With the release of the decades-in-the-making Blade Runner 2049 nearly upon us, the MovieMinis staff compiled a list of what we believe to be the best science fiction movies of the last several years. The genre has seen a bit of a resurgence in the past decade. Both big-budget and independent filmmakers have leaned on sci-fi as a means of approaching Hollywood from a new, daring angle. And while for every Interstellar there’s bound to be an unfortunate Battleship, there’s no denying that the good outweighs the bad (or, in Battleship’s case, the very, very bad). Without further ado, here are the MovieMinis picks for Top 10 Sci-Fi Films of the 2010s:
10. (Tie) Upstream Color
Shane Carruth will likely never get the mainstream credit he deserves, but, then again, even the cinephiles enraptured by his work have yet to agree on the meaning of either of his two sci-fi masterpieces: Primer and Upstream Color. Whether Upstream Color is more of an experimental exploration of a deteriorating relationship or, rather, an unsettling science fiction narrative about mind control and the unforeseen power of the natural world may still be up for debate. Yet, what is not up for debate is the technical brilliance and narrative abstraction working seamlessly together to create an uncommonly intelligent experience that expects the audience not only to be engaged, but to actively want to work for any semblance of an answer. If that isn’t a hallmark of the best sci-fi works across all mediums, then I don’t know what is.
— Levi Hill
10. (Tie) Snowpiercer
Prior to the well-known Netflix film Okja, Bong Joon-ho started working with American actors on Snowpiercer, the adaptation of the French graphic novel La Transperceneige — and what he gave us is a science fiction film that the US film industry is not worthy of. While obvious in its commentary on the class system, the film is far more layered in that commentary, and that commentary is far more wide-reaching in scope, than it may let on. Not only deconstructing the upper class’ oppression of the lower class, Snowpiercer thoroughly dissects the idea of how flawed a rebellion can be and how malleable a the middle class truly is. And while that rebellion happens, always pushing forward, shot in stunning tracking profiles, the film focuses in on the two Asian characters who are always concerned with what’s outside of the train. In that, Joon-ho breaks down the barriers of the system, quite literally at points, to show that that’s not all there is.
All of that is simply the allegorical underpinnings of the story, which also features brilliant performances from Chris Evans, at perhaps his finest, and Tilda Swinton, in one of her most transformed roles. The action is breathtaking and the production design is integral, and feels organic, to the world that Joon-ho builds. Snowpiercer is inventive science fiction, in ways that both make the most of the storytelling style of the American system — a machine of forced, strict linearity — while also showing that perhaps the best kind of storytelling is that which can look outside of the system.
— Kyle Kizu
9. War for the Planet of the Apes
There’s arguably more “war” in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes than in War for the Planet of the Apes, but therein lies the success of this trilogy-closer — War is a methodical, elemental and profound examination of conflict, rather than an outright staging of conflict. As a result, we see Caesar (Andy Serkis, giving the performance of his career) fall to depths previously unimaginable, so, when he rises, it becomes a triumphant moment for the character, the franchise and the entire genre. Speaking of genre, this film returns sci-fi to its allegorical roots — before mother! unveiled its own take on the Bible, War turned Caesar into a Mosaic hero leading the film’s spin on the Book of Exodus. Forget The Batman, Matt Reeves already has a perfect trilogy on his hands.
— Harrison Tunggal
That Looper is Rian Johnson’s only jump into science fiction filmmaking, prior to his small gig of directing the upcoming 8th episode of the biggest franchise in the world, is bizarre when considering the good amount of the craft, skill and storytelling that he proved within the genre. Starring a nearly unrecognizable Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a wholly committed Bruce Willis — which is sadly rare these days — Looper takes a time-traveling high concept, that would work on its own storytelling premise, and wisely adds in a considerable amount of heart about the cycle of violence. The filmmaking ambition that Johnson illustrates with a third of the budget of most sci-fi blockbusters is exactly why there is an intense amount of hope behind the impending greatness of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
— Levi Hill
Part psychological-thriller, part romantic drama and all science fiction, Alex Garland’s 2014 indie sleeper hit not only put actress Alicia Vikander on the map, but it also redefined the extent to which humanity can play an integral role in a cyborgian sci-fi film. By crafting a narrative centered around identity, autonomy and sentience on such a small scale, Garland elicits a much more personal chemistry between his three leads (Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac) that leads to more electric and shocking interactions over the course of the story. For a film to so fully resemble a character study that the existential debate it poses over technological consciousness becomes the least intriguing aspect onscreen (relatively speaking, of course) is not an easy feat, yet ex_machina accomplishes this in spades.
