Science fiction is usually defined as fiction that is set in the future, or which demonstrates major technological, or environmental change. It is often set in space, or on an alternative version of earth, and might take place in the near or distant future. This definition is necessarily unspecific, because, in fact, sci-fi can be set on Earth, on any other planet, or in the farthest reaches of space. It can be set in the past, present or future.
The sci-fi world created in the movie may be vastly different from our own, or almost exactly the same. It may feature aliens, or robots or cool gadgets. But, then again, maybe not. In fact, there are dozens of sub-genres within the sci-fi category of movies, and that is before you even begin to consider the sci-fi/fantasy hybrid movies. Back in 2007 we presented a broad-strokes list of Top 15 Science Fiction Movies. Here, in 2020, we have tried to define 10 broad categories of science fiction. Maybe your favorite sci-fi film will fit into one of them. And maybe not. Be sure to let us know.
10 Time Travel
Time travel movies have a whole set of their own sub-genres. You can have romantic time travel, (The Time Traveler’s Wife), funny(-ish) time travel, (Hot Tub Time Machine), nostalgic-teen-coming of age time travel, (Back to the Future), and “boy, I wish I was older/younger” movies, where a nondescript Chinese person with a mop/fortune cookie makes their wish come true by means never disclosed.
And, of course, there are the action time travel movies like Terminator, where the time travelers have mastered Traveling Through The Time Portal/Vortex/Gate, but have yet to get out of the kiddie class in How To Beat The Good Guy In A Car Chase.
Sometimes, time-travel is just a convenient plot device to get the writers out of a sticky situation. Avengers Endgame, for example. Cinema goers sat through 21 non-time travel related movies, and then Thanos wiped out half the population of the universe. How do you get out of that one? Well, you could travel back in time, prevent Thanos from collecting some stones, then click your fingers and presto change-o! And if that doesn’t work, you could always call that gal with the laser eyes to thump him (why didn’t they call her earlier? Oh yeah, busy).
Like End Game, many movies quickly gloss over the actual mechanics of time travel. If we attach this MacGuffin to that Flux Capacitor and turn the dial all the way up to 11, that should do it.
The reason for this, of course, is that time travel is impossible. The math on that is also likely to be pretty complicated, and, let’s be honest, dull. The most ‘realistic’ time travel movie, though, is probably Primer, a low budget movie that refused to pander to the non-mathematical geniuses in the audience. It won a Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Festival, and is said to have gained a cult following. Among mathematicians. Enough said. Except that we shouldn’t forget that sometimes math is actually awesome! Proof: Top 10 Coolest Mathematics Results.
Steampunk manages to have the best of both worlds. It’s futuristic, but set in the past. So it has lots of crazy gadgets, and really big guns, all powered by steam, and a million shiny cogs. Usually set in the late Victorian era, these movies wear their science lightly, and are more interested in looking cool than being in any way realistic.
Take Wild West West, for instance. Starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline, the movie featured everything you would expect in a western, plus bicycle powered airplanes and giant mechanical spiders. Plus magnets. Lots of magnets. The movie wasn’t great, to be honest, and did win 5 Razzies, including Worst Picture and Worst Original Song, for Smith’s horrible rap-based theme tune.
A better steampunk movie was Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese, the charming story of an orphaned boy who tries to repair his father’s automaton. The film also featured a tribute to Georges Méliès, a pioneer in cinematography, and his 1902 fantasy movie A Trip to the Moon. Which is kinda nice.
If steampunk makes your cogs whir faster, The Mysterious Geographic Explorations Of Jasper Morello is a treat. It may be an animated movie, and a short one, but it has everything a steampunk fan could desire – moody lighting, great costumes, plenty of dirigibles, and fantastical steam-powered machinery. And while we’re on the subject of ancient technology and – well, weird stuff in general, take a look at Top 10 Facts About The Pyramids That Could Prove Advanced Ancient Technology.
8 Generation Ship
One of the lesser known sci-fi sub-genres, Generation Ship is an Interstellar Ark concept, where a large population from Earth journeys to Outer Space in order to find a new home. Although the original passengers will be long dead by the time they make it to their destination, they hope that their children’s children will be able to start over and ruin another planet.
One example of this genre is Pandorum, a 2009 Sci-Fi/Horror movie where 60,000 people flee the dying Earth to make the 123-year trip to a planet with a similar atmosphere. The passengers are supposed to be put into hyper-sleep, awaking every couple of years to take their turn crewing the ship.
