Since the arrival of the internet innumerable lists have been made of the greatest science fiction films of all time, and reading them has provided a pretty good indication of how diverse and multi-faceted the genre is. As countdowns like these will always be essentially personal and subjective assessments on form, theme, cinematic style and general aesthetic appreciation, it’s an almost foregone conclusion that drawing up such lists entails waiting for the wave of criticism, scorn, refutations, approval and ambivalence which inevitably follow. Well I happily cry ‘bring it on!’
If there’s one genre of movies which people find cause to celebrate or condemn it’s science fiction, a field which lies close to our hearts precisely because it can inspire the best inside each of us, lay bare our darkest fears and express our deepest desires. The films below run the gauntlet between numinous wonder and existential despair, philosophical rumination and nail biting action. Where they relate is in the self-conscious attempt to artistically convey the un-conveyable and reveal aspects of humanity which disturb as often as they elevate.
10) A Scanner Darkly (2006)
The first Philip K Dick adaptation on this list and probably the more faithful one, a Scanner Darkly tells the tale of a group of chronic drug users struggling to hold on to reality as the surrounding police state slowly chokes the circle and turns them against each other. With undercover cops and informants at every turn and the bewildering, split personality inducing, effects of the powerful psychotic ‘Substance D’, trust is in short supply, compounding the sense of terminal isolation. As a caustic analysis of the war on drugs, the film is frighteningly contemporary in its portrayal of a total surveillance society, the personal anxiety caused by an omnipresent authority and the social disintegration that follows as relationships are eroded by mistrust.
Richard Linklater successfully captures the author’s paranoid vision of addiction, whilst the character’s attempt to puzzle out an ‘objective’ viewpoint amidst the narcotic haze is at once darkly comical and highly dislocating. Filmed with the wonderfully weird ‘rotoscaping’ animation method, the film weaves a fluid visual narrative between dream and waking delusion in a world, where reality shifts and identities blur at an alarming rate. The animation also cleverly makes the futuristic elements, such as those fantastic hallucinatory ‘scramble suits’, seem an integral part of the world without losing its surreal feel.
9) Children of Men (2006)
Alfonso Cuaron’s detailed alternative reality depicts a society on the edge of complete collapse as a worldwide infertility crisis reaches its 19th year. As humanity stares extinction in the face, the worst attributes of mankind are unleashed as barbarism and savagery sweep the globe. Nihilistic despair causes the breakdown of civil society as religious militants and apocalyptic groups conduct terrorist campaigns against a fascist UK state, one of the few left standing, while the government hands out suicide kits and tries to suppress the escalating madness.
As a picture of urban decay the film is remorseless in its realism. The rundown degeneration of the buildings, the ubiquitous animated propaganda, the widespread poverty of an economy on the rocks, the squatter settlements and the energy shortages, provide a terrifying authenticity to every scene. The explosive gruesome violence and the exquisitely handled long camera shots give the film a devastating grittiness that is often a rarity in modern action sequences that rely on CGI special effects and over the top machismo. Ultimately what really sets this film apart is the courageously speculative storyline, based on a highly inventive premise yet situated in a grimly recognisable universe.
8) The Thing (1982)
This cult classic adaptation of the science fiction short story ‘Who goes there?’, and remake of the earlier 1950’s feature, is a masterpiece of body horror and suspense. Situated in the frozen wastelands of Antarctica, John Carpenter portrays a first contact story which would have made E.T weep, as a parasitic shape-shifting creature from another world infiltrates a scientific base and proceeds to mimic its hosts. Aided by a creepy yet simplistic musical score and the bleak, dark outpost surroundings, the film builds up a paranoid and claustrophobic atmosphere to hideous proportions as the survivors are consumed by fear and suspicion. What makes this even more effective is the fact that none of the imitators act in any way outside their characters, to all intents and purposes nothing untoward can be gleaned from examining their appearance or personal behaviour.
Without a doubt one of the most important reasons for the Thing garnering such a huge fan base has been the appearance of the beast itself. While we never actually see the alien in its native form, its various monstrous incarnations, courtesy of some excellent animatronic effects, left an indelible mark on a whole generation of SF fans. At the heart of The Thing’s narrative is its portrayal of a cold, hostile universe where Darwinian competition has reached nightmarish conclusions and friendly intelligent life is little more than a parochial human fantasy.
7) Naked Lunch (1991)
David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the classic William S. Burroughs novel may be even less coherent than its famously unintelligible source. After accidently killing his wife, drug addict William Lee goes to the strange and hallucinatory state known as ‘Interzone’. Once there he writes reports for the giant insects who provide him with an array of bizarre consciousness altering drugs. This postmodernist science fiction story shuns conventional narrative methods for a surreal trip that blends reality, hallucinations, literature, and then revels in the mind twisting freedom this approach provides.
