While compiling my list of top five science fiction movies for this week’s podcast, I found that I ended up with about seven or eight movies as opposed to just five. The process of trimming the list down to just the five was harrowing, difficult, and grim; a true Sophie’s Choice scenario. But luckily for me, I run a website where I have the liberty (through rarely exercised) to write whatever I want and post it, so I decided that rather than let my discarded other favorites fade away un-mentioned and unloved, I would devote a column to them. And since I like symmetry, I decided I would make it another full top five – although this proved rather difficult in and of itself. So without further preamble, I present my top five science fiction movies that didn’t make the podcast list, which secretly makes this the bottom five of my top ten sci-fi films.
I’ll try not to spoil too much, but no guarantees. Ye be warned.
Number 1: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)
It pained me to keep this out of my top five, since I really do love this movie, and it’s probably fair to say I decided to do this column just for this one film. Not only does the film have probably the best and most realistic depiction of time travel I’ve ever seen, but it actually uses time travel to examine questions of fate, friendship, the ramifications of altering events through time travel, and responsibility.
The movie, upon reflection, has a bit of a Groundhog Day vibe to it, since there are several instances where the time-leaping protagonist, Makoto, uses her powers to go back and fix things or alter the outcome. At one point she relives an hour long karaoke session multiple times just so she can keep singing and hanging out with her friends. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, one of her close friends clumsily admits to having a crush on her. Makoto panics, leaps back in time, and alters the afternoon’s events to avoid her friend and prevent the confession. This of course leads to other problems, and eventually Makoto realizes how dangerous it is to alter the timeline like this, but she simply can’t stop doing it.
The film’s biggest strength is really Makoto herself. She is such a well developed and believable character, that you want to be her friend and root for her, even while she uses her time leaps for selfish and sometimes silly reasons. The film, despite having other characters and a third act revelation that comes out of nowhere, is really one long character study of Makoto, and how the ability to leap backwards in time reveals her character. We see in her the uncertainties and anxieties that we all feel as teenagers, and I for one sympathized with her desire to try to make her high school life better by “fixing” things after they happen. Makoto deftly avoids all of the stock anime “high school girl” cliches, while at the same time she comes across like a real person.
I know this doesn’t sound like most of my other picks, since I’m not talking about super deep philosophical questions about technology and humanity, (this film does have some moments like that, but I’ve intentionally not spoiled them), but you just have to trust me that this is, at its core, a beautiful movie, both aesthetically and narratively, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Number 2: Gattaca (1997)
Well, after writing several paragraphs about the last film, this one will be considerably shorter, since we devoted part of an old podcast to discussing this movie, and it’s mentioned again in the latest podcast as well.
I don’t really know what to say about it, since I already spent so much time discussing it. It succeeds without elaborate visuals and giant robots, because its story is so compelling and its themes firmly centered on how humanity can lose itself by using technology to achieve “perfection.”
Number 3: Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
I should preface this by saying that I am not a serious fan of the Star Trek films. I am unquestionably a fan of Star Trek; in fact, Star Trek: The Next Generation is my favorite television show. Nevertheless, I am lukewarm to the films, mostly because every one of them (with the possible exception of Star Trek: The Motion Picture) sacrifices the depth of the shows on the altar of action.
One of the things I like about Star Trek (or at least about TNG) is that it is truly science fiction: its ultimate goal is to explore greater themes about humanity, ethics, existence, and other deep concepts using technology and science that is beyond our current capabilities. There are dozens of TNG episodes that contain no action at all, and focus exclusively on drama and characters. The movies, on the other hand, always seem afraid to go down that route. As if the film makers were too afraid to make a big budget sci-fi movie without action in it. The Star Trek films often feel like more generic sci-fi movies that just have a fine varnish of Star Trek applied to them.
