Considering the volume of releases, overall the 2000s have a dearth of truly good science-fiction films compared with the 1970s and 1980s. Many movies based on books that should have been better fell short: Planet of the Apes, The Time Traveler and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (almost as bad as Vogon poetry). Movies based on other source material that should have been better include Attack of the Clones, V for Vendetta, The Matrix sequels, Terminator Salvation, Transformers, and the 9th and 10th Star Trek flicks. Of course, the 2000s “enjoyed” one of the worst sci-fi movies ever made—one of the worst movies period — Battlefield Earth. That piece of excrement makes Plan 9 from Outer Space look like Lawrence of Arabia.
Omissions: Scientifically dumb F/X movies such as The Day After Tomorrow, The Core, Sunshine and 2012, where the science, plot, situations and characters were really awful—so much so that the cool F/X couldn’t make up for the movies’ stupidity. Also, I’ve left out all super-hero movies, because as was pointed out in the comments on a previous list in mid-2009, that sub-genre belongs more firmly in the realm of fantasy than sci-fi.
Lets kick things off with this British film about a rage virus infecting England became a surprise hit, and spawned two sequels (2007’s 28 Weeks Later and the in-production 28 Months Later). After the virus is unwittingly released by animal rights extremists, the protagonist, Jim, wakes up from a coma to a deserted London — well, not quite deserted. Note: The infected in 28 Days are not zombies, but people who are still very much alive but driven insane/bloodthirsty by the virus.
Even though the movie went flat in the final act and became stock shoot-‘em-up fare, District 9 delivered an intriguing story that played heavily on themes of segregation and racism (or, “specie-ism”). Most critics praised District 9 and it earned a quite healthy box office return.
The third version of the Richard Matheson novel, I Am Legend, was better than the second, The Omega Man, but not quite as good as the first, The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price. I almost didn’t list this Will Smith version because the changed ending violated the basic premise: that vampire killer Dr. Neville is a legend to the vampires. But the first three-fourths of the movie was really good and perfectly captures the isolation of a dead city, and makes up for the disappointing payoff.
Is Mike Judge’s satire of the future absolute top-notch sci-fi? No, but it is fun in so many ways and has developed a nice cult following. Victims of an experiment gone awry, a man and woman awaken 500 years in a future populated literally by idiots.
While the sequel (The Chronicles of Riddick) was overblown, as happens when a surprise hit gets a nice-sized budget for a sequel, Pitch Black was a quite good action thriller that seemed to hit all the right notes. The villains are believable and the action makes sense—it’s not action for mere action’s sake.
I’d be remiss by not including Avatar. Despite its bazillion-plus worldwide box office take, this is a movie that you either love or hate. I fall into the latter, because I like my gee-wiz F/X to have an actual, believable and non-cliché plot. Some have described Avatar as “Dances with Wolves in space,” but Dances was a superior film. Still, if you’re in to mindless F/X, go see it.
At the risk of contradicting myself with #15, Cruise and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds deserves a mention because the F/X were good AND drove the story. The everyman-in-crisis motif was well done, despite some annoying and utterly illogical plot points, such as why the aliens hid their machines underground millions of years ago, yet they survived tectonic shifts and no one ever detected any of the crafts. Also, the aliens didn’t even think to protect themselves from the biology of a planet they had previously visited and presumably were watching. Still, the aliens’ tripods alone—and their deep, blasting tripod-to-tripod communications—make the movie worth it.
This fascinating sleeper explores the isolation of a man (Sam) based on the moon at the end of his three-year tour. His only companion—for a while, anyway—is a robot named GERTY. But Sam soon discovers that he’s not alone. Moon was a Sundance and critical favorite.
Perhaps the buildup was better than the final product, but this interesting take on monster-attacks-city was pretty darn good. If the shaky camera syndrome doesn’t bother you, then Cloverfield is one heck of a trip. After an overly long buildup at a party, **something** begins attacking New York City and creates mass chaos. It’s told entirely from the POV of a dude with a video cam (with one heck of a powerful battery and memory card!). Throughout, we only get glimpses of the monster and bits and pieces of the military’s response. Like Jaws, we don’t fully see the monster until the end. Well worth a look.
This movie based on the novel of the same name could have been better, but just has easily been much worse. The human race has become infertile and society has all but collapsed. Governments have turned utterly oppressive. But a man finds a pregnant woman and struggles to get her to safety. It’s since become a critical and cult favorite. (I think the future oppressive government motif works better here than in V for Vendetta.)
The Road lived up to its source material, Cormac McCarthy’s powerful and utterly depressing novel of the same name. A father and son make their way south in the eastern United States some time after an unspecified cataclysm has devastated the world. Along the way, they fight the merciless elements, cannibals, starvation and sickness. Despite its limited release in the U.S. (Australia, etc., is supposed to get it early this year), it’s been highly praised.
