsters and Battle: Los Angeles) we’ve decided to compile our top 25 science fiction films. Skyline follows the story of strange lights descending on the city of Los Angeles, drawing people outside like moths to a flame, where an extraterrestrial force threatens to swallow the entire human population off the face of the Earth.
Science fiction has always been and remains today the most daring and arguably brilliant genre in both literature and film. Whether presenting a hypothetical future to provide social commentary or warnings, or showing an alternate history as an exercise in it’s typical ‘what if?’ scenario. Unlike the purely fabricated dream construct of the fantasy genre, science fiction both remains grounded in real life issues and technological developments, and at the same time holds the potential to explore the depths of the human condition and our future prospects as a species. The best films in the genre achieve such heights, and here, in order, are our top 25 picks.
25. Metropolis (1927)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Not a particularly enjoyable film by today’s standards, but undeniably monumentally influential – you’ve seen Lang’s envisioned metropolis city many times before, even if you haven’t seen the film; in Blade Runner’s LA, The Fifth Element’s New York, Dark City’s spaceship, Batman’s Gotham city and Star Wars’ Cocurscant, and the film has influenced cinema in many other respects also. Lang’s dystopia is certainly astonishing to behold.
24. Twelve Monkeys (1995)
A gritty time travel piece based on Chris Marker’s La Jetee, this film features Terry Gilliam’s unique dystopian stamp. Bruce Willis’ character is hurled back and forth through time, questioning his own sanity regularly, in an effort by future scientists to prevent the release of a virus that caused the end of the world. Brad Pitt’s crazy turn is also memorable.
23. Moon (2009)
Directed by Duncan Jones
A recent science fiction wonder by first time director Duncan Jones Moon deliberately harks back to the science fiction gems of old, where ideas were the driving force of the films. Jones even shot this on the same set as Ridley Scott’s Alien. Sam Rockwell does a terrific job in carrying the entire film as he plays two versions (clones) of the character Sam Bell; made even more difficult by the fact that one is a three year earlier version of himself back when he had major anger issues. Jones has commented that one of the most interesting things that he was trying to explore was what would it be like if you were to meet a different version of yourself upon the timeline of your life (e.g. you, three years ago), since we are changing all the time, and the question of would you even like yourself arises. Like Alien, this explores corporate greed and deception, as Lunar Industries run a base on the Moon entirely manned by each successive clone of Sam, lying to both the clones and the world simply in order to lower their costs. This emotional complexity is matched by Clint Mansell’s brilliant score.
22. Dark City (1998)
This dark, nourish treat expertly tackles the question of whether we are more than the mere sum of our memories, and if such a thing as the human soul exists. A dying alien species who share a collective mind (meaning there is no uniqueness among them) have captured some humans, placed them in a city in their spaceship and erased their memories so that they can keep implanting new ones, whilst also altering their surroundings in an extravagant experiment to try to ascertain the component that exists within humans that their species is lacking. Proyas’ film is very clever, brimming with innovative ideas and featuring some great visuals, as well as some great performances from a respectable cast that includes William Hurt, Jennifer Connelly and Kiefer Sutherland.
21. Sunshine (2007)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Do we have the right to extend our existence when it is ‘time’ for mankind to die out? Should we stand in the way or nature, or God? Both psychologically powerful and very spiritual, the power of Danny Boyle’s science fiction wonder is in observing the awe of creation (specifically the source of all creation in our universe – the sun), and through witnessing such magnificence getting closer to God/the absolute truth. It is also an exploration into the kinds of sacrificial decisions crew members must make on space missions, and how they have the put the greater good of mankind before everything, including their own lives, as well as a consideration of how hard it would be to come to terms with your inevitable pending demise.
20. The Thing (1982)
An exceptional achievement in both effects and mood, John Carpenter’s The Thing is an accomplished horror feature, whilst at the same time also retaining Carpenter’s usual b-movie style excellence. The grotesqueness of the alien is the highlight, and the familiar ‘enemy among us’ angle (akin to the two Invasion of the Body Snatchers classics) set amidst a unique Antarctic backdrop is a welcome addition. A prequel is due out soon starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
19. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Directed by Robert Wise
Wise’s classic is an exceptionally intelligent and mature science fiction tale of caution. A spaceman comes to Earth to give us the warning that if we continue our atrocities towards one another, and bring our warring nature out into space as we acquire the means of space travel, his species will eliminate us. He states that his species do not care what we do on Earth, but that the potential of a threat against any of their peaceful and civilised planets simply cannot be risked or tolerated. This presented a new and scary concept; that aliens care little about us and our planet, and that we might face an inevitable doom due to the likely irremovable faults of our species.
18. District 9 (2009)
Bitingly harsh and realistic, and featuring some superb social commentary, Blomkamp takes the familiar idea of what would arriving aliens do to us, and twists it around to look at what atrocities we would commit against them. The film makes you quite despise the protagonist at the start of the film, then swings you around so you come to sympathise with him fully and completely. As it progresses, the action and drama builds into something entirely unforgettable and completely original. District 9 also uses the familiar deceptive and inhumane government angle, but taken to a new extreme.
