All the end-of-year/decade lists going up right now inspired me to hit one up of my own. And all the hype about James Cameron’s Avatar, which is being trumpeted as some sort of monumental science fiction success, gave me just the topic: the actual best science fiction movies of the aughts.
This list might be controversial, but I stand by it. I watch a lot of movies, and not just the big-name stuff–indie and foreign flicks comprise probably half of what I see between the big screen and my DVD player. Science fiction is a problematic genre; it is one of my first loves in movies (although, interestingly, not really in books)–but it is so rarely done well. 2000-9 was a decade of remakes and sequels and also, I suppose, an average decade for SF films. It had enough true gems to fill out a top 10 list and not a whole lot more. The years represented tended to be two or three movies in a year or two-year span, then a gap before the next grouping.
And lest any accusations fly over my being some sort of movie snob who won’t watch a big-budget SF movie, here’s a list of movies you might be expecting to see on here and won’t, despite the fact that I did see them–they just weren’t good enough: Avatar, Minority Report, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, any of this decade’s Star Trek movies (although I did like the newest one quite a lot, and it might have made a top 20), War of the Worlds, Transformers, Terminator III (well, maybe you wouldn’t expect to see that one here, but I did see it), Alien vs. Predator (and half the sequel, which was all I could sit through), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, either of the Matrix sequels…I’m sure there were a few others I can’t remember, because, if there is one thing big-budget, studio SF movies seem to have in common, it’s that they are forgettable. Oh, yeah, saw Iron Man. See what I mean?
Finally, a few words about criteria–fantasy (i.e., magic and not technology) was not considered, so no Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. I am using as my definition for SF stories that are based in science (anything from medicine to theoretical physics), technology, or a projection of the future. Magic, the occult, and Middle Earth don’t cut it. Television series were not considered, so no Battlestar Galactica or Stargate. I looked at the film equivalents of monographs (vs. serials) only.
So, without further ado…My Top Ten Best Science Fiction Movies of the Decade
Included because of the possibility that the monster was an alien, and even if it wasn’t the monster vs. technology mode is a classic form of the SF movie; but I’ll list an alternate at the bottom in case anyone disagrees that this is SF. Regardless, this movie is a classic monster movie, updated to modern times and given a fresh start. It took documentary-style filming to a new extreme, and it was very careful to operate within its capabilities. It didn’t try and reach too far with its special effects, instead playing on the fear of the unknown and the fear of the monster’s destruction rather than of the monster itself. It showed that a team of unknowns on a shoestring budget can do with dedication, heart, and a creative approach what a studio can’t with endless funds and countless CG programmers.
Was this a 2-hour episode of Firefly disguised as a movie? Perhaps. Was it good enough to convince me to go buy the series (which I had missed entirely) on the strength of the movie alone? Yes. And was it a hilarious action caper that also had heart, consequences, and a truly fabulous villain? Also yes. I fell in love with the characters in one sitting, and I appreciated the darkness included in the movie. Despite it starting out light-hearted and ending on a bittersweet but overall happy note, the movie didn’t shy away from brutality or the bleak responsibility for actions. The Reavers were truly horrifying, not just for what they were but also for what they represented: an attempt to stamp out the conflict in the human heart. I loved the sentiment that to take away human conflict is to take away humanity; we’re a flawed but beautiful species, and too often humanity is represented simply as being flawed. I also loved the philosophical villain, who is frightening because he is so implacable, and wonderful because he can recognize when he is wrong and change his course because of that recognition.
8. Code 46
The first of the dystopian-future movies to make the list. This was an overlooked little movie that is disturbing on a lot of different levels, everything from the control given to the governments over literally every individual, to the horror of being reconditioned to hate what you love or to forget what you hate, to the Freudian sensuality of falling in love with a copy of a genetic parent. The ending is so very bittersweet; this is one for those of you who love impossible love stories–the stories of a love so great it had to be put aside. Haunting. That’s what this story is.
7. District 9
What a fabulous movie this was. Forget all the comparisons to apartheid too many critics made, and just look at it as I think it was intended to be looked at–a what if movie. What if aliens landed a ship above Earth and had no way to get home? What would happen to them politically and socially? How far would humanity go to push them away from us…and how far might one man go to save them? Wikus is the perfect anti-hero: he is an average man, who operates on a brutally selfish level (as, if we are honest with ourselves, most of us probably would do in those same circumstances) but yet finds a kernel of true heroism in himself at the same time. The ship effects were fabulous; every detail mattered here, as the groaning and rattling of car windows as the ship moves recall childhood rides on the school bus, and the tractor beam picks up not just its target but also a whole ton of other stuff, and the dirt and filth and grit of the setting tell you that when the interviewees called District 9 a ghetto, they meant it. The filming is a perfect balance between documentary and cinematic styles, with a few odd-angle fixed shots to keep things ever-interesting on a visual level. Some of the deaths might even rate a spot on a best deaths of the decade list, so if you like that sort of thing it even has that going for it.
