Rolling Stone magazine did an okay job with their top 20 sci-fi movies of the 21st century list. (Let’s just keep calm, ignore the fact that the 21st century has only had 15 years in it so far, and carry on.)
There’s one obvious thing about the movies that I have to nitpick right off, and it comes in one word:
See, to me, monsters aren’t sci-fi; they are fantasy. Because they are hands-down impossible and/or stupid. And, therefore, have no business in a sci-fi list. Move them to some list that includes ghosts, wizards and hobbits. That means that certain movies should be removed from this list. The biggest offenders are:
- The Host
- Monsters (duh)
- Reign of Fire (a close one, admittedly; but since it’s based on the idea that dragons have always existed, and just recently awoke from hibernation—and no archeologist has yet to find a sleeping dragon or the species’ fossils—I am forced to add this to the fantasy monster list.)
Which leaves us a list of 16 movies. Which is good, because I know just which movies were omitted from the Rolling Stone list that I would add to create a well-rounded 20 monster-free sci-fi movies.
Not in any particular order:
Although author Stanislaw Lem didn’t particularly approve of either attempt to cinematize his SF novel, my feeling is that Steven Soderbergh did a fantastic job in capturing the claustrophobia and creepiness of a remote space station, and its small scientist crew trying to figure out how and why people from their past have appeared on the station, their mere presence tormenting them over memories from their past. One of the rare SF stories that delves into the human psychological condition, as well as presenting viewers with the relatively unheard-of concept of an alien intelligence so different that we will likely never understand it or learn to communicate with it, any more than a bacteria could make contact with us from the surface of our scalps. (Personally I agree with Lem in that I wish they’d spent more time on the unfathomable nature of Solaris itself, not just the goings-on on the station. But oh, well.)
A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) (2001)
This movie, produced by Steven Spielberg from a Stanley Kubrick workup of a Brian Aldiss short story, tends to get short shrift by the anti-cuteness brigades, but it actually does a great job showing us a world in which robots have become integrated into society, only to become second-class citizens that clearly want more in their lives. Although the ending seemed too pat for audiences, the journey of the robot David and his companions, Gigolo Joe and Teddy, to find the Blue Fairy that David believes will make him a real boy, is compelling and sympathetic… in some cases, the robots seem more alive than the humans around them.
War of the Worlds (2005)
This isn’t even close to a remake of the George Pal film of the 1950s; rather it is much more closely based on the original H.G. Wells novel, brought forth into present day. Though the presence of director Spielberg and actor Tom Cruise tend to overshadow the work and make people more critical of it, in fact this movie much better captured the personal horror of being caught in the middle of an alien invasion, and simply trying to escape certain death in a helpless, totally overwhelming situation… exactly what Wells was trying to capture in the novel, itself a retelling of the British invasions of primitive islands during its colonization period. Cruise’s Everyman is very satisfying (one of those films that reminds us that this action star is a great actor, too), the atmosphere and effects are impeccable, and the scale is perfect to put the viewer right in the middle of the action. One of the few movies that managed to seriously scare me.
Iron Man (2008)
The first of the movies that would kickstart the mighty Marvel superhero movie franchise, this Jon Favreau movie presents us with an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation, who uses his genius to create a modern suit of high-tech armor and save himself from terrorist captives; only to discover those terrorists possess weapons his own company manufactured, sending him on a quest to protect people from his errant weapons (and the corporate partner who put them in the terrorists’ hands). Though the character is a comic-book superhero, the hero doesn’t have exotic, magic or alien powers, he only has science and technology on his side… making this clearly a sci-fi story. Director Favreau and actor Robert Downey, Jr. give us a perfectly-executed thrill ride that sets us up for further Marvel movies, some perhaps more fantasy than sci-fi, but all entertaining.
