From Avatar and Arrival to the Matrix, Robocop, and Tron, sci-fi movies often inspire the next generation of tech creators.
Sci-fi and tech films have inspired the founders of some of the most revolutionary companies to dream big and build bigger. Jeff Bezos almost named Amazon “MakeItSo.com” after Jean-Luc Picard’s iconic command on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” (Bezos also eventually snagged a guest spot in 2016’s “Star Trek Beyond.”) And Steve Wozniak has this to say about science fiction influencing the real world: “A lot of science fiction starts out as a dream in your head where you go, ‘Wow, that would be cool,’ and then you have the actual technology people turn it into reality.”
For founders seeking to build the future with a little inspiration from Hollywood, below is our rundown, by category, of standout tech films worth catching up on in 2017.
All opening box office and lifetime gross numbers are taken from IMDB and Box Office Mojo and have been adjusted for inflation. Check out these charts in the post and see where your favorite films stack up by opening weekend and lifetime gross.
Spoilers ahead for some films.
T2: Judgement Day, 1991
Opening Box Office: $56.2M
Lifetime Gross: $920.1M
Our first of two Arnold flicks on our list, this one features the Governator as a bad-guy-turned-good-guy android, He’s sent from the future by the grown-up John Connor, leader of the human resistance against the robot army that rules future Earth, to protect the then-teenage Connor and his mother from an even more advanced android sent back to kill them. The time-travel plot kind of cracks at the seams if you lean on it too hard, so try to just enjoy the big-budget action and game-changing special effects. Remember: no one had seen that liquid metal thing yet at the time. Hasta la vista, baby.
The Matrix, 1999
Opening Box Office: $40.3M
Lifetime Gross: $672.1M
No run down of tech films would be complete without a mention of The Matrix, a movie in which robot AIs run amok (again) and imprison all of humanity inside a giant VR simulation so perfect that it’s impossible to distinguish from reality. In it, Keanu Reeves stars as programmer Thomas Anderson, and discovers not only that his entire world is a lie, but that he is the only one who can defeat the evil AI overlords and free humanity. The film also represents a huge leap forward technologically, with the Wachowskis and their technical team bringing so much special effects power to the project that Reeves donated much of his salary to the effects team.
War Games, 1983
Opening Box Office: $15.1M
Lifetime Gross: $192.6M
It’s a longstanding sci-fi hook — an artificial intelligence that becomes sufficiently advanced that it gains control over every system it makes contact with. In War Games, the government has done the hard part for it, creating an AI system (War Operation Plan Response, or WOPR) that can predict outcomes of a nuclear war but that also happens to be connected to many of the armed forces’ armament systems. When teenage hacker Matthew Broderick ends up connecting with WOPR and finds a list of games, he decides to play one called “Global Thermonuclear War.” The course of their friendly competition ends up triggering real-world consequences which nearly escalate to the US and Russia launching nukes. Founders at startups and giant corporations alike have had their starts doing illicit things with computers, but thankfully none has started a war.
The Imitation Game, 2014
Opening Box Office: $8.1M
Lifetime Gross: $227.8M
Alan Turing is one of the grandfathers of artificial intelligence and modern computer science and the basic test that many AI are subjected to as a measure of intelligence is named after him. However, it is his contributions to the Allies’ codebreaking efforts during WWII that this movie delves into, detailing how Turing, instead of trying to break codes by hand like other cryptanalysts of the time, chose to build a machine that could do it faster. This is a classic example of running an internal startup inside a larger corporation (in this case, Bletchley Park, the code breaking site run by the Government Code and Cypher School in Britain). Turing believed in his idea, worked hard to assemble a team and get it built, and ended up with a powerful tool that helped win the war. The movie was a financial success, though it did face some criticism for its handling of relationships and specifically Turing’s homosexuality, which was criminalized in Britain at the time. LBGTQ groups praised the film for getting Turing’s story out to a wider audience, though.
