Movies are cannibals. Let me give you an example. One of the best sci-fi films of all time is arguably Alien (1979). One of the Alien writer-creators is Dan O’Bannon. Dan O’Bannon worked on Dark Star with John Carpenter, and in Dark Star there was the monster-in-the-ventilation-system sequence which would germinate into O’Bannon and Ronald Shusset’s Alien script. And Dark Star itself was a loose parody of the classic 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
All sci-fi movie back-roads lead to 2001.
Okay not really. But the majority of movies we know and love were derived from some other movie, or book, either directly adapted from, overtly inspired by, or unconsciously motivated from. Or, straight up cannibalized.
I’m going to take my top 30 sci-fi movies and put this to the test. First, a disclaimer: I’m including among the listing anything prior to 1968, which was the year of A Space Odyssey. Second, I’m not going to include any Star Wars or Star Trek films. Whether they may have ranked on my list or not is probably irrelevant here; it is because they too have spawned so much, as 2001 has, and almost belong in their own category. Third, I won’t pretend to know what “unconsciously motivated” a writer or not, and we can assume that while the collective consciousness informs us all, but doesn’t count as source material.
In this list, I’ll wager that I can concretely show something borrowed or sourced in at least 2/3 of these films – or 20 of them.
30. Prometheus (2012)
Prometheus was a breath of fresh air. A group of scientists and explorers on a distant planet investigating an alien intelligence we hadn’t seen since…well, Aliens. Which is the lore this film comes from, ostensibly a prequel or “origin story” for the quartet of “Alien” films which have left the sci-fi genre with their indelible stamp.
29. The Fly (1986)
I love this movie. I’m normally put off by the grotesque, and David Cronenberg likes to lay on the goo. But this film moves like a play, and has a pitch-perfect tempo and such a heart-rending denouement that it haunts me to this day. The film, though, is a reboot of a 1958 horror/sci-fi flick of the same name. So that’s two sourced films so far. (I promise I won’t keep counting though.)
28. Dark City (1998)
Popular Mechanics said that this movie was “Plato’s cave allegory meets Detective Comics.” It was a comic book before it was a movie and the comic story, like so many stories, is a version of a man coming to greater understanding of the realities which emerge as he does, from his limited perspective. Some academic types observe that all stories spring from one well: A character journeys into the unknown. I like this movie for its tone, costuming, and sinister nature – and yes, I took the journey.
27. The Thing (1982)
The Thing is another goo-fest. It oozes with waxy monster bits and things growing and popping out of people. It is a reboot of the 1951 film, The Thing From Another World. (And it was rebooted again in 2011). The Thing satisfies in a suspenseful way, and has one of the best endings – and I mean the very last minute – of any sci-fi film I’ve seen.
26. Inception (2010)
Inception was tedious, but ambitious. In its attempt to be mind-blowing, it had an analgesic effect. I spent 45 minutes wondering when the movie was going to get started, since all any of the characters seemed to be doing was talking about what was going to happen when it would eventually happen. Yet Inception contains the kind of movie moments that can’t be denied – that sense of God Moving over the Face of the Waters – streets and buildings peeling away from the earth, zero-gravity fights, and a tremendous orchestral score that vibrates the rib cage. And even though I felt like I had seen it before, through the lenses of The Matrix, Minority Report, and Momento, I will mark Inception as Original. Maybe because the characters talked so goddamned much they convinced me of something unique.
25. Vanilla Sky (2001)
This film took all kinds of guff from critics and viewers. For some reason, I found it utterly spellbinding. The journey through the many layers of reality was mesmerizing – another cave allegory, perhaps, but this felt more like a free fall. I fell for it all. And I had no idea, until later, that this movie I thought to be one-of-a-kind was a remake of Abre Los Ojos, a Spanish film which portrayed the same exact story.
24. Total Recall (1990)
Total Recall has been remade, as we all know. The 1990 version starring Arnie was a fantastic ride, and thanks to a story by Philip K. Dick. This is only the first film we’ll see on this list inspired by Mister Dick’s incredible imaginings.
23. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Not totally my taste, but an undeniable masterpiece in its own right. This controversial film comes from a book by Anthony Burgess. A book, no less, Burgess once said he considered to be one of his “lesser works.” Not bad for phoning one in.
