Mission

The purpose of this blog is to provide my thoughts, feelings and insights into the top 100 Science Fiction movies of all time. While my love of all things Sci-Fi may have emerged relatively late in life, I’ve been catching up pretty fast. During that catching up period, lists such as this one have been extremely helpful for me in identifying the “greats” of the genre and helping me avoid the stinkers. I started this blog to give other people a place to start when trying to dive into this amazing world.

The idea for this project actually got its start when I set up a blog to read and review the top 100 Sci-Fi books of all time. And while I’m still not done reading and reviewing all of the books on that list, I thought that it only seemed natural to start a companion blog about Science Fiction movies. So, here we are. I hope you enjoy my reviews and analysis and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on your favorites.

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#1 – Blade Runner

Blade Runner VideoBlade Runner is a gritty, noir-ish, rain-soaked vision of a dystopian future Los Angeles in which government sanctioned bounty-hunters (Blade Runners) are used to track down and “retire” human-looking robots known as replicants. Loosely based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, director Ridley Scott’s film is a complex, thought-provoking meditation on what it means to be human. With its striking visual imagery, moody soundtrack and advanced special-effects, Blade Runner is that rare Science Fiction movie that spends as much time setting a mood as it does discussing its big ideas. And while it may not be as exciting or revolutionary as more action-oriented movies like Star Wars or The Matrix, its cerebral nature and thematic ambiguity is what has made it a cult classic and landed it atop many critics lists of the top Science Fiction movies of all time.

Blade Runner Summary: Los Angeles in the year 2019 is a bleak and dreary place. Seen almost exclusively at night (and with a constant light rain dampening everything), the city is a mass of brightly lit skyscrapers, flame spewing industrial refineries and a constant barrage of corporate marketing. The place is so harsh and inhospitable that we hear multiple references to messages advertising “a better life in the off-world colonies.” And while the technology required to build life-like humanoid robots has been developed by the Tyrell Corporation, their use on Earth has been banned (for obvious reasons). In the midst of this dystopian bleakness we meet a man named Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former Blade Runner for the Los Angeles police department who is coerced into taking on one last assignment – to track down and kill a group of renegade replicants who’ve escaped from one of the off-world colonies.

Because the replicants are nearly indistinguishable from real humans, Deckard has to use a sophisticated empathy test (known as the “Voight-Kampff” test) in order to determine whether a subject is human or replicant. The test involves asking a series of questions (mostly relating to hurting animals) and then judging the subject’s empathic responses. In order to test the process, Deckard travels to the Tyrell corporation headquarters where he performs the test on a beautiful assistant named Rachael (Sean Young). Though she believes herself to be completely human, his test shows otherwise. Tyrell explains that she is an experimental replicant, implanted with false memories and designed to have no knowledge of the fact that she is a robot. When Rachael confronts Deckard later at his apartment about the results of her test, he ends up telling her the truth: that the memories she has are actually those of another person. Deckard comforts her in her anguish, and eventually becomes romantically attached to her.

While Deckard is hunting the rogue replicants, the replicants are actually searching for Tyrell, the man who designed and created them. Since the replicants were designed with a predetermined lifespan (sort of a planned obsolescence), the escaped robots (played by Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy) are trying to reach their creator in order to try to extend their life. But as Deckard begins to track down and “retire” the replicants one by one, their search for Tyrell becomes more desperate and diabolical. The eventual showdown between Deckard and the last remaining replicants (I won’t say who) in an abandoned apartment building is one of the most nerve-wracking climaxes in cinema history.

Blade Runner Review: Few films evoke a sense of claustrophobia and existential dread as well as Blade Runner does. From the opening shots of the city lit up by the flames of industry to the cold, harsh reality of humans living in the shadows of giant corporations and megalithic buildings, the film seems to depict a world that has somehow forgotten its humanity. With scientists bent on coming up with newer and better ways of acting like Gods and less interested in creating a world that is hospitable to the few remaining humans still living on this dying planet, it’s no surprise that Deckard himself starts to question his own conception of what it means to be human – and what that implies for the work that he is asked to perform. By leaving those implications open to interpretation, Ridley Scott has created a film whose themes and meaning will be debated for years to  come.