Opening Box Office: $5.5M
Lifetime Gross: $47.4M
Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a letter writer in a future where writing personal letters for people who can’t write them for themselves is a viable career. He’s also single, lonely, and battling depression. The hook of this tech movie is artificial intelligence: Phoenix and his mustache acquire an AI, called a talking OS in the film, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, with whom he eventually develops a complicated romantic relationship. The movie delves into AI issues on both a large and small scale, with Phoenix and Johansson developing a relationship, as AIs surge past their original limitations and attain a higher level of consciousness.
Colossus: The Forbin Project, 1970
How many movies about a sentient computer running amok can you make? One more, always one more. Colossus has the distinction of being one of the earliest movie depictions of a supercomputer taking control of the world’s computer and weapons systems and attempting to end all human conflict. One critic called it “full of surprising moments of humor and intelligence … an unpretentious science fiction film with a satiric point of view.”
Opening Box Office: $30.9M
Lifetime Gross: $256.7M
This movie, from the novel by renowned scientist Carl Sagan, has Jodie Foster receiving instructions from friendly aliens on building a communications device. She then constructs the machine, enters it, and finds … her dad. Well, not really. It’s an alien that takes the form of her dad. She is able to speak to the alien and is vindicated in her lifelong pursuit of communications with nonearthly sentient beings.
Ender’s Game, 2013
Opening Box Office: $28.1M
Lifetime Gross: $130.6M
Based on the classic young adult novel, Ender’s Game plunges the tween hero, Ender (Asa Butterfield) into a futuristic military academy where he and other young people learn the skills they’ll need to save the human race from an alien threat. In addition to an alien threat, this tech movie features advanced VR/AR training for the cadets and a nifty VR world that Ender explores and which ultimately ends up unlocking part of the film’s conflict.
Opening Box Office: $24.1M
Lifetime Gross: $105.2M
Having a cogent chat with an automated bot or AI can be challenging enough. Imagine when it’s a seven-tentacled creature with a language and thought process completely different from our own. Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner do exactly this in a film that uses tech of all kinds to get the job done: audio and video recordings, computers to simulate and manipulate the aliens’ language, and even a good old-fashioned whiteboard, something that startup vets will tell you is indispensable when trying to work out complicated ideas.
Opening Box Office: $30.9M
Lifetime Gross: $297.6M
Neill Blomkamp’s followup to the critically acclaimed “District 9” is a tech movie with one central “big idea” (universal healthcare, basically) and about a million other big ideas swirling around it (powered armor, hacking, orbital space stations, advanced robotics, and more). The result is a high-impact thrill ride wherein an exo-skeleton-wearing Matt Damon fights a better-equipped Sharlto Copley with the fate of the Earth’s impoverished masses hanging in the balance.
Opening Box Office: $17M
Lifetime Gross: $113.1M
Advanced prosthetics that can respond to brain signals and devices that can enable damaged limbs to move once again are being developed by startups, research centers, and corporations alike. In the classic sci-fi film RoboCop, robotics and cybernetics come together to give a severely wounded police officer in futuristic Detroit a second chance to clean up the city. If you haven’t seen this one yet, then no amount of describing its plot with all its social commentary, walking on water, and mutant monsters can do it justice. See it for yourself. Or don’t. “Your move, creep.”
Opening Box Office: $6.5M
Lifetime Gross: $23.9M
Genetics-testing startups are all the rage these days. Some aim to help screen for genetically passed diseases, others help build tailored treatments for cancers, some just want to tell you where your family is from. In Gattaca, almost everyone is genetically engineered in laboratories, ensuring that all new offspring receive the best genes from their parents. Ethan Hawke’s character was conceived outside of the controlled breeding program and struggles throughout the film with genetic discrimination that keeps him from his dream of entering the space program. He undertakes a risky partnership with a disillusioned, but genetically perfect former swimmer that might just allow him to attempt his dream.