Danny Boyle is a fabulous director, and he did an excellent job with this film. So much to love…first, I think, is the simple fact that it’s a movie about heroes. Every single one of the people on that ship make a personal sacrifice to save the world; they are all heroes, in a day and age where movies seem reluctant to give us heroes because that’s “not realistic.” These heroes were; some were weak, some were brave, but all of them were human. Second, because he showcases the human fascination with a destructive power, the absolute beauty of something that has the ability to obliterate us. Third, because there were no stars in his space–that close to the sun, there wouldn’t be. I know for a lot of people this movie went haywire with the madman part, and the ship’s AI was really questionable for not catching the intrusion sooner, but I didn’t mind the final wrinkle in the plotline, and the ending was simply beautiful. Visually, and for the outcome of the mission.
Even my list is not immune to the remake syndrome afflicting this decade! But this was a remake that might have justified its existence by trumping the original. The movie is compelling because of its acting. The visuals are great, and the special effects subtle. The story is achingly relatable–both in the sense that we are all haunted by the memories we carry around, and also in the sense that anyone who has lost their true love can understand the main character’s decision to go back into space, if that meant he could find her again.
I can’t say enough good things about Duncan Jones’ debut movie. If you didn’t get the chance–or didn’t take the chance–to see this movie on the big screen, then you really missed out. This movie shows why modeling is still a thousand times to be preferred to CG renderings, as Jones went back to some of the old masters to help out on this one. Every detail was attended to, to make you feel like you are up there on the moon alone with Sam and his AI and his fragmented communication with Earth, from the dirty jumpsuit of a blue-collar working man to the lonely tracks on the moon showing that he was the only one to drive across that landscape to the beautiful blue planet hovering so close but so very far away. The story will punch you in the gut with its tragedy and frighten you with its implications, and Sam Rockwell deserves a Best Actor nod for his performance, and this was quite possibly the best movie of 2009.
3. The Fountain
Darren Aranofsky’s foray into SF wasn’t for everyone, but it was for me. I have seen this movie upwards of ten times, and I love it more every time I watch it. I love his oils-in-water, 1960s-light-show special effects, and I love the heartbreaking story of a man who spends 500 years trying to save his dying wife, and I love the fact that it is such an open text that after that many viewings I’m still not sure what actually happened and what was simply story-within-story–as in, didn’t actually happen. And I love that Aranofsky refuses to explain, that he wants people to not be sure, to be able to see what they want in the film. Also, I love the conception of a truly unique means of space travel; 500 years into the future the technological mechanisms they’re using are going to be as incomprehensible to us as an Ipod would be to William the Conquerer, so, sure, why not make it a floating bubble in space? It’s not likely to seem any more familiar to us than that does, whatever the future holds. Also, one of the best love stories of all time, period.
2. Donnie Darko
I struggled with whether this is a science fiction movie or some other brand of speculative fiction, but in the end decided that the parallel universe and time traveling ideas counted as physics, therefore…here it is. This is probably the out-and-out weirdest of the movies on this list, which is saying something considering the company it keeps, but it is a strange little story. It makes you think: it makes you wonder what’s going on, and it makes you wonder what if, and it makes you wonder if you’d be brave enough to make the same choice. It’s another movie that is fabulous from a production standpoint, with excellent cinematography and directing, and a break-out performance from Jake Gyllenhaal.
1. Children of Men
This is not just the best science fiction movie of the decade, but a movie that would make my best of all time list. This movie is a slow burn. The first time you watch it you might just think it’s interesting and sometimes funny, has a compelling story and good acting, crazy dystopian future and a wild scary premise, but maybe not one that you immediately recognize as amazing. But if you let it sink into your brain for a few days or weeks or months, and come back to it again…you realize that this movie is perfect. There is not one detail to be changed in its filming or execution, and that is a rare thing to say, indeed. It has some of the best war scenes I’ve ever seen in an SF film, and the directing pulls off some rather incredible sequences of extended action and choreography ranging into the minutes before any editing break occurs. The acting is across the board excellent, and the conflict open enough that you don’t really know what’s going on, whether there is a giant governmental (or corporate) conspiracy to control population growth or if it was some strange disease or what. It tells you just enough to satisfy, and not enough to ruin. It strikes every balance right, and to change anything at all would diminish the brilliance of the whole.