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#2 – Star Wars

Star Wars posterWhat is there to say about Star Wars that hasn’t already been said a million times by a million different people? Yes, it’s one of the top grossing movie franchises of all time. Yes, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling and vision that brims with energy, passion and heart. Yes, it features special effects and film making techniques that still feel fresh and exciting over 30 years later. And yes, it has captured the imaginations of countless children and adults alike, helping to make it one of the most beloved movies in cinema history. But more importantly, it also helped the entertainment industry realize the vast economic and creative potential of the Science Fiction genre. Every Sci-Fi movie that came after it owes a debt to the impact it had on popular culture and the way that Science Fiction was viewed by mainstream America. For that, if nothing else, Star Wars deserves to be near the top of any list of the top Science Fiction movies of all time.

Star Wars Summary: Since we’re dealing with multiple movies in this entry (and since most people already know every detail of the story), I won’t try to provide a comprehensive summary. I’ll just say that the first three films in the series (actually the 4th, 5th and 6th chronologically) deal with a group of rebels as they struggle to fight against the rule of the mighty Galactic empire. Led by the evil Lord Darth Vader (voice of James Earl Jones), the Empire is in the midst of building a terrifyingly powerful space station, known as the Death Star, in order to help destroy the remaining rebels in the galaxy. The rebel alliance knows that if the Death Star is allowed to become fully functional, it will mean the end of their rebellion. Because of this, the alliance knows that the destruction of the Death Star is their only means of survival. Thrust into the middle of this galactic struggle is a young farmboy named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who gets caught up in the alliance after helping rescue the Princess Leia (Carrie Fischer) from the clutches of Darth Vader, with help from Han Solo (Harrison Ford) of course. With the help of a mysterious galactic force (aptly named “The Force”), Luke and the rest of the rebel alliance battle the Empire for the fate of the galaxy.

While most fans know the story and plot details inside and out, not very many of them know about its origins and the influences that George Lucas used when writing it. Although Star Wars seems to show us a vision of a technologically advanced future (even though it’s set “A long time ago…”), the structure of Luke’s quest is actually based on the archetypal myth of the “Hero’s Journey,” which is a story that can be seen in cultures throughout the world and throughout history. Coined by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the Hero’s journey is based in part on the work of psychiatrist Carl Jung who noticed that stories and fables from a variety of cultures all seemed to include some of the same basic elements. From the call to adventure (Leia’s message to Obi-Wan Kenobi), to the trials and tribulations (Learning how to use the force) and the eventual return of the Hero (‘Return of the Jedi’), the narrative of Star Wars follows a similar structure to epic myths throughout time. Obviously it puts its own unique spin on the myth, but just the fact that it is based on a story that everyone can relate to is one of the main reasons I think it has become such a widely love and respected piece of entertainment.

On a personal level, I should probably also acknowledge the impact that the Star Wars movies had on me as a young kid (and by extension me as an adult). Although I was born one year after the original movie was released, by the time I was old enough to watch them I fell in love. What got me hooked was the way it took me out of my ordinary life and catapulted me into a world that was so foreign and unusual, yet at the same time so familiar and comforting. To me, Star Wars wasn’t a Science Fiction movie, it was just a movie. And a movie that brought me so much excitement and joy while growing up that it would be hard to point to anything else as a bigger reason for my lifelong love of Sci-Fi. By taking something old and making it new again, the creators of Star Wars helped spawn a generation of fans who grew up always comparing the latest action adventure film to this seminal film. And while the new Star Wars Trilogy may have somewhat sullied the reputation of the franchise, its still hard to watch the original movies without experiencing the same sense of wonder and excitement that I felt the first time.

 

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#3 – Alien

Alien movie posterI have to admit that I was pretty scared of this movie when I was kid. After watching it again for the first time in 25 years I’d have to say that I’m still pretty scared of it. Although I’m not usually a huge fan of Horror movies, if they have Science Fiction elements I’ll usually go along for the ride. And while Alien does have Science Fiction elements (it is a movie about an Alien life form trying to kill the crew of a spaceship after all), it definitely has more in common with a monster movie or slasher flick than it does with a space adventure – which is fine. Now that I’m older and not as afraid of the dark, I can sit back and appreciate Alien for what it is – a grimy, claustrophobic and moody vision of the future that does a masterful job of using tension and suspense to create a profound sense of dread and impending carnage. And while it may not do more than hint at some of the larger issues that Sci-Fi often deals with, that doesn’t make it any less of an effective movie.

