Sci-Fi is probably my favorite genre. Like any genre, sci-fi means different things to different people. And while I’m not going to make any in-depth attempt at defining sci-fi, I do want to state one criterion: It’s gotta explore an idea. The presence of a futuristic setting and/or an alien creature alone isn’t enough. Arguably, by this definition, Tron isn’t sci-fi, and neither is The Thing. Once Flynn is digitized, it’s basically a standard chase movie. Once the alien life form has escaped from the ice, it’s basically just a monster movie. These are great films, two of my favorites, but I don’t consider them sci-fi, and therefore I wouldn’t include them on this list.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Prometheus is an example of a poorly executed sci-fi movie based on the idea that beings from another planet might have had a hand in our development and that we might one day discover this. 2001: A Space Odyssey is an example of just how good this premise can be when executed well.
2. THX-1138: Quick, just off the top of your head. What genre do you think of when you think of Robert Duvall? Sci-Fi, right? No? And yet here he is in one of the best sci-fi dystopia movies ever made, one that explores perhaps better than any other the frightening possibility of state control over not only the body, but the mind and soul as well.
3. Blade Runner: Okay, I know he was in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but wasn’t Harrison Ford also in a western with Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher? In any event, he should have stuck with sci-fi as he is great in Blade Runner, a simple movie in which he fights robots. Only these aren’t just any robots. These are robots that explore the boundaries of what it means to be human. And if you think they will respond obediently as you stand there blathering klaatu barada nikto, you are sorely mistaken. Queue the Rob Zombie music!
4. Altered States. William Hurt’s first movie. Rumor has it that Paddy Chayefsky insisted the dialogue be transplanted unaltered to the screenplay, which results in its being delivered at an almost auctioneer’s pace at times. Somehow, it still works, and so does the movie as an interesting take on the mad scientist sub-genre. Here we have scientist as Ahab, and following him down the rabbit hole leads to a wild ride through Jung’s collective unconscious and then back again via the redemptive power of love.
5. Moon. Reminiscent of 2001 in the interaction between the protagonist and an anthropomorphic computer, Moon provides a fascinating look into a 21st century identity crisis. Sci-Fi with a capital “S.”
6. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1976). Science fiction and horror movies are at their best when their tropes are used as metaphors to comment on current issues, and none does this better than Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which works equally well as a metaphor for communism as it does for consumerism. Also like horror movies, this one has a shocker ending that’s sure to produce a jump from the uninitiated!
7. Wargames. Shall we play a game? Produced in 1983, Wargames served as an introduction to hacking and AI long before computers became ubiquitous. The story is believable, very well-paced, and gains much from outstanding performances by Broderick, Coleman, Sheedy (who is simply adorable in it), and John Wood. Because of its top notch story telling, it still holds up today.
8. Planet of the Apes. Apes brilliantly uses a post apocalyptic theme to comment on race relations and the dangers of nuclear annihilation. Roddy McDowell noted that because applying the makeup was such a long and laborious process, they simply left it on during lunch, and in a curious instance of life imitating art, without anyone orchestrating it, gorillas began sitting with gorillas, chimpanzees with chimpanzees, and orangutans with orangutans.
9. Logan’s Run. Run, runner! I saw this at the theater when I was nine and was blown away by it. It’s a bit cheesy, sure, and the effects are exactly up to Star Wars standards, but it’s an interesting depiction of a dystopian future where the machine continues to function long after anyone remembers why it was programmed to function that way and the people blindly continue to follow simply because, well, it’s always been that way.
10. Silent Running. A movie with Bruce Dern in it where he’s actually the good guy! Say it ain’t so! Silent Running provides a cautionary and melancholy look into a dystopian future that is perhaps the logical conclusion should we continue to abuse the environment and distance ourselves further and further from the natural world.