Deconstructing the Science Fiction Genre in Movies and TV

Deconstructing the Science Fiction Genre in Movies and TV
The best science fiction movies and TV shows transport us to other worlds and keep our imaginations fresh. 

It can be hard to keep up with the changing times. There are days where tech moves so fast that I get kind of melancholy I won't be around to see where it goes in 100 years. But maybe I will. Who knows? 

If you can't see the future or time travel, then all you can do is make predictions. 

Or you can write science fiction. 

There are magical worlds out there with advanced technology, aliens, robots, and time travel. These worlds exist out of the corner of your eye, on the fringes of reality. They're part of what defines the science fiction genre, and they're what we're going to talk about in our post today. 

We'll look into the best movies, some classic sci-fi titles, and even figure out what the first science fiction movie was. I want to really delve into the tropes, characteristics, and features of the science fiction genre, so that you can master it in your writing, directing, and producing. 

Let's go back to the future.  

Deconstructing the Science Fiction Genre in Movies and TV

Deconstruction is a weird word. It means to take things apart and to see where they came from, and I think it fits what we're going to do with the genre today. I want to pretend this is a T-800 and we're Sarah Connor. Let's take it apart piece by piece. 

What is science fiction? 

Science Fiction Genre Definition

This is a genre of film and television that deals with futuristic concepts or technology such as advanced science, the exploration of outer space, time travel, parallel dimensions, and alien life. Besides entertainment, it can also criticize present-day society, and is often said to inspire a "sense of wonder."

According to American writer Isaac Asimov, "Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology." The same goes for movies and television. 

Science Fiction Film Genre Characteristics

Now that you know what the term means, let's talk about what to expect when watching it. Some characteristics of the genre are high-tech gear, utopias or dystopias of the future, robot characters, alien life forms, interstellar travel, and extensive worldbuilding

Another thing you can expect is the incorporation of other genres. Sci-fi goes well with horror, fantasy, adventure, action, drama, and many more. But we will get to those specific conversations later. 

The Kinds of Science Fiction Stories You Can Tell

There are lots of ways to prompt your storytelling capabilities. Here's a quick list of science fiction story prompt plot points to get your creativity going. 

  •   Alien Invasion
  •   Alternate History 
  •   Alternate/Parallel Universe
  •   Apocalyptic/Post-Apocalyptic
  •   Artificial Intelligence
  •   Colonization
  •   Cyberpunk
  •   Dying Earth
  •   Dystopia
  •   First Contact
  •   Galactic Empire
  •   Generation Ship
  •   Human Development
  •   Immortality
  •   Military
  •   Mind Uploading
  •   Mutants
  •   Nanotechnology
  •   Near-Future
  •   Pulp
  •   Robots/Androids
  •   Science-Fantasy
  •   Singularity
  •   Slipstream
  •   Space Exploration
  •   Space Opera
  •   Steampunk
  •   Terraforming
  •   Theological
  •   Time Travel
  •   Uplift
  •   Utopia
  •   Virtual Reality

'Arrival'Credit: Paramount Pictures

60 Science Fiction Film Genre Conventions and Tropes 

There's almost an endless supply of these kinds of story beats or plot devices within the genre. I wanted to make an extensive list of science fiction tropes and expectations here for you to explore. Check it out below!

  1. Oxygen leaks 
  2. Asteroids or meteors headed toward Earth 
  3. Time travel
  4. Evil robots
  5. Traveling faster than light
  6. Techno-babble in exposition
  7. Alternative universes want to invade our timeline
  8. Other dimensions have evil versions of you
  9. Alternative universes warn your universe of a devastating threat on its way
  10. Traveling to distant planets takes generations
  11. Cryosleep to explain time in space
  12. AI and robots watch the ship while the humans sleep
  13. Someone wakes up too early from cryosleep
  14. A ship is found adrift in space
  15. Signals are sent from another planet
  16. A lifeform gets in the ship and hides in humans
  17. We meet the last survivors of a crash 
  18. People meet themselves in an alternate timeline
  19. Time loops people cannot escape
  20. The search for infinite wisdom
  21. Aliens are allergic or vulnerable to water or germs
  22. Space travel requires a navigator to plot a course
  23. Ships travel through hyperspace which is another dimension
  24. Wormholes make travel faster
  25. Warp gates are left open by lost civilizations
  26. Aliens are kind, intelligent push-overs, and humans are destroying their worlds
  27. Aliens are evil, trying to enslave humans
  28. Aliens want to eat humans
  29. Aliens eat dogs or cats
  30. Aliens want to lay eggs in humans
  31. It turns out humans were the aliens all along
  32. It turns out humans were robots all along
  33. Humans use technology to ascend to a state of pure energy
  34. The super-computer had to do whatever the humans wanted it to do all along
  35. The super-computer was keeping them safe from aliens
  36. The super-computer was trying to kill the humans
  37. Two species of humans evolve and are at war
  38. One is technological and the other is super-religious
  39. Humans make aliens
  40. Aliens made humans
  41. Space is filled with aliens
  42. Aliens hide on Earth
  43. Turns out the humans are the real monsters
  44. Humans and aliens live together, drink together, and have children
  45. Humans are less advanced than other races and are treated like children
  46. Planet-jumping in no time at all
  47. Humans use nano-technology to make very small useful robots that can do anything
  48. Superpowers are given to humans through science
  49. Humans make copies of their minds
  50. Humans clone themselves
  51. Humans put their minds in the clones to live forever
  52. They need time travel to fix an impossible situation
  53. Evil scientists
  54. Tech billionaires
  55. Trying to talk with aliens
  56. They change the past and come back to a different future
  57. They must go back and fix their mistake
  58. The heroes decide that other races have different ethics and they should not interfere
  59. All of reality is inside something else (like a computer, hospital)
  60. The Earth's surface is uninhabitable, so people live underground
'The Matrix Reloaded'Credit: Warner Bros.

