It’s my first post for Sci-Fi Month, and also my first ever Top Ten Tuesday post! Top Ten Tuesday is the creation of The Broke and the Bookish, and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. Strictly speaking I think it’s supposed to be about books, but lots of these have had novelisations or were based on books in the first place, so it’s probably fine. Plus this week’s prompt is actually other hobbies – perfect! Anyway, read on to find out what makes the cut in my personal top ten sci-fi films!
Science fiction films have long enraptured audiences around the world. From the early popularity of silent movie era classics such as Le Voyage dans la Lune and Metropolis, science fiction’s representation on the big screen has continued to wow audiences with ground-breaking special effects and tales of alien civilisations, galaxy spanning quests and more.
Science fiction films certainly grabbed me from a young age. Whether it was the ingenious technology being explained in Jurassic Park that set my mind ablaze with possibilities (most of which revolved around riding my own dinosaur to school) or Will Smith kicking some invading alien ass in Men in Black, some of the biggest blockbusters around have leaned on science fiction to make their off the wall premises seem vaguely believable.
But then there are those films that are wholly science fiction. The ones that really embrace the genre, asking deep and philosophical questions about what it means to be human, or otherwise challenging our perceptions of reality. With such a wide range of approaches and varying definitions of just what exactly it means to say a film is science fiction, how best to approach this list?
Eh, I don’t know, I’ll just pick my favourite films I guess, then drop the horror ones. Let’s get started!
10. Sunshine (2007)
You’d find a lot of love for Alex Garland if you were to look through my collection of books and films. I own all three of his books (The Beach, The Tesseract and The Coma) and follow whatever he’s involved in (I am still yet to see Devs though, sadly). Dredd, which he scripted, only narrowly missed out on being on this list, but instead it had to give way to this 2007 effort, written by Garland and directed by Danny Boyle (see also their highly successful collaboration on 28 Days Later). A crew of scientists sets off on a dangerous mission to restart the sun, as the Earth has cooled to near uninhabitable levels. Stunning visual effects go into the design of the ship (the somewhat daringly named Icarus II), which make this a marvellous film to look at, but there are also great performances from the likes of Cillian Murphy and Rose Byrne, not to mention the rest of the brilliant cast. Of course, things start to go wrong – like they always do in flipping space – and with a potential saboteur in the mix, it’s a tension-filled race to the finish.
9. Starship Troopers (1997)
Based(ish) on Robert Heinlein’s novel of the same name, Starship Troopers is classic Paul Verhoeven. RoboCop and Total Recall were already rightly beloved by the time Starship Troopers came around in 1997, even if the bizarrely out of place Showgirls wasn’t, and Verhoeven’s return to all guns blazing sci-fi action should have been cause for celebration. Critics were unjustifiably tough on the film at the time though, many implying that it was just as braindead as first appearances might suggest. But then, hindsight is always 20/20.
In the 23rd century, humanity is at war with the Arachnid race, a war brought about by humanity’s aggressive expansion onto new planets. Determining that the best option is just to kill any bug that moves and wipe the species out entirely, the militarised, fascistic society of the United Citizen Federation pumps out endless propaganda about the noble cause of extermination, sending young Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and his classmates starry eyed at the thought of all that honour and glory just waiting for them. What follows is a frequently gruesome, knowingly cynical, slyly satirical couple of hours of bug blasting and carnage, as the realities of warfare become apparent to Johnny and his (often short-lived) squad mates. In later interviews, Verhoeven said there would be no way they would get away with making the film “now” (during the time of the Bush administration). People would realise what they were up to, he reckoned. Whicheever way you look at it though – mindless action or an indictment of a war hungry America – Starship Troopers is a classic.
8. The Terminator (1984)
“Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”
James Cameron’s first entry in the ongoing Terminator series, or universe, I guess, seeing as that’s we’re calling them now, is still my favourite of the ones I’ve deigned to watch (the first three and that stupid Christian Bale one with naked CGI Arnie). Apparently Dark Fate is pretty good, so that will probably get watched at some point. Genisys will probably not. Anyway, despite the amazing effects of Judgement Day (which still look pretty good now, some 25 years later), The Terminator is still the one I hold dearest. I don’t know exactly why really, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the charm of the physical effects work. Yes, some of them look pretty clunky now, but the air of menace the T-800 possesses (whatever its form) can’t be denied. The leering skull. The endlessly focusing glowing red eyes. The relentless pace. Chilling.
