Epic Science Fiction Movies

I just realized that in the last few years I’ve been pretty much living among non-geeks. It’s sad but true. I teach non geeks, I work with non-geeks, and lately, I’ve been hanging out with non-geeks on my free time as well. Some days I feel like Valentine Michael Smith from Stranger in a Strange Land – a man of two worlds. As much as I might try to fit in and grok the people around me, I know I will never fully belong. I am a geek at heart, and I think and perceive the world differently than they do. We are simply broadcasting on different wavelengths. They will never get my jokes, or get the literary, movie or TV references that I’m making. In similar vain, I will never fully grasp their conversations either because I do not watch reality TV, or follow celebrity gossip.

The worst thing about this is that non geeks seem to have some sort of involuntary gag reflex whenever someone brings up science fiction. Oh, they will watch a SF movie and love it. They will just deny that anything they like has anything to do with the genre. They will swear up and down they are not into SF, scoff and sneer when they see your Facebook status mention Battlestar Galactica. Then they go and have a blast watching the new Star Trek movie – but definitely not because it is SF. Go figure. It’s quite funny actually. Science fiction is something unclean and shameful to them.

This is the sort of cognitive dissonance I have to deal with on a daily basis. One day we were talking about movies and one of my non-geek acquaintances brought up Battlefield Earth as an example of why Science Fiction sucks. I countered that this atrocious movie is hardly a representative of the genre, and that there are many smart, thoughtful, ambitious SF films out there.

“Name one that I would know off” – she challenged me.

At that point my mind went blank. I actually realized that most of the stuff she might have seen was actually crap. In fact, we have probably discussed quite a few SF movies in the past and I pretty much described each one of them as either horrible, dreadful or atrocious. I needed to come up with a list (preferably a long one) of above-average pictures to show her that SF is more than just summer blockbusters and elaborate SFX demos. Science fiction is your go-to genre for intellectual discourse, speculation and scientific social and psychological commentary. The whole concept revolves around asking the question “what if” and then building worlds and stories around it. It it is about answering questions that no one has asked yet. It is about examining the human condition from new and previously unexplored angles.

But, I couldn’t think of any concrete examples. Hollywood being what it is, releases a lot of crappy pictures every year and a lot of them could be classified as SF. But epic, monumental works of cinematic art are rare and far between. If she has asked me for literary examples this would have been much easier – I could just throw out couple of big names (Asimov, Dick, Clarke, Herbert, Simmons, etc..) to shut her up. Actually, scratch that – no one in that room would know any of these names. But we were talking about movies so there ought to be at least a few well known examples of solid SF I could mention.

After some consideration I replied with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Good hard SF movie, well known, and quite philosophical. Sadly she did not watch it because “it was too boring” and somewhat incomprehensible. I shifted gears and tried Donnie Darko which is popular, has a cult following and is also newer and therefore a bit more accessible. That only moved the discussion towards an argument regarding what exactly is science fiction. She claimed that Donnie is a psychological thriller rather than SF. I couldn’t really disagree but I guess it could be both – depending on whether you actually believe that time/dimension travel has really occurred in the film.

Blade Runner I blurted out. Great movie, based on Dick’s excellent novel. It poses some fairly deep questions about nature of humanity and it stars Harrison Ford. Unfortunately she was convinced that I was talking about The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger. You know, the one when he is on the game show and has to fight for his life. Yeah… I tried explaining which movie I was referring to but it was clear she has never even heard about it. A swing and a miss…

I wish I brought up Gattaca but it completely slipped my mind. Not the deepest or most profound movie ever, but it did present an interesting case against genetic engineering and eugenics – she might have watched that. I tried bringing up The Truman Show but just like Donnie Darko it was quickly reclassified as non-sf. Apparently, if there are no space ships, lasers, teleportation, robots or aliens or time travel it is not Scifi. I should have brought up 12 Monkeys but I forgot. She would probably try to reclassify that as well since it does not fit into the Hard SF bracket.

The Matrix I tried desperately.

How is that smart and thought provoking? – she countered – It’s an action flick.

I tried to explain that the idea Wachowski brothers came up with is actually quite profound. It has these a gnostic overtones with a mad demirug (the architect) creating a flawed world (the matrix) to exert control over humans who can overcome the illusion by questioning their perception of reality (there is no spoon) and save themselves via enlightenment. Of course she did not agree. Where I saw references to gnosticism, Zen philosophy and deep questions she saw Keanu Reves saying “Woha!” and killing people while running up the walls. I don’t blame her.

