Science Fiction Films
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Notable Robots or Droids in Sci-Fi Films:
See: Robots in Film (a comprehensive illustrated history here).
Throughout cinematic history, especially in science-fiction tales, robots have played a primary role. Robotic characters were chosen, in part, as a way to probe and examine prototypical humans endowed with anthropomorphic (but artificial) intelligence or characteristics. Terms related to robots include:
Robots functioned as either servant-helpers or oppressors of humanity, portraying the good and evil sides. Herein are examples of various films with robotic characters:
Major Action-Sci-Fi Film Hybrids:
Director/writer James Cameron brought two views of an apocalyptic, post-nuclear wasteland to the screen with Arnold Schwarzenegger first playing an action villain, and then an action hero in two brilliant films:
Lucas' and Spielberg's Contributions:
[George Lucas' first feature film was the dystopic thriller THX 1138 (1971), an atmospheric film about a repressive Orwellian futuristic, dehumanized, subterranean society that forbade love and sexual intercourse.] By the late 1970s and early 1980s, films by Lucas and Spielberg consciously paid tribute to serials of the 1930s, with hero Luke Skywalker, swooping space battles, imaginative bar creatures in Mos Eisley's Cantina, revolutionary special effects, Harrison Ford at the controls of the Millennium Falcon spacecraft, and a vast universe. Aliens could be more friendly and benevolent, evidenced by loveable robots (R2D2 and CP-30) and Chewbacca in the popular Star Wars fantasy space epic "trilogy" - all modern blockbusters. The first in this space opera trilogy set another standard for action-propelled, special-effects science-fiction:
A low-budget, satirical Star Wars parody was created by director Ernie Fosselius titled Hardware Wars (1978) - "May the Farce Be With You" - with characters Princess Anne-droid, Fluke Starbucker, the Cookie Monster (for Chewbacca), an incomprehensible Darf Nader, Artee-Deco (a canister vaccuum cleaner), 4-Q-2 (as C3PO), Ham Salad, and space objects-vehicles such as toasters, irons and mixers.
In 1999, Lucas backpedaled and created the first film in the epic saga, quickly followed by other prequels:
[Note: Another Star Wars film was released 10 years later in 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). It was the first part of a sequel trilogy of Star Wars (Episodes: VII, VIII and IX). It was the first of the Star Wars films without series creator George Lucas' involvement, and the first film to be released following Disney's 2012 acquisition of LucasFilm. Many box-office records were broken almost immediately. See Star Wars Films: Reviewed and Ranked.]
The preceding years of fearful dystopias and menacing aliens were dismissed by Steven Spielberg's pre-E.T. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). It was an enchanting sci-fi film filled with awe and wonder at numerous appearances of UFO spaceships, a mother ship, and the first communication between earthlings (led by real outer-limits researcher Jacques Vallee, played by Francois Truffaut) and friendly extra-terrestrial aliens - conveyed with bursts of sound and light. Spielberg followed Close Encounters in the early 1980s with one of the most endearing and charming films about benign extraterrestrials ever made - E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
The 90s: A Mix of Action and/or Sophisticated Story-Telling
By the 90s, sophisticated digital effects were overtaking science fiction films, and creating spectacular and monstrous creatures such as the living dinosaurs in Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), and Jurassic Park III (2001); the female alien invader in Species (1995), the giant marauding bugs in Starship Troopers (1997), and the bulbous-headed aliens in Tim Burton's alien-invasion spoof Mars Attacks! (1996). The sci-fi alien invasion comedies Men in Black (1997) and Men in Black II (2002) were remarkably successful films that combined both special effects and great acting from its two leads Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.
Demolition Man (1993) pitted 1990s cyrogenically-defrosted LA cop-hero John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone), after release in the year 2032 from cyro-prison in the megapolis of San Angeles, to combat another defrosted individual -- violent psychopath Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes - with blonde hair). Wolfgang Petersen's Outbreak (1995), released at the height of the AIDS crisis with additional fears of bioterrorism, was a traditional disaster thriller about the pervasive spread of a killer African virus. The ultra-patriotic sci-fi epic Independence Day (1996) by director Roland Emmerich told of the extra-terrestrial invasion of the world with the destruction of the White House as an opener. The roller-coaster action film, a summer blockbuster with stunning, thrill-ride, Oscar-winning special effects, was a return to the themes of disaster epics of the 1970s and the alien-invasion content of 50s science fiction.
Two blockbuster Hollywood films released in the summer of 1998 portrayed the threat of Earth-threatening asteroids: Mimi Leder's character-driven sci-fi action film Deep Impact (1998) (Tagline: Heaven and Earth are about to collide), with Robert Duvall as an astronaut heading up a government mission in outer space to destroy the comet; and Michael Bay's Armageddon (1998) (Tagline: It's Closer Than You Think), with Bruce Willis and his core drilling team called to thwart the space rock by the use of nuclear weapons.
