“Midnight Special” (2016)
The most “science fiction-y” bells and whistles in Jeff Nichols‘ thrumming, low-key “Midnight Special” may be the weakest elements of the film, but the overall mood —a yearning for understanding beyond what we know— is potent enough to warrant a placement here. Much was made in advance of the film’s debts to Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter —perhaps too much, in the sense that it disappointed those who went in hoping to scratch the kind of ’80s childish-wonder/horror itch that Netflix’s “Stranger Things” does so effectively. In fact, Nichols’ film, which stars Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst and Jaeden Lieberher, is far more thoughtful and introspective.
There’s purist, cerebral “hard” sci-fi, there’s space opera, and Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” TV show falls joyously and unapologetically into the latter category. But it only lasted one 14-episode season, whereupon the fan clamor became so great that a couple of years later came the movie version “Serenity.” Starring the same cast —Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Jewel Staite and Summer Glau— rustling up the same chemistry and chowing into the same quippy, characterful dialogue, Whedon’s TV provenance also shows in less positive ways: it’s not hugely cinematic and the plotting feels a little episodic
“The Martian” (2015)
While the “Ridley Scott and Matt Damon make science fun!” chatter that surrounded this film’s release became tiresome to the nerdlingers among us who have always found science pretty fun, we have to admit that “The Martian” did well to take a geeky concept and deliver such a pacy, witty entertainment. Mining the national resource that is Damon’s everyman charm, Scott made his most satisfying film in years courtesy of Drew Goddard’s peppy script (based on the bestseller by Andy Weir)
“Star Trek” (2009)
There is some irony in J.J. Abrams avowedly relaunching the ‘Star Trek‘ franchise by making it as though it should have been a ‘Star Wars‘ movie. But that doesn’t detract from just how much fun “Star Trek” turned out to be, largely keeping the deeper, philosophical bent of series like “The Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine” in the background in favor of an old-fashioned, getting-the-team-together yarn, with a little time travel thrown in because… JJ Abrams! But if that sounds dismissive, it shouldn’t: Abrams assembled a terrific cast for the new-look movie —Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin (RIP), John Chu, Karl Urban and Simon Pegg— and Kurtzman & Orci‘s script gave every individual character their moment in the sun. Also including a touching cameo from Leonard Nimoy (RIP).
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
Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Revitalizing the “Star Wars” franchise, that took such a massive body hit with the prequels, may seem “merely” a matter of not-screwing-up but it’s actually semi-miraculous that with so much at stake JJ Abrams & co managed it. ‘The Force Awakens’ is new but also old, progressive but also traditional, nostalgic but also optimistic, and the sense of wide-open adventure that it shares with the original trilogy is exhilarating and infectious. Bringing prior cast members Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill back for a victory lap, really it works as a baton-pass to the next generation, irresistibly embodied by John Boyega and Daisy Ridley.
“Ex Machina” (2015)
Having had his hand in some of the most distinctive genre movies of the last couple of decades, writer Alex Garland (“Sunshine,” “28 Days Later,” “Dredd,” “Never Let Me Go”) exceeded himself with this, his directorial debut. A wire-taut, ever-shifting three-hander about a programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) who’s invited down to the remote Alaskan hideaway of his genius boss (Oscar Isaac), only to discover he’s there to administer the Turing Test to an AI.
While it’s true that Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” strictly speaking, does not fall into the sci-fi category (it uses existing tech and is set more or less contemporaneously), the space-set survival tale qualifies for us, more for the very sci-fi sense of wonder and curiosity it embodies. Immaculately shot by Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki, including the now famous, stiched-together “unbroken” sequence at the beginning, and convincingly performed by an assured and sympathetic Sandra Bullock, the film has its flaws — some clunky dialogue and a slightly misbegotten detour with George Clooney’s character.
Attack The Block” (2011)
John Boyega’s now, delightfully, one of the biggest stars of the world thanks to a certain space franchise, but to certain observers of inventive, low-budget British cinema, he already kind of is. As the MVP in writer/director Joe Cornish‘s absolutely terrific “Attack the Block,” (exec produced by Edgar Wright) Boyega, in his debut, inhabited Moses, the surly thug who goes from mugger to unlikely resistance leader when his council block comes under attack from aliens.
District 9” (2009)
With Neill Blomkamp going on to make the facile “Elysium” and the widely derided “Chappie,” a coma patient who woke up in 2010 might well wonder why the hell we all have such continued high expectations for him. But that would be the effect of his terrific debut, the low-on-budget, high-on-ideas “District 9,” which positioned its aliens-on.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)
George Miller’s fourth movie in his post-apocalyptic franchise, and the first in nearly thirty years, was literally the best action movie in decades, and a tremendous sci-fi film too. A chase movie in the same way that Buster Keaton’s “The General” is a chase movie, i.e. it’s the chase movie as poetry, as symphony, as head rush, as fever dream — “Fury Road”
Under The Skin” (2013)
We were first spellbound by Jonathan Glazer‘s unctuous slow-drip nightmare three years ago and it hasn’t quite left our system yet. Simply one of the undeniable masterpieces of this new millennium, the chilly otherworldly vibe of Glazer and Walter Campbell‘s adaptation of Michel Faber‘s novel is completely immersive and bewitching, told with a Kubrickian attention to detail that does indeed feel like it acts subcutaneously, intravenously. Featuring a brilliant performance from Scarlett Johansson (kicking off a stellar run, incidentally) the film might be the best-ever evocation of an alien’s-eye perspective on the our world, with slivers of the prosaic reality of grey, damp Scotland interrupting the creeping horror that unfolds in the black ooze below.
“Children Of Men” (2006)
Not just the best sci-fi movie of the last 16 years, but one of the best movies period, Alfonso Cuaron’s bravura dystopian masterpiece cemented the Mexican helmer’s status as not just a fast-rising star, but as one of our very, very best. Based on P.D. James’ novel, it’s set in a world where no children have been born in two decades, and society has collapsed as humanity waits to die out. Theo (Clive Owen) is entrusted with transporting a young immigrant woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who is pregnant, the first person in a generation to be so. Aside from its central premise, everything about “Children Of Men” is chillingly plausible, and Cuaron’s vision is brought to life seamlessly with subtle VFX and the never-bettered docudrama-ish photography of Emmanuel Lubezki (including two of the greatest extended shots in cinema history). The cast, including Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Peter Mullan, and Danny Huston,