People of all creeds and nations, it’s time to huddle up in front of the holographic campfire for a list containing our favorite sci-fi movies. Indulge in bittersweet, dystopian scenarios, rough ultra-violence and highly speculative imaginings of the future. Become enthralled by gilded, prissy androids, white-haired cyberpunk cyborgs and the eeeend of the wooooorld as we know it. Ladies and gents, it’s all very subjective and it is AIAIAI's 20 greatest science fiction movies of all time!
One of the funny things about sci-fi is that we tend to think it’s about the future, when it’s actually mostly about the present. A classic like Blade Runner may, for example, have created a believable representation of a future socio-economic setting, but at the center of its melancholy android heart beats early 80s concerns about accelerating technology and its effect on the human condition. And the South African sci-fi thriller District 9 did wow us with a fast-paced, intense rendering of first alien contact in a not-too-distant future, but throughout the movie the more familiar themes of discrimination, segregation and oppression, influenced by South Africa’s tumultuous history and present, runs like a red thread that grounds the fictional future in present, real world problems.
Despite its proclivity for otherworldly kitsch, we would therefore argue that the genre's most powerful and relevant works are in some way shape or form rooted in current events. It articulates contemporary themes through imaginative scenarios that sometimes mirrors, sometimes exaggerates the times we live in and occasionally predicts what’s to come - the latter of which some of you may remember that we touched on a couple of years ago.
Still, sci-fi isn’t only extrapolations on contemporary conditions. There is also room for more intangible, less linear explorations. Among the themes that frequently seems to pop up in the genre are the existentialist quandaries that arise when humans leave their organic cradle and venture into the vastness of space. Left with nothing to hold on to but a homicidal artificial intelligence, Bowman is, for example, both physically and psychologically out of his element and struggles to make sense of it all in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. The still and incomprehensible vastness of space falls in marked contrast to the deafening, immediate roar of human inner turmoil and Bowman is eventually sent sailing through a psychedelic mindfuck of purple mountains and space tunnels for 20-odd-minutes. Space brings the frailty of the human mind to the fore, we’re left wondering what just kind of eerie cosmic insanity the alien overlords have beamed into our hero’s feeble, mortal brain, and it’s all deliciously unnerving.
We obviously make no secret of the fact that Stanley Kubrick’s epic science fiction masterpiece that gave our designers the reoccurring monolith and the name for the TMA-1 (‘Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-1’) headphones holds a very special place in our sci-fi-loving hearts. And it’s safe to say that we’re far from the only ones who’ve been affected by the far-reaching ramifications of science-fiction. Artists like Cybotron, Com Truise, Boards of Canada and Kuedo, – who are not so coincidentally among our favorite producers – are all indebted to the aesthetic legacy and, of course, the soundtracks of sci-fi movies. Maybe it’s the exploratory, wide-eyed aspects of the genre that fuels the imagination of a certain kind of creative. Pretty much anything goes in sci-fi and that sense of limitless possibility could very well be the catalyst for some of that life-changingly great music.
Okay, time to keep our initial promise and venture into the list. We will now boldly go where quite a few people have probably gone before: into an internet top 20 about sci-fi. In no particular order, here are our favorites. Read on and get your nerd on.
Up until the early 90s, public television had a monopoly on the Danish airwaves, which is why everybody at school had seen the first Danish screening of Aliens. Recounting how that alien punched a hole from within that kid’s stomach (a kid who was around our age at the time), we loudly competed in expressing our disgust and unfettered admiration for James Cameron's gross and awesome sci-fi masterpiece in our little corner of the school yard. Time has passed and some of effects haven’t aged that well, but our estimation remains the same: Aliens is one of the most exhilaratingly scary sci-fi movies ever made.
A bleak, time-traveling trip of a movie and the definitive proof that Brad Pitt is so much more than a pretty face. 12 Monkeys sees the A-lister ferret manically around as he attempts to free a heavily sedated, drooling Bruce Willis from an insane asylum. Like David Lynch, Terry Gilliam masters the art of suggestion: that is, he creates a narrative filled with atmosphere, ambiguity and unanswered questions, which leaves you with room to let your imagination run cray.
Was or was Deckard played by Harrison Ford a replicant? The age-old question that…most people don’t care about. But that doesn’t mean that we can debate the topic endlessly and senselessly until the electric sheep come home. The action in Ridley Scott’s noir-thriller is a bit slow-paced for some, but they miss the point entirely. The point being that Blade Runner is about losing yourself in a dense, dystopian world made up of soaring Vangelis synths, a bittersweet atmosphere and breathtaking visuals.
2001: A Space Odyssey
No getting around this one. We suspect we’ll have trouble explaining it to our kids once they become old enough to watch it/once we have them. Because if Blade Runner seems slow-paced, 2001 is the motion picture equivalent of a beaten-down, malfunctioning C3P0 dragging himself through the Tatooine desert with 6 furry ewoks weighing down his gilded frame. But it’s also insanely beautiful. To the point where you feel yourself comprehending elusive greater truths about humanity. Just how many stimulants went into the conceptualisation of the monolith, HAL and the ‘cosmic baby’ we’ll probably never know. But we do know this: Stanley Kubrick’s mindbendingly ambitious film leaves an indelible mark on whoever watches it – for better or worse.