Having said that, I still enjoy the movies for what they are, and out of all of them that I have seen First Contact is the one that best captures the “Star Trek” flavor. The movie juggles several interesting themes: Picard’s unresolved psychological trauma from his assimilation by the Borg, how history often idealizes past events and provides an incomplete picture of major figures, humanity’s innate capacity to better itself and become more than we are now. Of course, the film cannot fully develop and sustain all of these themes, and the one that is perhaps the most compelling character-wise (Picard and the Borg) doesn’t really get the attention it deserves, but it succeeds more than it fails.
I really do like this movie, even if I wish it had taken more time with its deeper themes and not so much with random action sequences and goofy one-liners (“Assimilate this!”). I consider it the best of the Star Trek movies (that I have seen), and a good sci-fi movie in its own right.
Number 4: Alien (1979)
I can’t remember if I put this on my Top 5 Horror Movies list, and I don’t really care to check. It doesn’t matter anyway, since it would still be on this list. Unlike my other movies so far, this one doesn’t really explore deep themes and ideas about humanity’s interaction with technology and science. It makes up for that by using the science fiction setting to tell a great story and create a hell of a horror movie.
One of the things that I love about this movie is its setting and depiction of the future. Unlike the idealized Starfleet of Star Trek or the Flash Gordon pastiche of Star Wars, Alien shows us a future that reflects the present and the past. The Nostromo is not a sleek starship with a full crew of eager cadets and families setting off to explore the galaxy and better humanity: it’s a freight hauler, a space-bound eighteen wheel tractor trailer that is headed home to deliver its cargo. The crew members are truckers. Half of them don’t wear uniforms. Two of them are there just to make sure the ship doesn’t break down during its run, and those same two constantly whine about their paychecks being too small. I know that its secondary to the real point of the movie, and is really just setting and world-building, but it works for me. The whole thing feels more believable to me because these characters and this world feel very real, and that goes a long way to pull me into the movie.
The plot itself makes excellent use of the science fiction setting, often evoking the emptiness of space, the eeriness of a barren, dead planet, and the claustrophobia of a ramshackle space ship. And of course I would be remiss to not mention the alien itself, a perfect blend of the familiar and the monstrous. Enough people have already praised the creature designs, so I won’t bother; obviously I think they are well done.
I can’t summon up an analysis of why this is a deep, thoughtful sci-fi movie. Rather, I’ll just say it is a great horror movie that makes excellent use of its science fiction setting, and that despite all the imitators there still really isn’t anything like it.
Number 5: Planet of the Apes (1968)
Out of all of the movies on the list, this one has probably aged the least gracefully. Not because it’s the oldest movie on the list, nor because the makeup is pretty crude by today’s standards; but rather, I think, because its themes and ideas have become so over-used that they’ve devolved into jokes in and of themselves. Which is not the film’s fault, so I don’t hold that against the film. I like to view it through the lense of its time, and in its time its themes were still fresh and worth exploring.
I don’t really think I need to explain the premise of the film, so instead I’ll talk about how it uses the premise to explore its themes from a different angle. For one, it tackles the question of science outpacing humanity’s own growth. The state of the planet is ultimately the product of humanity not properly respecting the horrible power of nuclear weapons (again, this was 1968, and that’s a pretty pointed argument), which suggests that the real danger of science is that we will reach a point where we have incredible power but not the maturity to use it.
And if the movie were just about that it might be enough to be a great science fiction movie, but it also takes it upon itself to explore racism, religion, and whether history can really be trusted to tell the truth. As I said above, the problem is that the movie’s treatment of these ideas, which at the time was quite forward-thinking and socially progressive, has become quaint and watered-down, since these topics have at this point devolved almost to the point of self-satire. But someone had to say it first, and this film was not afraid to do just that, and to use the freedoms of science fiction to make its commentary sharper and more powerful.
Well, that’s a lot longer than I expected. But there you have it, my top five sci-fi movies that just barely didn’t make the list. I do feel like the list is somewhat lacking, because there are still many famous and influential sci-fi movies that I haven’t seen. A year from now this list may be very different, depending on whether I watch more of the classics, but for right now these films, and the ones I mention in the podcast, are the science fiction movies I love the most.