In reviewing Moon, I think I said all I really need to say on sci-fi flicks for the purpose of this list:
As a former card-carrying scientist, and perpetual geek-nerd, I love science fiction. Which is why I hate most science fiction movies — like a fucking vampire, they suck all the goodness out of the genre and then take a big steamer on the leftover corpse. Science fiction done right isn’t just about high-gloss technology, aliens, dystopia, alternate histories, nanotechnology, clones, robots, time travel, space travel, spaceships and off-world exploration, etc. Sure, great science fiction often has one or more of these elements and, done right, that stuff is f’ing cool. But the best science fiction uses these themes and elements, or ones like them, as tools to explore. From Mary Shelley to Asimov, Pohl, Heinlein, and Gibson, from Kubrick to Ridley Scott to Joss Whedon, the science fiction genre, at its best, is put to brilliant use to study and explore not just science itself, but ethics, morality and the human condition.
And to save you from anticipating its appearance while you scroll down the list, no, you won’t find Serenity (2005) in the Top Ten. I love “Firefly” to no end, and think Serenity was as good a conclusion to the series as we could get. But taking it apart from the show, as a pure standalone movie, I don’t think it’s quite up there with the flicks I chose to include in this list. I have no doubt many of you will disagree with that (as well as with some of these movies even being in this list), and that you will vehemently (and possibly crudely) voice that disagreement in the comments. Have at it. In fact, that brings to bear one other point. While one’s enjoyment and personal estimation of films is often subjective, I think that’s particularly true of science fiction films. Some people dig on dark, futuristic science fiction, but hate time travel tales. Others love glitzy space adventures but loathe quiet, character pieces. Some hate anything the genre has to offer, others love it no matter how bad the end product’s quality is. To each their own. But this is my list, love it or lump it.
10. Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 (2000). Laugh all you want. While Battlefield Earth is often derided for being a horrific travesty of cinematic schlock, its 2% tomatomer rating on Rotten Tomatoes is hardly warranted. Travolta delivers a subtle performance in a rich film that explores what it means to be human … Nope, I couldn’t even come up with a third sentence of bullshit trying to talk about this flick. Battlefield Earth is everything wrong with bad science fiction movies. Here’s your real Top 10. — Seth Freilich
10. Star Trek (2009). J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek accomplishes the impossible: It reboots an entire film franchise even while honoring the spirit of its beginnings, and it breathes new and heated life into a series grown stale. The director reteams with writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman; the same team also crafted the fantastically done Mission: Impossible III, and Orci and Kurtzman’s writing and producing credits include “Alias” and “Fringe.” They’ve created something wonderful in Star Trek: a fast-paced, breathless space opera, crammed with action, humor, and heart. — Daniel Carlson
9. Pitch Black (2000). Pitch Black has no business being a good sci-fi flick, let alone one of the better ones of this decade. But it is, despite the fact that it stars Vin Diesel. Writer/director David Twohy managed to couple a simple and rote horror “plot” (band of people stuck together in the middle of nowhere and being hunted down) with a simple and rote sci-fi “plot” (cargo ship crashes onto mysterious planet and passengers learn secrets about each other … in spaaaace), turning them into a tight and well-done sci-fi/horror flick. Much like Star Trek above it in this list, Pitch Black lacks the stronger thematic elements I talked about above. Nevertheless, it’s a well done and eminently watchable film that’s both scary and fun. — Seth Freilich
8. Timecrimes (2007). TimeCrimes is a bizarre mindfuck of a little time-traveling movie. But unlike many other time-travel movies (The Lake House, for instance), there are no holes in the logic of Timecrimes. It’s a tight, gripping, logically sound, weird, funny, very cool little thriller. And writer/director Nacho Vigalondo, despite having a name that sounds like something you’d really like to eat an hour from now, is one stupendous director. — Dustin Rowles
