Sci-fi cinema’s 10 great conspiracies

Cynicism, distrust, paranoia — with Apollo 18 out now in cinemas, here’s our list of 10 great conspiracies in science fiction cinema…

Among its numerous other functions, science fiction acts as a kind of microscope. Beneath its lens, topics such as politics, social upheaval and the meaning of life can be deconstructed and carefully examined. These examinations can take the form of grand voyages, as seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or intimate psychodramas, as seen in Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, or the early films of David Cronenberg.

Recent decades, meanwhile, have seen a subtle yet notable streak of cynicism and paranoia creep into sci-fi – a feeling that, in spite of their warm smiles and confident public addresses, the people who govern us can’t quite be trusted. Let’s face it, if politicians are willing to quietly have their moats cleaned out on taxpayers’ expenses, who knows what else they may be prepared to lie about?

Maybe the government really is using chemicals or subliminal advertising to control us. Perhaps the US military genuinely is, as some have claimed, hiding secret knowledge of alien encounters.

Such distrust forms the basis of Apollo 18, the found-footage movie that claims to reveal the truth about a top-secret mission to the Moon that went terribly wrong, and was subsequently hushed up by NASA. With that film out now in cinemas, here’s a look back at ten other great conspiracies in sci-fi cinema…

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Soylent Green (1973)

In the early 70s, two events began to colour the work of filmmakers, and would continue to do so for years afterwards. The first was the Vietnam War, and the second was the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Nixon in 1974.

Around the time of Soylent Green’s theatrical release in 1973, the Watergate inquiry was underway – and director Richard Fleischer’s film perfectly summed up the cynical mood of the time. Like Silent Running (1971) Soylent Green also tapped into the era’s growing concerns about the environment, and the lasting sentiment that global corporations may be more interested in accruing wealth than the welfare of the planet or its inhabitants.

In a 21st century where Earth’s population has grown to an unmanageable size, humanity struggles to feed its swollen masses. To counter the problem of hungry mouths and rising food prices, an entity called the Soylent Corporation comes up with a lucrative and effective solution: a mass-produced, processed foodstuff called Soylent. Coming in three colours – red, yellow and green – the official line is that the stuff is derived from vegetables and plankton.

It takes a New York detective, played by Charlton Heston, to find out the unpleasant truth behind Soylent Green’s origins, resulting in a horrified outburst that has since passed into sci-fi legend.

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Capricorn One (1978)

As Soylent Green demonstrated, a newfound distrust of those in power began to manifest itself in film, a sentiment that grew as the full extent of the Watergate scandal came to light. This was seen in All The President’s Men, which charted the events of the Watergate scandal through the eyes of two Washington Post journalists, as well as thrillers such as The Parallax View and the less well known Executive Action.

Capricorn One was among the more prominent genre films of those post-Watergate years. Briskly written and directed by Peter Hyams, the movie centred around NASA’s first attempt at putting a team of astronauts on Mars. With the Capricorn One rocket on the launch pad and braced for blast off, NASA officials abruptly call the mission off due to a potentially disastrous technical issue.

The three would-be astronauts at the heart of the mission, played by James Brolin, Sam Waterston and OJ Simpson, are then ushered off to a sound stage, and forced to participate in an elaborately faked mission to Mars. NASA’s face-saving attempt at a hoax soon unravels, however, and cold-hearted officials quickly decide that the three luckless astronauts must die in order to keep their ruse a secret.

Despite its dark, even dystopian premise, Capricorn One plays out as a broad action adventure after its tense, brilliantly handled build-up. Reflecting reality (not to mention All The President’s Men), the murderous NASA conspiracy is uncovered by a tenacious journalist (played by Elliott Gould), and the movie concludes with a bracing game of cat-and-mouse between a pair of helicopters and Telly Savalas in a crop duster.

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Although NASA’s depiction was overwhelmingly negative, the agency actually cooperated in the making of the film, even lending a prototype lunar landing module to the production. This is, perhaps, something it would regret in the years that followed, when numerous conspiracy theorists began accusing the agency of faking its missions to the Moon. 

Alien (1979)

Aside from unleashing a truly horrifying alien entity on the movie-going public, Ridley Scott’s film cleverly constructed a back story that expanded the scope of Alien far beyond the spaceship on which it was set.