Alien Summary: The crew of the mining transport vehicle the Nostromo are in stasis on their way home to Earth with their latest haul when they are awakened out of cold sleep and asked to investigate the source of an unknown transmission. After landing on the planet and exploring the wreckage of what appears to be an alien spaceship, a crew member named Kane (John Hurt) discovers a room filled with slimy eggs. When one of them opens and a creature attaches itself to his face, the crew are forced to return to the Nostromo in order to save him. While trying to detach the “face-hugger” from him, they learn that the creatures blood is extremely acidic – even coming close to burning a hole right through the hull of the ship. Things relax a bit, however, when they find that the alien has removed itself from the crew member, leaving him apparently unhurt. What comes next is probably one of the most famous scenes in all of cinema. If you don’t know what I’m talking about than it’s probably best if you just skip the rest of this and go watch the movie. I don’t want to spoil anything for you. Ok, you gone? Well, after recovering from the alien induced coma, Kane is sitting down to enjoy some food with the rest of the crew when he starts to shake and convulse violently. The next thing we know a small Alien baby has popped out of his chest and makes a break for it.

The rest of the movie mostly involves the remaining crew members fighting for their life as the (now) full-grown Alien starts to pick them off one by one. Both phallic and vaginal looking, and dripping in slime, the creature is something out of your worst nightmares. Designed by Swiss surrealist H.R. Geiger, the Alien is a frightening mix of biological and mechanical looking elements, all in a vaguely humanoid shape. Offhandedly described by the Chief Science Officer (Ian Holm) as the “perfect” being, he intimates that the creature has absolutely zero morality and is the ultimate survivor. Not exactly things you want to hear when trying to figure out how to stay alive.

Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) leads the charge as most of the crew are either killed outright by the creature or disappear completely (we find out what happens to those in a shocking scene near the end). After the Captain dies, Ripley discovers a message from their employers on Earth that the main directive of the mission is now to return the creature to Earth, even if it means the death of the crew. She also discovers that the Chief Science Officer is actually in on the decision to sacrifice the crew in order to preserve the Alien for some unidentified military purpose. When he is eventually revealed to be a robot, Ripley decides that the only way out is to set the self-destruct mechanism in the ship and get away using one of the ships escape pods. But of course nothing is ever that easy – especially in Horror movies.

Alien Review: Alien is often cited as one of the first examples of Science Fiction in film that portray the future as bleak and dirty.  The Nostromo is certainly no shining palace in the sky. It’s a dark, cramped, highly functional environment built to house astronauts on long journey’s through space. To go along with that, the main characters in the movie are just average Joes doing a tough job under harsh conditions. They aren’t space heroes trying to save the galaxy, just regular workers trying to collect a paycheck and return home to their families. In addition to that, the fact that the lead role is a woman (and a kick-ass woman at that) was also a change of pace for the action adventure movies of the time. All of this, combined with the incredible set design and special effects work, contribute to making Alien one of the most striking and original pieces of Science Fiction ever produced. And the fact that it is still as powerfully scary today as it was over 30 years ago only reinforces how groundbreaking this movie really was at the time. So I admit, this is a pretty great movie. Just don’t ask me to watch it again anytime soon.

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#4 – The Matrix

the matrix movie posterBecause of its lasting influence on both Science Fiction and movie making in general, it’s often hard to remember a time before The Matrix. With an ingenious mix of highly choreographed action sequences, mind-blowing special effects and a premise that literally questions the nature of reality, The Matrix was both a critical and commercial success, spawning two sequels, a series of animated shorts and a host of action movie imitators. And while it is often (rightfully) noted for its ground-breaking special effects, it’s really the film’s story and heroic character arch that make it such a rich and satisfying experience. Borrowing elements from religious and philosophical texts, as well as Japanese Anime films, Philip K. Dick and cyberpunk novels, The Matrix is a movie that is teeming with big ideas and profound concepts. It just also so happens to contain some of the most kick ass action ever put on film.

