The Best "Gritty" Sci-fi Movies of all Time
When we think of technology in sci-fi, we often think of neat, pristine-looking gadgets that apparently run on magic. We think of utopian worlds populated by flying cars and energy sources that never run out. And while that’s all well and good, sometimes it’s fun to watch something that doesn’t take things in quite such a sunny direction. Sometimes, it's fun to watch Sci-fi that recognizes that technology doesn’t always make things better—in fact, sometimes, it makes things worse. Sci-fi that gets a little… gritty. Here are some of our favorite examples.
Neill Blomkamp is arguably the modern-day king of gritty Sci-fi. His movies, like District Nine (and the more recent Elysium) heavily contrast super-advanced technology with dingy and dirty looking surroundings. District Nine is full to the brim with familiar genre elements: the bug-like alien race know as the prawns, superpowered extraterrestrial technology like the ARC Gun (or "Mulcher") and all manner of amazing alien spaceships, but it doesn’t take place in the future or on a distant planet. It all happens in a makeshift slum in present-day Johannesburg. The downbeat setting really brings home the weirdness of its fantastic elements, making the aliens seem stranger, the weaponry more amazing, the spaceships more… well, awesome! If it’s regular Sci-fi with a super visceral twist that you’re after, Blomkamp’s your man.
The Matrix is one of the most important movies that popularized the idea of the "tech-dystopia"—a vision of the future where technology has proved to be a curse rather than a blessing. Its presentation of a world run by machines is so unremittingly grim that the trilogy almost feels like a parable about the risks of unthinkingly embracing change. The sky will burn out! All humans will be turned into batteries! There will be weird metal squids floating about everywhere! Yikes. It almost makes you want to punch your toaster just to let it know who’s boss.
A more recent release than the other movies on this list, Snowpiercer is definitely worth checking out if you haven’t already. It takes that well-worn premise of the world having frozen over and gives it a fresh spin by being set entirely on a train. The train in question is the last inhabited man-made structure on earth—its passengers simply circle the pan-continental track endlessly as their memories of what the world used to be like grow ever dimmer. Snowpiercer has what a lot of gritty post-apocalyptic Sci-fi movies have—the sense that, despite their technology (or perhaps because of it), humankind is always going to be fighting a losing battle against nature, one that’s eventually going to see the planet reclaimed by it, no matter how much we resist.
The grittiness of Moon is all in its "lived-in" feel. Taking his cue from movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Duncan Jones decided to design his moon-base set so it looked like it had actually been in use for years. The result is a movie that feels plausible and real for all it’s small details: the little post-it notes left about the place, the way that some of the walls have little scuff marks on them, the way that GERTY, the base’s AI computer, looks like he could do with a quick wipe down. Moon doesn’t throw its "grittiness" in your face, but it feels as subversive and un-idealistic as any other movie on this list all the same.
The Original Star Wars Trilogy
Although it’s rarely remembered as such, the original Star Wars trilogy was actually pretty grim and violent at times. Think about the Mos Eiseley cantina, with its bloodthirsty, Western-frontier-style clientele. Or the sudden murder of Luke’s uncle and aunt—right at the start of episode IV. Or, hey, Jabba the Hutt getting strangled to death with a chain! Kids stuff it ain’t! But that’s good! Part of the problem with the prequels is that the universe they take place in seems so wholesome and clean. It’s all huge, glowing megacities and endless shiny surfaces and talk, talk, talk. None of the sand and dirt and sweat of the originals. So, are you listening Abrams? If you want to do this right, leave the polish at home!
What's your favorite dystopia?