Nov 25 2009
I wrote last week that I don’t think Avatar will suck, and I think there’s a real good chance it’ll go down as one of the best science fiction movies of the decade. Which got me thinking, of course, of how many great or even good science fiction movies there have actually been over the last 10 years. There was a lot of crap released this past decade, but thankfully there were some real gems, too.
There were some movies that I considered science fiction despite their generally not being associated with the genre. Still, they’re science fiction movies at their core and it’d be tough to argue otherwise. I didn’t include superhero movies, even if they could be considered science fiction, because that’s pretty much become a genre in and of itself.
I hope I’m right and that Avatar kicks massive amount of ass. If I’m not, though, this was still a pretty good decade for science fiction movies. I will say, this list was pretty tough to compile. It’s often more difficult to rank movies of a certain category when there are so many good ones. I’m sure your opinions will differ from mine quite a bit.
Keep reading for the top 15 science fiction movies of the last decade.
Mike Judge’s Idiocracy is hilarious but also, like a lot of great science fiction movies, offers a poignant social commentary. The movie shows us a future where materialism and anti-intellectualism have run rampant, a world where the President is the most macho, bad ass guy in the world and plants are watered with energy drinks. A good science fiction movie – most of them, in fact – incorporate some type of social or political statement without hammering you over the head with it. Idiocracy‘s prediction of our world going to shit because our collective values are in the wrong places is an important one, but it’s done well and there are more than enough laughs to land the film in the top 15.
Duncan Jones’ Moon was a throwback science fiction movie of sorts. It had a heady story that will keep you thinking long after you’ve seen the movie, and a visual style that relies more on atmosphere and mood than it does on special effects. After Sam Bell discovers a clone of himself in his moon buggy, he comes to realize that he, too, may be a clone, and of course spends his time obsessively pondering his own existence. That’s the stuff of Philip K. Dick-type stories, and Jones successfully captured the feel of isolated paranoia in this excellent movie. Moon is definitely the type of movie for which you want to experience repeat viewings.
13. Revenge of the Sith
Perhaps lost in all the bitching and whining that George Lucas had raped our collective childhoods – using The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones as the violating objects – was the fact that Revenge of the Sith was pretty damn good. True, it wasn’t as good as A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back (what is?), but I’d say it’s at the least comparable to Return of the Jedi. Aside from Hayden Christensen’s wooden acting and a few groan-worthy love scenes, Revenge of the Sith was an action-packed, visual extravaganza that segued quite smoothly into the Star Wars movies we grew up with. As an aside, General Grievous is one of the coolest movie villains around. He’s as bad ass as Jar-Jar Binks is annoying.
12. Star Trek
It seems as though Star Trek fans were pretty pleased with J.J. Abrams’ big screen version of their beloved franchise. If you somehow manage to keep the nerds and fanboys happy, it goes without saying that you probably did a pretty good job. And for the non-fans, well, it seems like they really enjoyed it, too. I had never seen a Star Trek movie or even a single episode of the show before in my life, and I definitely didn’t feel like I was missing something during the movie. Visually, the movie was great, although at times it felt more like a space opera than part of a universe like Star Wars. I especially liked the depth given to Kirk and Spock’s characters and the contrast between the two.
WALL-E is a simple love story, but it’s told so beautifully it’s easy to become completely immersed in it. Like Idiocracy, WALL-E has a rather bleak outlook on the fate of mankind. But it’s easy to not really care about what happens to the fat, pampered humans due to WALL-E’s genuine robot goodness. WALL-E and EVE, despite being animated robots, share a convincing chemistry on screen together and, as can be expected of Pixar movies, the animation and sound is consistently impressive. There are a lot of ways to portray outer space, and WALL-E fills it with bright colors and idiosyncratic characters. There are a lot of great aspects to WALL-E, but I suppose the best is that this movie already feels timeless and will undoubtedly age well.
10. The Fountain
Simply based on the gorgeous visuals alone, The Fountain is a movie worth watching. It seems as thought every shot is framed perfectly, often as a picture of symmetry, emphasized by the camera consistently panning in and out and almost never side to side. Suffice to say, there’s never been a movie that looked quite like this. Underneath all the visuals, though, there’s a story that spans 1000 years, from the days of a Spanish Conquistador to a time when space ships are huge transparent spheres. The Fountain addresses life, death, and our place in the universe, and only when it’s through do we realize the scale of the film. I know a lot of people are turned off by The Fountain and call it art house pretentiousness, but I’m not one of those people. I think it’s a great movie that gets even better on repeated viewings.