The Matrix Summary: Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a mild-mannered computer programmer by day, and a renegade hacker named “Neo” at night. After receiving cryptic messages through his computer about something called the Matrix, he meets a fellow hacker named Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) who takes him to see a man named Morpheus. Morpheus explains the true nature of reality to Neo and offers him the choice of either returning to his life of blissful ignorance (by taking a blue pill) or learning the truth about humanity and following him “down the rabbit hole” (by taking a red pill) into the “real world”. Obviously, since the movie doesn’t end there, Neo chooses the red pill and wakes up in a slime-filled pod that’s hooked up to what appears to be some sort of electrical structure. OK, no so bad yet. Except that as the camera pans out, you see that his pod is just one of thousands (if not millions) of pods attached to the same structure. After Neo is rescued from his pod by Morpheus, Trinity and the other free humans, Morpheus explains to Neo what the hell is going on.

Apparently it’s actually the year 2199 and the earth is controlled by sentient machines (presumably of our own making). With the sun blotted out by fallout from the first war with the machines, they needed to find an alternative energy source. In order to meet their insatiable need for electricity, the machines have resorted to using the bioelectrical energy produced by humans. The giant electrical structure that Neo and the other humans were connected to was really a giant piece of harvesting equipment meant to sap the energy for their own use. In order to keep the humans docile and content in their pods, the machines created the Matrix to act as a simulated reality to keep them happy while their energy is being drained (sounds a bit like reality television don’t it?). Morpheus and his gang of merry pranksters go around “unplugging” people who they think can handle the shock of learning that humanity is now relegated to just being one big battery for the evil machines. But just because they’ve unplugged, it doesn’t mean that they can’t plug back in whenever they want and take advantage of their knowledge to bend the laws of physics in the Matrix to their own end.

While the reality of humanity’s situation is most definitely a bummer, the advantage of knowing that the Matrix is a simulation and that with the right equipment you can be and do almost anything is full of awesome. Just by loading up a computer program, Neo is able to learn Karate or how to fly a helicopter. As he begins to accept his fate as “The One” who will save humanity from the machines, he comes to realize that he has even more control over the simulated world than he thought, including the ability to dodge bullets. Unfortunately he’s up against machines called “Agents” who are also able to manipulate the simulated world to their own ends.

The Matrix Review: I’m certainly not going to downplay the impact that the incredible action sequences and special effects had on the success of this movie. By all accounts they set the bar for every action movie to come. For me, however, the story of humanity’s enslavement by the machines and the horrifying arrangement that the surviving humans must face is what truly sets this movie apart from other mindless action films. All of us at one time or another have questioned whether or not this world that we live in is real or just simulation (ok, maybe it’s just me). Philosophers have wondered for centuries whether our world is but an illusion, a trick played on our brains by the senses. The Matrix was able to tap into that fear and anxiety is a way that few movies ever have (or ever even tried). And that, along with crazy Kung Fu and bullet dodging, are what make it one of the best science fiction movies ever created.

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#5 – 2001 A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of those movies that looms so large in our collective consciousness that it’s hard to put into words exactly how influential and important it is. From its iconic music to the imposing black monolith to the sentient computer HAL 9000, the individual elements of the film are so well known that they could almost exist outside of the film itself. But taken together, they help create one of the most groundbreaking movies of all time. At times visually stunning, thought-provoking and completely baffling, the 2001 is notable not only for its own sake but for the impact and influence it had on a generation of filmmakers, from Steven Spielberg to George Lucas to Ridley Scott. Besides being one of the first big Science Fiction blockbusters, it was also one of the first big budget epic movies that was serious instead of outlandish, and meditative rather than bombastic. From its opening montage of prehistoric man on the African plains to its final psychedelic trip through space and time, 2001 is a movie that isn’t afraid to let the audience come to its own interpretation of the events that are depicted. Based loosely on a story called ‘The Sentinel’ by Arthur C. Clarke, and adapted into a novel of the same name, 2001 is that rare movie that you can watch again and again and still discover new things.