Transcendent Man, 2009
Ray Kurzweil is one of the scientific community’s most profound thinkers. This documentary covers his thoughts on the Singularity, advancements in genomics, AI, robotics, nanotechnology, and much more. It’s basically your one-stop film for a greatest hits look at the ways the world will change in the next few decades, and a glimpse into the possible futures that Silicon Valley giants have been building for years.
Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015
Opening Box Office: $195.1M
Lifetime Gross: $1.41B
While certainly not the only AI- or robot-run-amok movie on this list, no other movie features so much star power under one roof. When genius Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr) peacekeeping robot, Ultron (voiced awesomely by James Spader) decides the best way to make the world more peaceful is to destroy all humans, it’s up to the Avengers (Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner) and their own AI-turned-robot, Vision (Paul Bettany) to stop him. It’s an explosive tech movie and one of the highest-grossing films of all time.
Opening Box Office: $70.7M
Lifetime Gross: $598.9M
Of course Pixar is on our list. WALL-E is the animation powerhouse’s dystopian tale of a far-future where the Earth has been destroyed and humanity has taken to the stars. WALL-E is an adorable little robot, one of many left behind on Earth to try fix the ruined planet. When WALL-E, who has developed sentience, finds a healthy seedling, and a probe robot, EVE, sees that there is evidence that the planet can be saved, they go back to humanity’s ship and try to get them to return and aid in the work. The idea of using advanced robotics to repair a damaged earth is not a new one, but few movies had portrayed the struggle of our robotic friends with as much poignancy.
Big Hero Six, 2014
Opening Box Office: $57.3M
Lifetime Gross: $379.6M
This is a Marvel movie about a team of heroes with their own robot/AI: Big Hero 6 puts the science in science fiction as teenage genius inventor Hiro supes up the healthcare robot that his dead brother built and then equips a bunch of super-intelligent students into a hero team capable of stopping a villain who can do almost anything via control of countless nanobots.
Blade Runner, 1982
Opening Box Office: $15.4M
Lifetime Gross: $82.2M
No rundown of sci-fi or tech movies would be complete without Ridley Scott’s vision of Philip K Dick’s novel about a future cop who hunts rogue androids. It features amazing performances by Harrison Ford and others, but also shows a disturbingly gritty and (almost?) possible future that writer William Gibson famously found so close to his own near-future imaginings that he had to walk out of the theater. While our own robots and AIs are far from this film’s replicants, it also featured flying cars and contributed to the naming of Google’s smartphone decades later, the Nexus 6. On December 19, 2016 a sequel set in 2049 was announced, opening the way for more visions of a future where there are more sentient robots running around (and Ryan Gosling).
Ex Machina, 2015
Opening Box Office: $5.5M
Lifetime Gross: $36.9M
While robotics startups are busy trying to come up with lifelike robots and AI companies strive to make chatbots that have human conversations, Ex Machina deftly weaves these two threads together into a tech film where the nature of an artificial creation’s consciousness is the central question. An eccentric roboticist invites a researcher to a secluded facility to administer an advanced Turing Test to his latest creation, Ava. What ensues is a series of twists, turns, and betrayals as the researcher learns just how human (and dangerous) Ava is.
Lifetime Gross: $54.4M
Now resurrected as a highly regarded series on HBO, this classic mix of Western and sci-fi is a tech movie where advanced robots run amok. Yul Brynner riffs on his classic Western gunslinger persona as a robot who goes off its programming and starts killing guests at an exclusive theme park. While many movies featuring AI and robots deal with them going haywire, few have them wielding six-shooters and saying “Draw.”
Lifetime Gross: $1.2M
The oldest sci-fi film on the list, Metropolis came out in 1927 and is credited with being one of the earliest film representations of a humanoid robot, a gynoid technically (android being the term for a male-form humanoid robot). This powerful German expressionist film contains a heavy haves vs. have-nots plot and a visual design influenced by Bauhaus and Futurist concepts, but is most noted for its aforementioned female robot and for being one of the first feature-length sci-fi films.
