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A fair science fiction movie can be mildly entertaining. A really good science fiction movie might cause a slight rattling inside your brain. But epic science fiction movies are the ones that stay with you well after the credits end. They inspire conversation, arguments on and offline. Books discussing either the physics or philosophy behind them grace bookstore shelves.
It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, these films typically elevate what can be expected from the genre. We’re talking epic science fiction movies that might be huge in scope (visually), or expansive in the ways in which they explore the cerebral side of things. Consequently, they tend to function best not as forecasts of the future, but as narratives that stretch, examine, and explore the human condition through the lens of speculation.
Here are movies that combine the very best of what the genre has to offer.
The Matrix (1999)The Wachowskis (then the Wachowski Brothers) directed one of the most influential movies since the original Star Wars in 1977. Neo (Keanu Reeves) is a computer hacker who discovers he is "The One." The world is a simulacrum designed by machines that use humans as organic batteries. The follow-up films Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions didn’t quite have the depth – or pop cultural sprawl – of the first film. The Matrix not only entertains (with some great action sequences), but it makes you think about the nature of reality.
Inception (2010)Dark Knight trilogy director, Christopher Nolan, devised a puzzler that, like The Matrix, deals with the world (both real and imagined), only Inception is primarily concerned with the dream world and how it can be manipulated to impact actual events. If Nolan’s latest film, Interstellar, is his most ambitious work to date, Inception is undoubtedly the precursor to the director’s approach to science fictional ideas with a big budget canvas.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)When director Stanley Kubrick teamed with science fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke to make a movie it was truly history in the making. This trippy, thought-provoking film with followed the evolution of man from primate to more-than-human. Before 2001: A Space Odyssey deep space scenes didn’t look all that believable. The technology didn’t exist. Filmmakers tried and mostly failed. Star Wars might have showed a generation how realistic space could look on the big screen, but 2001: A Space Odyssey paved the way. It’s a meditation on the human spirit.
Dune (1984)Based on the novel by Frank Herbert, David Lynch’s Dune, while not entirely faithful to its source material is a visually arresting remix of Herbert’s novel. Tracing the journey of a reluctant Paul Atreides, who becomes the messiah, Paul Mau’Dib, Lynch mostly plays it straight. It’s a big unwieldy story that’s compressed down to a couple of hours, but is still a fine example of science fiction storytelling in cinema.
Gravity (2013)Starring the unlikely combination of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in space, this Oscar-winning movie has the feel of watching a play right between the stars. And when the shuttle becomes adrift in orbit (due to an accident), you feel lost with them. It’s claustrophobic. Haunting. And the cinematography is simply beautiful. It’s an epic performance that takes the audience along for the ride.
Prometheus (2012)A mostly critical disappointment, Prometheus did have an ambition that was indeed epic in scope: How do you make a prequel to movie Alien? Directed by Ridley Scott (who helmed the first film of the franchise), here, we witness the birth of the aliens. It’s a secret origin of sorts that has some great moments. While it’s mostly eye candy (the cinematography is gorgeous), Prometheus finds ways to both terrify and dazzle the audience.
12 Monkeys (1995)While Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys isn’t crammed with dazzling futuristic special effects, it is a gritty tale of a time traveler (Bruce Willis) from 2035 sent back to the ‘90s to find the source of a plague. Epic isn’t always about deep space flights, planet hopping, or evil galactic empires. Sometimes these things are closer to home, which makes them more potent. It’s unclear if SyFy Channel’s adaption (coming in 2015) will live up to its predecessor. However, 12 Monkeys is a film that makes your head spin, and it’s great science fiction that happens to be running at 24 frames per second.