Debate Club: Best patriotic sci-fi movies

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Jul 3, 2018, 2:30 PM EDT

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

In this week's installment, we're getting excited about Independence Day. And that means saluting the most patriotic sci-fi and genre films.

What qualifies a movie to make this list? It's got to embody something quintessentially American. And because America means lots of different things to a lot of different people, that means our choices are, by definition, pretty subjective. Still, it's pretty telling that these five films are largely optimistic, openhearted affairs. Their characters are heroic, inspiring, smart, and dependable. And their stories are often rousing adventures with happy endings.

What can we say: We're idealistic sorts, and we tend to see the best in this country, even when it lets us down. And in down times, these movies help remind us what's so great about the good ol' U.S. of A.

Get Off My Plane! - Air Force One (1997)

Air Force One (1997)

This is one of those movies that feels halfway finished once you've figured out the casting: Who didn't imagine this era Harrison Ford as President? Who wouldn't want him as President? (Who wouldn't want him as President now?)

Ford's turn as the taciturn, go-get-'em President, the get off my plane arse-kicker, felt iconic while you were watching it, so even if the movie's terrorists-hijacking-the-President’s-plane plot plays sort of ridiculous, it's still a blast from start to finish. Regardless of your politics, how do you not love an America where Harrison Ford is President?

Independence Day

Independence Day (1996)

Technically speaking, the aliens of Independence Day invade all of Earth. But this was back in the '90s, when Hollywood was mostly focused on America when telling stories, so it's up to our pilots, scientists and President to kick butt and save the planet.

Director Roland Emmerich mastered the art of blockbuster popcorn entertainment with this silly, deeply pleasurable action flick, essentially creating the cinematic equivalent of the Fourth of July with its endless fireworks and kickback entertainment. If, heaven forbid, extra-terrestrials ever do come to Earth, we want Will Smith to save our skins while delivering plenty of quips. And when it comes to American Presidents, Bill Pullman plays a pretty great one, acting heroic and Presidential in a way that's completely generic but also comfortingly cinematic. (And, yeah, his big rah-rah speech still rules.)

The Martian | "Checks Out" | 20th Century FOX

The Martian (2015)

This isn't necessarily a "patriotic" film per se — it doesn't feature a ton of the Michael Bay flag-waving that exemplifies the genre — but we find it uniquely patriotic because it shows American can-do in a way that is often ignored in movies about space exploration.

This is a movie about a guy stranded on Mars who, along with the best and brightest minds in the country (and, eventually, the world), has to figure out how to get home. They can't just send Bruce Willis and a bunch of dudes to go get him; they have to be patient, and prudent, and founded in scientific fact to save him.

It can sometimes feel as if the country is being run by seat-of-their-pants reactionaries. The Martian is about an America where smart people work with other smart people to do great things. That's an America one misses.

Steve Rogers Transformation Scene | Captain America The First Avenger (2011)

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

In the mid-2000s, Chris Evans was perhaps best known for playing another superhero: the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four films. But once he was cast as Steve Rogers, the puny, earnest American who gets transformed into Captain America, this heartthrob and underrated actor found his calling.

Where Tony Stark is more of shallow, smart-ass opportunist, Rogers takes crime-fighting seriously: he's a square-jawed idealist who's not known for his sense of humor. But starting with 2011's The First Avenger, Evans figured out how to make the character likable by giving Cap's decency an inspiring, stirring quality. From The First Avenger through Avengers: Infinity War, Captain America has always modeled the selfless heroism that's been the embodiment of this country's best qualities. If only we had his shield.

Superman Saves Lois - Superman the Movie

Superman (1978) and Superman II (1981)

Superman is the ultimate American superhero — his costume basically is the flag with his name on it — and the Superman movies, or the good ones anyway, remember that. Like the flag, Superman is the example we are striving toward, the perfection we can't reach but that can guide us in our moments of greatest uncertainty.

Some of the best Superman films involve Americans rallying around Superman, being inspired by his heroism to commit acts of heroism on their own, most famously when they band together to try to stop Zod and his cohorts in Superman II. Superman is, in his way, the ultimate immigrant: not from America, but here to contribute, to honor, and to thrive.


Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.