It’s funny how our lovely genre gets shafted by the mainstream public. Any good SF movie gets appropriated by the mainstream as something else. Everything that sucks on the other hand gets permanently placed in the SF ghetto even if it does not belong there.

We Polish people actually recognize SF as a sub genre of a bigger category called Fantastyka. I’m actually not sure if there is an equivalent for this word in English. I guess the closest match is Speculative Fiction. It covers Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and everything in between. If the story could not happen in real life, if it contains gadgets that don’t exist, ghosts, monsters or strange phenomena it belongs in that category. Mainstream critics always pluck out the best pieces and proclaim them to lie outside of the genre. But I digress…

After going through several titles like that I realized that there was really no way for me to change her mind about this. She had an answer for each movie and it usually was “never heard about it” or “that’s not really SF”. There was no way I could win this argument:

“I hate SF! I never saw a good SF movie in my life. I don’t know anything about the genre, I don’t follow it and I have no interest in it. Prove to me that SF is not shit by mentioning a good SF move that I have seen or heard about.”

I submit that this can’t be done. There is no way I can change your mind about SF using only the limited subset you are familiar with, which as you mentioned is composed solely of bad movies. I could give you a good movie to watch and thus expand your horizons. But you won’t watch it, cause you have already decided you hate SF. It is a silly argument.

It did give me an idea for a blog post though. Here is your mission dear readers: give me some epic science fiction movies that are smart, thought provoking and memorable. Feel free to be as obscure as you want, include anime, foreign films and anything you want. I leave defining what is and is not SF up to you. Screw the non geeks. What I want is to watch some good SF out there. Stuff that even I might be ignorant about.

Let’s make this a list of worthwhile cinematic works of Fantastyka – speculative fiction, fantasy, horror – whatever. If we get some good suggestions maybe we can make it into a top N movies list or maybe a poll. Hopefully we can make this thread into a useful guide for people who are looking for something good to watch this weekend. The video game thread two weeks ago was pretty good, so let’s make this into something similar.

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25 Responses to Epic Science Fiction Movies

  1. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Akira, of course
    Metropolis (1927)
    Castle in the Sky

    Blade Runner would be on my list, but you mentioned that one.

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  2. What about the classics? Like Star Wars?
    I mean.. its more fairy tale then real scifi.. but she would propably classify it as scifi and episode 4-6 are not really that bad.

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  3. Jakob DENMARK Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    You pretty much mentioned all the good, tought provoking sci fi movies I know. I remember that Minority Report had an intresting idea about the ability to predict the future and wether or not humans possed free will, but I can’t recall if it were any good.

    In tv you have Ghost in the Shell, which at leat made me wonder when we should recognise AI as a seperate living entity and the potential cost acosiated with becoming an semi-immortal being (Motoko and Bato are cyborgs and they are slowly forgetting who they were in the past).

    Some might recommend Akira. It is interresting to follow a beaten and flawed kid who is slowly gaining godlike powers and the consequences of their use. Sadly, I found that Akira weren’t that coherent and there were a bit of backstory and explanation lacking, which leaved me to be a bit confused. Watch it for the animation and style, but the story ain’t that great.

    And since we are talking Fantasyka, the 2 recent Batman movies would qualify. I find the Dark Knight to be paticular good and interresting to see how far one is willing to go in order to restore order in a corrupt city, and if one is willing to be a villian in the eyes of those whom you are fighting for, in order to save them.

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  4. Petr UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I suspect your friend feels like ‘sci-fi’ and ‘mainstream’ are incompatible. (Personally, I wouldn’t argue the merits of movies with anyone who watches reality tv…) I also suspect that you are discarding more mainstream films as not ‘hard-core’ enough for ‘sci-fi’…

    As well, the only difference between many good ‘action’ films and some good sci-fi is that, in sci-fi the action comes about because somebody does something bad/stupid/evil with science…

    Here’s some of the more mainstream sci-fi films I would recommend as good sci-fi:

    Blade Runner (already mentioned)

    Alien and Aliens

    Predator (The first one only. All the rest are shit.)

