It’s been a fairly excellent decade for science fiction cinema so far. Here’s how I think these past few years stack up. I’ve divided the notable SF films of this period into five tiers of quality. While the tiers are hierarchical, the entries within them are not specifically ordered. I’m also not counting Marvel or DC comic book movies here, which are being asked to pursue different goals than standalone films.
Tier 1: Instant Classics
Not only among the best of their time, but of any time.
Ex Machina – Alex Garland shooting his own script in his directorial debut. This story about the ethics of artificial intelligence and gendered expectation is that rare beast, a science fiction movie that 100% respects the intelligence of the audience. Every obvious question of premise gets immediately addressed by the characters. The performances are compelling, and the SFnal ambition staggering for a film with only four real characters. The intersections of masculinity, technology, and capitalism are picked at until they bleed, and Garland manages a more sensitive exploration of female objectification in just a few scenes than, say, Under The Skin manages in its entire runtime. The suspense mounts and mounts until an inevitable ending that’s simultaneously harrowing and triumphant, insisting that we accept Ava’s definition of freedom over one that we might be tempted to see as more just. I’ll be thinking about the nuanced interplay between narrative expectation and models of consent in this film for years.
Snowpiercer – Bong Joon-Ho crafted a film here that’s as conceptually and visually ambitions as anything on the list, making good story choices every step along the way. We’re prepared for it be a standard movie of class warfare; what we get is something more like a mortal rebellion against an unfair god–a war that can only ever end in pyrrhic victory–waged via one shockingly original set piece after another. The result is like nothing else I’ve seen, an action movie where the triumphant conclusion is the death of all humanity. One of those movies where going back to look at a clip of a single scene all too easily turns into re-watching the entire thing. (Though I will cop to a personal bias here: I am a sucker for stories that take place in a linear restricted space. Trains, standing in lines, mine shafts, infinitely deep stairwells, whatever. I always love it.)
Tier 2: Great Movies
Movies that stood out from the pack, and that should be part of the conversation about science fiction cinema for years to come.
Her – This movie comes so close to being in Tier 1 for me, but doesn’t quite make it. It’s wonderful all the same. I’ve never seen a Spike Jonze movie I didn’t like (though Where The Wild Things Are I did not love), and this one is easily my favorite. It’s science fiction as metaphorical exploration of human romantic relationships, especially relationships that challenge notions of self and social propriety, and is whip-smart in pursuit of that end. But what keeps it out of Tier 1 is that it downplays exploring its own premise–that of an artificial intelligence so advanced that it forms a real romantic relationship with a human. The one (excellent) scene that invested more in science fiction than metaphor, wherein Samantha recruits a surrogate, embodied woman to join her relationship with Theodore, almost feels like part of a different movie. By not investing in the SFnal premise, the movie neatly insulates itself from questions of consent (Samantha begins her life as a purchased consumer product) or the nature of human versus nonhuman desire (touched on toward the end of the film only as a metaphorical growing apart of the main characters). Off the edges of the screen there’s a eucatastrophic AI singularity, with no apparent influence on society. Its only purpose is to make inevitable the end of Samantha and Theodore’s time together. This all works just fine narratively; the movie is elegant as can be. But I strongly believe that somewhere out in the universe of possible stories is a version of this tale that takes the science fiction as seriously as it does the emotion.
Gravity – Alfonso Cuaron communicated the visceral inhospitality of space like no other director ever has, and made it beautiful it the same time. That accomplishment alone is enough to make this movie great. What keeps it out of Tier 1 is the unfortunate dialog and score–which sounds like it should be a huge deal, but in this movie makes up a relatively small part of the whole. The rebirth metaphor powering the narrative struck others as more effective than it did me, but I wasn’t put off by it. This movie earns its place in the SF movie conversation via awe-inspiring technical accomplishment, on a historical line with The Matrix and Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Mad Max: Fury Road – This is the first movie in years that I paid to see more than once in the theater. The plot is stick-figure simple, but within that formula George Miller executed so perfectly and with such verve that it felt like a reinvention of the action tentpole. The visual vocabulary of Mad Max: Fury Road is pristine, effortlessly tossing off details that feel fully realized through just the perfection of their iconography. (The Doof Warrior, for example, the blind guy with the flamethrower guitar whose name isn’t even in the movie.) Add in the amazing diegetic score, and you already have enough to make this movie a hit. But what makes it great is that, on top of all those elements, it’s a startlingly progressive story about violence against women, and how those women stand up to and overcome it. Titular Mad Max is, frequently literally, just along for the ride. It’s not forced or didactic or self-satisfied, every move is earned. That Miller was able to fit all this into a package sufficiently uncontroversial that it reached screens intact is miraculous, and we might end up looking back on it as a kind of turning point in big-budget cinema history.
