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5 Popular Sci-Fi Tropes in Movies and TV

From wastelands to the great unknown of space, these are five of the most popular tropes in sci-fi movies and TV.
by Ken Miyamoto on May 29, 2024

Science fiction movies are a gateway to exploring futuristic scenarios, advanced technologies, and complex questions about humanity and society. From classics like Blade Runner to modern hits like Interstellar and Dune, these films utilize a range of sci-fi tropes that define the genre while enhancing storytelling.

Here, we delve into some key sci-fi tropes and their roles in captivating and challenging audiences. But wait... what’s a trope again?

What Is a Trope?

A trope is a rhetorical device, motif, or cliché that recurs frequently in literature and film, becoming easily recognizable and familiar due to its common use in various narratives. Tropes act as narrative shortcuts, enabling storytellers to quickly establish expectations, build character depth, move the plot forward, or trigger specific emotional responses from the audience.

The most effective tropes are essential components of storytelling conventions. They allow writers to swiftly impart information or set up themes without a detailed explanation.

Although tropes can sometimes lead to predictability or become stereotypical, they remain crucial instruments for writers to connect with their audiences by drawing on shared understandings of certain characters, plot developments, and thematic elements.

Writers can also leverage genre-specific tropes to challenge and subvert audience expectations, leading viewers along unexpected narrative and character trajectories.

A large hologram woman talking to K (Ryan Gosling) in 'Blade Runner 2049'

'Blade Runner 2049' (2017)

Top 5 Sci-Fi Movie Tropes

Now that we know what tropes are, let's explore the top five sci-fi tropes.

1. The Dystopian Future

A common trope in sci-fi is the depiction of a dystopian future. This setting offers a critical examination of current societal trends, projecting negative outcomes that could result from unchecked technological advances, environmental degradation, or political corruption. It’s a trope that serves the story by offering the protagonist conflict to go up against, which helps develop their character arc.

A dystopian future can be presented in many different ways. 

In The Matrix, we see a future where artificial intelligence has taken over the world, using humans as an energy source as they present a false world.

In the Mad Max movies, we see a bleak future world where we’ve failed as a society and watch as survivors survive what remains.

In The Hunger Games, we see a dystopian future where children represent their communities in a survival game where they must kill or be killed.

It’s an intriguing trope to most because we reflect on where we are today in our society, and where we could be if we’re not too careful.

Read More: How To Write a Dystopian Movie or TV Show

2. Artificial Intelligence

The theme of artificial intelligence (AI)—whether as sentient robots, autonomous systems, or AI overlords—is ever-present in many science fiction movies. This trope explores themes of creation turning against its creator, often reflecting society's fears about technology (a hot topic in today’s world).

In the Terminator franchise, the AI system Skynet becomes self-aware and decides to exterminate humanity, presenting a stark cautionary tale about the limits of human control over technology.

Films like Ex Machina and A.I. Artificial Intelligence explore the ethical and philosophical dilemmas posed by AI, including questions of consciousness, rights, and the potential threats to humanity. 

This sci-fi trope pushes viewers to consider the boundaries of human creation and the possible future of our technological evolution.

3. Time Travel

Time travel is a beloved sci-fi trope that allows characters to witness or alter past events, foresee the future, or get caught in time loops they must escape. It’s an exciting and thought-provoking story element that gets the imagination of the audience flowing. It’s also a tricky one because time travel as a theoretical science is full of inescapable paradoxes.

Back to the Future masterfully uses this trope as Marty McFly accidentally changes his parents' history, leading to a series of comedic and dramatic escapades to correct the timeline.

Looper goes the clever route of making the audience face a question—would you kill your future (or past) self if you had to, and what would be the paradoxical consequences?

Time travel also serves as a clever plot device that can introduce alternate timelines and enable rich, nonlinear storytelling.

Read More: How To Handle Time Travel in Your Screenplay

4. Space Exploration

There’s no more enticing—and used—sci-fi trope than space exploration. Venturing into the vast expanse of space remains a cornerstone of the science fiction genre, igniting the imagination about what lies beyond Earth and reflecting our aspirations and fears about the great unknown of that undiscovered country in the stars.

Star Trek consistently took us to where no one has gone before. It has even made science fiction concepts into eventual science facts, inspiring scientists and inventors to make what was formerly thought to be impossible possible. It also presented universal themes of discovery, colonialism, and conflict between different species.

In Interstellar, we were given a story of space exploration embedded in true theoretical concepts of what space travel could be like, including dynamics of time travel theory.

If we’re going to explore space, we’re going to need to take science fiction to the next level and make it science fact. That is what makes science fiction so compelling—especially when it comes to space exploration. We all wonder what it’s like beyond our planet and solar system. Science fiction allows us to ponder that when the trope of space exploration is used.

Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) talking to Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) in spacesuits in 'Interstellar'

'Interstellar' (2014)

5. Alien Encounters

The encounter with extraterrestrial life forms is a fundamental aspect of many sci-fi movies. Aliens can be depicted as invaders, like in Independence Day or as kind beings with big hearts like in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

This sci-fi trope explores the fears and wonders of what it means to come into contact with non-human intelligence. It often raises questions about humanity's place in the universe and our approach to the "other."

The alien in 'E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial' (1982)

'E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial' (1982)

Bonus Sci-Fi Trope: The Virtual Reality World

Virtual reality (VR) offers a digital realm that characters can fully immerse themselves in, often indistinguishable from the real world. This sci-fi trope explores the blurred lines between virtual experiences and reality, addressing issues of identity, escapism, and the potential psychological impacts of living in a digital universe.

Movies like Tron (and its sequel Tron: Legacy), The Matrix, and Ready Player One delve into these virtual environments, questioning what is real and what consequences these realities hold for their users.

We’re slowly making virtual reality science facts, using science fiction as a driving force to create digital worlds to inhabit—for better or worse, we’ll see.

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These sci-fi tropes continue to allow science fiction to serve as a platform for exploring sophisticated and provocative ideas about humanity and its future.


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Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.

He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed, and many Lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies and Instagram @KenMovies76

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