20. “A Scanner Darkly” (2006)
A higher-than-usual number of great sci-fi movies have been made from the work of legendary author Philip K. Dick, but few have been as faithful, or as weird, as Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly.” Set in a near-future where an undercover cop (a rarely-better Keanu Reeves) has infiltrated a group of junkies addicted to the hallucinatory Substance D, only to end up with a very Dick-ian identity crisis when he’s asked to spy on himself. Linklater reuses the rotoscoped-animation style he’d employed in ‘Waking Life,” enabling his wonderfully freaky visuals to melt and meld into each other, while his trademark looseness makes the film into a wonderful blend of stoner freak-out comedy and existential thriller. Featuring a killer supporting cast of Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder (the former in one of his last memorable pre-Tony Stark performances), it might not pack the emotional punch of the ‘Before’ trilogy or “Boyhood,” but it’s nevertheless one of the very best of the director’s career.
19. “Minority Report” (2002)
The second part of a masterful Spielberg sci-fi double bill, “Minority Report” was the helmer’s best blockbuster since “Jurassic Park,” but it also proved to be something more: an enormously inventive, unexpectedly funny procedural that delved into serious moral and philosophical issues in the way that all the best science fiction does. Based very loosely (about as loosely as “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall”) on a Philip K. Dick story, it’s set in a future where the police are able to stop murder before it takes place, only for the lead investigator (Tom Cruise) to be forced on the run when his name comes up. Scott Frank’s terrific script is a noirish, textured blend of mystery, action, and spectacle. It’s a harder-edged film than we’ve come to expect from Spielberg (at least until the slightly too-neat ending), but he, and his star, seems to relish the opportunity, tackling the film with a playfulness that had been lacking from much of his work in the years running up to this. The film’s so eerily prescient that it hasn’t aged a day, either.
18. “Looper” (2012)
Somewhat similar to “Sunshine,” “Looper” — Rian Johnson‘s third feature after breakout noir “Brick” and loopy, unloved “The Brothers Bloom” — is half of a truly brilliant, all-time sci-fi classic. Unlike Danny Boyle‘s film, however, here it’s the second half that really takes flight, leaving a far more satisfying dismount, and hence its higher placement. In fact it starts out fairly generic, with the faintly ludicrous premise that, time travel having been invented, its chief use is by the future mob, which sends its enemies back only to have them instantly, and tidily executed in the past, leaving no pesky incriminating body. One such executioner, however, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and some prosthetics, is faced with a dilemma when his future bosses send his older self (Bruce Willis) back to him. So far, so high-concept mummery, but in the second half, with the introduction of Emily Blunt and her gifted son, the film switches gears and becomes unexpectedly wonderful, a quiet and melancholic reflection on destiny, fate, and, of all the hoary sci-fi cliches in the world, sacrifice.
17. “Gravity” (2013)
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. But its poetry is all in its images, which amount to the most ravishing evocation of being alone in space we’ve ever witnessed, and a best-ever, ever use of IMAX 3D. In fact, perhaps it qualifies as sci-fi more for the manner of its creation than for its (admittedly slim, but still) resonant story — the rigs, sets, and cg whizzery required to bring it to such immaculately realistic life are already legendary.
16. “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. Correction, from “big alien gorilla wolf motherfuckers.” But while he absolutely blisters in the film, never lapsing into anything as uncomplicated as a straight-up hero, “Attack the Block” is really a triumph of writing and directing, and the canny ability to shape a narrative that, while it’s about an alien invasion, of all the big, expensive-sounding things in the world, could be delivered on slender budget with no sense of compromise. In fact, the lo-fi feel significantly adds to the film’s effectiveness, as it becomes less a bombastic spectacle, and more an examination of character, pack mentality, and the survival instinct, when an outside menace forces uneasy alliances between natural enemies.
