Think there haven’t been any science fiction classics in the last few years? If you do, think again. Top 10 Films takes a look at the best sci-fi of the 21st century, proving cinema still has the power to innovate & enrapture with its dramatic consideration of future society and its tech.
Science fiction has always been one of the most fascinating film genres, as it offers up such a vast amount of subject matter. From artificial intelligence, to space travel, to cloning, there are endless ideas for filmmakers to work with. Today, the most commonly praised sci-fi works are those that have attained long lasting legacies, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, and Blade Runner. Strangely enough, it does not seem as though there have been that many sci-fi films in the last decade or so that have been considered instant classics. However, many of the significant science fiction films of the 21st century may have simply slipped under the radar. The genre is always evolving, and in recent times we have certainly had many science fiction movies that have been great works in their own right. Listed below are 10 films that I believe are the most impressive works of science fiction that have been made in this century.
10. Minority Report (Spielberg, 2002)
Minority Report asks the simple question, what would society be like if crimes could be stopped before they happened? It follows a classic science fiction formula, wherein we are presented with a world that seems ideal on the surface, but has dystopic elements underneath. For the most part Minority Report plays out like a murder mystery, but still incorporates thought provoking science fiction themes such as the dangers of Big Brotheresque technology, as well as the conflict between free will and determinism. All in all, it is a smart action flick with a good deal more depth than the average blockbuster.
9. Sunshine (Boyle, 2007)
To begin with, Sunshine is a standout film based on its visuals alone. It is beautifully shot, and aims to capture the majesty of the sun in a way that no other film has thought to do. However, beyond its stunning visuals, Sunshine succeeds in telling a compelling story as well. A team of astronauts is on a mission to save mankind, but when the mission is thrown into jeopardy they soon find themselves trying to cope with the possibility that they may not survive the trip. The crew dynamics that follow will keep viewers on the edge of their seats, as we watch a very divided group of individuals tackle life threatening dilemmas in the void of space. Sunshine would rank much higher if did not fall apart in its second act, where it seems to abandon its original concept and devolve into another genre entirely. However, the strong cinematography and the strengths of the first half of the story still land Sunshine a spot on this list.
8. Moon (Jones, 2009)
This film takes place entirely on the moon, and follows an astronaut named Sam who has been working in isolation from humanity for 3 years. After discovering the shocking truth about his purpose, he begins to question his own identity and spirals into an existential crisis. Moon truly makes one feel for Sam’s plight, and makes it easy for viewers to imagine themselves in his shoes. As such, Moon is one of those outstanding films that can lead to introspection; after watching what Sam goes through, one instinctively reflects on one’s own experiences as a human being and what it means to be an individual with memories, relationships, and desires.
7. Children of Men (Cuarón, 2006)
An apocalyptic future is one of the most common subjects of science fiction, and no film has done it better in recent times than Children of Men. We are presented with a reality where children are no longer able to be born, with all the ramifications that entails. It is an ambitious film that aims to portray our dying race, as mankind only hastens its own demise through violence. The film’s epic scope is matched by its impressive cinematography, and is notable for its frequent usage of extended singleshot takes. Children of Men can be considered a gold standard for science fiction, as it as a rare film that manages to combine an intriguing premise
with highquality filmmaking.
6. District 9 (Blomkamp, 2009)
District 9 takes the concept of alien invasion and turns it on its head. In District 9, mankind is actually in charge, and we are the oppressors of a race that is very far from home. As such, it is a very real take on inter species interaction; the aliens are savage in their own right, but humans are shown to be equally cruel when given the opportunity. While most science fiction films are examples of polished and sleek filmmaking, District 9 is stylistically unique in that it feels very raw and is composed of found footage. The protagonist is also far from perfect, and is made to be a somewhat detestable individual. Everything about the film is deliberately messy in order to emphasize its realist take on the “man-meets-alien” concept.
5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry, 2004)
One of the more soft science fiction stories, Eternal Sunshine uses elements of the genre merely as a plot device to tell a story about relationships. More than anything, it is a film about people, and how we are inexplicably drawn to one another despite our faults and our flaws. The film is carried by its brilliant script, written by arguably the best writer in the industry today, Charlie Kaufman. It is sad, it is funny, and above all it is brutally honest about the pain that we can cause each other.
4. Primer (Carruth, 2004)
Time travel always has the potential to get complicated, but Primer is certainly the most complicated time travel film ever made. The entire crux of the plot is that the two main characters are in over their heads and abusing technology they do not fully understand. As such, if the main characters are lost, so are we. Throughout the film there is legitimate confusion of how the timeline is being affected, or what the original timeline even is. There are numerous unexplained occurrences, and the audience is left to make their own conjectures and piece together the story just like the main characters attempt to. As such, Primer challenges audiences to really think and keep up with a story that does not spoon feed viewers the answers.
3. Ex Machina (Garland, 2015)
This film is similar to Her in that it explores human and AI romance, but in a decidedly less lighthearted manner. Ex Machina aims to really get inside the head of Artificial Intelligence, and explore what it means to have a consciousness. However, beyond its light philosophical implications, Ex Machina functions primarily as a psychological thriller. There is always an underlying sense of mystery, as the film keeps viewers guessing as to what the characters’ true motivations are. Arguably, Ex Machina’s strongest suit is its command of atmosphere, as it is able to switch the mood of a scene at the drop of a hat. One moment the viewer is treated to a pretty scene with vibrant colors, and the next moment one feels a sense of creeping dread and claustrophobia.
2. Donnie Darko (Kelly, 2001)
While it is technically a science fiction film, Donnie Darko is unlike anything else in the genre. Sometimes it seems like a surrealist horror, and at other times like a dark fantasy. The plot goes in all directions, as we watch the protagonist, Donnie, take on phony authority figures while at the same time he attempts to uncover the mysteries of vortexes and time travel. Although Donnie Darko can be a little hard to understand, there is no denying that the film is at the very least highly memorable. It is deeply unsettling, and its nightmarish imagery will be hard to soon forget.
1. Under the Skin (Glazer, 2013)
A film with minimal dialogue and zero exposition, Under the Skin invites the viewer to simply watch as an alien in the guise of a beautiful woman tracks down her prey. Its haunting imagery, chilling music, and suspenseful pacing almost make it feel like a horror movie at times, and Scarlett Johansson’s mesmerizingly alien performance only adds to one’s sense of discomfort. Under the Skin stands out as a relatively abstract work of science fiction that aims to deliver a hypnotic experience rather than tell a typical story arc. However, its lack of traditional plot in no way detracts from the quality of the film, as Under the Skin’s beauty lies in the thoughts and emotions it inspires in viewers.
Written and compiled by Mihir Majumdar
Over to you: what are your top 10 science fiction films of the 21st century..?