From the depths of space to the far future of Earth, science fiction fans are spoiled for choice when it comes to cool movie universes in which to escape for an hour or three. I’ve always been fascinated with the various visions of the future that great directors have created; but which is the best futuristic setting of all?
These are my top ten sci-fi universes!
A couple of caveats: The list is made up of live-action movie universes, so there’s no TV or anime here (sorry, Babylon 5 fans). Also, it’s made up of actually good stuff, so no Star Trek (burn!) Oh, and the various ‘verses are ranked by how much i like the setting, rather than how much I love the films. With that said, take your protein pills and put your helmet on, ‘cos here we go…
10) The Backtothefutureverse
Just scraping in at number 10 we have the Back-to-the-future-verse. The story of Marty and Doc is an awesome trilogy of films, all of which are obviously science fiction. But it’s the second movie that I’m mostly talking about here, as that’s the one actually set in the future. As with all movies that fire us forward in time, we’re treated to some great ideas of what life will be like years from now (in futuristic 2015, in this case).
There’s a surprising amount of accuracy here. Huge flat screen TVs, video chat, fingerprint readers and voice-activated lights are commonplace in modern life. But it’s the other, more zany stuff that makes this such a cool ‘verse: The hoverboards, Cafe 80’s, boom box vests, double ties, odd spiky metal hats and dehydrated pizzas. And who wouldn’t want a fax machine in every room, including the toilet? As with many older sci fi movies, there’s an awesome mix of futuristic and retro elements that give the setting a unique feeling.
9) The Terminatorverse
There was no question the Terminatorverse would appear on the list, with it’s awesomely dystopian future and time-travelling killer robots. But it was tough to decide on its position due to the many sequels having diluted the overall setting’s impact somewhat.
The future we see in the first two movies, especially T2, was oppressively dark and terrifying with its carpet of skulls and machinations of death. But technically speaking, that universe doesn’t exist exactly like that any more, as the timeline was changed in T3, and again in Genisys. John Connor is a robot now, maybe? Skynet is called Genisys? But then Dark Fate possibly retconned those movies, or are they all just different timelines?
The Terminator future is admittedly a confusing and contradictory place nowadays. But when it comes to cool movie settings, a dark and gritty world controlled by evil machines in which humans act as the heroic resistance is still pretty great. Speaking of which…
8) The Matrixverse
Just squeaking in front of the Terminator setting is another amazingly cool future that was also kinda tarnished by less-than-stellar sequels: The Matrixverse. We are introduced to this setting in one of my favourite movies of all time, which had us all questioning the very reality around us.
The Matrix presents one of the most interesting movie setups ever. Our heroes inhabit a computer simulation, enabling them to break the rules and effectively become super heroes while within the program. We then discover the real world - a dystopian nightmare full of CGI horrors who want to keep us humans locked up in our little battery cocoons.
The mistake of the sequels, especially part 3, was that they became increasingly more fixated on that ‘real’ world. It turns out humanity isn’t nearly as helpless as we thought, with a massive arsenal of good machines built to fight the bad machines (in huge, blinding CGI sequences). But to be honest I just wanted to see Neo and his mates kick ass in slow motion inside the Matrix.
7) The Fifthelementverse
This 'verse is the only one on this list that only appears in a single film. But the future presented here is so wonderfully quirky and weird it justifies its place on the list even with just 2 hours of screen time. Just like in Hill Valley, we see flying cars and dehydrated food (chicken: good). But this is a universe that’s also inhabited by various cool-looking alien species, Zorg’s busy little cleaning robots and of course the Ruby Rhod radio show!
Luc Besson’s sci-fi films have a really unique look and feel to them, with colourful, amusing and interesting details aplenty. Love it or hate it, his Valerian movie also gives us an amazingly rich world to gawp at, but that film isn't officially set in the same universe as the Fifth Element, so didn’t quite make the list.
6) The Robocopverse
And so to future Detroit - owned by megacorporation OCP. I’m talking exclusively about the original trilogy of films here, not the various TV spin offs, or the 2014 remake (although that movie is OK and has a pretty cool future of its own).
Obviously Robocop and ED-209 are badass, but it’s the tongue-in-cheek satire, best displayed in the various TV ads and news bulletins we see during the films which are the highlight of the series for me. (Yes, Robocop 3 is a dire movie but I suppose at least the setting is largely consistent with the first two films).
Who wouldn’t want to play the NUKEM board game, wear a pint of Sunblock 5000 and protect their car with the Magnavolt Lethal Response security system? It’d certainly take your mind off the Star Wars Orbiting Peace Platform misfiring again.
