“Screen Lessons” is a new series on the 2 Shot where we focus on a particular theme, aesthetic, or person.
In honor of Christopher Nolan’s 45th birthday last month, Nick and Ryan turn their attention toward their preferred films in the sci-fi genre. These are their top ten picks released between 1979 and the present.
Nick’s Top Ten Science Fiction Movies 1979-2015
The definition of science fiction has always been fickle. For the sake of fun, it's best to recognize its parameters, particularly as a film genre, as something broader than its traditional understanding: scientific knowledge or conjecture. The following films, listed in alphabetical order, encapsulate my love for not only science fiction, but sci-fi combined with elements of fantasy, action, and horror.
Alien (1979), dir. Ridley Scott
How’s this for a strange hybrid: a sci-fi/horror film. Really, this mash-up is not unique to Alien, but after thirty-six years, Ridley Scott’s 1979 effort continues to represent a high watermark in the genre as it takes the tried and true concept of space travelers verses aliens and contorts it into something perverse and much more frightening; Scott’s direction, the editing, and the creature’s modus operandi all imply the greatest alienation: rape.
Back to the Future (1985), dir. Robert Zemeckis
Of the ten films on this list, B.T.T.F. is possibly the most “fun;” by comparison, it certainly isn’t as serious as the rest, but don’t confuse that as a negative takeaway; if anything, that contagious playfulness makes it all the more special.
The film’s tone and story’s creative spirit are premier reasons why B.T.T.F. resonates and has many of us considering certain hypotheticals: “if I could gun the DeLorean to 88 m.p.h., where — or in this case when — would I go; would I get along with my old man if I knew him when he was my age; what about Back to the Future Part IV?!
Blade Runner (1982), dir. Ridley Scott
A classic example of how a film’s reputation can transcend initial waves of critical and audience displeasure, cinephiles and scholars commonly declare Blade Runner — alongside Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) — as the best sci-fi cinema has to offer.
In this version of the ever-approaching future, 2019, the fruits of mankind’s labor come in the shape of many genre hallmarks: vast cityscapes drenched in neon; flying cars moving nimbly through the sky; and genetically engineered robots called replicants who walk among humans. However, in this doom and gloom version of the future, these feats of human ingenuity are a scab on the earth’s skin: L.A. is collapsing under its own girth and perpetual rainfall, crime is rampant, and replicants are either on the run or fighting against the perceived injustices they suffer at the hands of their creators.
It takes a few visits to resonate, but when it does, Blade Runner not only entertains, it also provokes us to consider humanity, faith, and the future we may get against the one we deserve.
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), dir. Irvin Kershner
Commonly cited as the strongest entry in the Star Wars saga and a reminder of what a good sequel is capable of, Empire builds upon the sandbox built for A New Hope (1977) without bursting the balloon.
Here is escapism in top form. Playful, yet dark; extraordinary, but anchored by an ensemble of believable characters and emotions we recognize in ourselves. It’s little wonder why this particular entry in the Star Wars saga is so enduring.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), dir. Steven Spielberg
Science fiction is sometimes criticized as a genre that takes itself overly seriously. On the other hand, there are sci-fi purists who disapprove of films with a beating heart and and the slightest signs of a funny bone. I say there is room for both. E.T.‘s place on this list is a testament to that.
Bar-none the most emotional film on this list and arguably one of Steven Spielberg’s most rewarding works, E.T.‘s premier strength, or weakness for those of you inclined to prefer your sci-fi to be more mature, is its sentimental nature.
In a day and age where people are unlikely to consider the possibility they are wrong, it’s useless to convince a viewer of a film’s worth when they simply do not connect with the story, in this case getting viewers to empathize with two outcasts — a little boy and a peculiar looking alien far from his home — finding a friend in the other. For many reasons, but primarily because I see sentimentality as something more than fodder for negative critiques, E.T. becomes an exception where I want people to connect with this story of friendship so much I am willing to wear that person down until we are in agreement .
