There are plenty of classic SF movies you should see, from James Whale's Frankenstein to George Lucas' Star Wars: A New Hope. And there are plenty of beloved SF movies like Steven Spielberg's E.T. But what about science fiction movies that challenge your preconceptions about reality and force you to rethink your place in the universe? Those aren't always the most famous movies, but they are certainly the most memorable. Here are nineteen SF movies that could rearrange your mind. A few of them have already changed the way we all think about tomorrow.
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1. Metropolis (1927)
This tale of a worker uprising led by an evil cyborg in a class-divided future city is often hailed as one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made for two reasons. One, its design and story represented the first time that many people were ever exposed to the powers of science fiction storytelling. And two, it went on to influence movie storytelling profoundly, paving the way for special effects blockbusters and robot uprising tales for decades to come.
2. The Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Upon its release, this movie was banned in the UK because censors believed its violent imagery was too disturbing. The first movie adaptation of H.G. Wells' Island of Doctor Moreau, this is a movie about a meglomaniac scientist who engineers animals to become humanoid slaves on his remote island. This movie touches on issues of slavery and colonialism, even while offering us the pulpy Panther Woman and Bela Lugosi hamming it up as the beasts' leader. It also includes the much-quoted line, "Are we not men?"
3. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Released just a few years after the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki shocked the world, this was a rare anti-war movie at a time when the Cold War was quickly dividing the world's nations. Full of innovative design, an alien who actually speaks an alien tongue instead of English, and a complicated message about geopolitics, The Day the Earth Stood Still was a movie that pushed its audience to think of themselves as humans rather than Americans.
4. Alphaville (1965)
Jean-Luc Godard pioneered the science fiction noir film with this stylish look at a futuristic dystopia ruled by the computer Alpha 60 — and the old-fashioned gumshoe Lemmy Caution who has been sent to destroy its hyper-logical regime. When Caution teams up with computer programmer Natacha, their eventual love stands in stark constrast to Alpha 60's world of mindless revolutionaries who have been purged of emotion to better serve the state. Clearly a commentary on Soviet communism, Alphaville was also a dark look at a future where computer superintelligences dictate our every move.
5. 2001 (1968)
It's no exaggeration to say that Stanley Kubrick's film, written by Arthur C. Clarke, changed science fiction movies forever. From its advertising-saturated future world and insane artificial intelligence HAL, to its near-mythological aliens who seem to have uplifted humans by reprogramming our distant ancestors, the ideas in 2001 blew the minds of an entire generation of movie-goers. Like Metropolis, it also set the agenda for a lot of science fiction that came afterwards, popularizing stories of A.I.s that fall prey to madness and space opera that was political as well as entertaining.
6. Stalker (1979)
Famed Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky adapted one of the key SF novels of the Soviet era by the Strugatsky Brothers (the book's title is usually translated as Roadside Picnic). It's the moody, surreal story of a "stalker" whose job is to retrieve artifacts from a mysterious site where aliens landed briefly, left some things behind, and vanished without explanation. The region is now dangerous and is slowly mutating people who live nearby. It's both a great SF story and a meditation on greed, corrupt governments, and human failings.
7. Born in Flames (1981)
This little-seen indie movie by Lizzy Borden is about life in New York City after a feminist revolution has toppled the government and ushered in an era of European-style socialist democracy. But many women believe the revolution didn't go far enough, and their underground subversive army is being watched by mainstream feminists and the government alike. Filmed in a DiY documentary style, Born in Flames is a cult classic that pays homage to New York's punk underground, third world liberation movements, and the idea that Utopia is in the eye of the beholder.
8. Blade Runner (1982)
Influenced stylistically by Alphaville, Blade Runner is about a detective who chases down "replicants," or genetically engineered superhumans, who have gone rogue. Based very loosely on the work of Philip K. Dick, it was the first mainstream example of the cyberpunk style that took 1980s and 90s science fiction by storm. It's also a profoundly moving film about remaining human in a world where everything — including humanity itself — is owned by corporations.
9. Brother from Another Planet (1984)
Though Blade Runner touches on the issue of human slavery, this indie movie from John Sayles deals explicitly with slavery — on Earth and other worlds. Joe Morton plays an escaped alien slave hiding from his masters in Harlem, and trying to find the hidden sanctuary his kin have created there. Along the way he falls in love with a human, befriends a woman trying to raise her mixed-race son alone, learns how to repair video games with his mind, and discovers a community in Harlem he never had on his home world.
