21 Remarkable Moments in Sci-Fi Movies
The 20th century started with people doubting that the car would catch on and ended with complaints that mankind hadn’t already colonised Mars. It was one of the most quickly developing and exciting periods in history. As we delve deeper into the 21st century, we are turning corners that had once exclusively belonged to science fiction and live in a world of seemingly endless possibilities.
Consider for a moment, that a team at IBM is actually researching teleportation or that NASA has conducted serious research into warp drive technology and you’ll feel the impact that science fiction has had on our world.
Science fiction has always tackled new ideas and pushed them in directions that have captivated and propelled the human imagination. While the list of gems that sci-fi has delivered over the years is a long one, here are 21 of my favourite and thought provoking sci-fi moments that have shaped and expanded those horizons.
Presented in no particular order. Contains spoilers.
Other than being a showcase for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s usual flawless acting, Predator introduces us to the idea that our position in the food chain is a luxury. We’re used to the story where a superior alien race could come and conquer us, but the Predator is content to just come and kick our arses every so often because there’s nothing on alien TV that afternoon.
After unloading a small fortune of ammo into an empty jungle, the movie’s unlikely rescue team realise that the Predator is not only hunting them, he’s doing it for sport. The inclusion of active camouflage, thought controlled weaponry and nuclear explosion resistant tree stumps just adds to the overwhelming cool of this movie.
District 9 (2009)
This movie did what science fiction does best. It takes an aspect of the human condition and expands on it in a way that enables us to see ourselves from a different perspective. District 9 does this beautifully when it takes a South African township of alien refugees and shows them badly integrating into human society from the confines of their camp.
The kicker in this, is when we meet an alien named Christopher who creates a mysterious black substance that has taken him 20 years of scavenging and research. This forces us think about how we’ve judged the travellers, making direct comparisons to some real-world events such as the question of refugees and illegal immigration. Something that we may all be a little guilty of. I admit it’s a clunkily made point in this movie, but it’s a great example of science fiction allowing us to look at ourselves without having to be preachy about it.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Considering the release of the original movie was in 1968, when the threat of nuclear global annihilation was seriously on the cards, the impact made by the movies climactic scene of Taylor discovering the half buried Statue of Liberty and realising that he’d been on Earth all along was hugely poignant.
Perhaps a little lost on modern audiences, Charlton Heston’s cries of despair at humanity’s short sightedness were food for thought back in the 60’s.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Everyone has been fascinated by dinosaurs at some point in their lives. So when Steven Speilberg’s Jurassic Park offered to make actually seeing dinosaurs a possibility, it was a sure-fire hit.
While the CGI is now starting to look a little dated, it’s hard to deny that it was breathtaking when you first saw it. Sam Neil as Dr Alan Grant drives over a ridge to find herds of dinosaurs grazing at a water hole and we were right there with his child-like wide eyes and sense of wonder. That moment allowed us all to be children again.
Event Horizon (1997)
Some of you may not remember the huge news of Voyager II passing Neptune and taking the first photos of our distant neighbour, it’s icy blue clouds hit every news channel across the world. So when Event Horizon promised to go there it was a hugely exciting prospect.
Whilst I have my reservations about where the movie ended up going, the idea that there was still plenty of excitement left to be found in this solar system was intriguing. So much space sci fi throws at us predictably goes to a doomed mission on Mars or swashbuckling in a galaxy far far away. It’s sad that more science fiction doesn’t explore our own back yard. Shame it ended up with zombie demons from another dimension.
The Abyss (1989)
James Camerons love affair with the ocean floor was captured in his 1989 deep sea thriller. The Abyss was a sort of Alien/Close Encounters of the Third Kind hybrid which at times seemed to wander off topic. But the high pressure, claustrophobic atmosphere the movie sustained gave it a distinct and memorable personality.
Perhaps most memorable was a scene where the special effects really did steal the show. The crew were met by an alien life form meandering through their facility as a column of living water. A truly amazing scene that captured a sense of mystery seldom seen in other movies of the time.
Staying at the bottom of the sea, Sphere led us to an underwater top secret research station built around an alien sphere. The movie itself wanders through internalised fears and paranoia and probably spends far too much time running in circles. But I personally have always loved Dustin Hoffmans line which bluntly explains what the movie is trying to tell us:
“We were given the greatest gift in the history of mankind. We were given this magic ball and it says: ‘Imagine what you will and you can have it’, and we’re so primitive, have so many fears that we carry with us, that we manifest the worst in us rather than the best in us.”
