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A special place for sci-fi: 10 great films with Pacific Northwest ties

A collage of movie stills
KNKX Graphic via Canva

What is it that draws us to science fiction? Is it the chance to be whisked away to distant places in the far reaches of the galaxy? Or, perhaps, is it that it brings us closer to parts of our world? Or maybe we’re all just looking to phone home with movies that illuminate all that is life-altering in our own backyards?

The second cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, one of the most iconic stories ever told in the genre, is releasing this week. Dune: Part Two is a sweeping epic that makes some significant changes to the source material while also getting to the heart of some of its central ideas. In many regards, it is an adaptation that not only boldly carries on the legacy of Herbert’s work, but gives it new life all its own.

When it comes to sci-fi stories with local ties, there are plenty of great ones, like Dune, that have stuck with us over the decades and into the present day.

Whether you’re looking for a film that the world almost never saw, or a modern thriller that was one of the few actually shot in Seattle, here are the best sci-fi films with Pacific Northwest ties to blast off with.

As the Earth Turns (1938)

A black and white image of a man with raised eyebrows and with his hair combed back.
8th Sense Productions
8th Sense Productions
Richard Lyford as PAX looking at his machine that can change the time of the world in 1938's As the Earth Turns.

Starting us off is a work that was almost lost to time. Made in 1937 by the late filmmaker Richard Lyford when he was 20 years old, As the Earth Turns was a silent sci-fi film he made independently with his own equipment.

His locally shot feature, filmed around Seattle, sees him also portraying a man named PAX who, fearing the immense dangers of the weapons of war, tries to get the attention of world leaders by increasing the time of the day by five minutes. This soon causes catastrophic consequences to the climate, which Lyford brings to life with everything from the creative use of miniatures, to an effective scene of an earthquake that collapses a ceiling around a meeting. It is humbly made but historic all the same.

Though it was made many decades ago, the film only got a proper release after it was discovered in Lyford’s basement. It finally made its theatrical debut at the Egyptian Theatre for the Seattle International Film Festival in 2019 before being shown on television via Turner Classic Movies in October 2021.

While more than a little scrappy — with one scene certainly seeming like they’re being chased out of a key location after sneaking in — it remains something special that should be seen by anyone interested in the history of both independent filmmaking in the region, and sci-fi cinema itself.

WarGames (1983)

A teenage boy and girl in front of a boxy computer surrounded by other electronic equipment.
Matthew Broderick as David Lightman and Ally Sheedy as Jennifer Mack sitting in front of a computer in 1983's WarGames.

Continuing on is a Seattle sci-fi classic about the dangers of artificial intelligence and nuclear war, two things we thankfully don’t have to worry about now at all!

A fresh-faced Matthew Broderick stars as David Lightman, a Snohomish High School student by day and hacker by night. David stumbles upon a strange computer system that he unknowingly challenges in what could become a real game of Global Thermonuclear War. David and his crush Jennifer, played by Ally Sheedy (who will show up again later on this list), must then avert a catastrophe when the dang adults in the military threaten to escalate the situation.

The film is often cheesy, but as a time capsule of the era, it’s hard to think of anything quite like it. While the enduring anxieties around our annihilation hold up more than the technology, there is much about it that still hits home.

If you can forgive the beginning handful of school scenes that were actually shot in California, much of the rest of it was filmed in Washington state and a key moment right before the end is complicated by the characters missing the ferry (we’ve all been there). Said conclusion then cranks up the cheese, culminating in a rather silly high-stakes game of tic-tac-toe, but it's all held together by sincerity. Alas, if only the pressing problems facing our world could be solved by a kid playing computer games.

Dune (1984)

A young man with brown hair wearing a black body suit stands in a white sand desert with a row of other similarly dressed people behind him.
Universal Pictures
Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides standing in the desert of Arrakis with an array of Fremen gathered behind him in 1984's Dune.

That’s right, as true Dune aficionados know, the most recent take on Herbert’s story is not the only one. Instead, it was a filmmaker by the name of David Lynch who first took a crack at bringing the immense story to the big screen.

Starring the Yakima-born Kyle MacLachlan, whom Lynch would go on to work with for his acclaimed locally shot series Twin Peaks, it is a film that was initially met with mixed to negative reviews upon its initial release. However, it has gained a devoted audience who were taken with all the big swings and more maximalist approach that it took. Where the most recent film was more brutal, this adaptation was defined by brighter colors, Sting wearing a speedo, an adorable pug held while charging into battle, and oh so much more weirdness.