Inception (2010), dir. Christopher Nolan
“What is the most resilient parasite?” asks Inception‘s protagonist, Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). “Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm?” No. The answer he is fishing for is an idea; Cobb contends that once a fully formed and understood idea lodges itself into the recesses of the mind, there is no shaking it off.
Cobb could very well be echoing the personal sentiments of his creator, writer and director Christopher Nolan, who had developed his ideas for the story of “dream extractors” for years. Having proven his abilities of balancing spectacle and realism together, Inception was finally realized after The Dark Knight (2008) and today holds up as one of the most original, thought-provoking, and fun films to come out of the industry in over a decade.
If you have not yet seen the film, take note: it requires your attention, demands that you think, and necessitates you flex your imagination. Dream big.
Jurassic Park (1993), dir. Steven Spielberg
For viewers who grew up in the nineties on a steady diet of Jurassic Park and its sequels, it’s easy to overlook its brains. Here was a science fiction film that finally managed to bring the human race and dinosaurs together in a convincing manner. Since its release, scholars have bemoaned both the science that brought these animals back into existence and the details of the creatures themselves (Spielberg’s velociraptors stand more menacing than the real thing). While those scientists are correct, they are unfortunately missing out on the fun factor J.P., and science fiction itself, has to offer. At one point in all our lives, did we not play with dinosaur toys and imagine, “what if…?”
Signs (2002), dir. M. Night Shyamalan
At Signs‘ core is the overarching theme of belief, not just in extraterrestrial life, but in the existence of faith itself.
Mel Gibson’s Graham Ness self-identifies primarily as a father and brother, but no longer as a man of faith. During a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that his wife was killed by a driver asleep at the wheel some years ago. Bitter, Graham steps away from his position at the church to raise his two children with his younger brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), and tend to the family farm.
That’s when the lights in the sky appear.
As the brothers watch the news coverage late into the evening, Graham explains to Merrill that people will see the lights and fall into one of two groups; one that sees the lights as “a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them.” The other group sees the lights as “fifty-fifty. Could be bad, could be good,” but whatever it is they feel as if they are on their own.
With that, Signs resonates on a personal level as it points a scope back at ourselves leading us to consider which group each of us might fall into during uncertain times. Are you the kind of person who believes in blind luck or miracles?
The Terminator (1984), dir. James Cameron
A string of uninspired and ultimately pointless sequels will not tarnish The Terminator‘s legacy. Original; skillfully crafted; stylish; terrifying. James Cameron’s story presents viewers with a vision of an apocalyptic future where machines have overthrown the human race. Those who survived Judgement Day — the moment the machines turned — have scurried underground like rats to a sewer.
The most frightening aspect of the film is not the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) itself, but having the burden of knowing how it all ends and being completely unprepared to stop it.
The Thing (1982), dir. John Carpenter
Proclaiming The Thing as “the ultimate in alien terror,” John Carpenter and his production team went for broke and presented viewers with much more than quick glances at the creature from another planet; instead, the camera examines the contours of the Thing’s ever-changing shape in a series of long shots. In a pre-CGI heavy Hollywood, the details are impressive and, yes, as disgusting today as in 1982.
Watch it with the lights off.
Ryan’s Top Ten Science Fiction Movies 1979-2015
What is "Science Fiction?" What does Science Fiction do? The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling defined it as "the improbable made possible." Science Fiction is based, to some degree, on actuality. If given a certain technology or certain circumstance, what would happen? For Chris McKitterick, Science Fiction is truly about change. It poses a question and explores it, thereby exploring humanity and its current place in the universe. Whether it depicts the past or the future, Science Fiction is about the present. It was very difficult choosing just ten films to list here. There were many fine candidates. I decided to focus on films that are affecting, films that try to say something about life, society, or the human condition. Some of these are personal favorites and a little more playful than the others, but there's nothing wrong with play. Indeed, play is a wonderful thing. Nick and I share two picks (Alien and Back to the Future), but the others differ. Nick's takes on those two movies are shared by me, so I won't elaborate on them below. I love seeing the variety that different, yet similar, tastes bring to these types of creative projects.
