6. Moon (2009) – The Duality of Self
With Sam Rockwell stepping into our lead protagonist role as a lonely worker on the Moon, we get a different kind of space story as it’s all about the individual self. Duncan Jones’s debut feature shows his truthful approach to scientific realism and a lead character story.
Rockwell’s Sam Bell is the only worker for Lunar Industries on the Moon as his three-year shift is coming to an end. As the film progresses, a pivotal moment shows his discovery of an unconscious doppelganger. Here, we really start to explore the meaning of one’s true identity, one’s purpose in mission and in life, and what the actual value of one life is. With only his space robot voice Gerty for a company and possible explanation, Bell must challenge and question his entire existence by himself. It shows how science fiction can allow us to reflect on ourselves and truly begin a quest for truth.
Rockwell delivers one of his best performances, never playing out of tune or over the top for the situation he is in. And Jones achieves such high stakes questions on morality, memory, and inner human nature in this independent sci-fi film.
7. Inception (2010) – Fragility of the Human Psyche
The only repeat of a filmmaker on this list, Christopher Nolan first explored science fictional elements in this groundbreaking film involving time, memory, and dreams. At the core of the heist film, it’s again how children and parents are trying to heal their fractured lives, whether Cillian Murphy planting an idea for the throne of his ailing father Tom Berenger or Leonardo DiCaprio’s quest to return to his children after the devastating loss of his wife. It’s all about the human relationships in these alternative worlds.
Without stripping away the elements of a dream world within a dream world, creating subconscious alternative worlds, and a list of philosophical influences upon which to write a book, Nolan definitely explores science fiction. However, instead of style over substance, every philosophical influence or dream created is made to better understand that one individual’s subconscious and humanity. That’s why the totems are so specific to each individual.
Lastly, it is a rare feat to explore a science fiction that never leaves planet Earth, never introduces enhanced humans or robots or enthralling theories; rather what takes place in our heads is at the core. Nolan proves that his love and quest to understand humanity can start all in our own minds.
8. District 9 (2009) – We Are All Equal
A raw and visceral film by Neil Blomkamp, his sleeper hit for his metaphor for apartheid shocked viewers more than a decade ago. He made a thrilling chase adventure out of the gentrified lo-fi piece; it is a film that deserves to be held up in our own future to examine where we are going and to truly show we are all equal, no matter what we look like.
Showing Johannesburg through interviews, found footage, and handheld camera work is not what one thinks of when exploring science fiction, but this gives it an extra edge for the grittiness of humanity. Blomkamp shows social segregation in the worst ways between human beings and aliens. As Sharlto Copley’s news reporter slowly starts to transform into an alien, we start to see the humanity, and lack thereof, from both sides.
As the story and nightmare of Copley’s Wikus unfolds, we see the miscommunication and lack of understanding between humans and aliens. They are essentially portrayed as the same species, wanting the same things, but the aliens have a harder getting it due to xenophobia and segregation. Blomkamp revisited the sci-fi genre subsequent times, but never managed to show the ugliness and disdain of humanity quite like in his debut feature.
9. Children of Men (2006) – The Hope for the Future of Humanity
What happens when children are no longer being born? Well, the human race is on a time clock and in Alfonso Cuaron’s film exploring immigration, infertility, and pending civil war, the only hope for humanity is the actual hope for humans.
After a miracle when a young immigrant worker is pregnant, Clive Owen must get her to safety amidst refugees, terrorists, and the government. Sure, it’s set in the distant future where technology has advanced and the world is crumbling, but it’s truly about the hope for the birth of one human being that can unite or destroy us all.
The amount of subplots, characters, and overall setting provides this film enough density from P.D. James’ novel, but Cuaron adapted it and made it is own. He shows how differing human beings come together for the survival of the human race. For example, during a one-take master course and all sides of this conflict recognize the existence of a newborn, hope is shown on all faces. Of course, the conflict and their lives continue, but the factual evidence of a newborn baby shows that hope is not dead for us.
A film that is constantly discussed involving science fiction and humanity, Cuaron explored this notion again in “Gravity” but here, it was all about the human race.
10. Ad Astra (2019) – Father & Son Relationship
The most recent film on this list and still playing in theaters, James Gray explores the connection between astronaut Brad Pitt and his lost father in space, played by Tommy Lee Jones. As critics and audiences have already pointed out, the influence of “Apocalypse Now,” “Solaris” and “Heart of Darkness” are surely on its sleeve, but those works are about humanity as well, so Gray takes it to space once again.
With the title literally translating to ‘to the stars’ in Latin, that’s where the film certainly takes you. But the ambiance and the thought of what the father has done or is currently doing in never far from Pitt’s McBride’s thoughts. As viewers, we are informed of his confusion, love, or lack thereof, and wanting to understand his father though voice over, communication messages, and therapeutic sessions. In his minimalist and nuanced performance, we feel what Pitt is enduring about the potential loss of his father into the unknown.
Gray certainly delivers on space chases, a futuristic sense of where we could be heading, and scope of space exploration, but what he truly delivers on is the connection and lost relationship between a father and a son.