In all of film, the science fiction is a beast unto itself. Not only is the genre beholden to the traditional elements that make a good story worth watching, but science fiction is also tasked with a challenge wholly its own. In addition to crafting an exciting story and complex characters, to be truly successful, a sci-fi movie must do two things well. First, it’s got to engage the viewer’s imagination. Rather than simply plaster fantastical images across the screen with little relevance (ahem, Michael Bay), a good science fiction movie must play a “tip of the iceberg” game in which their stories hint at extensive worlds lying just beyond the wondrous confines of the story. Good sci-fi movies of the last century, like Star Wars, ignited their viewers imagination to the extent that countless writers and artists have dreamed up their own little corners of a galaxy far, far away. The second thing a good science fiction movie needs to do is to get the public thinking about the unimaginable in realistic terms. Before you laugh, just think about all the cool electronics and futuristic doodads that surround us on a daily basis. Those were all thought of by fans of Star Trek. Okay, not really, but good science fiction presents a world that bridges the gap between our day-to-day and something beautiful (or terrible, depending). Unlike regular old drama, or a humdrum action flick, or even a detail-oriented costume drama, science fiction must engage its audience and show them a view of the possible future while showing humanity a glimpse of the everyday. As special effects improve and auteurs become more adventurous, sci-fi is ascending to never-before-seen heights. Here, for your consideration, are some of the best of the new millennium.
10. Gravity (2013)
Without a doubt, director Alfonso Cuarón has created some of the most inventive science fiction films of the new millennium (he also directed the best Harry Potter movie, too). In 2013, Cuarón did the impossible by lending real critical (and award season) legitimacy to a science fiction film when he stranded Sandra Bullock in space. In Gravity, Cuarón uses amazing long takes and real world technology to spin an adventure story that sees that girl from the bus try to find her way home in the wake of a (gorgeously shot) disaster in space.
9. Snowpiercer (2013)
Even as Captain America going dark was the original reason most people tuned into Snowpiercer, it wasn’t Chris Evans’ performance (which was just fine), but the film’s director, Bong Joon-ho, who stood out the most. The auteur’s vision of a totally world in which the last bits of humanity had been packed into a train that was rigidly defined by character class was brutal, inspired, and really, really dark. From the clear-cut allegory at play to the striking visuals, Snowpiercer is a reward from start to finish.
8. Looper (2012)
Filmaker Rian Johnson has jumped between genres quite freely throughout his career. While his next sci-fi outing, this December’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, will likely get the most attention, his first attempt at original science fiction, Looper, is something really special. A few decades from now, Joseph Gordon-Levitt earns a living as a looper, a hitman who kills people sent to him from the future. When an older version of himself (played by Bruce Willis) is sent back, JGL duffs the job and then it’s a ticking clock to find (and kill) himself.
7. Sunshine (2007)
The premise of Danny Boyle’s kinetic sci-fi flick is simple: the sun is almost dead, so some of the Earth’s brightest minds are packed into a ship and launched one-way toward the sun to shoot a nuclear warhead at it. That might sound a little, say, Armageddon-y, but Boyle infuses this adventure with some intense moments of action and equally intense brooding on the question of whether man is really worth saving.
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
For anyone who’s ever wondered whether eventual heartache was worth the potential for a real connection in human contact, Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is for you. From a screenplay by luminary Charlie Kaufman the film dissects the remnants of a real world relationship between two average people. Absorbing performances from Jim Carrey (who plays it straight) and Kate Winslet turn the love story at the center of this science fiction movie into a thing of real beauty and weight. Relationships are messy and wonderful, and few films express that sentiment better than Eternal Sunshine.
5. Attack the Block (2011)
What happens when aliens land in one of the poorer London ghettos? They have to deal with the local kids who prowl the streets, that’s what. This London-style twist on an old-fashioned invasion horror film is both wickedly funny and shockingly impactful. You think you’re going in for just a light alien romp (a promise on which Attack the Block totally delivers) and you end up gaining some slight insight into the hardships that haunt the daily lives of the kids who so often get forgotten in the first world.
4. Ex Machina (2014)
Movies don’t come much deeper than Ex Machina, the think piece that finds upcoming Hollywood talents Domnhall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac debate the real meaning of humanity as a newly built AI (played by Alicia Vikander) struts around trying to pass a Turing test. Even if you’re not a huge fan of science fiction, the philosophy and character drama on parade is second to none.
3. WALL-E (2008)
You will never appreciate a walk through the Great Outdoors until you spend 98 minutes with a plucky little garbage compactor robot who will risk anything and everything to get with the robot he loves. Wall-E’s adventure through a world where everything is run by a gigantic corporation and humanity has turned into itinerant blobs is funny, endearing, terrifying, and heart-warming in equal measure. A true modern masterpiece in every sense of the word, Wall-E is an undeniably valuable contribution to the sci-fi lexicon.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road (2016)
For sheer world-building, it doesn’t get much better than Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth entry in George Miller’s always kick ass Road Warrior saga. This time around, Charlize Theron jumps onboard (and steals the show) as lady warrior Furiosa, a woman who is dead set in delivering her female charges to a better world. From the moment the story begins, the action ratchets up and up to unbelievable heights without wasting time for needless exposition. Instead, Miller sends his characters through a fully realized world that lends weight to these people and allows them ample opportunity to show the audience what they’re made of. Using brief snatches of dialogue and more than a little bit of the “show, don’t tell” mentality, the veteran director creates his most pulse-pounding and narratively inventive entry into the iconic series. Who said they needed Mel Gibson?
1. Children of Men (2006)
Sure, Gravity got all the critical praise, but Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece — and the best science fiction film of the new century — is Children of Men. The film paints a bleak portrait of a world without children and the man who is tasked with transporting the first pregnant woman in years to a seaside sanctuary. The long cuts used to such great effect in Gravity first appeared here to ramp up the tension in some really excellently staged action scenes. Meanwhile, Clive Owen’s harrowing journey through a world on life support is bolstered by turns from the likes of Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Michael Caine. Both poignant and suspenseful, Children of Men is that rare science fiction film that works as both grim futurist fantasy and a reflection of the world in which we live.
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