22. The Truman Show (1998)
Kind of weird to see this in a sci-fi list? I thought so too, when I first saw it in a top 100. Yet it is listed in most databases as a sci-fi flick (though also a comedy and a drama). This genre-bending film utterly engrosses under crystalline direction from Peter Weir. It is an original screenplay, written by Gattaca writer-director Andrew Niccol, and, as far as I can tell, truly the first of a kind. Yes, we’ve seen other films about reality TV, like The Running Man (arguably prophetic at its time) but this unknowing subject at the center of it all really gives The Truman Show its distinctive mojo. Most game-show or reality-show movies feature fully apprised protagonists, but here that is our hero’s discovery as he tumbles down the hole, or steps out of the cave (chose your source material metaphor.) I’ll score it original, universal themes notwithstanding. So remarkable is this film that its title has been co-opted by the world of psychiatry – The Truman Show Disorder refers to people who have a persistent delusion that they are on a 24/7 reality show.
21. Mad Max (1979)
“A western seen through the lens of post-apocalyptic Australia.” – Popular Mechanics
A western? Really? Yeah, totally. I can see that. Mad Max is a Pale Rider. The reluctant Stranger who helps out the vulnerable village folk. A great movie, a trendsetter, a legend, but, no, not totally original. Cadged from Clint Eastwood films and sci-fi predecessors like Outland.
20. 12 Monkeys (1995)
What could be more original than Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt in an insane asylum together? And one of them is a time traveler and the other is the red herring we will come to believe started the end of the world in motion? Nothing, it would seem, could be more fresh and new. Yet, 12 Moneys was based on the eccentric artist and documentarian Chris Marker’s short film of still photographs, La Jetee. Marker wrote the 12 Monkeys script based on his 1962 experimental film.
19. Contact (1997)
Contact does what sci-fi movies do best – transport you into a new world. Yes, as we’re observing, it’s all about journeying into the unknown. But there’s a difference in being in on a truth the protagonist is not (The Truman Show) or unraveling a mystery through clues and flashbacks (12 Monkeys) and rocketing through space and time to another world.
When we get there, Contact may feel like it cheats us a little. The aliens use Ellie’s own mind to construct the world she encounters, but the personal journey this takes her on proves to carry us in to an even more special place – a dramatic irony in which the brilliant atheist we have come to know and love faces the challenge of convincing others of something they just couldn’t possibly accept without proof. For which she has none.
Oh, I almost forgot – it’s based on Carl Sagan’s book, so cannot get the “original” stamp (though the book sure does…painstaking though I may have found it to read).
18. The Terminator (1984)
So archetypal. So simple, and yet so smart. Total grindhouse, and yet somehow sparing. The Terminator is the first of a kind. Our fear of the wave of technology capsizing our fragile organic civilization, manifested as a relentless, man-eating cyborg. Original.
17. The Terminator 2 (1992)
One of those rare instances where a sequel has actually improved on its prequel. T2 is great action sci-fi, from bones to liquid metal, but it doesn’t get the originality vote, since, you know… He came back.
16. Blade Runner (1982)
I know. You’re shaking your head. How the hell could I have placed this film in anywhere but the top 10? Don’t get me wrong. Blade Runner is awesome. There’s a muddled area for me in the Blade Runner legacy though – that of the discrepancies between all the different versions of the film. There are some with explanatory voice-overs, some with unicorns, and some with happy endings. All that aside, one of those – the approved director’s cut, I think – is totally bad ass. So much so that it never has to explain why replicant-terminating future cops are called “Blade Runners.” It is sufficient, I guess, that such a moniker sounds unassailably cool. Anyway, the film is based on a story by Philip K. Dick.
15. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Wow. Another whack upside the head. What self-respecting list wouldn’t have this film at the tippy top? This film is a work of art, a masterpiece, a golden goose – the basis for this whole particular list in the first place – it is one of the great films of all time, sci-fi or not…but it is also old. Whereas Gattaca, for instance, doesn’t date itself, letting it stand outside the march of time, I hate to break it to everyone, but we’ve passed 2001 in real life. If I lived in 1968, this would be number one, the best movie I have ever seen. But this crown jewel of a flick – nay, the crown itself – just reeks of the 1960s, at least for the first half. The Jetsons furniture, the civilian clothing, and the understandable inability to actually see too far into what the future will actually look like, while this film still represents absolute craftsmanship, we have to move on. From the book by Arthur C. Clarke.
