Chris Marker’s haunting, fractured memory tale La Jetée is getting a Criterion Blu-ray release tomorrow (along with experimental essay Sans Soleil). Dubbed “one of the most influential, radical science-fiction films ever made … ” Marker’s 1962 black and white film is composed almost entirely of still photographs, using voice-over narration to tell the 28 minute-long tale about a man held prisoner after World War III who traverses time, sees the future, and uncovers the secrets of his past.
The film’s themes are palpable in modern science fiction, where the exploration of time travel as an agent of self-discovery, use of looped narrative and multiperiod storytelling, experimental filmmaking, dystopian themes, and more have been carried into the present. Just look at Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys , which is directly inspired by Marker’s film.
With that in mind, we wanted to celebrate a few other influential sci-fi movies that have made their mark on filmmakers and cinemagoers throughout history. Check out our picks below, and share yours in the comments section.
Elaborately and fantastically designed, Georges Méliès’ Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) is widely considered the first sci-fi film ever made and one of the greatest early cinematic achievements. Running only 14 minutes long, the 1902 movie — borrowing from H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon and Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon — finds a group of astronomers on the lunar globe uncovering an alien civilization. Méliès’ film boasts an array of special effects and a more modern, cohesive editing style, which brings the satirical take on science and the nature of space to life. Most importantly: iconic little green men? Check!
Fritz Lang’s iconic 1927 masterpiece takes us into the urban empire of Metropolis ruled by an industrialist from his Tower of Babel headquarters. The futuristic city is split in half by a definitive class system, pitting capitalists and underground-dwelling slaves against each other. Big Daddy Warbucks tries to use one woman — who preaches about a better life to the proletariat — for selfish purposes, but he doesn’t realize that the crazed inventor he’s scheming with wants to knock him from his throne and take over the city (with the help of a wicked robot). A fascinating hybrid of futurism and mysticism demonstrates a struggle between modernity and ideologies past. Timeless themes of desire, loyalty, technology, and faith also abound. The film introduces what would become one of the earliest and most influential genre staples — the mad scientist/artificial intelligence run amok. Top all that off with some knockout effects, and it’s clear why Metropolis is heralded not only as a classic, but a film well ahead of its time.
Sci-fi scribe Arthur C. Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick united for 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the most visually inventive films ever created. The movie shaped society’s view of space travel, and its complex symbolism surrounding humanity, artificial intelligence, extraterrestrial life, and more still have us pondering its meaning to this day. Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube Waltz” and Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” cannot be heard without images from 1968 space epic crisp in our mind’s eye. If you need further proof of the film’s reach, just ask iPhone’s “intelligence agent” Siri to sing you a song, or to open the pod bay doors.
Taking Fritz Lang’s dystopian megacity to gritty new heights, Ridley Scott’s vision for his 1982 film Blade Runner introduced audiences to one of Philip K. Dick’s most beloved works — showing them a world filled with some of the most unforgettable imagery ever brought to screen. Hollywood would eventually mine the Dick library to create a string of popular blockbusters, even though Scott’s film wasn’t entirely successful upon its release. The movie is also an early blueprint of the cyberpunk genre, its dark, neo-noir aesthetic one of the most popular depictions of science fiction lore.
George Lucas’ sci-fi opus Star Wars borrowed elements from Kurosawa’s samurai movie Hidden Fortress . Since then, the space opera has been widely imitated, inspiring generations of filmmakers and capturing the hearts and imaginations of moviegoers everywhere. Lucas and his Industrial Light & Magic team pioneered never before seen special effects still used to this day, returning audiences to a place of awe and fascination with film.
Leaving the flashy effects and monsters for other filmmakers to toy with, Tarkovsky’s meditation of existential conflict examines the power of the subconscious and human emotion. On the surface, Solaris is a story about a group of scientists investigating mysterious happenings on a distant planet. Its power, however, lies in an internal world where haunting memories have been conjured. Few have been able to master the director’s hallucinatory, shapeshifting sentiment in a meaningful way, but many have looked to its tragic love plotline and independent spirit for inspiration — including Steven Soderbergh’s remake of the same name.
Ridley Scott’s Alien is a slasher film at heart, but the sci-fi savvy movie with dominating horror elements created a lasting impression on fans of all genres in 1979. The chilling, atmospheric film introduced a strong female heroine (Sigourney Weaver) — devoid of all the usual cliché sex/gender trappings — whose clear-minded intelligence and unassuming nature thrilled us when put to the test. Alien subverts our expectations of a bright, advanced future, instead delivering an absolute nightmare. The template of crew meets space station, crew is menaced by horrific creature, and crew dies leaving one person to fight the battle has been copied endlessly. Scott’s film also takes the alien out of the green suit, forcing us to contend with the splatterific slaughter of H.R. Giger’s ghastly creature — often imitated, never duplicated.
Action filmmaking for the Internet generation, the Wachowski brothers’ rebellion tale defined hacker subculture and cyberpunk spirit for popcorn audiences, while offering larger postmodern, philosophical ideas in its narrative. The film’s lively choreography was parodied to death after its release in 1999, but its legacy extends far beyond overused slow-mo and gymnastic-style battles. Echoing sci-fi’s timeless themes with references to age-old mythology, modern consumerism, pop culture, and more, the results resemble our society so closely that no red pill is needed to see the reality.