Examples Of Great Science Fiction Films Where The Fate Of Civilization Isn’t At Stake

From Invasion Of The Body Snatchers to the nth sequel of Michael Bay’s ridiculously bombastic The Transformers movies, an overwhelmingly prevalent narrative in science fiction films is world-shattering, civilization-ending threats overcome by stalwart protagonists.

These kinds of narratives make up the bulk of the genre for a good reason: well constructed stories populated by fascinating characters facing the highest of stakes often reward storytellers with heavily invested and engaged audiences.

Still, the “saving-the-world” archetype is not the only species of speculative narrative capable of capturing imaginations and leaving indelible marks on our collective psyches.

The following are a few notable science fiction films held in high regard because they do not center world-ending scenarios, but rather focus on more philosophical, existential or emotional explorations.

Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982)

The second motion picture featuring the original crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise was a course correction after the beautiful yet glacial-paced first film Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

On its surface, this action-packed sequel featuring a doomsday weapon and intense starship battles seems out of place on this list. However, closer inspection reveals a film possessed of uncommon depth.

The film’s chief antagonist, brilliantly portrayed by Ricardo Montalban, is not motivated by power or a desire to dominate others. His unquenchable thirst is for revenge on the one man he blames for his exile, and death of his beloved wife — Captain James T. Kirk.

Kirk is Khan’s metaphorical Moby Dick as he relentlessly pursues his prey across the stars until their fateful confrontation.

The film is also a sober rumination on aging, regret, sacrifice, and the value of friendship. This is why Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is still considered by many to be the greatest installment of the franchise ever made.

The Brother From Another Planet (1984)

This cult classic stars distinguished character actor Joe Morton as “The Brother,” a alien who resembles a young African-American man.

Having escaped enslavement on his home planet, The Brother’s ship crashes in Harlem, New York, where he seeks refuge.

Mute but possessing vast psychic powers, the kind and good-natured alien has many adventures as he encounters the myriad denizens of New York.

The Brother From Another Planet is ingenious in how it uses its fantastical premise to explore still-relevant issues surrounding racism, social justice, classism, immigration, and the deep-seated human need for belonging.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

The highest-grossing film of the 1980s, Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece is considered one of the greatest films of all time.

The movie opens as an alien botanist is left behind on earth after his spaceship makes a hasty retreat when spotted by government agents.

Discovered by a boy named Elliot and his younger sister Gertie, the alien dubbed “E.T.” befriends the children as they attempt to help him contact his people in order for him to return home.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’s universal themes of family, friendship, and the power of having a place called home continue to resonate with audiences around the globe decades after its initial release.

Contact (1997)

Based on the novel by famed astronomer Carl Sagan, the film adaptation stars Jodie Foster as Dr. Ellie Holloway, a SETI scientist who discovers a deep space signal apparently created by intelligent life inhabiting a distant star system.

Through a circuitous course of events, Dr. Holloway boards a spacecraft based on plans embedded in the alien signal.

Dr. Holloway’s contact with alien life becomes a lightning rod of controversy, challenging the foundation of philosophical, scientific, and religious belief.

Contact is a provocative, introspective, and intellectual film that tackles one of humanity’s most pressing questions: are we alone in the universe?

Of course these movies are just a small sampling of terrific science fiction films that eschew apocalyptic stakes for smaller and more introspective— yet just as entertaining- narrative payoffs.

What are a few of your favorites? Please list them in the comments!

Rod Faulkner is a huge sci-fi and fantasy fan as well as the founder of The7thMatrix.com, an ad-free site that promotes independent SF&F web series and short films. Any donation to help the site continue its mission is greatly appreciated.

Rod is also the author of the short film guide 200 Best Online Sci-Fi Short Films.

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