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Top 10 Exceptional Sci-Fi Films

By Martin Keady · January 7, 2019

The best explanation of the difference between wisdom and knowledge that I have ever heard was provided by the Ireland rugby captain (and all-time great player) Brian O’Driscoll, when he said at a press conference in 2009: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit… Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad”. O’Driscoll has subsequently admitted that he only said it as part of a bet with another Ireland player, but he nevertheless highlighted the difference between the acquisition of knowledge and the application of knowledge. Put simply, true wisdom, as Socrates suggested, is to endlessly question oneself and one’s own supposed intelligence.

The distinction between knowledge and wisdom is particularly important when considering which films would make a list of the Top 10 Exceptional (Intelligent and Wise) Sci-Fi Films. By definition, all science fiction (literary or cinematic) is based on the idea that in the future human intelligence will have increased, such that we will be capable of expanding the current limits of scientific knowledge. But far fewer sci-fi stories or films (especially films) are concerned with the application of that knowledge, questioning whether it is wise to apply our knowledge in the way that we so often do. In a genre that is so often dominated by action and special effects, the few films that prioritize thought and even wisdom truly stand out.


Here, in reverse order, are the Top 10 Exceptional (Intelligent and Wise) Sci-Fi Films. 

10. A Grand Day Out (1989): Directed by Nick Park; Written by Nick Park and Steve Rushton

The great Wallace and Gromit began here – indeed, the original full title of A Grand Day Out was A Grand Day Out With Wallace and Gromit, before the dog and man duo became the global household names that they are today. And their first “outing”, as it were, was a superb sci-fi short that paid homage to the first ever sci-fi movie, Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) (1902).  However, whereas Méliès’s intrepid adventurers embark on a genuine scientific expedition, Wallace and Gromit journey to the moon in search of cheese. 

Wallace and Gromit themselves neatly embody the difference between intelligence, or knowledge, and wisdom. Wallace is the supposed “brains” of the outfit, endlessly coming up with new ideas for inventions, whereas Gromit, the put-upon canine, is ceaselessly (if silently) questioning his “master’s” latest wheeze, usually with an upturn of those famously agile eye-brows. All too often, as in A Grand Day Out, Gromit has to rescue Wallace from the folly of his own imagined intelligence and gently, but firmly, bring him back to earth. 

A Grand Day Out is also extraordinarily wise in its treatment of the “alien” life that it depicts, in this case a robot (presumably left behind by an earlier lunar mission) that dreams of becoming an alpine skier after it chances upon a discarded magazine advert. Initially, there is all the conflict between the humans (and canines) and the alien that they encounter that is a staple of so much sci-fi cinema. Eventually, however, after what the world would come to recognise as a typically Wallace and Gromit-ian series of misadventures, a kind of peaceful co-existence is established, whereby Wallace and Gromit are allowed to return home to Earth while the robot uses a piece of their rocket that it has cut away to fashion a pair of rudimentary skis. The final image, in which the robot waves to the departing Wallace and Gromit as it skis up and down the lunar mountains, is one of the warmest and wisest in all of cinema.

Wallace and Gromit land on the Moon to hunt for Cheese in this classic clip from the Oscar-winning film, A Grand Day Out:

9. Rogue One (2016): Directed by Gareth Edwards; Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy

Of course the full title of Rogue One is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, as it was the first of the prequels that have accompanied the latest Disney-financed Star Wars sequels. However, there is an argument that a more accurate title would be Rogue One: THE Star Wars Story, as it is perhaps the most grown-up and fully realised of all the Star Wars films, going right back to the originals in the 1970s and 1980s. That is because it is the only one that grimly considers and then unflinchingly depicts the reality of warfare, even if it is warfare in another galaxy far, far away. 

Rogue One worked brilliantly as a prequel because it told the story of how the Rebel Alliance originally captured the plans that would allow it to destroy the Empire’s new ultra-weapon, the planet-destroying Death Star. However, director Edwards and screenwriters Weitz and Gilroy built on this intriguing premise by creating a genuinely complex (but not overly complicated) back-story, in which the original architect of the Death Star redeems himself by building in a design flaw that will allow it to be destroyed. 

However, the real wisdom of Rogue One is that, unlike almost all the other Star Wars films, it does not sugar-coat or distance itself from the true horror of war, especially war on this universal, almost apocalyptic scale. The sequence in which a rebel planet (Jedha), or at least a large part of it, is totally destroyed by a shot from the Death Star (the effect of which is portrayed as a kind of nuclear tsunami) is only the precursor to the climax of the film, which is truly but appropriately horrifying. Without wishing to give too much away (for the two or three people on the planet who have not seen it yet), Rogue One is a stand-alone Star Wars film in which the good guys don’t survive, as is so often the case in any conflict. Indeed, so shocking and genuinely emotionally astonishing is the ending that it may ultimately come to be seen as a 21st century equivalent of the scene in Bambi in which Bambi’s mother is killed, whereby an entire generation of children are suddenly, unforgettably made aware of the precariousness of existence.

