SF is my genre. It’s where I come from, and it’s where I will go to. Some of my earliest memories feature my mum telling me bedtime stories starring my favourite transformers because fairies and kings and queens just didn’t do it for me. Floating in the same space are images of Star Trek: The Next Generation from a time when I still had a thumb in my mouth and couldn’t take flap-flap to the sky.
It was from then on that I became destined for SF. Over the years, as I took to writing as a serious craft, and improved in it, my material began to drift away from what most would expect from SF. But it’s never left me. Underscoring every idea I put to paper, or type into a screen, is the spectre of science fiction.
SF pervades all forms of media, and movies are no exception. The following is a list of this Crow’s top 10 live action SF movies (never mind the header image).
As always, the Unified Rules shall be in play. An additional rule I shall be using is that only one movie by any single director shall be considered.
Another thing I should mention is that SF films which veer too close to other mainstream genres such as horror or action shall not be considered (bar one very glaring instance right at the end).
Note: Some of these movies were difficult to pick. After having selected Children of Men as my fifth and final nominee for the Top 5 bracket, I was at a bit of a loss. I’ll try and point out which ones were hard to pick between as they come.
2001: A Space Odyssey 
Oh, the big grand-daddy of SF. How close you were to being left out.
I typically have never included 2001 outside of my “honourable mentions” section, but this time, I’m going to make an exception. We are, after all, talking about the Top 10 SF movies of all time, and to leave this one out would certainly be criminal. A little vague, but majestic in the scope it covers, 2001 certainly holds its own as the most significant SF movie of all time. Interstellar, in my opinion, has done a fine job of updating this type of movie with a more specific set of parameters, and for that reason more than others, 2001: A Space Odyssey finds itself in the bottom half of this list.
District 9 
District 9 is another movie I found difficult to place. Ian McDonald has for years written SF novels and stories set in places where the genre typically isn’t set. District 9 is a film from such a place. It’s a metaphor for attitudes toward refugees, for apartheid, and for issues very present in South Africa to this day. It’s hard not to get caught up in the narrative of our protagonist – Wikus – as he stumbles through the plot of the movie. Equal parts action, comedy, and body-horror, District 9 is above all, a SF film. And a bloody good one it is.
Donnie Darko 
This selection manages to divide people I know (among some other oddball contenders I’ve mentioned in certain circles), but in my mind there is no question. Donnie Darko manages to pull of a high concept in a tightly-wound, limited setting. The questions it poses, like many films on this list, are of time, love, interpersonal interactions, and our personal place in the realm of possibility.
All you need to know is this:
28 days 6 hours 42 minutes 12 seconds
Moon is by far my favourite movie by Duncan Jones, and very likely the only film by him that I like (a massacre of Warcraft is already in the works). It’s hard to speak about this movie without admitting that I had a hard time elevating this into my top 10. However, that said, I’ve always thought that Moon has been a strong contender for my top 10 SF list. It paints a picture of loneliness, of thankless duty, and of longing to be elsewhere – only to be convoluted through a series of strange occurrences before finally being interrupted by a final, cruel twist. It’s not just a fine SF movie, but a fine movie in all respects.
The Matrix 
Oh, how I woe this choice. I’ve always had a problem including The Matrix in my top 10 SF list, but its sheer significance dwarfs most others on this list, bar perhaps 2001. While inspired heavily by the excellent Ghost in the Shell, and equally heavily watered-down in comparison, The Matrix captured the minds of a whole new generation of SF fans, and set off echoes in pockets of fandom that had never existed before. It’s the film I consider to be the tombstone of cyberpunk – a genre I myself like to think I come from, and it certainly is worthy of that honour.
There is certainly no question that Bladerunner belongs on this list. Marred only by the confusion arising from the multiple cuts of the movie floating around in the strange world of cinema production, Bladerunner shows film making at its finest. The pacing is baby-bear right, the visuals are gorgeous, and the storytelling is masterful. However, what the movie excels the most at is the art of adaptation. Philip K. Dick is one of my favourite writers, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is certainly a brilliant novel, but to translate it into a movie would have been a monumental task. Bladerunner makes all the right changes and selections, and manages to render those parts with flair.
Children of Men 
Perhaps the “weakest SF” movie on this list, Children of Men, while a far cry from the original novel by P. D. James, is by far one of the most spectacular pieces of movie making I had seen at the time, and continues to be so. Cuarón’s direction is slick and focussed. All the brutalities of the world the movie presents are laid bare sans shame, and the performances match it perfectly. The story it tells explores a field of SF scarcely found in big-budget movies, and it presents us with questions which reach far beyond the content of the film. I consider this film a must-watch. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’re missing out.
Oh, how difficult it was to pick a Christopher Nolan movie. The other contenders vying for a place against Interstellar were Inception and The Prestige (a movie adapted heavily from a novel by another of my favourite authors, Christopher Priest*). In the end, Interstellar is the purest SF movie by Nolan, and there can be no question about its position above the other two contenders.
What do I mean when I say pure? In this case, I mean SF grounded mostly in what is possible right now. While this is an issue I’ll address at another time, Interstellar has a reverent approach to contemporary science up until the point where it ventures into the unknown. And for that reason, along with it being both a worthy successor to the 2001: A Space Odyssey and a rollercoaster of a story, it belongs high in this Crow’s Top 10.
Primer‘s a movie I find criminally underrated. Do low budgets and a lack of polish make a film any less worthy of note? No. Primer is by far the film I love the most when it comes to an aspect of SF I generally avoid: time travel. It’s not as “hard-to-get” as people like to say, if one watches it all the way through with an eye for the characters and what they’re up to. It’s not easy, but it’s certainly not impossible to understand. It’s clever, it’s concise, and it delivers a heck of a punch.
And, of course, this mention would be incomplete without mentioning the excellent Upstream Color, also directed by Shane Carruth.
It’s again difficult to choose between Stalker and this movie. However, as much as I adore Stalker, Solaris edges it out just slightly by being the film that trespasses into the realm of SF just that little bit further, and because it’s the film that led to Stalker thanks to Tarkovsky’s doubts that Solaris did its job. I consider, however, that Solaris did its job just fine.
- Dark City
- The Abyss
* I had a very interesting conversation with Mr Priest a couple of years ago in reference to the movie. Don’t trust all you read on the internet, is all I’d say.