Having responded to a purported distress signal on a distant planet, the crew of the Nostromo end up with a dead crew member and a hideous extra-terrestrial in their midst. But as Warrant Officer Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) discovers, the Company (explicitly named in Aliens as Weyland-Yutani) has overseen the entire encounter, and its number one priority is to transport the alien back to Earth – all other concerns, including the crew’s lives, are secondary.

Alien therefore has two villains: the nightmare creature stalking the shadows of the Nostromo, and the Company, which has been quietly orchestrating the entire encounter from Earth. It’s a subplot that would be repeated throughout the franchise, as the Weyland-Yutani Corporation makes further attempts to get its hands on a live alien specimen.

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It was concept artist Ron Cobb who came up with the name Weylan-Yutani (as it was then spelled) for Alien, with the company’s logo appearing on items all over the Nostromo. Cobb saw Weylan-Yutani as a merger between British and Japanese companies, resulting in a vast corporation whose reach would one day extend far out into space. The name Yutani was the surname of Cobb’s neighbour, while Weylan was a reference to the British motor company British Leyland.

Outland (1981)

Three years after his sci-fi conspiracy thriller Capricorn One, writer and director Peter Hyams headed for a moon orbiting Jupiter for Outland, a space-based Western with some markedly similar themes to his earlier film.

On a remote mining station on the Jovian moon, Io, certain blue-collar workers begin to display signs of dangerous mental instability. Marshal William O’Niel (Sean Connery) commences an investigation, and finds out that those in charge of the mining facility have been allowing amphetamines to proliferate among the workers in order to improve their productivity – the resulting psychosis is merely an unfortunate side effect.

Just as NASA was willing to resort to murder in order to erase the evidence of a faked Mars mission in Capricorn One, so the corporate boss of Io’s mining operations is similarly willing to cover up any evidence of drug-induced control in his facility, and hires a group of assassins to kill Marshal O’Niel.

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Like Capricorn One, Outland then descends into a relatively straightforward (yet fun) action flick, this time inspired by High Noon. Nevertheless, Connery puts in one of his finest post-Bond performances in Outland, and Hyams’ depiction of a dingy mining colony, where the lives of downtrodden workers are secondary to company profits, is memorably realised.

The idea of state control via pharmaceuticals has been a frequent topic of sci-fi for decades. In Philip K Dick’s 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly, a dangerously addictive drug called Substance D is revealed to be the product of a totalitarian government. The book was brought to the screen by Richard Linklater in 2006, and the result is by turns funny, poignant, and unforgettable.They Live (1988)

Beneath They Live’s knockabout, B-movie exterior beats a slyly satirical heart. An anonymous drifter (Roddy Piper) dons a pair of stylish shades that reveal a grim truth: that the wealthy elite of 80s Los Angeles are actually ghoulish aliens in human form, who control the populace through subliminal advertising.

In John Carpenter’s fantastic script, adapted from a 60s short story by Ray Nelson, all the greed and excess of the 80s “Greed is good” era is deliciously skewered – viewed through the drifter’s enchanted specs, a dollar bill is revealed to contain the words, “This is your God”, while billboard posters urge the population to procreate and consume.

Insidious forms of alien invasion had been the stuff of sci-fi for years, of course, and Don Siegel’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers was undoubtedly the finest example. But Carpenter’s film added a satirical and political edge to its paranoia, and the result is quite unique – where Body Snatchers was about anti-Communist hysteria, They Live was all about consumerism and advertising as a tool of oppression.

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The daft handling of They Live, with its ex-wrestler star and absurdly protracted fight scene, acts as a cover for a genuinely interesting and relevant subtext – that those in power are not who they seem, and that their agendas are so far removed from our own, they may as well be skull-faced aliens from outer space.

Independence Day (1996)

Located in the Nevada desert, Area 51 is inarguably the most well known military base in the world, largely because of the number of conspiracy theories that have gradually piled up at its gates since the 1950s. Those theories had their origins in what became known as the Roswell UFO incident, in which eyewitnesses claimed that a flying saucer crashed in New Mexico, and was carted off by the US army.

The government’s secret knowledge of extra-terrestrial life was explored in Steven Spielberg’s classic Close Encounters Of The First Kind (1977), but the Area 51 theories of UFO folklore weren’t expanded on in a mainstream blockbuster until Roland Emmerich’s bombastic invasion movie, Independence Day, almost 20 years later.

Here, the spacecraft and its alien pilot, which have been stashed away and secretly experimented on by mad scientists since 1947, become a vital part in humanity’s counter-strike on the invaders.

