Sci-Fi Movies That Were Inspired By Real-Life Events
Photo: District 9 / Sony Pictures Releasing

Sci-Fi Movies That Were Inspired By Real-Life Events

With any timeless sci-fi story, there's always a grain of truth that allows the work to serve as a parable for modern times. However, there are also sci-fi films that find their inspiration directly from real-life events - whether those real incidents serve as a springboard for a totally wild romp or as a direct blueprint for the big-screen adaptation. 

As William Randolph Hearst once said, "Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it is more interesting." As is the case with several of the science-fiction flicks based on true stories, sometimes that adage rings especially true. From alien abductions to international tragedies to mad Third Reich scientists, the wellspring of inspiration for science fiction is nearly boundless.

  • Neill Blomkamp's directorial debut subverted the alien invasion genre to create a tense and often bleak story about a massive extraterrestrial spaceship that breaks down on Earth, leaving thousands of insectile aliens stranded in South Africa. They are quickly corralled into the titular District 9, a slum walled off from the rest of the world.

    The plot of the movie, which is filmed largely like an episode of Cops, follows Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an unassuming government worker tasked with relocating the alien encampment to a new area. The film's themes of racism and fear of the "outsider" are clear from the start; the entire premise is inspired by, and an allegory for, South African apartheid, and the subsequent poverty and racial tension that resulted in Johannesburg, where District 9 is set.

    According to Blomkamp, District 9, based on his short film Alive in Joburg, owes everything to Johannesburg. The lasting trauma and scars of apartheid proved to be fertile narrative soil for Blomkamp's story of segregation and fear to grow into an epic tale. "In my opinion, the film doesn't exist without Jo'burg," Blomkamp told reporters in 2009. "It's not like I had a story, and then I was trying to pick a city. It's totally the other way around... The people are warm, but the environment is so caustic and unbelievably disgusting to be in. Every single thing [about life] is difficult."

    • Actors: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Vanessa Haywood, Mandla Gaduka
    • Released: 2009
    • Directed by: Neill Blomkamp

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  • This sprawling sci-fi epic follows the life-changing experience of an Indiana man named Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) whose life is changed forever when he comes in contact with a UFO. He becomes increasingly obsessed with discovering the truth, which forms a rift between him and his family, who fear he's losing his mind. Neary soon meets others who have had similar experiences, and their obsession and investigation culminates in unprecedented contact with a giant alien mothership.

    In reality, the concept of the film itself, and the title of the movie, stem from a book written by J. Allen Hynek, a scientist and former government researcher who helmed several different military operations investigating UFO reports. The most famous of these was known as Project Blue Book. Hynek, who used rigorous scientific theory to investigate reported UFO phenomenon during his years-long involvement with the government, was even hired to work as a scientific consultant on the film.

    After Project Blue Book came to an end, Hynek penned a book exploring his theories, in which he categorized different types of encounters with alien life. A close encounter of the first kind included people visually seeing a UFO from within 500 feet, while the "second kind" involved the UFO physically interacting with an object, such as shutting off a car engine. The "third kind," as used for the premise of the movie, means an encounter in which an alien lifeform is present and witnessed. Hynek said of the movie, "Even though the film is fiction, it's based for the most part on the known facts of the UFO mystery, and it certainly catches the flavor of the phenomenon."

    • Actors: Richard Dreyfuss, François Truffaut, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Cary Guffey
    • Released: 1977
    • Directed by: Steven Spielberg

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  • Presented from the start as a story based on real events, Fire in the Sky is a chilling alien abduction story about a group of five loggers in the White Mountains in Arizona who encounter a UFO while driving home from work together. Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney) is abducted by the aliens, who savagely experiment on him before eventually returning him to his hometown, battered and traumatized. During the days in which he's missing, his friends and co-workers become suspects in his disappearance and possible slaying. When he does return with a wild story of his alien encounter, the police investigating the incident refuse to believe it wasn't all a hoax.

    The movie is based directly on a 1978 book by the real Travis Walton, titled The Walton Experience, which recounts his alleged abduction in 1975. In Walton's recalling of events, he was knocked cold when abducted and awoke in a hospital-like room, where three short aliens observed him before a small group of humans put a plastic mask over his face, at which point he lost consciousness again.

    The experience in the book is a far cry from that depicted in the film. On screen, the fictional Walton wakes up in a slime-covered cocoon and his examination is far more turbulent and nightmarish, with an ocular probe fired into his eye and his mouth held open with straps. According to reports at the time of the film's 1993 release, Paramount execs felt Walton's retelling was too vague and anti-climatic, so they hired screenwriter Tracy Torme to spice it up. Walton released a statement at the time supporting the decision. "Fire in the Sky is not a documentary," Walton said. "I'm sure audiences will feel what I felt during the abduction... like a lab specimen."

