We all love a great biopic or docudrama, but sometimes we need a good escape from reality. Science Fiction films are the perfect genre to provide the audience with an unbelievable idea they have never seen before, yet still giving us the feeling these depictions of time and space could happen. Aliens, spaceships, androids, time travel and breakthroughs in science are all themes that live in the realm of films I would deem ‘Smart Sci-Fi’. These are the films that provide us a glimpse into the future even if the outcome is terrifying. These are the movies that inspire other creators to adapt a vision of worlds in galaxies far, far way. These fictional planets could become the world we inhabit one day. I’m looking for the four films I would label “Smart Sci-Fi”. Let’s get to the first entry and happens to be one of the few Sci-Fi films to be nominated for Best Picture.
District 9 (2009)
District 9 is one of the most groundbreaking movies concerning aliens visiting Earth of all time. In District 9 the Alien vessel doesn’t appear in Los Angeles or New York like most Sci-Fi films. This time the ship shows up in Johannesburg, South Africa instead. The space freighter lingered over the city until crews cut into the ship’s hull finding human size bug inhabitants starving and looking for a new home. The aliens are brought down to the ground, but end up living in slums which serve as a metaphor for apartheid. District 9 shows that these creatures aren’t much different from us and sometimes we humans are the actual monsters. The film is not only super smart, but full of gory action sequences as Wikkus (Sharlto Copely) tries to find a cure for his alien disease with the help of his new alien buddy Christopher and his son. What’s more incredible is District 9 cost an estimated $30 million dollars to make. The film looks better than most Sci-Fi films that cost $150 million to produce. No wonder District 9 was nominated for Best Picture.
Sir Ridley Scott is without a doubt the Godfather of “Smart Sci-Fi” and the initial film to showcase his immense talent was the first installment in the Alien franchise. The alien xenomorph is one of the most terrifying beasts in film. The face hugging organism attaches itself to your face then impregnates a Xenomorph embryo into the victim’s chest to incubate. When ready to take on the world, the Xenomorph burst from the victim’s chest and proceeds to kill anything in its path. Did I also mention it’s strong, has acid for blood and a retractable jaw meant for puncturing skulls. Scott just didn’t give us one of the craziest life forms ever on film. He changed the view of technology and life living in a starship. The Enterprise on Star Trek always seemed so nice and clean. Scott’s version of ship life is an industrial one where you’re surrounded by cold and damp metal. Scott’s more realistic industrial look was adopted by other filmmakers including James Cameron and J.J. Abrams in the new Star Trek films. Aliens is my favorite film in the franchise, but it was the intelligence of Alien that inspired and terrified many movie patrons.
The Thing (1982)
Originally considered a critical & box office disappointment, The Thing is now considered one of the smartest Sci-Fi films of our time. An American scientific research team stationed in Antarctica comes into contact with an alien life form. The life form is parasitic in nature ingesting and assimilating the looks and mannerisms of its victims. Most cinema patrons were used to a humanoid alien life form like in the original 1951 film The Thing from Another World. Instead we get an organism full of tentacles, sharp teeth and the ability to manipulate the people surrounding it. The Thing may have been ridiculed by its own director back in the day, but today The Thing is revered by movie nerds like me for its forward thinking concerning extraterrestrial life.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The Empire Strikes Back managed to take things to another level following the success of 1977’s Star Wars (7 Oscars, Best Picture Nominee) by getting deep. The Empire Strikes Back leans heavy on the philosophical side when Luke is training with Yoda on DagoBah. The whole idea of the force was innovative treating the practice of the Jedi as a religious belief system. It showed a Sci-Fi franchise could be could be compelling without light saber fights and space ship battles. Empire also gave us a variety of planets that could very well exist in our galaxy. Hoth the ice planet and the swamp planet Degobah are still ideas used by Hollywood today in films like Interstellar. Plus adding bounty hunters, greasy Baron Administrators (I’m pointing at you Lando!) and having the good guys lose at the end made The Empire Strikes Back brilliant and created an unmatched model for every filmmaker who’s directing a sequel to follow.