History of the Science Fiction Genre

Where did all this come from? Humans have always wondered about the stars and worked to advance technology. But when did we start fictionalizing science? 

Well, it goes way back to the ancients in Greece and Rome. They talked about Atlantis and other mythical cities with technological advancements and prowess. And they added to their own legacy by bragging about stories that might not have been all the way true. 

From there, we know literature picked it up with authors like Mary Shelley, H. G. Welles, and Jules Verne in the 1800s. Their work on science fiction literature helped advance the stories into their own genre. 

In 1926, Hugo Gernsback published the first American science-fiction magazineAmazing Stories. In its first issue, he wrote: "By 'scientifiction' I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision... Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading—they are always instructive. They supply knowledge... in a very palatable form... New adventures pictured for us in the scientifiction of today are not at all impossible of realization tomorrow... Many great science stories destined to be of historical interest are still to be written... Posterity will point to them as having blazed a new trail, not only in literature and fiction, but progress as well."

But what about film and TV? 

The First Science Fiction Movies

The first recorded science fiction film is 1902's A Trip to the Moon, directed by Georges Méliès. It was a short film, but it showed how the medium could transport audiences anywhere and anytime.

1927's Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang, is the first feature-length science fiction film. 

Classic Science Fiction Movies

The thing I love the most about science fiction is that it takes the things we are dealing with in the world and contextualizes them through art. As the movies came into prominence in the 50s, we were dealing with the aftermath of WWII and the first atomic bomb drop. How did the world reflect this new reality in film?

For instance, in 1954's Godzilla, directed by Ishirō Honda, we saw the beginning of the kaiju subgenre of science fiction films, which feature large creatures of any form, usually attacking a major city or engaging other monsters in battle.

It was a metaphor for the atomic bomb dropping and gave people a way to talk about the horror and destruction. Just like how a movie like The Day the Earth Stood Still was about the Cold War. Or what about The Blob? It was about the fear of the space race, as Sputnik was racing around the globe. 

How about Invasion of the Body Snatchers? That was about McCarthyism and the Red Scare. People were being rounded up and accused, and in the movie, you weren't sure who your friends were, or what they really were inside...

Old science fiction movies had a lot to say. Let's see how they looked across the last several decades. 

60s, 70s, 80s, 90s Science Fiction Movie and TV Examples 

Let's take a quick walk through some of the other landmark movies and television shows that really defined the genre. Things like Star Trek, Quantum Leap, Blade Runner, Star Wars, and Scanners

Many early science fiction films and shows were direct adaptations from literature. We saw things like the Invisible Man and even 2001: A Space Odyssey. But across each decade we saw individual problems of society. 

Planet of the Apes confronted nuclear proliferation. Soylent Green was about mistrust of the government, which might not be looking out for our best interests. Terminator was about rampant technological growth and computer science. 

As we dug through the 80s and into the 90s, science fiction seemed to look toward the unanswered questions. Star Trek even changed its tune to a more philosophical look at how societies interact with one another. Deep Space Nine was about a hodgepodge of alien races trying to live together in harmony. 

'Contact'Credit: Warner Bros.
Contact was about the big questions religion can't answer that science is chasing. 

And what about the rise of the internet? That's directly reflected in movies like The Matrix. You can see immigration issues with Men in Black.

Other great science fiction movies come from today. I loved how Arrival dealt with language and how Blade Runner 2049 took old tropes and made them new by showing us a landscape that was familiar but included modern worry about the internet and isolation. 

Over the last few decades, we've seen so many different iterations of science fiction. They're pushed against societal norms, exposed our fears, and challenged us in ways we never thought were possible in entertainment. 

But what are the best science fiction films of all time

The 100 Best Science Fiction Movies and TV shows of All Time 

The top science fiction movies echo across generations. The ones that you could consider "must-see." These are some titles I think will last forever as a testament to human imagination and storytelling within the genre. 

