Often times when people think of science fiction, they picture sleek spacecrafts, pristine-looking gadgets that seem to run on magic and utopian worlds with energy sources that never deplete. However, sometimes it’s fun to watch sci-fi films that don’t glorify new technology, races, or strange new worlds, but instead offer a grittier, more visceral take on the subject matter.
As sci-fi fans, we probably all have our own set of go-to films that we like to watch in succession, but rather than the tried-and-true classics you’ve grown accustomed to, here are the 10 best gritty sci-fi movies to marathon:
Before the HBO series, there was Michael Crichton’s 1973 sci-fi/western hybrid, Westworld, where a computer breakdown causes a rogue robot gunslinger to stalk frantic vacationers at an amusement park that allows its wealthy customers to live out their wildest fantasies. The film has its share of faults, and the more one analyzes the plot, the more problems one can find. However, the premise is so fantastic and the atmosphere is so good that it’s easy enough to look past its flaws and simply enjoy it for what it is. Like any good narrative, Westworld raises plenty of intriguing ethical and philosophical questions, such as the implications for killing machines that appear identical to humans, and where one draws the line between artificial intelligence and true sentience. The idea is to get the viewer to ponder some of these moral questions and subtexts, and at the same time, fantasize about the scenario and enjoy the more visceral, literal suspense of the story. On those accounts, Westworld greatly succeeds.Advertisement
Directed and co-written by Neill Blomkamp, District 9 tells the story of an extraterrestrial race forced to live as refugees on Earth. Part of what makes this film so unique to the genre is that it abandons the traditional Hollywood sci-fi settings, instead placing us in the harsh slums of South Africa, where the aliens - referred to as Prawns - are treated as second-class citizens. The emotionally gripping tale is complemented by stunning visuals but never at the expense of believability, thanks to the low-key, realistic CGI presentation. All in all, District 9 is an original and highly engaging science fiction film that breaks the mold and separates itself from your typical alien stories, giving viewers a thought-provoking look at the graphic nature of survival.
Set in a not-too-distant future where a failed climate-change experiment kills most of the Earth’s population, Snowpiercer follows the lucky (and unlucky) few who boarded the titular train that travels the globe. However, while the train keeps them protected from the elements, it also results in the establishment of brutal class warfare among the passengers. For those numb to modern effects-driven blockbusters, Snowpiercer is a refreshing change of pace, allowing its compelling narrative to take the front seat in the form of a thought-provoking allegory of the price it takes to keep a capitalist society functioning from the confines of a moving train. Admittedly, there are some glaring plot holes, but nonetheless, this is a film that is highly entertaining from beginning to end.
In The Matrix, the Wachowski Brothers seek to answer an intriguing and terrifying question: what if virtual reality wasn’t just entertainment, but rather a means to imprison you? It’s this shocking revelation that turns an ordinary computer hacker into a weapon of hope for a group of rebels waging war against their controllers. Stellar acting and a deep, philosophical story are major selling points for this film, but the visual effects and fight choreography are what sets it miles above similarly themed movies that The Matrix has inspired since its release. It truly was a watershed moment in filmmaking – in every respect – and even though its two inferior sequels left a bit of a stain on the franchise, they can't distract from what an uncompromising and hugely influential masterpiece it is.
Director Duncan Jones’ debut film, Moon, is a tense and clever exploration of the human condition – specifically, what can happen to a person’s grip on reality after three years with no real human contact. Tackling the subjects of alienation, solitude, dehumanization, and disbelief, the film expertly leaves both Sam Rockwell’s character (Sam) and the audience wondering if what's unfolding is real, or if it’s merely a drama taking place in Sam’s addled mind. Yes, it’s a space film, but there are no aliens, lasers/phasers, wormholes, warp engines, or jump drives here. There’s just a lonely space-age concierge, an unflappable monotone robot, and a whole lot of fodder, resulting in an engaging and entertaining work of cinematic art.
