While I was working on the sci-fi lettering post, I did a ton of research that made me think about all the sci-fi movies out there that I haven’t seen. The sci-fi genre has one of the biggest cult followings around (rivaled only by horror) and has entire film festivals dedicated to the genre. Not only that, but there have been a ton of great sci-fi films coming out lately, from low budget cult flicks to big-budget blockbusters. It’s a big and diverse genre that really feels like it has something for everyone.
But then I started thinking about how most of the movies I enjoy are either from a trusted recommendation or something I watched with friends. So I asked some friends and other folks that I admire to give me their favorites. I wanted to hear about films that I might not have seen, or perhaps something in which they found a personal connection that I need to watch again. I’ve found that during the COVID-19 outbreak, a good movie recommendation can go a long way.
I want to thank everyone who contributed, and as always, I’d love to hear any other recommendations you might have.
“There’s something unsettling about what lies down in the depths of the Earth’s oceans, and when you set an entire movie down there with natural dangers, dramatic characters, and alien forces, you never leave the edge of your seat. The Abyss was one of my favorite films as a kid because the idea of aliens living down in the depths of the ocean seemed plausible. James Cameron might be the best combination of artist and director, and he flexes his creative muscles with CGI powered water aliens, which paved the way for the iconic T1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day; his next film after The Abyss.”
“When Akira dropped, Japanese animation was still largely unknown to Western audiences. For us, animation was Disney movies and Looney Tunes. Akira challenged our perception of animation with all the subtlety of a Sex Pistols concert. Violence, drugs, and sexualized themes, Akira went everywhere it wasn’t supposed to go, and it did it beautifully. As a sixteen-year-old experiencing Akira for the first time, it was mesmerizing and irresistible.”
“Aliens was my first foray into the Alien series of films. James Cameron brought together a couple of things in an explosive package for a young kid at the time: action, HR Giger-designed aliens, world-building that felt closer to our reality than Star Wars, and a bad-ass female protagonist. I watched Alien after, out of the release timeline, and it also stunned me with quiet chills and thrills. These first two films are classics that demonstrate how well two different directors can approach the same source material with equally impressive results.”
Blade Runner 2049
“A fresh visit back to the revolutionary sci-fi world Ridley Scott imagined and shared with us in 1982, this time with Denis Villeneuve (hot off Arrival, another wonderful Sci-Fi film) directing and Roger Deakins (easily my favorite cinematographer) behind the camera bringing everything to life. Each frame is rich in tone and drips with style, worthy of being displayed proudly on a wall. It could quite possibly be the most visually striking movie I’ve ever seen.”
Bright Night (Nachthelle)
“Bright Night (Nachthelle) is a German drama with a supernatural edge. This genre-crossing gem finds a rather uncomfortable reunion between two former high school sweethearts and their current partners. 40-year-old Anna brings her much younger lover, Stefan to her childhood home, for pressure cooker weekend with her ex and his new boyfriend, leading to sexual tension and revelation. Until the narrative slowly begins to circle in towards itself, creating a dizzying repetition of events that allows Anna a unique opportunity to observe things from another perspective, or is it an alternate reality.”
The Circle (Cirkeln)
“Audiences have fallen over themselves to praise Levan Akin’s latest film, the Georgian dance film And Then We Danced, but horror fans should hunt down his earlier film The Circle (Cirkeln), which conjures up images of The Craft and Twilight, with the sensibilities and bleakness of Let the Right One In. Six girls with nothing much in common except being from the same run-down town are brought together by an otherworldly force to defeat an evil that threatens the whole world. Together they must master their own elemental powers and the irritations of being 16 to defeat the evil lurking in their high school. The first film based off the best-selling Swedish young adult novel franchise, The Circle features a great score from ABBA’s Benny Andersson.”
“With all the reboots and remakes out there, this one was not only better than the original, but it blew the original out of the water. The pure menace that Karl Urban can express with just his mouth is Oscar-worthy. It’s the ultimate action/sci-fi crossover that feels like it could exist in the 80s, while still looking fresh and modern. The mood and setting, whether it’s the weapons, the buildings, the outfits, the motorcycles, or the soundtrack combine to put everything over the top. It might be my favorite comic book movie of all-time.”
Edge of Tomorrow
“Mis-marketed in the US as Live, Die, Repeat, I don’t think this movie (loosely based on the Japanese sci-fi novel All You Need Is Kill) got the appreciation it deserves. It’s probably one of the most rewatchable science fiction movies I’ve ever seen. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt do not disappoint.”
“Ex Machina is easily one of my favorite science fiction movies of the last decade. This movie is packed full of amazing scenes from the story of Mary in the B&W room to the dancing scene with Oscar Issac. Ex Machina was one of the first movies that I really noticed the sound design in the film, and I loved all the subtle robotic noises as Ava moves through the movie. The final thirty minutes of the movie is spectacular and impossible to look away from. It really is just an astounding movie that has stuck with me since the very first time I saw it.”
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
“I’m including Honey, I Shrunk the Kids because my kids (ages 5 and 7) love it. I think it’s a great introduction to sci-fi for younger kids, as it has just the right amount of humor and make-believe to keep them entertained. I love seeing their imaginations run wild after watching it as they pretend to be the size of an ant in our backyard or designing their own inventions. As a bonus, it features Rick Moranis at his best.”
I Am Not Okay With This
“Just when I was getting superhero fatigue Netflix comes up with something human and witty featuring amazing child actors. This series isn’t just a ‘kids on bikes’ show, is it visceral and relatable. Sophia Lillis from It really shows her acting chops in this coming of age story playing quirky introvert Sydney Novak who is not dealing with puberty or her grief well. I binged it in a sitting, and forced two friends to watch it before shelter in place.”