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
Yes, the Keanu “I’m made of wood” Reeves one.
Following on from Sphere’s humanity bashing, there’s another poignant piece of dialogue that evokes an interesting philosophical point that could only come from a science fiction movie. Whilst the movie sucked (really sucked) it’s undercurrent of environmental concern was delivered at a level that we as a species often tend to overlook.
Klaatu: There is a gathering of world leaders not far from here; I will explain my purpose to them.
Regina Jackson: I’m afraid thats not possible. Perhaps you should explain yourself to me instead.
Klaatu: Do you speak for the entire human race?
Regina Jackson: I speak for the President of the United States. Now, please; tell me why have you come to our planet.
Klaatu: *Your* planet.
Regina Jackson: Yes; this is our planet.
Klaatu: No, it is not.
Back to the Future (1985)
This classic time travel romp marked two interesting points. Firstly it pointed out that you could do a movie about time travel with some level of seriousness to it and secondly that Michael J Fox was never going to age again.
Back to the Future addressed the issues of paradoxes and causality within time travel rather than going back to have a peek at cavemen. It set the standard for the time travel genre, landmarked of course with the outstanding scene of Doc Browns DeLorean vanishing in a flash of CGI awesomeness. Nobody had ever done time travel like this and when that baby hit ’88, we knew this was going to be something special.
Minority Report (2002)
The future was also a theme of the spectacular yet predictable Spielberg adaptation of Philip K Dick’s short story of the same name.
The movie itself is quite obvious in where it’s headed from very early on but it does still manage to deliver some great scenes. Particularly where Tom Cruise as the fugitive Anderton is lead by the kidnapped precognitive Agatha through a shopping mall. She directs him through her knowledge of the future in an orchestrated get away resulting in the pair vanishing into a crowd in the rain under an umbrella they picked up at the start of the chase. It was a little hammy, but it provided that moment of “okay, that was pretty cool” and made you wonder what it would really be like to know the future.
The Fifth Element (1997)
Luc Beson’s futuristic epic was drenched in science fiction imagery. From flying cars in a stratosphere scraping city, to interstellar vacations and back to ancient Egyptian alien contact with a John Mclean of 2263 thrown in for good measure.
In one of the most memorable scenes of the movie, the sole survivor of a crashed starship is the right hand of Leeloo, the movies title character. She is re-engineered from a few living cells in an astounding reconstruction from skeleton to soft tissue and hair (somehow inclusive of hair dye). A little silly perhaps, but stunning nonetheless.
Blade Runner (1982)
Another of Philip K Dick’s adaptations, this time from Ridley Scott. His dark industrial future saw a group of genetically manufactured Replicants return to Earth to seek an extension of their limited lifespan from their creator.
In one of the most captivating moments in sci-fi movies the replicant Roy, Rutger Hauer, details to the Blade Runner; Deckard the things he has seen and the memories that he has as well as his acceptance of the meaning of mortality. It has always been to my mind as one of the most beautiful depictions of how fragile and precious life really is.
AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Now I’ll be honest, I hated this movie. It represented to me everything that is wrong with movies that are trying to make a point and it was eaten alive by it’s own sentimentality.
That said, it does make some interesting points, not least of which is where the prototype “mecha” David, having imprinted his artificial love on his Mother, is cast out when it becomes clear that he is unable to integrate. The quest that he embarks on, shows the single mindedness of not only machine intelligence, but also of children. Each desperately trying to resolve an issue through the application of misguided logic. AI asks the question of how artificial intelligence would really act, how would it feel and how would that be fulfilled? It’s just a shame it does it with such a Disney-esque feel to it.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Sticking with the AI theme, it would be impossible to gloss over the contribution of HAL to science fiction. Here was an artificial intelligence that really stood out, more so than his fellow actors, with his twisted machine logic.
HAL was tasked with keeping the true nature of his ships mission a secret from the crew. Unable to consider the possibility to rejecting this programming when they suspect he’s hiding something, he decides that they are unnecessary to the mission and that it’s success can only be guaranteed without them. Punctuated with the eerie and unsettling exchange of:
“Open the pod bay doors HAL.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t do that Dave.”
