Top 5 Science Fiction Movies That Will Change Your Life for Good
I’ve surrounded myself with books for as long as I can remember. In large part this is because my childhood was anything but peaceful. The memory of it is like a shipwreck whose jagged pieces float up to the surface of my mind’s dark waters. There was my father — a violent alcoholic — and my mother, prone to bouts of depression during which she’d lock herself away in a room for several silent, hollow months. I had no siblings, and spoke sparingly to anyone at school.
What I did have was an aptitude for language; I maintain to this day that it was the first and longest-lasting romance of my life. I’ve never much cared for material items despite my parents attempting to instill that love in me. Gold necklaces and dolls and flouncy pink dresses the color of the creamy sunset over our soul-sad home. But none of that mattered to me. Still means very little to me even now. What I wanted were books. They felt like receiving whole worlds, ones with many pictures, ones with none at all. My favorites were those where the main characters were explorers. Some would visit the edge of the world, others the bottom of the sea or the speckled ice mountains of a distant continent.
In that young girl’s room I grew and they grew — the body of each book having gotten fat from me leafing through it. They gave me something I hope to someday give back to the world: reassurance, and above all a richer inner life.
Needless to say that one of my favorite genres is science fiction. It combines exciting elements of high-tech terror and scientific theory into individual tales. The stories below, specifically, have changed me as a person. I hope they may change the lives of many of you as well.
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer:
From “Annihilation”, Paramount Pictures.
I’ve known of this novel for about for a year now but only recently did I finish reading it. Its pages are seeped with mystery and suspense. An alien species arrives on Earth and has taken over an area known as “Area X”. Military research groups are deployed one at a time to explore the region. It’s a swath of wilderness thick with mutated flora and fauna. Animal noises can be heard long into the night, disquieting the characters’ meals and their sleep. All the while the group of trained women are compelled to explore two places: a lighthouse with which most people become obsessed, and a tower unmarked on their map. The author’s language is beautifully descriptive and poetic. But what endeared me most to this novel was the main character. She had many flaws, yet was so keen-eyed and intelligent that I couldn’t help but be transfixed by her.
The horror story is, at its core, about self-destruction and reinvention. I felt myself anxious for every impending death, but also growing more introspective whenever I read it. It’s the first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy and was beautifully adapted into a film starring Natalie Portman.
“When you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.”
Arrival or “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
The aliens — known as “heptapods” — and their circular way of writing. By Paramount Pictures.
This novella is similar to Annihilation in that it explores an alien civilization coming to Earth and changing the people with whom it communicates. But unlike the former story, this one is not about the oblivion we experience within ourselves. It’s about time, and perspective. A linguistics professor attempts to learn the language of the alien species. Doing so rewires her brain, allowing her to see things differently from all those around her. This is something that’s true with all of us as well. Language is a powerful tool. It is one of the defining characteristics of being human, and is an art in and of itself. Language is, I believe, one of the pillars of what makes us different from other animals. We can be vulnerable and tell others about our past, or we can be mean, loving, spiteful, praising. So much depends on the words we choose to say and write to someone else. And to ourselves.
The story focuses on the professor’s interaction with these creatures but also invites us to view a touching relationship between the professor and her daughter. In the end it is a heartbreaking tale that may fall into the science fiction category, but is deeply human and familial at the end of the day. I have, admittedly, a difficult time not crying whenever I re-read this piece.
The author chooses to tell the short 40-page story in a non-linear fashion, making for a fantastic plot twist once one arrives at the end. It was originally titled “The Story of Your Life” but was adapted into a movie named Arrival. Both are well-executed.
It’s available to read online for free here.
“My message to you is this: pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t. The reality isn’t important: what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.”
“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison
From a video game based off the short story. Image by Night Dive Studios.
A lesser known story, but an example of true, unadulterated horror. This is a disturbing tale more unsettling and gruesome than anything by Stephen King. There are no vampires, or witches, or hungry, oozing swamp monsters climbing out of soft and muddy waters. Instead the main villain is something which we’ve created ourselves — an intelligent supercomputer by the name of Allied Mastercomputer (AM). The world has been almost entirely destroyed during war. The sole survivors are a group of five people made up of four men and one woman. They live on a single cruel premise: AM will never let them die, giving them immortality so that it can continue to torture them for all of eternity.
The end is beyond any nightmare I’ve ever experienced. It leaves the reader feeling helpless and violated, as if great acts of barbaric injustice had been committed against us and there was nothing we could do about it. The saddest part of it all? We did it to ourselves.
Read the full 13-page story here.
“Oh, Jesus sweet Jesus, if there ever was a Jesus and if there is a God, please please please let us out of here, or kill us. Because at that moment I think I realized completely, so that I was able to verbalize it: AM was intent on keeping us in his belly forever, twisting and torturing us forever. The machine hated us as no sentient creature had ever hated before. And we were helpless. It also became hideously clear: If there was a sweet Jesus and if there was a God, the God was AM.”
Ex Machina by Alex Garland
Images by Universal Pictures and A24.
More artificial intelligence. More terror. But this time it’s careful and nuanced. The main character in this film performs a procedure known as the Turing test. It’s a test meant to see if an artificial intelligence can pass as a human being. Has the machine become indistinguishable from man?
After a rich tech genius invites a programmer to his isolated estate, the programmer’s job is to interact with a humanoid female robot called “Ava”. She is extraordinarily human, tender-voiced and inquisitive. But as the movie unfolds the viewer must decide who the real villain is: the machine, or the man who has created the machine? It’s not an easy side to take. What struck me most about the film wasn’t the incredible plot-twist at the end or even the beautifully conduced narrative surrounding mankind and our relationship with our own inventions. Instead I became absorbed with the question of consciousness. What is it, and are we the only ones capable of being conscious? Can we create it…
…can we create a sentient machine?
“If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man. That’s the history of gods.”
There are many more science fiction stories I’d like to recommend but these others are more well-known and, for that reason, I didn’t want to speak too much about them here. They include Interstellar, 2001: A Space Odyssey, George Orwell’s 1984, Ender’s Game, Michael Crichton’s Westworld and The Andromeda Strain, “Flowers for Algernon”, Carl Sagan’s Contact, and The Three Body Problem.
I believe science fiction is one of the most important genres in literature. We are approaching a future rife with technology — are already dependent on it to the point where many of us would not know how to survive without our inventions. As technology and mankind become more intertwined, science fiction poses important questions we must someday confront. It teaches us about the possible outcomes, from interstellar exploration to devastating world wars. It is never too early to begin thinking about the implications of our technology.
Stories are each a look into a possible future — the utopias and the dystopias — but more importantly each story is also a look into ourselves. We explore the universe; we create the universe with our words.