2001 A Space Odyssey Summary: The movie is broken up into four distinct parts. The first part, titled The Dawn of Man, opens on a loosely formed group of prehistoric humans on the African savanna foraging for plants and vegetation millions of years in the past. Attacks from a roaming leopard as well as a rival band of men show how vulnerable they really are. After awaking one day to find a large black monolith standing in front of them, they begin to exhibit strange characteristics. One of the man-apes slowly realizes that he can use an old bone as both a weapon and a tool. When he uses the bone to beat and kill a member of the rival band, helping to secure a watering hole for his tribe and food to eat, it becomes clear that this discovery is a monumental turning point in the history of man. The notion that somehow this black monolith had something to do with helping the man-apes develop tools and weapons is not explicitly stated – but it is strongly implied. That this simple discovery helps start the evolutionary process of man is also hinted at by one of the most famous jump-cuts in all of cinema. After killing the leader of the rival tribe, the man ape throws the bone in the air as the camera follows it upwards. At its highest point, the film cuts directly to a similarly sized spaceship gently floating through space. Which leads to the next section.

Cut to millions of years in the future as we follow a spaceship as it docks with a space station orbiting Earth, all while Strauss’ The Blue Danube Waltz plays serenely in the background.  On the spaceship is a man named Heywood Floyd who is traveling to the Moon in order to investigate a mysterious object that was found buried. It turns out to be another black monolith like the one seen by the apes. We learn through his reports that the monolith looks to have been buried over 4 million years ago and is unknown in origin. When a team of scientists travel to see the monolith, a strange piercing noise is emitted from the structure. We then cut again, this time to a spaceship en route to Jupiter carrying five crew members (2 of which are not in stasis) and a sentient computer named HAL 9000. Apparently the radio signal given off by the monolith pointed in the direction of Jupiter and the team has been sent to explore the source of the signal.

Along the way to Jupiter, we experience a situation that serves to emphasize the dangers of artificial intelligence. When HAL reports that one of the ships antennas has malfunctioned and the astronauts go to investigate, it becomes clear that the computer is at fault in its diagnosis. Sensing that the crew are about to try to turn him off, HAL orchestrates an elaborate plan to prevent the astronauts from deactivating him – a plan that goes so far as to kill one of the crew members. When the remaining crew member is able to finally deactivate HAL, he is presented with a video that explains the true nature of the expedition to Jupiter. The final chapter of the movie deals with what they find when they finally reach the transmission point. I’d say that I don’t want to ruin the surprise by telling you what happens next, but the truth is that I’m still not 100% sure what happens in this part. So I’ll just let you watch it and decide for yourself.

2001: A Space Odyssey Review: The first time I watched this movie, I was transfixed by the amazing visuals. The second time I watched it I started to appreciate some of the larger implications of what the film was trying to say – that each of the different parts of the film were actually related to one another not just stand alone stories in a greater narrative. The third time I saw the movie (after having read the novel version by Arthur C. Clarke), I really started to come to grips with the overall theme of the story and the purpose behind the monolith – that “it” or some force was deliberately intervening in humanity at key stages in order to drive the evolutionary process. Knowing this definitely sheds light on what happens at the end and how this final stage in the evolutionary process is revealed.

While some people have criticized this film for being too slow or not having enough dialog, I tend to disagree with that assessment. This is not a wild space adventure with a hero fighting aliens. This movie aspires to be so much more than that. In reality it’s nothing less than a meditation on the true purpose of humanity and our role in the universe. If you’re looking for a rollicking space adventure, you’d better look somewhere else. But if you enjoy a movie that is visually stunning and thought-provoking, you be hard pressed to find a movie as completely satisfying and original as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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#6 – Aliens

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#7 – The Terminator

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#8 – The Fifth Element

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#9 – Terminator 2 Judgement Day

Terminator 2: Judgement Day might be one of my favorite movies of all time. I remember watching it five or six times in the theater, all while I was in Los Angeles visiting my grandparents. That last fact is important because, if you’ve watched the movie, you know that LA gets destroyed in the most awe-inspiring way imaginable. As a teenager living in California and idealizing Los Angeles, it’s a pretty traumatic experience to see the city you love (and are currently in) vaporized by a nuclear explosion while you’re sitting in a movie theater watching it happen.

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