But, of course, there are faulty computers, unstable nuclear reactors, space-induced insanity and some kind of monster hiding on the ship, which interrupts their sleep. You get the drift. The rest gets a little silly.
Passengers, starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, had a similar initial premise, and a crazy android barman, played by Michael Sheen, who out-acts them both (not hard, we know). Passengers resists the horror tropes of Pandorum, and, while it does go a little nuts, it opts for a more optimistic resolution.
And what happens to Earth after it has been evacuated? They send a Waste Allocation Load Lifter: Earth class (or WALL-E) to clean up the mess. And that’s cute too. Now, can movie journey compete with real life, like these 8 Worst Journeys Ever Undertaken?
7 Alien Invasion
The Alien Invasion is a staple of Sci-Fi films, and there are hundreds to choose from. If you enjoy alien invaders coupled with ridiculously jingoistic over-acting you might go for Independence Day. Or if you want something a little more beautiful, you might choose Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, where gigantic alien reptiles emerge from the sea to battle human-controlled robots. OK, it’s still a little bit silly and a little bit jingoistic, but it is much easier on the eyes.
Not all Alien Invasion movies are action-techno blockbusters, however. If you want an alien invasion movie that is a little more down to earth, you could go for Attack the Block. “What kind of alien would invade some shitty council estate in South London?” “One that’s looking for a fight.” Attack the Block didn’t spend much money on its special effects, but the script is out of this world.
Or, if you prefer the zany angle, you could try Mars Attacks A parody of 1950’s B-movies (it is a Tim Burton movie after all), Mars Attacks wins the award for Best Looking Evil Alien. It has an all-star cast, from Jack Nicholson as the self-serving president, Glen Close as the first lady and Pierce Brosnan as a particularly annoying Brit who ‘interprets’ for the Martians whilst sucking a briar pipe.
He thinks they come in peace. He’s wrong. “Nice Planet. We’ll Take It”. But let’s not be too bleak. After all, the real aliens are actually quite helpful, as evidenced in top 10 Signs That Aliens Could Be Contributing To Our World.
Sometimes the aliens don’t just want to invade the planet, they want to live on it. That’s when you get Colonization movies. The 1950’s seemed to abound with movies of this sort. The 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is probably the best-known example. Aliens replicate the bodies of humans, and take their place. But they are unable to simulate human emotions. And so they must be stopped. However, should we wish to colonize another planet, that is perfectly OK.
Christopher Nolan’s, 2014 movie, Interstellar sees mankind, having trashed the eco-system of their own planet, set out to steal someone else’s. When a convenient wormhole opens up, Matthew McConaughey dons a space helmet in search of a planet that will sustain life. No one thinks to wonder whether that planet is already sustaining lifeforms of its own, or how those lifeforms will feel about a mass invasion of creatures who will rape the land and destroy the planet. Presumably they are fine with it. Let’s hope so eh Elon? 10 Things We Know About Elon Musk’s Future Colony On Mars.
5 Human as Slaves
The future is a foreign land, and no one knows what happens there. While humans are the most advanced creature on Earth now, who knows what evolution has in store for us?
Which, of course, is the premise of Planet of the Apes. Charlton Heston plays an astronaut who crash lands on a ‘strange planet’, eerily similar to our own, where
the apes have evolved to be the top dog, as it were, and the humans are slaves/pets/curiosities. The film was a smash-hit, and spawned four sequels, a TV series, an animated series, a successful remake and an even more successful reboot of the entire Ape v Man genre in which the Ape was not only the top dog, but the hero.
While man may have been a slave in the Planet of the Apes, at least he wasn’t a battery. In The Matrix, the Wachowski’s ground-breaking movie in which ‘bullet-time’ became a thing, the function of mankind is even less attractive.
Unless your name is Neo you will be doomed to spend your life asleep in a slimy egg-shaped capsule. And if Neo comes along to rescue you, it gets a whole lot worse. Should’ve taken the blue pill. Just don’t take the black pill . . . 10 Ways The World Could End Today.
Science fiction isn’t always about people in shiny uniforms and big guns, or devastated wastelands and starving people, created by man’ rampant over consumption. Usually it is, of course, but just occasionally, we have a different sort of future to look forward to. Take Avatar, for instance.