14. Minority Report (2002)
Such a ride. From start to finish, a smart, engrossing, totally thrilling ride. One of those few Cruise movies where Tom himself isn’t somewhat of an annoyance. Spielberg is at his best too – those clicking spiders are just Gremlins in the age of cyborgs. The beauty is, those clicking spiders aren’t the only gimmick – this film is so packed with ideas and nods at technology and society that it borders on encyclopedic. Only possible from the mind of Philip K. Dick, who wrote the story the film is based on. That’s three for Dick.
13. Sunshine (2007)
I swear nobody saw this movie. Nobody talked about it, nobody told me to go see it, nothing. I think I found it by accident. What a sweet surprise. There is nothing director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland can’t do as a team. (The Beach, 28 Days Later.) This film stands alone, executed with a style and story which I have not seen before nor since. Original.
12. District 9 (2009)
I remember being disappointed when this film opened and I immediately grasped the documentary style it was going to live in. I had had such high hopes, and then I felt let down – how can anything be epic, how can it have true, transcendent movie moments when it is this hand-held, fake documentary thing? I’m so glad I was proven to be a complete idiot (which happens a lot). The film turned out to be a total gem, and did, in fact, have moments which had me leaving my body and lost in its greatness. Like that fight with the guy in the robot suit which he can use because he is turning into an alien. Oh man. Original.
11. Moon (2010)
Only better than District 9 because of how infinitely watchable Sam Rockwell is. Duncan Jones “little” film does what many of its big-budget counterparts have aspired to do, and failed – it brings you into a world you are convinced of. The moonscape and the “cosmic” bits of the story, then, become like another character in themselves, and not something we’re constantly told to marvel at. Duncan wrote this for Sam Rockwell. Original.
10. Aliens (1986)
Classic. Wonderful. Everything about this movie is entertaining. The scenes are tight, everyone and everything on edge, plunging inexorably toward the lair of the beast, quipping smartass lines and shooting everything in sight along the way. Double-back-for-a-friend suspense, incredibly convincing effects and sets; just a pure juggernaut of an epic film. No wonder Cameron has an ego. He made this shit.
*Ahem* However, sourced by another film (which will appear shortly here). Thus, not original.
9. Robocop (1987)
I saw this film as a twelve year-old boy in the theatre. I pretended I was Robocop afterwards, as my father and I walked through aisles of clothing in a retail store near the theatre. I had to be Robocop. I couldn’t let it go.
I watched the film several times over the ensuing years. The power of it never faded. My peptides gushed in all the same spots – the brutal gunning down of Peter Weller, the first time Robocop walks into the precinct, the shot of him driving the cop car into downtown Detroit, and the nasty guy whose face gets all melty because he fell into toxic waste, and so on. Fantastic movie. One of a kind. Original. (Too bad about the horrible sequels – let’s see what the remake has in store.)
8. Predator (1987)
Totally in league with Robocop. Great, simple, archetypal story. Same release year. Same age, me – totally blown away. There are fewer things to say about the truly good films. They just work. It’s not hard for me to separate out the teen love affair with these flicks, either. I have watched them again as a grown man and see the glory in them, still. Predator is just a mean film, man. Totally, gut-wrenchingly good. Who gives a shit about the implausible ending? By then you are just carved out of wood, a quivering mass of muscle ready to take on the alien invasion yourself. Totally awesome story. Original.
7. The Fountain (2006)
Okay, now for the softer side. The Fountain is one of the more underrated films of the genre, and yet totally spectacular. It can’t get marked original because it draws on historical events, and other depictions of said historical events. However, in every way this is a landmark film, with great nuance and depth. It harkens Terrence Malick’s work in the way the sphere surrounding the tree of life drifts every up into the heavens. This sphere is our watchdog – our time constraint. Where it is headed recalls that great film, 2001, in that what the film does is totally judicious and mature – it leads us into this experience, and then lets us have it. It does not overly define it, or dumb it down, but gives us an approximation of form. It is the mystic in a foreign land bestowing the visitor a talisman to behold, and granting him the wisdom to find its universal meaning for him.