Dredd – A movie that’s way better than it should be, Dredd sneaks its way into Tier 2 by a deep, resolute commitment to its philosophical premise. Early on the movie tells you that the world is a hopeless place, and then, unlike every other apocalypse on the list or in recent memory, it never wavers. Dredd isn’t interested in redemption, it’s interested in nihilism. Good intentions count for nothing, principled stances go unrewarded. Its main character arc, that of Judge Anderson, is the story of an idealist embracing brutal pragmatism. And I do mean brutal; the action sequences in this film are gorgeously decadent. Karl Urban has never been better, and proves that a talented actor doesn’t need to ever show more than about 30% of his face to get the job done. Basically, this is a movie that bullseyes every one of it’s goals, while being consistently smarter than it needed to. Which makes sense when you learn, as I did only recently, that the script was written by Alex Garland, who I think just beats out Christopher Nolan for the most important SF screenwriter of this period.
Tier 3: Good Movies
Well-made movies that are easy to recommend.
Attack the Block – Before he was on the poster for the new Star Wars movies, John Boyega was patrolling council flats and protecting the Earth from alien invasion. What start out looking like class stereotypes become explorations of insecurity, and eventually camaraderie. A delightful movie of an unlikely ensemble coming together to face a common enemy. Suspenseful and funny.
Inception – Nolan has an instant classic and a great movie on his resume (Memento and The Prestige, respectively), but his most recent SF offerings don’t match that standard. Inception was a cultural event when it came out, but it’s been long enough since we all saw it and liked it that we can admit that the basic idea is dumb as hell, right? The plot intricacies are delicious in their complexity and ambition, and filmmaking talent on display is top-notch. But the whole dream spies concept is really, really silly. Also, this was the movie where it became impossible to ignore that Nolan writes exclusively meager roles for women.
Interstellar – I honestly loved this movie. It did a ton of things I adore and rarely get to see. It’s a deterministic narrative, which always makes me giddy. It has a legitimate sense of galactic scale. It’s intriguingly structured; if most movies are novels, then this one is a collection of linked short stories. Almost all of the really important story choices in this film are done right. But even though I loved it, I can’t ignore that this film is oppressively self-important. It’s exhausting, being reminded over and over that it’s a film about serious events and high stakes that should be deeply meaningful. I’m fairly forgiving of pretentiousness, but it does keep this film from being higher on the list.
Source Code – Duncan Jones followed up his wonderful debut Moon with this script plucked from The Black List of well-regarded but unproduced movies. It’s a film that uses many worlds QM to tell a Groundhog Day-esque story about trying to thwart a terrorist attack on Chicago. It’s well made and effective, but suffers from not thoroughly exploring its own premise. For example, at the end of the movie we have what is supposed to be a happy ending in which our hero Coulter Stevens has his mind transferred into a healthy body he gets to keep and use to seduce a pretty woman. But that body was previously in use by someone else, who has functionally been murdered to facilitate Coulter’s ride into the sunset. The major ethical implications of the plot are simply never addressed.
Edge of Tomorrow –An even more Groundhog Day-esque story. I was legitimately surprised by this one. Emily Blunt is great, Tom Cruise is tolerable (!), and the plot mostly makes sense, even if the premise that gets us there feels lazily off-the-shelf. The middle 60% of this movie is as much fun as you could ask for, and while it’s bookended by weaker material–like a stab at ensemble camaraderie for the secondary characters that never really coheres–the whole remains quite satisfying.
