PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Film

The Top 10 Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Films

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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 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.

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.

This article was originally published on 16 April 2014.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.