We’re looking at science fiction in hopes that picking out its best might give us a clue as to what exactly it is we see in the stars. These are our picks for the top ten science fiction films of all time. Of course, science fiction isn’t all lasers, snakes, and rocket juice. At its best, we’ve always thought that science fiction was a genre of ideas, of speculation, of dreaming about what’s next. And as our favourites emerge, we saw that they tended to convalesce around a handful of key thematic conflicts. Sorting into categories more philosophically than otherwise. And for our first slot, we’re looking at science fiction that examines how humanity might respond in the face of great scarcity. What it might look like to cling to species existence by a relative thread. It’s not post-apocalypse, but boy, is it close. ‘Soylent Green’ and ‘Logan’s Run’ are some of our sub-genre defining faves here. But for this first slot, we want to take some time to look at the newer, ‘Snowpiercer’
If you can get past some of the thermodynamically invalid science silliness of the core premise. That a hurtling mega train is somehow the best place to weather a global winter. Boy does it open up a beautiful world of stunning and fascinating set pieces, each arranged in a different car down the line. And along the way, it explores some serious questions and genuine moral quandaries. What if prosperity is predicated on suffering? What if the good of all depends on the pain of some? What is the cost of bringing down a broken system? Revealing and questioning those parts of people that respond to limited resources and exposing some of the barbarism on which society can be built.
Of course, when things get a little bit worse, we have the science fiction film that examines how humanity responds in the face of its utter destruction. How we as humans and as a species face our own upcoming extinction. Potential and preventable, certain and unavoidable or nearly come to pass. It gives us a unique opportunity to reflect on how tenuous our relationship with our planet and existence really is. Some of our favourite films in this genre are the likes of ‘Sunshine’, ‘Contagion’, ‘Andromeda Strain’, ‘The Road’, and ’12 Monkeys’. However, we think Alfonso Cuaron really outdid himself with ‘Children of Men’
Children of Men
‘Children of Men’, this science fiction film shows us an incredibly bleak look at the coming apocalypse. With just enough of a dash of hope that we don’t all off ourselves on the way out of the theatre. And it’s a brilliant concept for the end, a worldwide sterility. Certain enough to finish our species for good, but protracted enough for us to have time to really stew in the idea of it. It is an incredible window through which to look at how dependent upon future and posterity we really are. And how quickly things might break down in their absence. Regressing from nice and polite to brutish and short with longevity no longer on the table.
If we’re talking science fiction, at some point, we’re gonna run into aliens. And if we’re looking at it from our philosophical perspective, one of our favourite ways to consider alien movies is to look at the human encounter experience. It offers a unique opportunity for us to look at ourselves as a community of humans, a species as a whole. With a new extraterrestrial player in the game, all over a sudden our in-group bickering can be cast aside or not. We love ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, the original ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’, and the lesser known rad indie ‘Another Earth’. However, for our third pick, we’ve gotta get us some ‘Contact’.
A “Robert Zemeckis” film based on a story by “Carl Sagan” himself, ‘Contact’ is a perennial fan favourite. A potential alien encounter serves as a point of departure for a discussion about what our shared values as a society are and should be. About what it means for there to be something else out there and how we should respond. Perhaps ahead of its time in a frank and balanced discussion about rectifying the competing worldviews of scientists and the religious. ‘Contact’ searches for common ground in our shared humanity and seems all the more relevant for it today.
Another sort of alien encounter happens not in the initial contact, but in the aftermath of it, where we have to deal with the question, what now? And this immediately invites questions that mirror those we face in society today with racial, cultural, and political undertones. Probably one of the most allegorical is ‘District 9’, neatly mapping apartheid race relations onto human-alien interaction in Johannesburg. But this conflict isn’t just reserved for aliens. The question of cohabitants is raised the science fiction of ‘Robots’, ‘A.I.’, ‘Clones’, and even ‘The Undead’. ‘Blade Runner’ is another excellent choice here, examining the rights part of human rights. However, for our number seven pick, we’re actually going with ‘Her’.
In an increasingly fascinating artificial intelligence genre that is taking more and more complex and realistic looks at what thinking, and learning, and self-improving machines might unleash upon our world and society. ‘Her’ is brave enough to almost entirely ignore those questions in favour of what it might unleash upon our emotions. ‘Her’ explores our fragile human limitations not in intelligence, but in co-dependency, and attachment, and emotional need. It is a deeply human look at what the future might hold and what innate features of ourselves might hold us back. Not just our inability to calculate pi to the billionth decimal, but in fact, those very inner fragilities that make us human.
Of course, as much as the hippies would like to insist otherwise, survival as a species isn’t all peace and love. And burning man barter economies where we’re all stronger together and good vibes only. Sometimes conflict is inevitable. And as far as science fiction is concerned, another big topic of exploration is not how much we learn to co-exist with another species. But how we deal with sub-existing when we find ourselves no longer the dominant life form. And here we love ‘The Matrix’, ‘The Terminator’, and ‘Dark City’. But for our number six pick, we’ve gotta give it to the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ (1968).
Planet of the Apes
‘Planet of the Apes’ is science fiction near its boldest and socially relevant. Exploring mankind at the bottom of the totem pole, making a broad, if not deep foray into the social consequences of it all. And there’s an empathy and self-awareness underlying it. It considers our historical role, especially as colonialists and conquistadors. It inverts, asking us to a walk a mile in the shoes of the oppressed, interrogating our own ethics in the process. Does it lose some credibility in the broadness of its strokes? Sure, but it’s the start of the conversation, not the end of it. The twist, absolutely classic.
