Reader Top Ten: The Greatest Science Fiction Films, circa 2000 - 2013?
Top Ten Science Fiction Films 2000 - 2013:
10. District 9 (2009): In the spirit of Kafka and Metamorphosis, the visually-dynamic District 9 asks the question: how can we expect humans to be decent to aliens when humans are so rotten to each other? When they keep their neighbor's children starving? When they send businesses to foreign lands to exploit resources? When the truth is lost and partisanship and "spin" replaces it? When the bottom line is more important than morality? Though District 9 explicitly concerns segregation and the circumstances in South Africa in the 1980s, the film is also about much more than that: it is a universal critique of humanity on the precipice; of global humanity as it exists right now, today. By pointed contrast the film's aliens -- the Prawns -- seem to believe in traditional "human" virtues such as family...and loyalty. Even patience, actually. Christopher Johnson loves his young son and has toiled for twenty years to escape the slum in District 9 by repairing a buried spaceship. When he learns that his people are being subjected to Nazi-like medical experiments by MNU, Christopher's first thought is to bring help; of saving his people. Wikus's first thought when transformed into an insect is for himself: for getting cured so he can resume his normal, human life. And when Wikus seems to finally develop loyalty for Christopher Johnson and his son, we must ask an important question: is it because his humanity has vanished? Is it because he has become more "Prawn" now -- and thus more noble -- than man?
9. Wall-E (2008): In short, this is a Charlie Chaplin “Little Tramp” movie in outer space (and in a post-apocalyptic future...), and one with a lot of heart to boot. I wrote in my original review: “The Tramp was a solitary figure of great personal dignity...and also a trouble-prone klutz. The movie character became an icon of the Silent Film Age/Depression Era, and he appeared in such films as The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush, and Modern Times (1936). In Modern Times -- a parable about industrialization -- the Tramp worked on an always-accelerating factory assembly line, serving as a cog in the machine. He went about his mindless work dutifully until driven nuts by the escalating pace. Then, by happenstance (he picked up a red flag...), he was mistaken as a communist protester of the very system that created the modern factory in the first place. Wall-E's futuristic journey isn't entirely different. Once aboard the Axiom -- a ship run entirely by robots -- Wall-E is similarly caught in an inhuman assembly line of sorts, an endless convoy of robots going about their own urgent business. He is tagged not as a Communist protester, of course, but rather as a dangerous "rogue robot" who threatens the establishment. In both situations, the character (either the Tramp or Wall-E...) falls afoul of authority figures, gums up the works entirely, and even finds love: Wall-E with EVE, and the Tramp with the Gamine (Paulette Goddard).”
8. The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008): This is a humanly-scaled, intimate franchise film from an era of soulless CGI blockbusters, and another efforts that critics totally missed because they had it in for the successful TV show from which the movie originated. In this case, Chris Carter writes and directs a story that directly contrasts responsible and irresponsible science/medicine. Uniquely, in both cases, Carter finds that love can be the impetus leading one to continue difficult and soul-crushing work. The movie’s principle of “don’t give up” is seen through both the rubrics of dedication and faith, and also, importantly, through madness. Additionally, I Want to Believe is one of the few films in recent memory, in or outside of the genre, to truthfully confront the nuts-and-bolts of redemption, and our duty – if we are indeed Christians – to forgive those who have earnestly sought forgiveness and a second chance.
7. John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars (2001): This critically-maligned John Carpenter siege picture (set on another world) is an outer-space remake of Zulu (1964) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and one boasting a visual classicism that, in the era of Chop Suey-styled editing, is virtually unmatched. Thematically, the film veritably bristles with Carpenter’s anti-authoritarian aesthetic. Gleefully incorrect from a political and Hollywood-filmmaking stance, the film is a reminder of how a good genre director stages action and develops character relationships.
6. Looper (2012): This time-travel mind-bender is also in many senses a film noir. And the key to all great film noir films is that the lead character’s quest or search leads invariably to…himself (or herself). The time travel conceit of Looper permits that theme to blossom, as one character confronts his past and his future in the very flesh.
5. Minority Report (2002): Honestly, I had a tough time choosing between Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) and Minority Report (2002) for inclusion on this list, as both films deal explicitly with post-9/11 ideas. In War of the World’s case, it’s a surprise attack that suspends modernity for a time. But in Minority Report’s case, it’s the growing intrusive power of high-tech government, which now wishes to punish people for their thoughts. Ultimately, I give the nod to Minority Report, because it so ably captures the zeitgeist of the first decade of the 21st century: our eager willingness to be protected at all costs; so much so that we permit the government to sacrifice freedom and liberty for security. Also, Minority Report is the first genre film since Blade Runner that can be interpreted readily in two competing, equally valid ways. In Blade Runner, Deckard might or might not be a Replicant. In Minority Report, consider that Tom Cruise’s character may never have been freed from imprisonment in the last act, and that the entire climax of the film is his delusion/fever dream while incarcerated. The film’s unexpected veer towards comedy (with severed eyeballs rolling down hallways…) and sudden obsession with narrative closure in the last act reinforces the idea that all the action could be but his fantasy.
4. Cloud Atlas (2012): A sprawling, complex, and masterful work from the Wachowskis but one bearing a simple Buddhist message: we're all connected ("the gulf between people is an illusion...") and thus both our "kindnesses" and our "crimes" birth the future (and our next turn on the wheel of life.) Told via six stories set in different time periods, but all featuring the same handful of performers -- often under layers of convincing make-up -- Cloud Atlas also ponders the nature of immortality, and the way that art, whether music, writing, or film -- meaningfully impacts succeeding generations. The film suggests that there is a high price for those who practice evil, especially if life is an example of "Eternal Recurrence," with the seeds of one life fully blossoming in the next. By turns profound, funny, and terrifying, Cloud Atlas contemplates the unseen forces which turn the world, and which color human existence.
3. Donnie Darko (2002): Has there ever been a better film about what it feels like to be a teenager? Donnie Darko concerns the universal loneliness of adolescence, and Donnie’s fear that, in death, that loneliness will persist and linger for eternity. He doesn’t want to be alone, and at the same time he doesn’t fully understand how to connect with others. The universe itself, or in the film’s lingo, “God’s Channel,” must help Donnie understand the paradox if it is to continue to exist at all. The Richard Kelly film thus takes an anti-social kid on a strange journey of self-discovery and, in the end, transforms him into a superhero (as witnessed by his alliterative name…) or messiah; one who eventually embraces life and connection…right before it all ends, at least for him. The film is a perfect little elegiac veer down a blind alley, into a short-lived pocket universe.
2. Primer (2004): I only wish I were smart enough and clever enough to follow ever brilliant twist and turn of this low-budget time travel movie. What I do understand…blows me away. Primer, which was made for a meager $7,000 dollars, is a cinematic head-trip of the highest order. It compellingly follows two characters that are "out-of-their-depth" according to the dialogue, and places them into frightening situations in which they must debate causality, paradox, and "recursive" loops. As a consequence, Abe and Aaron promptly find themselves in a world where evidence of their sloppy time-travel handiwork is everywhere. Primer is truly that most mythical of cinematic beasts: the sci-fi movie that fans always claim they long for and dream about. One about human nature, one featuring a brilliant script, and one that puzzles out every ramification of its premise with inspired cleverness. In every sense (and aided by Carruth's able, almost cinema-verite-style cinematography), Primer feels alarmingly real. There's nothing “Hollywood” about this movie; even the time machine device (explained in laborious, wonderful detail) looks like something created in a garage, not by a special effects wizard.
Okay, there you have it! Now, what are your choices?