    • Actors: D.B. Sweeney, Robert Patrick, Craig Sheffer, Peter Berg, James Garner
    • Released: 1993
    • Directed by: Robert Lieberman

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  • A widowed journalist named John Klein (Richard Gere) gets lost while driving cross country to cover a story, and he finds himself in Point Pleasant, WV. According to Sheriff Connie Mills (Laura Linney), the townspeople have recently reported seeing a strange creature with red eyes, while Mills herself has been having recurring nightmares. Klein begins to slowly lose his mind as he gets wrapped up in the mystery of the so-called Mothman, until the film culminates in a disaster was prophesied in one of Mills's dreams - the collapse of Silver Bridge over the Ohio River.

    While The Mothman Prophecies film is set in the 1990s, it is based on a real tragedy that occurred when the Silver Bridge collapsed in 1967, claiming 46 lives. After an investigation, it was discovered that the event was caused by a tiny defect that resulted in catastrophic failure of the bridge's suspension.

    However, John Keel linked the tragic collapse to folkloric and anecdotal reports of the Mothman, a shadowy figure famed for supposedly harassing and terrorizing the residents of Point Pleasant and other small West Virginia towns. His 1975 book, The Mothman Prophecies, became an obsession for screenwriter Richard Hatem, who read it in one sitting and began writing a spec script the following day. Hatem modified the context of the book to have a cohesive narrative and set the story in modern day, while working with Keel on adapting the story.

    • Actors: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Will Patton, Debra Messing, Lucinda Jenney
    • Released: 2002
    • Directed by: Mark Pellington

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  • Based on the timeless H.G. Wells novel, Steven Spielberg's 2005 rendition of War of the Worlds retells the famous story of an alien invasion that devastates Earth, and a brave father (Tom Cruise) who tirelessly tries to protect his children from the threat. Unlike previous adaptations, however, the alien crafts don't crash into Earth, but instead emerge from beneath the ground.

    One of the most memorable scenes from occurs in the first act, when the ships burst from the ground in explosions of dust and rubble and begin firing at innocent bystanders with energy weapons. Cruise runs (obviously) from the carnage as people are turned into clouds of ash, and he emerges from the horrific scene dirty, hurt, and scared. According to Spielberg, the striking visuals of urban destruction, and the themes of a fatal malicious force causing panic and mass fear, was inspired by the emotional and residual aftermath of 9/11.

    "It's certainly about Americans fleeing for their lives, being attacked for no reason, having no idea why they are being attacked and who is attacking them," Spielberg said of the film, explaining that one famous moment from the terrorist strikes inspired the shocking scene involving the aliens' sudden appearance. "The image that stands out most in my mind is everybody in Manhattan fleeing across the George Washington Bridge in the shadow of 9/11, a searing image that I've never been able to get out of my head."

    • Actors: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Miranda Otto, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins
    • Released: 2005
    • Directed by: Steven Spielberg

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  • This 1958 sci-fi horror classic tells the story of two high school sweethearts, Steve (Steve McQueen) and Jane (Aneta Corsaut), who see a meteorite drop into the forest outside their rural Pennsylvania town. Out oozes a pink, gelatinous substance, which proves to be a sentient alien lifeform that consumes and absorbs what it touches, growing larger and larger. Steve and Jane try to warn the authorities, but their raving story of an evil blob falls on deaf ears. That is, until the eponymous blob eats so much and grows so large it begins to consume and overwhelm the entire city.

    While the idea of a sentient puddle of jelly terrorizing a small town seems outlandish - and, by all definitions, is outlandish - the idea for the classic alien monster flick is rooted in a true story (that is to say, a supposedly true story) that happened one fortuitous night in September 1950. Two Pennsylvania police officers claimed they saw something that looked like a "parachute" or a "sparkly mass" float down from the sky into the woods, and when they went to investigate, they found something truly strange.

    Officers Joe Keenan and John Collins claimed in a police report at the time that they found a "purple jelly" substance, 6 feet wide and 1 foot high, that supposedly glowed and was also pulsating. They called for backup and Sergeant Joe Cook took it upon himself to shove his hand in the substance, which clung to his hand before evaporating and leaving behind an "odorless scum." Before long, the entire purple mass had dissipated and dissolved into nothingness.

    This bizarre and seemingly impossible report made it to local papers, but likely would have remained a footnote in UFO history if not for movie producer Jack H. Harris, who stumbled across an article about the incident when searching for inspiration for his next monster movie. The rest is history.

    • Actors: Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe, Olin Howland, Stephen Chase
    • Released: 1958
    • Directed by: Irvin S. Yeaworth

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