Ten Great Science Fiction Movies (You Probably Haven't Seen)
Science fiction used to be considered just kid stuff. That was until the late 60s when Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey came along. When Star Wars premiered in 1977 it proved that science fiction could be big box office too and the genre became part of mainstream studio thinking. But while science fiction films are now some of the biggest blockbuster movies in history, there are a number of smaller and lesser known science fiction films out there that are definitely worth seeing. This is a list of ten of those. They may not have huge budgets for special effects, but they all have big ideas and the courage to explore them. Sadly, they have remained unseen by many film fans. I hope this hub will help them find their way into just a few more people's hearts.
Not the movie with George Clooney, which was pretty boring, but the original Russian version by Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovky’s version can be a little frustrating if you are expecting Star Wars. The film is basically a ghost story, with a living planet manifesting dead loved ones for the crew of a space station, but it is also one of the most deep and moving science fiction films ever made. Tarkovsky’s films have a reputation for being “difficult” but this three-hour science fiction film is probably his most accessible work.
DARK STAR (1974)
John Carpenter would become well known with Halloween and Dan O’Bannon would make a name for himself by writing Alien but before that they made this very low budget space movie as film students. Essentially a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie is about astronauts going crazy with boredom and loneliness as well as dealing with a wacky alien and a computer that has a mind of its own. This film is a must for fans of low budget B-movies and for science fiction geeks, who will have fun picking out the references to different sci-fi stories and themes.
A BOY AND HIS DOG (1975)
Based on a novella by Harlan Ellison written after the death of a beloved dog, this is one of the quirkiest post-apocalyptic films ever made. A young man (Don Johnson) aided by his telepathic dog tries to survive in a world ravaged by nuclear war but what he is really looking for is sex. Both the story and the film have been accused of misogyny but I think this is misplaced since the kind of society that the film portrays would certainly make these kinds of scenarios very plausible. The movie has become a cult classic over the years but still remains unseen by many.
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)
British Director Nicolas Roeg is known for his dreamlike imagery and unconventional cutting style. That makes his adaptation of the science fiction novel by Walter Tevis more an art film than a mainstream crowd pleaser but featuring David Bowie as the lead and some of Roeg’s most stunning visuals it has become a cult classic. Like Solaris it may be harder for some to get into, with all the time jumps and odd cutting causing a disjointed narrative, but it remains a fascinating work of sci-fi cinema, one that every science fiction fan should experience.
REPO MAN (1984)
The debut film by British filmmaker Alex Cox, it developed quite a cult following and helped establish Cox as a filmmaker to watch. (Though his career has since taken a nosedive.) Emilio Estevez plays a n aimless punk rocker who takes a job repossessing cars but gets mixed up in conspiracy over a car with alien material in the trunk. Offbeat and weird for its own sake Repo Man is the work of a young filmmaker trying to make an impression and along with Cox’s second film, Sid and Nancy, will probably remain one of the works he is most famous for.
THE ELEMENT OF CRIME (1984)
Before Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier became famous for co-creating the movement called Dogma 95, he made genre films. One of those is this brilliant little sci-fi noir. A detective film taking place in a dystopia, it is often compared with Blade Runner released just two years earlier, but it is much weirder and reminds me a bit of the later Terry Gilliam film 12 Monkeys. (Which could also be argued to be an example of sci-fi noir.) A little seen gem this sci-fi thriller deserves a much bigger audience.
Arguably the most famous film on this list, I still think Terry Gilliam’s mad vision is very underrated. A satiric version of 1984, Gilliam’s film is a vision of a dystopian future where nothing works because of a huge and muddled bureaucracy. What the movie explores is the common Gilliam theme of the value of fantasy to the human mind, but it also predicts so many absurd elements of our modern society that just seemed silly in 1985 when the movie was made. I still think 12 Monkeys and Tideland are Gilliam’s best films but this one is just a slight bit under.
STRANGE DAYS (1995)
Yet another sci-fi noir, this one directed by Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow. The premise is dated; taking place in 1999 (only a few years from when the film was made) it is built around hysteria over the end of the world. Ralph Fiennes plays a man who sells virtual reality disks of other people’s experiences but is himself obsessed with his past with a former love. (Juliette Lewis.) He inadvertently gets mixed up with murder and conspiracy and gets help from his friend, a bodyguard. (Angela Bassett) Co-written by James Cameron it has many of the themes that are common in Cameron’s films but Bigelow is a totally different director, liking to play with audience expectations and pre-conceived notions. Watching the interplay between Fiennes and Bassett alone makes this film worth seeing.
Coming out the same year as The Matrix, eXistenZ was overshadowed as a much lower budget take on a virtual reality world. Inspired by the fatwa issued on Salman Rushdie, the film is about a video game designer who is marked for death by a “realist” group. The charge is that her virtual reality games make it difficult to know the difference between fantasy and reality which is the theme that this film explores. Written and Directed by David Cronenberg, it is a bit of semi sequel to his own Videodrome which explored these same themes using television. But this film is much funnier, using black comedy and pointed satire to point out the desensitizing of the modern world.
Made for only $7,000, Primer is a wonder of micro-budget filmmaking. What it is about is two guys discover the secret to time travel. Having no idea what to do with it they first set out to use it for personal gain. The result is one of the most confusing and fascinating movies ever made. Most time travel movies ignore what the use of such a technology would mean but writer-director Shane Carruth, a former engineer, doesn’t take any of the actual implications or actual science out. It may take you a few viewing to understand this one.
More by this Author
An overview of the development of alternative cinema, from the silent era to the current underground.
Ten lesser known vampire films for people looking for great vampire movies that they might not have seen.
An overview for college students of how to approach taking a course in philosophy.