The Top 10 Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Films

Serious science fiction often takes a backseat to the more pulpy, crowdpleasing genre entries. Here are 10 titles far better than any "dogfight in space" adventure.

At it's very best, science fiction makes us think. It asks us to ponder the tough questions and consider the complicated consequences of messing with science, space, technology, and our own fragile grasp of same. It often contemplates ideas bigger than us, using a shape of things to come creativity that's part warning, part welcome. Of course, Star Wars came and wrecked havoc on the genre, using its space operatics to turn quality science fiction into action adventure in the galaxy, but even within its movie serial designs are ideas that expand our concept of who we are, and who we might be. It's an approach that's often yielded uneven results, especially when the desire for eye candy and brain busting special effects take precedent over the one thing great speculative fiction cannot live without, ideas.

With that in mind, and the attempted intelligence of Johnny Depp's upcoming Transcendence preparing to perplex moviegoers, we believe it's time to remember the movies that made science fiction one of our favorite cinematic stops in the first place. Again, we aren't dealing with films that use space or extraterrestrial intelligence (or science, or computers, or whatever) as a means of basically reinventing the action film. Nor are we arguing art vs. approach here. We take the "thought-provoking" part of this piece's title very seriously. Finally, this is just our interpretation of the genre. Others see depth in such otherwise superficial films as Avatar, or Inception and to them we welcome the debate. Indeed, for us, such serious sci-fi requires discussion and dissection. So let's being with the movie that more or less started it all:

#10 - Metropolis (Concept: Man vs. Machine)

Considering when it was made, 1927, and how forward thinking it was, it would be a crime not to include this film on any list of thought provoking sci-fi. In fact, the entire allegorical narrative here created the core conceits that would come to play a part in the genre for the next 40 years. At the center of this story is the notion of humanity vs. technology, the idea that man can be manipulated by science to do and act in ways antithetical to his best interest. With its robot villainess and corporation corruption, we could be watching a film from 2027.

#9 - Planet of the Apes (Concept: Evolution Gone Bad)

While the metaphor for race and racism is obvious, Rod Serling's riveting adaptation of Pierre Boulle's novel also touched on the idea that our then current Cold War could result in some horrible future shock for everyone. Indeed, the final shot, often pointed to as one of the great twists in all of cinema, suggests that the shape of things to come will be nuclear and not at all pleasant. Naturally, the many sequels in the franchise had to fill in the gaps, but at least at the beginning, Charlton Heston's Taylor understands that something is not right... and the answer is profound.

#8 - Dark City (Concept: What is Reality?)

Before The Matrix made the idea of virtual reality and the real world uber cool, Alex Proyas delivered this mesmerizing movies about aliens searching for the means of saving their race via studying humans. The main premise sees a man, accused of murder, living through a neo-noir nightmare. Only after he discovers the white-faced 'Strangers' does he begin to understand the guinea pig like nature of his existence. There are a lot of parallels to the Wachowskis winning efforts, but here, Proyas is particularly tuned in to the whole notion of acting outside yourself and discovering who you really are. His hero is not "The One", just someone.

#7 - Primer (Concept: Time Travel)

Shane Caruth is a filmmaker worthy of serious, serious attention. His most recent effort, Upstream Color, is one of the best movies of the last ten years. Oddly enough, it was a decade ago that we first discovered this brilliant jack-of-all-trades, using his undeniable imagination and limited budget to create one of the most compelling movies about time travel ever. Hoping to make a fantastical idea more relatable and down to earth, he succeeded in showing that science may have the answers, but without humans to fully understand and exploit them, all technology offers is theory. A truly remarkable work.

#6 - Blade Runner (Concept: What Makes Us Human?)

Yes, it has more action than your average thought-provoking effort and there is a blockbuster mentality to the look and feel of this film, but after the genre reinvention via Star Wars, Ridley Scott's epic to proper science fiction (not just mere "dogfights in space") stand as both a visual feast and a true mind bender. The idea of Deckard's actual delineation (is he "man or machine") matched against a Los Angeles that actually feels like the Pan-Asian melting pot it is destined to become give the viewer the appetizers for the coming cinematic banquet. Such food for thought becomes far more nourishing the more times you savor this film's flavors.

Next Page

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.