Science fiction has always held a mirror up to the society in which it’s produced. Because it explores futuristic or alternative versions of our contemporary world, it provides a venue in which to covertly criticize or satirize sociopolitical issues. So if you’re worrying a lot about the current state of the world, you might find it cathartic to watch these films.
Note: Many of these films are based on books or short stories, and many of those stories spawned multiple adaptations. As well, there are remakes of some films on this list. Where applicable, I have listed the original film or the film closest to its source material.
The Hunger Games (the Mockingjay series)
Set in a post-civil war society, Panem, that divided all of America by class and industry, The Hunger Games and its sequels introduce us to a world in which people from the lower classes are forced to sacrifice children to compete to the death in a televised battle. The series follows Katniss Everdeen, who is tapped to lead the resistance. Given the current state of class warfare in the U.S., Panem seems a little too near for comfort, but Katniss’ transformation from a reluctant reality show contestant into a warrior devoted to stamping out all corruption is inspiring to watch.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
The trope of an alien attempting to save Earth by trying to rid it of humanity has been done to death, but it all started with The Day the Earth Stood Still. The film criticizes humans’ history of war and violence against each other and the Earth, and you’ll be left wanting to do better lest Klaatu visit us any time soon!
Futurist Ray Kurzweil has written extensively about the potential for human consciousness to be uploaded into a computer. In an age when we regularly upload snippets of our identity to social media and cybernetic enhancements are on the horizon, Transcendence explores the ethics of both Kurzweil’s vision and the prospect of utopia. In the film, Dr. Will Caster becomes a sentient AI and quickly attains massive amounts of power, while his human companions struggle to adjust. You’ll be left scratching your head but also thinking more deeply about the future of our species.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
This classic film features a group of astronauts who stumble upon a device that allows human thoughts to be manifested — a precursor to later works that explored this premise. Forbidden Planet muses on humans’ fallibility despite their godlike powers and touches on the ethical obligations surrounding human enhancement — ever more relevant topics as humans amass tremendous environmental and medical power.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
The Planet of the Apes packs a lot of commentary on everything from social Darwinism and speciesism to warfare and genocide to the implications of first contact. However, it makes its most powerful point with its conclusion, which arguably defined the twist ending: that mankind’s efforts for greatness are potentially futile.
Minority Report (2002)
In an age where police brutality, the use of body cams, and the very public prosecution (or lack thereof) of criminals are all hot topics, Minority Report seems even more relevant now than when it came out. In addition, the film explores the ethics of human enhancement and organ transplants. It’s truly a brilliant film that will make you second-guess the perfect systems it presents to you — and make you wonder which of our current systems might be completely broken.
You ask Siri for everything, but would you ask her out on a date? That’s the premise of Her, which presents a world in which AI is so advanced, it’s capable of carrying out real relationships with humans. Or is it? This love story is both emotional and thought-provoking.
While eugenics are nothing new, concerns about the ethics of designing our babies increases with each development in gene therapy. Gattaca perfectly captures the arguments both for and against elective genetic engineering, and it also outlines the real-world problems with classist and ableist discrimination.
Double Feature: The Thing (1982) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
We once again live in a time when people are suspicious of whether their neighbors are secretly communists. Or Nazis. Or Muslims. Or really anyone “other.” The Thingand Invasion of the Body Snatchers brilliantly captures just how paranoid people can become, as well as their tendency to dehumanize others.
District 9 (2009)
Of all the science fiction films exploring bigotry, apartheid, and genocide, few do it as well as District 9. Although set in South Africa, its documentary approach to a world in which stranded aliens are subjected to discrimination, abuse, and ghettoization bears strong parallels to real-life situations around the world. The film then veers into body horror as protagonist Wikus van de Merwe, whose racism against the aliens motivates him, is infected by a substance that begins to transform him into the thing he loathes. District 9 will leave you feeling icky, but mostly about how cruel people are to those they consider less human.
In recent years, more science fiction films have been touching on the problem of climate change. Snowpiercer depicts a world in which a new ice age has made the outside world unlivable, and the remnants of humanity all coexist on an ever-running train. The claustrophobic setting allows the film to examine sociocultural dynamics across class, race, and gender, while musing on humanity’s capacity for cruelty as a means to power. It’s a bleak film to be sure, but worth a watch for its insightful exploration of humanity on the edge.
Arguably one of the most influential science fiction/horror films of all time, Alien is revolutionary for both its female protagonist and deep critique of capitalism. While many science fiction films have portrayed big corporations as corrupt, Alien and its sequels go a step further in making the corporations the primary antagonist throughout the series. In addition, the film is a powerful vehicle for Sigourney Weaver, whose no-nonsense portrayal of Lt. Ellen Ripley eschews most conventions about female SF heroes. In an age when corporations continue to amass power while women are increasingly vocal about their liberation, Alien is a grim look at the multifaceted oppression in our society, suggesting that the fear of the Alien is simply a tool engineered by a greater evil.
What films would you add to this list and why? Let me know in the responses!