Watch the official trailer for Rogue One:

8. Westworld (1973): Written and Directed by Michael Crichton

Westworld has been reanimated as a television series, but the original film is one of the most fascinating products of the first great Hollywood golden age of sci-fi cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It also shows that not all sci-fi films have to be set in space, or on other planets; often, the most frightening place in the universe is Planet Earth itself. 

Westworld was the first great “theme park thriller”. Of course, the whale that would follow in its wake would be another Crichton-penned thriller (based on his own novel), Jurassic Park (1993). However, Westworld was altogether more realistic and plausible than Jurassic Park in envisaging a theme park that was not populated by long-extinct dinosaurs that have somehow been brought back to life but by gun-toting robots or androids, which inevitably turn their guns on the visitors to Westworld. 

There are thrills and shootouts galore in Westworld, as one would expect of a film set in an updated Wild West, but there is also wisdom and genuine foresight in its central plot device. That is the mysterious “virus” that infects the computerised systems that run the park, which was the first time that a computer virus (which would become such a staple of sci-fi cinema from Westworld onwards) had been referred to in a major motion picture. 

Crichton also subtly alludes to another kind of “virus”, which might be described as the “thrill virus”: the seemingly endless desire of human beings (especially those in the affluent West) for new experiences and above all new sources of excitement, whatever the consequences. The tagline of Westworld was “Where nothing can possibly go wrong”, which is exactly the kind of smug, self-satisfied, unwise thinking that has characterised so much spectacular human failure, from ocean travel (for example, the Titanic) to space travel (for example, the Space Shuttle disasters of 1986 and 2003).

Watch the trailer for Westworld (1973):

7. Soylent Green (1973): Directed by Richard Fleischer; Written by Stanley R. Greenberg, based on the novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison

If ever a film suffered from its costume design, it is Soylent Green. An otherwise superb slice of cinematic dystopia is almost fatally undermined by its vision of 21st century police uniforms, including camp neckerchiefs and pimp-style hats. The overall effect is to create a vision of the near future that is less global village than Village People. Nevertheless, such is the abundance of ideas in Soylent Green that it just about survives its appalling couture. 

Prior to Blade Runner, Soylent Green was one of the most perfectly realised views of what a 21st-century Earth might look like and, as in Blade Runner, it ain’t pretty. Indeed, Soylent Green is even uglier than Blade Runner in its portrayal of streets that are literally over-run by the unemployed and starving, and an elite that is far removed from the torturous reality of the rest of mankind. However, when a member of that elite is murdered, it sets in chain a series of events that eventually explain the true meaning of the mysterious phrase (and title), “Soylent Green”. 

The star of Soylent Green, as he was for so much great late ‘60s and early ‘70s science fiction cinema, is Charlton Heston, but he is upstaged (up-screened?) by Edward G. Robinson in his final film role. The man who had made his name by playing gangsters such as Little Caesar (1931) is given a very different role in Soylent Green, as an ageing policeman who is really the embodiment of the collective memory of humanity, because he can remember Earth before it was ravaged by overpopulation and environmental destruction. In an uncharacteristically quiet, unshowy performance, far removed from his screen-eating gangsters of the thirties, Robinson is effectively a wise old man, or elder, who is no longer listened to in an increasingly noisy, self-obsessed and self-destructive world.

Watch the trailer for Soylent Green (1973):

6. Planet Of The Apes (1968): Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner; Written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, based on the novel of the same name by Pierre Boule

If his role in Soylent Green is now often forgotten, the same cannot be said of Charlton Heston’s performance in the original, and best, Planet of the Apes (1968), which remains one of the most successful – both commercially and critically – sci-fi movies ever made. In large part, that is because, unlike so many of its sequels and “reboots” (particularly the atrocious 2001 Tim Burton-directed remake), the original Planet Of The Apes had the good sense to cleave close to the original novel of the same name by Pierre Boule – if not in plot per se, then certainly in conception and realisation. Like the original novel, the original Planet Of The Apes movie virtually overflows with ideas. 

