Robert Rodriguez’s top 11 sci-fi movies

The Alita: Battle Angel director talks to Den of Geek about the science-fiction films that have inspired him

With all of his genre credentials, you’d think that Robert Rodriguez has a pretty big soft-spot for classic science-fiction cinema. And you’d be right. From Alien and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind to The Matrix and Avatar, sci-fi has had a huge impact on the filmmaker’s life and work.

From The Faculty to Planet Terror via his Spy Kids franchise, Rodriguez’s films have always incorporated science-fiction elements. But his latest film, Alita: Battle Angel, sees him going full sci-fi. An adaption of Yukito Kishiro’s cyberpunk manga series, it takes place in the futuristic metropolis of Iron City and follows the titular heroine – an advanced warrior cyborg with a human brain – as she searches for answers about her mysterious past. Alita also sees Rodriguez collaborating with genre legend James Cameron, who co-wrote the script and helped shepherd the film to the big screen.

In honour of Rodriguez’s none-more-sci-fi blockbuster, we thought we’d ask the director to list his 10 favourite science-fiction movies and how they’ve influenced him. It proved difficult for him to whittle them down – so difficult, in fact, that we ended up with 11. And here are his choices…

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Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)

“I just remember being a little kid, and they did that great marketing campaign where it was: ‘Encounter of the first kind… Encounter of the second kind…’ And then the third kind was ‘Contact’ – and there was that light coming out from behind the mountain. That was really creepy and spooky. As a kid, the idea that aliens could visit – it tripped my whole imagination. For me, it was the earliest example of how somebody simply writing out an idea could just spark imagination across the schoolyard like that. Everybody would talk about it. It raised people’s curiosity. So I had an early awareness of the power of stories – and movies in particular – to excite the masses and get their brains firing. It was pretty wild. Cinema was so full of wonder back then.”

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Star Wars (1977)

“I was nine-years-old when the first Star Wars came out. Just the name: Star Wars… It sounded like it was gonna be all these planets fighting each other or something. It was just a tease, and then it became such a phenomenon. After it came out, you just couldn’t wait for The Empire Strikes Back – and that one really blew my mind, too. I saw Star Wars endlessly. We just kept going back to the theater. Back then, you would go watch a movie like two or three times because there was no video release. You had to just see it in the theatre a bunch of times, because you might never see it again!”

Alien (1979)

“I loved the teaser trailer with the reveal of the egg. It took its sweet time, but just getting into the whole vibe of it was so creepy and cool. I was 12 when the film came out, and it was R rated, so I was too young to see it. But one time, I went to the drive-in theatre with my family to see some Doug McClure movie or something, and me and my brother climbed up to the top of our van to take a peek at the other movies that were playing. One of them was Alien. I saw the chestburster scene from the top of that van! It was so freaky. That whole period in film, where these ideas were just so new, was fantastic. A horror film in space? No one had ever done that before! It really was a magical time.”

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Escape From New York (1981)

“For a kid, when you get to 12 or 13, that’s usually when your mind opens up to what you want to be. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was already being primed by these other movies like Alien and Star Wars, but I hadn’t decided to be a filmmaker until I saw Escape From New York. From the moment I saw the trailer, it blew my mind. It had this helicopter going past a wall towards New York City. And it said: ‘New York, 1997. The entire city is a walled maximum security prison….’ It was like, ‘Wow, you can just say that and show like a model of a wall and a model of a helicopter, and you just created the future.’ The power of that was so awesome.

“I could tell it was a lower budget movie, and that it was a John Carpenter movie – I’d already seen the name on Halloween. I loved how he was telling a big story with little money. That really excited me. And then the fact that he was writing the movie, directing the movie and doing the score…This guy must be having all the fun in the world. I want that job! I had a lot of interests at that age. I loved to draw. I loved photography. I loved music. But I couldn’t pick one that I liked. I felt all over the place. But then it felt like, ‘Oh, if I make a movie I can do all those things.’ So that really inspired me to be a filmmaker. And John and I are good friends now.”

Blade Runner (1982)

“That movie is so iconic. It wasn’t like a big action-packed movie; it’s more of a brooding movie, but the atmosphere was just so thick. It was such an immersive world – you just wanted to go there and hang out there and be in that world. It was like a kind of virtual reality.”

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The Terminator (1984)

“With The Terminator, James [Cameron] became a household name right away. I saw that movie again and again and again at the theatre. It had really great reviews for a low-budget sci-fi film. It wasn’t like the name suggested… There was another movie in the early ’80s called The Exterminator, about a guy with a flamethrower killing people, but this wasn’t that. I’d known who Schwarzenegger was because my brother was a bodybuilding fan, but seeing him in the film – it was like nothing I’d seen before.

“It was so incredibly shot – it was just run-and-gun and super intense. It just felt like one night of cool shit going on. I loved the scope of it for such a low budget movie – it was really smart, and I thought, ‘Who is this guy?’ I was already studying filmmaking at that point, so I quickly became a fan of James’ and would eat up any article I could find on him.”

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Back To The Future (1985)

“It’s very clever and very pure. Great script, great twists. It’s so well directed by [Robert] Zemeckis – such a crowd pleaser of a movie. The gymnastics of the story are just mind-bending, you just didn’t know what was going to happen next. Somebody taking the idea of time travel and doing it in a really cool way, with the DeLorean and all of that – it was just inventiveness on top of inventiveness. It was an example of a filmmaker just being giddy with geeking out and making stuff to excite the audience…and the audience benefits. I really admired that passion. I was like, ‘I’d love to come up with shit like that!’”

Robocop (1987)

“With the film’s satirical edge, you could tell it was made by a foreigner. [Paul] Verhoeven was able to comment on the US in a way that we never could. It really held a mirror up to us. It was really funny and really spot on, and just great satire. You know, it’s not about a human with metal on the outside; it’s about a metal machine with a human on the inside. That’s the really cool thing about it. There are science fiction ideas in there that are the level of Philip K Dick.”

Twelve Monkeys (1995)

“That’s one of those mind-bender movies that really clicks together and makes more sense the more you watch it. Bruce [Willis] is fantastic in it. And Terry Gilliam is on top form. It’s a great mystery – it’s so layered and so tragic. The music, too… Everything about that movie was firing on all cylinders.”

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The Matrix (1999)

“It really seemed to reinvigorate the genre, and visually it was doing stuff you’d never seen before on a grand scale. I remember being in a bar and there was a TV on in the background with no sound. That trailer came on and I saw the whole bar just looking at this guy dodging bullets. The film was just was one money shot after another. It felt like a whole new thing.”

Avatar (2009)

“I’ve known Jim [Cameron] for 25 years. I visited him on the set and saw him shooting the performance capture. He was showing me artwork that they’d done of the main Na’vi characters – like a National Geographic cover – and he said, ‘We hope we can get this photoreal but we’re not going to know for the next couple of years how close we can get it.’ I was like, ‘You’re shooting blind like that?’ But that’s how Jim rolls. And now I’ve done it. We didn’t know what Alita would look like when we started shooting. You have to cross your fingers. It’s like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I hadn’t already seen him do it – take the leap and then see the payoff.

“They never got to where he wanted to get. He wanted the Na’vi to be more photoreal, but it still worked because they’re aliens. We thought, ‘Well we have that safety net on Alita. If she doesn’t look completely photoreal, she’s a cyborg. If she looks a little plastic, it still works for the story.’ But that’s how you have to do cutting-edge filmmaking. You have to take a big leap of faith on the technology being there, because if it’s already there then you’re not really breaking new ground.”

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Alita: Battle Angel is out in cinemas now.