A list of great sci-fi movies would undoubtedly include Ridley Scott’s signature films, Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), but I don’t know if there’s enough room on that list for Scott’s latest Prometheus, a gorgeous collection of set-pieces smeared onto a messy, hole-filled plot, signifying nothing. I’ve already written at some length about Prometheus’s metaphysical shortcomings, but I’m never especially happy to write negative reviews without providing alternatives. Here are seven movies that demonstrate the best in depth of intellect that the genre has to offer.
1. Metropolis, 1927 (Dir. Fritz Lang)
Metropolis foregrounds many of the tropes that will come to dominate serious sci-fi (film and literature alike). The dystopian future of Metropolis imposes a strict division of classes, relegating the poor workers to underground drudgery while the (literal) upper class enjoy privileged leisure. Lang explores this divide via a Romeo & Juliet story of sorts—Freder, son of the city’s Master becomes infatuated with Maria, a girl from the underworld. He follows her into the labyrinth under the city and soon witnesses industrial horrors that harm the subterranean workers. The plot becomes more complicated when a mad scientist unveils an automaton—a robotic Maria—that he will use as part of a nefarious scheme. Metropolis’s expressionistic design and camera work still seem fresh and innovative almost a century after filming, and the film’s take on class disparity is as affecting as ever.
2. Alphaville, 1965 (Dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
Godard’s dystopian New Wave crime noir talkie follows the strange exploits of Lemmy Caution, who drives in from the Outlands in his Ford Galaxie to find a missing agent, capture the founder of Alphaville, and destroy Alpha 60, the totalitarian computer that keeps Alphaville’s citizens from indulging in poetry (or other forms of free expression). Godard makes no attempt to design a future: Alphaville is filmed in contemporary Paris. The effect is baffling; Alphaville is an exercise in uncanny realizations. The dialogue is pure New Wave stuff—crammed with literary and art reference—and will just as likely bore as many audience members as it enthralls. In the end though, Anna Karina as Natacha von Braun is reason enough to watch this film.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey,1968 (Dir. Stanley Kubrick).
Watch it. Then watch it again.
4. Solaris, 1972 (Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)
Tarkovsky’s Solaris is a slow, engrossing meditation on grief. Based on the novel by Polish writer Stanisław Lem, Solaris centers on psychologist Kris Kelvin, who goes to the space station orbiting the planet Solaris in order to investigate the series of emotional collapses that the crew have suffered. Kelvin soon slips into his own existential crisis, as a ghost–or psychological construct—of his dead wife appears to him. Solaris is gorgeous and measured, using its near-three-hour running time to grand effect.
5. The Thing, 1982 (Dir. John Carpenter)
Antarctic research station. Shapeshifting parasites. Kurt Russell. Dogs. Flamethrowers. Blood tests. Kurt Russell’s beard. Ennio Morricone’s score. Wilford Fucking Brimley. Paranoia. Paranoia. Paranoia.
6. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, 1984 (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
A millennium after apocalyptic war destroys human civilizations, the groups that remain scramble to control the few resources left on the planet. A toxic jungle swarming with mutant insects—and dominated by the giant Ohmus—encroaches on the few bastions of clean soil that remain to humankind. Adventurous Princess Nausicaä though learns the secrets of the jungle—and also knows how to communicate with the Ohmus—only she has to navigate sides in the emerging war between rival kingdoms. Miyazaki’s film, based on his manga, is lush and detailed, a fully-realized world that is simultaneously frightening and beautiful. The film’s take on ecology is not so much preachy as it is prescient.
7. Primer, 2004 (Dir. Shane Carruth)
Primer was shot on a $7,000 budget, but it never looks or feels cheap. This story of four engineers who invent a time machine in a garage is decidedly unglamorous and consistently engaging; Carruth (who also wrote and stars in the film) throws the audience into the deep end, offering no exposition, let alone explication for the audience to latch onto. The film explores the bizarre moral implications—and possible side effects (and defects) of time travel.