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
“Philip Kaufman’s ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ is possibly my favorite film of all time. It sits alongside some of the greatest conspiracy thrillers ever made. The Parallax View, The Conversation, All The President’s Men, to name a few.
The way screenwriter W.D. Richter was able to adapt the aging source material to perfectly speak to the issues of the day in the late seventies (social disease, erosion of the family unit, loss of the individual self) should be required study for anyone attempting a remake.
The cast is uniformly outstanding, the special effects are top-notch and the tension is nearly unbearable. I’ve probably seen the film 50 times, and it only gets better each time I watch it.
Also, Leonard Nimoy wears the coolest glove in all of cinema.”
Mad Max: Fury Road
“Years in development hell, casting changes, production delays, tensions on set: this movie shouldn’t exist, much less work. But it’s exquisite. It’s one long adrenaline-fueled chase scene, and it never wastes a single frame; it’s cars and dust storms and explosions; it’s a feminist parable for renewal set in a world broken by evil, monstrous men. As Max says at one point, it feels like hope.”
“The Matrix was one of the first movies I watched multiple times at the cinema. I couldn’t get enough of the memorable quotes, unforgettable fight scenes, and over-the-top gun sequences. The best line of the movie was when Neo was asked what he needed to beat Agent Smith and he replied ‘Guns. Lots of guns.’”
“Miracle Mile isnt a sci-fi film but it’s speculative fiction dealing with a possible future event so no matter, I think everyone should see this film. There’s an odd sub-sub-genre of movies that I adore. The ‘anything can happen in one night’ story. Martin Scorsesse’s ‘After Hours’, John Landis’ ‘Into The Night’ live in this category.
Basically any film where the events unfold during a single night and typically involve a protagonist being dragged into some unlikely and terrible situation. Where Miracle Mile differs from these other films is that it concerns nuclear apocalypse.
Anthony Edwards plays a man who mistakenly winds up on the other end of a prophetic phone call warning of the very near end of the world. The film is bonkers and makes for one of the best first viewings I’ve ever had. The cherry on top is the outstanding Tangerine Dream score.”
“Legendary designer Saul Bass only directed one feature film and it’s about cosmically-enhanced, sentient ants. Through a clever use of color, miniature sets, and sound design, the ants end up more alive and clearly drawn as characters than the humans in this battle of man against insect. If the beautiful close-up cinematography of scheming ants isn’t enough for you, PHASE IV wraps up a snappy 84 minute run time with a classic 70’s gut punch of an ending.”
“Multi-million dollar CG budgets can manage to do a lot, but sometimes the limitations imposed by limited budgets yield magic. You’ll find heaps of TLC in this movie that started as a Kickstarter project. One of my favorite aspects would be all the cleverly-assembled props, control panels, and suits. And if the poster doesn’t make you want to watch it, I don’t know what to tell you.
Other honorable low-budget sci-fi mentions: Moon (2009) and Primer (2004)”
“The story’s core is lifted from a film called Kiss Me, Deadly, a Mickey Spillane Noir (which is insane on it’s own). Taking place in Los Angeles in the early 1980s Los Angeles, a Chevy Malibu, the contents of the trunk causes people to burst into flames, trades hands between a scientist losing his marbles, a group of punks, and various rival repo men. Classic sci-fi world-building using punks, hippies, religion, generic consumer products, and a lounge band version of the Circle Jerks. Best quotes in the film are either, ‘Let’s get sushi and not pay’ or ‘Ordinary fucking people. I hate ‘em.’”
“A lean and mean masterpiece that paints an apocalyptic world in the edges of the frame while a gallery of peculiar personalities fills in the rest. Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson deliver their most restrained work without losing any of the humanity. It’s this deft balance of fully realized characters, sparse sci-fi setting and muted tone that makes it not only a unique entry in the genre, but also elevates it above the rest.”
“J.D. Dillard’s Sleight is really fun and criminally underseen. A streetwise LA magician, Bo, peddles drugs to provide for his family until he has to use his sleight of hand skills to save himself from his greedy boss. The true SciFi nature of the story isn’t revealed until the final act of the film - when you finally discover a serious trick that is literally up his sleeve, it’s a game-changer. The film is a blast, mixing genres of crime, thriller, sci-fi, teen romance, and revenge in a satisfying way.”
“The 2002 version of Solaris - even though it wasn't really much loved by anyone at the time—is a beautiful movie. It’s quiet and patient but still filled with tension and drama and mystery. It’s a bit like a Terrence Malick film - it comes and goes without offering much in the way of answers and then leaves you to think about what just happened. And it touches on a lot of fundamental themes: love, death, forgiveness, existence in general... Even if you’re not down for all that, you have to appreciate how beautifully Soderbergh shot it. It’s also where I learned about the Higgs boson for the first time. Hell yeah.”
“Tarkovsky’s deliberate journey through muck and near-future decay features only the slightest of science fiction conceits, but when it kicks in, the film is astounding. Three men trek out to a mysterious place called The Zone, but the danger in their journey comes from within, forcing them to face their most painful fears and shortcomings. The film’s long takes and stretches of quiet bring the audience right into The Zone with the characters so that we can all experience the same terrifying existential questions together. The final shot is an all-timer.”
About the Design
The design for this post was inspired by an old Many Faces post that Paravel did about the Queen of Science Fiction, Sigourney Weaver. Trent did the art direction on that one, and I’ve always felt that Serif Gothic is the quintessential sci-fi font. The background noise in the header was an old trick we used on the DayTrip site.