Part two in this series turns it up a bit and gives us a deeper dive into some of the best science fiction movies since the early 1980s.
20. Robocop (1987)
Robocop brings us the future of law enforcement. A tragic hero whose resurrection and redemption are encased in steel. The entire movie is a satire about American greed and violent cowboy justice, but with gunfire. The movie takes place in the near future, specifically in Detroit. It exposes the polluted, degradation that is Ronald Reagan’s United States. A cult classic – one that should not be missed.
19. Videodrome (1983)
Early on in Videodrome, Max Renn (James Woods) receives a warning to stay away from the mysterious snuff porn he’s stumbled upon. “It has something that you don’t have, Max,” he’s told. “It has a philosophy. And that is what makes it dangerous.” What follows is David Cronenberg’s feverish thesis statement, not just because Renn ignores the warning, unlocking a portal to psychosexual transgression and physical transformation, but because it’s filmed and presented impassively, uneasily leaving the viewer to determine what that philosophy is and why we should fear it. Videodrome presents a “battle for the mind of North America” fought through screens. Its antagonist is a hungry corporation looking to control America’s eyes for corporate gain. In an era of reality-TV politics, carefully constructed and monetized digital avatars, and constant surveillance and broadcasting, it’s easy to think that we lost this battle. But Cronenberg’s concerns are less didactic, tracing instead Renn’s metamorphosis from opportunistic nihilist (“the world’s a sh*thole, ain’t it?”) to a free-roaming agent of anarchy. Its only concern is to normalize the religion of the new flesh, its violence a capsule that helps install the philosophy deeper in the brain. This very nebulousness is what makes Videodrome still so resonant, and indeed so dangerous on its own. Like Renn, we watch on despite these warnings, the screen flickering too seductively to turn away.
18. Terminator 2: Judgment day (1991)
Terminator 2 isn’t as cool, or as low budget as its predecessor. With the second installment in this franchise, fans had to settle for something different. James Cameron broke the bank on the set pieces, with practical action and remarkable CGI. He also expanded upon the original’s open questions of fate and destiny and located a strange new poignancy in an uncommon nuclear family. T2 changes the direction of the franchise, this time taking it into the future.
17. Starship Troopers (1997)
Early in the next millennium, mankind is engaged in a war for survival with the Bugs, a vicious race of giant insects that colonize the galaxy by hurling their spores into space. If you seek their monument, do not look around you: Bugs have no buildings, no technology, no clothes, nothing but the ability to attack, fight, kill and propagate. They exist not as an alien civilization but as pop-up enemies in a space war. There really is no science in Starship Troopers. Paul Verhoeven took the movie in the other direction. He wants to depict the world of the future as it might have been visualized in the mind of a kid reading Robert Heinlein in 1956. He faithfully represents Heinlein’s militarism, his Big Brother state, and a value system in which the highest good is to kill a friend before the Bugs can eat him. The underlying ideas are the most interesting aspect of the film.
16. Minority Report (2002)
Hollywood’s love affair with Philip K. Dick began with Blade Runner, but it didn’t end there; the 35 years that separate the original from this past week’s belated sequel are dotted with adaptations of the sci-fi author’s brain-bending work. Planted at the nexus of thrilling and thought-provoking, Minority Report towers over most of them. Tom Cruise, in dashing Mission: Impossible mode, is the cop pitted against his own ethically suspect methodology, running from the law and a possibly foregone conclusion, otherwise known as fate. The middle chapter in Steven Spielberg’s unofficial, early-2000s sci-fi trilogy, Minority Report reconfigures Dick’s source material into a breathless chase picture, allowing for some of the coolest set-pieces of the director’s career, but also for the construction of a future so technologically plausible that it’s already coming true.
15. Arrival (2016)
There’s a good chance that Arrival could go toe-to-toe with some of the best science fiction ever once some real time has passed. Working from a novella by Ted Chiang, Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve retells the familiar story of an alien appearance here on earth, only with the far more plausible premise that these strange creatures would have no idea how to talk to us. Arrival tackles a tired subject in a fresh way, emphasizing the need for communication above all else. It suggests that taking the time to be respectful of one another, and clearly convey our thoughts and feelings, might literally be the most important thing on Earth (or other planets), and that’s a message that deserves to resonate with any generation.
14. The Fly (1986)
Suffering a mishap with his homemade teleportation device, Seth Brundle accidentally merges his DNA with that of a common housefly, and the day-by-day results aren’t pretty. Of course, there’s much more than a fear of unchecked ambition to be gleaned from David Cronenberg’s stomach-churning, heartbreaking remake. Whether viewed as an early AIDS allegory, a cautionary tale about drug abuse, or some combination of both, The Fly creates goopy, grand entertainment from one of life’s worst ordeals: helplessly watching as a loved one wastes away. While Jeff Goldblum, emoting fiercely under pounds of amazing prosthetics, plugs the audience into this crucible of mind-and-body deterioration, infecting us with his fear and disgust and scientific wonder. He’s Frankenstein and the monster rolled into one,
13. Under The Skin (2013)
Scarlett Johansson gives one of the best performances of her career as a creature who seduces and consumes lonely men, in docu-realistic footage shot on the sly in nondescript Scottish cities and villages. Every now and then, Jonathan Glazer strands the audience in the heroine’s spooky extra-dimensional lair, which looks like a pool of inky black, dotted with abstract gray blobs. Under The Skin is an arty spin on a cheesy B-movie premise, allowing audiences to experience both the mundanity of our world and the forbidding darkness of an alien realm through non-human eyes. It’s as mesmerizing as it is disorienting.
12. Her (2013)
Spike Jonze’s Academy Award-winning foray into full-scale sci-fi is a contemplation of timeless emotions and modern technology, anchored by two of our greatest living movie stars. Scarlett Johansson doesn’t even appear onscreen in Her: She’s the ghost in Joaquin Phoenix’s machines, the increasingly sentient OS providing companionship to a divorcé who spends his days conjuring feelings for total strangers. It’s dystopian in premise yet utopian in outlook, its simultaneous awakenings set against the backdrops of a globalized L.A.
11. 12 Monkeys (1995)
As post-apocalyptic convict James Cole, (Bruce Willis) travels from a very steampunk bunker in the near future to try and figure out the origin of the disease that nearly destroyed humanity. His trip goes sideways, naturally, as he meets a skeptical scientist who later becomes his kidnappee, then his Stockholm syndrome ally, and a mental patient (Brad Pitt) who leads the story in new directions.