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By Kevin Nelson · May 16, 2022
Science fiction exists between the boundaries of myth and reality.
It’s our way of making sense of the world.
How our innate sense of wonder found stories in the stars.
During the Scientific Revolution and Age of Enlightenment, human beings began to observe and test theories based on their relationship with the natural world. For the first time, inquisitive minds were able to focus on issues beyond just trying to survive the day so they looked to the future.
Science fiction crosses subgenres as if a star cruiser exploring distant planets. That’s one of the exciting things about sci-fi screenplays — you never know which combination of elements you’ll get and what form they’ll take. In a make-believe world in a galaxy far, far away — every subgenre has the potential to grow roots and thrive.
For this week’s Script Collection, we’ll take a look at science fiction screenplays that will pull you into an alternate dimension!
Following the release of Dr. Strangelove in 1964, Kubrick knew he wanted to make a movie about extraterrestrial life about, “man’s relationship to the universe.”
Seeking a writer in the science fiction literary community, Kubrick was referred to Arthur C. Clarke — an honorary member of the big three science fiction authors of the era that included Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. After reluctantly agreeing to work with each other, Clarke gave Kubrick a handful of stories and Kubrick gravitated towards The Sentinel.
Kubrick wanted to collaborate with Clarke on a novel version before they worked on the screenplay in order to let their imaginations roam free. Clarke ended up writing both at the same time. The two were set to share credit on both, but Clarke got full credit for the novel, which differed from the screenplay in one critical way.
Clarke explained things more through dialogue and exposition while Kubrick relied more on minimalism and symbolism. Kubrick was able to create an ambiguously epic visual experience that hits at a deeper level of inner consciousness.
This is a foundational rite of passage film written by two greats. I highly recommend you see and read it.Download the script
Most reboots never quite capture the magic of the original, especially one written by Rod Serling, let alone exceed it. That’s not the case for the Planet of the Ape Franchise. After a failed remake in 2001, married screenwriting partners Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa sought to reinvent the franchise rather than recreate it.
In doing so, Silver and Jaffa created an origin story centered around the evolution of a chimpanzee named Caesar, who has developed a higher intelligence due to secret drug tests. As a reader and viewer, you really come to care about his character’s plight. This is a great script to read if you have an animal character or a character with little to no dialogue. Silver and Jaffa do a great job of showing emotions and delivering feelings through action lines.Download the script
Written and directed by Alex Garland, Ex Machina is a grounded slow-burn sci-fi thriller about artificial intelligence. Science fiction often looks to the speculative technology of the era, and it seems that artificial intelligence and a machine takeover have been on the menu since the rise of computers. The themes in Ex Machina harken all the way back to the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, where Dr. Frankenstein plays God and tries to create a breakthrough in human science, but instead creates a monster.
Wanting full creative freedom, Garland opted for a low-budget production. There are limited locations so the action is created by the drama between the characters. Garland builds suspense through subtle suspicions and unravels a superb psychological thriller that leaves the viewer questioning not only their own future but also their current reality.Download the script
Denis Villeneuve decided to take the biggest risk of his career and a remake of a classic movie, written and directed by David Lynch no less, that’s based on a classic book by Frank Herbert. It’s safe to say that 2021’s Dune had high expectations, especially after the release date kept getting pushed back due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every department delivered and we are all patiently waiting for the second installment.
Written by Jon Spaihts and Denis Villeneuve and Eric Roth, Dune does a great job of setting up the world without overburdening the reader with too much information. They skip the exposition and allow the reader to become engaged with the action.Download the script
James Cameron has been dreaming about Pandora since 1994 when he first wrote an 80-page treatment for Avatar that drew inspiration from his lifelong obsession with science and storytelling. He wanted to make the film after Titanic in 1997 but knew technology hadn’t advanced enough to catch up with his vision.
In 2005, he began revisiting the world of Avatar, setting up a grand epic unlike any we’ve seen before. The story is the age-old tale of imperialism and colonialism, complete with a defecting white savior character who joins the fight alongside the indigenous humanoids, the Na’vi.
What the script lacks in narrative ingenuity, it makes up for in the immersive world Cameron creates. Like the 3D viewing experience, Cameron introduces us to the lush rainforest of Pandora with rich clarity on the page. The sequel, Avatar: The Way of the Water is thirteen years in the making and will be the first film to feature underwater motion capture technology — bringing Cameron’s love for the ocean and film full circle.Download the script
Around the time Rocky IV was released, a joke started circulating around Hollywood. Rocky Balboa was running out of opponents, soon he’d have to fight E.T.