The final chapter of the Star Wars franchise was much better than its two predecessors were. The first 25 minutes and the final lightsaber duels (Anakin vs. Obi-Wan and Darth Sidious vs. Yoda) are among the best sequences of the entire six-movie series. Even though the ongoing problems with bad dialogue and acting before green screens is glaringly apparent in places, Revenge of the Sith at least brought the prequel trilogy to a satisfying, if not Empire-spectacular, conclusion. Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine/Sidious gave one of the best performances of the decade in any genre—which is why Sith is placed high on this list.
This intriguing South Korean movie takes place in an alternate history where Korea is still part of Japan. The back story is that an early 20th century assassination led to Japan siding with the Allies in WWII against the Nazis (Berlin was nuked in 1945, not Japan), thereby allowing Japan to keep its WWII conquests. Sakamoto, a Korean raised in Japan, and his Japanese partner attempt to solve a mystery concerning an archeological artifact, and the stunning realization that the aforementioned history is not right.
J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise proved quite popular, despite many deviations from the established characters of Kirk and Spock, as well as a silly plot. (Well, it IS a Star Trek movie, after all.) The reboot earned more at the U.S. box office than the previous four Trek films combined, which bodes well for the continuing journeys of the USS Enterprise. The two standout performances: Simon Pegg (from Shaun of the Dead – the decade’s best zombie film) as Scotty and Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy.
This Polish/Japanese film centers on a future where people escape reality through an illegal video game, which is outlawed because players often become catatonic in real life. (Imagine if World of Warcraft or another huge online gaming community was outlawed.) One player, Ash (a lady, and no, Evil Dead fans, she doesn’t wear a chainsaw on her arm) goes on a quest to find the mythical level of Avalon. The movie was a selection and winner at numerous film festivals, including Cannes.
I’m sure that once again, many will say that anime (“cartoons”) are not sci-fi, but I strongly disagree. (Of course, it depends on the anime, too.) Usually, I don’t go in for silly “school-girl-in-love-for-the-first-time” movies, but this film, based on the 1976 novel of the same name, follows a Japanese school girl who accidentally acquires the power to “leap” through time. Makoto uses her newfound ability to avoid embarrassing situations, get good grades, let the good times roll repeatedly and even have her mom serve her favorite meals. But Makoto discovers to her horror that she can leap only a pre-determined number of times, which leads to tragedy. The film won numerous awards and is a critical favorite.
After Joss Whedon’s Firefly was cancelled (unfairly and prematurely, hard-core fans cry) Whedon took his concept to the big screen with Serenity. The movie works quite well both as a standalone AND as a satisfying conclusion to the abbreviated series. Serenity won numerous awards, including the Nebula for best script and the Hugo for best presentation.
Although much different from Philip K. Dick’s original tale of the same name – far more car chases and action sequences in the movie – this Tom Cruise/Stephen Spielberg vehicle works on many levels. (It’s also much better than their later paring, War of the Worlds.) In the future, murders are stopped before they happen thanks to a trio of mutants. If one of them dissents on the outcome of a vision/foretelling, it’s called the minority report. Cruise plays a cop who arrests would-be murderers before they can do the deed—until the mutants foresee him committing murder.
This brief gem is one of the best movies ever made of any genre. It tells a simple love story and deals with the unfathomable distances of space travel in a realistic way. A young man and woman fall in love, but she’s a soldier and leaves with the fleet for a distant world. The further they’re separated, the longer it takes for their messages to reach one another. Very touching and effective. Try watching it in the original Japanese. Fascinating facts: Makoto Shinkai wrote, directed and created Voices of a Distant Star entirely on his Macintosh computer. He and his wife provided the original voice-overs. Now THAT is sci-fi creation at its finest.
I realize that this will be a very controversial No. 1 choice, but so be it. In one of Jim Carrey’s finest roles (no trademark Carrey rubber-face zaniness here), he plays a man who meets Clementine, (the lovely Kate Winslet, in one of her more offbeat roles) who seems strangely familiar—which in fact she is, even though he has no memory of her. What follows is one of the most satisfying (if, alas, a little slow in places) sci-fi movies in years. In fact, multi-Hugo-winning Gardner Dozois, editor of the long-running, highly acclaimed annual anthology, “The Year’s Best Science Fiction,” called Eternal Sunshine the best sci-fi genre film in a long time.
Notable mentions: Wall-E, Attack of the Clones (just for the final 45 minutes of almost non-stop combat) and Signs, which had a great set-up but laughable payoff.