7. V for Vendetta (2005). V for Vendetta is fucking brilliant. Beneath director James McTeigue’s floating knives and the ballet of violence, Larry and Andy Wachowski provide thoughtful (if somewhat shallow) characters, challenging-but-logical mythology, and the kind of daring political ambiguity rarely seen in a blockbuster of this magnitude. Indeed, while the film’s ideas and the motivations of its characters appear in vague shades of gray, V for Vendetta is clearly delineated by the graphic colors that stand in stark contrast to the dark palette upon which the film is painted, radiantly projecting onscreen the cinematic equal to David Lloyd’s chiaroscuro illustrations. While the book was set in a bleak post-Thatcherite, post-nuke 1997 dystopian society under the control of a repressive, authoritarian British “Head” and his thuggish “Fingermen” who worked out of “the Nose,” the Wachowskis have updated the timeline (to around 2020) and substituted a deadly plague for nuclear bombs. Still, the brothers have successfully transplanted Moore’s contumacious ideas, breathing new life into themes that resonate even louder in a post- 9/11 world, where centrally-owned media conglomerates control the flow of information under the supervision of a government that paralyzes its citizens into submission through its xenophobic culture of fear — and the Wachowskis overtly draw these parallels by using both the techniques (wiretapping and Abu-Ghraib-style black masks) and verbiage (“Coalition of the Willing”) of the Bush/Cheney regime administration, going a bit too far, perhaps, by suggesting that the government created the deadly plague (destroyed the WTC?) as a pretense for throwing down its iron fist. — Dustin Rowles
6. WALL-E (2008). Written and directed by Andrew Stanton, WALL-E opens in the distant future on an Earth whose atmosphere is surrounded by a blanket of debris and whose land is covered in towers of human waste. The camera glides through space and then over the ruined planet as “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly! plays, acting as the emotional soundtrack for the yearning hero about to be introduced and also offering a sad juxtaposition between the nature of exploration and the wreck of the world that was left behind. The song shifts source, going from non-diegetic to emanating from a speaker on a small robot idly wheeling through the trash. The robot, whose markings identify him as a Waste Allocation Load-Lifter, Earth class, spends his days compacting trash and stacking the cubes into ever higher skyscrapers of waste. WALL-E is the last remaining drone tasked with cleaning up the planet after the human race left for cleaner pastures. All of the robots that will appear in the film have personalities to a degree, but WALL-E’s is by far the most vibrant. WALL-E’s world changes with the arrival of EVE (Elissa Knight), a much slicker robot who’s been sent to Earth to search for signs of vegetative life. She’s a more typical robot, following orders and ignoring WALL-E once she realizes he’s not her objective, but WALL-E is instantly smitten. He follows her around as she searches for plant life, and in another wonderful sequence he attempts to win her heart, or at least impress her, by showing off the things he’s collected from his time cleaning up Earth. It sounds either corny or foolish to write about a love story between two robots brought to life in a computer, but that’s how believable, compelling, and just damn good this film is: It breathes life into these machines, gives them real beating hearts, and tells a story in nothing but pure emotion. — Daniel Carlson
5. Donnie Darko (2001). It works because it defies classification, spinning shades of an indie outsider high school flick, quirk and humor and all, mixed with an almost nihilistic science fiction fantasy premise. It’s a film that you can watch a dozen times and still try to hone the edge of what you think you saw, of what was really happening. Eschewing twists, the movie itself is a mindfuck.
Jake Gyllenhaal is phenomenal as the eponymous Donnie Darko, playing a teenager who is plain and simply fucked up: slouched and unkempt, eyes flickering up above a sneer that would be malicious if not undermined by so much uncertainty. Adolescent rage at nothing in particular pours out in every argument, even as his voice cracks at every other syllable and trails off when he can’t find the right words for what he knows is true. He sees a grotesque rabbit from the future and launches his own Project Mayhem crusade of property damage and arson.