A lot of science fiction preoccupies itself with exploring future technology. The advantages, the wonder, the possibilities but also the risks and the danger. And one of the most interesting ways it does this is by examining the intersection of new technology with human nature. It examines our very human foibles and quirks. And considers the possibility that our technological growth might outpace our moral growth, exposing deficiencies that may lie latent within. Some of our favourite examples of this kind of cinema come from ‘Gattaca’, ‘Minority Report’, and ‘A Clockwork Orange’. However, for our number five pick we’re actually gonna go with a “Chris Nolan” film, and good god, no, not that one. We’re talking about ‘The Prestige’, which we think is his finest science fiction film to date.
‘The Prestige’ is not so obviously science fiction. Not least of all because it takes place in the past because it’s about magic and because there’s hardly a spaceship to be seen. But there is science. But the problem is that this obsession driven innovation is completely divorced from an honest and measured evaluation of what the right thing to do might be. Physics surpasses metaphysics. Can we disregard, should we? Algiers and Borden embody ceaseless ambition without moral reflection. Unleashing greater and greater suffering with the help of “David Bowie” turned “Nikola Tesla” destroying themselves and each other in the process.
But personal ambition is not the only form of ambition and individual moral decay is not the only form of moral decay. Science fiction also has a long history of exploring not just how technological advances might overtake good sense on a personal level. But how that technology might enable the glitches in human nature to reorganize themselves politically in a way that enhances our ability to exploit, suppress, and control. Done excellently in ‘1984’, in ‘Brazil’, and back in Godards’ ‘Alphaville’. However, for our next pick in the science fiction category, we’re still pretty damn big fans of ‘Metropolis’.
Set in the far future society of 2026, which is depressingly less than 10 years away, ‘Metropolis’ was made 100 years prior in 1926. A story about a dystopian society where workers are little more than fleshy machines. And machines look like tinny worker gals and wealth stratification is far worse than now, which is far worse than then. So yeah, it’s pretty bad. One of the strongest and most enduring influences on the genre ever, it is bold and beautiful and thematic and political. Perhaps not perfectly logical or built on the most real of science, but concerned nonetheless with something more important. That left unchecked, human progress at scale will overcome human dignity.
On the far other ends of the spectrum, from the large-scale political back down to the deeply personal. We want to look at science fiction films that explore how science and technology might alter the very core human experience. What would happen if we could enhance that one deeply unique human feature that is consciousness? This is ‘Limitless’ expanding our cognition, or ‘Abre Los Ojos’ extending our experience beyond death. Or ‘Total Recall’ and ‘Videodrome’ blurring the line between virtual and reality. ‘Strange Days’ explores what might happen if we could start sharing memories. But for our number three pick, we’re going with what might happen if you could start to erase them with ‘Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind’.
Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind
‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ is very soft science fiction. Life looks very much like it does for us today. No super puppies or clone slaves or laser sex. Except a new technology has been developed that can erase the memory. Marketed to help let go of the pain after a breakup. And much like ‘Her’ does with artificial intelligence, ‘Eternal Sunshine’ explores the consequences of this emotionally. But it is not a warning to be careful of erasing our past. Instead, it is an exploration of human nature by relief, revealing that which is deeply human by examining its absence. The result is not so much about the future but about the present, which is really what all our favourite science fiction films are doing. Using an exploration of where we might be to explore where it seems like we’re heading in order to reveal exactly where we are.
Closing in at number two, there is another sort of cautionary tale. Not of our future advancements unlocking a part of our collective personalities that turns nasty. But of the future itself unleashing something uncontrollable and unpredictable, on the world. We have stumbled down a path from which we cannot easily return. This is most classically ‘Frankenstein’ or ‘Gojira’, or more recently ‘The Host’ or ‘Akira’ or ‘Jurassic Park’. And for our ultimate pick, it’s ‘Stalker’.
‘Stalker’ is a simple film. A guide leads two men, the writer and the professor, into the zone. A mysterious and unexplained place that we assume must be a remnant of a nuclear disaster. Or an alien visitation, or some kind of wrinkle in space-time. There, they seek a room that is set to grant its entrants their deepest desire. The zone around the room is modern society recaptured by nature. A burnt-out land returning to its infancy, almost eerily predicting what would become of Chernobyl less than a decade later. And again, we see if science fiction can see not turning us towards the future, but inside, towards desire and ambition, in a search for something greater. Guiding us slowly into an exploration of our own inner zone. Interrogating what it might unleash upon the world if such an opportunity might arise.
And finally, for our top pick, we are also looking at science fiction that puts it all together. Unhinges its jaw and attempts to swallow the entirety of the future of humanity in one gulp. And for our pick, you’ve probably already guessed it. We’re not distinguishing ourselves as unique list makers on this one. No for our top pick in science fiction, we’re shocking all of nobody by going with ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Because sometimes if it ain’t broke, you really don’t need to fix it.
2001: A Space Odyssey
What might we say about ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ that hasn’t been said 1,000 times before? This science fiction is vast, inscrutable, beautiful, boring, prophetic, navel-gazing, cold, genius. It sets out to trace the entire history of man from apes through star children and spends ten minutes on kaleidoscope colours in the process. It is almost impossible to understand on first viewing, or without a little help from the book, which may or may not even be canon. But it also inspired and continues to inspire nearly all modern science fiction. In an era where science was a genre for the pulpy B-movie fare, “Stanley Kubrick” revitalized it and proved that it too could be art. He flummoxed audience members, enraged critics and challenged “Tarkosky” himself. He struck a frustrating balance between the posing of questions and the absence of answers. Inviting generations to consider exactly who we were and where we might go as a part of something greater than ourselves. Which is why it’s our pick for the best science fiction film of all time.
So, what do you think? Disagree with any of our picks? Love any science fiction films we skipped over? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe for more Unboxseries’ movie lists.
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