15. “Inception” (2010)
The most original, boldest, and unusual blockbuster of the 21st century so far, “Inception” is a deeply personal delve into the psyche of Christopher Nolan, an explosive, visually delirious action movie about grief and catharsis that somehow made $800 million worldwide. Tracking Leonardo DiCaprio’s dream-thief as he attempts to pull the biggest heist of his career in order to return home to his children and get past the death of his wife, it’s a thrilling, Bond-aping adventure with a rigorously constructed universe (too rigorous for some) and some of the most memorable images and set-pieces of 21st century cinema — up-ended Paris, the corridor fight, the waves on the beach, the spinning top. But it’s also the most expressionistic thing that Nolan’s made, melding the best cast he’s ever assembled, Hans Zimmer’s iconic score, and next-level editing into a grand symphony of the mind.
14. “Snowpiercer” (2014)
In these days when the phrase “based on a comic book” has more or less become a guarantee of a plasticky, soulless “product” rather than a film, it helps to remember that it also describes Bong Joon-ho’s magnificently weird “Snowpiercer.” As was its French-language source (“Transpierceneige“), the film is a meaty allegory for the class struggle as the remnants of a ruined civilization live aboard a train speeding through the dystopian snowscape, the rich literally compartmentalized away from the poor. Featuring a wittily cast Captain America in Chris Evans, and a grotesquely made-up Tilda Swinton in its large international ensemble, the film is one of the most original and defiantly idiosyncratic sci-fi films ever to see the inside of a multiplex, however briefly. It had a rough time of it, but as the visionary Bong’s biggest film to date, the tales of its troubled journey en route to a haphazard, undersold release feel like they will only contribute to the film’s growing status as an underseen classic in years to come.
13. “Solaris” (2002)
A massively complex, yet remarkably calm film, Steven Soderbergh‘s take on Stanislaw Lem‘s novel has taken some time to emerge from the shadow of Andrei Tarkovsky‘s very brilliant, but very different version. Starring an understated George Clooney as the semi-bewitched astronaut whose dead wife (Natasha McElhone) returns to him over and over again under the reality-warping influence of a nearby planet, “Solaris” is a tricky, slippery, overtly philosophical, and questioning story, but somehow the crisp intelligence of Soderbergh’s style helps us never to feel lost in its labyrinths. The film’s detractors often negatively compare its focus on the central relationship with the more overtly “big” questions its famous forbearer dealt in, and yet Soderbergh mines that seam with such single-minded intensity that he touches on universal truths within its boundaries. Unapologetically cerebral in its themes, and minutely considered in its pacing, “Solaris” exerts, like the planet from which it takes its name, an uncanny pull on the senses, and displays, for a genre usually defined by its clinical white surfaces, an enormous amount of soul.
12. “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-Earth premise as a clear but insightful metaphor for racial, economic, and social bigotry. Deriving even more bite and mordant wit from its setting in South Africa, with its shameful history of apartheid and race conflict, the film was also, on a purely technical level, a marvel of world-building on a small budget, with the near-future tech managing that “Alien” trick of feeling both advanced and yet broken-in, worn out and scuffed. Not just Blomkamp’s breakout, but also star Sharlto Copley’s finest hour to date, the film remains a summary lesson in how great sci-fi films tend to be great not for their futurist trappings but for how witheringly and incisively they can comment on present-day issues.
11. “The Host” (2006)
The history of the monster movie stretches back to the 1930s, and feels increasingly tired, but trust the great Korean director Bong-Joon Ho, who’s never found a genre he couldn’t reinvigorate, to be the one to give it a new lease of life. The film (the biggest-ever hit in Korea at the time) sees a creature the size of a bus unleashed on Seoul by environmental poisoning, and a dysfunctional working class family pitted against it when their youngest kidnaps her. It’s more thrilling than a dozen blockbusters (the early attack sequence is a staggering achievement), but as ever with the director, it’s the texture that he brings that elevates it into the pantheon: a political streak that Ken Loach would be proud of, a story that refuses to play to expectations, detailed, loveable characters worthy of a genre-free drama. Every time Bong makes a movie it feels like a miracle, and this is one of his finest.