The Terminator actually has plenty in common with slasher movies, mainly in the way that the T-800 just cannot be stopped, and it wouldn’t be completely unfair to say it straddles the horror genre. But it is about a time travelling robot, so it definitely qualifies for this list. Michael Biehn is perfect as grizzled veteran of the future war Kyle Reese, sent back through time by the unborn son of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in order to protect his mother, but as good as those two are, this is Arnie’s show. He plays the part of the implacable killing machine perfectly, to even think of another actor in this role is just insane.
7. Interstellar (2014)
In the hands of lesser directors, this could have been such a cheesy mess. Planet hopping astronauts setting out to find a new home for humanity could have easily been throwaway nonsense, but thanks to Christopher Nolan it’s not only deadly serious, it’s packed with emotional weight too. As one of the few pilots capable of flying the shuttle that represents humanity’s last chance to avoid extinction on a dying Earth, Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper is tasked with ferrying a team of scientists through a wormhole, on the other side of which are twelve potentially habitable planets. Wrestling with time dilation and desperate to get home to the family he’s left behind, Cooper and the crew face a number of heart-breaking decisions on their mission, which sees them exploring stunningly realised planets and acquiring probably my favourite robo-buddy in any film ever along the way – TARS. With a big, hard science, twisty turny finale that will make you feel as if your brain has been laid bare, Interstellar is the perfect marriage of big scientific ideas and very human stories.
6. The Matrix (1999)
It’s easy to make fun of The Matrix now, in the wake of two crappy sequels, extremely average videogames, and the news that there is at least yet another sequel that nobody asked for on the way. But that original film’s impact on popular culture cannot be overstated. Even the way films were made was influenced by the “bullet time” technique created by John C. Gaeta for the film.
Dealing with similar existential concerns to many of the other films on this list, The Matrix had people asking more than a few questions. Could it have happened? Had humanity in fact advanced too far, birthing AI, only to have it enslave us and turn us into batteries hooked up to a sophisticated simulation? Well, it had me asking them at any rate. It also had me gasping at visual effects that blew my tiny little mind, as Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss and Laurence Fishburne backflipped and cartwheeled through the most amazing fight scenes I’d ever seen, dressed to the nines in black floor length coats and sunglasses as slow-motion debris and water whirled around them. Questioning the nature of reality and looking super slick while doing it, The Matrix blew me away on multiple levels.
5. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
It gets more difficult to rate the Star Wars franchise as a whole with every passing sequel or spin-off. In fact, it’s probably not really a good idea to try, seeing as I’m sure George Lucas will go back and change things again soon. But there is very little that even he could do to ruin The Empire Strikes Back.* It feels more epic in scope than both of the films either side of it, and in fact feels more epic than any other film in the franchise. There is just so much happening, but it never feels overstuffed or rushed. Chases through asteroid fields, giant space worms, the iconic march of the AT-ATs across the ice fields of Hoth, the colourful line up of bounty hunters (including the notorious Boba Fett), the super cool Billy Dee Williams as Lando, that depressing ending that sets up the next film perfectly… It’s just all so much fun. What’s more, it really feels like there’s a whole galaxy there, with everything happening on what feels like a much grander stage. With one of the best reveals in cinema history (which I had somehow managed to avoid, despite not seeing the film until I was twelve), The Empire Strikes Back is the high point of one of the biggest franchises in the world.
4. The Truman Show (1998)
Before The Truman Show, Jim Carrey was famous for his madcap portrayals of larger than life characters in the likes of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask. The Truman Show revealed an altogether different side to Carrey, as he took on a serious role. As the titular Truman, Carrey plays a man oblivious to the fact that his entire life is actually a reality television show, hidden cameras trained on him 24 hours a day to record his every interaction. All of it is overseen by the show’s creator Christof (played by Ed Harris), from his lofty position inside the artificial moon that hangs over Seahaven Island, itself an enormous set constructed specially for the show.
As a formerly solipsistic child, The Truman Show resonated extremely deeply with me when I first saw it. I had rejected the idea that my mind must be the only authentic one by the time I saw the film, but could still remember the confused feelings associated with my misguided beliefs. I had thought at various times that:
The world existed only for me.
Only the parts of the world I was looking at in that moment existed.
