10 Best sci-fi movies that define the genre
Science fiction masterpieces
Science fiction has had a long cinematic history that spans back as early as the silent film era in the early 1900s. To date, sci-fi movies still rake in hundreds of millions—sometimes, billions—of dollars at the box office and have consistently been one of the most thrilling and experimental genres to look forward to.
What is science fiction?
There are many ways to define what science fiction actually is and it is still up to interpretation as the genre continues to evolve with time. Indeed, the fact that science fiction eschews any definitives exemplifies the very appeal and allure of the genre: it is pure imagination and speculation. If anything, we can form a basis from Hugo Gernsback, who is largely considered the “Father of Science Fiction” and credited for coining the term, who explained the genre as “imaginative extrapolation of true natural phenomena, existing now, or likely to exist in the future.”
What makes a science fiction film?
While the genre is diverse, there are several hallmarks that make for a great sci-fi movie. These films often make conjectures from science-based technologies that are not fully accepted by mainstream science and society such as extraterrestrial lifeforms, robots, artificial intelligence, genetic mutations, time travel, interstellar exploration, and more in order to imagine alternate realities and futuristic worlds.
Most of all, sci-fi movies explore philosophical, moral, and social issues that ultimately probe into the human condition, our relationship with the world and those around us. From questioning what it means to be human to traversing the great unknown, sci-fi films encourage us to expand the boundaries of our own imaginations to spark change in the world and in ourselves.
Of course, there are countless sci-fi films that deserve to be on this list for their outstanding use of special effects, technological applications and storytelling (believe us, it was a difficult task!). However, we gleaned 10 of the best science fiction movies that we believe exemplify the best of the genre and will continue to stand the test of time for cinephiles worldwide.
Ex Machina (2015)
As mentioned before, the science fiction genre not only explores technological advancements but how they relate to mankind and the way we interact with it. Ex Machina is one such movie that expertly raises moral and ethical questions about what makes someone truly human and the power of machine learning. This probing study into the man-robot relationship takes its time and doesn’t distract itself with action sequences that most sci-fi films would normally include. Rather, it’s a slow burn that constantly makes viewers question where Ava, the AI who is designed to look and feel perfectly human, and her intentions truly lie.
Taking the mantle from sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, James Cameron’s Aliens sequel somehow managed to pull it off—some would say even better than the original. Sigourney Weaver is the iconic female heroine Ellen Ripley who is back with a new team to face off the drooling Xenomorphs. Expanding on the alien species with better special effects and a focus on character-driven arcs, Aliens is a spectacle of horror and science fiction coming perfectly together in a thrilling showdown between humans and aliens.
If you watched David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Dune, you would agree with the common sentiment that Frank Herbert’s bestselling series is practically unadaptable. Come 2021, Denis Villeneuve (who already directed two other stunning sci-fi films Arrival and Blade Runner 2049) pulled an Ang Lee-Life of Pi moment and proved that the impossible was possible. Granted, Villeneuve has the privilege of much more advanced filming tools, but his eye for expertly weaving exposition and storytelling makes for a truly magical adaptation. Tackling Dune’s rich and complex lore is no easy feat but the director skillfully worldbuilds by crafting gripping action sequences, an absorbing script and natural-looking SFX in this sci-fi epic that leaves you wanting more.
District 9 (2009)
With its moderate budget of only $30 million, no recognisable Hollywood actors and an unknown director, District 9 was the sleeper hit of 2009 that no one saw coming. Most sci-fi films depict aliens as violent creatures to be exterminated but Neill Blomkamp flipped the narrative on its head. What do you get when you have a film about peace-loving extraterrestrials who become refugees in South Africa? An emotional and gut-wrenching feature that explores themes of xenophobia, class, race, and segregation.
Told in an intimate found footage style, the gritty realism of District 9 struck a chord with viewers and critics so much that it earned something most sci-fi films don’t get—a nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars along with Best Visual Effects and Best Adapted Screenplay. Certainly, apart from its moving narrative, it also exceeds on the technological front with its mind-blowing VFX and CGI that look better than most movies today. Undoubtedly, District 9 is one of the best modern sci-fi films to date.
