It’s been awhile since I talked about something other than my work schedule. After all, this is a pretty self-indulgent blog with no purpose outside of keeping myself accountable and forging a close-knit circle of fellow writers.
That being said, I hope you’ll get a kick out of this. I’ve been musing a lot on what makes me “tick” as a creator. I think a lot can be gathered by taking a close look at art that I myself have appreciated.
Because science fiction is a genre close to my heart, I thought about what science fiction movies top my list. A few of these movies cross over with the “action/adventure” or “thriller” genres, but I still consider them primarily science fiction. I will undoubtedly have a separate list for my favorite action movies soon :)
Sunshine is a somewhat slow film detailing a near-future where our sun is dying. Naturally, we send a spaceship and a dozen people on a mission to nuke it back to life. I usually go for sci-fi with hope behind it, or at least an ethical question. I am not so fond of “look at the monstrosity that science created!” Sunshine is a weird mix of being both incredibly depressing and incredibly hopeful. The overall message is that with the power of science, we do not have to rely on the whims of gods or fate to save our species – we have the self determination to control the elements. And when we stretch our technological limits, we are capable of anything.
However, watching the likeable cast, which include Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, and Chris Evans, all die painful deaths in order to ensure the continuity of us here on Earth, is a sobering and realistic end. Danny Boyle does not like giving us happy things…unless it’s Slumdog Millionare, of course.
#9. Demolition Man
One of the most bizarre and interesting futures ever put on film, Demolition Man gives us a peaceful and politically correct society in which no one has sex, the radio only plays 1960’s jingles, and the only restaurant is Taco Bell. It’s also the only film on this list that deals with cryogenics – one of those interesting sci-fi premises that will probably never succeed beyond fiction. I like Demolition Man because it is so wildly, deliciously 1990s, and the constant shout outs to Brave New World don’t hurt either.
#8. Repo! The Genetic Opera
Repo! imagines a dystopian world where plastic surgery and organ replacement is a social norm (I’m not sure they explain where they’re getting these organs from, but with 3D printing on the rise, it’s not so hard to imagine!) However, if you default on your payments, the Repo Man will hunt you down and rip the organs back out. In true opera fashion, there is barely any speaking – only music. But unlike Les Mis, you will not be bored out of your skull, because the music is diverse and catchy. The characters are all relatable and fun to watch. Heck, even Paris Hilton puts on an enjoyable performance mocking her own heiress privilege. If you can stomach a bit of blood and guts, I highly recommend you check out this visionary film.
#7. John Carter
Ignore all the bad press. John Carter is woefully underrated. It has the unfortunate reality of existing in a post-Star Wars world, despite Edgar Rice Burroughs writing it nearly 100 years ago. Therefore, many of its elements seem rather derivative. But the love story between John Carter and Dejah Thoris, along with Dejah being an incredibly adept and beautiful female character, breathe life into this movie. It is a musical and visual treat, from the ship design to the breathtaking costumes. And sometimes it’s fun to return to science fiction that isn’t quite so analytical. Back when imagination ruled and anything was possible and Neil Degrasse Tyson didn’t bash your movie on Twitter if it broke a physics law. Because sci-fi isn’t always about sticking to what we know about science – it’s to dream of what science could be.
#6. Apollo 13
Not science fiction as much as science fact, Apollo 13 is a masterpiece of suspense and character. Ron Howard and I don’t always see eye-to-eye, but he did a prodigious job of focusing on the human element amidst potential tragedy. We all know Lovell made it home safely, but our hearts still break every time Tom Hanks looks longingly at the moon. Add in James Horner’s evocative music, and I will never tire of watching NASA’s “successful failure.”
#5. Star Wars
Of course my sci-fi list cannot be complete without Star Wars. Which one, you ask? None in particular, although I have weird nostalgic for The Phantom Menace, appreciation of story for the original A New Hope, and an overall acknowledgement that The Force Awakens is an excellent film. I do find Empire Strikes Back overrated though, as I don’t like movies that end with their plots entirely unresolved.
But I appreciate Star Wars as a franchise built from one man’s dream. My mom is a huge Star Wars fan (huge. Her Star Wars collection takes up her entire guest room), so most of my early work was influenced by Star Wars. I am similarly fascinated by the Joseph Campbell mythic structure. I have not written anything quite like Star Wars, as I don’t think I have a space opera in me, but the core formulas still echo through my writing.