While Lynch himself has disavowed the film, saying that he did not get final cut during production and calling it a “gigantic sadness,” there is so much of his vision in that it's impossible to fully write off. Whether you’re looking to see this version to contrast it with the newer ones or you just want to see all the pure strangeness that the director still managed to slip through, it remains more than worth a watch.

Short Circuit (1986)

A young woman with short brown hair wearing a purple shirt looks off camera as a robotic hand rests on her shoulder.
TriStar Pictures
Ally Sheedy as Stephanie Speck befriending the robot Number 5 AKA Johnny 5 in 1986's Short Circuit.

Next is the most unabashedly silly entry on this list. Despite one central caricature that has aged like sour milk, Short Circuit is still quite fun, even as you’ll wish you could cut that part out from the film completely.

Shot and set in Astoria, Oregon, it centers on a robot named Number 5 who has escaped from a U.S. military base that was intending to use him for war. When he begins to gain an understanding of his sense of self and a desire to live a life of his own, he’ll have to team up with local animal caregiver Stephanie Speck (played by Ally Sheedy, her second appearance on this list) to escape their attempts to bring him in.

The film is one of those experiences where it feels like those involved went “What if we just got a weird little guy and tossed him into a bunch of scenarios then filled in the story from there?” In many regards, it owes a debt to 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, but without the same sense of heart that tapped into.

However, for all the hedging, there is plenty of slapstick humor and absurdity to enjoy. Whether the rest of it computes matters less than just seeing what goofiness this robot can get up to next. With that being said, absolutely do not watch the sequel when it leaves the PNW behind for New York.

Class of 1999 (1990)

A young man with brown hair wearing a sleeveless shirt looks past the camera, a man in a blue uniform stands behind him with a white barred door in the background.
Taurus Entertainment Group
Bradley Gregg as Cody Culp who has been released from prison in 1990's Class of 1999.

Now is where we take a bit of a swerve, in the best way possible, for those looking for a bizarre B-movie.

Set in an alternative version of Seattle in the 1990’s, Class of 1999 shows us what is happening at Kennedy High School, where the young Cody Culp (Bradley Gregg of Stand by Me) has just been dumped after a stint in prison. Violence is literally everywhere and, the government being the government, decides to send in three robot teachers to police the unsuspecting students with brutal force.

Actually shot on location in Seattle, the film takes everything to increasingly cartoonish extremes as the once-warring students must figure out what is going on with their teachers and then rise up to take their school back. It’s a real riot, with the always great Pam Grier standing out as one of the robot teachers, even as it's more than a little rough around the edges.

Still, it’s often good fun as the film really goes for it without holding back. Just don’t let local officials watch it as we don’t want them getting any bright ideas.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

A man in a denim jacket with binoculars around his neck holds up his wrist wearing a watch. Part of a yellow car and foliage are in the background.
Mark Duplass as Kenneth Calloway checking the time in 2012's Safety Not Guaranteed.

Taking a big jump through time, we come to the essential PNW film Safety Not Guaranteed. The locally Seattle-shot film is based, in part, on a true story surrounding a classified ad about joining a time travel expedition, that was jokingly placed in a magazine. It uses this as a jumping-off point for its own more sweet, yet still abundantly silly, interests. As to whether this ability to bend time is actually real or not, the film thrives in the uncertainty, while delving into characters who find themselves lost.

Namely, this involves a group of journalists at Seattle Magazine who decide this ad would be a fun story to look into. As we accompany the delightful trio of Jeff (Jake Johnson), Darius (Aubrey Plaza), and Arnau (Karan Soni) off to meet the enigmatic Kenneth (Mark Duplass) and figure out what’s going on, it becomes about reflecting on what we would do if we could travel back in time. For me, it would be to go to see this film again for the first time, without knowing what it has in store.

Chronicle (2012)

Two young men sit on the ledge of a roof next to red signal lights, below them is an urban landscape spreading out with water beyond.
20th Century Studios
Michael B. Jordan as Steve Montgomery and Dane DeHaan as Andrew Detmer sit atop a Seattle skyscraper with the Space Needle peaking through in the background in 2012's Chronicle.

Coming out in the same year is a vastly different sci-fi film that is both more action-heavy and leaves its own unique mark on the found footage subgenre — where we see the world of the film through a camera used by a character to capture their own story.

Chronicle is centered around three Seattle teenagers, Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt (Alex Russell), and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), who discover they have gained telekinetic abilities after stumbling upon a mysterious object in the woods one night during a party. Sounds amazing, right?