The Matrix (1999)
What if your life was a giant simulation? If you found out, would you continue to live in that illusion or brave the unknown behind it? With big tech investing in the ‘Metaverse’ as well as augmented and virtual reality in recent years, this theme posed in The Matrix doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Proving to still be as relevant as it was when it first premiered in 1999, the cult classic sci-fi film raises many questions about the concept of free will, mankind’s dependence on technology and the effervescent need for online connectivity that plagues society. Indeed, pop culture and science fiction cinema would not be the same without The Matrix.
Blade Runner (1982)
It’s wild to think that the iconic Blade Runner franchise was a box office bomb when it hit theatres in 1982. With its cyberpunk aesthetic and the plot of a civil war between humans and bio-engineered Replicants, perhaps the movie was too ahead of its time. Fortunately, as society began to understand more about AI, Blade Runner has only aged beautifully as it is considered one of the seminal sci-fi films.
Following Harrison Ford’s Deckard, viewers are pulled into a neon-drenched dystopian world in which a man must hunt down rogue Replicants that pose a threat to humans. Is Deckard a Replicant himself? The film strongly implies it but like any good movie, there is much room for interpretation. Ultimately, Blade Runner is a masterpiece in what science fiction is all about: imagined future worlds that mirror society’s own fears and desires. Tip: make sure to watch the full director’s cut!
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
We can’t talk about sci-fi without mentioning Star Wars. In fact, the franchise was largely responsible for the rise of space adventure-themed science fiction films in the late 1970s. Historically, there was renewed interest in space exploration due to the backdrop of the Space Race. While there are many praise-worthy Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back is largely considered the franchise’s best body of work amongst fans. The sequel is an excellent marriage of the genre’s use of special effects, expert worldbuilding and philosophically driven storytelling. The universe it’s set in is expansive and absorbing, which goes to show why Star Wars is still a thriving franchise to this day.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
No science fiction film list is complete without the iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, it’s highly regarded as one of the landmark sci-fi motion pictures—Steven Spielberg even called it “the Big Bang of science fiction.” What sets 2001 apart is that it differed in its approach to space travel; unlike other films of the genre that extrapolate it to fanciful means, Kubrick’s feature emphasised realism and accuracy that would have probably made NASA proud.
The monster of an epic took the director four years to complete but it proved to be worth the wait. Following a group of astronauts who are tasked with journeying to Jupiter to examine a mysterious alien monolith, 2001 is a poetic, satirical and mind-bending meditation into evolution, the rise of technology, human nature and much more. With so many memorable scenes, it’s a classic that is often parodied (you might’ve thought the Barbie trailer looked oddly familiar).
Back to the Future (1985)
Apart from robots and aliens, time travel is another theme that is often explored in the science fiction genre. Considered one of the most representative time-travel films of all time, Back to the Future has left a lasting mark in pop culture and is loved by cinephiles for being pure entertainment. The first movie of the franchise follows a teenager who accidentally travels 30 years into the past. Unfortunately, he meddles with some events that indirectly stop his parents from falling in love with each other. With the danger of his self disappearing in the future, he must make them fall in love again and get back to his present—or rather, his future—before it’s too late.
The Creator (2023)
Having had the opportunity to attend the early screening at One Utama’s TGV IMAX theatre ahead of its release on 29 September, we believe The Creator will quickly become a favourite amongst sci-fi fans. Directed by Gareth Edwards, who was famously behind Rogue One and 2014’s Godzilla, the British filmmaker shows off his prowess in portraying panoramic landscapes of huge scales that still feel grounded in reality.
Following a civil war outbreak between humans and AI, an ex-special forces agent (played by John David Washington) is tasked with capturing and killing the Creator, an advanced AI that would tilt the balance of the war. Things go awry when it is discovered the world-ending weapon is actually an AI child. With its jaw-dropping special effects and impressive worldbuilding, The Creator is at its core a deeply human film about the power of love, empathy and connection.
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