#4. Jurassic Park
I can watch Jurassic Park at any moment, on any day, perhaps three times in a row. It never grows stale. Despite it being nearly as old as I am, it’s a timeless classic with dino effects that still look great. Even better, this is one of the more solidly science fiction films on my list, as the first hour is entirely devoted to the science behind Hammond’s park, and the ethical consideration of what he’s done. Most big budget spectacles do not waste time on philosophical quandaries, even when their plots have similar questions of ethics (Planet of the Apes, Terminator, etc).
It’s also the little moments that really showcase Spielberg’s brilliance, like Dr. Grant being stuck with two female-ended seatbelts on the helicopter, only to tie them together to make it work anyway. Subtle foreshadowing + using the visual medium to show what type of person he is? I’ve seen the movie a hundred times, but only noticed this on my previous viewing. That is what makes a thoughtful film!
#3. Independence Day
You may suspect that I have a thing for Jeff Goldblum. You may be right. In all honesty, I was reluctant to include Independence Day here, because it is primarily an action movie. But the entire conflict hinges upon the sci-fi element of aliens, I felt it earned the title. Plus, the main characters do go to space!
Independence Day is the Top Gun of the 1990s. The same way Top Gun perfectly embodied American foreign policy and culture in the 80s, Independence Day summarized action movie culture and peacetime politics. It’s patriotic, it’s hopeful, it’s epic, and I desperately hope this year’s sequel is not bogged down with 2016 cynicism and grittiness. It presents an ensemble of diverse and entertaining characters, embraces its long running length, and has become a movie I have to watch on a hot summer day every July.
#2. The Fifth Element
Few movies are more imaginative, humorous, and loveable than The Fifth Element. Luc Besson brings his French roots to a pop future of bright colors, intergalactic cruise lines, and impractically revealing female costumes (actually, the movie takes some very European liberties with sexuality and gender norms in general, which was nice to see in a futuristic film. Most films focus on the tech of the future and not of the social stuff. In this future, it is normal for Chris Tucker to walk around in a skintight velvet dress). Leeloo is an awesome female protagonist, Korben Dallas is her gruff equal with a heart of gold, and Gary Oldman kills it as the creepy, ruthless villain. Most of all, the future presented in The Fifth Element is charming and hopeful despite the pollution, climate change, and grunginess. It offers the surprisingly realistic concept that humans are mostly focused on their own lives, and are determined to enjoy them regardless of the world’s larger problems.
Deciding between Inception and The Fifth Element was like deciding which one of my feet to cut off. On all cylinders, they were equal to me: I will follow both directors to the ends of the Earth. Both present stunningly original stories with an ensemble of likeable characters. The editing, music, production design, and every other department cooperates flawlessly to execute the director’s vision.
But I chose Inception as my favorite science fiction film for a few reasons. The Fifth Element is brilliant, but it’s unfortunately dated. I think Inception will be more like Jurassic Park – timeless and equally awe-inspiring 20 years later. Additionally, Inception was nominated for Best Picture, crossing the barrier between exciting genre film and Oscar-worthy art piece. It was objectively a great film, while The Fifth Element requires certain tastes from its viewers.
Inception deftly balances a tone between cerebral and exciting. It demonstrates how formulas can be excellent foundations for original ideas. It proves that practical effects are not dead with its breathtaking hallway fight sequence. From a science-fiction standpoint, its entire premise revolves around a sci-fi MacGuffin, grounding it solidly in the science-fiction genre without weighing itself down with technical explanations. On the whole, Inception does not spoonfeed or condescend its audience, but it doesn’t demand as much of its audience as Nolan’s other films. I have no doubt that Inception is Nolan’s masterpiece, and the perfect summary of his skill.
Since this exercise was about finding common denominators, what are they? I seem to like ensembles. I like hope. I like the 1990s. I like science fiction that is more rooted in imagination and vision than adhering to academic fact. I like movies that are more singularly conceptual, that focus on one line questions – “What if you could share dreams? What if we brought back dinosaurs? What if the sun burnt out? What if there were people on Mars?” – rather than trying to build an entire world with hands in all the cookie jars. And most of all, I like movies that brush off the response, “That’s impossible.” It’s fiction! If it’s impossible, the only way it will be possible is in our stories. And obviously, some great stories have been born from the impossible.
What are your favorite sci-fi movies? I’m sure we’ll see The Matrix or Back To The Future out of some of you. I have seen neither, so could not in good faith include them ;)