Everyone else was an actor.
Something might be wrong with me and nobody was telling me what it was.
The Truman Show acknowledging these feelings and running with them was one of the most profound cinematic experiences of my life. It made me feel seen and recognised. As I have grown older, I have found even more to appreciate about the film too, whether it’s the love story subplot, the moments of satire or the undercurrent of philosophical and religious musings.
3. Blade Runner (1982)
When I first saw Blade Runner, I really didn’t know what to make of it. I thought it was stylish but a bit slow. Then I got to the incredibly tense, atmospheric chase through the abandoned apartment block, followed by one of the most iconic monologues in cinema history, before finally being treated to a big old bout of existential questioning. The next day, I went out to buy the tape so I could watch it again. I drank in the atmosphere of those earlier scenes too on a re-watch, my appreciation for the towering cityscape of Los Angeles in 2019 (ahem) growing, the soundtrack of big synth blasts perfectly complimenting this overwhelming, uncompromising vision of the future. I noticed the reference in the credits too that time round, to a book with a funny sounding name, which I of course went and bought (and loved).
The actual setup for the film is incredibly simple. Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a Blade Runner. These are individuals tasked with hunting down rogue androids – or Replicants as they are known – before “retiring” them with a very big gun. But the further Deckard progresses through his investigation, the more he begins to question exactly what he’s doing, as well as his own existence. It’s another one with big ideas, about what it means to be human, the role of memories, free will, even consciousness itself, and it’s a film that you’re guaranteed to keep thinking about long after the credits have rolled.
2. Ex Machina (2014)
Oh my, this film. It has to be something truly special to supplant Blade Runner, a film so dear to me I owned it in multiple formats but couldn’t bear to get rid of the obsolete ones. Trust Alex Garland to manage to though, and with his directorial debut too no less. I told you there was a lot of love for him earlier, right? Ex Machina tells the story of Caleb, played by Domnhall Gleeson, a young man working at an all-conquering search engine company. He wins the chance to spend some time with the company’s CEO, Oscar Isaac’s Nathan, at his isolated, ultra-modern mansion. It soon becomes clear that Nathan has got Caleb there for more than just company though, wanting him to put his latest creation to the test – Ava. Played by Alicia Vikander, Ava is a robot with extremely sophisticated artificial intelligence, and in the course of his conversations with her, Caleb questions everything he thinks he knows about not only himself, but the nature of human experience. The work that went into Ava’s design rightly saw the team win the Oscar for Visual Effects, but to praise the film merely for the visual spectacle would be unfair in the extreme when there are such spellbinding performances from the central trio of actors, not to mention the wonderful set design, the philosophical questions raised and the extremely well managed building tension. A masterclass.
1. Aliens (1986)
“I like to keep this handy *ker-chunk* for close encounters.”
“They’re coming outta the walls! They’re coming outta the goddamn walls!”
“They mostly come at night. Mostly.”
“Game over man, game over!”
“Get away from her, you bitch.”
Is there any film more quotable than Aliens? If there is, I haven’t seen it. Radically reinventing Ridley Scott’s slasher movie in space villain by, well, multiplying it, Aliens ups the ante on action but never loses sight of the horror, resulting in one of the very rare examples of a sequel that surpasses the original. That’s not a slight on Alien, a solid gold classic in its own right, but it’s difficult for me to find fault with Aliens. Of any film on this list, it’s the one I can go back to and watch time and time again and still enjoy. Sigourney Weaver is the brave and resilient Ellen Ripley, returning from the first film with the trauma of past events keeping her up at night (a character arc Cameron would repeat with Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor five years later in Terminator 2: Judgement Day, again to great and memorable effect). When contact is lost with the colonists on LV-426, site of the crashed ship which the terrifying xenomorph of the first film originated from, Ripley finds herself trekking back there with a squad of Colonial Marines in tow, expecting the worst. And wouldn’t you know it, the worst is just what they find. With standout performances from Cameron stalwarts Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein and Lance Henriksen, Aliens is action packed, perfectly paced, endlessly entertaining and stunningly well realised.
There we go, my top ten science fiction films! Are there any of your favourites on this list? Anything you’d care to recommend, perhaps? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and keep an eye out for more Sci-Fi Month content soon!
*Hopefully he doesn’t take this as a challenge.
Projector photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash.