Five Sci-Fi Films that Define the Genre

dave bowman gazes with wonder, 2001: A Space OdysseyI’ve watched a lot of movies with my children and find it great fun to see the films through their fresh eyes with their oh-so-modern sensibilities. A few weeks ago I cracked out one of the best sci-fi films ever made and enjoyed it again with my 17 year old daughter: Alien. She was a bit unsure at the beginning, but was completely caught up by the time the creature bursts out of Kane (John Hurt)’s chest cavity. “This is really good for such an old movie!” she exclaimed and even had trouble falling asleep after it ended. The mark of a good film, I say!

Watching Alien with her started me thinking about what other films I’d like to share with her, films that combined form the foundation of the science fiction genre. It’s easy to come up with 15, 20, or more movies to watch, but what if it’s just limited to five movies? What are the best films that set up a younger viewer to appreciate the best of science fiction?

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001 A Space OdysseyPrior to the 1968 Stanley Kubrick masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey outer space and the future were in the realm of the potboiler or daft bug movie, as society wrestled on-screen with fears of communism and nuclear power. Kubrick came along and, with great source material from Arthur C. Clarke, created the first film that offered up the future as something wonderful, a wondrous vision of our current moment in human evolution as just a stepping stone to us becoming galactic citizens. What I most remember from the first time I saw this film was how clean and scientific everything was on the Discovery One, the spaceship upon which most of the action transpires.

And who can forget the duel of wits between astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and the malevolent HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain)? Technology wasn’t cute and benign as suggested by the cartoony Robby the Robot in the classic 1956 Forbidden Planet, but could have goals of its own that don’t include protecting us humans. In fact, HAL 9000 resonates so strongly that it’s still commonly referenced when people talk about evil, malevolent computers.

The film touches on deeper and more profound topics too, including perhaps the most fundamental of human questions: where did we come from? In a story idea that echoes through hundreds of subsequent sci-fi movies, writer Clarke wonders if aliens created humanity, visually portrayed as a mysterious monolith that seems to inspire neanderthals to take the leap from being a victim of their environment to becoming master, learning how to use tools along the way. Monoliths are a totem throughout the film, representations of a greater intelligence that subtly steers our evolution from primate to galactic citizen.

To be fair, there are some problems with 2001: A Space Odyssey too, not the least of which is that it runs too long in some sections, particularly near the end when Bowman travels through the final monolith. Still, for a film that’s almost 50 years old, the effects and vision of the future holds up remarkably well. Truly, it’s hard to think of any film that could dethrone 2001: A Space Odyssey as the most important in the genre.

2. Alien

alien one sheetRipley (Sigourney Weaver) is the ultimate badass, one of the best, strongest female characters in all of cinema, and never more so than when she’s facing the deadly 9-foot creature in what she thought was an empty rescue craft. She has just seconds to overcome her fear and create a plan of attack against the “unkillable” alien creature. Not only is she trapped in a small space with it, though, but in a masterful touch, she’s just disrobed and is in her underwear, preparing to go into stasis. Ripley is likely the most vulnerable hero in cinematic history.

There’s so much right about Alien, so much that shook up the cinematic standards of the time. The future’s not antiseptic like in 2001: A Space Odyssey but dirty and dangerous, populated by the same mix of mercenaries, losers and bums that we interact with every day. It’s more NASCAR than NASA and yet, when the going gets tough, the crew rallies and works together to try and cleanse the ship of the alien creature’s presence (albeit with little success and a lot of complaining). The Nostramo is a model for all future interstellar vessels, a dirty, long-haul truck, not a gleaming white surgical theater.

Then there’s the alien herself. Herself. The feminist layers of the film Alien are surprisingly deep. Just contrast the role Ripley plays in the crew and how they (men) react to her with the role that the creature itself plays. Ripley ultimately isn’t fighting the patriarchy, however, she’s defending the patriarchy against an even more aggressive female who herself is just reacting in biologically programmed ways to defend her young. The fact that she might be a genetically constructed creature doesn’t really show up until later in the series and rather dilutes this feminist message, in my opinion.

A lot of people prefer the sequel, Aliens, directed by king-of-the-world John Cameron, but I almost always prefer the first movie because it’s the hero’s journey myth writ large, and in the case of Ripley versus the 9-foot terrifying alien monster, there’s no film that gets the feminist hero’s journey better than Alien.

3. Blade Runner

blade runner one sheetStill absolutely one of my favorite films in any genre, there’s something about the dystopian future, the grime, the sheer believability of Ridley Scott’s amazing vision of the dark, paranoid Philip K. Dick source novella that justifies this as being a must-watch for any student of cinema. It’s 40s noir pushed into the future, and it works astonishingly well. In fact, many modern movies and TV shows borrow from Blade Runner for a noir mood, notably the recent (and under-appreciated) Total Recall remake from 2012, whose exteriors could have been ripped wholesale from the Blade Runner set, and the somewhat lackluster Almost Human TV series, where the closing scenes of the last episode of season one are surely an homage, they are so obviously inspired by the Ridley Scott film.

Harrison Ford plays the troubled, moody retired detective Rick Deckard. His particular expertise: hunting down and terminating “skin jobs”, manufactured humans, “replicants”, with specialized skills, short lifespans and manufactured memories. As replicant creator Tyrell Corporation advertises, they are so well designed that they’re “more human than human”. A group of them escape from an off-planet mining colony and, under the leadership of the droll and amoral Roy Batty (a superb Rutger Hauer), decide to return to Earth and confront their maker, Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), to ask him why they have such a short lifespan.

