Best of the Decade: Sci-Fi Films Edition
Although I've been reading and watching science fiction at least since I discovered MST3K on cable as a young kid, the past decade marks the first time I really started thinking critically about science fiction television, film, comics, and literature. Luckily for me, my burgeoning interest in sci-fi has been met with some of the greatest entries into the canon in recent memory. Here are some of my personal favorites since 2010.
2010 - Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan)
I'm just going to say it - 2010 wasn't exactly a banner year for sci-fi. Despite several franchise reboots (Tron, Universal Soldier, and Predator all made their way back to the big screen in 2010), a few fun animated films (including Despicable Me and Megamind), and a handful of smaller/indie flicks I still haven't seen (Hot Tub Time Machine, Monsters), Nolan's Inception was really the only breakout film of the year IMO. That being said, I'm by no means a Nolan fanboy or even a huge fan of Inception. The plot still makes no sense to me and I have very little desire to revisit the film to try to make sense of it now. Even so, Nolan's inventive staging, cinematography, and world-building is worth the 2.5 hour run time and justifies the film reaching cultural phenomenon status way back in the summer of 2010.
2011 - Attack the Block (dir. Joe Cornish)
A great take on the alien invasion subgenre, utilizing the self-contained space of a council estate in South London, and starring the very young, very talented John Boyega as Moses. I'm not sure what else I need to say to sell the film, but the wonderful Jodie Whittaker (aka the 13th Doctor) also plays a major role as a nurse trainee caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
2012 - The Avengers (dir. Joss Whedon)
Okay, yeah, this is definitely a superhero film, but sci-fi conventions (beyond just the existence of superpowers) are definitely foregrounded in The Avengers. Technology falling into the wrong hands? Check. Alien invasion? Check. Elite team of superpowered beings banding together to stop said aliens? Check. And although I've definitely succumbed to superhero fatigue at this point (I didn't even bother watching Avengers: Endgame in theaters - still haven't seen it, in fact), 2012's The Avengers was a brief, shining moment where team-based superhero movies still felt fresh and exciting.
2013 - Snowpiercer (dir. Bong Joon-ho)
This is one of those films that you immediately, desperately want to talk about the instant the credits start rolling. Bong Joon-ho's adaptation of the French graphic novel Les Transperceneige (Jacques Lob, Jean-Marc Rochette) is disturbing, darkly humorous, and frustratingly ambiguous. The film's final scene (spoilers ahoy!) is almost a litmus test for optimism and pessimism that could easily replace the glass half full/empty analogy: does the polar bear signify life or death for the survivors? The frustrating thing is that it is both - life can be sustained on Earth outside of the confines of the train, but that life has to contend with predators. The reset button has been hit and humans are back at the bottom of the foodchain.
Honorable Mention: Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)
I can't pretend that I fully get this film, but I'm utterly fascinated by it. I won't even bother trying to explain the plot or make an argument for why you should watch it, but trust me - you should.
2014 - Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)
I am just sappy enough that when I saw this for the first time I genuinely wanted Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) and Ava (Alicia Vikander) to end up together. Yeah, yeah, I know he's a human and she's a robot. Stranger things have happened in science fiction, though, right? But I'm actually quite glad that the story took the (very dark) turn it did. The Frankenstein-esque questions about creators losing control of their creations (and whether or not they ever deserved to maintain that control in the first place) aren't new ones, but they do take on a new resonance in an era of artificial intelligence. Ex Machina handles these questions seriously and delicately while effectively building suspense and developing multi-faceted, clever characters.
2015 - Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)
An exercise in batshit craziness that somehow totally works. Everything in this film from the cinematography to the costumes to the editing to the music is perfectly coordinated, intricately designed, and skillfully executed. Furiosa is the best female lead in a sci-fi film since Ellen Ripley, and the film's overall conversation about patriarchy and fascism has (unfortunately) become even more relevant since the film's initial release.
Honorable Mention: The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
Another film that I really struggled with, but find fascinating. The science fiction elements of The Lobster are relatively subtle, but I do like the way Lanthimos builds a 'soft' dystopia. Rather than relying on sharp edges and harsh lighting and dirt/grime/rust to create his bad place, Lanthimos utilizes the clean and neat and banal setting of a 'resort' for middle-aged losers and loners.
2016 - Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
Based on an excellent piece of short fiction by Ted Chiang, Arrival is probably the most interesting story ever told about, essentially, linguistics. The thing I enjoy most about both the story and the film is a willingness to just nerd out about the act of discovery - about the excitement of communicating with a new species, and about the irrevocable changes to how we understand not just the universe, but our place within it when we make that connection. If there is a single lesson to be learned from anthropocenic science-fiction, it is that we cannot affect without being affected - in Arrival, the massive changes to Louise's conceptual frameworks for time, space, language, and causality are proof positive of that.
Honorable Mention: The Girl with All the Gifts (dir. Colm McCarthy)
Another literary adaptation (this time of a book by Mike Carey), The Girl with All the Gifts is the best zombie film I've seen in years, and one of the very few that paints zombies as an ecological evolution, not an existential threat.
2017 - The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro)
I once read someone describe del Toro's films as anti-fascist fairy tales, and that really struck me. Fairy tales, at least typically, seem to function as morality tales and warnings against upsetting the status quo. Del Toro, then, tells similarly iconic, fantastic stories, but in an effort to lift up the oppressed and fight fascism. The Shape of Water is exactly that - a film in which the "monsters" are benevolent and gentle, and the "men" are monstrous, violent, and grotesque.
2018 - Annihilation (dir. Alex Garland)
Much like Arrival, Annihilation makes the audience consider 'other worlds than these' (to borrow a phrase from Stephen King). The film's central question - what happens when you recombine everything into something totally new - is one I've been struggling with since my initial viewing. The horrific effects of the shimmer on those that enter it are interesting insofar as they are unevenly dispersed. Characters who fight back against it end up only fighting themselves. Characters who seek only to observe, or even to integrate themselves into this new, evolved world, live to escape its power - but for how long? Guess I'll just have to read the rest of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy (the first novel of which is the basis of this film) to find out.
2019 - Us (dir. Jordan Peele)
Although neither Us nor Peele's earlier effort, Get Out, is described as "science fiction" on their IMDB or Wikipedia pages, I don't see why both films aren't exactly that. The former involves brain-swapping and the latter a secret underground society of mutants/shadow people/"the tethered." Us deliberately and explicitly makes call backs to other horror movies, sure, but also C.H.U.D (which is undoubtedly science fiction). One of the aspects I actually most appreciated about Us was the invitation to speculate on how and when and why the tethered were created...and even more importantly, by whom. Red tells the audience their origin story, but we don't know how reliable her testimony is. The caged rabbits, the classrooms, the open, mall-like tunnels...what does it all mean? Why is it all there? The film leaves us with more questions than answers, which is what makes it both a formidable follow-up to Get Out and a great film in its own right.