The Martian – I can’t better Randall Munroe’s description of this, a feature-length version of the scene in Apollo 13 where the engineers dump a bag of garbage on the conference room table and say, “We have to figure out how to build a CO2 scrubber out of that or the astronauts die.” One part scientific literacy, one part nerdy playfulness, and two parts triumphalism, mixed thoroughly, then desiccated in the near vacuum of an alien atmosphere. It’s nice that Ridley Scott managed a good SF film in this stretch, as it makes the post-Prometheus universe that much less bewildering. Aberrations are easier to explain than full reversals.
Pacific Rim – “You know what would be awesome?” I might believably have thought to myself over the years, “A sort of live-action Evangelion movie with all of the giant robots fighting interesting monsters for the fate of humanity, and none of the angst.” Pacific Rim is exactly that. This movie knows that we bought our tickets to see mecha versus monsters, and devotes all of its resources to that cause. A big dumb action movie that knows its a big dumb action movie and glories in it. Fun SF fact: the baddies in this movie are so good because the head creature designer was Wayne Barlowe, of Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials, which was my most checked out book from my middle school library.
Melancholia – Probably the most controversial movie on this list. I know people who absolutely loved it, and people who hate it so strongly that its mention raises hackles even years later. I went in with very low expectations, having not been a fan of previous Lars Von Trier movies, and came away wowed. An astronomical calamity as objective correlative to explore depression? Sign me up. Bonus points for gorgeous cinematography. Certain scenes, like when the guy holds up his son’s wire contraption and discovers that Melancholia is indeed getting larger in the sky, have remained indelible. The worst thing about this movie is that it gave me enough good will toward Von Trier that I then went and saw both parts of Nymphomaniac in the theater. All of that good will is now gone.
Tier 4: Okay Movies
Movies that I don’t regret seeing, but are flawed or otherwise difficult to recommend.
Predestination – A film adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies…,” which sounds like a great idea. While there’s some quite good acting in this (especially Sarah Snook), the pacing drags, and the screenwriter made the inadvisable choice to add big picture stakes by inexpertly welding on a terrorism plot. But it’s still a rare deterministic time travel movie, which earns some points.
Europa Report – The best things about this movie are the use of NASA assets to create visuals that would have once been unimaginable in a small indie film, and one truly great scene about a fatal accident in space. The rest is interesting, but slow, and story-wise the movie ends right at what, in a stronger film, would be the start of act two.
Upstream Color – I actually find this movie fascinating in a lot of ways. It starts out with the most disturbing scenes of mind control I’ve ever seen on film, and then turns into an oneiric watercolor of a film unlike anything else I’ve encountered. But with all the gorgeous acting and swirling acoustics, I ultimately just can’t get over this movie asking me to invest in the trauma of being infested with a parasite that makes one psychically connected to the emotional lives of some pigs. This may be a personal failing. Maybe, as a carnivore, I’ve developed a self-protective but pathological inability to take pigs seriously enough for this narrative device to work? This movie is one I think difficult to recommend, but might well do anyway given the right mood.
Under the Skin – Memorable as a gnomic experience, this movie is an ultimately empty vessel built to hold a message about the commodification of women’s bodies that never actually gets communicated. The visuals are striking, and strange enough to not read as gratuitous even when fixating on Scarlett Johansson’s frequently naked body (which I’m cynical enough to think does still have much to do with the film’s largely positive critical reception). But it’s all just an object for contemplation; any interesting ideas here were brought in by the audience.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens – By far the best thing about this movie–it’s really not even close–is that it’s soon going to be the most successful film ever, and it stars a woman and a black man. That’s important for the same reasons I said above that Mad Max Max: Fury Road might someday be seen as a turning point. Beyond that, though, this movie is merely serviceable. J. J. Abrams makes the same franchise movie every time, but in this instance all he had to do was deliver a palatably fun film to a global fanbase desperate to feel uncomplicated love for Star Wars again. He did that. The Force Awakens is fast and pretty and avoids stepping on toes by being 100% unoriginal. Aside from the legitimately important casting decisions, it’s a remix album made by inferior talent, but with much much better recording equipment. For this one, “difficult to recommend” is the same thing as “unnecessary to recommend.” You’ve either already seen it, or you’re someone to whom I wouldn’t bother recommending it.
