You know what they say, there’s no time like… the future! Our writers have been thinking just that, and have put together a list of their favourite sci-fi flicks.
Arrival (2016), dir. Denis Villeneuve
Denis Villeneuve’s thoughtful, poignant Arrival imagines a realistic scenario of the future where the world is faced by alien invasion, centring on a key aspect of human relations that binds us together whilst it tears us apart: language. Based on Ted Chiang’s short story ‘Story of Your Life’, the film follows linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), enlisted by the US Army as 12 extraterrestrial pods appear across Earth without warning. While world leaders convene to discuss action over this alleged invasion, Banks and Donnelly are tasked with working out how to communicate with the alien species and discover their true purpose before tensions across the globe lead to all-out war. Although the visuals are breathtaking (especially the ink-blotted alien symbols), the film’s greatest strength, as with all the best sci-fi, is its discussion of societal issues through the prism of futuristic concepts. In this case, it is our perception of language which is handled in an engaging and intuitive manner thanks to Eric Heisserer’s expertly written screenplay. Emotional revelations are slowly uncovered that beg for repeat viewings, the drama led by the excellent chemistry between Adams and Renner and slick direction from Villeneuve. Quite rightly, Arrival is already regarded as a modern sci-fi classic.
Blade Runner (1982), dir. Ridley Scott
The cult classic Blade Runner, set in a dystopian future, has served as an influence for countless other sci-fi films, as well as video games, anime and TV shows due to its postmodern style and dynamic visuals. Ridley Scott’s movie resonated with fears surrounding the growing ubiquity of technology, delving into the implications of its multifarious uses whilst presenting a paranoid landscape of unchecked corporate power and genetic programming – where replicants live uneasily alongside humans. At first look this may seem like a standard sci-fi tale but it also portrays the clash between American and Japanese cultures. Blade Runner’s polyglot future has a strong Japanese presence, linking to contemporary US fears of a ‘Japanese takeover’. Its trendsetting nature and many underlying messages prove just why Scott’s film is an all-time great.
Blade Runner 2049 (2018), dir. Denis Villeneuve
Blade Runner was certainly a hard act to follow, especially given the reputation sequels and remakes of classic films have. Point Break, the last few Terminator movies, pretty much every Die Hard sequel, to name just a few, have failed miserably. Any scepticism over a Blade Runner sequel was thus understandable. Fortunately, Denis Villeneuve knocked it out of the park. Blade Runner 2049 is not a love letter to the original. Instead, it builds on it, deepening our knowledge of the world with an interesting central character that doesn’t simply copy Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard. Ryan Gosling as replicant K is empathetic with a strong character arc. While it continues the story of the original, this isn’t used as a crutch or for cheap nostalgia. Blade Runner 2049 is perhaps the most intelligent film of the 2010s. What a shame that it didn’t make much money in cinemas, much like the original.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), dir. Steven Spielberg
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, sci-fi films ever. Spielberg’s director’s cut could even give Blade Runner a run for its money (controversial, I know). It follows Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, a man whose life drastically changes after an encounter with a UFO. Visions of the spacecraft slowly take over his life and the lives of others who have also seen it, culminating in a beautiful, orchestrally rich finale. A passion project for Spielberg, the film combines ideas of extraterrestrial contact and government conspiracy with more personal themes of masculine shame, family and mental health struggles. The five-note sequence played in the final scene is legendary, arguably the most iconic musical theme in sci-fi history (and the scene itself is absolutely mesmerising). If you haven’t seen this landmark film, credited with revitalising the genre, it should definitely be the next movie on your watchlist.
Ex Machina (2014), dir. Alex Garland
Although it’s categorised as a science-fiction movie, Alex Garland’s masterpiece Ex Machina reveals just as much about the human condition as it does about AI technology – and just as much about the present as it does the future. The film follows Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb, a programmer who wins an office competition to visit the luxurious home of CEO Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac), who reveals to him a humanoid robot that he has built named Ava. Nathan tasks Caleb with helping determine whether or not Ava is capable of intelligent and independent thought. Ex Machina shares the twisted creativity of Black Mirror, also portraying human behaviour with a warranted pessimism. More than just a sci-fi, Ex Machina poses interesting questions about AI ethics and what it means to be human. It is sharp, dark and refreshingly honest – not one to watch unless you don’t mind feeling uncomfortable.
Her (2013), dir. Spike Jonze
Spike Jonze’s Her is a tender love story set in the near future, focusing on the moustached Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) – whose job involves handwriting personal letters for people who can’t compose letters themselves. Theodore falls in love with his Operating System Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) while he begrudgingly proceeds with the self-reflexive process of finalizing a divorce. Her is an emotional rollercoaster, taking you through the highs of honeymoon-phase romance and the lows of lonely heartbreak in a relatable sci-fi setting. Science-fiction films usually have vivid or bleak colour palettes, and Her manages to juggle both with a muted Los Angeles contrasted by pastel costuming that feels more past than future. Arcade Fire fill the soundscape with softly orchestrated, melancholic piano ballads and the whirring buzz of synths. Criminally, the Oscar-nominated soundtrack is unavailable physically or digitally. By juxtaposing humanity’s inherent desire for love and sociability with our increasing reliance on technology for social means, the film sparks poignant realisations and a gratitude for connectivity. Watching Her for the first time hit me hard; it reduced me to tears, reminding me how important the connections we share in life are.
Metropolis (1927), dir. Fritz Lang
What would a list of sci-fi films be without Fritz Lang’s Metropolis? Set in the year 2026, this classic of German expressionism depicts a dystopian society, with elaborate sets the backdrop to a mad scientist and his autonomous robot. This tale of class struggle is played out to an essential tension-building musical score – one of the elements needed for a truly great sci-fi film. As Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) struggles to establish what is real amongst his hallucinations, the society around him begins to collapse. Streets are flooded, a robot takes control, and the class divide between the overground rich and underground poor becomes clearer and clearer as the protagonist continues to spiral. One thing to note about Metropolis is its impressive set design, able to create skyscrapers, high-rise monorails, and futuristic technology ahead of its time. With Metropolis set just six years in our future, and considering the current end-of-the-world narrative we are tackling, perhaps this futuristic sci-fi classic has more truth in its story than even Lang could have predicted!