Now, more than ever, it probably feels like we’re living in a sci-fi movie. A pandemic has spread across the planet, killing thousands, while governments have taken varying measure to try to contain it (while, to varying levels either taking care of or ignoring their own citizens). Meanwhile, a few heroes — doctors, food service workers, et cetera — are doing whatever they can to save humanity. You literally can’t make this stuff up.
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In these precarious times, perhaps it’s best to explore the dystopian warnings of the past in the hopes of finding solutions for this terrible present. And if that doesn’t work, at least a little bit of escapism would be nice.
From sweet transvestites to galaxies far, far away — we’re rounding up the best sci fi movies of all time!
2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick’s intense existential masterpiece is frequently thought of as the apex of sci-fi cinema, and with good reason. The legendary cinematography captures the scope and scale of outer space better than perhaps any other film in history. Despite its mass popularity, the storytelling is actually quite avant-garde and a challenge to decipher, and the visually stunning ending asks more questions than it answers.
Perfectly blending horror and science fiction, Ridley Scott wound up spawning an expansive franchise from this tightly wound suspense story. Ellen Ripley (played by the impossibly talented Sigourney Weaver) has been canonized as a feminist icon since the film’s 1979 release. The object styling and immaculate production was far ahead of its time and continues to influence younger genre artists to this day.
Widely considered a national treasure, this darkly violent tale at one point was handled by every animation studio in Japan, meaning that an entire country’s efforts went into each gorgeously hand-animated frame. Akira tells the story of a brutal gang of teenage criminals who somehow become embroiled in an apocalyptic nuclear battle that has the potential to destroy the entire planet. A bloody meditation of the fallout of the atom bomb, Akira is a stark allegorical warning about the indomitable spirit of youth and the ghastly dangers of world war.
Ghost In The Shell
A foundational text of the cyberpunk subgenre of sci-fi, Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell manga is a dense exploration of the political ramifications of cybernetic technologies, told from the point of view of a hyper-capable, pansexual cybersecurity officer. The movie, which is based on the original graphic novels, asks philosophical questions about the nature of a human soul amidst a thrilling neo-noir story about society-threatening cybercrimes. It’s not exactly easy to follow, but it’s probably the smartest sci-fi movie ever made.
What happens when invisible extra-terrestrials land on a New York City rooftop inhabited by heroin-addicted lesbian club kids? What sounds like an absurd premise is actually a deeply powerful statement about the precariousness and cruelty of queer life amidst the AIDS epidemic in pre-Giuliani Manhattan. Although the conceit is silly, the movie is a gorgeous portrait of a fragile subcultural scene that tragically faded away. And if all that’s too serious for you, fear not: There are a handful of outlandish early 80’s fashion shows interspersed throughout the film.
Styled like a 40’s detective novel but set in the near future, Ridley Scott’s interpretation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? remains artistically impressive in every respect. Don’t bother getting bogged down in debates about which release is best (there are probably a million different edits of the movie floating around the internet at this point) — what really matters as much as the editing is the decadent costume design and dystopian mise en scene.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Although a younger faction of queer kids are now disavowing the outdated language of the film’s most bombastic musical number, Rocky Horror remains an important cultural touchstone for generations of LGBTQ people. A campy send-up of classic sci-fi and horror tropes paired with songs as undeniably sexy as they are unabashedly stupid, Rocky Horror gives permission to explore the content of one’s erotic nightmares with ecstatic abandon. No wonder it’s the longest-running movie of all time, with live casts of genderbending kids continuing to re-enact its iconic scenes in shadow casts across the world to this day.
It feels like The Matrix has gone through a series of critical revisitations that have vacillated between declaring the film pure genius and pure trash. The movie was rightly praised for its groundbreaking visual effects upon its debut, but took a thrashing amongst high-minded philosophers for its blatantly incorrect interpretation of postmodern theory. Later, before nostalgia turned the pleather and latex outfits into retro fashion gold, the movie’s visual styling became an object of ridicule as well. Then, when the Wachowskis came out as trans, the movie received yet another round of appraisal — with a new generation of audiences suddenly seeing the story as a parable of freeing oneself from the chains of gender normativity. So much controversy over a popular action movie probably means it’s worth watching!
Wong Kar-wai’s impossibly slow-moving romance films are some of the most emotionally moving erotica in cinema history — and 2046 is probably the most romantic sci-fi movie ever made. 2046 is technically a continuation of the stories explored in the director’s previous films, In the Mood For Love and Days of Being Wild — but you don’t need to watch those other movies to understand it. With countless long and contemplative shots of characters smoking in neon-drenched technopolises, don’t expect any fast-paced action or intellectualized explorations about the ramifications of technology. Instead, you’ll find a story of lust and loneliness that just happens to be set in a fantasy future.
The Fifth Element
Luc Besson’s over-the-top space opera doesn’t exactly have an interesting moral or political message, but the colorful haute couture designed by Jean Paul Gaultier elevates this simplistic adventure story, making it one of the most memorable — and fun — movies in the genre. Chris Tucker plays an annoying sidekick to straight man Bruce Willis, but Mila Jovovich is the real star, playing the sexiest space messiah to ever grace the cosmos.
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Inspired in equal parts by the serial adventures of Flash Gordon and the history of samurai and Western cinema — but executed with an absolutely intrepid imagination and a loving attention to detail, Star Wars is often accepted as the ultimate sci-fi story. Any of the original trilogy could have made this list, but it was A New Hope that first captured the hearts of audiences worldwide with its release in 1977. The impact of Star Wars on the art and cultural landscape of the 20th century is indisputable, even if the continuations of the franchise have been divisive.
Because of the sexism of Hollywood, sci-fi movies directed by women are frustratingly few and far between. Director Rachel Talalay, who had previously worked on the films of John Waters, brought a specific and lovable anarchic energy to her reinterpretation of the punk rock comics by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett (who later became much better known as the artist behind The Gorillaz). Although it was projected to become the Rocky Horror of the 1990’s, the movie flopped disastrously upon its release. But, like Rocky, Tank Girl has since developed a devout cult following, which includes the likes of Margot Robbie — who hopes to reboot this undervalued campy treasure for a new generation. Imaginative costumes by a young Rick Owens complement the technicolored set designs, plus an endlessly charming performance from Lori Petty as the titular freedom fighter make this movie impossible to dismiss as the dreck male critics often pronounce it to be.
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