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Unfortunately for Emmerich, the US military took exception to the script’s use of Area 51 and its place in UFO lore, and withdrew its initial pledge to provide vehicles and costumes for the film.

Deep Impact (1998)

The first of two killer asteroid films released in 1998, Deep Impact dealt not just with the chest-beating destruction of a deadly rock from outer space, as the rather more up-beat Armageddon did, but rather the implications of what would happen to the little people back on Earth.

With the shadow of a comet looming over our planet, those in power are forced to face the ugly truth: that only a remnant of humanity can be saved. Armed with this knowledge, the US government begins to make secret plans, conspiring to hide a select number of humans in refuges located deep beneath the mountains. However, the existence of the plan is soon uncovered by a nosy reporter (Téa Leoni), forcing the government to admit publicly that the end is nigh.

An almost identical scenario occurs in Roland Emmerich’s amiably ridiculous 2012, in which Earth comes under threat from inverted neutrinos, or some such pseudo-scientific claptrap. In that film, Earth’s leaders are secretly building gigantic arks, which will be filled with animals, valuable works of art, and a select number of the world’s politicians and billionaires.

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The quite logical notion that only a small percentage of the Earth’s population could be saved during a global catastrophe is the most arresting aspect of both Deep Impact and 2012. Sadly, in both films, this plot point is quickly displaced by the usual procession of showy special effects and disaster movie melodrama.

The Matrix (1999)

The Wachowski’s pre-millennial sci-fi hit held perhaps the ultimate conspiracy at its core – that all of reality is a sham, a computer-controlled dream designed to enslave humanity. Every conspiracy film needs a protagonist to discover the truth, and in The Matrix, it’s Neo (Keanu Reeves) who finds out that humanity is being used as a power source for despotic machines.

It’s a fantastic, Phildickian idea, and one explored to more subtle and satisfying effect in Alex Proyas’ Dark City in 1998, in which a gloomy metropolis is revealed to be a gigantic alien ship floating through space.

Where most of the other movies on this list reveal an underlying distrust of authority, The Matrix and Dark City question whether reality itself can be fully relied on – a preoccupation that has troubled the minds of philosophers for centuries, and serves as ideal fodder for science fiction’s What-If machine.

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Moon (2009)

Duncan Jones’ stunning debut acts as a loving homage to the atmosphere and practical filmmaking approach of 70s and 80s sci-fi movies, and also borrows some of their dystopian plot elements, too.

In a knockout performance, Sam Rockwell plays Sam, a lone blue-collar worker slowly going out of his mind on a lunar mining base. With days before his three-year contract is due to end, Sam discovers a truth that alters everything he knows about himself and the company he works for.

It would be an injustice to detail what happens next here – it’s enough to say that Moon’s plot draws on themes explored in such films as Outland and Alien, in which a corporation is perfectly willing to do unspeakably cruel, even criminal things to innocent people in order to maximise its profits.

Transformers: Dark Of The Moon (2011)

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Buried as it is beneath the weight of yet another plot-free, explosion-filled Michael Bay film, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the opening chapter of his third Transformers flick, Dark Of The Moon, is actually quite well constructed.

Taking its cue from Capricorn One – not to mention the various real-world conspiracies surrounding America’s trips to the Moon – the film suggests that there was far more to NASA’s race to beat the Russians than mere Cold War propaganda. The story goes that NASA detected the impact of an unknown object on the lunar surface, and so began an urgent attempt to boldly go and retrieve whatever it might be.

The crashed object turns out to be the Ark, a ship from the planet Cybertron carrying a dormant Transformer (Sentinel Prime, voiced by Leonard Nimoy) and a cache of mysterious fuel cells. Initially discovered by the pioneering crew of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 (“I’ve uncovered a giant metal face,” gasps an awe-struck Neil Armstrong), the ship’s presence on the Moon is successfully kept secret until 2011, when all hell breaks loose – in glorious 3D.

It’s noteworthy that NASA was quite cooperative in the making of Dark Of The Moon, in spite of the film’s conspiracy theory set-up – Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the lunar surface, even provides a prominent cameo role. It’s possible that NASA wanted to use the film as a way of advertising the last Space Shuttle launch, which took place in the summer blockbuster season.

Or maybe NASA was just happy to endorse a film that, after years of (patently ridiculous) Internet suggestions that we never went to the moon in the first place, at least depicted the Apollo 11 as a genuine event, and not a Capricorn One-style conspiracy.

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