A few interesting observations. None of these were high-budget films; several were made for about $5 million, and most (perhaps even all, but I’m lazy and didn’t look up the ones I didn’t know offhand) for no more than $40 million. While some of them have recognizable actors, none of them have big stars who are a box office draw on the strength of their name alone. Yet, somehow, all of them are all quality films from a movie production standpoint–they are well-directed, well-acted, well-written, well-designed, well-constructed movies. They blow their big-budget counterparts out of the water in pretty much all of those ways, and to me that just sort of implies that SF is best left to those who truly love it, not those who are just trying to capitalize on a current trend.
Most of these movies also have incredible soundscapes to accompany them. A lot of it is moody, dreamy, hypnotically beautiful instrumentals–specifically Sunshine, The Fountain, Moon, Solaris, and Code 46. Code 46 introduced me among other things to Sigur Ros, who are one of my favorite foreign bands now. The Fountain soundtrack is probably my favorite soundtrack of all time. From the Sunshine score, which overall is a mixed bag, “Kanada’s Death, Part II” and “Sunshine, Adagio in D-minor” are absolutely transcendent. Children of Men and Donnie Darko also use very recognizable and iconic individual songs. I love that music wasn’t overlooked or undervalued by the directors; it can make or break a film.
Finally, a short list of other movies I want to mention and why. These are not necessarily runners up; a couple of them would be, others weren’t quite SF enough to make my list, others are simply movies I thought were interesting and deserved a bit of attention just for doing something different.
Alternate number 10, if you don’t count Cloverfield as science fiction: 28 Days Later. Danny Boyle gets major props for being the only director to show up twice on this list. With this film he created a (biological warfare-based, therefore SF) reinvention of zombie movies, and showed the world that the grotesqueries of horror aren’t necessarily incompatible with good direction, good acting, good editing, and being just a damn good movie.
The Cowboy Bebop movie deserves consideration just for being part of one of the best SF series ever. Like Serenity, this could be considered a two-hour episode of the show played on the big screen, but the story was self-contained enough that you can love this film without ever having seen the series. Moreover, if you’re into animation, they went above and beyond the normal fabulousness of the 15-minute episodes in this swan song opus.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was a movie that I just wasn’t sure counted as unequivocally SF as it would need to to make this kind of list. It does use technology, but is it quite enough technology? I couldn’t be sure. So I left it off, but it must be mentioned as a near-miss or a just-barely-disqualified because it really is such an interesting premise, such a good story, such a good love story, and such a performance from Jim Carrey–his best, in my opinion. One of my favorite movies and love stories of all time, regardless of what other lists it makes.
Mike Judge’s Idiocracy deserves a nod for its truly frightening dystopian future–frightening because it seems so very, very possible at times. Unfortunately the movie as a whole wasn’t really good enough to earn it a spot, but its first 15 minutes should be required viewing in every classroom in America. Wake the fuck up, people–that can’t be our future. As in, we must not let it be.
District B-13 was a minor French SF release that probably didn’t come to your neck of the woods unless you live in NY, LA, or Austin. I have no idea if it’s a serious movie to native speakers; I had subtitles, and so for all I know it’s the equivalent of a Jean-Claude van Damme movie if you speak the language. But its premise was a near-future worst-case-scenario sort of projection that seems frighteningly possible, and it stars two stuntmen instead of “actors,” so the action is first-rate and nearly non-stop, and for those two reasons it warrants a mention here for those of you always on the hunt for a new dystopian movie to depress yourself with or an adrenaline rush to pump yourself up with.
The Prestige is almost more properly Steampunk than science fiction, since it’s science fiction set in the past and thus not still possible. But Chris Nolan did such a fine job with the film, and it’s just a toe over that disqualification line, that I felt it deserved a mention as an also-ran.
Watchmen is another in the mode of The Prestige that I’m not sure can count as SF since it involves an alternate version of our past. Also, I don’t know if I would have put it in my top 10 even if I did decide it counted, because I am not sure how I’ll view it in ten years. With the movies on my list, any CG is either small enough or used for blending modeling instead of as the base for action or the world, and I’m afraid that this movie might have relied too much technology that can (and will) be surpassed to still stand strong as a great movie–not a great story or great acting, but a great movie, on the technical side of things–to look as good at the end of next decade as it does now. However, it is a fabulous story and an interesting exploration of human psychology and morals, and certainly it’s worth watching to give us all pause in allotting too much power to people who “know what’s best for us” better than we know for ourselves.
2046 is another that isn’t quite SF, isn’t quite anything else. It’s also got strong elements of noir film and the reality-bending psychology that has been so popular this decade. It’s foreign, it’s subtitled, it’s haunting, it’s lonely, it’s awesome.
So there you have it. My top 10 science fiction movies of the last ten years, and a few others that people need to see. But what do you think?
– originally published 1/1/2010
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.