It’s a movie about time travel, but not about helplessness. With strange loops of closed-off time, the events of which go unknown to any but the time traveler therein, it ask what if everything we ever did worth doing was erased so that it never happened? That’s the fate Donnie chooses in the end. — Steven Lloyd Wilson
4. Moon (2009). No aliens, dystopic futures, or killer robots. Just a dude living on the moon. That dude would be Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), a contracted employee of a company called Lunar Industries, which has mostly solved Earth’s energy crisis by figuring out how to harvest helium from sun-soaked moon rocks. Most of the process is automatic, but the company needs someone chilling out on the moon, overseeing operations and getting canisters of the wonderful He3 back to Earth. A film like this, with essentially a cast of one, obviously relies heavily on the performance of that sole actor, and the premise sets Sam Rockwell up with the opportunity to deliver a great performance (or performances, if you will). And he knocks it out of the park — from the earlier part of the film, focused on Sam’s utter solitude and possible mental cracking, to the later exploration of individuality, Rockwell is simply a joy to watch. — Seth Freilich
3. Primer (2004). Primer has none of the fancy special effects or distracting CGI images that we’ve come to associate with contemporary science fiction, relying instead on the classic sci-fi model of setting up a complex ethical dilemma and then watching the characters squirm around in it. Toward the end, the plot begins to double back in time in ways that aren’t clearly spelled out. It’s sometimes difficult to guess the sequence of events or even say for certain exactly what we’re watching, as we lose track of just how many Aarons and Abes there are moving around at any given time. I’ve seen the film twice now, and while it was easier to grasp the second time, I still walked away with unanswered questions. Some find this a fault, but it’s rare enough that a film gives us anything to really think about that I didn’t mind. Primer isn’t for everyone, but for those who enjoy a complex, tricky plot (the obvious, and already overused, comparison is Memento), it marks the debut of an exciting new talent — Jeremy C. Fox
2. District 9 (2009). At its heart, the film is about the lines we draw around “us” and “them,” and how truly shaky those lines are. We can accept any sort of horror, any torture, as long as it isn’t one of us. The film feeds on the horror implicit in how easy it is to carry a one and move someone back and forth across that line. A man in charge of an operation can in five minutes become nothing more than a pile of resources “worth billions of dollars,” that must be harvested quickly. Anesthesia? That’s for people not things, it might interfere with the procedure. Vivisection first, get the heart out as quickly as possible. Bits and pieces of humor run throughout, laugh-out-loud gallows humor. The authorities release photoshopped footage of Wikus screwing one of the aliens to explain his condition, to turn the sentiment of any friends and family against helping him. It’s mined here and there, a thug asking Wikus late in the film whether he’d used a condom. An alien asks Wikus why he killed a man after insisting that there should be no killing and Wikus erupts with the inarguable logic of “that was before he tried to kill me.” It is an intelligent and layered film, but as the old adage goes, ideas are boring, so if you must tell a story about ideas, be sure to wrap it with a bunch of explosions. One complaint of other reviewers has been that the central questions of the film are never resolved. They’re missing the point. We never find out why the aliens came, why most of them seem to have no understanding of their own technology, why they never rose up against those holding them. But that’s because the story is told tightly focused on Wikus. He is preoccupied with survival during the 72 hours over which the film unfolds. He is not in any position to learn those tidbits, and the answers, while tempting, are completely irrelevant to the story being told here. If given, such answers would just be tacked on, gratuitous to the personal journey of Wikus. — Steven Lloyd Wilson
1. Children of Men (2006). To reduce Children of Men to a chase movie robs the film of its skill and power. Cuarón keeps the tension high throughout the film by allowing the realistic story to drive the action, not the artificial music stings or blurred cuts that are the hallmark of the genre. There are no jetpacks here, simply a lived-in, beat-up, decaying world that’s decorated with touches of technology to lend it a vivid texture. Based on P.D. James’ novel, the film is a dazzling balancing act: humorous but not comical, chaotic but not mindless, bleak but not defeatist. Clive Owen cements his leading-man status by bringing a sense of gallows humor to his antihero, along with a British combination of anger and bemusement and drive. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the film is Cuarón’s somewhat hopeful outlook. Children of Men presents a frighteningly possible future of our world, and Cuarón knows we don’t have to let it come to pass. — Daniel Carlson