Opening Box Office: $86.3M
Lifetime Gross: $3.12B
Avatar covers a lot of sci-fi and tech movie tropes: aliens, mining other planets for resources, and transferring consciousness. It also represented a massive leap forward in movie-making technology, boasting 3D effects and computer graphics that made it the movie of the moment that everyone just had to see. As you can see in the chart below, it also still ranks as the highest grossing sci-fi film of all time— by a lot.
Opening Box Office: $234,251
Lifetime Gross: $5.6M
Companies like Deep Space Resources are dedicated to making it feasible to harvest resources from asteroids. In Moon, Sam Rockwell’s character does just that, albeit a bit closer to home. Stuck alone on the moon for years at a time, Rockwell’s character collects helium-3 to be sent back to Earth, but starts to suspect that things might not be as they seem after a traumatic accident. Aside from space-mining, this tech film also features a placid AI, voiced by Kevin Spacey, who could be cousins with HAL … if computers had cousins.
Opening Box Office: $58M
Lifetime Gross: $745M
Speaking of surviving against impossible odds, this tech movie sees Sandra Bullock (as a biomedical engineer) and George Clooney (as a grizzled veteran astronaut) stranded in orbit when space debris destroys their shuttle. The two struggle to find a landing ship and return to Earth. With the rise of private space travel startups, there may be a future version of this movie where a phone call to Elon Musk has a private ship rocketing up there to rescue the protagonists.
The Martian, 2015
Opening Box Office: $56.1M
Lifetime Gross: $629.3M
The Martian was a rallying cry to nerds everywhere as Matt Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney, stranded alone on Mars, declared that in order to survive his situation, he’d need to “science the sh*t out of it.” Set in the not-too-distant future, Damon is accidentally left behind on Mars when a freak storm forces the international team of scientists to scrub their mission and flee back to Earth. What ensues is an acting and science tour-de-force as Damon uses every tool at his disposal to bootstrap his needs, repair communications with Earth, and arrange transportation to his pickup site. Much like a scrappy startup founder, Damon gets his hands dirty, takes on any task, and pulls endless all-nighters. He even does some growth-hacking, in this case literally growing potatoes in Martian soil. NASA fans are also treated to a look into the history of the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) and even a cameo by renowned Mars rover Pathfinder. The NASA support team is filled with acting heavy hitters and fan faves like Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig, and Donald Glover, to name just a few.
Prometheus (Alien Series), 2012
Opening Box Office: $53.6M
Lifetime Gross: $424.3M
Billed as filling in some long-hinted-at backstory for the seminal Alien film franchise, Prometheus is laden with the classic sci-fi trappings that made the series so iconic: deep-space travel, a realistic android (a male-bodied robot, portrayed by the otherworldly Michael Fassbender), body-horror aliens, and a money-hungry corporation looking for a way to profit off of it all. Despite a mixed reception from critics and audiences alike, we’ve included it here because it’s the latest and best-looking film in the venerable series. There’s also a sequel on the way, so maybe a scrappy startup will succeed (and innovate) where the Weyland Corporation keeps failing.
Opening Box Office: $48.4
Lifetime Gross: $675M
In a dystopian future where today’s intrepid ag-tech startups have all seemingly failed (along with the planet’s agriculture in general), the human race is facing extinction. The solution: send Matthew McConaughey and an all-star lineup of Hollywood actors/deep-space astronauts through a wormhole to find a new home for humanity among the stars. From a start dealing with the big ideas of time dilation and faster-than-light travel, McConaughey ultimately ends up stumbling upon a tesseract, a four-dimensional object that allows him to see any point in time in his daughter’s bedroom (yeah, it’s complicated). While there are no startups or corporations investing in time travel that we know of right now (though that could change, or may already have changed, or will change sometime soon), there are space travel startups and robotics and AI companies that could possibly help create much of the tech used in this film.
