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As kids, we looked ahead to the imminent 21st century and thought of a big bold, sci-fi future. The robot butler and trips to the drug store in hovercars version hasn’t yet arrived, but the first 15 years of this century have been extremely fruitful for big-screen science fiction.
Sci-fi is almost as old as cinema itself —1902's Georges Méliès’ “A Trip To The Moon” is generally seen as the first example— but it became hugely popular in late 20th century filmmaking in the aftermath of “Star Wars,” if also somewhat watered down. Many so-called sci-fi blockbusters were really action movies with some fantastical trappings, rather than thoughtful, provocative examinations of the world we live in through speculation about worlds we might live in.
That’s still true to an extent, but the last decade-and-a-half have seen a flourishing of smaller-scale, ingenious sci-fi pictures, as well as some dazzling bigger-scale examples with more ideas per se than explosions and laser fire. And with “Ex Machina" proving to be surprise hit this spring, the sci-fi idiom is the next in our Best Films Of The 21st Century So Far series (read Horror, Animated Films, and Music Documentaries).
We set a few rules —no superhero movies (which is a genre unto itself these days), no films with sci-fi segments without the whole film being in the genre (see “Cloud Atlas” and “The Fountain”) and a few films that don't quite feel like they are true science fiction. Otherwise, anything went, and the 25 we’ve picked out makes up a hell of a list. Take a look below and let us know your favorites in the comments.
25. “Edge Of Tomorrow” (2014)
Taking “Groundhog Day” and giving it a sci-fi twist (more effectively than Duncan Jones’ “Source Code" a few years earlier), Doug Liman’s excellent blockbuster “Edge Of Tomorrow” picks up Tom Cruise’s dickish PR guy and drops him in the midst of a D-Day-style battle against an impossible alien threat, then makes him live it (and perish in it) over and over again. The film was the best use of Cruise’s star persona in aeons (serving almost as a metaphor for the redemption of his own stardom), but the secret weapon, aside from a cunning evocation of video game tropes, the best alien warfare since “Starship Troopers,” and crystal clear direction from a back-on-form Liman, was Emily Blunt as the "full metal bitch," making a strong case that she deserves to be the biggest star in the world. The film didn’t find the theatrical audience it deserved at home, but more and more people are catching on over time.
24. “Donnie Darko” (2001)
Amazingly, it’s been nearly 15 years since Richard Kelly’s indie genre-bender arrived, and though its legacy has been tarnished by an inferior Director’s Cut and the helmer’s questionable follow-ups, the film remains as original and enjoyable a creation as ever. Melding John Hughews David Lynch, and Albert Einstein into an '80s-set tale of a troubled teen (Jake Gyllenhaal, in a star-making role) who receives visits from a sinister rabbit who may be trying to convince him to travel through time, it’s rich, funny, swooningly romantic stuff with a very fine cast (Patrick Swayze and Katharine Ross got well-deserved comeback roles, there’s a great cameo from producer Drew Barrymore, and keep an eye out for a young Seth Rogen as a bully), and a surprisingly melancholy tone. Kelly, just 26 when the film was released, handles things with real flair (and a great ear for song selection), and while the Director’s Cut only makes the mythology more impenetrable, it’s a fascinating sci-fi puzzle-box on top of everything else.
23. “Battle Royale” (2000)
The premise of kids killing each other in a government-supported game has now been popularized to billion-dollar effect with the (very good) “Hunger Games” franchise, but if we were going to choose one film in this tiny sub-genre, it was always going to be “Battle Royale.” The final film from Kinji Fukasaku sees a class of high school students fixed with explosive collars and forced to kill each other as part of a scheme intended to curb teen disobedience. Lean, bloody, and with terrific action sequences (Quentin Tarantino called it his favorite film of the previous two decades), it’s also more than a mere genre piece: the students, and even their teacher (a smartly-cast Takeshi Kitano) are sensitively and three-dimensionally drawn, and its power as metaphor, both examining the power of violence and the demonization of youth, elevates it far above the tales of Katniss & co. Indeed, it cut a little too close to the bone for many, and landing in the aftermath of Columbine, it wasn’t released in the U.S. for eleven years, and is banned in Germany to this day.
22. “Interstellar” (2013)
Perhaps one of the most hotly contested films, sci-fi or otherwise, in recent memory, Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” received a host of polarizing and emotionally hot reactions. Some claimed the picture his worst (our review wasn’t very charitable), some thought it was a vision from the heavens, and as usual, when the dust has settled, more mannered judgments have taken root (more of a consensus Playlist opinion forms here). So yes, Nolan shoots for the fences in “Interstellar” and arguably does not connect in the same home run fashion he has for so many pictures in a row now. The dialogue can be really on the nose, while the ending some see as jumping the shark. None of us will make too strong of a case against any of those points. That said, Nolan’s film is still a dazzling, ambitious vision of love, time, space, and some deeper, perhaps fuzzier elements of the universe. It’s the place where the heart and quantum physics meet. While that might admittedly be a bit of an awkward intersection, its love-letter sincerity to humanity inspired by Nolan’s own children is at least visually awe-inspiring and occasionally breathtaking. Admittedly clunky in spots, it's a film that will very likely only grow in estimation over time.
21. “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” (2014)
After Tim Burton’s dreadful 2001 version, few had high hopes for the second reboot of the classic “Planet Of The Apes” series in a decade when Rupert Wyatt’s “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” arrived. But the film was a quiet, unexpectedly moving triumph, and was then exceeded on every front by Matt Reeves’ follow-up, one of the few sequels that trumps the original. Picking up after the ape-pocalypse, as Caesar (Andy Serkis) is forced to confront humanity again, as well as a new threat closer to home, the movie, even more than its predecessor, takes full advantage of the stunning performance-capture technology, which reaches something of an apex here. Beyond that, it’s also simply a remarkably well-told story: a rare summer blockbuster in which you actively root against violence taking place, with a borderline Shakespearean arc for its non-human hero, and Reeves’ stylish-but-unshowy filmmaking chops steering things beautifully.