Two budding screenwriters, Jim and John Thomas took the joke seriously. Jim approached his brother John with the idea of an alien facing off with an action star. At the time, John was a blue-collar worker trying to make it as a writer. The original title was Hunter, and the first draft had hunters from various species hunting each other. They eventually streamlined the idea into one alien hunter after the most dangerous game, humans, and the most dangerous members of that species — soldiers. They got the script to Joel Silver who went on to produce it.
Joel Silver told Starlog:
“I suppose it has almost reached a point with these action films where one of these heroes would have to fight a creature from another world. It just looks like Arnold has beaten Stallone to the punch.”
Shane Black would take a dig at this joke in Last Action Hero when in an alternate movie universe Sylvester Stallone is mounted atop a motorcycle for the Terminator 2 poster.
Predator is lean, mean, and totally kicks ass.Download the script
Listen, personally, I love T2: Judgment Day just a little bit more. With that said, I feel like the original was just so masterfully written it had to be included on this list.
James Cameron melts down multiple genres to create the storyline for The Terminator. He’s able to fit time travel and mechanical science fiction into the narrative structure of a slasher with a love story at the center. The love story leads to the creation of John Connor, the very reason a cyborg was sent back to kill his mother Sarah, creating a causal loop.
It’s a mind/genre-bending script rooted in a mechanical and hardware-based truism, sans any magical or fantastical elements.Download the script
In 1974, while still attending the University of Southern California, screenwriter Dan O’Bannon co-wrote Dark Star with former fellow student John Carpenter. Dark Star was a sci-fi comedy that left O’Bannon dissatisfied. O’Bannon really wanted to revisit the genre with an alien that looked real. He thought aliens should be scary and sought to write a horror film.
He teamed up with screenwriter Ronald Shusett, who was working on what would become Total Recall (1990) at the time. The two agreed to help develop and share credit for each other’s ideas. As a cautionary tale, producers Walter Hill and David Giler performed several rewrites on their original script and made an attempt to receive full writing credit. WGA arbitration awarded O’Bannon full Written by credit and a shared Story by credit with Shusett.
Alien is a benchmark example of minimalist writing. Every line is written in poetic stanzas that make it such a quick and easy read. Lots of white space, no ten action line paragraphs. Just short and sweet sentences limited to single lines. A reader’s dream.Download the script
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer fell in love with Ted Chiang’s writing after reading the science fiction novella Understand. Heisserer read a collection of Chiang’s work and the novella Story of Your Life, about earth’s first communication with extraterrestrials, had a profound impact on him. He adapted a screenplay on spec because he wanted to share Chiang’s work with a wider audience.
After shopping it around town without much interest, he put the project back on the shelf thinking the project was dead. As they say in this industry, any project can come back to life. He believes it wasn’t until he wrote and directed Hours in 2013 that producers took him seriously.
Arrival is a sophisticated science fiction drama that explores the sociopolitical ramifications of miscommunication when we all speak to the same human experience.Download the script
Jurassic Park is a cautionary tale that asks one a simple question: what could possibly go wrong if you brought back dinosaurs through genetic engineering and monetized it?
Steven Spielberg learned about Michael Crichton’s novel prior to publication while discussing a series that would become ER. Spielberg was drawn to how the story tapped into a universal imagination while being completely grounded in plausible scientific reality.
Spielberg brought on David Koepp, based on his work on Death Becomes Her, to rewrite Crichton’s original draft of the script.
Jurassic Park begins as a world of pure imagination and wonder that quickly devolves into a monster horror film. It features elements of adventure, comedy, horror, science fiction, and dinosaurs! Can’t get much better.Download the script
Producers Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald bought the rights to Lowell Cunningham and Sandy Carruthers’ comic book The Men in Black and hired screenwriter Ed Solomon to write a faithful adaptation.
The original scripts featured a lot of underground bunkers in the midwest, but director Barry Sonnenfeld chose New York City as the central location because he felt extraterrestrials would be able to fit in without causing too much alarm for their oddities. The location allowed for some hilarious moments of everyday odd encounters that might make us think twice about who we were interacting with.
The real “men in black” were secret government agents who investigated UFO sightings and crashes during the 1950s, named for their black suit and tie attire. They were somewhat of a myth, with some folks suggesting that the mysterious men in black were aliens themselves. Sometimes real-life conspiracies can inspire great fictional stories.Download the script
The truth is that technology has become completely integrated into our lives. We’re dependent and reliant on it. Most of the time, we’re simply communicating with people through our devices and don’t have nearly as many in-person interactions. Even before the pandemic, most people walked around with their necks craned, focused on a screen as life passed them by.