Interzone is home to duplicitous secret agent bugs, that masquerade as typewriters, paranoid monsters, physics defying metallurgists and the mainly homosexual, hedonistic authors whose insane writings appear to be the cause of it all. Lee’s brief moments of clarity find him back in 1950’s America, apparently in the middle of writing a novel. His heroic narcotic intake seems to cause him to hallucinate the story right onto the page, where he then finds himself living out an imaginary and horrifying new life. Naked Lunch is an incredibly impressive and original film, and one that makes no compromises to the viewer over its ambiguous meaning. It is easily amongst the most imaginative works of modern SF cinema.
6) Brazil (1985)
Brazil constitutes the second Terry Gilliam film, after Time Bandits, to explore the conflict between the human imagination and the dire, forlorn reality it finds itself in. As a piece of political satire Brazil is tremendous, demonstrating a failed Orwellian nightmare in action, with its blackly hilarious distortion of a bureaucratic dystopia, and a monolithic government so incompetent it regularly arrests the wrong people. Ostensibly the film can be seen as an attack on oppressive and stifling authority, yet it is so much more than that. Gilliam’s frustration with all aspects of western culture, politics and society are poured into this therapy session of a movie. Our obsession with vanity, evident in the ridiculous fashions and celebrity status of plastic surgeons, the petty minded officials who won’t turn off the tap without the correct forms, over engineered appliances that never work, the mountains of paperwork that literally swamp people; everything the director finds abhorrent is roundly mocked and satirized.
Even the technology is an exploration of retro-futurism with its brass and rubber gadgets, the maggot-like industrial ductwork, the primeval electronic equipment for high-tech ends, the constant visual suggestion that the future is run on steam. But perhaps most depressing of all is the simple alienation of people from each other and themselves as seen through the eyes of the frustrated and brow beaten main character, who’s only form of escape is in his dreams. Gilliam portrays a dystopia where the system doesn’t have to be efficient in order to win; it merely has to crush you under the weight of its all encompassing existence. Resistance is a fantasy.
5) A Clockwork Orange (1971)
From a classic totalitarian government to a violent anarchic future, where gangs of sociopathic youths stalk the streets, assaulting and raping unfortunate victims with near impunity. Stanley Kubrick’s stylistic exposé of yob culture, social repression, crime and punishment, caused more controversy than all of his previous work combined. Indeed the film makes huge efforts to alienate the viewer as much as possible with its mixture of old and new elements, the bowler hats and weird ‘milk bars’, the outrageous vulgarity, stark brutality and almost esoteric conversations on Beethoven and the connection to sexual violence.
The generation gap has grown to epic dimensions; amoral young hedonists react to their stultifying surroundings by chasing criminal pleasures, the wilfully ignorant older generation retreat behind closed doors, leaving it to an unaccountable political class to maintain order. The State’s response to this behaviour is of course more violence, with the psychopathic anti-hero Alex, subjected to a revolutionary new treatment to condition passivity into convicted murderers. The devastated social wreck that Alex becomes causes us to rethink our attitudes towards such dangerous malcontents. In a brutal society, should we not expect to find brutal people? In the end, without accepting or indentifying with his actions, we recognise that Alex’s ugly, warped nature is a product of his ugly, warped surroundings. As art, A Clockwork Orange was hugely influential and its primary themes of social commentary resonate just as well today as it ever did.
4) 12 Monkeys (1995)
Another Gilliam flick, this compelling and disorienting film is a spectacular mess of ideas, unbearable tension and lunatic narrative pacing. But there is method in the madness as Gilliam takes a conventional SF staple, time travel, and twists it into something truly ambitious. By 2035 only one percent of the population is still alive, desperately fighting for survival deep underground, the rest having been wiped out by an unknown virus. Convict James Cole is sent back in time on a mission to discover the origins of the plague. The problem is that Cole’s sanity is in question from the start; indeed it is unclear whether he was deemed insane by the authorities who incarcerated him. When he finds himself locked up in a 20th century mental asylum with a fellow crazy Jeffrey Goines, he begins to wonder himself. As he escapes from the asylum and is consequently sent to the right year, Cole and his psychiatrist Kathryn Railly, must track down a radical group with links to the virus, ‘the Army of the 12 Monkeys’.
Gilliam enjoys keeping the state of the two men’s mental health ambiguous, twisting and turning the plot and time-line in order to confuse the viewer, and throwing in the odd red herring for good measure. In terms of sheer inventiveness and visual imagination Gilliam has few equals, and coupled with the demanding storyline and mature treatment of SF themes, 12 Monkeys is easily one his most interesting and original works.
