Since 1952 and every decade after, the British Film Institute has polled critics, academics, and directors to choose the 100 “Greatest Films of All Time.” These lists generate considerable discussion over their rankings and the trends over time that this longitudinal survey reflects. The list for 2022 represents the polling of over 1,600 people, with a separate list chosen by some 500 film directors. The most notable result is that the number one choice on the main list came for the first time ever from a woman: it is Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, directed by Chantal Akerman.
I write about science and science fiction on screen and so I was especially interested in these categories in the 2022 list and over the history of the BFI polls. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the only films I found even remotely connected to science were a few tied to nuclear war. But there are many more science fiction films than science-based ones, and with this genre, I hit pay dirt.
In 2022, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was rated number six in the general poll, and number one in the director’s poll. The film first made the BFI list at number 22 in 1972 and reached the top ten in 1992 where it has remained ever since. No other sci-fi film has made the top ten, but I found four more that have appeared in the top 100 since 2002: Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang), La Jetée (1962, Chris Marker), Stalker (1979, Andrei Tarkovsky), and Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott) (all are in the Labocine archives). Over 1,000 sci-fi films have been made since Georges Méliès’s pioneering Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) in 1902. Examining, in chronological order, what makes these five films stand out from this crowd helps us see what it would take to make the next great sci-fi film.
Metropolis (1927) is set in a future where the wealthy and powerful live atop soaring towers, overlooking a city that is kept running by miserably regimented workers who live underground. The tension between the two worlds is highlighted when Freder, the privileged son of the city’s Master, meets the saintly Maria, who wants to help the workers. Freder joins her cause as the workers begin to rebel. This brings in the scientist Rotwang, who has built a feminized robot that the city’s rulers use to imitate Maria and spread dissension to undermine the revolution. After much chaos, the film ends as the two sides make peace, presumably for a better future.
Metropolis is memorable for its vision of dystopic and utopian futures with class warfare, for its technological predictions (robots and television), and for its production design, which before CGI existed produced a visually stunning cityscape and robot in a silent black-and-white film.
Running 28 minutes, La Jetée (1962) tells a stop-motion time travel story using still photos. An unnamed man is held in an underground lab in Paris after nuclear war. Scientists can send him to the past because he compulsively remembers a woman, and a man he had seen die, on the observation platform (“the jetty”) at Orly Airport as a child before the war. Sent into the past, he falls in love with the woman. Then, sent to the future, he returns with a power source to rebuild society, but finds that his jailers plan to kill him. He could flee to the future, but asks to be returned to the past. On the jetty he realizes that his child self is already there. He sees and runs to the woman, and also sees an assassin sent by his jailers. As he dies, he grasps that his obsessive childhood image was of his own death.
With its creative use of photos that linger on expressive faces, quiet voice-over, and poignant musical score, La Jetée uses the paradoxes of time travel to tell a haunting human story in a dystopian world.
La Jetée (1962)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) opens millions of years ago as a tribe of howling ape-like proto-humans finds an alien monolith and learns to use animal bones as clubs against their enemies. In a famous cut, one of the tribe triumphantly hurls his bone weapon into the air, where it turns into a similarly shaped Earth satellite, followed by an image of a large ring-shaped space station serenely rotating in space. In an instant, we have skipped millions of years to reach 2001, when space travel has become commonplace, and when another monolith found near the American lunar base has sent a mysterious radio signal to Jupiter.
The spacecraft Discovery is launched to find the recipient of that signal. Its crew includes astronaut David Bowman and others, but it is managed by HAL, a powerful human-like AI. HAL eventually goes mad and kills the crew except for Bowman, who disables it. He reaches Jupiter and leaves Discovery in a small spacecraft to examine another large monolith orbiting the planet. Then the imagery becomes abstract and surreal, as Bowman appears to speed through the universe past cosmic sights before finding himself in an ornate bedroom where we see him age. When he is an old man lying in bed, a monolith appears. As Bowman reaches toward it, he becomes a fetus-like being – a Star Child – floating in space above Earth and surrounded by a globe of light.
2001 is a grand vision of humankind from prehistory to the future, with themes of technological evolution, humanity in space, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and the AI-human interaction. It was lauded for accurately depicting spaceflight and won an Oscar for its visual effects. Its epic sweep and the questions it leaves unanswered, such as the meaning of the monoliths and the ambiguous ending, make it an extraordinary film.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
In Stalker (1979), Stalker is a guide into the Zone, an area created years ago by a meteorite or perhaps an alien visitation and said to contain a Room that grants one’s secret desire. Today Stalker is taking the neurotic Writer and the taciturn Professor, a scientist, to the Room. They enter the Zone, an ugly landscape littered with debris, crumbling buildings, and tunnels, where they must walk carefully. We learn that strange events happen there and that Stalker’s daughter is a mutant, and hear their reasons for coming: inspiration for Writer, scientific knowledge for Professor, and the desire to help desperate people for Stalker.
