Cameron Johnson counts down his favorite sci-fi films of the past 5 years.
Science fiction might be the purest genre of cinema. Contingent on visual spectacle and aural wonder as much as it is on narrative originality, good sci-fi brings together all of the elements that make film such a beautiful collaborative process. Opening our minds to worlds we could only ever dream of and urging us towards (or away from) a whole slew of possible futures, sci-fi can provoke thought and provide entertaining escapism in equal measures.
The 2010s have so far seen a variety of groundbreaking science fiction films that have pushed boundaries in their technique, narrative, and thematic material, and have proven that cinema still has a long way to go before we run out of ideas. Reflecting on all the hot-button issues of our day – climate change, artificial intelligence, identity in the digital age – sci-fi has continued to be our most important and evolving genre.
I have selected a subjective list of my 20 favorite sci-fi films released since 2010. These films reflect the dreams and realities of our rapidly changing society, and thrill, shock and inspire us with gorgeous worlds, intricate narratives and memorable characters. Some are pieces of pure entertainment, others potent works of art.
Before we start, here are some honorable mentions: Attack the Block, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, Circle, Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor, Detention, The Guest, In Time, Limitless, Paul, Super 8 and Tron: Legacy. Not to mention, all the great superhero films of recent memory: Ant-Man, The Avengers and Age of Ultron, Chronicle, Iron Man 3, and the two recent X-Men films. Plus, there are surely dozens of great sci-fi films from the past few years that I simply haven’t seen yet: I wouldn’t be surprised if The Martian and Star Wars: The Force Awakens edge their way into this list at some point.
But now, it’s time to get to my top 20 list. How wrong am I? What did I miss? Sound off in the comments below.
20. “Pacific Rim” (2013)
Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro
Though not quite as nuanced or profound as his previous original work, Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim is nevertheless an incredibly entertaining and visually-stunning monster movie that provides two hours of no-holds-barred, energetic sci-fi fun. Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi play pilots of Jaegers, giant humanoid robots inspired by Japanese mechas, who fight giant dinosaur-like monsters called Kaijus that have come to earth through a portal in the bottom of the pacific. Pacific Rim is big, brash and ridiculous, and while it might not have much to say, it has one hell of an entertaining way of saying it.
19. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Directed by: James Gunn
Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel’s most purely sci-fi effort and funniest movie to date. Not only is Guardians a relentless explosion of on-point pop culture references,witty one-liners and funky 80’s-inspired dance numbers, it’s also Marvel’s best-realized immersive experience, peppered with world-building details, from creative costumes and make-up to inventive set design and an impressive, diverse cast of weird and wonderful characters. It’s an action blockbuster on the surface, but underneath the $200 million exterior is a lot of heart – and comfortable room for many, many welcome sequels.
18. Upstream Color (2013)
Directed by: Shane Carruth
Shane Carruth’s 2004 debut Primer is one of my favorite sci-fi films of all time, notable for its mesmerizingly low-key aesthetic and insanely complicated plot threads, and his second film, released a whole nine years later, is equally beautiful yet equally difficult to unravel. Initially feeling like a somewhat random collection of scenes involving worms and pigs and orchids and kidnapping and, at one point, a romance between a couple played by Amy Seimetz and Shane Carruth, the film eventually reveals itself to be a moving reflection on the cycle of life – though it might take a couple watches and a lot of research to gain even a smidgen of understanding of it. Either way, it’s an enthralling aesthetic experience that hardly needs to be understood to be appreciated.
17. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Directed by: Rupert Wyatt
The last decade or so has seen a revolution in revitalization of classic material, with Batman and James Bond and Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes and countless other series seeing modernized “gritty reboots” providing a fresh twist on familiar material. Amongst the most successful of these has been the Planet of the Apes series, miraculously revamped for the digital age with this stunning prequel that uses motion capture technology unlike any film before it. A damning cautionary tale against the horrors of biological experimentation, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a reboot that proves that originality can sometimes just mean revisiting old stories from a new perspective.
16. Looper (2012)
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Immediately notable for the make-up effects used to have Joseph Gordon-Levitt resemble Bruce Willis, Looper goes much deeper than prosthetics, providing one of the freshest takes on time travel in recent memory. Set in a world where time travel has been invented – but outlawed – Looper stars Gordon-Levitt as Joe, one of the so-called “loopers” who uses black market time travel to assassinate targets for a crime syndicate. Eventually, Joe is sent to kill an older version of himself (Bruce Willis) – a protective measure to close his own time loop – but when old Joe escapes, a chain of events are set off that challenge the foundations of the looper organization. Energetic, excellently acted and inventive, Looper makes it known that the time travel trope has not grown old just yet.
15. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Directed by: Doug Liman
Best described as a sort of Groundhog Day with guns, Edge of Tomorrow stars Tom Cruise as William Cage, a PR officer who, by repeating the same day over and over again each time he’s killed in combat, turns from combat-incompetent weakling to highly-skilled super-soldier. Set some time in the distant future, a time in which humans wear metal, robotic suits of armor while fighting back against a strange alien race called the Mimics, Edge of Tomorrow continues adding fresh twists to its sci-fi mythology, providing smart explanations to why Cage (and, later, another soldier played by the exceptional Emily Blunt), has been experiencing the same day over and over. An interesting play on the video game trope of players respawning at the beginning of a level upon losing their life, Edge of Tomorrow is fun genre fare that has us forgetting pretty quick that we’ve seen this sort of thing before.
14. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Directed by: Matt Reeves
Dawn continues the incredible reboot of the Planet of the Apes series started with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with a Shakespearean tragedy centered on two apes – Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Koba (Toby Kebbell) – with different perspectives on the way ape society should be led now that they have gained higher ground over their former human overlords. There’s some exciting action involving a group of humans fighting against the apes, but it’s the stunning interplay between Caesar and Koba, accomplished via groundbreaking motion capture work by Serkis and Kebbell, that simultaneously makes the film both a masterful study on the effects of scientific advancement, and and an exemplification of scientific advancement as well.
13. Godzilla (2014)
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
A sorely underrated reboot of the classic monster series, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is a near-masterpiece of aesthetic immersion, with brilliant cinematography, music, CGI, sound effects and editing each adding to the accumulative apprehension of the approaching monster and, when he finally does arrive to terrorize humanity, blowing us away with awe. Godzilla might be narratively thin, but as visual spectacle, it’s hard to fault, with precise shot framing, a beautifully dark color palette, some of the best visual effects of our generation, and creative sound design. Few blockbusters make you feel like you’re experiencing the future unfold before your eyes as powerfully as Godzilla.
12. Predestination (2014)
Directed by: Michael and Peter Spierig
I only very recently saw Predestination for the first time, but I knew immediately that it would have to go on my list. Unlike anything I’ve seen before, this time travel thriller starring Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook unfolds in 90 minutes what few seasons of TV could capture in ten hours, enthralling us in an odyssey spanning 50+ years of back-and-forth time jumping that changes our perspective on its events with every step of the way. It’s hard to explain without spoiling the whole thing (perhaps the film’s biggest flaw), but let it be known that Predestination, dependent on career-high performances from both leads, is amongst the most original – both in structure and content – sci-fi films of recent memory.
11. Snowpiercer (2014)
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
A haunting incentive to work together fast against the onslaught of global warming, Snowpiercer is an intelligent, kinetic and affecting action thriller that is, amongst many other things, a masterwork of imaginative production design. Set entirely on a train in perpetual circulation of the earth, which has now frozen over after a failed attempt at stopping global warming, Snowpiercer sees a group of poor citizens, crowded at the back of the titular train, incite a rebellion against the privileged elite living luxuriously at the train’s front. Moving room-by-room from one end of the train to the other, the action of Snowpiercer is in constant motion, building to a rousing climax that asks profound questions about humanity and our will to survive.
10. Ex Machina (2015)
Directed by: Alex Garland
Artificial intelligence has been a primary focus of modern science fiction for quite a while, but Ex Machina might be its best on-screen representation in a generation. Starring Domhnall Gleeson as a computer programmer chosen to witness and study the development of a fully self-aware AI, Ava (Alicia Vikander), Ex Machina is modern both visually and thematically, drawing us in with cold, hard still shots filmed in pristine digital, and astonishing us with incredible visual effects. At its core a tragic romantic drama, Ex Machina explores what it means to be self aware, always challenging us as an audience and never providing the easy answers.
9. Cloud Atlas (2012)
Directed by: Andy and Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer
I’m a defender of the Wachowskis, whose work often comes under fire for being poorly acted, sloppily written and, in general, quite strange. Such was true of their latest cinematic effort, Jupiter Ascending, which I nevertheless thought was, for all its flaws, highly imaginative and enjoyably acted. The same is true (or, should I say, true true) of Cloud Atlas, there most fully-realized and ambitious production yet. Based on the David Mitchell novel, Cloud Atlas features stories in six eras throughout history, each spiritually connected through its characters. Stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant each play multiple different characters in these eras, providing some of the most textured performances in their respective careers. A three-hour odyssey with a magical sense of imagination, Cloud Atlas is an unforgettable experience.
8. Coherence (2014)
Directed by: James Ward Byrkit
Whereas Cloud Atlas was perhaps the biggest film on this list, Coherence is the smallest. A low-budget, mostly-improvised indie horror-mystery, Coherence invites us to a suburban dinner party that goes awry after an overflying comet starts causing glitches in space and time. A fantastical domestic mystery that feels a bit like a claustrophobic Twilight Zone episode, Coherence does what few sci-fi films dare to do: challenges our perception of the universe without using any special effects. Mind-bending and groundbreaking stuff.