6. Jurassic Park (1992)
I saw this film as a freshman in college at the campus theatre. I don’t remember what I expected, but I remember what I experienced – I truly lost sense of myself when the T-Rex came over the goddamn fence, man. No music, no nothing cluttering up the moment, just the squish of that thing’s massive toes in the mud, the guttural ululating of its growl, the rain pounding down. This is Spielberg at his best, reaching in and seizing the child in all of us and saying “look.” Any of the film’s campiness or fairy-tale goofery is made up for, and then some, in the light of this benevolent act: Spielberg made the dinosaurs real at last, so the rest of us didn’t have to.
5. Children of Men (2006)
Everything you could want in a movie that shows you the future of society is here in Children of Men. Yet it is completely unfettered; astonishingly “clean” despite the dirty world it dwells in. The scenes are individual works of art – some of them long as the day, pulling you out of yourself with this tractive force they exert. In the maelstrom of societal collapse, one plight rings out above all others – the sudden inability for man to procreate. Makes everything else pale in comparison. Based on the book by P.D. James, it took five screenwriters to haul this out of the literary mire and paint pictures with it.
4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
This film came out the same year as Star Wars? Totally. What a year for movies.
Spielberg does something Lucas doesn’t – he creates characters that look and sound and act like people. Amazing. One of the ways he achieves this is often by having more than one person speaking at the same time in a scene. Astonishing. More than one person speaking at a time, you say?? Yes, people do it, apparently. Check out the scene where the UFOs are first spotted by a radar control tower. The reactions by the guys with their headsets on is just some of the best filmmaking you’ll ever see in your life. There is so much to say about this movie, books have been written on it. I’ll just sum it up with “original.”
3. Donnie Darko (2001)
Another film that doesn’t seem to like the sci-fi jacket, and tries to squirm out of it. Donnie Darko is in its own class. There is nothing else quite like it. And nothing ever has seized me in the same way that seeing the metal bunny standing in the front yard has. Sometimes the absurd dredges up the things in our own unconscious – which scare us, or at least make us pay attention – more than any contrivance. This film is genius. It was best left alone before the director’s cut came out and tried to foolishly explain everything. I extoll its virtues here as the original theatrical version, a movie I didn’t actually see in the theatre but grabbed off the video store shelf one night with a shrug. I had no idea my world would change forever. Original.
2. Alien (1979)
As referenced during the introduction of this list, Ridley Scott’s Alien borrowed some ideas from another film. But does that really make it “unoriginal?” As I get to the end of this list, I realize just how vast the grey area is. At the time of the film’s release, certainly no one had really seen anything like the crew of the Nostromo. Sci-fi films were either swashbuckling or spare, kitschy or clinical. Alien was gritty. Archetypal. A slasher film of a sort, but really the dawn of realism as we know it today in many modern movies. The first of a kind, certainly, but fomented from other works, and so it cannot bear the clean stamp of “original.”
1. The Matrix (1999)
What else would be my first choice? This is the best sci-fi film of the last forty years. It is breathtaking in its pace. It is highly visual, yet completely intellectual and cerebral. It is untouchably cool. The cinematography broke new ground, the special effects totally pushed the limits, and the story couldn’t have come at a more perfect time in human history – right at the turn of the millennium, as thoughts of the Singularity were seeding, and we were just starting to really ride this wave of unrelenting technology. Amazing that The Matrix could almost be dated now – but this is a testament to the exponential growth of technology the film features. It is all these things, but is it Original? No. Aside from being a retelling of, well, Christ coming back to save humanity, the filmmakers got most of their ideas from a 1995 animated feature film called Ghost in the Shell.
Well, did I do it? Let me go back and count.
Okay, yup. I’ve got 10, by my count. Ten films which can be considered original, and twenty that took from a book, a comic, another film, or referenced history.
(I swear I didn’t do this in reverse and pre-calculate the results. I actually thought I could find more evidence of source material for the rest of the films.)
What does all this prove? That I am a complete nincompoop who just wasted half a day researching and writing this? Yes. But hopefully, in some small way, is also lends to quieting the need we seem to have lately for this elusive “original” film. They’re out there, and they can be great, but we ought not discredit the film – or any work of art – which draws from others.
As the man once said, every artist can copy.
A great artist steals.