— Sanjay Nimmagudda
Interstellar may not be Christopher Nolan’s best work — that honor could be argued for Inception, The Dark Knight or even Dunkirk — but it is, after retrospection and consideration of the value of film as art, undoubtedly his most important. There are few films in recent memory, if any at all, that try to tackle our purpose, our mission, our existence as living beings on a massive scope, while still basing that investigation in the deeply personal quite like Interstellar does. Immediately throwing away the egocentric idea that the Earth is “ours,” Interstellar forces us to consider our place in the universe and asks what continued survival really means. Is the decimation of those on Earth worth the prolonged existence of humans as a species? Or is it our very connections, our very love that we create with one another that is the key to our survival, and thus cannot be thrown away? In proposing those questions, Interstellar utilizes perhaps the strongest, most imprisoning and debilitating antagonist not only in film, but in life: time. We’re all bound by time, intrinsic to our existence as three dimensional beings, and cannot stop the ever moving train of life that will lead us to inevitable death. With that, epitomized by Cooper leaving his family behind to go on his mission, the film asks: how do we reconcile ourselves with the fact of existence of billions of others, and how do we honor that reconciliation without truly abandoning those we love?
While it may not be the most well-made of Nolan’s films, it has various aspects that epitomize his greatest strengths as a storyteller. Nolan’s collaborations with Hans Zimmer reach their pinnacle with Interstellar, as Zimmer composes his most vulnerable and affecting score yet. Nolan’s work with actors is notably less involved than some other directors, as Nolan leaves a lot of the responsibility up to the actor to understand the character within the story first and foremost. With Interstellar, that understanding finds a symphonic unity with Matthew McConaughey, who turns in his most committed performance. And while Nolan may not be a subtle writer, his screenplays are always haunting in at least some regard. The goodbye scene between Cooper and Murph is an example of tragic poetics, as is the video message scene, both written with an intimacy, love and sense of human existence within the many questions he presents that all coalesce stunningly. And the potential of Nolan’s practical chops as a director are fulfilled in the action sequence — the docking scene should go down as one of the most triumphant, and brilliant composed, in science fiction history.
Interstellar, already with so many singular qualities, even further distinguishes itself in the genre of science fiction by not only basing itself in accurate science and legitimate theoretical astrophysics, but organically utilizing those elements within its narrative. The visuals of the wormhole and the black hole were created from genuine equations written by executive producer and notable astrophysicist Kip Thorne, which lends a sort of tangible credence to them (and even helped Thorne write two papers on scientific discoveries from the visual effects). And, in regard to the narrative, time is inherently connected to astrophysics, and Nolan’s use of time as a narrative device to score the tragedy of humankind, and specifically the tragedy of a father and a daughter, is overwhelmingly heartbreaking.
Interstellar presents the type of big questions, and ways of tackling them, that we should demand from science fiction films that venture out into space because few other films genuinely try to answer them, let alone propose them in the first place. Interstellar does both, and is not afraid to embrace the intimacy of our humanity either.
— Kyle Kizu
In Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, alien spacecrafts descend upon the earth, hoping to end the cycle of violence that has always withheld humanity from achieving its full potential as a species. The aliens arrived when the people of earth needed them most. Eerily, Arrival did the same for us, releasing in the US three days after the 2016 presidential election. To the millions of people to whom Donald Trump poses an existential threat, the film was a reminder to not lose hope — an affirmation that our baser human instincts don’t hold a candle to empathy and communication. To the rest of the country, the film was a warning that vitriol is never the basis for progress. It’s hard to think of a film more urgent than Arrival, harder still to think of one more beautiful and profound.
