It's been more than one hundred years since a rocket crashed into the face of the moon in Georges Méliès' 1902 sci-fi film La Voyage dans la Lune. In the ensuing century-plus, movies have brought us to the outer limits of the final frontier and back again, showing us our own humanity through the alien species we meet.
But not all science fiction is concerned with outer space. Some of the best films in the genre never leave Earth at all. Here are 14 great science fiction films for viewers who just don't feel like traveling outside of Earth's atmosphere.
A cinema classic, Metropolis is the first feature-length science fiction movie. It's set in a futuristic city marked by a struggle between the wealthy and the working class. The film follows Freder, the son of the Master of Metropolis, who falls in love with a worker, Maria, and who hopes their love will be able to bridge the gap between the working and ruling classes. But when Maria is replaced by a robot, everything goes downhill.
Metropolis is filled with imagery that may seem familiar to us now, but in 1927 was pretty revolutionary. Nearly 90 years later, it still holds up as a marvel of filmmaking and a classic of the genre.
Based on the H.G. Wells novel of the same name, The Invisible Man tells the story of a scientist who goes mad after he discovers the secret of invisibility. It stars Claude Raines (Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia) as Dr. Jack Griffin, in his first American appearance, and is directed by James Whale, who also directed the classics Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.
The special effects were groundbreaking for the time, and the movie is still considered one of the greatest ever made.
In the future, emotions are outlawed and controlled by drugs; androids keep the peace and people don't have names, they have alphanumeric designations. If this sounds familiar, it should — these themes and stories have been done a lot over the last 40 years.
THX 1138 is about the titular worker, played by Robert Duvall, who finds himself attracted to a woman, which sets off a series of events that go against the nature of the society within the film. It also happens to be the first feature-length film from a director by the name of George Lucas.
Akira is a classic of both science fiction and Japanese animation. In this film, biker gangs wander the streets of a post-nuclear Tokyo; one of them, Tetsuo, is taken by a frightened government when he exhibits psychic powers. His friend Kaneda goes on a rescue mission.
Akira is a long, deep exploration of post-nuclear fears and the price of power. Katsuhiro Ohtomo's film is widely considered to be one of the greatest animated movies ever made.
In case you don't know the plot of the first Back to the Future movie, Marty McFly takes his friend Doc Brown's time-traveling DeLorean from 1985 to 1955. Hijinks ensue, and Marty almost erases himself from history before rewriting it, in a classic example of the grandfather paradox.
Back to the Future ignited the imaginations of moviegoers everywhere, helped launch Michael J. Fox into superstardom and spawned two sequels. While the third one is much more of a Western, Back to the Future 2 (which takes place in 2015) introduced the world to hoverboards. We're still eagerly waiting for those.
In the first Terminator, released in 1984, Arnold Schwarzenegger played an evil robot sent back from the future to kill Sarah Conner before she could conceive her child, the leader of a future resistance. But with Terminator 2, director James Cameron upped the stakes by introducing a new robot that could morph into anyone, turning the villains of the first movie into one of the heroes of the second. Connor (Linda Hamilton) also became a hero — a woman on the edge who'd sacrificed everything to save her son and protect the future.
The "fiction" part of the science of Jurassic Park seems so close to reality today that it almost doesn't feel like part of the genre. But the premise that we can splice DNA and bring back long-extinct creatures drives everything that happens next. That first glimpse of those CGI dinosaurs can still instill a sense of wonder, 20 years later.
Sequels aside (though it's worth checking out the animated shorts collected in The Animatrix), The Matrix brought science fiction into the 21st century. It asked the classic question "What happens when humans become a part of the machine?" and added bullet time and wire-fu to make sci-fi cool for the mainstream again. The story of Neo, a computer hacker who finds out the world is more than it seems, is pop culture history now. But in the early spring of 1999, the only question worth asking was "What is the Matrix?"
Based on a Philip K. Dick story, Minority Report follows a "thought cop" (Tom Cruise) who gets caught up in a conspiracy. It's set in a flashy near-future where genetically engineered "precogs" can sense crimes before they're committed, and law enforcement has cracked down on future crime. The movie has a great mix of predictions that are way off (the ability to see through time) and eerily spot-on guesses (ads that changed based on who's viewing them, a government that monitors its citizens and computers that can be controlled via gestures). We don't even need those fancy gloves Cruise wore.
What happens if you have the technology to change someone's memories? Eternal Sunshine had a small budget and handmade special effects, and feels almost claustrophobic as we explore the memories of Jim Carrey's Joel and his ex-girlfriend, the impulsive Clementine, as he attempts to figure out why she's chosen to erase him from her head.
Primer isn't a long movie, but it's a dense one. Made on a tiny budget by writer, director and actor Shane Carruth, it tells the story of two guys who build a time machine in their garage. The plot then folds in on itself a couple of times before it reaches the end. Filled with techno-jargon and nonsequential narrative, Primer is so heavy on the science that it almost feels like you're watching a documentary.
The beauty of Her is in the world that writer/director Spike Jonze builds around Theodore, the lonely writer who falls in love with the artificial intelligence inside his computer. As Theodore walks around his near-future world, we see computers with no keyboards and video games that immerse players in a way that seems not so far from our own world now. Though it's essentially a romance, the science fiction conceit is central to the theme of the film. The AI/OS Samantha's creation, personality and evolution is the stuff of classics.