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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.

10. Metropolis (Concept: Man vs. Machine) [1927]


Considering that
Metropolis was made in 1927, it’s remarkable how forward-thinking it was. It would be a crime not to include this film on any list of thought-provoking sci-fi. 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) [1968]


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?) [1998]


Before The Matrix made the idea of virtual reality and the real world uber-cool, Alex Proyas delivered this mesmerizing movie 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. Still, here, Proyas is particularly tuned in to the whole notion of acting outside yourself and discovering who you are. His hero is not “The One”, just someone.

7. Primer (Concept: Time Travel) [2004]


Shane Carruth 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 a 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?) [1982]


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”) stands 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 feels like a Pan-Asian melting pot it gives the viewer the appetizers for the upcoming cinematic banquet. Such food for thought becomes far more nourishing the more times you savor this film’s flavors.

5. Soylent Green (Concept: The Population Explosion and Ecology) [1973]


Charlton Heston again, this time taking on what was then one of the most disturbing ideas in all of the early 1970s social policy. In confronting a world population pushing 3.9 billion, the movie manufactured a dystopian 2022 were resources have been depleted, millions are in poverty, the elderly can choose assisted suicide, and food is a coveted commodity. In response, the government comes up with the Soylent foods, including the controversial title comestible. As a cop trying to track down the killer of a prominent figure, Heston discovers the truth about what the populace has been eating. The ending still sends shivers up one’s spine.

4. Children of Men (Concept: The Death of Humanity) [2006]


In which we have the opposite problem as presented in Soylent Green. Humans have been rendered infertile, and with the population in chaos, science is struggling for answers. When an immigrant woman turns up with a child, our hero (a worn Clive Owen) must accompany her to a safe house, lest radicals kidnap her and use her status to start a revolution. Tense and involving, with lots of notable action to book, recent Oscar winner Alfonso Cuarón creates a recognizable future shock where the extinction of the species could hinge less on biology and more on the breaking point of people. A visionary effort.

3. The Fountain (Concept: Death and Immortality) [2006]


Using a trio of settings — the ancient past, the scientific present, and an enigmatic future — Darren Aronofsky managed the unthinkable. He created a film about death and about dealing with mortality, which investigated the nature of existence and the problems with hoping for life everlasting. Some were confused by the constant jumping between times, but with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in the leads, we get the substance of the split story. He doesn’t want his wife to die. She wants him to learn how to cope and forgive. Somehow, Aronofsky even tosses in the Fountain of Youth and makes it all work.

2. Solaris (Concept: The Psychological Fall Out of Space) [1972]


For those who’ve never seen this amazing film by Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky, here’s a very crude comparison: Solaris is Event Horizon without the horror overtones or trip to Hell plotting. Instead, the title planet uses the brainwaves of the astronauts orbiting its surface to supply “visions” of their past that may or may not be real. There’s also the notion of leaving everything behind and the realization of what that really means as part of the subtext. While some call this film “slow”, it’s deliberate. In having the narrative play out is such a manner, the audience also understands the truth about being alone in space.

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Concept: Man’s Place in the Cosmos) [1968]


As one of the greatest films ever made, Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece asks us to consider our place in the cosmos and just adds some intriguing possibilities to play with our perceptions. We begin with a spark toward evolution. When then get a link between our worlds and others. Then, just as astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) is about to make contact, a rogue computer named HAL takes over. The resulting combination of wayward technology and the alien unknown returns to its man/animal roots, using Bowman as the next great “star child” link in creation. As explorations of where we fit in the universe go, there are none better.

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 fragile grasp of the same. It often contemplates ideas bigger than us, using a shape of things to come creativity that’s a part warning, part welcome. Of course,
Star Wars came and wreaked havoc on the genre, using its space operatics to turn quality science fiction into action-adventure in the galaxy. Still, 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, 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.

This article was originally published on 16 April 2014.