'Virtual Reality' Sci-Fi Films:
Science-fiction films could easily portray a world in which reality was unsure, unreliable, dreamlike, virtual, or non-existent. VR (or virtual reality) films began in the early 80s, and really blossomed in the 1990s and 2000s. The blurring of reality with 'virtual', look-alike, or fake universes or worlds created by 'virtual reality', computer simulations, or imagination itself fascinated various film-makers. The first VR film was reportedly the sci-fi western Welcome to Blood City (1977). In the film, five strangers awakened in the countryside with no memory of their past, with only an ID explaining that they were convicted murderers. Sheriff Frendlander (Jack Palance) brought them to the western town of Blood City - where they were forced to either become enslaved, or try to take a top place in society by killing an older unarmed resident. In the film's sci-fi twist, it was soon revealed that they were in a VR game, created by technicians Lyle (John Evans) and Katherine (Samantha Eggar), who were trying to identify their skills and possibly select them as potential elite killers for future combat.
The revolutionary, landmark Disney cult film TRON (1982), with its astounding CGI and computer animation, was one of the first films to visualize another world. It also took advantage of the video-gaming craze of the early 1980s. In the story (director Steven Lisberger’s live-action debut), video-game arcade owner/hacker Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) was transported inside a mainframe computer world (after being transformed by an experimental matter transmutation program into data bits). Inside the beautifully-visualized world dominated by an evil operating system with a giant Lego head, the software-based humanoid found an action-oriented, neon-colored video-game in which he had to compete against an evil boss who had metamorphosed into another video-game character. [The film was remade decades later as the long-awaited sequel TRON: Legacy (2010). Jeff Bridges reprised his role as hacker Flynn and as his ageless, power-hungry computer avatar, Clu.]
Director and visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull's final Hollywood feature film was Brainstorm (1983), notable as being the last film for Natalie Wood (who died of drowning during production), and one of the earliest films about virtual reality. Scientist Dr. Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) and his assistant Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) created a unique communications "Brainstorm" device that could record the visual, aural, sensory and emotional experiences of one's brain with a headset and sensor chips - and allow playback by another person to share the VR experience. The film's main attraction was the visceral thrill of the playback of an orgasmic sexual experience (on a continuous loop), and also of a heart-attack and entrance into the after-life.
In Alien Intruder (1993), set in the futuristic year of 2022, an evil, extra-terrestrial computer virus (in the form of beautiful Tracy Scoggins) intruded itself into the thoughts of the crew of the spaceship USS Presley. The sci-fi VR horror-thriller Brainscan (1994) featured the tagline: "Goodbye Reality! Welcome Virtual Reality!" Video villain Trickster (T. Ryder Smith) appeared in an interactive computer game called "Brainscan" - within a computer video screen. The "ultimate experience" horror game was available to be viewed on 4-CD-ROM discs. It was ordered by 16 year-old misfit, disenfranchised loner teen Michael Bryer (Edward Furlong), who viewed the first disc "Death by Design." It was a disturbing but exciting snuff film that featured the VR experience of a murder from the killer's POV. The disembodied Trickster then encouraged Bryer to engage in gruesome, violent thrills by becoming the killer - to his own horror.
Johnny Mnemonic (1995) was a derivative adaptation of scriptwriter William Gibson's own cyberpunk short story, and a Keanu Reeves-precursor to The Matrix (1999), about a courier with downloaded information in his data-packed head who had to transport the top-secret data from China to New Jersey. And in director Brett Leonard's (known for the ground-breaking The Lawnmower Man (1992)) crime sci-fi-thriller Virtuosity (1995) set in 1999, former disgraced L.A. detective Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) (in jail for murdering the killer of his family, but on parole) pursued invincible opponent Sid 6.7 (Russell Crowe), a synthetic killer android (with composited evil traits of Hitler, Charles Manson and other serial killer felons), through in a VR training program for cops. Threatened with the shut-down of the failed testing program, Sid's deranged software creator gave mass-murderer Sid a real-world body.
Director Kathryn Bigelow's dystopic tech-noir Strange Days (1995) opened with an illicit 'playback clip' (a "snuff" clip called a 'blackjack') of a failed robbery attempt of a Chinese restaurant by masked criminals. The clip was recorded (or "wired") directly from a head device called a 'squid' (short for Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) connecting into the cerebral cortex ("It's pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex"). Sleazy ex-vice squad cop and peddler of illegal software clips Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) often watched the playback of clips of sexy ex-girlfriend Faith Justin (Juliette Lewis). However, there were also more disturbing contraband snuff clips - of brutal rape, strangulation and death.