9. Donnie Darko
Southland Tales and The Box were both disasters, but somehow Richard Kelly figured out how to make a damn good movie on his first try. Creepy does not even begin to describe Kelly’s atmospheric tale of death, tangent universes, and time travel. Donnie Darko has become a major cult classic since its release, thanks in large part to an original and intriguing (if not wildly confusing) story, as well as great performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Jenna Malon, and of course, Frank the Rabbit. It’s a shame that Kelly’s follow-up efforts have been so disappointing, because we need more original movies like Donnie Darko.
8. The Matrix: Reloaded
A lot of people didn’t care for Reloaded, but I’m not sure what they were expecting. After all, The Matrix is a near-impossible act to follow. I won’t defend Revolutions (believe me, I could), but Reloaded took the style and mythology of the first Matrix movie and cranked it up to infinity. The clothing, settings, and even the dreadlocks in Reloaded were eye candy of the highest order, and the visual effects were – at the time – the best anyone had seen. Add to that yet another mind-f*ck (there were more “Ones” before Neo? Whoa!) and some of the best action scenes in any science fiction movie, and Reloaded, while not as groundbreaking as its predecessor, is truly a spectacle to behold. To this day, I consider the fight in the Merovingian’s chateau to be one of the coolest I’ve ever seen. Stopping thousands of bullets in mid-air and blocking a sword with your hand? Yes, please.
Aside from the visual dynamics and explosion of style, though, Reloaded incorporated a variety of themes and parallels, from computer programming to Christianity to existentialism. It’s a project to be admired, at the very least, and there haven’t been too many films – science fiction or otherwise – as ambitious as Reloaded.
7. Minority Report
Like Moon, Minority Report was a hardcore science fiction movie that at times is as effective as a thought experiment as it is as a film. Spielberg stayed true to the central themes of Philip K. Dick’s story of the same title, but also managed to create a stunning future where crimes can be seen by “precogs” before they occur. Which, obviously, leads to many philosophical and ethical questions. If that sort of cerebral involvement isn’t for you, Minority Report works on an action-adventure level, too. Tom Cruise is universally hated for having his own beliefs (the guy is harmless, folks) and Colin Farrell is disliked because, well, I don’t know (I thought he was great in In Bruges)…but both actors kick massive amounts of ass in Minority Report. Also, extra credit for the film demonstrating touch-input and image manipulation technology years before it started to surface in real life.
Admittedly, I’m going to hold Primer to a lower standard for the purposes of these rankings since it was made for something like 22 dollars. Actually, $7,000, but in Hollywood, that’s about the same thing. And for $7,000, Shane Carruth made about as good a science fiction movie as one can make. There are virtually no special effects, but the underlying story in Primer is so intriguing and involved that it’s more than satisfying to simply listen to Abe and Aaron discuss time travel and its implications. Carruth’s background in mathematics helps lend credibility to his airtight script, but you’d have to watch this movie at least a dozen times to figure out exactly what the hell is going on. Simply put, Primer is a smart, somewhat-realistic look at time travel, and a nice alternative to the cliches of time machines and wormholes.
5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Director Michel Gondry is known for the surreal elements in his films, so his transition into science fiction must have seemed natural. And it shows. In Eternal Sunshine, Joel and Clementine meet on a train, unaware that they had been lovers in the past. It turns out that the two ex-lovers had gone to a company to have memories of the other erased from their respective minds. Most of the movie takes place in Joel’s head, allowing Gondry to show off his sense of the surreal. I normally prefer the literally-talking-out-of-his-ass Jim Carrey to please-take-me-seriously-as-an-actor Jim Carrey, but he manages to both provide laughs while simultaneously giving a great dramatic performance. And Winslet…well, she’s Kate Winslet. Eternal Sunshine is a thought-provoking science fiction movie and after watching, you can’t help but ponder what life would be like were you to erase some hurtful memories. There’s a romance involved, sure, but it all comes back to the science fiction concept of selective memory erasing.
I didn’t watch Firefly back when it was on television, but I didn’t need to in order to fully enjoy and appreciate Serenity. For Serenity, Joss Whedon created (or at least, expanded upon) an entire universe with a sort of western flavor to it. He didn’t need crazy gadgets or weird-looking aliens to help make his universe appealing; the human characters and layered storyline took care of that. Played by Nathan Fillion, Malcolm Reynolds is about as charismatic a science fiction character we’ve seen since Han Solo, and Summer Glau’s River Tam is a delicate yet lethal psychic and, in a sense, serves as the movie’s narrator. The crew of the Serenity are all memorable, as are the maniacal Reavers they encounter in deep space, but it is Serenity‘s ability to take the audience on a journey with the crew through a postmodern universe that lands the movie in the top five. Knowing very little about Firefly, I was blown away by Serenity, so I can only image how fans of the television show felt upon seeing it.