— Harrison Tunggal
Though less overtly “sci-fi” than most other films on this list, Spike Jonze’s Her is one of the most thoroughly, organically defined. The film is set in a near future where artificial intelligence exists and people have distanced themselves from each other even further, and the design of each and every single frame, which acts to set forth those notions, is breathtaking. From the wandering souls walking through a much larger Los Angeles (shot partially in China) to the stunning skyscraper-high apartments, Her is arguably as well built of a world as Mad Max: Fury Road, yet on the other end of the spectrum. But Jonze doesn’t simply present a new kind of world; he crafts characters that feel like genuine parts of that world. Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant as Theodore Twombly, and the simultaneous intense disconnect and vulnerable sincerity have remnants in today’s world, just brought to their extreme here. And the love story told — between a man and an artificially intelligent device — is one of the most tragically beautiful and heartbreaking ever put to film. Her is a true gem, one that only the mind of Spike Jonze could conjure up.
— Kyle Kizu
3. World of Tomorrow
Watching the 16 minutes that comprise animator Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow, one feels as though every frame of it could inspire multiple film adaptations, novels aplenty and one or two television shows. The short film tackles capitalism, time travel, cloning, the evolution of the internet, mortality, the limitations of art, slavery, artificial intelligence, love (the love of sparkly rocks, aliens named Simon and clones named David, specifically), economic recessions and depressed poetry. But this isn’t to say that the film is incoherent — it is a delight to discover, and its endless invention is a joy to experience as it washes over the perplexed, awed viewer. As an older version of Emily explains the titular future world to her younger self, one begins to grasp the futility of explaining the foibles and idiosyncrasies of our own times to the more innocent people we were as toddlers. Futile as such an attempt might be, one can’t help but feel excited for the sequel Hertzfeldt has planned.
— Harrison Tunggal
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
George Miller’s return to the franchise that he started way back in 1979 was the most welcome of returns. Who knew a four-quel that features endlessly bombastic sound and rapid-fire editing could be not only one of the best science fiction films this decade, but truly ever. Using the Mad Max mythology of Earth becoming a completely desolate wasteland and humanity becoming even more desolate in their compassion, Miller retools the story and setting to not only create a powerful environmental message against misunderstanding sustainability, but also a tale about the tyranny men preside over others, women in particular. Acting as a not-so-subtle allegory for triumphant women and the resistance against their male oppressors — which grows more relevant by the day under the current presidential regime — Mad Max: Fury Road is just a hell of a movie. In fact, in an era of blockbusters mostly devoid of risk and danger or even vision, Fury Road was the adrenaline needle, straight to the heart, that we needed — just to remind us that there’s no art form quite as emotionally exhilarating as cinema.
— Levi Hill
Following the release of The Dark Knight, there must have been those who thought director Christopher Nolan had undoubtedly crafted his magnum opus with the comic book crime epic. That was, until Inception hit theaters. Conceptually daring in its coupling of the time-tested caper film with the more abstract and imaginative idea of transitory dreamscapes, Inception represents a paragon of contemporary science fiction cinema. From the kaleidoscopic manipulation of Wally Pfister’s beautiful cinematography to Hans Zimmer’s now iconic score (complete with brass fanfare), Nolan and his crew created a motion picture that has made a lasting impact on the cultural zeitgeist. When “your mind is the scene of the crime,” there’s a lot of room for interpretation on the inner workings of the human psyche, and Nolan’s idea to not only enter that arena but to incorporate his signature style of paradoxical large-scale intimacy lets players like Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard and Tom Hardy to fully realize their character’s roles within a larger, engaging and cohesive script. The methods through which Nolan tests the limits of his audience’s suspension of disbelief, and of reality itself, are grounded by a through line of realism so that whether it be the instantaneous degradation of a building or a slow-motion free fall off a bridge, the audience is kept captivated through and through. Inception will somehow make you feel simultaneously astounded, satisfied, confused and frustrated as you find yourself asking – was it all just a dream?
— Sanjay Nimmagudda
Honorable mentions: Guardians of the Galaxy, The Martian, Source Code, Gravity
Featured image via Warner Bros.