    The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951 version, not the bland slice of unctious that was the recent Keanu Reeves vehicle…)

    The Omega Man (Heston version)

    Soylent Green

    Planet of The Apes (first one only… again, the rest are shit)

    Starman

    Stargate

    Terminator (I and II only… you know the rest are…)

    The Abyss

    And, you can’t ignore the work of Spielberg if you want to go sci-fi.

    Jurrasic Park (and The Lost World)

    ET

    Close Encounters

    War of the Worlds (2005 version.)

    Minority Report

    (I would consider A.I. as sci-fi also, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone….)

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  5. Victoria UKRAINE Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Typo: demiurge

    I second Ghost in the shell and Minority Report. I also love Equilibrium, no matter what people think :) Babylon 5, Farscape, Firefly – they are all SF.

    My best friend refuses to watch Firefly because it’s SF. WTF, I said, it’s your problem and your loss.

    Unfortunately, your efforts seem to be futile: if Matrix, which led to obsession with questions ‘what is really real?’ and ‘is the world anything but what your senses are telling you?”, is just an action flick then who are we to argue? They are not mainstream, they are plain stupid.

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  6. To list some additional worthy sci-fi:

    Brazil (1985), just saw it for the first time a couple weeks ago.

    Children of Men (2006)

    Jurassic Park (1993), probably one of the best sci-fi films ever.

    Dr. Strangelove (1964), if it counts as sci-fi (Wikipedia says it might be).

    The original Star Wars movies were mentioned.

    Some television:

    Half of Futurama, maybe less.

    The first two seasons of the new BSG, and the series finale.

    About 1 in 10 Star Trek (TNG, DS9, and TOS) episodes is some really good sci-fi. For TNG, a couple off the top of my head would be “The Inner Light” and “Tapestry“. For TOS, “The Menagerie”.

    Hmm, it is hard to come up with a whole lot. The best of sci-fi is in literature rather than film. A lot of it simply can’t translate to film.

    (I had all these things linked but the annoying spam filter wouldn’t have it. Even when they were Wikipedia links.)

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  7. Square UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    There is a recent movie that I believe fits rather well here. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was an excellent film, and hit a topic that is entirely science fiction, “What if you were born old and grew younger?” The presentation is that which will definitely allow for argument as to the classification of the film as sci-fi or not, but either way I and anyone else I’ve spoken to about the film can agree that it is indeed a great film.

    Primer, which I believe you’ve reviewed, was a great indy sci-fi flick. Definitely a mind-bender.

    For television, I would recommend Fringe. Excellent series, entirely science fiction, and I consider it a must see. Hulu happens to have all of the episodes, so there’s no reason not to see it. :)

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Just a note – the spam filter got updated the other day and it started blocking everyone behind a proxy. Several people emailed me about it and I disabled that feature. You should now be able to post even from behind a proxy.

    @Steve: Akira FTW. I think I still have a VHS of it somewhere.

    @Dr. Azrael Tod: Yeah, Star Wars wars is a good movie, but not necessarily an ambitious one. Also, I knew from previous conversations that this person saw only Phantom Menace and The Return of the Shits. So there was really no point of me bringing it up – it would get shot down immediately.

    @Jakob: Yup, I love Ghost in the Shell too. The first movie and the series were excellent. I haven’t watched the second movie though.

    Also, since we are talking Anime – Evangelion is a must see.

    @Petr: Good list!

    Re: A.I. – it starts really strong – the first half an hour or so is excellent. Then then keels over and dies violently becoming more and more absurd and stupid. If he abandoned the silly idea of making it the SF version of Pinochio and just kept the android boy’s changing relationship family the heart of the story it could have been a much better movie.

    @Victoria: Yup, I also know people who will never, ever watch Firefly just because it is SF. Or Battlestar Galactica. Or Heroes (well first season). They also stopped watching Lost because it got to SF for them. Then they sit around and complain there is nothing good on TV. :P

    @Chris Wellons: Oh, funny you mention Brazil. I just put it on my “to watch” list the other day. :)

    Also, sorry about the spam thing – it does not like links unfortunately.

    @Square: I haven’t seen Benjamin Button but it is on my list. I actually forgot all about it, so thanks for reminding me.