Human freedoms were almost non-existent in the world of genetic monitoring and engineering found in Andrew Niccol's Gattaca (1997). Peter Weir's fanciful The Truman Show (1998) satirized how TV ratings dictated the imprisonment and victimization of a show's star by the unrestricted media, all for the unethical purpose of sustaining a hit TV show. [It was partially inspired by Albert Brooks' satirical media comedy Real Life (1979) (based on PBS' mini-series An American Family in 1973).] Then, director Ron Howard followed with a similar but lackluster EDtv (1999).
Alex Proyas' visually-stunning and visionary sci-fi noir Dark City (1998) (Tagline: "A world where the night never ends. Where man has no past. And humanity has no future"), one of the best films to effectively twist unreal reality, starred Rufus Sewell as a man with memory problems living and pursued in a nightmarish, retro 40s-style futuristic world managed by malevolent, underground alien beings called Strangers. The aliens possessed telekinetic powers that could stop time and alter reality.
Writers/directors Andy and Larry Wachowski's hyperkinetic The Matrix (1999) (Tagline: "Be afraid of the future") illustrated how to superbly combine amazing action scenes with an intelligent story-line (a modern-day updating of the man vs. machine tale). It examined the nature of reality in the external world - seemingly uncertain, in which reality was a computer simulation, and the actual Earth was scorched. The explosive and successful trilogy featured sensational special/visual effects, with the same cast in each offering (Keanu Reeves as Neo, Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity, Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, and Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith):
Josef Rusnak's tech-noir sci-fi film The Thirteenth Floor (1999) (Tagline: Question reality. You can go there even though it doesn't exist) blended both The Truman Show (1998) and The Matrix (1999) with its blurring of the lines between reality and virtual or artificial reality, in its contrast of mid-1930s and late 1990s Los Angeles. Another 'virtual reality' film in the same year, David Cronenberg's cautionary and plot-twisting eXistenZ (1999) (Tagline: Play it. Live it. Kill for it), explored how a 'virtual reality' game could tap into a person's mind. Steven Spielberg's cyber-noirish action and sci-fi thriller Minority Report (2002), set in the futuristic year of 2054 from an adapted Philip K. Dick story, starred Tom Cruise as a cop preventing pre-committed murders. In the science-fiction related romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) with a script by Charlie Kaufman, Jim Carrey had his memories of his romance with an ex-girlfriend (Kate Winslet) wiped clean - until he abruptly changed his mind.
The sci-fi thriller Gamer (2009) was a hyper-kinetic action film where real-life and video-games were merged, with the creation of an ultimate interactive video game dubbed "Slayers." 17 year-old game expert Simon (Logan Lerman) was able to miraculously defeat other opponents in the game - using a real-life video-game avatar named Kable (Gerard Butler). Kable was a death-row inmate placed unwillingly into the VR playing field of the game, while also recruited to escape the dehumanizing game and defeat the game's corporate leader Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall), a reclusive billionaire. In another sci-fi thriller in the same year, the thought-provoking Surrogates (2009) was set in a futuristic utopian world. There, artificial robotic, avatars or life-forms substituted for living people as a fail-safe mechanism. The surrogates were perfect, 3-dimensional mechanical (or cloned) representations of their original humans - who remained safely at home and controlled the actions of the beings with their minds. Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell portrayed two FBI agents, Tom Greer and Peters, who were forced to investigate a strange double homicide in which the destruction of two surrogates also resulted in the deaths of their human hosts. And James Cameron's Avatar (2009) was the ultimate fantasy sci-fi film, in which paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) took part in a mission to the distant world of Pandora, inhabited by the giant, indigenous humanoid race of Na'vi. With the aid of a sophisticated Avatar program, Jake was linked to a genetically-bred, human-Na'vi hybrid, so that within his avatar's blue-skinned body, he could function as a Na'vi native and breathe the hostile air of the planet.
In the action-oriented, time-travel thriller Source Code (2011), a variation on Groundhog Day (1993), Jake Gyllenhaal starred as Captain Colter Stevens - tasked to participate in a top-secret government experiment called "Source Code." To identify a threatening Chicago commuter train bomber, he repeatedly entered the body of one of the train's male passengers to relive his life during the 8 minutes before he was killed on the exploding train. As Stevens continually repeated the tense mission, he attempted to gather enough clues to prevent a massive terrorist attack.
And in the thought-provoking sci-fi cyber-thriller Transcendence (2014), eccentric yet charismatic AI science researcher/teacher Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) was fatally shot by an extremist anti-technology group of radicals known as RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology). After his consciousness was uploaded into a super-computer to save him, a phenomenon known as Whole Brain Emulation, Caster returned via a hologram. However, the fear emerged that he would become a dangerous megalomaniac force when his capacities vastly expanded and he created an army of nanomites in his desert HQ to aid his quest.
Animated Science Fiction Films At the Turn of the Century:
From the mid-1990s to the early part of the next century, a number of animated films contained science-fiction themes, such as: