In the sci-fi thriller Elysium, opening today, the extreme wealthy of the future live on a pristine space station orbiting the miserable, overcrowded trash heap that the Earth has become, and they are willing to go to extreme lengths to keep it that way.
If the message tucked inside the follow-up film from District 9 writer-director Neill Blomkamp — keeping the vast resources provided by supreme wealth segregated from the rest of the world may not be a good idea, y’all — seems about as obvious as a screaming cable news pundit, well, Elysium is simply embracing the long and glorious tradition of message-driven science fiction. By telling their stories in a heightened and/or futuristic fictional universe, sci-fi storytellers can get away with addressing a major concern of our real world without seeming (too) preachy.
There are, of course, plenty of great sci-fi movies where the message is more like gentle subtext, like in Aliens or Jurassic Park, or where there really isn’t any message at all, like with Star Wars or Back to the Future. (And then there’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the words “message” and “story” and “movie” cease to have any real meaning.)
But there are far more sci-fi movies that make no bones about exploring issues of vital importance to the society in the time they were made, and driving home a vital message (and often a bleak one at that) about those issues. In looking through these 21 examples, you can also see how our anxieties have changed overtime — and how surprisingly often these movies are preoccupied with the perils of pregnancy.
1. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
The plot: Klaatu, a humanoid alien, and his giant metal robot guardian Gort come to Earth to deliver a simple but foreboding message: Human development of atomic weapons is so threatening to other planets that they are prepared to annihilate Earth because of them.
The message: Nuclear warfare is the worst. Don’t do it.
2. Godzilla (1954)
The plot: A giant monster is unleashed upon the nation of Japan thanks to a nuclear explosion.
The message: Seriously, stop with the nuclear bombs already!
3. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
The plot: Aliens invade a small town by creating exact replicas of its inhabitants, except they’re devoid of any human emotion or feeling.
The message: People who conform — say, to anti-Communist paranoia — are to be feared. Run!
Another possible message: The Communists are coming and they want to you to conform. Run!
4. Planet of the Apes (1968)
The plot: An astronaut (Charlton Heston) traveling at sub-light speed arrives at a planet where apes are intelligent and humans are believed to be inferior, sub-species. Turns out, it’s the future, and he’s on Earth, post-nuclear apocalypse.
The messages: Stop poorly treating cultures that seem less sophisticated than yours. Oh, and, you maniacs! What did we say about how awful nuclear warfare is?!
5. Soylent Green (1973)
The plot: In 2022, the world is an overpopulated wasteland in which the rich keep women as prostitutes (called “furniture”), and most subsist on a processed food known as soylent green. What is soylent green, you ask? PEEEEOOOOPLLLLLE!
The message: Stop making so many babies, everyone! Or the world will become a dump and we’ll have to start eating them!
6. Logan’s Run (1976)
The plot: In 2274, what is left of humanity after a nuclear apocalypse lives in an idyllic domed city in which everyone lives until 30, after which they must sacrifice themselves to Carrousel.
The message: Stop with the nuclear war, but have as many babies as you want!
7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The plot: It’s pretty much the same as the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but by making the main characters health inspectors, the threat feels as much about a disease as an alien threat. Also, the ending is bleeeeeak.
The message: Don’t conform, and wash your hands. But we’re fucked, anyway.
8. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
The plot: A mysterious alien probe nearly debilitates the planet attempting to get back in contact with humpback whales, which have been extinct for centuries. So Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew have to travel back to the 20th century to get them.
The message: Stop killing whales, or the aliens talking to them will get lonely and will send a probe that will accidentally start destroying the planet.
9. The Running Man (1987)
The plot: In 2017 (just four years from now!), a totalitarian United States placates the populace with a popular game show in which convicted criminals are essentially brutally murdered on live TV.
The message: Americans should cool it with their love of gratuitous violence on television. (Gratuitous violence in movies is another thing entirely.)
10. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
The plot: After a catastrophic accident, the Klingon Empire is forced to enter into peace talks with the Federation — but high placed members of both entities conspire to stop the peace talks before they begin.
The message: Old enemies need to put aside their differences and embrace our changing world.
11. Waterworld (1995)
The plot: In the distant future, the polar ice-caps have completely melted, covering virtually the entire planet with water and giving Kevin Costner gills.
The message: Stop global warming, or we’ll all have to learn how to swim and Kevin Costner will grow gills.
12. Gattaca (1997)
The plot: Future society is divided by a genetically engineered class of “valids” and a traditionally conceived class of “in-valids,” in which your employment and future are determined by little more than a DNA scan.
The message: Genetic engineering is bad.
13. Idiocracy (2006)
The plot: An average military man from 2005 awakes from a hibernation chamber after 500 years to find that after centuries of dumb people having lots and lots of babies, society has become overrun with supremely stupid people.
The message: Education is super important, and people really do need to stop having so many babies.
14. Children of Men (2006)
The plot: In this film’s universe, for unknown reasons, women ceased being able to have babies in 2009, and in the face of extinction, the world fell into chaos. Eighteen years later, a bureaucrat (Clive Owen) living in England — the only functioning government left, which strictly polices all illegal immigration — finds himself protecting the first pregnant woman in a generation.
The message: The world falls apart when we lose all hope. Also: Babies are important.
15. WALL•E (2008)
The plot: An adorable robot keeps trying to clean up a toxic Earth long after humanity has left it — and transformed into lazy blobs while hanging out in space.
The message: We really need to take much better care of our planet.
16. The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
The plot: It is roughly same plot as the 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still, with a focus more on humanity’s general destructiveness instead of just nuclear weaponry. But rather than merely warning humanity to stop, Gort actually starts destroying humanity altogether.
The message: We need to stop destroying ourselves, or aliens will destroy everyone.
17. Sleep Dealer (2009)
The plot: In the future, the U.S./Mexico border has been completely sealed off, so would be migrant workers in Mexico attach themselves remotely to robots in the U.S. instead. Unfortunately, if they do this work long enough, it kills them.
The message: We really need immigration reform.
18. District 9 (2009)
The plot: A UFO parks itself atop the South African city of Johannesburg, and the stranded alien inhabitants are all forced to live in a slum called District 9. When one anti-alien South African official accidentally gets sprayed with alien technology, he begins to transform into one.
The message: Segregation and discrimination are terrible, and to understand those who seem alien to us, perhaps it’s worth trying to see the world through their eyes.
19. Avatar (2009)
The plot: A disabled man (Sam Worthington) working with an enormous private military operation is tasked with driving a native population from their lands, and instead goes native. Like, really native.
The message: We need to preserve our connection to nature, and private militaries are evil.
20. The Hunger Games (2012)
The plot: A totalitarian regime of rich folk keep the rest of the population in line with an annual competition in which children are pitted against each other to the death.
The message: Withholding the vast resources provided by supreme wealth from the rest of the population — and then using those resources against said population — is not a good idea.