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  9. Chuck M UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Silent Running
    The Day The Earth Stood Still
    Brazil
    Serenity
    Solaris
    A Clockwork Orange
    Close Encounters of the Third Kind
    Planet of the Apes
    Forbidden Planet
    Dune
    The Omega Man (or I Am Legend)
    Enemy Mine
    It Came From Outer Space
    The Tommyknockers
    The Stand
    The Langoliers

    Also, based on your friend’s comment about 2001 being boring (and yes, it was a bit abstract to the extreme), I would say that you’ve been handed an unwinnable challenge to find a science fiction movie that she’s seen that wasn’t bad. Of course, you might throw back at her the challenge of naming good movies of her favorite genre that you’ve seen if you just want to be obnoxious. ;-)

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  10. Ricardo INDIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    (trying to post again)

    Hi Luke,

    I have a simple question: How could you forget Star Wars? lol

    Other movies that come to mind:
    Dune, Fifith Element (ok, not so good), Wall-E, some of the other Star
    Trek movies…

    Hmm, if you Google it, you get some more good stuff. This list from
    the IMDB for example: http://www.imdb.com/chart/scifi

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  11. Tino UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    To win this argument you have to keep things simple. Give them a small list of easy but good “classics”, SciFi movies that stay clearly within the genre. Listing loads of movies that are good SciFi but they have never heard of only sort of proves their point.

    Here is my suggested list. If there is not one on this list that they know of and consider “good”, they are simply ignorant baboons.

    1. ET
    2. Terminator II
    3. Jurassic Park
    4. Alien
    5. Planet of the Apes
    6. Back to the Future
    7. Wall-E

    Depending on what other genres they like you could also try:

    8. Men in black (comedy)
    9. The first X-files movie

    Good SciFi that I didn’t see mentioned above, but likely wont help you win the argument:

    10. Total Recall
    11. Dr. Who remake tv-series (first 5 or so episodes were bad, but after that the show really starts to fly, and the last couple of season finales were EPIC)

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  13. Marcus GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Debian GNU/Linux says:

    I really like to listen to Arthur C. Clarke audio books these days. I really like his style. As for the movies, here is my list:

    Tarkovsky’s Solaris (Soderbergh’s is good too, but this is more raw)
    Stalker (haunting, depressing, quite an experience)
    13th floor (virtual reality, like the Matrix)
    La Jetée (proto Twelve Monkeys, 20 minutes movie composed of stills with voice over, very artsy, show this one to your bitching friend)
    Crash (man “interfacing” with machine, I found this one quite disturbing, don’t show or recommend this one to your friend)
    eXistenZ (computer games, virtual reality)
    Screamers from 1995 another entertaining Phillip K. Dick based movie, with a classic sf feel to it)

    I definitely wanted to check out some movies, if I can get my hands on them. Among them:

    Videodrome by Cronenberg
    The Dead Zone based on a Stephen King novel, filmed by Cronenberg.
    Welt am Draht (proto-Matrix fom Germany made in the 70s)

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  14. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I’d say Wall-E is the most likely to win the argument. It got all the usual aspects of Sci-Fi (robots, space, future, CG) and is smart, ambitious, moving, thought provoking and (most of all) recent. Being a Disney feature and with the accompanying phenomenon last year, I doubt your friend didn’t see it or never heard of it.

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  15. copperfish Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Strange Days
    Dark City
    Sunshine
    Event Horizon (technically horror, but better than most Sci-Fi)

    Blade Runner is my alltime best movie, but as other posters have mentioned its already listed.

    @Petr guess I was one of the few people that really liked A.I.

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  16. copperfish Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Okay maybe some on those list aren’t “worthwhile” but then I’m hard pressed to think of “normal” movies that fit that description.

    I know that “gag reflex” well. It happens with books too. Strangely enough fantasy is always an easier sell. But that will get me started on the fact that most mainstream book stores have a Sci-Fi section which is 80% fantasy and 80% of fantasy is rubbish.

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  17. icebrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    One more vote for Bladerunner, 12 Monkeys and Planet of the Apes. I have also heard good things about Altered States (1980), but never saw it.

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  18. Jakob DENMARK Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    People keeps mentioning Akira as a good sci-fi movie and I just don’t see what makes good. I agree that the animation and art style is truly great to look at and does create an atmosphere, but there seems to lack an explanation for why the things are happening. Please enlighten me to Akira.

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  19. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Ricardo: As I said before – I knew beforehand that she has only seen the prequels. So mentioning it was pointless. :)

    @Marcus: Oh wow. That’s a good list – I haven’t seen many of these. Thanks.