10. Brazil (1985)
Terry Gilliam's masterpiece of absurdist dystopia, Brazil is about a lowly office worker in a future city riddled by terrorists and ruled by bureaucrats. He just wants to spend his days dreaming about being a ninja who rescues a damsel in distress — until he meets the damsel in real life, discovers she's a subversive truck driver, and is plunged into a nightmare of love and political repression. Full of the bizarre imagery that made Gilliam famous during his Monty Python animator days, Brazil will warp your mind and break your heart.
11. The Fly (1986)
With movies like Scanners, Videodrome, and eXistenZ, Cronenberg proved himself the master of body horror and conspiracy-minded science fiction. But in The Fly, he also told a human story about a scientist whose body is accidentally reprogrammed by the teleportation machine he's invented. With fantastic acting from Jeff Goldblum as the scientist, and Geena Davis as the science journalist who loves him, this story transcends scifi horror to become an ugly, weird commentary on science run amok, erasing all boundaries between living things.
12. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
This trippy tale of a cyborg in the distant future is both a spiritual quest and a high-tech thriller. Unlike many tales of machine intelligence, this story refuses to depict robots as "soulless" and instead suggests that beings who can be programmed and downloaded into new bodies will have even more profound questions about the nature of existence as humans do.
13. The Matrix (1999)
Like Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix offers us a world where machines have as many emotions and mystical questions as humans do. After the Machines have conquered humanity and turned us into batteries to fuel their cities, a group of revolutionaries unplug from the mind-controlling Matrix and lead a human resistance. Cyber-shamanism and frenetic, gorgeous action intermingle to create one of the most brain-bending popular SF movies in recent history.
14. Adaptation (2002)
This Spike Jonze movie, written by crazy genius Charlie Kaufmann, is backdoor science fiction — it contains only a single SF element, a drug manufactured from orchids that has become a life-destroying addiction for several of the main characters. But it's also one of those rare movies that's about a religious epiphany that has nothing to do with religion. Instead, protagonist Charlie Kaufmann realizes that the meaning of life unfolds from the inexplicable creative madness of evolution itself. In this film, science and the natural world fuel creativity, and we are richer for it.
15. Teknolust (2002)
Tilda Swinton stars as a mad scientist and the three sperm-fueled cyborgs she's created in this truly strange, goofy, and moving film from indie director Lynn Hershmann Leeson. Full of askew commentary on sexuality and scientific greed, this is a movie about the life-saving power of lust and the awkward problem of love. When one of the cyborgs begins to explore the world during a mission to retrieve sperm for herself and her sisters, we discover what happens when science leaves the laboratory and starts to change the world.
16. Avatar (2009)
Say what you will about how this movie is a cheesy retelling of Dances with Wolves. It nevertheless became a global sensation for its ability to tell a simple story of environmental exploitation, violent colonialism, and the quest for social justice. Using cutting-edge 3D and motion-capture software, director James Cameron created an alien world so absorbing that it transformed the way people watch movies — and how they see themselves.
17. Moon (2009)
This moving, intense character study of a man living alone on a lunar outpost is a melancholy meditation on loneliness that slowly turns into a story of betrayal and corporate cruelty. Directed by Duncan Jones, and starring Sam Rockwell, Moon is intelligently written and unforgettable. Even the robot character, voiced by Kevin Spacey, exudes a quiet compassion that permeates the rest of this film about hope in the face of loss.
18. District 9 (2009)
Not since Brother from Another Planet has a science fiction movie dealt so openly and effectively with the problems that humans create by dividing themselves up along lines of race and class. When a giant spaceship parks over Johannesburg, explorers are dismayed to find that it's full of thousands of diseased, helpless aliens — who are now under the care of the South African government. Wikus is a bureaucrat put in charge of relocating the "prawn" from their shantytown to a new refugee camp, and that's when trouble begins. A dark satire with incredible effects and a gut-punching story, District 9 manages the seemingly-impossible: it's a political allegory that feels like an action movie.
19. Looper (2012)
Rian Johnson's gritty movie about gangsters who use time travel to commit perfect assassinations is both an incredible science fiction story and an unflinching look at how difficult it is to break cycles of violence — in families as well as societies. The final twist will leave you feeling broken inside. And you'll like it.