Based on the character from the weekly British science fiction anthology comic 2000 AD, Dredd takes place in a futuristic city where the authorities act as judge, jury, and executioner. However, when the use of a reality-altering drug called Slo-Mo becomes an epidemic, the titular hero works with a trainee to take down the gang that’s responsible for dealing it. Whereas the previous Stallone effort, Judge Dredd, chose to sneer at the title character's adventure, here it is fondly embraced, remaining far more true to the source material. Many filmmakers would have flinched at making a movie that incorporates such clear violence and obvious fascism, and tried to soften the blow with sprinkles of humor, but there’s no such dishonesty here. The end result is an extremely violent, often times bleak adaptation of a comic character that was always more violent than his peers, to begin with. Dredd is an absolutely punishing ride; equally violent, beautiful, and horrible, often at the same time.
Escape from New York
Few directors enjoyed a hot streak quite like John Carpenter, particularly when he was paired with longtime colleague Kurt Russell. Tackling such themes as domestic terrorism, class warfare, government pitted against citizens, and a breakthrough in nuclear fusion, Escape from New York has all of the tried-and-true components of a successful post-apocalyptic sci-fi thrill ride. Released in 1981, the film paints the picture of 1997 Manhattan, reimagined as a maximum security prison. After Air Force One crash-lands right in the middle of this hell hole, Russell’s Snake Plissken - a former Special Forces officer jailed for attempting to rob the Federal Reserve – is ordered to rescue the President, who’s been captured by one of the criminal gangs that run the prison. Promised a pardon if he’s successful and a painful death if he fails, Escape from New York did Suicide Squad better than Warner Bros., and would go on to catapult Russell into the upper echelons of action movie stardom.
Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien is a brilliant blend of science fiction and horror that spawned the birth of a franchise that’s still thriving to this day. It tells the story of a space merchant vessel that responds to an SOS call, only to find themselves in the presence of a mysterious and deadly extraterrestrial stowaway. It’s an incredibly suspenseful thrill ride, slowly building a disquieting tension and elevating it to the point of nerve-wracking. Despite this film’s age, its visual effects have managed to stand the test of time, and everything feels incredibly real, from sets to props to the terrifying Xenomorph. The terror isn't just the alien itself, though; it’s the entire atmosphere, which gets so effectively under your skin that you just can't shrug it off after the end credits like you can with so many other Hollywood horror movies. After all, at its core, Alien is a study in terror. It might not be as action-packed as the other films in the franchise, but it brings the fear of being hunted to a whole new level.
Outland is a unique blend of genres, including science fiction, action, crime, and western. Taking place in the distant future, the film follows a police marshal stationed within a mining colony on one of Jupiter’s moons who uncovers a massive drug-smuggling conspiracy. Despite its out-of-this-world setting, though, this film is incredibly grounded, with no monsters, aliens, or overly-complex technology; it’s just man and space. This allows the plot, characters, and acting to take the center stage in this plausibly grim and grimy future where greed and profit take precedence over morality and human lives. Some have said that this movie is nothing more than High Noon in space, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ultimately, Outland sizes up as one of the best and most shamefully underrated adult science fiction movies of the early ‘80s.
Ridley Scott, perhaps best known for the aforementioned Alien franchise, directs this action-packed sci-fi thriller in which an assassin known as a blade runner finds himself in pursuit of a group of androids, called replicants, who’ve stolen a ship and fled to Earth. A visually remarkable, surprisingly human sci-fi masterpiece, Blade Runner’s influence has continued to deepen with time, earning it a significant cult following in the process. The film tackles many intriguing themes, such as the dehumanization of people through a society shaped by technological and capitalistic excess, the nature of humanity, itself (ie. emotions, memory, purpose, desire, cruelty), and the very meaning of existence. If you’re not someone who naturally enjoys contemplating such deep and complex themes, the film's brilliance may be lost on you. If that sort of thing is right up your alley, though, you’ll likely agree that Blade Runner is a masterpiece; one that deserves recognition and long remembrance in film history.