The best science fiction stories are those that not only give us a glimpse of where science may take us, but use science and technology to frame and examine the human condition. When we see humanity in an unfamiliar environment and faced with new challenges, we gain a new understanding of ourselves. Great sci-fi is like a thought experiment. What if robots were conscious? How far would humans go to survive? What would we do if…
Here are 11 thought-provoking science fiction movies about life and humanity.
About: Henry Frankenstein pieces together a human body using parts from corpses, then brings it to life using electricity. His creation does not turn out as he had hoped.
Though usually first associated with horror, the book Frankenstein (written by Mary Shelley in 1818) is hailed as one of the first examples of science fiction. While the story told by film deviates from the book in multiple ways, its basic subject matter remains the same: the ethics of artificial life.
About: This movie depicts a submarine crew who are miniaturized and injected into the body of a scientist, with the aim of removing a clot from his brain. The movie was notable for its special effects, which include scenes where the team’s submarine navigates the bloodstream and circulatory system.
Fantastic voyage is an interesting way to explore how the human body works, and how a medical team can work together to save a person’s life.
About: After overpopulation and a series of ecological disasters cause worldwide starvation, New York becomes a dystopian city in which only the elite can afford clean water and natural food. Detective Frank Thorn is tasked with investigating the murder of a board member of Soylent Industries, which controls the food supply of half the world.
In developed countries, most of us take basic necessities like food and water for granted. What would a modern world with a shortage of these necessities look like, and how low would humanity be willing to stoop in order to survive?
About: In the year 2274, what is left of human civilization lives in a utopian city contained beneath geodesic domes. All aspects of life are taken care of by a computer. To prevent overpopulation, everyone must be killed at the age of 30, supposedly in order to be ‘renewed’. Those who seek to avoid this fate are known as Runners. Logan 5 is a member of the ‘Sandmen’, a police force that hunts down Runners.
Would it be ethical to euthanize humans in the name of preventing greater suffering and death? And is it ethical to perpetuate a lie to remove the fear of death?
About: Blade Runner is set in 2019 Los Angeles, in a world in which bioengineered humanoids called replicants have been created. Without performing certain tests, replicants are practically indistinguishable from humans. Rick Deckard is a former policeman and ‘blade runner’, whose job was to track down and ‘retire’ (destroy) replicants. He is tasked with retiring four replicants that have been found to be on Earth illegally.
Does humanity have intrinsic worth, or does it suffice to mimic humanity? What will happen if and when artificial minds become indistinguishable from our own? Does the fact that they would be our creations make it ethical for us to destroy them?
About: In 1985, a teenager named Marty McFly is accidentally sent back to the year 1955 in a time-travelling DeLorean built by his scientist friend, ‘’Doc’’ Brown. Marty becomes stranded in the past and must ask the younger version of the Doc for help. However, a chance encounter with Marty’s teenage parents alters the course of the future and jeopardises his very existence.
Back to the Future is a classic (and often humorous) imagination of time travel and its associated conundrums.
About: In the 22nd century, humanoid robots capable of conscious thought but lacking emotions have been created. David (a prototype robot child capable of experiencing love) is given to Henry Swinton and his wife Monica, whose son Martin has been placed in suspended animation after contracting a rare disease. Monica warms to David, who develops a childlike love for her. When Martin is cured of his disease and returns home, he becomes jealous of the artificial child.
Could robots ever be capable of human emotions? What situations and problems might be encountered if they were?
About: In 2035, intelligent humanoid robots serve humanity and follow Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics. Del Spooner, a homicide detective who deeply mistrusts robots, and Dr Susan Calvin, a ‘robopsychologist’, set out to investigate the supposed suicide of the CEO of U.S Robotics.
What are the dangers of robotics and AI? Will intelligent robots inevitably break free of servitude, how might it happen, and are humans ultimately responsible?
About: In 2027, total human infertility, war and global depression pushes society to the brink of collapse. The UK, one of the last countries with a functioning government, becomes a police state in the face of an overwhelming influx of refugees. Theo Faron, a cynical bureaucrat, is kidnapped by an immigrants’ rights group, and asked to help acquire papers for a refugee named Kee.
What would a humanity with no children and no future look like? Would humans become apathetic in the face of overwhelming tragedy? Is the depicted attitude towards the migrant crisis so different from our attitude toward refugees today?
About: In 2057, the Sun is dying and Earth is freezing. A crew of astronauts are sent to the Sun to restart it using a bomb, but decide to make a detour to commandeer the previous ship to attempt the mission, the fate of which was unknown.
Though sometimes criticised for its ending, Sunshine can nevertheless be thought-provoking. Are humans, with our propensity for error, justified in ‘meddling’ with the course of the universe?
About: Set in 2035, astronaut Mark Watney is left stranded alone on Mars following an accident in which he is presumed dead by his crew. He returns to their surface habitat and begins a video diary. Unable to communicate with Earth, his only hope of rescue is to survive until the next Mars mission in four years’ time.
The Martian explores both the power of human ingenuity and the concept of solitude.
We hope you enjoyed our list of thought-provoking movies about humanity and life. If you would like to learn more about the research scientists are doing to help us acquire more life, and hopefully solve some of the problems presented in these films, you can start with our Longevity FAQ.