I’ve always been something of a sci-fi movie fanatic. For as long as I can remember, whenever I hear the sound of a lightsaber igniting or see those aliens waddling out of the spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I get chills. In recent years, I’ve found myself drawn to darker sci-fi films—filled with the kind of bleak dystopias and post-apocalyptic visions of the future that force you to sit back and think about the realities of our own world, and the kind of future we’re building here in the present day. I always find that the best of these movies, no matter how dark, incorporate glimmers of hope and true resilience—as grim and devastating as this kind of dystopian science fiction can be, there’s always a hint of light.
For me, there’s nothing more wonderful, thought-provoking, and inspiring than a science fiction film that asks you to re-examine society and the world around you. Such films might seem irredeemably pessimistic at first look, but there’s so much more to them if you give them a chance. Here’s my list of five dark (but still hopeful!) science fiction movies you should see at least once in your lifetime.
[Major spoiler warning: Please note that I discuss the endings of all the films below, so proceed with caution…]
Snowpiercer (directed by Bong Joon-ho, 2013)
Snowpiercer is one of those movies that stays with you long after the final credits have rolled. Between the striking visual juxtapositions that director Bong Joon-ho excels at and the despicable actions of the bizarre Minister Mason (memorably played by Tilda Swinton), I couldn’t get it out of my head for days. I couldn’t stop talking about it with my coworkers, either. It’s a dystopian story about the titular locomotive, powered by a perpetual motion machine, endlessly circling a snow-covered earth that’s no longer capable of sustaining life. Passengers at the tail end of the train live in squalor while the ones at the front lead privileged lives.
It may seem like a bleak premise, sure, but I’ve never seen human resilience captured so inventively. The back of the train is truly a horrendous place where the people subsist on gelatinous rectangles and live in overcrowded conditions. The front cars, on the other hand, are decadent and filled with freshly grown food and luxuries. Driven by the need to change their lives and pursue justice, a group of tail-enders force their way to the front to take control of the locomotive. Throughout their journey, they make their way through a number of different train cars, including nightclubs, salons, and a colorful classroom where the children are being indoctrinated and brainwashed by a terrifying teacher with a creepy, sing-song voice.
The ending is truly phenomenal. When the group finally succeeds in stopping the train, characters Yona and Timmy leave through a hole in the front car and step outside. As they gaze out at the icy landscape, a polar bear gazes back at them. It turns out the earth is capable of sustaining life again, as nature has somehow found a way to recover. For such a heart-wrenching film, one in which atrocities abound, it really ends on an inspirational note, reminding us that no matter how dark the situation is, there’s always hope.
Level 16 (directed by Danishka Esterhazy, 2018)
Level 16 follows a group of teenage girls who live in a windowless boarding school where they’re taught how to behave properly for the families that will eventually adopt them. They’re taught traditionally feminine values like cleanliness and subservience. Gross, right? When they graduate, they move up a level, with the 16th floor being the final one. As you may have already guessed, it’s all a load of crap. The true intentions of the people operating the “school” are far more sinister.
The girls are taught the importance of cleanliness because they’re actually preserving their flawless skin for potential buyers. The girls have never been exposed to sunlight, which helps to further preserve the quality of their skin. It’s…really messed up. But the aspect of the movie that resonates above all else is the power of friendship among women. Vivien and Sophia, the two main characters in the film, work together to uncover the truth and escape. They have to outsmart their superiors and, perhaps most importantly, go against the teachings that have been instilled in them since infancy. After all, curiosity and defiance are strictly discouraged.
The most beautiful and poignant scene in the movie is the final one, in which Vivien and Sophia walk away together holding hands in the rain and sunshine. They’ve never experienced the natural world in any form before and the moment fills me with such hope. My heart genuinely swelled with happiness for them: The dawning realization on their faces that the world is a beautiful place and not a toxic wasteland moved me in ways I couldn’t possibly put into words.
