This one’s been something that’s been on my mind for a while. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve recommended a movie to someone, they’re completely interested in parts of it and then the second I mention it’s either sci-fi or has a sci-fi element, they don’t want anything to do with it because they don’t like sci-fi. I was particularly interested in making a list like this after Fern Britton appeared in an episode of Room 101 trying to get science fiction into the titular room.
See, science fiction in my mind is one of the most expansive genres, and when done right, can be excellent in every sense of the word. It’s a genre that can even relate to our current attitudes in the world. I had an interesting quote from one of my favourite YouTube personalities Mitch Benn, where he said that the one thing people do with science fiction is say that it’s predictive when it’s not, it’s explorative. Now, my personal opinion is that I think a lot of people don’t get into science fiction because they think it’s all complicated jargon and tons and tons of extra content that they need to be savvy on, when they see just how much Star Wars and Star Trek there is in the world, and then they also kind of have a view of it being rather childish. So, for this list, I made a few rules:
- This won’t be ranked; I simply want to recommend these films for non-sci-fi fans. I don’t really want to rank them, especially since all ten of these movies are excellent movies.
- They have to be overtly science fiction films. This is so I don’t cheat like many other lists and put on things like E.T. and Wall-E which are both kid’s films first before they attempt to really be sci-fi films.
- I tried to avoid big franchises. All bar a few of the films on the list didn’t have sequels or were the first entry in their franchise, and none of these require extra viewing to understand.
And, of course, they all had to be excellent films.
Akira is a very, very odd beast in terms of its creation but it’s groundbreaking for both the detail that went into the animation and the type of stories that could be told. Based on a Japanese manga that was written and drawn by the film’s writer/director Katsuhiro Otomo, the film tells a story of rebellious biker gangs in the backdrop of the city of Neo-Tokyo which is recovering thirty years after a third-world war, preparing for Neo-Tokyo to get the 2020 Olympics. And I’d love to remind you, this actually correctly predicted something – it’s really weird to remember the Olympics were supposed to be taking place in Tokyo this year. Otomo had no previous writing and directing work prior to this, but he was given the opportunity and has become a leading light in Japanese cinema since. His story’s an excellent tale of experimentation and a society with a harsh and brutal cultural-generational divide, with one generation unwilling to hand over to the next to keep their power and deeming young people “fair game” for the interests of expansive science. Otomo based this and the futuristic biker gangs on what was really kind of a similar situation going on in Japan due to attitudes on how strict Japanese society was getting post-WW2, largely accredited to lead to a spike in youth crime in the 1980s, which Otomo really did an excellent job adding in. As a result, it creates a film where its themes rather resonate with our current modern society, where press coverage on younger individuals being mostly painted in a negative light, with people believing they know better simply because they have lived longer.
Akira though is also excellent for how well it’s animated, as well as the excellent performances and the really imaginative designs. Despite the fact of when this film came out, it still looks great by today’s standards, and the fact it was done with virtually no digital effects is amazing. It’s a truly groundbreaking film, and while it is a sci-fi film in itself, it’s more of a crime and revolution drama than anything else. Now, in picking this up, I would recommend that if you’re going to get it, get the most recent Blu-ray copy as possible. Not only will you get the original Japanese language version, if you insist on seeing the English language version, you’re getting the better English language dub. Akira’s first dub is not one of the better ones. I dive into a lot more of my thoughts on why Akira is an excellent film in what is now going to be a shameless plug, my book ‘The Nerd Consultant’s Guide To Anime’, as well as a previous episode of Anime Amigos where we compared it with another film that’s on this list. If you like a film about motorbike gangs, revolution dramas or simply stories about fighting the power, this film is brilliant for you. I really recommend checking it out.
