It's that time of year when you wind up watching a lot of DVDs with your loved ones. And you rediscover the grand art of compromise. It's hard to find movies that everybody wants to watch — especially if you want to watch something science fictional.
How can you find science fiction movies to please everybody — even your friends who claim not to like science fiction? Here are 10 SF movies that even the genre haters will embrace.
Edited to add: Despite the reference to "loved ones" in the opening sentence, this is aimed at both your friends and your family members. We aimed to create a diverse list, including films that might appeal to art-movie snobs, Sundance Channel junkies, action-movie fanatics, and your cranky relatives. So don't be surprised if not every single movie on the list is aimed directly at your grandma.
Note: We whittled down a much longer list to come up with this one, and in the process we discarded some super obvious examples like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Please add your own suggestions in the comments!
This one is sort of the slam dunk, since it was one of last year's biggest movies and almost everybody loved it. And like a lot of the other movies on this list, it's a genre mash-up, combining Ocean's Eleven heist action with a layer of psychological exploration. Inception is the movie that a lot of people had tried to make previously: a journey into the heart of unreality, filled with twists and turns and poetic images. (I just rewatched Vanilla Sky, which would have given several vital organs to be Inception.) In any case, your friends and family may have seen Inception — but they'll get more out of a second viewing.
2. The Man in the White Suit
To science fiction fans, Alec Guinness is Obi-Wan Kenobi. To people who watched PBS back in the day, he's George Smiley. But you're all wrong — the biggest reason Alec Guinness should be treasured is because he starred in several of the Ealing Comedies of the 1940s and 1950s. And White Suit is one of the most barbed and misanthropic of the Ealing Comedies — Guinness plays a man who has invented a miraculous new fabric that never gets dirty or wears out. It's a boon to humanity — so of course, the textile factory owners and the union leaders decide to hunt Guinness down and kill him, before everyone's out of a job. Guinness is pursued through the dark streets — where it's difficult for him to hide, because his suit glows in the dark.
3. The Truman Show
Like Inception, this is another film that everyone's probably seen — but they'll get more out of a second viewing. Truman Show takes place in a near future where reality television has reached new extremes — Truman is a man who's been raised inside a fake world, surrounded by actors and under constant surveillance by television producers. This movie raises all manner of science fictional questions about reality and selfhood, while also remaining just close enough to our world to be really jarring. It's a dystopia for people who find most dystopias too weird or implausible.
4. The Host (Gwoemul)
This Korean movie may look like a traditional monster movie at first glance, but it manages to be a sharp political satire and a dark family comedy at the same time. This particular kaiju is revealed, early on, to be the result of chemicals dumped in the river at the behest of callous Americans. But the real heart of the film is in the depiction of a down-on-their-luck family selling snacks by the river. You root for these underdogs just as much as you ever would any Steven Spielberg family — but Spielberg would never have the guts to treat one of his movie families as brutally as this film does.
5. Robot Stories
Before Greg Pak attained comics stardom with Planet Hulk, he directed this quirky anthology movie about robots. And even if your friends and family don't want to see any movie with the word "robot" in the title, this one will probably be an exception — it's one of the human, moving films we've seen in a long time. Your friends who love Sundance Channel indy films about small personal experiences will eat this movie up. Sure, one of the four stories in the film is about two office-worker robots who fall in love, in violation of the rules. But there's also a very IFC-ish story of a grieving mother who decides to go to any lengths necessary, to complete her dead son's collection of robot toys. If at least some of the stories in this film don't make you cry — and think about robots in a new way — then you're dead inside. Just hide the film's title until everybody's already fully engrossed.
6. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial
And speaking of Spielberg... this is probably his most genre-transcending film. Everybody is perfectly aware that E.T. is science fiction — it's about an alien! — but it's entered the collective consciousness and become a cultural touchstone. And unlike other equally famous science fiction films, such as 2001 or the Star Wars or Star Trek films, E.T. remains down to Earth and personal. It's never about anything other than the relationship between Elliott and his alien friend, and it sticks close to the archetype of "coming of age by encountering the other" stories. And then there are flying bicycles, just to make it more groovy.
7. A Scanner Darkly
Way trippier and edgier than most of the other films on this list, Scanner has a couple things going for it. First, it's incredibly topical, with its themes of constant surveillance and the invasive police state. Secondly, this rotoscoped gem is trippy and artsy enough, it's bound to appeal to all the highbrow art-movie lovers among your friends. And this is one of those films that just keeps getting more relevant and mind-blowing the more times you watch it. I once went to a whole conference devoted to the Philip K. Dick novel this film is based on — and the movie manages to keep a lot of that same level of paranoia and fractured surrealism. Keanu Reeves plays Fred/Bob, an undercover cop who takes a drug called Substance D that leaves him unable to realize that he's spying on himself.
Terry Gilliam's masterpiece is another film that just gets more and more relevant with each passing year. Pervasive plastic surgery fueled by the cult of youth? Check. An oppressive government fueled by torture and managed by an incompetent bureaucracy that can't even figure out who to arrest? Check. And so on... this is political commentary in the mold of 1984 and Brave New World, except that Gilliam's Monty Python roots give it a bit more of a satirical, surreal edge. And it's also unexpectedly lovely in parts, as Jonathan Pryce's low-level functionary meets the woman of his dreams and tries to rescue her. Your friends and family may never have seen Gilliam's original uncut version of this film, even if they've seen it in some form.
It was a toss-up between this film, The Incredibles or The Iron Giant. All three of those are great animated features dealing with classic genre themes — which manage to have a timeless, universal feel. Wall-E, in particular, feels like a fairytale that just happens to star a nearly mute robot instead of a little boy or a puppet or a princess. By the time you reach the part where Wall-E discovers what has become of the human race, and the relationship between robots and humans, you're already fully invested in this robot love story. Andrew Stanton manages to keep a hold of the sense that you're watching a sweet fable, even as the film ventures into space and starts piling on more weird conceits.
10. Children of Men
And finally, a film that a bunch of us did just watch over the holidays. It's sort of a perfect Christmas movie, actually, since it's about a miraculous pregnancy — but Children of Men is also yet another dystopian film that feels like an art movie or an issue-oriented action movie rather than a venture into a strange future world. In Alfonso Cuaron's film, based on a P.D. James novel, the human race has lost its ability to reproduce — and Britain has turned savagely xenophobic, closing its borders and lashing out against immigrants. When one pregnant woman turns up, it's up to Clive Owen to save her from people who want to use her for their own political ends. The fact that the final reel features one of the most beautifully shot action sequences ever only adds to the wonderment.