One of the most popular genres in film history is science fiction. Over the years, audiences have been amazed as they are transported to exciting new worlds, meet alien creatures, face possible post-apocalyptic futures, or experience the thrill of adventure in space.
While sci-fi movies have been entertaining the public as far back as the 1930s with Flash Gordon serials, the genre experienced a wave of popularity during the early days of the summer blockbuster. Thanks in large part to the overwhelming success of George Lucas’ Star Wars in 1977, studios began developing similar projects of their own in an effort to capitalize on the new trend. The ’70s and ’80s spawned a batch of influential sci-fi classics including the two Star Wars sequels, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial, the Alien films, Back to the Future, and the start of the Terminator franchise. These movies aren’t just considered fine examples of sci-fi genre fare, they are also listed as some of the greatest films ever made.
Director Neill Blomkamp has emerged as one of the leading voices of this sci-fi generation with his Oscar-nominated feature length debut District 9and this month’s Elysium. Of course, Blomkamp is just one high-profile director to try his hand at the genre and his contemporaries have added some memorable entries to the realm of sci-fi.
Here are our picks for the ten best sci-fi films of the past five years (ordered by release date). Of course the list is not all-inclusive, so once you’ve had a chance to read our picks, share yours in the comments.
Pixar’s 2008 film is perhaps one of their boldest efforts – as the first act is essentially a silent film. Audiences meet the titular robot and see him go about his day in several dialogue-free sequences. What could have been boring was instead highly entertaining and WALL-E went on to become a box office smash (grossing $223.8 million domestically) as well as winning the Oscar for Best Animated Film.
Like most offerings from Pixar, what makes WALL-E memorable isn’t just the crisp animation, but the story and characters. The relationship between our hero and EVE is one of the standout aspects of the movie, giving audiences an emotional core to relate to – along with a captivating look at humanity’s possible future. WALL-E also features important lessons about preserving our planet for everyone watching. Between lovable characters, terrific animation, and a strong meaningful message, it’s easy to see why this is considered a modern sci-fi classic.
Rebooting Star Trek and recasting the iconic roles of Captain Kirk and Spock (among others) was always a risky proposition, and while some will disagree with his alternate timeline approach, director J.J. Abrams had a solid vision for the franchise. Looking to capture the sense of awe and wonder that fueled the works of Lucas and Spielberg to success, Abrams repackaged Star Trek as a modern space adventure film that was accessible not just to the “Trekkies,” but also new fans.
Abrams and his team have accomplished their goal, as they have produced two hit films that have won over both critics and audiences. Star Trek and this summer’s sequel Star Trek Into Darkness combined great casting, thrilling set pieces, and solid story telling to make the brand more popular than it has ever been. Thanks to the success of the first two films, anticipation is high for Star Trek 3, which is currently targeting a 2016 release to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the franchise Star Trek.
As the mind behind films such as The Terminator and Aliens, it made sense that James Cameron would return to the sci-fi genre at some point in his career. Always looking for new ways to revolutionize movie-making technology (see: the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day), the “king of the world” capitalized on advancements in computer generated imagery and motion-capture technology to bring Pandora, the world of his passion project Avatar, to life.
While some felt that the final product was more about style over substance, there’s no denying Avatar’s place in cinematic history. Becoming the highest-grossing film of all-time (unadjusted for inflation), audiences were wowed by the jaw-dropping visuals that gave the movie an “event” feeling (a rarity for original films) as moviegoers felt they had to see it on the big screen. Despite complaints about the simplistic nature of the story, critics also adored Avatar as it secured nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Cameron is now moving on to helm three sequels, where (hopefully) he will continue to develop his creative vision and to push the boundaries of technology even further.
Proof that you don’t always need major studio backing to make a great sci-fi film, Duncan Jones’ directorial debut Moon was produced for only $5 million and still managed to captivate audiences despite those limitations.
Featuring a stellar performance by Sam Rockwell, the premise of Moon – a man struggles through feelings of isolation while on a mission to the moon – would make for a strong film on its own. However, a twist that occurs halfway through (we won’t spoil it here), helps elevate the film to something truly unique and fascinating. Moon was praised by critics upon its release and hailed as a return for hardcore sci-fi. Making an impression due to its heady themes and ideas, Moon was nominated for several awards across various circuits, most notably winning Jones a BAFTA.
Once the Halo film adaptation fell through, director Neill Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson turned their attention to a sci-fi project titled District 9. Based on Blomkamp’s short film Alive in Joburg, the filmmaker’s feature length debut tackled societal issues such as xenophobia and racial intolerance – using the apartheid as inspiration for its main storyline.
Budgeted for a modest $30 million and featuring an unknown cast, District 9 snuck under the radar and went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful films of 2009. Grossing an impressive $115.6 million domestically, the film also received four Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Carried by a remarkable performance by Sharlto Copley (who easily could have received a Best Actor nod), District 9 married social commentary with sci-fi genre thrills to give audiences something fresh and exciting while announcing Blomkamp as a promising young talent.