5) The Madmaxverse
When it comes to dystopian settings, they don’t get any more post-apocalyptic than the Madmaxverse. George Miller’s movies transport us to a future where the world is pretty much a scorched desert, humanity is increasingly feral and gasoline is prized more highly than sanity.
Though the world of the first Max film doesn’t seem that far removed from our own (owing largely to the tiny budget it had), the sequels present an increasingly bleak and sun-baked world of Thunderdomes, insane marauders and flame-throwing guitars; culminating in the breathtakingly good Fury Road, with its marvellous mechanical creations and crazy cultists. Please George, give us more!
4) The Starwarsverse
While not set in the future (it’s “a long time ago”, remember?), the Star Wars universe is one of the most fleshed-out settings in all of science fiction. Debates rage over which movies are great and which are awful, but the setting itself is among the most beloved in all of cinema.
From amazing spaceships and a multitude of different planets, to the grimy, lived-in look of the locations, heroes, villains and rogues we meet, this movieverse feels like nothing else. Visually speaking, Star Wars is amazing. The coolest helmets ever worn. The coolest weapons ever wielded on screen (light sabers, duh). The only thing which stops this from straight-up topping the list is the family-friendly nature of the franchise. I guess when it comes to the very best science fiction, I prefer a little nastiness alongside my futuristic awesomeness. Which brings us to...
3) The Alienverse
OK, now we’re into the really good stuff. The first four Alien movies deliver such an iconic setting, with humanity spreading its way across the galaxy in lumbering great space vessels and with the evil megacorporation Weyland-Yutani seemingly controlling everything. But worry not, because the US Colonial Marines are ready to be dispatched at the first sign of trouble.
The feeling that mankind is just beginning to discover dark and dangerous new frontiers out there in space is strikingly dark and compelling. The fear of the unknown is powerful. I could happily watch many more movies set in this universe, although hopefully they won't be directed by Ridley Scott (sorry Ridley).
To be fair though, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant do at least add to the Alienverse without rebooting it and there’s some great stuff for sci-fi fans in them, especially the costume and set designs, so they're not all bad. But let’s pretend the AVP films never happened.
2) The Gilliamverse
A personal favourite director of mine, Terry Gilliam’s finest moments for me are his loosely-connected trilogy of sci-fi movies: Brazil, 12 Monkeys and The Zero Theorem. Like other universes on this list, these films mash retro elements and the futuristic together to create an engaging setting; but Gilliam manages to infuse his films with an almost comedic vibe, while at the same time still being able to deliver dark and unsettling moments. Not only that but they also serve up some delicious satire of modern society. His Python roots show through all of his movies.
There are very few directors who have such a unique viewpoint and style (Tim Burton springs to mind). In Brazil we see Sam Lowry’s life turn into a 1984-style nightmare due to fly getting stuck in a printer, which kind of sums up how Gilliam sees the bureaucracy of our world. Plus that film features an outlaw plumber played by Robert DeNiro, who swings through your window in the dead of night to fix your heating illegally. You won’t find those kinds of things happening outside of the Gilliamverse.
1) The Bladerunnerverse
And so to the the greatest Sci-fi universe of all time - The Bladerunnerverse! Not content with bringing us the Alienverse, Ridley Scott upped his game and delivered Deckard’s world of rogue androids, neon signs in rainy streets, pyramid-shaped skyscrapers, flying cars (natch) and retro-looking computers that can look round corners in still photographs.
The original film is simply a masterpiece of futuristic world building, so alarm bells rang when 35 years later Hollywood decided to deliver a second chapter, this time helmed by Denis Villeneuve. I needn’t have worried however, as the world we see in Blade Runner 2049 amazingly manages to live up to the original, moving us forward in that timeline by 30 years and showing us how that world has developed. The giant billboards are now holographic and android tech has moved on, but this is very much still the same universe.
I’d be remiss not to mention the fact that two other movies might-be-probably-are-maybe set in the Bladerunnerverse. The first - Duncan Jones’ Moon, is an excellent sci-fi movie and if it is indeed supposed to share the universe then it fits really well. The second - Soldier, starring Kurt Russell, is really not great, but does at least present us with some pretty awesome dystopian imagery. Are they really Blade Runner movies? Well, no obviously not. But Moon is cool.
So there you have it, the best ten sci-fi settings in all of moviedom. Don’t agree? Come at me in the comments!