Jurassic World – Basically the same deal as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, except without any progressive casting and some mildly unfortunate gender stereotypes. I think I’m more forgiving of Rey in The Force Awakens suddenly knowing the Jedi mind trick than I am of Chris Pratt hypnotizing velociraptors with the power of his extended palm because Star Wars always had some conceptual silliness in it’s heart, whereas Jurassic Park didn’t. But fun enough to earn a billion dollars and lock in Pratt as a major movie star, which is nice.
Tier 5: Bad Movies
Movies not worth the time they take to watch.
Looper – There’s a scene early in Looper where a guy is running frantically to get to his back-in-time self, which is being held hostage. The threat is that if present-guy doesn’t get there in time, then the baddies will start mutilating past-guy. Which they do! He is running towards a fence and suddenly his feet are gone because they were cut off IN HIS PAST! Except… then how was he just running? Or doing any of the things we’ve seen him do, as apparently he hasn’t had feet–or hands or arms or legs– all those years. If you think about it for even a fraction of a second, it doesn’t make a lick of sense. Which is true of this entire movie. Then, as a bonus, Bruce Willis’s character motivation hinges on some really offensive Asian exoticism. I wanted so much better from Rian Johnson.
Prometheus – This movie isn’t just atrocious, it instilled in me a real existential angst. Alien is one of the my favorite movies ever, and this film undermined everything that was good about it. Everything! From the broad iconography to the most nuanced sexual politics, Prometheus revisits and then sullies its predecessor. But the two movies were directed by the same man. It is legitimately upsetting to realize that an artist can, over the mere course of decades, become so blind to things they were once sensitive to. I still marvel at how this movie happened.
Star Trek: Into Darkness –What’s that? You want to follow up a movie that used the iconography of Star Trek to tell a fun but superficial space action story with a sequel that’s a turgid, nonsensical rehash of Wrath of Kahn? And then you want to swear in the press that that’s not what you’re doing (even though it is) so that, when the movie comes out, all the most dedicated fans will feel lied to? That sounds like a pretty bad idea, really, but whatever. Here’s all the money. Go do. (I wonder whether the backlash J. J. Abrams got from whitewashing Kahn had something to do with his progressive casting choices in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.)
Jupiter Ascending – It’s actually kind of endearing, what a total exuberant mess this movie is. But endearing isn’t redeeming, and Jupiter Ascending is a junk drawer of glittering nonsense from start to finish.
The Congress –On paper this movie seems like such a fascinating idea, a half live-action, half animated adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s psychedelic novel The Futurological Congress. Unfortunately watching it feels like going on a school day trip to Toon Town, whereupon a minor character from a Tom Robbins novel chastises you for an hour. The good stuff from the book is just used as a platform for adolescent philosophizing.
John Carter – There was actually a great deal of cleverness and talent in the script and direction of this movie, but it was doomed from the start. Everything compelling about the source material had already been appropriated by dozens of other movies over decades SF cinema, with the result that this movie ends up coming off as terribly derivative and formulaic. There’s nothing good here you haven’t seen before, and nothing you haven’t seen before that’s good.
Elysium – This movie is like a cautionary tale for what the failure mode of Snowpiercer would have been: a class warfare story that oversimplifies to the point of meaninglessness. Moral implications, character choices, plot dynamics; every move this film makes is a dodge away from subtlety. It ends up reading as creative cowardice. Elysium is afraid to either take itself seriously, or to embrace being a visually extravagant cartoon. As a result it ends up being nothing worthwhile at all.
Zero Theorem – This is a perfunctory revisiting of the tone of Brazil without any of it’s satire or substance. An unnecessary ramble that even Terry Gilliam’s visuals can’t save.
Chappie – A Combat-Robot-As-Freshly-Self-Aware-Pinocchio story that compares unfavorably with Short Circuit, with inexplicable casting of Ninja and Yolandi from Die Antwoord playing versions of themselves. Farcically terrible.