7. Inception (2010)
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-winning behemoth of a psychological thriller is amongst the most visually inventive films of our generation, and one of the smartest. Though at times difficult to process, Inception is a philosophical experience unlike anything we’ve ever seen before or will see again. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a man who enters the dreams of others to commit corporate espionage, Inception dreams of a world where walking into – and altering – the subconscious of others is a reality. As big, bold and iconic as it is intricate, it’s a sci-fi film that will stay in our cinematic dreams for years to come.
6. Interstellar (2014)
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
While Interstellar might not be as narratively well-thought-out as Inception, it is for me the more powerful of Nolan’s two sci-fi originals, shooting us through a wormhole of incredible imagery that empowers us with the beauty and expansiveness of our wonderful universe. Starring a career-best Matthew McConaughey as an astronaut who travels through a wormhole in search for a new planet to replace a dying Earth, Interstellar is a sci-fi masterpiece in almost every sense of the word, with awe-inspiringly sweeping cinematography, realistic practical effects and attention to detail, and some of the best performances from each of its cast members, notably Jessica Chastain. Interstellar is, well, stellar.
5. Under the Skin (2014)
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
A strange and entrancing acid trip of a movie from start to finish, Under the Skin follows an alien, played by Scarlett Johansson, who seduces and kills men off of the streets of Glasgow, assumedly so her race can harvest their remains. The full details of the story are never fully revealed, however, and we’re left to wander through a series of odd-yet-beautiful images which present us with the perspective of an alien learning human emotion and empathy from scratch. The evocative cinematography is accompanied by one of the most stirring scores in film history, composed on a viola by Mica Levi as an otherworldly yet natural flow of sounds that expresses the haunting atmosphere surrounding Johansson’s character. Never has a film’s title more purely encapsulated its effect.
4. Her (2013)
Directed by: Spike Jonze
A startling exploration of the possible ramifications of the digital revolution we’re currently undergoing, Her is pure, unrestrained science fiction with a heavy head and a big heart. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with his operating system (Scarlett Johansson in a revolutionary voice performance), Her invites us to observe an uncomfortable fantasy that might one day be a reality. Colorful, warm and deeply heartbreaking, Her finds heart in the places you’d least expect it.
3. Gravity (2013)
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Never before has a film captured the loneliness of space as remarkably as Gravity, a big-budget, effects-laden 90-minute drama film that almost feels as if it’s all done in one take, in real-time. No surprise with Emmanuel Lubezki as DoP, his Oscar-winning cinematography working magic to energize the constant movement of lost astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who bounces around space stations in an effort to find her way back to Earth. An arresting horror thriller replete with gorgeous effects, exhilarating action sequences and moments of genuine emotion, Gravity is, to date, the most convincing use of visual effects and cinematic sleight of hand to enthrall the audience, and it’s all centered on a definitive performance from Bullock.
2. The World’s End (2013)
Directed by: Edgar Wright
Though it lacks the depth of Her and the technical mastery of Gravity, The World’s End is my favorite of 2013’s renaissance of sci-fi masterpieces – based on entertainment value alone. Reuniting Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and director Edgar Wright for one last hedonistic eruption of drunken debauchery – the conclusion of their Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy – The World’s End centers on an epic pub crawl undertaken by five old friends (Pegg, Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan) that turns sour when they realize the hometown they’ve returned to has been overtaken by killer robots. Replete with hilarious action, energetic dialogue and a nostalgia-influenced sense of friendship and fun, The World’s End is not only the best of the Cornetto films, but the funniest sci-fi comedy in recent memory – or any memory, for that matter.
1. World of Tomorrow (2015)
Directed by: Don Hertzfeldt
It almost feels like cheating to put a short film in the number one spot on this list, given some of the three-hour epics it’s “beating”, but no other modern sci-fi film captures the wonders and complexities of our expansive universe and our place as sentient beings within it as insightfully and inventively as Don Hertzfeldt’s masterful World of Tomorrow. In 17 astonishing minutes, World of Tomorrow empowers, challenges, excites and saddens us in ways we didn’t think possible, inviting us on a journey through space and time as we join a little girl, Emily (Winona Mae) as she learns about the evolution of humanity from an immortal, cloned version of herself from the distant future. It’s got moments as heartbreaking as Her, jokes as funny as The World’s End, and visual wonders as incredible as Gravity, serving as the perfect sci-fi epic for the YouTube generation – and all from the mind of one man. It’s the sort of film we’ll need to watch every once in awhile to remind ourselves originality isn’t dead. For science fiction and for art in general, there truly is a world of tomorrow.
Like my choices? Have any other suggestions? Let us know in the comments…