Monday, August 26, 2013

Reader Top Ten: The Greatest Science Fiction Films, circa 2000 - 2013?

This month’s Reader Top Ten is here at last!

Our subject this month is again the science fiction cinema.

But this time I want to know: what are the top ten best science fiction films…from 2000 to present?  What are the new classics in your canon?

The reason I want to ask this particular question is that our lists thus far have featured a large helping of sci-fi movies of the 1960s – 1990s, but recent years haven’t been nearly as well-represented. 

Is this because many readers here on the blog are of my generation, and boast a greater familiarity with films of the 1970s and 1980s, for instance?  Or is this because, actually, sci-fi movies have gotten worse in the last fifteen years?

Or, finally, is it simply because culturally we haven’t had as much time to absorb/assimilate these latter-day sci-fi films?

I have no horse in this race, I’m just wondering what you think.

Remember, your number one choice garners three votes and your number two choice gets two.  Selections 3 to 10 each get one point.  E-mail me your lists at through Friday, and I will post them here throughout the week.  Then, reader results will be posted on Sunday.

To start us off, I'll present my top ten science fiction movies 2000 – 2013. 

My only caveat is that, at this point, I have not seen World War Z (2013), Elysium (2013) or Pacific Rim (2013).  One or more of those titles, I understand, may deserve real estate on such a list.

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.

And # 1: 

Prometheus (2012) Although nit-picked to death by literal-minded dunderheads, Ridley Scott’s brilliant science fiction film explores man’s search for the divine in a multi-layered, multi-dimensional fashion. For even as mankind tries to find his God and hopes for the best, he dismisses his own creation, David (Michael Fassbender) without hardly a second glance.  The “God”/ “parent” connection recurs regarding Vickers and Weyland, and also deepens the film’s exploration of the human desire to please some remote, unknowable “father.” The film’s total sense of mastery rests in Scott's sense of composition, in the visuals he so carefully crafts to allude to other, great stories.  The film's opening -- an aerial tracking shot across a primordial planet surface -- is incredibly beautiful, and reminds one (intentionally, we must assume) of the Dawn of Man passage in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  As the camera move over roiling river rapids (a UFO hovering above), we intuit the sense of the swirling, turbid forces that give rise to life.  Sequences later in the film, overtly Lovecraftian in nature, fill us with anticipatory dread.  The temple of the Engineers -- a veritable necropolis -- is a vision inspired by Milton.  Again, this is an appropriate allusion.  The crew of Prometheus goes out in search of God and finds, instead, the devil.  In Paradise Lost, man was tempted by the devil (and by the fruit of the tree of knowledge) to leave innocence and paradise behind.  That journey seems reflected in the film, notably in Shaw's spiritual journey and ensuing loss of faith.

Okay, there you have it!  Now, what are your choices?


  1. I will give it some thought, John! Thanks.

    1. Thanks Le0pard13! I look forward to your list.


  2. Agree with everything on list....EXCEPT for John Carpenter's "Ghost of Mars". You can mention the themes and his anti-authoritarian stance til you are blue in the face, but quite simply.... this is a horrible film from one of the true greats. Certainly, absolutely.... his worst film to date and on my list for the worst of the decade circa 2000-2010. Outside of that....the other 9 should be must see's.

    1. I would disagree with Ghost of Mars and The X-Files: I Want to Believe. I think they are both major stinkers and are easily the worst work of their respective creators. I am actually struggling to come up with more than five movies to include on the list.

    2. I respectfully disagree with both of you about Ghosts of Mars, and with Rob about I Want to Believe as well.

      I love how Roger Ebert wrote about the latter film: "What I appreciated about "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" was that it involved actual questions of morality, just as "The Dark Knight" does. It's not simply about good and evil but about choices....The movie lacks a single explosion. It has firearms, but nobody is shot. The special effects would have been possible in the era of "Frankenstein." Lots of stunt people were used. I had the sensation of looking at real people in real spaces, not motion-capture in CGI spaces. There was a tangible quality to the film that made the suspense more effective because it involved the physical world." I couldn't agree more with that assessment. It's a seriously underrated film.

      And as far as Ghost of Mars is concerned, I have a good experiment for the naysayers. Go watch any science fiction action movie circa 2000 - 2001, and then re-screen Ghosts of Mars. Find one film where the action is better vetted on-screen. It will be a long search. I know...I tried. :)

      Thank you both for commenting!

    3. We can agree to disagree on these. Roger Ebert was just as fallible as the rest of us with his opinions as are all "professional" reviewers. He did give Star Wars: The Phantom Menace four stars after all. As for the action in Ghost of Mars, I'm not denying it was a fun pulp movie in some regards but action does not a perfect movie make.

    4. Absolutely, Rob! We don't have to see every movie the same way. It would be a dull world if we did. But I would love to post your list, even if it is just five titles! That's cool with me...


    5. The funny thing is I did enjoy Ghosts of Mars as a silly fun movie even though I do consider to be the bottom of the barrel for Carpenter. I will have to watch it again.

  3. But it features a flashback within a flashback within a flashback. That's writing!

  4. John I have always enjoyed John Carpenter's "Ghost of Mars" which for me is like watching a western and will be on my top ten list too.


    1. Hi SGB,

      I love that film too, SGB. I agree with you about the Western qualities of GOM (and Carpenter always says he's a director of westerns...)

  5. Damn, now I have homework tonight! Gee thanks John! (j/k)

    1. Hi Bruce!

      I realize too, that I did this on the first day of everyone gets homework! :)

      All my best!

  6. John,
    I wanted to say I enjoyed your list. I still haven't seen a few of them here. Ghosts Of Mars, Donnie Darko, Looper and Cloud Atlas. So, I will need to work them in somehow.

    But, before moving on to other terrific lists here I wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed your reflections on District 9, Prometheus and Donnie Darko. I especially want to go back and look at Minority Report based on your assessment here. It was very interesting.

    Look forward to the latest adventure into reader lists.

    1. SFF:

      Thank you so much, my friend. I look forward to the publication of your list tomorrow, and know it will meet with a great response from readers.

      District 9 looks to be the film to beat so far in this round of Reader Top Ten, though Ghost of Mars and Prometheus are really doing pretty respectably in the tally so far too.

      I would just like to say how much I enjoyed your review of Pacific Rim a few weeks back...


  7. Looper was a very well made action film that questions who we really are and whether free will exist.

    Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind questions love and memory in a similar way.

    Super 8 provides a nostalgic return to Spielberg's golden age without Spielberg himself.

    Moon is a tour de force performance by Sam Rockwell, enough said.

    Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the most intelligent re-imaging of a movie I have ever seen.

    A.I. is two thirds great ideas layeder on 100% fantastic visualization, in need of an editor who could tell the director he needs to stop.

    Minority Report is smart action conspiracy movie with an interesting and morally important theme and concept.

    John Carter is the Buck Rodgers version of Star Wars that I guess this generation didn't deserve.

    Battle L.A. is barely a science fiction but of all the alien invasion films it most accurately reflects how a well trained military that might be technologically over matched can still make a difference by following they creed.

    Signs was the last great film from M. Night and it was scary while asking some deeply thought out questions of faith.

    There may be others that I missed, but these stick out in the time period we are talking about.