Most science fiction movies that Hollywood spits out are really just action movies with light sci-fi trappings, providing an excuse to watch spaceships dogfight like fighter jets or giant robots smash each other to bits. Every so often, however, a serious sci-fi movie with some ideas on its mind will still get produced. Here are a few of our favorites.
Note that I asked our staff to try to highlight some lesser-known films beyond the obvious gut-reaction titles like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ or ‘Blade Runner’.
M. Enois Duarte
This is a tough question to answer, even after limiting the selection pool to off-the-beaten-path sci-fi films. There are many to choose from, so I’ll go with a fairly recent title that flew under almost everyone’s radar just a few years ago. Russian filmmaker Aleksey German, whose output is so incredibly sparse he’s only directed one movie per decade since 1968, gave science-fiction lovers one of the most unusual, thought-provoking films in a very long time. ‘Hard to Be a God‘ tells the tale of a group of scientists who travel to an Earth-like planet where the people are still technologically and culturally living in the Middle Ages. Much of this is due to a viciously oppressive ruling class and the disgustingly unjust laws of a tyrannical king. The scientists are there simply to observe and conduct minor experiments without interfering with the political turmoil or the lives of the people, but one scientist who calls himself Don Rumata can’t stand being witness to the cruelty and decides to help the people, who end up thinking of him as a god.
From there, the film explores deep, troubling questions about our innate desire for greed and power, the tools and methods we use for maintaining a hierarchical order, and the terrible ways we justify cruelty, injustice, and the shaming of intelligence and those deemed different from the status quo. It’s truly a remarkable film that should not only be watched but also studied and discussed because it will leave much to ponder and decipher.
While I certainly can’t claim that the 1981 film ‘Looker‘ is either a masterwork or especially heady on the level of a ‘2001’, it’s nevertheless a potent yarn that’s just waiting to be rediscovered. I’m a big fan of Michael Crichton’s work, and I love that his writing seems to be able to make just about any sci-fi concept both accessible and entertaining. ‘Looker’ is full of dated material wrapped up in a trashy plot about murdered supermodels, but it includes transforming TV commercial sets featuring reproduced actors (rather than, say, actual 3D rendering) and goons run amok with ‘Men in Black’ memory/light weapons. If ‘Westworld’ can be re-mined, then the corrupt players of ‘Looker’ ought to be right at home in the current (and future) media landscape.
This is a difficult week for me – not because I don’t like science fiction, but because I love both hardcore science fiction (‘Ex Machina’) and stories that take a loose sci-fi concept and explore the human side of it (‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ or ‘Gattaca’). For my pick, I’ve chosen a movie that’s a good blend of the two: ‘Contact‘.
I love both Carl Sagan’s novel and Robert Zemeckis’ film. The screenplay is a faithful representation that only tweaks those elements that might work on page but wouldn’t work on the screen.
My favorite theme commonly explored in the genre is God (or a “higher power”) versus science. ‘Contact’ takes that head-on with a central character who strictly believes only in what can be proven, but ultimately experiences something that she can’t explain and has to ask the world to have faith in her. Her character arc is strong and relatable. Jodie Foster portrays her wonderfully on-screen.
Another element of science fiction that I love is an open ending that allows you to make up your own mind on certain events or outcomes. It sparks conversation and extends the experience beyond the page or closing credits. Both the novel and film ‘Contact’ lend different ideas to support the question. If only every genre could keep you pondering and debating its contents as much as science fiction. For me, that’s one of the things that make it the most engaging and rewarding.
With George Clooney as its star, Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh behind the camera, and James Cameron producing, the team’s 2002 sci-fi opus ‘Solaris‘ ought to have been a smash hit. It didn’t work out that way, unfortunately.
A remake of an almost impenetrably cerebral 1972 film from Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky, Soderbergh’s version cuts the running time by nearly half and adds a glossier sheen of modern visual effects spectacle, but retains the core ideas and intellectual weight. Clooney plays a psychologist dispatched to a distant space station when its crew refuses to come home. Once he gets there, he discovers that the planet the station orbits somehow has the power to manifest copies of deceased loved ones from each person’s memories – including his own wife. This has driven many of the crew to madness and suicide. The longer he’s exposed to this phenomenon, Clooney’s character is forced to confront troubling questions about the difference between reality and memory, and what truly makes a person “real.”
This is pretty heady stuff for a space movie, with nary a laser pistol or explosion to be found anywhere. The studio had no idea how to market it, and tried to sell it as a love story (which isn’t quite accurate). Creepily unsettling posters displayed a tight close-up of Clooney frenching Natascha McElhone. The romance crowd didn’t buy into this ploy at all, and the sci-fi fans who showed up for the spaceships loathed the movie’s slow pacing and lack of action. The film was a terrible box office dud, and even critics were mixed on it. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating and thought-provoking movie ripe for rediscovery. Sadly, it has yet to be released on Blu-ray. Although you can find it in high-definition on some streaming platforms, they’re inexplicably limited to basic stereo sound, when even the DVD had 5.1. The movie deserves better treatment than it has received.
Tell us about your favorite smart sci-fi movies in the Comments.