Well, it is at first as the teenagers mess around with adults, but things take a darker turn when Andrew discovers that his powers can be used to do more than just prank people.

It is one of those films that fakes being Seattle in often ridiculous fashion, as it was instead shot in South Africa and Vancouver. However, the unexpected way it all plays out still makes it a rather solid sci-fi flick.

When it really goes off the rails in a closing sequence that throws everything up in the air, well-done found footage elements are key, keeping it mostly grounded. Though not the best film on this list by any means, it still deserves a place for all it manages to get right.

Prospect (2018)

An arm points a gun at a man with a moustache wearing a spacesuit with a glass helmet.
Bron Studios
Pedro Pascal as Ezra wearing a lo-fi spacesuit with a futuristic gun being pointed at his head in a still from 2018's Prospect.

Now we get to what is not just one of the best on the list, but one of the most exciting sci-fi films to come out in recent memory. Directed by Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell who first met when attending Seattle Pacific University, it follows miners who are traveling to a distant planet to mine for a rare gem.

In this case, the distant planet is actually the beautiful Olympic National Park in Washington. However, through many rich little details, the duo and their team do an outstanding job of making it feel otherworldly. As we get lost in the world they’ve created, conflict arises over a chance at wealth and a desire to escape.

Starring Sophie Thatcher and Pedro Pascal as two initially rival miners unexpectedly brought together, it is almost more of a sci-fi Western with tense showdowns galore. It makes the most of its limited budget and setting, immersing us completely in every moment. You can’t look away.

When it builds to one more spectacularly shot and staged confrontation in the darkness of its strange space world, Prospect cements itself as a modern classic that proves fresh sci-fi visions can still be made.

Significant Other (2022)

Half of a woman's face is visible close to the camera, a man wearing a flannel shirt sits in the background, looking over his shoulder at her.
Maika Monroe as Ruth and Jake Lacy as Harry remain wary of their traveling companion while in the woods in the Pacific Northwest in 2022's Significant Other.

This entry is one of the more twisty films and thus requires being more cagey about what it has in store. For a couple who decide to go backpacking in the vast woods of the Pacific Northwest, with filming specifically taking place in Oregon, things go from sinister to sci-fi fast.

Let’s just say that Harry (Jake Lacy) and Ruth (Maika Monroe) might not be alone in these woods. Even more pressing, the two people who entered into the terrors of these woods may not be the same ones who leave.

Initially playing like more of a focused thriller before throwing all of that off the edge of a cliff, it’s one of those films that is best seen with a group of friends and with as little information as possible provided about it.

This may be because the films is built all around the reveals, but it's also because it’s just a sturdily constructed genre entry that more people would benefit from seeing. Whether you’ll ever want to go camping again with your own significant other, well that’s likely to be a more fraught proposition after this one.

KIMI (2022)

A person with blue hair wearing an orange hood looks cautiously around a glass and metal structure.
Warner Bros
Zoë Kravitz as Angela Childs using a bus stop as cover while looking around the streets of Seattle in 2022's Kimi.

Last, but definitely not least, is Steven Soderbergh’s KIMI which he shot much of in Seattle. No, not the apartment bits, but everything on the street is unique in how they actually came to the city to capture the setting rather than just getting some quick B-roll of the Space Needle.

Telling the story of the agoraphobic tech worker Angela (Zoë Kravitz) and how she discovers what sounds like a murder while doing her job of listening to the recordings from the Amazon Alexa-esque device Kimi, it is a film that is quietly rather brilliant.

Before you say that it isn’t really sci-fi, the way it reckons with technology and the ideas it explores more than makes it quality. While more grounded in our present moment, it is also about the anxieties surrounding the rise of tech in our lives that can often feel more than a little unsettling.

What is standing up to that if not the perfect foundation for a modern work of sci-fi? Is Zoë Kravitz not just the latest incarnation of the genre hero? At the same time as it finds subtly incisive ideas in her journey, the film doesn’t stop moving once it takes to the streets, all the way until its delightful finale cuts through all the noise.

What did we miss?

Let us know about other stellar sci-fi films with ties to the Pacific Northwest by emailing

Chase Hutchinson is a freelance journalist and critic covering all things film from the vast world of horror cinema that continues to unsettle us to works of smaller independent cinema that challenge the art form itself. His work has appeared in outlets including The Boston Globe, The Inlander, The Seattle Times and The Stranger.