But Professor reveals that he has brought a nuclear bomb to destroy the Room so it cannot be used for evil. They wrestle for control of the bomb, until Writer explains that the Room cannot be used selfishly because no person knows their true desire. Professor dismantles the bomb and no one enters the Room. Returning to the outside world, Stalker feels spiritual pain because humanity has lost the faith needed to believe in the Room and therefore to hope. In the final scene, Stalker’s young daughter gazes at three drinking glasses on a table and moves them without any physical action. Apparently she is capable of psychokinesis.
With its nearly three hours filled with complex discussions and interactions, Stalker has varied interpretations. The Zone is a sci-fi mechanism to reveal the protagonist’s fears, desires, and faith or lack of it. Stalker is also an allegory or parable exposing the universal human yearning for “something” which, once achieved, reveals a dark inner self. The film’s setting resembles the environmentally damaged “exclusion zone” established after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. That occurred years after the film’s release in 1979, but the theme of nuclear radiation, shown by Professor’s bomb and Stalker’s mutant daughter, brings another sci-fi element. All this is expressed only obliquely, which gives the film its staying power as unconventional science fiction.
Blade Runner (1982) takes place in 2019, in a future Los Angeles. Here the Tyrrell Corporation makes replicants, human-like androids with special capabilities. Roy Batty, a highly intelligent combat model replicant, has been working in a human colony on a far planet. He and all replicants have been made to last for only four years, so they will not develop emotions and turn rebellious. Knowing this, Batty and other replicants murder a spacecraft crew, escape the colony and return to Earth, to confront the corporation’s founder Eldon Tyrrell about their imminent deaths. They are pursued by blade runner Rick Deckard, a special agent assigned to destroy them. As Deckard hunts them, we see the intricacies of how replicants and humans interact.
Batty uses extreme violence to reach Eldon Tyrell; when they meet, however, Batty is remorseful about his past and kisses Tyrell, who calls Batty his “prodigal son.” But when Tyrell says he cannot extend Batty’s life, Batty viciously kills him. In another interaction, Deckard encounters Rachael, an advanced replicant who believes she is human. He can kill the rogue replicants without a qualm, but falls in love with Rachael. Finally, near the end of Batty’s lifespan, Deckard is left hanging from a roof edge as he pursues Batty. With his waning powers, Batty saves Deckard, and before expiring, sums up the marvels he has seen and grieves that his memories “will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” In the final scene, Deckard drives off with Rachael.
Besides the original theatrical version, different edits of Blade Runner have been released that alter some plot elements such as the ending with Deckard and Rachael. There have also been questions about whether Deckard is a replicant, with varying opinions that leave this unresolved. In all versions however, the complexities of defining who is human and who is nearly human drive the story. This makes the film continuingly relevant as in reality we come closer to creating true artificial minds and beings. The film is greatly enhanced by its neo-noir mood and style, which mix dark and gritty lower levels of Los Angeles with enormous futuristic structures.
Blade Runner (1982)
Looking at these five science fiction films in total reveals important commonalities in what they do and do not cover. Three major, well-worn sci-fi themes barely appear. Except for 2001, all the films take place on Earth, so space travel is not a major element (it is part of the background story in Blade Runner). 2001 is also the sole film with aliens, although they are never explicit (Stalker merely hints that aliens caused the Zone). Time travel appears only in La Jetée, which it handles in a cinematically novel way.
Most of the films instead display among them two more nearly universal themes, likely part of the reason these films appear in the BFI listings. Under the heading of artificial minds and beings, we have the robot in Metropolis, the AI HAL in 2001, and the replicants in Blade Runner. By examining the artificial entities that humanity creates in its own image, the films begin to address the great question of what it means to be human. The psychological probing in Stalker directly addresses the same question without robots.
The other theme is future prediction, much of it dystopic. Metropolis sees a future society where huge disparities between the rich and the exploited poor lead to revolution; La Jetée is set in the aftermath of nuclear destruction; 2001 pictures a future with advanced technology, but where technology began with the brutal use of a bone club; and Blade Runner imagines a future where near-human replicants are treated as objects. Whether dystopic or utopian, future prediction is one of the great ways that science fiction helps us make sense of our world.
The earliest of the five science fiction films in the BFI polls, Metropolis, is now 96 years old, but even the most recent, Blade Runner, was made 41 years ago. Since then, many sci-fi films have been made, some of them spectacular CGI-laden battles between clear good and evil with huge popular appeal. They are economically important for the Hollywood film industry; but it is striking that these recent films have not appeared among the cinematic greats, even as science and technology increasingly affect people and society. Especially as theatrical attendance seems to be decreasing in the wake of covid, the future of thoughtful, meaningful and perhaps great sci-fi may lie with independent filmmakers and newer media outlets.
About the author
Sidney Perkowitz, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Physics Emeritus, Emory University, writes frequently about science and science fiction on screen. His latest book is Science Sketches: The Universe from Different Angles.