3. The Prestige
I’m guessing that a lot of people don’t consider The Prestige a science fiction movie, but it absolutely is. Insomnia aside, Christopher Nolan has yet to make a movie that isn’t incredible, and all the great elements of a Nolan film are prominent in The Prestige. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play magicians, each trying to top the other and obsessed with the rivalry that has emerged between them. Impressively, The Prestige is structured just like a magic trick – an often overlooked but remarkable aspect of this movie – and it’s not until the final act (the prestige) that we see just how science fiction comes into play.
David Bowie is great as Nikola Tesla, who builds a machine for Angier (Jackman) that will allow him to clone anything. Frustrated that he cannot top Borden’s (Bale) “Transported Man” trick, Angier resorts to cloning himself. Angier is haunted with the dilemma of not knowing whether it will be he who is transported out of the audience’s sight while his clone plunges to his death in a water-filled tank, or whether it will be he who is drowned while his clone is transported away.
The pacing and tone of The Prestige is nearly unrivaled and it stands as one of the creepier movies of recent memory. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love – let alone like – this movie. The Prestige is proof that a cerebral science fiction movie can do just fine without action sequences.
2. District 9
Adapted from Neil Blomkamp’s short film Alive in Joburg, District 9, to me, was the best movie released this year. An instant classic, District 9 focuses on the attempts and consequences of man, particularly a field operative named Wikus van de Merwe, to relocated hundreds of refugee aliens known as “prawns.” There are many aspects – and part of this may be attributed to the documentary-style of filming employed by Blomkamp -that feel “real.” Instead of hostile aliens attacking humans with mind-control and laser beams, we’re given sick, diseased aliens, weak from traveling across space. Wikus himself is complex, multi-dimensional and very human. He’s a hard-worker but undeserving of his position. He doesn’t care much for the wel-being of the prawns but is a devoted, loving husband. At first, we’re not exactly sure how we should feel about Wikus, and that’s because he’s not written as a one-dimensional good guy or even an anti-hero. He’s a real human being with positive traits as well as faults, and Sharlto Copley is more than convincing in the role.
And the prawns aren’t all interchangeable, either. I don’t know how anyone can watch District 9 and not root for Christopher Johnson.
Most poignant of all, and perhaps most realistic, is the humans’ treatment of the prawns. District 9 isn’t a movie that thinks it’s clever for presenting a science fiction metaphor for apartheid; the film assumes you can figure that out on your own and moves forward from there. It’s a great, relevant commentary on the nature of man and his desire to exterminate that which is different or that which he does not understand, especially when power is at stake.
District 9 isn’t without fun, either. Once the action picks up, it’s impossible not to be thrilled. A gravity gun??? A gravity gun!!! As great as District 9 is – and I do believe it to already be an all-time great science fiction movie – it’s not the best science fiction movie of the last decade. That would be…
1. Children of Men
The most complete, fully-realized, and detailed look at the future – any future – is in Children of Men. Director Alfonso Cuaron is the most underrated filmmaker working today. Not only does Cuaron present a story in which you can’t help but be emotionally devoted to, his virtuoso cinematography puts the audience directly into 2027 London when women can no longer reproduce.
One of the best things about Children of Men is that it respects the intelligence of its audience. Instead of explaining what a world in which there are no children would be like, it simply shows you. Elementary schools are run down and covered in cob webs. With children gone, people pamper and adore their pets, attempting to fill the emotional gap in their hearts left by the vanishing of children. Some people go on with life and continue to go to work, while others see the end of mankind as a time to make things right or, in contrast, to do whatever they please. The British government employs Draconian tactics to keep its borders safe and even distributes pills for a gentle, peaceful suicide. The whole point of Children of Men isn’t why women can’t have children, and that’s why the question is never answered. People looking for that are watching the wrong movie. No, the point of Children of Men is to examine the choices that people make once it’s determined that women can’t have children and the human race appears to be at its end – a topic far more interesting and significant.
It is obvious that when creating this dystopian future, Cuaron (who also wrote the screenplay) researched not just what technology would be like, but what governments, economies, and all the aspects of society would be like. Children of Men bursts with imagery and symbolism while presenting hope and love in the dreariest of futures. It’s a truly magnificent and brilliant movie, and the sheer scale of the world created makes its themes all the more resonating. For my money, Children of Men is the best science fiction movie of the past decade. It’s a true masterpiece.
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