Spike Jonze saw this isolation and coupled it with the advancement of digital technology to the point where we’re interacting with digital “personal assistants” such as Siri and Alexa. What if they actually had a consciousness? Could we develop friendships — even love affairs with a digital entity? Watch out, we’re getting into NFT territory here!
Jonze took a concept rooted in hyperrealistic science fiction and added a dramatic romance to it as one man falls in love with his artificially intelligent virtual assistant and through her finds joy in life again after a tough breakup.
Great concept and execution.Download the script
Christopher Nolan could be one of the most innovative filmmakers of our time. He’s kinda like Leonardo Da Vinci who carefully mapped out his ideas. After all, Nolan made a film that both went backward and forward simultaneously. I mean, come on. I’ve found that he’s used lyrical rhythms to weave multiple storylines into one bottleneck climax point. This man has a truly enigmatic and analytical mind.
So when I say there are levels to Nolan, I mean it.
And in the case of Inception, I really mean it. Check out how he sketches out his plotline for Inception. We’re talking deep:
Nolan worked on the idea of dream stealers for over a decade. Originally, he thought of it as a horror film — but he later wanted to up the stakes for his characters and chose to make it a sci-fi heist film.
Nolan told the New York Times:
Download the script
“…as soon as you’re talking about dreams, the potential of the human mind is infinite. And so the scale of the film has to feel infinite. It has to feel like you could go anywhere by the end of the film. And it has to work on a massive scale.”
Written by Scott Frank & Jon Cohen, Minority Report is loosely based on Phillip K. Dick’s 1956 short story. That’s to show you how far into the future some science fiction writers are able to look because when Steven Spielberg’s adaptation was released in 2002, it still seemed extremely relevant and timely.
With the monitoring of the internet and net neutrality all but abolished, the theme of Minority Report seems especially prescient. In the rise and wake of mass shootings and terror attacks, we often look to the internet for signs in hopes of finding signs of public danger. Perhaps the Minority Report seems so realistic because it has become standard practice in preventing these types of tragedies before they happen.
Minority Report is a futuristic noir murder mystery with elements of action and thriller.Download the script
Longtime collaborators Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale first came up with the idea for Back to the Future after both of their recent films flopped. Gale visited his parents and found his father’s high school yearbook. He couldn’t imagine being friends with his father, but if he could time travel back to that time — he could test it.
He told Zemeckis about the idea and they began developing the film around the grandfather paradox — that if you change something in the past, you will somehow impact the future. A year later, they had a draft that would become the definitive time travel movie.Download the script
RoboCop is a satirical science fiction action film written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner. Neumeier was an aspiring screenwriter who worked as a junior story executive at Universal Pictures. Blade Runner was filming behind Neumeier’s office, so he’d sneak on set and learn from Ridley Scott’s crew. While going through submissions for Universal, he came across a futuristic rock’n’roll music video by director Michael Miner.
The two became writing partners and had to learn how to give respectful constructive criticism, but eventually, they pumped out a first draft titled RoboCop: The Future of Law Enforcement after working months in their spare time after work. It’s a combination of hilarious parody, over-the-top action, and ridiculous death scenes — otherwise known as the perfect movie experience.Download the script
Cloverfield took the found footage subgenre pioneered by The Blair Witch Project and stuck it in the middle of a monster film. J.J. Abrams had the idea of an American-based monster film while visiting Japan with his 8-year-old son. They’d visit toy stores and Godzilla was everywhere. He wanted to bring that same energy home.
You can’t just make any old massive monster/disaster movie — you have to present it in a way that’s never been done before. The screenplay even reads like a found document, in that the font is set in a bold, old-fashioned typewriter’s courier.Download the script
Let’s face it, this one is looking more like a documentary every day.Download the script
The future of science fiction is expanding into the multiverse with films like Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, and Doctor Strange 2: The Multiverse of Madness. There’s no telling where the wormhole will lead next. Our imaginations will always be plugged into the zeitgeist as we look to the future and evolve with the times.
We all want to know the answers to life’s most pressing questions.
Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where are we going?
Is there anyone out there?
Science fiction writers seek those answers, knowing perfectly well they’re not necessarily trying to find them.
To them, it’s not necessarily about the destination but the journey.
Wander and wonder.