Paradise Hills (directed by Alice Waddington, 2019)
Paradise Hills is one of the most odd and surprising movies on this list—the aesthetic alone is immediately eye-popping, vibrant, and fantastical, like something out of the world of Alice in Wonderland. As for the story, it’s about a group of young women who are held captive at a kind of treatment center because they’ve disappointed or rebelled against their high-society families. Uma, the pink-haired heroine, is forced into treatment because she refuses to marry a wealthy suitor. Essentially, the program is intended to mold them into more obedient or desirable versions of themselves. It’s a pretty twisted premise, for sure, but as it turns out, the rabbit hole (ha) actually goes much deeper…
This treatment center, which fronts as a kind of finishing school for members of the upper class, is actually replicating the women they’re supposedly rehabilitating. The replicants are lower-class women who’ve undergone extensive plastic surgery to look like the patients they’re impersonating. They’ve also been taught to mimic their voices and mannerisms. As for what happens to the women they’re replacing, the original versions end up as food for the Duchess, the head of the treatment program who later reveals herself to be a vampire-like being. See? I told you this rabbit hole goes deep!
The plot is undeniably disturbing and bleak, but there are quite a few moments of hope and courage as it unfolds. Uma, who’s both resilient and resourceful, manages to team up with her replicant and hatch a plan. The replicant marries the rich guy (who is responsible for the death of Uma’s father), Uma then stabs him in private while the replicant is establishing her alibi. The replicant then expertly plays the part of the devastated newlywed, pretending that she’s just stumbled across a murder scene. She can now live the rest of her days as a wealthy widow. As for Uma, we see her fleeing into the woods, where she’ll be able to bask in her newfound freedom and finally live her life on her own terms.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 1984)
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is one of my favorite movies of all time. The early Miyazaki film, which is based off of his earlier manga, tells the story of Princess Nausicaa and her quest to achieve peaceful coexistence between humans and the gigantic insects that roam their lands. The jungles in which these insects live are poisonous and inhospitable to humans, a direct result of an apocalyptic war called the Seven Days of Fire. Despite the environment being toxic and harmful to Nausicaä, she still finds beauty in it. It’s an intriguing concept for a movie and if you like Dune, where massive worms wander the desert landscape of Arrakis, you’ll probably dig this one.
This film is chock-full of powerful anti-war and environmentalist messages. The most poignant theme is that nature almost always prevails, despite humanity’s self-destructiveness. The ending scene, in which a single seed is growing in a ray of sunlight, never fails to inspire feelings of hope. The seed is even housed in a church-like structure made of petrified trees. When it comes down to it, nature is an unstoppable force; it may take some time, maybe thousands and thousands of years, but it always finds a way to recover and survive. Nausicaa embodies that same resilience.
The Princess is the best part of the film, as she’s strong, hopeful, and kind. She longs for a peaceful future and a way to communicate with the mutant insects that inhabit her land. Her empathy is her strength, as she never chooses violence against those insects. This sets her apart, as many of the people in her world resort to violence measures because they tend to fear the unknown. She values life and the natural world above all else, and that in itself is something to aspire to.
Rogue One (directed by Gareth Edwards, 2016)
Normally, I wouldn’t classify a Star Wars film as an overlooked classic. However, in my humble opinion, Rogue One remains severely underrated. It’s about an unlikely group of heroes that set out on an impossible mission on behalf of the Rebel Alliance. They’re determined to steal the schematics for the Death Star and deliver them to Princess Leia Organa. Cool premise, right? The stakes are high and the people tasked with such a mission are a rather ordinary group of volunteers—at least, ordinary in the sense that you won’t find any chosen ones here. Perhaps the best thing about this movie is that the Skywalkers play such a minor role in it.
No shade to the Skywalker family, but the idea of a brand-new story filled with characters I’ve never met before in the Star Wars universe is positively thrilling. The universe is so vast and the possibilities are endless. Rogue One is grittier than the other Star Wars films, too. Tonally, it feels more like a classic war movie than a science fantasy about magical space wizards that move objects with their minds. The impact of the Empire’s war weighs heavy on everyone and everything in this story.
And yet the pervasive theme throughout the movie is hope. Jyn Erso, our protagonist, is first introduced as a jaded criminal who later finds it in herself to be a hero. Although the film ends with the Death Star killing the remaining Rogue One crew, they succeeded in sending the vital plans to Princess Leia, which means they didn’t die in vain. It’s a powerful ending—however, even as Jyn waits for her impending death in her final moments on the beach, it’s not a sad or panic-filled moment. She knows that her sacrifice will mean renewed hope, and a better future for the world she leaves behind.
Those are my picks, but I’m sure there are other great films that fit into this category—please share your own recommendations below…
Ashley is a professional writer and editor with a strong background in tech and pop culture. She has written for high traffic websites such as Polygon, Kotaku, StarWars.com, and Nerdist. In her off time, she enjoys playing video games, reading science fiction novels, and hanging out with her rescue greyhound.