Opening Box Office: $12.5M
Lifetime Gross: $38.8M
This film from Joss Whedon is a continuation of Whedon’s beloved “Firefly” TV series. Serenity sees Nathan Fillion and his crew of space smugglers attempting to help save a girl with psychic powers who accidentally ends up aboard their ship. They end up unraveling a complex web of intrigue linked to the ruling human interplanetary government. Like many Joss Whedon projects, this one has a strong cult following, but ultimately failed at the box office with an opening weekend way lower than expected and a lifetime gross that barely made back its budget.
October Sky, 1999
Opening Box Office: $8.6M
Lifetime Gross: $47.1M
In an era where the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are attempting to take space flight private, the idea of a DIY rocket program doesn’t seem as farfetched as it might have back in 1999, when October Sky came out. What’s more far-fetched though? It’s based on a true story. Much like the early days of the JPL, which also started as sort of an illicit startup at Cal Poly (as described in The Martian), October Sky details the story of four boys growing up in coal country in West Virginia in 1957. Spurred by news of Sputnik’s launch, the boys begin experimenting with small-scale rockets. Not just a great story about technology and the early days of the space race, October Sky also echoes the mantra of many in the startup world: don’t ask permission, just build it.
2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968
Opening Box Office: $1.4M
Lifetime Gross: $558.5M
This mind-bending journey through time and space, based on the classic book by Arthur C. Clarke, gave glimpses into inventions and innovations that we have seen or are seeing developed today. Long-distance exploratory space missions, while unmanned, have been to Mars, Venus, Pluto, and Jupiter. The Voyager ships have even left the solar system and are now in interstellar space. And no discussion of this pivotal sci-fi movie would be complete without a mention of HAL, the ship’s rogue AI, whose example we hope the current generation of artificial intelligences will NOT follow.
Apollo 13, 1995
Opening Box Office: $317,758
Lifetime Gross: $561.3M
When it comes to tech movies showcasing ingenuity and innovation when the stakes are high, Apollo 13 delivers. Based on the true story of the near-disastrous Apollo 13 mission to the moon, three astronauts in a stricken space capsule have to coordinate with NASA engineers on the ground to fix their damaged ship and make it back to Earth safely. And you thought a 3 a.m. Sev-1 ticket was stressful.
Opening Box Office: $69.7M
Lifetime Gross: $916.3M
Sleep isn’t something that we in the startup world know a lot about. Dreams, on the other hand, are everywhere. In Inception, the big tech idea is lucid dreams, where specialized agents like Leonardo DiCaprio and company go on high-stakes missions to raid people’s minds for their deepest secrets and biggest ideas. Or, you know, you could just ask someone out to coffee.
Minority Report, 2002
Opening Box Office: $47.8
Lifetime Gross: $480.2M
Minority Report presents a chilling vision of the future, courtesy of Philip K Dick and Steven Spielberg, wherein “Pre-Crime” detectives can find and apprehend offenders before they commit crimes. More chilling might be the eye-scanning advertisements that plague Tom Cruise’s character as he tries to make his escape and call him by name. Those, along with automated cars, next-gen interfaces, and advanced VR technology, might be the most prescient bits of possible tech in this tech film.
Opening Box Office: $17.3M
Lifetime Gross: $181M
Sneakers opens in 1969, with two rookie computer hackers, Martin (Robert Redford) and Cosmo (Ben Kingsley) breaching systems and distributing the funds they steal to causes they favor. Kingsley is arrested while Redford is out getting pizza (Seamless would have made this a different film), and the latter escapes capture. Years later, the main plot of the movie finds Redford running a private security team which is retained by the US government to crack a mysterious black box. Kingsley resurfaces with organized crime ties that he formed in prison and tries to get the box and its secrets for himself. Big ideas in this tech movie include cybersecurity and financial technology. The modern version would probably have something to do with bitcoin.
