Science fiction can weave uplifting stories about mankind’s achievements, and it can totally terrify us with visions of how technology and encounters with new species could end our existence.
Given our constant wrestling with fear of the unknown and a refusal to leave any frontier unconquered, it makes sense that sci-fi and horror are intricately linked. For every life-improving and consciousness-expanding thing we create as a species, our technological endeavors bring us new complications, predicaments, moral quandaries, and encounters with straight-up monsters.
In short, the future is scary! But great science fiction films that aren’t shy about edging into horror make it a little bit better, so check out (or revisit) the genre greats. This in no particular order, because how could anyone possibly decide whether to rank some of these above others?
The Thing (1982)
When an Antarctic research station unearths a long-frozen alien, things get real messy. Staff of that first station is quickly wiped out and the alien flees to another nearby outpost. There, Kurt Russell and crew are at work on their own projects, but soon they’re just trying to stay alive. Writer/director John Carpenter uses this setup as the basis for his remake of the ‘50s film The Thing From Another World, and Carpenter’s version is all heightened, gory cold war paranoia. The shape-shifting alien constantly takes new forms to survive, killing off the researchers in the process, until only a few very freaked out men are left.
This movie probably edges closer to the horror side of the spectrum, but the uncertainty that arises from a shape-shifing alien taking human forms, and the brutally downbeat ending, are hardcore sci-fi. And one of the film’s great scenes, with a rudimentary test to determine who’s human and who isn’t, is pitch-perfect for a bunch of terrified researchers trying to prevent their own destruction.
Ridley Scott’s standard-setting movie Alien is almost a pure horror movie. Seven isolated people versus a monster is just about the most basic horror setup imaginable. But the setting isn’t even what cements the sci-fi angle; the story’s “truckers in space” setup could easily be redrafted to be set on a boat far out on the ocean. It’s the android Ash, and his connection to the corporate computer system overriding crew controls and human interests, that acts as the core sci-fi element. It’s one thing to have our fates controlled by gods or monsters, but for a computer system and a robot to help bring about our destruction? That’s 2001 taken to a bizarre extreme.
The grimy future tech of Alien is also unsettling. This isn’t an optimistic future, but a vision parallel to Scott’s later film Blade Runner, where years beyond our own may have new stuff, but offer no additional comforts or safety. Complicate that with the company-first attitude that fuels the film’s foundational paranoia, and Alien is fundamentally uneasy. Even without the deadly alien, existence in this movie seems like a pretty crap life.
David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma made similar films within a few years of one another. Cronenberg’s Scanners is so similar to De Palma’s The Fury in concept – powerful telekinetics are groomed as weapons – that discussion of one requires mention of the other. But Scanners is the one that endures. That’s because it’s both a more compact narrative and a more expansive story. Also, it opens with a man’s head exploding, instead of (spoiler) closing with an absurdly extended full-body demolition.
Both movies are basically prototype X-Men films, Even with a slightly rushed, detached feel, generated in large part by painter Stephen Lack in the central role, Scanners is the more effective of the two. It depicts a world in which companies develop drugs to foster the offshoot evolution of biological weapons. That detached feel even works for Scanners, as Lack’s character is cut off from typical emotional contact by the overwhelming flood of signal into his head. It’s a bizarre, disorienting movie that captures the unusual characters surprisingly well, and offers a cynical and pessimistic – but perhaps also accurate – view of corporate interests.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
There’s a lot of wild stuff in this second remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Philip Kaufman, who would go on to direct The Right Stuff, but maybe none more than the fact that it was allowed to be so confidently visual. Much of the film, especially in the first half, is told with scant dialogue. The first five minutes, which depict plant-like aliens departing their own dying world and arriving on ours, is all music and image – and it’s one of the greatest “alien planet” sequences on film.
Kaufman’s movie isn’t subtle in any way, but it is odd and disquieting thanks to a heavy reliance on amplified everyday sound effects and a score that veers from lushly symphonic to atonally abrasive. Admittedly, the second act does get talky and heavy-handed, and the film threatens to take a dive in those sequences. But Kaufman stages a recovery, and thanks in large part to an excellent cast that includes Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, Veronica Cartwright, and Jeff Goldblum. The relentless story marches forward to our destruction, but that cast, and Kaufman’s controlled approach, keeps us riveted.
The Fly (1986)
When making lists like these I generally adhere to a strict “one per director” rule, but in this case David Cronenberg is an obvious exception. The very idea of sci-fi horror is so closely tied to Cronenberg, whose work constantly explored the boundaries of humanity’s desire to push its own evolution beyond natural boundaries. None of his films illustrates that idea as perfectly as The Fly, with Jeff Goldblum as an ambitious, cocky scientist whose teleportation innovation, and his own life, are undermined by his own impatience.
Cronenberg watches with an empathetic eye as Goldblum’s Seth Brundle – please pause to appreciate that oddly spectacular movie scientist name – recklessly uses himself as a test subject for his teleportation device. As grotesque as Brundle’s transformation is, his transformation and destruction are moving and even tragic. Credit there goes to Goldblum and co-star Geena Davis, who lead us deep into Brundle’s muddled psyche. We barely escape.