Alien (1979), dir. Ridley Scott
Back to the Future (1985), dir. Robert Zemeckis
Children of Men (2006), dir. Alfonso Cuarón
Cuarón gives a real shining cinematic light in Children of Men. In 2027, the United Kingdom has become a refuge and a dystopia. Political violence, upheavals, totalitarian crackdowns, and human infertility are the norms in this world. We see humanity at its worst (xenophobia, murder, hatred) and at its best (the preciousness of life and hope in a dim world).
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), dir. Michel Gondry
Eternal Sunshine is an amazingly inventive, beautiful look at memory, love, and loss. What if we could erase those pesky painful memories of former loves? But in forgetting, we don’t simply lose memories. We lose part of ourselves, part of what makes us who we are. The leads (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) learn this first hand, with the film’s ending suggesting they are doomed to fall in and out of love forever.
Minority Report (2002), dir. Steven Spielberg
This is one of my favorite films. Period. Great performances, great style, great story, great action, and an interesting philosophical/ethical bent to boot. Haunted by his past, John Anderton (Tom Cruise) looks to the future to stop murder before it even happens. Do we decide our fate? Or are we simply on a path that is predetermined? The production team also went to great lengths to design the futuristic 2050s elements of the movie.
The Prestige (2006), dir. Christopher Nolan
This is the only “historical” Science Fiction film on either of our lists. Well, that’s if you don’t count The Empire Strikes Back, which took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The magic, sleight of hand, and illusions in The Prestige are quite entertaining. This is largely a film about obsession, a subject in which Nick and I are quite interested. Our two leads, one a showman (Hugh Jackman) and the other a street level magician (Christian Bale), begin as dear friends. That friendship sours over time, eroded by blame, hatred, jealousy, and lusts for revenge. Not only does Christopher Nolan show us the lengths these men will go to one-up each other, but we see the results – the scars, both physical and psychological.
RoboCop (1987), dir. Paul Verhoeven
I’d buy that for a dollar.
Excessively gory, bloody, and foul-mouthed, RoboCop is a shockingly deep movie. It considers subjects like loss, humanity, artificial intelligence, American culture, and corporate corruption. Peter Weller is fantastic in this movie.
Solaris (2002), dir. Steven Soderbergh
A lot of critics thought this movie was garbage. “I don’t get it.” “It’s too heady.” Those are the types of complaints some bellowed out back then. Soderbergh’s Solaris is gorgeous. It’s an emotional treatise on love and loss (huh, I’m seeing a theme with a lot of my picks…), more specifically the lengths we go to cling to those we have loved and lost. On a space station orbiting the strange planet Solaris, crew members are visited by reincarnations of their dead loved ones. The problem, though, is that fantasies are not meant to be realized. While the living find solace, the reincarnated find despair. As Žižek states in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), there’s another name for fantasy realized: nightmare.
Under the Skin (2013), dir. Jonathan Glazer
Jonathan Glazer takes human life and turns it alien. I’m not aware of another movie that does that as good, nor one that does that at all. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien on Earth that lures men to their doom. This is a movie about flesh — the corporeal human body — and all the trappings that come with it; both pleasures (sexuality, sensory pleasures such as taste) and pains (rape, assault, death). At its heart, Under the Skin is a feminist tale, and I find it to be a monumental cinematic achievement.
WarGames (1983), dir. John Badham
“Is this a game,” asks David (Matthew Broderick), “or is it real?”
“What’s the difference,” replies supercomputer Joshua.
WarGames is a great Cold War-era comedic thriller that explores, like its predecessor Dr. Strangelove, failures in communication that threaten to bring about global thermonuclear war and the general madness of MAD (mutually-assured destruction). The film raises interesting philosophical questions about simulations and reality. If we can’t distinguish actuality from a simulation, then, indeed, “what’s the difference?”
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
District 9 (2009)
Galaxy Quest (1999)
The Iron Giant (1999)
The Matrix (1999)
Men in Black (1997)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
The Road (2009)
Source Code (2011)
Star Trek (2009)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
V for Vendetta (2006)