The Running Man, 1987
Opening Box Office: $17.2M
Lifetime Gross: $80.8M
If you think reality TV is bad today, check out The Running Man. Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as a wrongly convicted man who is sentenced to death. He’s forced to compete in “The Running Man,” a reality TV show wherein death-row prisoners are set loose to try to evade professional killers (including fellow future-governor Jesse Ventura). The action is captured by cameras throughout the game zone; a modern version would definitely have drones darting about and zooming in for closeups. The bad guys sport weird, high-tech gimmicks and the violence is over-the-top (remember, it was the 80s), but luckily for us, there’s no chance of the US sinking into a murderous totalitarian regime in the futuristic year during which this movie is set: 2017.
Opening Box Office: $11.9M
Lifetime Gross: $82.5M
Tron represented a leap forward for movie-making technology for its era, using some of the most advanced computer graphics that 1982 had to offer. It was also one of the earliest big-screen representations of the imagined world inside a computer or network or game. Jeff Bridges stars as a computer programmer whose games were illegally appropriated by his former boss, mirroring the plight of many real-life early programmers or startup founders. When Bridges attempts to hack into his old company’s mainframe to get evidence of his boss’ misdeeds, he is sucked into the network by the tyrannical Master Control Program. Now trapped in the network, Bridges teams up with programs created by his former coworkers, including the eponymous Tron, and they set about destroying the MCP. Cybersecurity and AI are just two of the big ideas explored by this seminal tech movie.
Strange Days, 1995
Opening Box Office: $5.8M
Lifetime Gross: $12.5M
In a future where recordings of a person’s sensory stimuli and memories are available on media called SQUID disks, Ralph Fiennes plays a former LAPD cop who traffics in illicit SQUID recordings. The murder of a prostitute who was wearing a SQUID sensory recorder draws Fiennes and Angela Bassett, as best friend Lornette “Mace” Mason, into a web of intrigue including crooked cops and more murder. Advances in VR recording and new types of interfaces could someday make the kind of sensory recording and playback seen in this tech film a reality.
Real Genius, 1985
Opening Box Office: $5.7M
Lifetime Gross: $29M
Val Kilmer, looking for all the world like Saved By The Bell-era Mark-Paul Gosselaar (this movie came out in 1985, remember), plays a young tech genius college student who is forced by his teacher to build a super-laser for the government. The plot is needlessly convoluted, but Kilmer and his costars operate more or less like a startup as they are tasked with solving a seemingly impossible problem on a tight timeframe with no budget. So yeah, pretty much exactly like a startup.
Opening Box Office: $177,366
Lifetime Gross: $90.2M
The future isn’t always a nice place to be. Snowpiercer has Chris Evans leading a revolution of the lowest castes of humanity against their monied overlords aboard the constantly moving train which houses the last living humans on Earth. As the eponymous “Snowpiercer,” the world’s most technologically advanced train ceaselessly circles the frozen globe, as the opulent rich enjoy the best that their technology can offer, while the poorest subsist on disgusting-looking food bars (made of a mystery food product) and are used mercilessly in whatever ways the rulers wish. The truth of how dire their situation is only comes to light when Evans and company breech the final door to the train’s front compartment and he confronts the vehicle’s mysterious creator.
Opening Box Office: $35,982
Lifetime Gross: $543,693
People who love difficult films love Primer, because it’s a no-nonsense tech film made on a shoestring budget that never holds your hand or stops to make sure you’ve got the whole plot. A pair of friends pursue a side business in their garage, immediately recognizable as a small-scale startup. While experimenting with superconductors, they accidentally discover a way to create stable time loops. What ensues is a complicated tale of risk vs. gain and temporal conundrums that rewards multiple rewatchings and has spawned countless think pieces, analyses, and podcast episodes.
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