Science fiction looks to the future — but it also reflects the time when it was created. And the best science fiction often holds up a distorting lens to society that reveals deeper truths. In honor of tomorrow's release of Elysium, here are 11 science fiction films that had a huge impact on pop culture, and also packed a deep political message.
Note: There are a lot of things we could have included on this list, so feel free to weigh in in comments. We tried to reflect a lot of different eras, and also focus mostly on things that were influential and/or popular at the time when they were released.
Edited to add: Just to be clear, this is a list of political science fiction movies that were huge box office hits, and/or had a massive influence on film-makers and pop culture generally. And like I said above, we tried to cover a wide range of eras, so it's not just 1980s films, sorry.
1. Metropolis (1927)
Why it's influential This film wasn't exactly a huge hit at the time when it was released, but it casts a long shadow, with film-makers like Terry Gilliam freely admitting they copy Fritz Lang's grand, terrifying vision of the future. This film has also had a huge impact on fashion.
The political message: Metropolis has a super clear message about classism. The film's unique look conveys its political import, especially the looming symbol of wealth in the Tower of Babel and the robot Maschinenmensch. One reason this movie was so heavily edited by some of its distributors was concern that it promoted communism.
2) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Why it's influential This film was reasonably successful when it was first released, but over time it's become considered one of the all-time best science fiction films, and regularly appears in lists of the 100 bests films of all time, period. The phrase "Klaatu Barada Nikto" has become legendary.
The political message: This film's message of pacifism, and its condemnation of violence, are pretty blatant. And by all accounts, this film influenced President Ronald Reagan to suggest to Mikhail Gorbachev that an extraterrestrial invasion would trump national differences, something he later told the United Nations as well.
3) Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Why it's influential This apocalyptic movie was a pretty huge hit in its initial release, but has also gone on to have a massive influence on pop culture in the years afterwards. Peter Capaldi, our new Doctor Who star, stars in In the Loop, which draws on Strangelove to the point that that film's trailer is a Strangelove homage. Roger Ebert called this film "arguably the best political satire of the century."
The political message: This film pretty pointedly satirizes the Cold War, and the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction in particular. In the movie, it takes just one insane military officer to launch one weapon, and destroy everything. And the plan to repopulate the planet from people saved by going into underground bunkers is also exaggerated to point out the absurdity of the actual, real belief that fallout shelters would work.
4) Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)
Why it's influential: This science fiction art film by Jean-Luc Godard, at the height of his powers and cachet, is a pop-art noir masterpiece that still gets listed as one of the all-time great movies. It gave its name to a German synthpop band and the story of the evil computer Alpha 60 has influenced countless other bleak dystopian science fiction movies.
The political message: With its quintessentially dystopian story of a computer that controls people and a tyrant who outlaws emotion and free expression, this film is Orwellian and intense. As Ryan Babula writes, "Alphaville speaks specifically to the idea of a government suppressing the identities of its people through technology and modernity."
5) A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Why it's influential This is another sardonic Kubrick film which rocked the box office and generated tons of imagery and quotes for generations to come. Heath Ledger based his Joker on Alex. And Quentin Tarantino borrows heavily from this film in Reservoir Dogs, with the torture scene set to "Stuck in the Middle with You" based on the use of "Singing in the Rain" in this film. Most of all, this film's imagery is instantly recognizable.
The political message: This film makes some pretty dark points about social control and its relationship to violence and delinquency. The use of aversion therapy underscores that this is a totalitarian society, in which conventional political divides are more or less irrelevant. There were a ton of dark dystopian movies in the 1970s, including Logan's Run and Soylent Green, but Clockwork Orange was both more popular and more disturbing.
6) Robocop (1987)
Why it's influential: Paul Verhoeven's classic dystopian film was a huge hit and spawned two sequels, plus a TV series and a bunch of miniseries. The struggling Detroit has been debating putting up a Robocop statue for the past few years. It's being remade, and we're all just praying that turns out better than Day the Earth Stood Still did.