The rest of the Rolling Stone list:
Attack the Block
The World’s End
Under The Skin
Children of Men
Bonus: Here are some more movies, which I think are better than Donnie Darko, Looper, Primer, District 9, Attack the Block, Gravity and, yes, even the fun-as-hell The World’s End, to create my own top-20 list:
The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
This George Nolfi movie stars Matt Damon as a politician who stumbles onto a strange organization of people who seem to have knowledge of everyone’s intended fate, and the actions people must take—or be pushed into by agents of the Adjustment Bureau—to make that fate happen. When the hero initially resists the bureau’s efforts to keep him away from a woman who will derail his career if he falls in love with her, he is assisted by one of the men of the bureau, and the race to get to safety with the girl he loves is on. It’s not clear who the ultimate head of this bureau is (God himself?), but the bureaucrats are human enough, and the desire to fight to determine their own future makes this a powerful story, with love as the goal. And the agents’ hi-tech fate-mapping tools and secret network of doors to who-knows-where make this a fun sci-fi adventure.
Vanilla Sky (2001)
And again, Tom Cruise in a Cameron Crowe sci-fi movie that everyone dismissed because… Tom Cruise. But what at first appears to be a strange murder mystery surrounding a man who may be crazy, turns out to be a story about a man who realizes he is having nightmares about the women he loves, and the other woman who tried to kill him in the car crash. Though the movie was unfavorably compared to the Spanish film, Abra Los Ojos, from which it was remade, it received a number of award nominations, and was a box office success. Cruise, again, gets to really act in this film, and a very solid cast backs him up. But it is the subtle dropping of clues that his world isn’t what it seems, building to the big reveal at the end, that makes this movie so engaging.
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2002)
If this list can include Wall-E, why not an anime feature? Writer/director Shinichiro Watanabe took his incredibly rich Cowboy Bebop anime TV series, about a mildly-dysfunctional group of bounty hunters, and gave us a beautiful story about the team chasing down a psychopathic ex-soldier-turned-terrorist on the streets of Mars. Bebop depicts an incredibly believable future of human civilization spread among the solar system, and the crew of the Bebop are more fleshed-out than many live-action movie characters. Great action, beautiful city scenes, haunting music and the antics of the lovable crew make this a must-see for anyone’s anime catalog.
But wait! Cowboy Bebop wasn’t the only fantastic anime feature out there! Satoshi Kon’s movie is about a psychologist working with experimental technology allowing her to share a patient’s dreams, and uses her dream avatar, Paprika, to try to help them from within dreamland. But someone has figured out how to hack into the software, and as they get better at using the interface, the very fabric of reality is threatened. The psychologist and her colleagues work in the real world, as Paprika works in the dream world, to find and stop the hackers. Mind-bending imagery and psychological drama make this a great film.
Cloud Atlas (2012)
This series of interconnected stories, brought to the screen by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis, require the audience to pay some attention as they try to draw the connections between various characters in different stories. The official synopsis describes it as “an exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.” Incredible multiple-performances by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving and others, are used to visually suggest the souls that connect the characters and their evolution over time.
Normally post-apocalyptic sci-fi is a major yawnfest for me; but in this case, I’ll make a big exception. That’s because Joon-ho Bong‘s class-struggle story, set among the last human survivors of Earth riding aboard a non-stopping train on a globe-spanning line, is so full of symbolism, allegory and just plain ballsy visual style that it becomes an experience in itself to watch. Chris Evans leads the poor, desperate denizens of the back of the train along a linear mutiny to take over the controlling, luxurious front, giving the viewers a taste of the stratified cultures of life along the way, and the constant feeling of forced choice—go back, or go forward, but you can’t stay where you are. Like the train, the action never stops… until the inevitable end of the line.
I honestly don’t know how Rolling Stone could justify leaving this off their list (but knowing them, they probably had issues with the sound balance)… nor how I, in my zeal to top them, actually missed it. Christopher Nolan’s epic, about a team of astronauts trying to find a future world for humanity, and dealing with the painful separation from their loved ones, is magnificent and beautiful. It also happens to be vetted by Kip Thorne, a Cal Tech physicist, to make it as scientifically accurate about wormholes and relativity as it can possibly be. Though the climax gets a lot of flack from audiences for being too dues ex machina, the final solution fully makes up for it in my opinion (and not insignificantly, because it matches my own theories on Mankind’s future habitats).
So, my top-20 list (as of 2014, of course):
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
The Adjustment Bureau
Children of Men
War of the Worlds
Cowboy Bebop: The Movie
Under The Skin
Actually, not a bad list. Good thing the 21st century pretty much just got started…