Flight of the Navigator (1986)
On a cheerier note, this feel good Disney classic was a child’s dream come true and is frequently overlooked in movie lists.
Whilst the movie itself doesn’t deliver any high end statements about humanity or where we are going, it does deliver the awesome scene of young 12 year old David taking control of an alien spacecraft. To the sound of 80’s music, he and the ship’s AI commander streak across the US in an attempt to get David home to his parents. It’s not saying anything profound, it’s just appealing to the dreams of children, and probably more than a few adults.
The Matrix (1999)
The marketing of the Matrix movie was almost as good as the movie itself. What is the Matrix? It’s the question that gripped 1999 movie audiences and an answer that made for one of the most successful movie franchises after Star Wars and James Bond.
In the movie’s “point of no return” scene, after having met the mysterious Morpheus, Neo is shown what the Matrix is. This leads to what is universally accepted to be one of the ultimate ‘WTF?’ moments in movie history. If just getting your head around that concept didn’t “bake your noodle” then you probably should start looking for Morpheus yourself.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s infamous movie with some of the best practical special effects ever seen. Alien creatures built from the body parts of it’s victims forming bloated twisted torsos, creepy spider legged human heads and a host of exploded bodies in the start of an epic horror tradition. While Rob Bottin lead the creature effects, Stan Winston was called in to help out when the team found themselves overwhelmed with creatures to create. Winston of course went on to work on projects like The Terminator and Aliens, his fingerprints are clear in The Thing.
The thing to remember about about this film is that these effects really were ground breaking for their time. Creature effects had been used before, but the range and scope of these creations led us out of the thinking of puppets. It brought us into a new realm of physical effects, limited only by imagination. Although I think we could all do without the idea of a spider head monster scuttling behind us.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
Expanding on effects pioneered in The Abyss, James Cameron returned to the Terminator story with a new chapter pitting Arnies T800 cyborg against the T1000, a machine made from a shape shifting liquid metal.
In what remains one the most technically ambitious scenes of the franchise, whilst chasing Sarah Connor, The T1000 walks through the bars of an asylum door. What made this even more outstanding, was that as while the new terminator reforms on the other side, his gun catches on the bars. It was a beautiful touch and made this iconic moment really hit home on how far realistic special effects had come.
To be fair, Alien could have an article all to itself with the number of concepts it brought with it. From acid blooded aliens with a ferocity unmatched in movie history, to a female lead character who really set the standard for strong female roles, its list of achievements is virtually unmatched.
Alien begins changing the goal posts for sci-fi storytelling from it’s opening sequence. Traditionally, crews of intrepid sci-fi ships went off into space and found aliens in the far flung reaches of the galaxy. But Alien went down a different path. The crew wasn’t military, this was a refining ship, these were blue collar guys earning themselves a buck. They weren’t out adventuring or going off to find fortune and glory, this was just their day job. And they were going home. They were returning to Earth. These meagre details set the scene for what was to become a legend and one of the most original pieces of science fiction of all time.
Star Wars (1979)
No list of thought provoking science fiction would be complete without Star Wars. It’s themes of good and evil intertwined with battles of identity and freedom are what has made it stand the test of time as a story.
More than just its story though, ground breaking special effects that right from the opening sequence lets us know that science fiction was no longer the domain of children. It was taking itself seriously and inventing movie changing technologies as it went. Star Wars marked a turning point in science fiction which threw it into mainstream cinema. Every sci-fi movie made since 1977 owes its success, in some way, to the road that Star Wars paved for the genre.
Joss Wheadon is the man who can do no geek harm at the moment. He was our champion when he fought the man and took his sky back with the feature film movie “sequel” to the cancelled Fox series Firefly.
In its opening scenes, we drift through the titular ship and are introduced to the crew of misfits we’d come to love in the series. Anyone watching them for the first time could effortlessly identify with them just as easily. The scripting and acting within that scene conveyed in 4 minutes what 12 episodes of 45 minutes had cemented in fans, this was something unique.
But Serenity not only gave us a conclusion to the series, it showed us that the geek will inherit the Earth. Science fiction was no longer something that would be dished out by studios as and when they felt it met with their concept of commercial success. It was something that our demand had brought back to life and that love, keeps everything in the damn ‘verse together.