The aliens, the Nigerian thugs, the cat food and that accent; District 9 blew everything out of the water when it was released 4 years ago. On a relatively modest budget, Neil Blomkamp crafted an intense, thrilling and unpredictable narrative the likes of which had never really been seen before. The South African director’s next movie, Elysium, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster is out next month and you’d be well-advised not to sleep on it.
As Fie so eloquently put it in her AIAIAI sci-fi post a while back:’ What Solaris may lack in advanced visual effects, Tarkovskij's beautifully melancholic space-tale makes up for with its ominous ambience, its sensuous pace and the evocative images of the surface of an arcane extraterrestrial sea.’ We stand by that. Quick note: the remake of Solaris featuring George Clooney is actually not that bad, but the original is far superior, so watch that first.
A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick makes the list again with his tale of jockstrap-wearing, delinquent youths who hang out in milkbars and get up to no good with elderly tramps and young divotchkas. Wendy Carlos Moog synthesized soundtrack had a huge influence of a generation of electronic musicians and Malcolm McDowell’’s performance as Alex, the Beethoven-loving sociopath, is mesmerizing and unsettling. In other words, go watch it right now if you haven’t seen it.
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
To be honest, those early Star Wars movies have aged poorly but we can’t not have Star Wars in this list, you know? What’s more, they’re still a hell of a lot better than that airbrushed, CGI rubbish that George Lucas pulled out of his beard the last time round. And Return of the Jedi has Jabba the Hut in it. NUFF SAID.
A flop at the box office but a firm favorite with the critics, this idiosyncratic ‘neo-noir science-fiction film’ from 1998 is quite unlike anything else out there.
Three-breasted women live on Mars in this somewhat campy B-movie featuring the one and only Governator. While we may not agree with his politics, we can’t fault Arnie’s sci-fi steez. Running Man included.
The last two Matrix movies were filled with weirdness (and not the good kind), untimely dreadlocks and logical inconsistencies, but the first one was right on the money. Tapping in to the Cartesian philosophical assumption, that the world is an elaborate illusion created to deceive us, the Wachowski brothers took it one step further and created a world where we are being grown and harvested in the physical world while existing mentally in an illusory, manufactured world. Yup. Still rules.
Remember this? That movie featuring Michael York and Peter Ustinov where people stand around a colourful carousel and shout at people who are unwittingly levitating to their death? No? Then it’s time to watch it because the set design in incredible and Logan’s Run generally makes you mindful of the fact that the 70s was a great period for imaginative, thought-provoking sci-fi.
Children of Men
By now you’ve probably realized that we have a soft spot for dark/dystopian/post-apocalyptic sci-fi. The eponymous, Clive Owen-featuring film-adaption of P.D. James’ classic novel falls squarely into that category with its ingeniously constructed narrative that explores a scenario in which the human race has lost the ability to procreate. Endorsed by bearded, academic rockstar Slavoj Zizek, this affecting, nightmarish thriller takes you on an unforgettable ride into the unknown while pondering what it means to be human.
Never Let me Go
A devastatingly sad meditation on life, death and everything in between, Never Let Me Go is a real tear-jerker that gest under your skin and stays with you for days. Apparently the book is better, but we haven’t read that so who are we to play erudite literature snobs?
All up in your face with its 90sness, Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman star in this elegant drama that poses poignant questions about bio-engineering and societal hierarchies. If you’re allergic to kitsch and rubber masks, Gattaca is the science-fiction fix for you.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
On the other hand, if you’re really into kitsch and rubber masks (like us), Planet of the Apes is where it’s at. The thing about POA is that the basic premise of monkeys taking over the planet because of human ineptitude and aggression is executed mercilessly and intensely, so much so that you’re inclined to believe the viability of it. Kind of. This, the latest addition and prequel to the POA franchise is, in our opinion, its finest effort, which may irk some of the purists, but there you go.
Lo-fi sci-fi from Britain featuring Lucy Liu that many people haven’t heard of and that’s a crying shame as Cypher is a thrilling ride through a future where corporate espionage and double agents hold the world in a dark, vicelike grip. It might not have the biggest FX budget, but it weaves a very compelling story nonetheless.
This skilfully devised, wonderfully executed Canadian horror movie about a group of people with no previous attachment or memory of how they woke up in a permuatating cube of death together, is not for the faint of heart. It is, however, an intense, unpredictable and rewarding joyride if you can stomach all that gore and paranoia.
Back to the Future II
Doc Brown rocked some krazy threads, the car was a lot more badass and the vision of an imminent future was hugely entertaining with its power-lacing Nikes, hoverboard and witch-house Biff Tannen. What Back to the Future II lacked in time-erasing guitar solos, it made up for in flamboyant future shock.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
DUN DUN DUN DUN DUUUUUUUUUN! The five notes that sends a regular family man over the edge of sanity and into creating an unsightly trash mountain in his own livingroom to the fervent dismay of his wife and children. The aliens are communicating with him and he must do their unsanitary bidding. Other than that, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a brave, no-holds-barred exploration of alien contact. The 70s, it would, seem was the decade where sci-fi held a particularly strong sway with the public’s imagination. And Steven Spielberg’s masterful rendition of the first close encounter was, in our humble opinion, one of the era’s finest moments.
Enough is enough. We could go on and on until the present becomes the future and it all has to end somewhere, so let’s cut it short at 20 and call it a day on the science fiction. We've hope you've enjoyed the read, don't forget to tell us if we've missed a movie or two in the comments below and live long and prosper.