    I have the Stalker on my hard drive right now, but I’m waiting till I read the Roadside Picnic by Strugatski brothers first. My dad commandeered the book though cause I got the Polish translation. I figured it was a Russian story and Polish is probably closer to Russian – if not in syntax, then in spirit. I just didn’t want to run into translation glitches like in Night Watch.

    @copperfish: Oh man! Strange Days was such a good and unappreciated movie. The funniest thing was that I saw it for the first time in like 2001 or something like that. Also, interestingly enough the movie never mentioned Y2K which I guess was not yet on our radar in 95 when it was released.

    @icebrain: Shit! I saw altered states when I was a kid. I remember that it freaked me out quite a bit back then, and I didn’t really understand what was going on. I should re-watch it now – I’ll probably get much more out of it. :)

    @Jakob: Well… A lot of Anime is like that. I guess the thing about Akira is speculation as to what would happen if a man would suddenly gain superpowers. I is a counterpoint to what we have seen in the Watchmen.

    Dr. Manhattan’s powers turned him into a god like being – his brilliant mind, logic and scientific training allowed him to rein in and control all this power and become something more than human.

    In Akira the main character is just a teenager and the power that is suddenly bestowed upon him (which is not much unlike the powers of Dr. Mantattan btw) overwhelms him. He uses it reflexively and eventually loses control.

    As to why and how this happens – well that is mostly left out. This is not an unheard of tactic in SF.

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  20. jambarama UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    NOTE: I wanted to comment earlier, but my summer employer has me behind a proxy so I was prohibited from doing so. If this posts, then the being behind a proxy no longer prevents posting, thanks. Anyway, here’s my comment, maybe it’ll help you open your friends mind a bit:

    I’m actually not a huge fan of what is traditionally labeled sci fi (or should I say syfy – yuck). I’m lukewarm on the first 3 starwars and hated the last 3, I never liked any of the star trek variations, I think firefly is blase and totally forgettable, and I’ve not seen battlestar galactica.

    I think the problem is that everyone tends to think of sci fi as only outer space & time travel movies. Most of which I’m not a big fan of, time travel is hard to do right – 12 monkeys did, as did primer, but most just muck it up – like back to the future, terminator movies, etc.

    The problem is sci fi is embedded in tons of movies we might not call science fiction. Like Dr Strangelove, x-men, etc. Some of which use it very poorly – like waterworld or armageddon.

    However, there are lots of good ones apart from blade runner & gattaca – like 5th element, planet of the apes (the original of course), brazil, dark city, the abyss, minority report (which wears poorly with time IMO), eternal sunshine, and others. There are family friendly ones like jurassic park, independence day, ET, the incredibles, wall-e; and funny ones like mars attacks

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  21. Dave UNITED STATES Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Dune. Enuf said. But if you need more:
    Sunshine
    Pitch Black
    Chronicles of Riddick
    Pandorum
    Avatar
    Solaris
    2010
    Deep Impact
    2012
    Outlander
    Alien 1-3
    Predator1-2
    AvP 1-2
    Close encounters of the Third Kind
    Tron
    The Thing
    The 5th Element
    The Abyss
    The Fountain
    Dark City
    Event Horizon
    12 Monkeys
    Altered States
    Serenity
    Stargate

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  22. Johhny UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Popping in with an obscure movie:

    Timecrimes.

    It’s foreign to boot!

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  23. Adam Internet Explorer Windows says:

    I may just be crazy but, I do believe piece of epic sci-fi has been overlooked here…

    Resident Evil

    This has been the only game to movie that has been done well and they just keep going. The success of the movies is not because Milla Jovovich has a body that won’t quite(although I’m not complaining ;)), it’s due the fact the writers and producers recognised the amazing indepth story the games had laid out and only changed it in ways that didn’t take much away from that. Kinda like the book to movies, ya tend to miss out on alot if ya only see the movie. Not so much with this franchise.

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  24. Nigel Dorning UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Stalker

    Colossus: The Forbin Project

    The forbidden planet

    Terminator 1 and 2

    Alien and Aliens

    The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the eighth dimension

    Robocop

    Westworld

    Jurassic Park

    Close encounters of the third kind

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  25. Dave Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    I agree. Resident Evil is an awesome movie. Oh wait, I guess your friends would want to put that in “Horror”. Oh well.

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