Yes, this is the second time in recent memory that I’ve been talking about Denis Villeneuve’s excellent sci-fi drama, but it really bears mentioning how much I really recommend this film. Arrival is a brilliant story about humans first contacting aliens. While the story initially becomes about whether the aliens are here for peace or have a sinister motive, it then later turns into a story about us and our inability to communicate because of national and political divides, and how our own preconceptions are stopping us from enacting the greater good. On paper, it sounds like the sort of godawful why-don’t-we-give-peace-a-chance films but it’s much more mature than many films like it and has an excellent solution from its plot twists, which adds an extra layer to a lot of the films you’ve seen before. Amy Adams probably gives the best performance of her career in this movie and she’s backed up very well by excellent performances from Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker. It’s absolutely a film you should see, and I don’t think the idea of humans first coming into contact with life forms from another world has been done better in cinema. As I commented in my reviews at the time, it’s not a sci-fi film about aliens, it’s a sci-fi film about humanity. And after that point, I’m really glad Denis Villeneuve was picked to do Blade Runner 2049 because he did an excellent job with that film as well. Also, if you’re going to see this film, I’d really recommend looking up a video on YouTube by the channel Philosophy Tube which shows how Arrival’s plotline is rather similar to both the Brexit referendum and the Brexit aftermath and what we can learn from that comparison. It’s a genuinely interesting video no matter how you voted in the referendum. Speaking of Blade Runner…
Okay, I know a lot of people will say this is an obvious choice but Blade Runner was one of the big suggestions I heard coming up, and really, again, is another sci-fi film that on paper is about robots in a futuristic society but again, is more of a story about humanity. While there have been other Phillip K Dick adaptations that I think are also excellent and can fit this category, I thought there was only really room for one. Minority Report was close to making it but I felt that it leaned a bit too heavily towards sci-fans and was therefore a little less accessible. I did also consider A Scanner Darkly for this list which, unlike Minority Report and Blade Runner, is a bit closer to its book adaptation, but man, you have to really be paying attention with that film because otherwise you have no idea what’s going on. Seriously, it took me several watch throughs to really figure out that movie.
Now, Blade Runner might not be very close to the book ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ but it does keep the main foundation of the book, and it really answers the obvious question which was: What constitutes life? If artificial intelligence has all the emotions and mannerisms of a human and can easily be mistaken for a human, do we have the right to essentially eliminate them on the basis that they were artificial creations by humans. It’s an excellent look on humanity; how we see ourselves and where we’re going. Artificial intelligence is becoming more and more a part of our lives, which has made Blade Runner only more and more relevant, and I think it’s an amazing film that asks a lot of questions about our nature in general. If you haven’t had a chance to see it, I’d really recommend double billing it with Blade Runner 2049. Yeah, that’s a very long marathon but you’re getting two excellent films in that one. Also, in spite of the fact the film was a troubled shoot, you probably have some of the best performances of many of these actor’s careers, especially Harrison Ford. And it’s still probably to this day one of Ridley Scott’s best films. If you’re going to see it, I’d recommend either taking the director’s cut or the final cut which I believe, after Blade Runner 2049, is considered the canonical version of the film.
District 9 was seriously excellent to such an extent that it got a nomination for Best Picture and I’m seriously surprised that it has kind of slipped to the wayside in recent years. Written and directed by South African director Neill Blomkamp, the film is an interesting exploration after it basically becomes a film about a group of aliens living in a South African slum and some serious levels of subjugation entailed. It’s one again another excellent sci-fi films that uses aliens on a comment on humanity, and the scenario feels very real in several regards. It very much is a mirror to the refugee crisis of Syria that’s still ongoing, and the imagery is done deliberately to look like several news reports that we’ve seen in recent memory. If you haven’t seen this one, I would highly check it out. It’s absolutely excellent.
Ex Machina is a film that’s only gotten better as time has gone on. It’s essentially a film about a tech employee played by Domhnall Gleeson come to visit his secretive boss played by Oscar Isaacs in an out-of-the-area location to test out a humanoid android to see if it can be distinguished from being a human as part of an extreme case of a Turing test. The film is once again an excellent look into our fascination with artificial intelligence and the want to create artificial life. It has excellent performances from the cast. If Alicia Vikander hadn’t got her Oscar for the Danish girl, she really should have got her Oscar for this film. It’s an utterly brilliant and rather mesmerizing film. The cinematography is absolutely stunning, and the set designs are also excellent. This film feels like an independent production with a sense of minimalism throughout, since the entire film really only takes place in one location and shows how you can use a very simply idea to its full benefit. The film’s been written and is the directorial debut of Alex Garland, and while he has done the rather well-received Annihilation, his work has obviously done his well enough since he’s got the job of writing the screenplay for the upcoming Halo movie where he’ll be trusted with a sci-fi franchise with a large in-built audience. Ex Machina though, while it is a story about life and artificial intelligence, it’s really an excellent recreation of what it’s like to be stuck at a weird weekend with people you don’t know and probably shouldn’t trust. It’s an excellent exploratory piece, highly recommended.
If you were underwhelmed by the 2017 live action film and didn’t know what the fuss was about, you really should see the 1995 animated film. Ghost in the Shell is another film that, rather like Ex Machina and Blade Runner, asks the questions how far or how close does someone have to be to be human, but in this case, the lead character Motoko Kusanagi is human or at least mostly. She’s essentially a human brain in a cyborg body or full prosthetic in the movie’s terms. The film is about a division of the Hong Kong secret services named Section 9, investigating a hacker of human brains named The Puppet Master but it’s ultimately more of an exploration of Motoko coming to terms with her state and her identity and how she and society see herself. It’s an utterly mesmerizing film from both the cinematography, the excellent animation and the brilliant music score. Seriously, out of all the films on this list, the film has the best music score. Considering we’ve got Vangelis’s excellent score on Blade Runner in this list, that’s saying a lot.