3) Alien (1979)
If there is one film that epitomises terror in space it is this one. One of the finest extraterrestrial encounters ever filmed, Alien proved that material long derided as B-movie fodder could be handled with finesse and be supported by big production values without succumbing to an overly sanitised screenplay. The suspense, horror and impressive characterisation were hugely influential in bringing the SF genre out of the domain of children’s fantasy and into a darker adult world. The awesome visuals are simply breathtaking, and H.R Giger’s vision of the alien itself is amongst the most memorable cinematic creations of its kind. Dripping aqueous slime and with acid for blood, the monster is terrifying, providing Ridley Scott with fantastic material in which to build on the trapped, hellish atmosphere.
It is hard to overstate the impact this film has had on SF horror. The claustrophobic, clinical interiors of the mining ship Nostromo, the metallic coldness of the set design and the contrasting warmth of the human characters, has since been regurgitated ‘ad nauseam’ by lesser filmmakers struggling to capture the sense of isolation of deep-space. The sheer visceral fear of sharing the dark, shadowy interiors of a huge spaceship with an utterly inhuman creature is an experience which few filmgoers are ever likely to forget. I still can’t think of on alien craft in cinema more disturbing than the cavernous one the hapless crew end up exploring in one of the most impressive scenes.
2) Blade Runner (1982)
The second Phillip K Dick adaptation on here and to date the most spectacular, Blade Runner is a masterpiece of direction that displays a fiercely uncompromising attitude to storytelling. Small wonder Ridley Scott thinks this is his best film, in all respects it absolutely is. The atmosphere of social decadence, world weariness and existential alienation is underscored by a musical repertoire which is as heart rending as anything on the screen. As the viewer follows retired cop Rick Deckard on his mission to hunt down a murderous gang of ‘replicants’ through the neon-lit streets of an industrialised LA, the real spiritual inspiration of the film reveals itself. Blade Runner is in fact riddled with film Noir references, from the narrative and shadowy visual style, to the down trodden characters; Deckard exists as a cynical, hard bitten, morally ambiguous personality, making a living amongst the sleaziest dregs of society, in a world were as usual the rich live lives of opulence while the rest make do in the dirty gaps.
Powerful performances all round only serve to enhance the stylised aesthetic and contribute to the moody, reflective atmosphere. The enigmatic replicant leader Roy Batty is a revelation as a complex, threatening presence that very nearly steals the show. The electrifying finale on the rain drenched rooftops of the city, remains probably the most profound and evocative moment in the history of SF cinema. With its poignant visual ruminations on the nature of existence, the questioning of what it means to be human and the evocative attempt to transcend destiny and biological limits, this has got to be high up on any self respecting SF list.
1) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Well, in all seriousness, what did you expect? Stanley Kubrick’s imagining of Arthur C. Clarke’s epic vision is quite simply a work of art. No SF film since has dared to address the scope and sheer majesty of a film which seeks to pose, and halfway answer, the deepest questions of humanity. Starting with the origin of man, and ending with the next stage in our evolution, the monumental ambition of this film is staggering. Everything from the construction of the huge centrifuge required for the zero g scenes to the complete absence of dialogue for the first and last half hour, marks a revolutionary approach to filmmaking. The minimalist narrative style only serves to emphasize the enormous themes Clarke and Kubrick set out to tackle: where are we going, what is the relationship between humanity and technology, what is our place in the universe? Although the psychedelic ambiguity of it all is frustrating, repeated viewings do reveal more of the message, providing insights that make for an incredibly satisfying experience.
On a personal level the film is cold and damning of human folly, barbarism and insignificance in the face of the silent vastness of space. Even our machines, which we rely on for our very survival, are but flawed reflections on a flawed species, failing to achieve their true potential. Yet strangely, just as human beings take on machine like characteristics, so do our machines take on human qualities. The death of the AI HAL9000 is deeply moving in sharp contrast to the seemingly emotionless drive of its human passengers. Despite the pessimistic outlook on human failings, on the cosmic scale the film seeks to inspire us, enlarge us in a way that truly transcends the primitive trappings of our animal past. It does not cater to human sensibilities in any way, rather through music, visuals and metaphor; it meditates on how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. No other film speaks more boldly to the pioneering spirit, or as comprehensively describes the transhumanist quest to change ourselves. Just as our ape forebears became the infant form of humankind, so we will become the infant form of the star faring beings who will expand life into our corner of the cosmos. Grandiose, mind blowing, pretentious, transforming, 2001 is all of these and more, holding its rightful place at the top spot.
It goes without saying that dozens of good SF movies are by necessity left out of the top ten, the question is which ones do you consider worthy of the grade. What does your top ten look like and why?