17. Aliens (1986)
Directed by James Cameron
For the sequel to Ridley Scott’s classic film, Cameron upped the action and alien count but still managed to retain the intelligence of the first film. Aliens explores the same corporate greed as the original; one memorable line of Ripley’s being “I don’t know which species is worse; you don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.” It is also (a rarity in the genre) brimming with female empowerment – most of the men are incompetent, whilst Ripley is brave, rational and tough.
16. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Again James Cameron crafts a brilliant science fiction sequel. Hamilton’s Sarah Conner is altered for the better (along the lines of Ripley) and Schwarzenegger’s terminator is smartly made the good guy this time around. The T-1000 is a very scary and formidable enemy, and the nuclear bomb fears and guilt about its creation make for interesting social commentary.
15. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Directed by Michel Gondry
Michel Gondry’s exploration into the nature of memory via a romance is an emotionally engaging and intellectually stimulating piece. Both Carey and Winslet are brilliant; it is the believability and power of their love story that carries the wonderful science fiction concepts. Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst and Tom Wilkinson also put in good turns. Highly critically acclaimed upon its release, this is a true modern classic of both the science fiction and cinema in general.
14. Stalker (1979)
Tarkovsky takes the Strugatsky brothers’ great novel (Roadside Picnic) and turns it into a lengthy philosophical poem. Hard to get to grips with it its entirety; reading the book first (recommended) should get you half way there, but Tarkovsky deals with so much more here. The film switches between black and white and colour for different portions of the film and Tarkovsky, as expected, provides many beautiful shots which he lingers on for a very long time. This has a look and feel to it unlike any film you’ve ever seen. It features the science fiction premise of expert scavengers (‘stalkers’), who venture into an off limits and highly dangerous area known as ‘the zone’, a location that alien’s once visited. Their presence and what they left behind has ruined the landscape – the properties of physics aren’t quite right and every step could be your last. An expert stalker, a professor and a writer search for a rumoured room that will grant wishes to those who enter.
13. The Matrix (1999)
Directed by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski
The Wachowski brothers’ masterpiece concerns complex virtual reality ideas steeped in intense action, this (like so many other films in this list) deals with our perception of reality and whether a false reality can be as good as or better than the true reality. This is also an accomplished exercise in the familiar science fiction trope of machines uprising and waging war against us. The film also features a messiah element, with Neo being the ‘chosen one’ who is tasked with saving mankind.
12. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Kubrick’s dark futuristic vision anticipated both punk and modern decay, and also featured brainwashing as a form of control. Very controversial upon its release and very shocking and powerful, it remains one of Kubrick’s best films.
11. Donnie Darko (2001)
Directed by Richard Kelly
Perfectly constructed right down to Kelly’s excellent choice of soundtrack, this flawless masterpiece of modern cinema is a dark, brooding, bitterly honest and angst ridden exploration of time travel set amidst suburban drama, with a haunting and operatic score. A truly unforgettable and life altering experience.
10. Alphaville (1965)
Alphaville is Jean-Luc Goddard’s great philosophical science fiction masterpiece. American private-eye Lemmy Caution arrives in Alphaville, a futuristic city on another planet where love and self expression has been outlawed. Caution’s mission is to ‘liquidate’ the tyrannical Dr. Vonbraun, inventor of the Orwellian supercomputer Alpha 60, which Caution converses with on several occassions throughout the film. A weird (in a good way) film noir that proves minimalism in science fiction can be a virtue; it is often a better vehicle to express and explore ideas (which is what the best science fiction stories attempt to do) than extravvagant spectacle. Anna Karina is wonderful and Eddie Constantine is almost scary.
9. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Adapted from a novel by (and made in collaboration with) the great science fiction author Sir Arthur C. Clarke, this is the most widely revered and acclaimed of all science fiction films. Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece tackles mankind’s place in the universe and hypothesises what mankind’s final evolutionary state might be. The film also daringly suggests aliens as the cause of our existence and evolution. The final segment takes you on a drug-like head trip which leads to a surreal conclusion.
8. Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott’s deliberately paced psychological horror is littered with great performances, dialogue and settings. It is a far more masterful and mature a film than Cameron’s action orientated sequel. It also features what is surely among the most memorable and infamous scenes in the history of science fiction cinema – the alien bursting out of John Hurt’s chest.
7. Blade Runner (1982)
Directed by Ridley Scott
It is Scott’s director’s cut version that makes this list. Scott here took Philip K. Dick’s novel and turned it into a visually stunning and intelligent exploration of the ‘humanity’ of androids (here called replicants). With robotic technological advancements in Japan current breaking the threshold, this might not be a future too far off. Rutger Hauer’s final monologue upon the rooftop is unforgettable, and the final implication that Deckard is likely a replicant himself (whilst still remaining ambiguous) is an excellent touch. The noirish feel has a strong presence here. Deep and powerful science fiction.
