This Week's Top 10: The Best Sci-Fi Movies of the 21st Century (So Far)
We just wrapped up an Oscar season where most all of my favorite movies of the year were relatively solid box office performers, but in 2018, my two favorite movies so far were economic clunkers. The first—Paddington 2—is relatively inexplicable, as it's a super charming kid-centric action comedy that works on all levels. But the second, Alex Garland's Annihilation, does make a lot more sense, as it's a complex cross-section of string theory, body horror and mental illness that doesn't necessarily scream a fun night at the pictures.
But Annihilation is a remarkable movie, and I have been casually calling it the best science fiction film of the 21st century so far. But would it really top that list, and what are the other films in consideration for that title? That's the subject of this week's Up All Afternoon Top 10.
10. Ex Machina
Alex Garland's directorial debut is an alarmingly well-crafted exploration of artificial intelligence and the way that human interaction fails when it translates to the AI world. It devolves into a pretty straightforward survival flick by the third act, but Garland keeps the first two thirds kinetic and hypnotic with a neat cross-section of conversations about scientific ethics and the gradual evolution of the artificial being Ava.
Christopher Nolan's foray into deep space has its detractors, but I am not one of them. The set-up is genius, with the slow burning but not too explicit reveals about the state of the not-too-distant future, and then all the leaps into the unknown—including the final, emotionally devastating trip into the tesseract—are satisfyingly weird.
Like all great sci-fi movies, Arrival's set-up is deceptively simple but its execution is thrillingly twisted. It's fundamentally a movie about a stand-off with aliens, but it's also a meditation on the possibilities of communication and the sacrifices we make in the face of the inevitable. This was the first movie I saw after the disastrous 2016 election, and I could not have conjured a more humanist salve for myself.
Shot for no money in Texas, Primer is one of the rare films that seems to make less sense to me every time I watch it. But that's a virtue, not a flaw, as it throws its audience into the deep end and dares it to catch up with the two protagonists who invent a time machine and then struggle to figure out how it works and what the moral and ethical implications are. I also just love the look of the technology in Primer. Much like the industrial-drab containment unit in Ghostbusters, the time machine in Primer looks convincingly like what a bunch of engineers would build if they were trying to slap together a time machine in the garage.
Looper might actually be the logical end on the other side of the Primer continuum, as it takes place in a world where time travel is a pretty drab proposition that is only used by the nefarious and the amoral. The movie also takes an urge we've all had—the longing to go back and fix something in our own timeline—and explores the residual horrors that would undoubtedly emerge should the human race enter into a constant stream of course correction.
Another micro-budgeted bit of inspiration, Coherence posits that parallel worlds are always happening around us and that those variations can slip into our reality with the correct trigger (in this case, a comet passing overhead). Coherence is fundamentally a drawing-room thriller about paranoia and the fraying of long-standing adult relationships, and the thrill is in the piecing together of the always-escalating mystery surrounding the "phantom house" down the street.
4. Blade Runner 2049
The sequel to an all-time sci-fi classic manages to take many of the elements of the first one that people love (the inventive city construction, the existential dread) and ups the ante significantly. Rarely has a movie revealed so little and made so much impact.
No aliens or parallel worlds in this one, just one woman's struggle to survive in an environment that fundamentally rejects life. People get hung up on the simplicity of the plot, but those people are wrong.
When Sam Rockwell collected his Oscar for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I pretended that he won for this movie. He's perfectly good in Three Billboards, but he's positively transcendent as the last man left behind on an experimental moon colony who makes some startling discoveries about himself.
It's amazing, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. I've already seen it twice and intend on seeing it one more time before it vanishes from theaters. I adore this movie, but I adore all the conversations around this movie even more. It's a puzzle, it's survival horror, it's a profound meditation on marriage and commitment, it engages with a fundamental need for self-destruction. It looks amazing and gives juicy roles to a bevy of otherwise underserved actresses. It's perfect, and it's the best science fiction film of the 21st century.