Science fiction has long been a genre that uses ideas about the future to comment on the present. As such, the field has also always courted controversy.
From dystopian sci-fi novels critical of contemporary world governments to mouthpieces for the author’s takes on race, gender, and a wide array of other social issues, numerous sci-fi books and films have faced the ire of censors (and would-be censors) around the world. Books like Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Giver, and, perhaps ironically, Fahrenheit 451 frequently make the ALA’s list of most commonly challenged books.
Science fiction has also been a part of the cinematic landscape since its earliest days, and controversies of various kinds have naturally followed. These eight controversial sci-fi movies—many of which are now considered classics—were all banned, challenged, or otherwise embroiled in controversy, either when they first released or shortly thereafter.
Sometimes this was the result of what was on the screen, sometimes it was events going on behind the scenes, but always it kept people talking, and often still does today…
Island of Lost Souls (1932)
The first major cinematic adaptation of H.G. Wells’s Island of Dr. Moreau, this 1932 picture faced controversy from the moment of its release. 14 states refused to show the film due to its depiction of the then-controversial theory of human evolution.
It wasn’t just squeamish censors who found the flick distasteful, either. Wells himself famously didn’t care for the adaptation, feeling that it played up the horror angle too much, and was unconcerned when the film was banned in England—which it was until 1958.
Among the cited reasons were sequences of vivisection and a depiction of evolution that was considered “repulsive” and “unnatural." Many censors also objected to Moreau’s line, “Do you know what it means to feel like God?”
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)
It wouldn’t be a controversial movie list without a dip into McCarthyism and the “Red Scare.”
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is a 1956 programmer about, well, flying saucers that has been rendered immortal thanks mainly to the special effects work of stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen. Behind the scenes, though, it’s one of many films written pseudonymously by Bernard Gordon.
Though not as famous as the so-called “Hollywood Ten,” Gordon was one of the first people in the business blacklisted by the efforts of the House Un-American Activities Committee due to suspicions that he was a communist.
For 20 years, he was actively surveilled by the FBI and had to work anonymously. In fact, when the Writers Guild of America took it upon themselves to begin restoring credits to blacklisted screenwriters, Gordon received more retroactive credits than any other writer.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian sci-fi adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel of the same name made quite a stir in England, where the film is set.
In fact, it was explicitly linked to several murders and a rape, and eventually pulled from release in the UK at the director’s own request—where it remained out of circulation until after his death in 1999. Of course, that wasn’t the only nation that objected to the film’s nihilistic depictions of brutality and sexual violence.
In the United States, it initially received an X rating, while the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures forbade any Roman Catholics from watching it.
E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982)
Almost universally-beloved here in its native country, Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic isn’t exactly what you’d normally think of as “controversial." However, the film was actually restricted in Finland, Norway, and Sweden, where you had to be over the age of 11 (eight in Finland) to watch it.
Reasons given varied, including a “threatening and frightening atmosphere” throughout, while the Swedish Board of Film Censorship declared that the film was dangerous because it “portrays adults as enemies of children.”
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Many films are controversial because of their contents—this 1983 anthology picture, based on the legendary television series of the same name, is notorious because of what happened off camera.
While filming the segment entitled “Time Out,” which featured a bigoted character transported through time where he suffered as various oppressed people, a helicopter crash claimed the life of Vic Morrow and two child actors, seven-year-old My-ca Dinh Le and six-year-old Renee Shin-Yi Chen.
The tragedy led to several reforms in the rules relating to on-set safety and child labor in films, not to mention lawsuits targeting director John Landis, producer Steven Spielberg, and Warner Bros.
Alien 3 (1992)
Director David Fincher, who would later become a fan favorite and three-time Academy Award nominee, didn’t exactly get off to the most auspicious start.
Though its legacy has received considerable polish in the intervening decades, when Alien 3 first hit theaters in 1992, it was to nearly overwhelming disdain. The film shifted gears dramatically from the franchise’s extremely popular second installment—which had been directed by James Cameron some six years before—including killing off popular characters virtually off-screen.
Fans weren’t the only ones who weren’t entirely happy with the experience, either. Fincher himself cited heavy studio interference in the production and has basically sworn off the film ever since.
Battle Royale (2000)
Before The Hunger Games there was Battle Royale.
Adapted from a 1999 novel by Koushun Takami, this legendary Japanese flick concerns a near-future where a totalitarian government forces high school students to fight to the death on a remote island. Sounds pretty familiar, right?
The film’s tone is nothing like that of Hunger Games, however, with a much-sharper satirical bite and a grimier approach to the violence inherent in its premise.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Japanese government didn’t care much for the film, labeling it “crude and tasteless” and restricting access to the picture for people in the age group of most of the film’s characters. The film’s director disagreed with the government’s actions, and in one speech told teenagers, “You can sneak in, and I encourage you to do so.”
Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Originally a hit manga that began in 1989 and was later adapted into an even-more-popular anime in 1995, Ghost in the Shell was ripe for live-action treatment, which it finally got in 2017—but not without drawing considerably controversy.
This time, the furor came with the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead character, Major Motoko Kusanagi, who was renamed Mira Killian in the film.
The move drew criticisms of racism and whitewashing, though Mamoru Oshii, the director of the anime, disagreed. He stated that, because the character “is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one,” that meant that “there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her.”
He went on to compare the casting to John Wayne playing Genghis Khan which… probably didn’t actually help his case much.