The political message: Slate has a pretty great rundown of why this movie is not only a sharp political satire, but also incredibly prescient about the world we live in. "It’s embedded from start to finish in a detailed, fully imagined, deeply depressing political dystopia that we soon realize with horror is pretty much where we already live (in 2012 perhaps even more than in 1987)... he story takes place in a future Detroit (soon to be forcibly renamed “Delta City” by developers), where police corruption, industrial decline, corporate greed, and consumerist oblivion have combined to create a chillingly familiar hellscape."
7) Akira (1988)
Why it's influential It was a pretty huge hit in Japan when it came out, and quickly became a cult sensation in the United States — it's one of the most influential and important animated films of all time, and is widely credited with bringing anime to the U.S.
The political message: Like Dr. Strangelove, this is another apocalyptic film, but it shows destruction at the beginning and end of the film, suggesting that these things are cyclical, as Ben Hawksbee with Ideology of Modern Cinema explains: "It suggests that when politicians cant fix the problems, when the people rise up, and when chaos erupts that there has to be change through a great revelation, which acts as a symbolic form of destruction."
8) Demolition Man (1993)
Why it's influential This movie was a pretty huge hit, making $160 million worldwide on an estimated budget of $57 million. It helped launch Sandra Bullock as a movie star, and gave us some of our favorite movie in-jokes including the three seashells. This was the era when Sylvester Stallone was still a huge star, and this movie was one of his last big hits.
The political message: We didn't want this list to be all left-wing screeds about the evils of corporations — and this film was an important part of the cultural debate about "political correctness" in the early Clinton era. Demolition Man argues that the "nanny state" can go too far in trying to protect us from our own vices, and this repression will only create more opportunities for people like Simon Phoenix. In 2004, Reason's Tim Cavanaugh praised the "underrated" Demolition Man for accurately predicting the world of the early 21st century, including attempts to outlaw fatty foods, and the rise of safe, sanitized virtual sex.
9) The Matrix (1999)
Why it's influential: It changed the look of action movies for the past dozen years, and arguably helped launch our current dark, gritty superhero movie boom. Phrases like "take the red pill" have entered our collective lexicon. It spawned two (disappointing) sequels, but still managed to remain unique.
The political message: Since doing The Matrix, the Wachowskis have worked on films like V for Vendetta, Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas with explicit political messages, but The Matrix still feels uniquely political in its themes about the individual versus society and the danger of being co-opted by a fake consumer culture. It's a uniquely subversive anti-corporate movie, and the thing about being won over by a fake steak still resonates.
10. Avatar (2009)
Why it's influential: James Cameron's long-awaited return to film-making became one of the most successful films of all time, and launched our current era of 3-D and motion-capture. The impact of Avatar on 21st century filmmaking would be hard to understate, even if the film has had a bit of a backlash in the wake of its ubiquity. (And yes, we're skipping over Moon and District 9, although those were also super influential around the same time.)
The political message: This film is simplistic and preachy and openly borrows a lot of its storytelling from Dances With Wolves, but it also succeeds in ramming home some pretty basic messages about the environment and exploiting indigenous peoples. For a movie that absolutely everybody saw, this film doesn't pull its punches in terms of the notion that we're "killing our mother."
11. The Hunger Games (2012)
Why it's influential There's the fact that it made nearly $700 million worldwide, and catapulted the already-popular dystopian novels by Suzanne Collins to massive worldwide fame. But also, it had a huge impact on pop culture, helping to launch a new wave of female action heroes and dystopian adventures.
The political message: The most amazing thing about Hunger Games is how blatant it is in talking about class divisions, and the gap between the rich and the poor. For a huge mainstream hit, Gary Ross' movie is pretty in-your-face with its messages, from the Dustbowl-era Depression imagery to the way it deconstructs media manipulation.
Additional reporting by Amanda Yesilbas.