Science fiction movie guide

SFU's Dr. Peter Chow-White offers his quintessential list of sci-fi classics.

Credit: Blade Runner

Summer is a time for blockbusters: for big, bold films packed with special effects, fantastic locations and epic storylines.

And of these blockbusters, Star Wars may be the most epic. At least, it is for Dr. Peter Chow-White, a professor at SFU’s School of Communication who still remembers being turned away from a sold-out show at the Parksville theatre as a six-year-old.

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Years later Chow-White has managed see the film. He’s also developed an academic interest in technology, race and media, bioethics and health: topics regularly considered in science fiction. His courses use movie clips to illustrate abstract aspects of cultural theory, and he’s now working on an ethnographic study on the Vancouver-based TV series Battlestar Galactica.

Chow-White noted that compared to fantasy films, science films offers a different outlook: a space for imagining of future possibilities (and dystopian nightmares), rather than considering the past. Especially in the post 9/11 world, rather than setting its sights on a galaxy far, far away, films are increasingly grounded in the here and now.

The following guide offers Chow-White’s commentary on some examples:

Flash Gordon and the 1950s


These are the films of the Baby Boomers, and echo the post-war themes of an attack from external enemies (such as the Asian stereotype of the “yellow peril,” as expressed through Ming the Merciless), the rise of technology, and the race to the moon.


Star Wars and the post-Vietnam shift


Star Wars aimed to bring back some of the stories and themes of the ’50s. With the new trilogy, George Lucas is still stuck in that thinking. For that reason, the “new” stories stick out: since they aren’t nuanced, they seem dated. These are stories pulled from the American Graffiti days.


Battlestar Galactica and post-9/11


BSG was a conscious attempt by producer Ron Moore to break the old model of science fiction storytelling. He argued that franchises like Star Trek were no longer relevant. The series opens with an apocalyptic genocide that resonated with the 9/11 attacks, and engages with themes of gender and technology.




28 Days Later, while expressed as a “zombie” genre film, is actually a film about the dangers of biotechnology, as the ‘zombies’ are humans infected by a virus called “rage.” The essential biotechnology film is Gattaca, which was created before the Human Genome Project was completed.


The Internet


The Internet is another recurring technology theme that expresses cultural anxieties and hopes for the future. War Games was one of the first Internet movies, and links video games with the potential for nuclear warfare. The Net tackles online identity theft, while The Matrix, which came out when the Internet was first becoming popularized, expresses a dystopian view of the new technology.


Re-envisioning Gender

In BSG, the character Starbuck was originally a male, but is revisioned as a tough female—a shift that caused a lot of heated debate on fan sites. Another key shift in science fiction’s portrayal of gender came in the Alien films, where Sigourney Weaver’s character is portrayed using the markers of second-wave feminism: she’s tougher than male characters and the alien, but that “toughness” is still expressed in traditional masculine terms.


Imagining Racial Futures

Another recurring theme in much science fiction is its portrayal of ethnic diversity. Blade Runner was created at a time of anxiety about the rising power of Japanese commerce and an incorrect belief that Asian individuals were buying up Los Angeles (in reality, Canadians and Germans purchased most of the real estate). Blade Runner portrays an LA where food, style and language reflect Asian culture. In contrast, the world of BSG follows a “post-racial” vision of society, where race is said to no longer be a marker of identity.