Pierre Boulle, the original creator of Planet Of The Apes, is one of the most fascinating and singular writers of the 20th century. That is because his two greatest works (indeed, his only two works of genuine success and substance) have not only been made into movies but into cinematic masterpieces, and even though they are completely different works they both derive from the same source. Boulle had been a prisoner-of-war in Asia during World War Two and later recounted that experience in Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï (The Bridge over the River Kwai) (1952), which five years later became one of David Lean’s greatest movies. Then, as it were, Boulle “recycled” that experience by imagining what it would be like for a human not to be a prisoner of other humans but of intelligent, highly evolved apes, in La Planète des singes (Planet Of The Apes) (1963). 

The original source novel of Planet Of The Apes is a Swiftian satire of human folly, or more precisely the common human misconception that we are somehow superior beings. Boulle literally turned that conceit on its head and in the original film, which was brilliantly adapted for the screen by Michael Wilson (who had been blacklisted by Hollywood during the McCarthy era for his supposed Communist sympathies) and Rod Serling (the legendary creator of The Twilight Zone), all his ideas about human arrogance and our unwillingness to learn are thrillingly preserved. As a result, the original Planet Of The Apes movie entirely deserves its place in any list of the greatest, and wisest, science fiction films ever made.

Watch the trailer for Planet Of The Apes (1968):

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5. Blade Runner (1982): Directed by Ridley Scott; Written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, based on the Philip K. Dick novella, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

If Philip K. Dick truly is “the Shakespeare of sci-fi”, as he has been dubbed, then Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis of Blade Runner, is surely his Hamlet – the greatest of many great works, which crystallises all his obsessions and queries. The story of a 21st-century bounty hunter, Rick Deckard, who hunts down and destroys rogue but incredibly human-like androids, Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is one of the great pillars of both literary and cinematic science fiction.

On its original release in 1982, Blade Runner was famously a flop, seemingly necessitating its recutting and re-release in various forms, including a “Director’s Cut” 10 years later. In a sense that is entirely appropriate, given that the film, like the original novella, forensically investigates the whole idea of what it means to be human, or supposedly inimitable, at a time (from the mid-20th century onwards, which was the period in which Dick was principally writing) when increasing technological advancement was both expanding human potential and undermining the very idea of what it means to be human. 

For what it is worth, I may be the only person on the planet who loves the voiceover that was added after the original film flopped. Many “Bladers” (or whatever super-fans of the film call themselves) regard that as heresy, but for me the narration only increases the sense that Deckard himself is a fully realised human and not, as he increasingly fears, yet another android. The use of voiceovers is often the laziest form of film-making, unnecessarily elucidating the plot, but in a few choice cases – such as Sunset Boulevard (1950) and, I would argue, some of the later versions of Blade Runner – it constitutes the most thrilling and dazzling of cinematic tricks, whereby an audience thinks it is being told a story by one person, or one kind of person, only to discover that the narrator is actually someone or something else instead.

Watch the trailer for Blade Runner (1982):

4. Solaris (1972): Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky; Written by Tarkovsky and Fridrikh Gorenshtein, based on the novel of the same name by Stanislaw Lem

Solaris is one of only two foreign (i.e. non-English language) sci-fi films that make this list, or indeed any list of the greatest sci-films ever made, and there is a very good reason for that. For much of the 20th century, only Hollywood studios had the financial resources and worldwide distributive reach to make the kind of fully realized (i.e. astonishingly expensive) films that could take viewers to another planet. In the 21st century, as the cost of making even sci-fi cinema has plummeted with the development and widespread use of new technology, it is to be hoped that more great sci-fi movies will be made around the world. Indeed, it is not inconceivable that before too long there will be a great sci-fi film made on a smartphone (which itself could be the subject of a sci-fi movie).

Solaris is often described as the great philosophical or even existential sci-fi film and that description is fully deserved. In short, it is the story of an astronaut who, on arriving at the titular Solaris space station, finds himself being visited by his dead wife. She is not a ghost. Instead, she has seemingly been reborn in space, although she can no more explain what has happened to her than her terrified husband can. 

Solaris was remade in the US by Steven Soderbergh in 2002. However, whereas Soderberg had vastly improved on the original Ocean’s 11 (1960) with his 2001 remake, he could not repeat the trick with Solaris. Indeed, the fairly formulaic remake (by Soderbergh’s standards at least) only enhances the sheer strangeness of the Soviet original, in which the great Tarkovsky transposed his usual Earth-bound obsessions with memory and identity to the gigantic but blank canvas of space.

