The only thing harder to pull off than a good PG-13 science fiction movie is an R-rated one. For every District 9 or Aliens, there is a Supernova (remember that one?!) or *shudder* Prometheus.
With Friday’s release of Riddick, the sequel to 2000’s Pitch Black, Hollywood once again hopes to cash in on the 17-and-older crowd. To celebrate the return of Vin Diesel as the galaxy’s most wanted antihero, here are 15 of the best R-rated sci-fi flicks the genre has to offer – in no particular order.
District 9 (2009)
While critics were decidedly mixed on Elysium, writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to District 9, they were head over heels for his first feature. With its thematic focus on immigration and the moral grey lines therein, the film filters its violent and poignant story through a gritty, handheld lens – delivering one of the genre’s most inventive entries in years.
Total Recall (1990)
Almost 25 years since its release, director Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 original holds up significantly better than last year’s meh remake. Arnuld’s Quaid is a man struggling to figure out if his memories of being a spy on Mars are either fiction or the real deal. With the help of several shady figures – and a three-breasted mutant (naturally) – Quaid uncovers the truth just as a coup to control Mars’ air reaches tipping point. Verhoeven’s signature over-the-top violence is offset by the story’s engaging mystery-box plot, coupled with genuinely emotional stakes and still-impressive practical effects.
In terms of box office, unless your movie ends in “-erminator 1 or 2”, time travel is a problematic thing to hang your story on. But writer-director Rian Johnson largely defied convention and expectation, delivering a unique and emotionally driven take on the idea of a time-traveling assassin. Bruce Willis gives one of the more nuanced performances of his career, playing the older version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character – an assassin who must stop his future self from avenging a tragedy that hasn’t happened yet.
Director Duncan Jones’s feature debut is equal parts 2001 and Rod Serling, as the filmmaker weaves a minimalist sci-fi tale through the very compelling and shocking themes of identity and the consequences of extending mortality. If you haven’t seen the film yet, we envy you. This is one first time you’ll wish you could experience more than once.
The Fly (1986)
“Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
The film’s most quotable line is an apt description for what ensues in director David Cronenberg’s remake of the 1950s cult classic. After an eccentric scientist (Jeff Goldblum) test-drives his new teleportation pods, he inadvertently teleports both himself and a common housefly – causing the good doctor’s DNA to alter in some very nightmarish ways. The film balances gory set pieces (the Seth Brundel Museum of Human Body Parts!) and its thinly veiled AIDS allegory with an emotionally complex look at the consequences of playing God, resulting in one of the genre’s richest films.
For many, Akira was that movie you would hear people say they saw, but they didn’t really watch until college. And then, they watched it on a steady rotation with Big Lebowski and/or Scarface. If you still have yet to experience this anime classic, watch it. Not when you get around to it. Right. Now.
Children of Men (2006)
Children of Men is one of the genre’s – and the last decade’s – most underrated films.
Alfonso Cuaron masterfully directs this dystopian sci-fi drama centered on Clive Owen’s mortal struggle to save the first baby born in years. Cuaron draws out the tension in effortless single-shot takes while constantly putting new and emotionally tasking obstacles in our hero’s way, forcing audiences to watch the film from the edge of their seat.
Half satire. Half '80s action movie excess. All cop. (See what we did thar?) Director Paul Verhoeven’s precursor to number 14 on our list is the next movie on the filmmaker’s resume to get the remake treatment. We hope it can pull off this film’s unique and delicate balance of fist-pumping action, drama and social commentary better than the Total Recall fail did, though the new trailer gives us pause.
The Terminator (1984)
James Cameron has successfully gone to the sci-fi well many times, but his first trip is still one of his best. In addition to launching Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action-movie career, The Terminator also tells a crazy good time-travel story with razor-sharp focus: In the future, two men – one a killing machine, the other Michael Biehn – are sent back in time to find Sarah Connor. The latter must reach her before the former does, or else mankind’s war against the machines will end before it’s even started. More movies wish they could be this good.
The Thing (1982)
Fans have a borderline obsession with John Carpenter’s The Thing – and for good reason. The loose remake of the 1950s The Thing from Another World finds a thrilling balance between alien invasion paranoia and “who goes there?” horror-film scares, resulting in yet another classic from the '80s that boasts in-camera effects better than most modern CG. But the real star here is the beard sported by Russell’s character, MacReady. Hands down, that is cinema’s best ever face sweater.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Liquid-metal future assassins? Check. Arnold fighting said liquid-metal future assassins? Double check. Guns ‘N Roses on the soundtrack?! Check and mate! You’ve seen it a fatrillion times. For good reason. The only thing we don’t like about T2 is that it makes our brain hurt when confronted with this question: What’s Cameron’s best movie, this or Aliens?
“In space, no one can hear you scream.” Best. Tagline. Ever? Most likely. One of the best sci-fi thrills in the history of human events? Definitely. The best thing we can say about this film is that we wish we made it.
Writer-director James Cameron realized that he couldn’t just Xerox what Ridley Scott did in Alien. He had to make it bigger, scarier and – ultimately – more personal. More painful. And the only way to do that was to submit Ripley to another round of deadly hide-and-seek with the xenomorphs, this time bringing a few Marines along for the ride. Cameron’s script is pure polish, each panicked breath our heroes take or victory they earn feels like our own. And Sigourney Weaver gives an Oscar-nominated performance as Ripley struggles to defeat the alien and, more importantly, rediscover her faith in humanity. She gets a lot of help on both fronts thanks to a little girl named Newt and lots of Power Loader vs. Alien Queen fisticuffs.
The Matrix (1999)
As summer of 1999 approached, the only movie genre fans thought they had to make room for was The Phantom Menace. Then, almost two months before the Star Wars prequel hit theaters, they couldn’t make enough room for a little movie called The Matrix. What Warner Bros. thought was just a movie to burn off in the doldrums of late spring at the multiplex turned into, well, THE MATRIX! While it pioneered the now-tired bullet-time gag, the first film in the franchise still makes jaws drop with its impressive gravity-defying action and genre-defining ideas.
Blade Runner (1982)
OK, we said no particular order, but this really is Numero Uno. An ex-cop, a Blade Runner, must come out of retirement to “retire” a Replicant, a sentient android that’s gone rogue, in search of his creator – Man. This is the bare-bones context in which Ridley Scott's masterpiece resides.
From the top down, Blade Runner is pure film noir science fiction -- the first of its kind, resistant to degrading despite many attempts to pay homage or outright rip off its landmark visual storytelling. But Blade Runner isn’t the genre’s best R-rated experience because Deckard’s gun looks cool. It’s a triumph because no viewing is the same twice; one notices a new detail here or a different level of subtext there. These are the nuances that too many modern science fiction films fail to grasp, things that our number one pick effortlessly masters.