OK, humans have ruined their planet, but there is another one nearby, that is really really nice. It’s air is also poisonous to humans, which is a good thing for the inhabitants of Pandora. But, even if we can’t live there, there must be some way we can monetize it, surely?
The people of Pandora like to live in harmony with nature. They are a gentle race. They are bound to be easy marks. Using technology to create avatars, humans remotely control the avatars to scout the planet to find a rare mineral, with the entirely plausible name of unobtainium.
If you try and focus on the beautiful world of Pandora, you have found Utopia. It can’t last, of course, because people are going to come along any moment to try and muck it up. This, unfortunately, seems to be a recurring theme of Utopian movies.
Whenever there is a beautiful planet, where the sun shines, and nature flourishes, you can expect some jack-booted human to appear at any moment and begin trampling the flowers in order to find oil/treasure/minerals with silly names.
Thankfully, however, there is always one, and occasionally as many as six, people who understand the true riches the planet has to offer, and they are allowed to stay. If the idea of a utopian society warms your heart, prepare to be let down: 10 Failed Attempts To Create Utopian Cities.
If Utopia sounds a bit too saccharine for you, you could try dystopia instead. There are way more of those kinds of films. Shot either in a desert, or a deserted shopping mall, dystopian movies show us what the world will be like if we don’t mend our planet-destroying ways. The only problem is that the dystopian movies are way usually more exciting than the Utopian ones.
I mean, sure, Avatar has got flowers and trees and stuff, but Mad Max, for instance, has got armored vehicles. And, despite the apparent fuel shortage, you can drive at whatever speed you want, on the wrong side of the road, and no one will stop you.
In Avatar you have a bow and arrow. In Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, you can fix a flame thrower to the roof of your truck. And by the time you get to Mad Max: Fury Road, you can even have that flame thrower attached to the neck of your guitar.
So what if the shops are empty, the water is poisoned, and the only available food is Soylent Green? (What’s in that, again?) And really who cares if the end of the world is nigh? Flame throwers are cool. If you can’t get enough of the dystopian genre: 10 Sci-Fi Dystopias That Are Everyday Realities Today.
2 First Contact
First contact movies are not really about aliens. They are about people meeting aliens. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for example, the aliens only appear in the final seconds of the movie. In Contact, Jodie Foster stars as a woman who, perhaps, has an alien encounter, though she might be making it all up.
Arrival, 2016’s blockbuster first contact movie, was also more about people than aliens. The film, which starred Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner (in a movie where he barely overacted at all), was about how we make contact with beings with whom we do not share a common language, or even the building blocks of language. The aliens themselves are a minor feature of the movie. What is more important is the cooperation of governments, or lack of it, and their willingness to try to understand those different from themselves.
Arrival was a commercial and critical success. It was widely considered to be the most intelligent film about aliens ever made, and certainly the best one where the heroes are a physicist and a linguist. There isn’t a single Evil Overlord or Intergalactic laser gun/sword in the entire film; weird. Even the Chinese are heroes! Though maybe that can be explained by Top 10 Things Hollywood Does To Kowtow To The Chinese.
1 Space opera
Nothing to do with singing, space operas are all about grandeur. And scale. Epic stories of adventure, melodrama and romance across the universe. Usually set in deep space or on distant and exotic planets, space operas almost always have good-looking good guys facing an Evil Overlord, who is usually dressed in black. Basically, we are talking Star Wars.
Space operas often come in several installments. Flash Gordon is an early example of the genre. The 1936 serial for the cinema, staring Buster Crabbe, came in 13 episodes, and saw Flash battle Emperor Ming the Merciless. The episodes ran in Saturday morning cinema for years and did marvels with cardboard sets and ropey special effects.
The main characteristic of Space Opera seems to be Noble Quests against Evil Empires. They also feature stirring music, long speeches in which someone explains the plot, and grand, if futile, gestures. In other words, it is just the sort of thing that gets made into a parody movie. Like Space Balls.
Written and directed by Mel Brooks, who also played Yogurt, the pointy-eared alien guru, and Rick Moranis as Black Helmet, a short bobble-headed bad guy, the movie spoofed every space opera movie you ever saw. If you don’t really enjoy the sci-fi bits of a sci-fi movie, this film is for you. And may the Schwartz be with you. If you are interested in more lists about movie effects, check out Top 10 Amazing Movie Sound Effects Made With Animals.
About The Author: Ward Hazell is a freelance writer and travel writer, also currently studying for a PhD in English Literature.