When it comes to science fiction, you can certainly explore infinite possibilities the genre has to offer. But certain films and filmmakers allow this exploration to the innermost core of ourselves, the human condition.
Since you’re already operating in a genre that could include space travel, clones, dreams, or apocalyptic settings, you can strip everything down to exploring humanity itself. And what better way to do that than through fictional means out of our realm? Therefore, here are 10 science fiction films from the 21st century that best explore humanity.
1. Interstellar (2014) – Father & Daughter Relationship
At the heart of Christopher Nolan’s film, it is essentially about the meaning of love, specifically between father and daughter. From the ambitious narrative and scope of the film, it never detracts or takes away from what Matthew McConaughey does for his daughter, played by three different actresses, no matter how hard it is for him to the betterment of humanity.
We are introduced to the narrative and amid spoilers, we make sense of what occurred between these two through space, time, wormholes, and the universe in its entirety. Nolan managed to tell a story about a father and daughter while exploring where the planet could be heading without food, Kip Thorne’s theories on wormholes, and time in the infinity of space.
Nolan definitely continued his exploration of themes in this film as he continues to do. But essentially, it’s all about the relationship. Even Jessica Chastain stated it’s his own personal love letter to his daughter and even the secret title while filming was called “Flora’s Letter.” Regardless, Nolan made an ambitious sci-fi film that never lost sight of its humanity, but actually explored it further.
2. High Life (2018) – Meaning for Creating Life
What happens when you put Claire Denis in space? You get something only she can make and one that is certainly unlike any other science fiction film. With her elliptical storytelling in imagery and sound, we start to see what is actually going on in this prison-like space center.
With Robert Pattinson giving another amazing performance as Monty, we start to realize that all these inmates aren’t astronauts, and rather far from it. As the story unfolds and we see Juliette Binoche drugging and taking samples of semen for offspring experimentation, we start to see one of the purposes of this spacecraft.
Denis certainly doesn’t use this space as a plot point or metaphor but allows it to be used to gain an understanding of our humanity. What did some of these characters go through on Earth or in blackholes and alternative space crafts that could mirror their own? There are no definite answers in any of Denis’ films and when it comes to her first English language film and only science fiction film, don’t expect different results here. But by creating a film in the stars, she may have created one of her most stunning works that explores this meaning for life.
3. Under the Skin (2014) – What It Means To Be Human
A haunting, memorizing film that explores the human race from an alien’s perspective, of course, disguised as a human. Scarlett Johansson plays a woman who seduces men in Glasgow into a black hole of sorts.
The ‘what’ is important because from the Kubrickian opening due to director’s Jonathan Glazer’s framing in company with Mica Levi’s unearthly score, we don’t really know why this naked woman assumes the identity of others. Yet as the film progresses, we see Johansson as The Woman learn what sexuality means to ‘men’, the longing of people, and the mundane events of human life.
As she continues to lure men into her car, filmed with real people and hidden cameras, to eventually lead them to their demise, she slowly starts to see what the ‘male’ perspective of sexuality, longing, and sex comes to be. It’s only after she meets a man with deformities, a real person to mention as well, that she sees a sensitivity and fragility to the human male side, what she thought was a narrow-sighted mind. This leads to little moments in the film such as the subtle example of her eating actual food that she can’t keep down.
Whether she sees the entrapment of people in their situations due to longing to the female form, her ending, or beginning, in the woods shows an understanding of the human being. After a brutal attempted rape attack and a motif of mirror reflection, she begins to slightly understand the human being and the better part of herself. What those details are, in a film full of questions and hardly any answers, we are only left to come up with an explanation ourselves on what she discovered about the nature of humans.
4. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) – The Identity of a Human Being
Once Ridley Scott introduced this dream world of replicants and humans interacting, it clearly became a film that was all about humanity. With the long-anticipated sequel, Denis Villeneuve continued that search with more open arms.
With the knowledge of the events of the original “Blade Runner,” we already see that Ryan Gosling’s K is a replicant and struggles to find his place in society hunting down rogue replicants, being a blade runner himself. Through his interactions with replicants, humans, and other various creatures, we start to see what the identity of a human being needs to be in order to be considered an actual human being. This is what Phillip K. Dick first wanted to explore in his short story and this film takes it to new heights by eliminating some of the mystery left over from previous storylines.
With the inclusion of Harrison Ford’s Rick Dekard and the last act of the film, almost mirroring the mood and atmosphere of the original, we truly start to understand the termination of replicants, humans, and those in between. Despite being built or made from human flesh, the film is all about what the requirement or prerequisites are to being an actual human being. The answer is still up to us to decide.
5. Minority Report (2002) – Protecting Human Life
The earliest film on this list, and certainly leave it to Steven Spielberg to create a chase sci-fi film that explores how we protect the most fragile things in life – our own actual lives. After exploring humanity the year prior in “AI: Artificial Intelligence,” Spielberg shows a crime fighting division, PreCrime, that prevents future crimes from being committed. But when the head of that organization, Tom Cruise, becomes the hunted, we start to see what to actually means to protect ourselves.
The film, at its core, discusses the question of predestination versus free will. Therefore, if we humans can’t decide our own fates, then what’s the point of being human? Well, Cruise certainly gives us a chase of this question in this sci-fi noir mystery film.
As the film progresses and relationships are revealed and the crime becomes more connected to Cruise’s Chief John Anderton, we start to comprehend the meaning of PreCrime and their use of Precogs. Can humans really just use creatures to prevent situations instead of helping further our own needs instead? Or should our future mistakes guide us to becoming better human beings? And the list of questions go on until the film concludes.
In the end, the film explores the protection of human life at the cost of other human lives and those creatures in between. We must ask ourselves, are we willing to give up free will for the betterment of society instead of our own selves?