Unlike the 2017 movie, this film knows it can’t just rely on its action set pieces, which is why they’re rather kept a minimum. I think there’s only about two or three throughout the entire movie. The imagery has become iconic for a reason. It’s an excellent dive into the psyche and contains themes of want, identity and a cold, uncertain world, as well as even some interesting subtext on societal attitudes to women. It has some interesting undertones of those ideas since, rather like Ex Machina, it’s also a film about a woman who is being treated like a literal object, which again is made even more interesting by the fact that this is a woman’s brain in an artificial body. In fact, if you’re interested in the source material, I’d really recommend checking out Bennet the Sage’s Anime Abandoned video, but again I also have to plug my book ‘The Nerd Consultant’s Guide To Anime’ as well as the Anime Amigos episode where we compared it with Akira to decide which we thought was the better film. Ghost in the Shell and Akira became real stand ins for why Anime is as big as it is today, and I really think they could be seen by non sci-fi fans and they’d still get a kick out of them. Highly recommended, though I would actually agree with Bennet the Sage and say that if you are going to check out this one, try to get the original cut of the film that’s on DVD. Nothing against the 2.0 cut which is on most streaming sites and Blu-rays, but there were a few touch ups made that weren’t really necessary. I think Ghost in the Shell’s original cut makes the most of the excellent hand-drawn animation.
Even if you’re not really into the Marvel Universe, you really should check this one out. This film is part of a larger franchise but what it is at the end of the day before it’s a sci-fi film or a Marvel movie is a nostalgia trip. Many of these films I’ve talked about so far have interesting subtexts about humanity and our current world and our politics, but Guardians of the Galaxy and its follow up film Volume 2 are just a an excellent time, about a ragtag group of misfits becoming heroes for hire just because, eh, it might be a bit fun. It’s the kind of fun film we don’t get enough of and I think anyone can appreciate the excellent writing in both action and comedy from writer/director James Gunn who you can really tell cares about these characters, to such an extent that he insisted on being a large factor in their portrayal in the last two Avengers films. The performances are excellent and it’s just a great time. If there’s one thing I’ll say against the film, I think Lee Pace’s villain Ronan the Conqueror isn’t as interesting as he could have been, but as a whole, I really recommend GOTG. Excellent film.
Men in Black is similarly just a simple buddy cop film that happens to talk about the idea of aliens living amongst us, as a very literal interpretation for several aspects of our current modern civilization. It’s a simple, good, fun film and if you haven’t seen it by now you really should. It’s very funny, very to-the-point, has good action scenes and has excellent performances by Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. It’s kind of lightning in the bottle considering that all the other Men in Black films have felt rather underwhelming in light of this one. If you haven’t seen it yet, you really should. It’s an excellent film.
John Carpenter’s masterpiece is an excellent story about an Antarctic research facility that’s recently had a shape-shifting alien that can take on the form and mannerisms of anyone at the base, so as a result, anyone could be one of them in disguise. It’s not just one of favourite John Carpenter films, it’s one of my favourite films in general. It’s a brilliant horror story about paranoia and isolation, and it gives the impression that anyone around someone could be the enemy. It’s just a brilliant film, and of course, you can’t forget those groundbreaking effects. It’s a film that actually improves on re-watches as you more carefully look at everyone’s actions and throughout the entire film, you really will have no idea who is to be trusted. By the end of the film, it’s even a possibility that some of the survivors might not be who they say they are. If you haven’t seen it, really check it out. Though avoid the 2011 prequel which suuuuuuucks.
The final film on this list is another one I reviewed a while back, and it’s really the only properly good Cloverfield movie. Let’s face it, Cloverfield was alright but not a great film and the less said about the Cloverfield paradox the better. 10 Cloverfield Lane L is an excellent movie. It’s essentially about a group of people living in an underground facility during some sort of crisis, possibly an alien invasion or another kaiju scenario; we simply don’t know what is happening. And John Goodman’s character, who has clearly gone crazy, might not be trusted for his motives but he might also be correcting just how bad things have gotten in the outside world. It’s another film that deals excellently with paranoia and does a pretty damn good job; you really feel like you’re locked in a room with a crazy person who could snap at any moment. It’s utterly brilliant in several regards and I really can’t recommend it enough.
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