Watch the trailer for Solaris (1972):

3. La Jetée (The Jetty) (1962): Directed and Written by Chris Marker

Unlike Solaris, La Jetée(The Jetty) was stunningly remade, or rather completely reimagined, in Hollywood by Terry Gilliam in 1995 as Twelve Monkeys. Twelve Monkeys is one of the greatest ever Hollywood science fiction films, certainly of the last thirty years (i.e. post the original Hollywood sci-fi golden age of the late 1960s and early 1970s). Nevertheless, the fact remains that it is still – just – inferior to its source material.

At 28 minutes, La Jetée (The Jetty) is only five minutes longer than the other short on this list, A Grand Day Out. However, notwithstanding the delights of Wallace and Gromit’s first film adventure, it feels infinitely longer, because its subject is not space travel but time travel. In fact, La Jetée (The Jetty) may be the greatest ever film about time travel (yep, even better than Hot Tub Time Machine) in showing how the human understanding of time is inextricably bound up with our own understanding of memory. Therefore, just as one can have false memory, it is possible to have “false time”, or even “false time travel”. 

Shot in glorious black and white, La Jetée (The Jetty) itself feels like an object from another time, perhaps a lost classic of the original era of cinematic space travel, as epitomised by Méliès’sA Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune), which is only rediscovered decades later. And yet it is also remarkably futuristic, in treating the classic sci-fi themes of isolation and alienation with all the adult seriousness that they deserve. In its vertiginous vastness, Twelve Monkeys is a kind of cinematic or science fiction Sistine Chapel. By contrast, La Jetée (The Jetty) is the perfect cinematic self-portrait, a Rembrandt or Vermeer brought thrillingly to life on screen

Watch the entire film:

2. Arrival (2016): Directed by Denis Villeneuve; Written by Eric Heisserer, based on the novella by Ted Chiang, Story Of Your Life

If Arrival is not the greatest science fiction film of the last two decades, it is certainly the wisest, in eschewing action and apparent adventure for genuinely thought-provoking and imaginative analysis of what it would actually be like if we ever encountered an alien race. And that wisdom flows right from the source, Ted Chiang’s great novella Story Of Your Life, on which Arrival is based. Chiang is truly wise in asking the most obvious question of all in science fiction, one that had never really been considered before the publication of his novella in 1998 (or at least not considered as rigorously): if aliens appeared on Earth, and assuming that we did not destroy them immediately or vice versa, how would we communicate with them? Thus, like Chiang’s original novella, Arrival is a film whose heroine (and it is absolutely crucial that she is female and not a conventional male hero) is a linguist, whose deep understanding of the building blocks of language might just offer a clue as to how to communicate with Earth’s latest, and strangest, arrival. 

 Arrival is almost the archetype of the intelligent, even wise, sci-fi movie, in that action or plot is always secondary to character and idea. The only “shoot-out” literally happens off-screen, which is absolutely fitting in a film that convincingly argues that it is humanity’s intelligence and not its hardware that offers it the best chance of survival. 

Such are the apparently infinite delights of Arrival that it is impossible to list them all, but among its greatest achievements are the genius-level script (it had to be genius-level, given that the film is all about the primacy of human intelligence and not human action); the sublimely understated ensemble acting, in which Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are merely the first among a cast of true equals; and the cinematic “trick” (in reality, a glorious redefinition of perspective) that it plays about thirty minutes in, which may be the single greatest cinematic “trick” played by any science fiction film ever. Put simply, post-Arrival science fiction cinema will never be the same again. 

Watch the official movie trailer for Arrival:

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Directed by Stanley Kubrick; Written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, “inspired” by Clarke’s short story, The Sentinel

2018 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey and it was marked, among other things, by Christopher Nolan’s restoration (or “unrestoration”, as he described it). It is possible that in another fifty years 2001 will have ceded top spot in the list of greatest, or wisest, sci-fi films ever made to Arrival, such is Arrival’s own greatness. For now, however, like the mysterious black monoliths that set its story in motion and revitalise it at key points, 2001 remains the sine qua non of science fiction cinema.

Read: 7 Lessons for Screenwriters from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

In the half-century since its release, 2001 has become one of the few films that completely transcends cinema to become part not only of the overall artistic landscape but arguably one of the greatest ever depictions in any field, artistic or scientific, of the human condition. It takes us from our very beginning as apes (and violent apes at that), to our possible distant future as interstellar space travellers (who still struggle to programme our computers successfully), before taking us both all the way back and even further into the future, in which we are both embryos and embryonic God-like creatures, capable of traversing the entire universe while remaining appallingly, reassuringly human. 

And its wisdom? Well, like Socrates’s original “wise man”, it knows that it knows nothing, so it is willing to keep on learning. And that, as in all the greatest and wisest sci-fi cinema, is the most hard-won wisdom of all.

Watch the trailer for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968):

Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.”

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