- Great sci-fi movies not set in the future offer alternative histories, revelations about the ancient world, and stories closer to home.
- By focusing on the present or the past, these movies easily combine sci-fi with other genres like steampunk, horror, surrealism, and Western themes.
- These movies blur the lines between sci-fi and related genres, creating visually enchanting narratives that explore themes of imagination, innocence, ambition, sacrifice, and the blurred line between illusion and reality.
Great sci-fi movies not set in the future subvert what audiences typically expect from the genre. Indeed, sci-fi is commonly associated with future timelines and showcasing the evolution of technology, society, and humanity itself. However, the future is just one of the many settings where sci-fi movies can tackle and develop these overarching themes.
The most important sci-fi movies ever made occur throughout the vast spectrum of both time and space, and there are many great sci-fi movies not set in the future. By focusing on the present or the past, these films offer viewers alternative histories, revelations about the ancient world, and stories that feel closer to home. Not focusing on the future also allows these movies to more easily combine sci-fi with steampunk, horror, surrealism, and even Western themes. In both the present and the past, the futuristic technologies and premises that make science fiction seem even more magical, further blurring the lines between sci-fi and its many related cinematic genres.
10 The City Of Lost Children (1995)
One of the best forgotten ’90s sci-fi adventure movies, The City of Lost Children unfolds in a dystopian steampunk-inspired coastal city. Set in what appears to be the Victorian era, the movie revolves around an artificial being named Krank, who cannot dream and kidnaps children to steal their dreams. When one of these abductions affects a young boy, his sister Miette joins forces with a gentle giant named One to rescue him. Together, they navigate a bizarre and perilous world filled with eccentric characters, including a cult of cyclops-like clones. The City of Lost Children explores themes of imagination and innocence in a visually enchanting and thought-provoking narrative.
9 The Prestige (2006)
The Prestige is a gripping tale of obsession and rivalry in the world of 19th-century stage magic. Two magicians, Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, start as friends but become bitter enemies after a tragic accident during a performance. Their feud escalates as they each develop unique and increasingly dangerous illusions to outdo one another. The heart of the story revolves around the mysterious and deadly “Transported Man” trick. As the film unfolds, it masterfully explores the cost of ambition, sacrifice, and the blurred line between illusion and reality. With its nonlinear narrative and mind-bending twists, The Prestige keeps viewers spellbound until its shocking and unforgettable conclusion.
8 Back To The Future (1985)
Few other great movies not set in the future have had as much of a cultural impact as Back to the Future. In the case of this classic time travel movie, there are two timeline settings. Marty and Doc begin the movie in 1985, and then Marty uses Doc’s DeLorean time machine to return in time to 1955. Stuck in the past, Marty must find his way Back to the Future. Centering on lighthearted themes like friendship and family, Back to the Future remains largely revered as one of the greatest movies ever made, and has been highly influential in the evolution of sci-fi blockbusters in the late 20th century.
7 Mars Attacks! (1996)
Featuring some of the greatest sci-fi movie aliens of all time, Mars Attacks! is a satirical and irreverent take on alien invasion. An ode to the mid-20th century sci-fi boom, Mars Attacks! is set in the 1950s, as hilariously ugly Martians descend on Earth. The movie’s eclectic ensemble cast – including Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, and Pierce Brosnan – portrays a variety of quirky characters dealing with the chaotic invasion. The film combines dark humor and over-the-top special effects to create a hilarious and campy spectacle. Ultimately, humanity’s survival hinges on an unexpected twist, making Mars Attacks! a cult classic that revels in its sheer absurdity.
6 Frankenstein (1931)
Frankenstein is a classic horror film that brings to life Mary Shelley’s iconic novel, which is presumed to take place in the 1700s. Using body parts taken from various cadavers, Dr. Henry Frankenstein and his hunchbacked assistant Fritz piece together a monstrous creature. As the creature is brought to life, it becomes apparent that it is not the docile creation Frankenstein had hoped for. Instead, it wreaks havoc, leading to tragic consequences. This film is renowned for its atmospheric cinematography and how it tackles scientific hubris and social rejection. Frankenstein remains a seminal work in the horror and sci-fi genres, leaving a lasting impact on cinematic history.
5 Beyond The Black Rainbow (2010)
Inspired by late 20th-century cults and U.S. government experiments centered around LSD and other psychedelics, Beyond the Black Rainbow is a surreal and retrofuturistic sci-fi horror movie. It’s about what goes on behind the closed doors of the Arboria Institute, a New Age haven where hopeful scientists come together in hopes of merging science, esotericism, and ancient wisdom. Through the controlled administration of revolutionary psychedelics, Mercurio Arboria and his colleagues seek to unlock human spirituality and step into the next stage of evolution. However, darker things are abound inside the Arboria Institute, as Beyond the Black Rainbow tackles the inherent dangers of unknown drug trials, cult programming, and human ambition.
4 Prey (2022)
The fifth and arguably the best film of the Predator movie franchise, Prey is a prequel set in the 1700s. Somewhere in the Great Plains, one of the titular Yautja hunters seeks out formidable prey. Known for its cleverly brutal fight scenes, Prey pits the Predator’s high-tech weaponry and tactics with that of the Comanche tribe – in the early years of the Comanche Empire’s dominion of the Great Plains. Despite its formulaic premise, Prey sidesteps being a B-movie by authentically depicting the Comanche and keeping its spectacular plot grounded in historic truths. By setting its action story in the past, Prey revamped a beloved but dying sci-fi franchise.
3 Cloverfield (2008)
Cloverfield is a sci-fi horror and monster movie with a unique twist. The story unfolds through the lens of a handheld camera, capturing the chaos that ensues when a colossal and mysterious creature attacks present-day New York City. Cloverfield follows a group of friends as they attempt to rescue one of their own and navigate the city’s destruction, encountering otherworldly creatures spawned by the colossal monster along the way. Exploring themes of survival, friendship, and the consequences of unchecked scientific experimentation, Cloverfield offers a fresh take on the classic kaiju through its immersive found footage storytelling style.
2 John Carter (2012)
Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, a formative novel in modern sci-fi, fantasy, and adventure, John Carter occurs between 1868 and 1881. John Carter is a Civil War veteran who mysteriously finds himself on the planet Mars. There, he discovers he has enhanced strength and agility due to the planet’s lower gravity. Carter becomes embroiled in a conflict between Martian factions, including the Tharks and the city-state of Helium. Along the way, he forms a bond with the Martian princess, Dejah Thoris. Combining the sci-fi, fantasy, and Western genres, John Carter is a grand spectacle of epic battles, strange creatures, heroism, love, and the search for identity.
1 The Iron Giant (1999)
Set during the Cold War era, The Iron Giant tells the story of a young boy named Hogarth Hughes who befriends a colossal, amnesiac robot from outer space. As their friendship grows, Hogarth and the Iron Giant must protect the giant from a government agent who sees the robot as a threat. Through stunning animation and a touching narrative, The Iron Giant tackles themes like friendship, tolerance, and the consequences of fear and prejudice. The movie remains a timeless classic that ruminates on the power of empathy and the potential for redemption, even in the face of fear and misunderstanding.
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