After the overwhelming success of his Batman sequel, The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan was given the freedom to pick any movie he wanted. Before working on his Bat-trilogy finale, Nolan chose to work on the original sci-fi film Inception, a dream – no pun intended – project he had been brainstorming since 2002.
Opening to rave reviews in the summer of 2010, Inception also became a box office smash, grossing $292.5 million in the States. Thanks to its amazing visual effects, intriguing world-building, and memorable score, the film quickly became a part of the pop culture zeitgeist and has remained a favorite amongst movie fans. Inception was an obvious choice for several technical categories at that year’s Oscars, but Nolan was also given nominations in both Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture for capturing the minds of moviegoers around the globe.
After the negative reception that Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes received, it seemed unlikely Fox would attempt to revive the well-known franchise (at least for a while). Yet, in 2011, they released the reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Directed by relative unknown Rupert Wyatt and arriving with extremely low expectations, not many moviegoers thought this had potential to become a hit.
Anchored by an unforgettable turn by mo-cap legend Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes emerged as a sleeper hit and is widely considered to be one of the best films of that summer. Operating more as a character study than action film (save for the climactic Golden Gate fight sequence), critics and audiences were impressed by the movie’s cautionary sci-fi tale and its ability to turn the chimp Caesar (Serkis) into a well-developed, sympathetic, dynamic main character. Fox campaigned, and failed, to get their star a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, but the film did receive recognition for its visual effects work. A sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, is set to hit theaters next July.
After Moon made an impression at Sundance 2009 and gained a cult following, Duncan Jones was treated to a bigger budget ($32 million) and a larger cast for his next project, the original sci-fi film Source Code. The movie features Jake Gyllenhaal as Captain Colter Stevens, an army pilot who relives the same eight minutes over and over again (via the “source code” device) to discover the identity of a train bomber. Due to its premise, Source Code drew several tongue-in-cheek comparisons to the 1993 classic comedy Groundhog Day when it was released.
However, while Source Code is bolstered by strong performances from Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright, it was the intriguing central plot point that hooked moviegoers. Guided by a fast-paced script that keeps the audience guessing, the film also provides audiences with one of the better “what if?” high concepts in recent memory. Under the careful direction of Jones, Source Code was able to give moviegoers both an exciting, high-stakes thrill-ride as well as food for thought to boot.
It’s no secret that J.J. Abrams is an admirer of the classic Spielberg adventures of yesteryear. Like most people of his generation, films such as Close Encounters, Goonies, and E.T defined his youth and have influenced the director’s own films. Abrams got the chance of a lifetime when he collaborated with Spielberg while working on his 2011 film Super 8, a direct homage to the films that inspired him.
Using a sci-fi mystery as a backdrop for a charming coming-of-age story featuring a terrific cast of talented child actors, Abrams gave audiences a creature-feature with heart. Combining exciting action sequences, a story filled with suspense, and good old fashioned drama, Super 8 proved to be a favorite among critics and moviegoers, earning $127 million on a “low” $50 million budget.
Time travel has long been a favorite staple of sci-fi films, but due to its complicated and fickle nature (and the fact that there’s no real way to get it “right”), it’s one of the toughest elements to nail. Rian Johnson’s Looper humorously acknowledged this in one brief on-the-nose line of dialogue (in the diner) and instead focused on giving moviegoers a fresh story as opposed to explaining the finer details of how everything worked.
Using the always intriguing “if you could talk to your future self, what would you say?” concept as a jumping off point, Looper provided moviegoers with one of the more exciting and interesting offerings of 2012. Touching on aspects such as changing the past and fixing our personal mistakes, Looper, like most of the films on our list, mixed action with thought-provoking material to challenge viewers intellectually. This film was a critical favorite and there are those who consider Johnson’s absence from the Best Original Screenplay nominees to be a notable snub.
While superheroes have become the latest hot trend in Hollywood, sci-fi has – over the last half decade at least – cemented its place as one of the cornerstones of the industry. Giving filmmakers the ability to test the limits of their imaginations and audiences a gateway to exciting new worlds, it’s clear that sci-fi will remain a staple of the industry.
It remains to be seen if the new batch of sci-fi hits will be remembered as fondly as the classics that topped the box office and gained awards recognition in the 1970s and 1980s, but filmmakers are already hard at work on some exciting possibilities.
There are several upcoming movies on the horizon that should continue the genre’s prominence in the box office (and with any luck, critics). In the next few years, moviegoers will be treated to a plethora of exciting new projects including Edge of Tomorrow, Tomorrowland, Interstellar, and of course, Star Wars: Episode 7, among others.
Again, our list is not all-inclusive, so be sure to share your own picks in the comments.
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