6. Solaris (1972)
Tarkovsky is truly a master of his art form, and here he turns Stanislaw Lem’s novel into a masterpiece of science fiction cinema. Like with Stalker, he also adds a deep philosophical underpinning to the story. An alien planet that is a sentient ocean makes replica versions of loved ones from people’s pasts (be they dead or still alive) appear on the human space station orbiting the planet. The story follows Kelvin’s struggle as his dead wife appears on board, as well as his wife’s struggle to come to terms with the falsity of her own identity and existence.
5. Inception (2010)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
(These final top five are all as good as each other I feel, and so are fairly interchangeable.) Nolan hit his peak as a director this year and created his best film by far. Featuring a familiar Philip K. Dick-like commentary on the nature of our reality and our perception of it, Inception tells the story of Dom Cobb, an expert in entering a target’s dreams and extracting valuable information. The film’s effects are breathtaking, Di Caprio is at his best, and the ending is suitably ambiguous and astonishing in its implication.
4. The Fountain (2006)
Aronofsky’s masterpiece is a complex and engaging love story concerning the search for immortality, and the desire to escape from death. Ultimately it is about accepting and coming to terms with death, not only a necessary part of life, but also as a method of rebirth for life itself. Hugh Jackman and Rachael Weisz’s great performances serve to hinge the astonishing SF visuals and concepts upon a very believable relationship, in which the viewer becomes thoroughly invested. Clint Mansell’s score (quite possibly the best ever committed to cinema) and the astonishing special effects also play a large role in making this film the gem that it is.
3. Gattaca (1997)
Directed by Andrew Niccol
A realistic and intelligent look at how the near future might deal with genetics. Those born naturally in an uncontrolled fashion form the new social underclass – one shunned and discriminated against. What makes this science fiction concept so scary is that this is a future that might be just around the corner for us, with the rate at which genetics are progressing. As Vincent strives to achieve his dream of going into space (a simple and relevant aspiration for science fiction fans if ever there was one) he proves that the human spirit is more powerful than anything genetics can achieve, and the film’s point that it is our uniqueness that makes us special. Add to this its emotional power, beautiful settings (the architecture of each building chosen represents either some aspect of the story or a character) and symbolism (the double helix shaped staircases, for example), elegant score and a very welcome slight film noir style, and the result is a beautiful triumph of science fiction cinema.
2. Videodrome (1983)
Cronenberg has always been a master of body horror and frequently toys with the idea of fusing technology with human biology. Videodrome explores the potential for the medium of television (and by default, also film) to consume us so wholly that it would become a new stage in our evolution (a viable fear and warning, since does not television and film consume far too much of our lives in present times?). At the same time the film explores our instinctual attraction to controversial entertainment, such as the extremes of sexual perversion and violent television. “Whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it, therefore television is reality and reality is less than television” details Professor Oblivion in the film. Cronenberg has always enjoyed toying with the Philip K. Dick-like themes of our perception of reality. In Videodrome, all of the themes Cronenberg regularly tries to convey in his films come across in one perfect meld of surreal science fiction cinema. Max is used as a pawn for much of the film, being played as an assassin against two opposing teams (likely a warning of how mankind’s vain ambition and technological devices may be our downfall – blindly toying with things beyond our comprehension), neither of which may even exist. Science fiction is a genre integrally linked to both the development of technology and the evolutionary future and potential of man. Videodrome manages not only to tackle both of these SF tropes, but marries them into something fearful and unique. The body horror shown is twisted and relevant to the sexual themes, with the most memorable being Max’s stomach transformation, and the ending is among cinema’s best, as Max takes the final step in reaching this new evolutionary stage that will eventually engulf all of mankind. Long live the new flesh.
1. Altered States (1980)
Directed by Ken Russell
Altered States does what the best science fiction aims to do; discover the ultimate truth of our existence in this universe. William Hurt, in an astonishing debut performance, plays university professor Edward Jessup, who is obsessed with discovering the origin of man’s existence through the use of hallucinogenic drugs. He aims to unveil the first and true version of ‘the self’: “I think that that true self, that original self, that first self, is a real, mensurate, quantifiable thing; tangible and incarnate. And I’m gonna find the fucker.” Discovering a key drug for his ventures through a native Indian tribe, this is very reminiscent of Carlos Castaneda’s novels about his apprenticeship with the Yaqui Indian don Juan, as he used drugs to attempt to become a ‘man of knowledge’. Jessup is an embodiment of what science fiction is; an unrelenting quest for the ultimate truth (and his personality is such that he’ll aim for this goal at whatever cost). Blair Brown (of Fringe fame) also shines as Jessup’s partner; and the only thing that ultimately saves him from the abyssal first self that is consuming him is her love. This is also steeped in apocalyptic religious imagery, as Jessup has a complex about religion that infringes even upon his sex life. Truly brilliant science fiction.