My Favorite Sci-Fi Movies

I’ve always loved sci-fi. As an 80s kid, I basically grew up on Star Wars, and that fostered my love of sci-fi (though some people would claim Star Wars isn’t “proper” sci-fi, but more space fantasy, as it contains magical elements). But as with any other genre, there’s good and bad versions of it, and it suffers from it fair share of tropes. One of the ones I’ve grown weary of is the dystopian future trope; that the future will only get worse, that all that is good and human will collapse. It’s just too easy for me. I love sci-fi that manages to feel grounded and tell a real story, and yes, that story can be dark and gritty, or it can contain a thinly veiled warning about where our current path may take us. I love a story that can be optimistic, or at least not overtly negative, about the future, but still tell a relevant story.

Her (2013)

Man falls in love with Scarlett Johansson’s voice. Not the most unbelievable thing ever. Except in the movie, the voice doesn’t belong to her, it is the audible representation of an AI interface. A man suffers heartbreak, purchases new operating system, complete with AI-based voice interaction. Over time, using the system, he grows to fall in love with the voice, and the AI behind it. The movie brilliantly asks subtle questions about our interaction with computers, when the computer become smart. Sort of the same question asked in “I, Robot” (pretty elegantly in the book, less elegantly, but with more explosions, in the Will Smith movie), but in a much more delicate and beautiful way. Arguably one of Johansson’s best performances, as she has to walk the line between believable warmth and emotion, at least real enough that we believe that the main character can fall in love with her, but still not venture too far into uncanny valley territory. And this is one sci-fi movie that nails the landing.

Reality has since almost caught up with the movie, as a Canadian man recently shared a story about how he programmed a GTP-3 chatbot using data from text messages from his deceased fiancé, and then proceeded to chat with her, almost as a form of grief processing.

Arrival (2016)

What if the aliens came, and the only ones we could turn to were… linguists? In this one, the aliens don’t come with laser guns, but in a turn that puts it in category with Close Encounters of The Third Kind, they come to communicate. But how do we talk to aliens? Will they even have anything we see as a language? Amy Adams shines like a supernova as the linguist trying to figure out how to communicate with beings that operate on not necessarily a higher level of intelligence than us, but a completely different one. In the process of telling the story, the movie also presents some pretty deep philosophy about how language and our experience of reality are related, as well as one of the most lasting statements of the human experience and choice. Remember the kleenex.

Ex Machina (2014)

A young developer is invited to his enigmatic CEO’s country estate to help test a new form of AI in a form of advanced Turing test: he is to sit and have conversations with an AI-powered robot built by the CEO, knowing full well she is a robot; if he experiences it as human, as possessing truly human awareness, it passes. In the process, human/AI interactions, our view of machines, the nature of intelligence, emotions, and the future of humanity is discussed. Alicia Vikander’s best part by far, and Oscar Isaac shines as the manic, enigmatic Silicon Valley guru. The ending veers dangerously close to traditional man vs. machine territory, but I understand that they needed a conclusion.

The Martian (2015)

Mark Watney is in a bad place. That bad place? Mars. Left for dead when a Mars expedition goes awry, he needs all of his science chops to survive until he can be rescued. Yes, there’s a lot of monologue, but it’s done by Matt Damon (making this basically “Saving Private Ryan II – The Space Expedition”), so that’s cool. One of the most scientifically correct sci-fi movies I’ve seen, with the main problem of it being that the storm that causes Watney to be left for dead wouldn’t actually happen in Mars’ thin atmosphere. A pretty cool thing is also that the author, Andy Weir, actually crowdsourced the science using internet fora. As Watney puts it: “I’m going to have to science the sh*t out of this!”

Alien (1979)

Stretching the boundaries of what sci-fi can be, Ridley Scott blends monster horror with space movies in a chillingly claustrophobic movie. I love that we don’t dwell on the alien’s origins or motives. It’s just a predator, and a bad one. And nothing tickles the imagination like that horseshoe-shaped ship and the giant, elephant-like creature in the chair. If only Scott hadn’t tried to explain it in “Prometheus”…

The Abyss (1989)

James Cameron has always a thing for the ocean and for sci-fi. In “The Abyss” he combines it, telling a story of aliens hiding in the depths of our oceans. And like the best sci-fi movies, it tells us more about us as humans and how we’d respond to contact with aliens.

The Terminator (1984)

A movie series that should have ended with the first one. Yes, even T2 should go the way of the dodo. The Terminator is a perfectly self-contained story: mankind has built an autonomous military AI, who then wages war on mankind. Eventually, a human leader rises up and leads mankind to victory, but the machines, having built a time machine, sends a single cyborg assassin back in time to kill the human leader’s mother, effectively wiping him from existence through the Grandfather Paradox. T2, while a great action movie, was the first of many movies to muck up the whole concept. Such as the premise the machines only had time to send a single cyborg through, and that the resistance destroyed the time machine after sending through Kyle Reese. If the machines could send more than one, the obvious question is ‘why not more?’ And don’t even get me started on the whole “only living tissue can go through” only to have the antagonist in T2 be a liquid metal terminator.

District 9 (2009)

Another movie that tells a tale of how we, the human race, would respond to contact with non-Earth lifeforms. And as you can probably tell, I have a thing for alien contact movies that do include big spaceships blowing sh*t up. In this one, aliens come to Earth. Seemingly refugees, they are placed in camps and treated with less than the dignity we’d hope we would be able to.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

In “Wally”, the trappings of human’s search for convenience is touched upon. Here, we dive full-on into it. In a career-defining performance, Jim Carrey plays a man still heartbroken from the ending of a recent relationship. And to make matters worse, when he one day bumps to his now ex in a shop, he learns that she has had all her memories of him and their relationship removed, so as not to go through the pain of getting over the break up. He goes for the same procedure, prompting questions of what we loose when we strive for a pain-free life.

Tenet (2020)

Peak-Nolan. Stylish, cool, and brilliantly filmed, all the while bordering on not making any sense whatsoever, it manages to walk the line between sci-fi and spy thriller like no other movie before it. And doesn’t get lost in trying to explain it’s own sci-fi mcguffin (which is where many sci-fi movies go wrong; the more you explain, the more you open yourself up to continuity errors). I’ve watched it twice, and I’m still not sure I understand it (or if it just doesn’t make sense). But I do know this: I want Nolan directing all Bond movies from now on.

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