Rather than waxing philosophical about each title, I just wanted to make a list as a primer. 

  1. A Trip to the Moon (1902)
  2. Metropolis (1927)
  3. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
  4. Forbidden Planet (1956)
  5. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
  6. The Blob (1958)
  7. The Twilight Zone (1959)
  8. La Jetée (1962)
  9. The Outer Limits (1963)
  10. Dr. Who (1963)
  11. Thunderbirds (1965)
  12. Star Trek (1966)
  13. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  14. Planet Of The Apes (1968)
  15. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
  16. The Andromeda Strain (1971)
  17. Silent Running (1972)
  18. Solaris (1972)
  19. Westworld (1973)
  20. The Six Million Dollar Man (1974)
  21. Logan's Run (1976)
  22. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
  23. Star Wars (1977)
  24. Alien (1979)
  25. Stalker (1979)
  26. Altered States (1980)
  27. Blade Runner (1982)
  28. The Thing (1982)
  29. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
  30. Tron (1982)
  31. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982)
  32. The Terminator (1984)
  33. Brazil (1985)
  34. Back to the Future (1985)
  35. Aliens (1986)
  36. The Fly (1986)
  37. Robocop (1987)
  38. Predator (1987)
  39. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987)
  40. Red Dwarf (1988)
  41. Akira (1988)
  42. They Live (1988)
  43. The Abyss (1989)
  44. Quantum Leap (1989)
  45. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
  46. Jurassic Park (1993)
  47. The X-Files (1993)
  48. Babylon 5 (1995)
  49. Ghost in the Shell (1995)
  50. 12 Monkeys (1995)
  51. Coneheads (1995)
  52. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
  53. Gattaca (1997)
  54. Contact (1997)
  55. Men in Black (1997)
  56. The Truman Show (1998)
  57. The Matrix (1999)
  58. eXistenZ (1999)
  59. Futurama (1999)
  60. A.I Artificial Intelligence (2001)
  61. Donnie Darko (2001)
  62. Minority Report (2002)
  63. Lost (2004)
  64. Battlestar Galactica (2004)
  65. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
  66. Children of Men (2006)
  67. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
  68. Cloverfield (2008)
  69. Fringe (2008)
  70. Wall-E (2008)
  71. Avatar (2009)
  72. Moon (2009)
  73. District 9 (2009)
  74. Monsters (2010)
  75. Inception (2010)
  76. Source Code (2011)
  77. Black Mirror (2011)
  78. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
  79. Her (2013)
  80. Gravity (2013)
  81. Under the Skin (2013)
  82. Orphan Black (2013)
  83. Ex Machina (2014)
  84. The Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
  85. Interstellar (2014)
  86. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
  87. The OA (2016)
  88. Wynonna Earp (2016)
  89. Arrival (2016)
  90. Stranger Things (2016)
  91. Westworld (2016)
  92. The Handmaid's Tale (2017)
  93. Annihilation (2018)
  94. The Endless (2018)
  95. Ad Astra (2019
  96. High Life (2019)
  97. Watchmen (2019)
  98. The Mandalorian (2019)
  99. The Invisible Man (2020)
  100. Palm Springs (2020)
'E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial'Credit: Universal Pictures

Subgenres of Science Fiction Movies and TV Shows 

As science fiction got more and more popular, audiences embraced all the different versions of science fiction. There were so many opportunities to mash it up with other genres that these subgenres were born. 

Let's take a look at a few before we part ways. 

Science Fiction Horror Movies and TV

One of the most popular things to add to science fiction is horror. Movies like Alien, The Thing, and Underwater all survive by using the tropes of both science fiction and horror movies to craft their stories. It's lofty concepts meets fear. 

Fantasy Science Fiction Movies and TV

Where do stories like Donnie Darko, Jurassic Park, and even Mary Poppins come from? It's the blending of that magic of science with the wonder of reality. Science fiction perfectly explains the how... when it has to. 

Adventure Science Fiction Movies and TV

Let's talk about Star Wars and Passengers, among others. When we are exploring the distant planets and going on epic journeys, the adventure genre really helps add to the worldbuilding we experience. 

Summing up our Deconstruction of the Science Fiction Genre in Movies and TV

I hope that this travel through the top science fiction stories, prompts, and examples will help you on your own journey. There's so much to learn when it comes to writing a new genre and new ideas. Our goal here is to make sure the information is accessible to you. 

If you have questions or concerns, please put them in the comments section of this article. My goal is to start a discussion about science fiction. There are lots of things we can do to make these stories more inclusive and interesting for audiences everywhere. 

So the next time you begin writing about the future or technology, stop back here to see if there's anything else you can add. 

See you in the future... 

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2 Comments

So why is Robocop science fiction, but Iron Man isn't?

March 29, 2021 at 11:17AM

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Jeff C
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Iron Man is science fiction

March 30, 2021 at 9:05AM

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