There are so many levels to this film, so much profound going on with the replicants’ quest to challenge God, the ethical dilemma of “blade runner” Deckard falling in love with the gorgeous replicant Rachael (Sean Young) who suspects she might not be human, and the entire underlying question of what really makes us human after all, that it stands up very well to repeated viewings. There are lots of memorable additional characters in the film too, including the creepy toymaker J.F. Sebastian (William Sanderson) and the unstable pleasure unit replicant Pris (Daryl Hannah), but I think it’s really the futuristic world of Blade Runner that makes this movie so profound cinematically.

4. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

star wars IV: A New HopeI remember being in high school and going to the local cineplex with my friend Nancy and her family to go see a new science fiction fairy tale called Star Wars. The theater darkened and suddenly a spaceship shot overhead into the distance, with rumbling audio effects that shook the theater. Then a much bigger one chased after it, lasers flashing. HOLY $#@#@$!! That opening blew me away, I’d never seen anything like the George Lucas space opera, with its breathtaking visuals and simple but engaging story with its themes of good vs evil.

Star Wars IV: A New Hope is in many ways the perfect hero’s journey movie too. Luke (Mark Hamill) is being raised by his kindly relatives after his parents mysteriously died. He’s destined for greater things if he can just get over his whiney teen ways and get off the intergalactic backwater planet Tatooine. When evil shows up on his doorstep, circumstances propel him forward with the humorous droids R2D2 and C3PO as his sidekicks and the alluring Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) as the archetypal princess who needs to be rescued. But she’s not Daisy from Mario, she’s far tougher than anyone expects and when faced with eventual love interest Han Solo (Harrison Ford, again!) she more than holds her own.

The film propels forward with scene after imaginative scene and just as watching Casablanca strikes modern viewers as cliché precisely because all the clichés in question originate with that movie, Star Wars IV: A New Hope is a must-watch science fiction film even as you occasionally cringe at the trite dialog, the now-banal scenes and the weird alien creatures who are more muppet than Alien. I’m almost tempted to skip this one on my must-watch list except, well, it’s one of the most important science fiction films ever made.

The sequels were great too, but the prequels? Man, if I have to listen to Jar-Jar Binks (voice of Ahmed Best) explain military tactics or young Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) whine about not being a full Jedi, I think I’ll drop-kick my TV and go back to reading books.

5. The Matrix

The Matrix one sheetKeanu Reeves is not a good actor and the Wachowskis are not good directors. Somehow, though, all the elements came together to produce the über-cool existential The Matrix, a film that spawned a thousand subsequent movie visuals and storyline tropes that pervade science fiction. From “bullet time” to the solipsistic question of whether we really exist or are just brains floating in a protein soup being fed a non-ending simulation to keep us entertained, there’s lots to love in the original film.

I can also remember when I first saw it, at a theater in Sunnyvale, California that was slated for demolition the following day. The theater owner had a no-holds-barred screening and I, rather unwittingly, attended. The audio was so loud that my eyeballs jumped every time there was a gunshot — and there are a lot of gunshots! — but it was a completely immersive experience in an era before IMAX 3D and DTS sound, and I was hooked in the first ten minutes with the wild, amazing special effects and the “red pill, blue pill” dilemma.

As if in a zen meditation practice, there’s also a certain satisfaction in this particular hero’s journey when Neo (Reeves) learns to master the Matrix, the sentient machine-produced simulation within which he lives. By doing so, he learns that he can control the very fabric of reality. Don’t we all secretly wish we can do that? Isn’t that one of the core attractions of superheroes in the first place, whether Superman, Wonder Woman or even one of the X-Men, not to mention the much more obvious orphan-with-secret-powers Harry Potter, where magical children can alter the fabric of reality around them?

Of all the films that tapped into the 80s “hacker” zeitgeist as culture wrestled with the looming danger of technology (other great films in this genre include War Games, Hackers and Johnny Mnemonic, the latter also with Keanu Reeves) none are as masterful as The Matrix. And yes, it has its daft dialog and trite character interactions. But I don’t care. It’s still the definition of cinematic cool.

And The Rest of The Movies

plan 9 from outer space one sheetIt’s hard to choose just five. It’s hard to choose just 20. Films I really want my daughter to watch also include Gattaca (a remarkably thoughtful exploration of the consequences of genetic destiny as a cultural touchstone), Inception (one of the very best – and most complicated – films of the last decade), The Terminator (again the theme of us vs. the machines), and Back to the Future (for sheer entertainment value). And then there are classics too, like the delightful and wry Dr. Strangelove or ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’, the intense and profound A Clockwork Orange, the prescient Metropolis, the disturbing apocalyptic Soylent Green, the fun Men in Black and the stylish V for Vendetta.

Shouldn’t I also expose my daughter to the whimsical idiocy that is Mystery Science Theater 3000? The stupid, but likely prescient Idiocracy? Any film from the original Toho Studios Godzilla series? The mind-boggling Santa Claus Conquers the Martians? God help me, Plan 9 From Outer Space??

Then again, maybe I want her to still be talking to me when we’re done with all these screenings, so let’s just leave good enough alone for now.

That’s my list of the top five. Odds are, you don’t agree with me. Alright, then. What’s your list of five essential sci-fi films that define the genre?

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