15Feb The Ten Greatest Science Fiction Films
What defines a top-ten list of films? Contribution to film-making? The breaking of boundaries? Exploring new territory? Responding to or driving the cultural milieu? Sheer entertainment? Usually, it’s a combination of all those things. With science fiction though, there’s another element: achieving the sublime. That’s not to say that all speculative fiction requires that element, rather it’s the driving force behind the genre. The more subtle writers can build a story without that element, but in general, it’s what separates the genre from realist fiction. Realist fiction can have this quest in its content, but it’s most often seen in its form and symbolism. Don Quixote is a thing of beauty, but in the craftmanship, not the world-building. Of course, there is sublimity in the real world, and that’s well-represented in literature, but the modern world has been so heavily explored and documented that the wow-factor is reduced. Science has replaced religion as the provider of the sublime, and similarly other worlds have replaced earth.
But achieving the sublime isn’t simply enough. Edmund Burke (1729 - 1797) saw sublimity in art as something that inspired awe, a peek at infinity. Under this definition, Godzilla (1998) would be sublime. It’s in the meeting of sublimity in content and sublimity in form where masterpieces are created. For this list, I’ll be looking at ten science fiction films that have approached the sublime, and represented it as art. For a definition of that nebulous category ‘science fiction’ I offer the criteria that it simply has to feel like science fiction rather than fantasy.
10. The Matrix.(1999)
The Matrix was a sensation when it debuted, and the two sequels – though vastly poorer – rode the wave. It was a leap forward in film-making and took onboard the nascent world of the Internet. The interplay of technology and filmmaking is more important in science fiction than most other genres (the exception being fantasy). The new real-world technology allows the conjuration of the science fiction world. The bullet-time effect in the Matrix accentuated the science fictional nature of the film. Coupling the new technology with the contemporary interest in increasingly accurate simulation and massive movements of data created a masterpiece and offered the questions; what if none of this is real and if we were fused more closely with data what would the possibilities be.
9. Inception (2010)
Inception gave us a glimpse of perhaps the most desirable of sublime quests; the dream. FTL travel, invisibility, time control, human flight are all staples of science fiction, but the one realm in which they can all exist without and constraint is the realm of dreams. In many ways the quest for the sublime is nothing more than the desire to experience dreams lucidly. The best dreams are those fantasies far apart from what reality offers and filmmaking is often little more than bridging that gap. Inception allows us to peek into that desire in a rational and organised manner. The stacking of dreams, their relativistic timelines, and the interplay of real world mechanics gave us a film unlike any other we’d previously experienced.
8. Metropolis (1927)
It’s inevitable that the Fritz Lang classic would hit this list. It’s easy to dismiss early science fiction as dated and no longer relevant, but even now Metropolis is testament to that desire for offering something new and on a massive scale. Scale and the sublime often go hand in hand, but usually the result is the grotesque. The enormous sets created tangible futuristic cityscapes that viewers could barely discern, at least whilst the disbelief was suspended, from reality. Couple these visuals with the excitement and anxiety surrounding manufacturing, manifest perfectly in the robot, and you have an excellent piece of science fiction. But Lang, and his wife Thea von Harbou, didn’t stop there. Under the guidance of Otto Hunte and Erich Kettelhut, the film takes on contemporary art styles, something that modern science fiction rarely attemps.
7. Alien (1979)
The science in science fiction can perform either a discovered or a discovery function. The best films utilise both. Alien does this perfectly. The backdrop of interstellar trade, stasis against the discovery of an alien race, with a dash of cybernetics to meld it all together. Like Lang a half-century earlier, utilising the skills of contemporary art, in the grotesque guise of H.R. Giger, adds another layer of authenticity (insofar as authentic being something wholly inauthentic on earth). Alien is science fiction.
6. Annihilation (2018)
Likely the outlier in this list, Annihilation wasn’t universally loved – not even by the production team. It is however, a near perfect example of the unknown in science fiction. Whereas Ridley Scott’s Alien is quite clear in its form and function, the lifeform in Annihilation is mysterious and ephemeral, but equally compelling. Denying many of the usual tropes, Much like Jeff VanderMeer’s book, Annihilation portrays weirdness in an uncommonly successful manner. It’s rare to see a filmmaker do what the story requires, rather than what the audience wants. And when this is done successfully, the result is a classic.
5. Solaris (1972)
Like Annihilation, science fiction takes us into the unknown, this time the fictional planet Solaris. Tarkovsky’s 1972 masterpiece brings to the fore the awesomeness of alien life in the form of an entire planet. The element that separates Solaris from the rest of the films in this list though is the exceptional craftsmanship of forming narrative through the mechanics of filmmaking. Tarkovsky’s use of colour, time and framing makes for a film as much art as storytelling.
4. 2001 (1968)
It’s simply impossible to exclude this film from any list of top-ten films. One of the earliest examples of cosmic-scale science fiction is Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker. Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick took this notion and played it on the big screen. Every frame is carefully constructed, the interplay of sound and visuals punctuates the timeline with sentiment giving an overall effect of grandeur. Perhaps the finest example of portraying sublimity that we’ve ever been lucky enough to see. Except…
3. Interstellar (2014)
Interstellar is 2001 for the 21st century. Bringing the visuals, effects and narrative to a more urgent generation. As with Inception, Nolan sprinkles a few scientific theories and fictional concepts onto a driving, heart-breaking narrative. Kubrick laid the foundations, Nolan took his lead and improved on it. Hans Zimmer’s score is almost too big for the film. A haunting, dramatic instance of science fiction at its finest.
2. Avatar (2009)
And then there’s Avatar – nine-foot kitty-kats living in a huge tree. Avatar epitomises science fiction. It’s almost a write-by-numbers approach. James Cameron fits every element into the film, and capitalises on his world-building. Gargantuan trees, entire islands floating in some sort of magnetic flux, dragons and military tech. The film has everything, a tour-de-force definition of science fiction film. Nobody will look back in a hundred years and say that Avatar was the most important work of 21st century science fiction, but that’s OK. Avatar is a celebration of science fiction. There’s no point in progress if you don’t get to pause and enjoy it once in a while.
1. Blade Runner (1982) & Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Yes, I know, two films. But I couldn’t choose. Much like Interstellar and 2001, one is a logical progression of the next. These aren’t two parts of the same story, rather the same story with a different plot. Both films are a marvel, the conflux of all elements of filmmaking, cranked up and played with perfect synchronicity. Denis Villeneuve may lack Ridley Scott’s set-building ability, but it is easily made up for with Roger Deakins’ framing and lighting. Vangelis may have produced the finest film score of all time, but Hans Zimmer gave the film grit and momentum. Science fiction at its best makes us think about the micro-scale and the macro, it transports us seamlessly from the real to the unreal and blows our mind a little.