The past decade has seen a lot of bloated special-effects brain-sucks... but it's also seen some of the best science-fiction films ever. Superhero films came of age, apocalypses ruled, and interstellar adventures came back. Here are the decade's 20 greatest.
This is, of course, just our opinion, and feel free to disagree in comments. We went back and forth about several of these films, and there were a few others that we almost included instead, so we're not claiming infallibility here. If you want to view this in non-gallery format, click here, and I promise it'll work.
Pitch Black. This is nearly the perfect movie — a gritty anti-hero with weird eyes that can see in the dark is on a prison ship, which crashes on an alien planet. The lurking monsters are ominous and alarming, but the film's real mystery is Riddick himself — the Furyan inspires loathing, hero-worship and a desperate longing for the anti-hero to become a hero by the movie's end. Like Riddick's own eyes, our view of him only really works when we see him through total darkness.
Avatar. I'm going to post my review of this film in a few days, closer to its actual release date. But this is definitely one of the decade's most significant science-fiction films, both in its startling new look and in its elaborate alien world. Sigourney Weaver is one of the few heroic scientists we've seen in movies lately, and she fearlessly spouts facts about the science of Pandora. Avatar is by no means a perfect movie — it's a frustrating mixture of brilliance and utter cheese — but it's clearly an important movie in science-fiction history.
Slither. This movie sort of slid (I'm tempted to say slithered) under the radar, but it's one of the great all-time alien possession movies, and a brilliant metaphor for being trapped in a bad marriage. An alien parasite lands in a small town and takes over a woman's awful husband — and then it starts infecting everyone else in town, so that they all speak with the husband's voice. Wherever the wife goes, she hears her husband talking to her. And then people start getting grotesquely pregnant with alien offspring — this sort of thing is really why body horror was invented.
Star Trek. A young hero reluctantly starts to claim his true destined greatness... only to find out that his whole life has been altered, and maybe wrecked, by time-traveling, tattooed maniacs from the future. It's a weird spin on a Star Trek movie, but considering how hard it was to imagine being thrilled by another Trek after Nemesis, this film is a marvel. Plot holes, frat-boy antics, "red matter" and all, it's still the film that recharged Star Trek and may have helped bring back space-opera as a genre. And Spock has never been so... fascinating.
Donnie Darko has garnered an enduring cult fan base, for good reason. Its blend of mysicism and weird physics has aged amazingly well, and we still get lost in its "tangent universes." We keep hoping Richard Kelly will make another film that's both as mind-blowing and as well-constructed as this one.
Robot Stories. Another great movie that didn't get enough props when it came out. Greg Pak, who went on to write the Planet Hulk storyline for Marvel Comics, creates an anthology of three stories about robots that show how much robots are connected to our emotional lives — and what will happen when robots get emotions. In one story, two office robots fall in love, only to find that robot love is forbidden. In another story, a mother becomes determined to help her dying son amass the perfect collection of robot action figures — at any cost, even stealing. You'll see robots in a whole new light after watching this film.
Spider-Man 2. There were a number of superhero films that managed to bring the greatness of comics' storylines to life in the first half of the decade, including two X-Men movies and two Spider-Man movies. For my money, though, this is the best of the bunch, particularly because of Alfred Molina's Doc Octopus. Peter Parker's superpowered angst collides with Doc Octopus' cyborg identity crisis, and both hero and villain seem to be clinging to their identities by a thread. Even though we wish Peter Parker could keep his damn mask on, it's still thrilling and maybe the most perfect straight-up superhero movie of all.
Sleep Dealer. Alex Rivera's look at the dark side of telecommuting is one of the most memorable and intense films we've seen lately. In the future, everything depends on the dollar — you can't even access water reservoirs in Mexico or speak to your family in another town without feeding dollars into a slot. And the only way to get dollars is to get cyber nodes all over your body, allowing your nervous system to pilot machines in the United States. That way the U.S. can import Mexican labor without bringing in actual Mexicans. It's beautifully filmed and harrowing look at the ultimate form of alienated labor.
The Incredibles. The other great straight-up superhero movie was one of several Pixar films that we wanted to pay tribute to from the past decade. If you were as disappointed as we were by the two Fantastic Four films, then rejoice that this film does the FF right. A surprisingly light-hearted look at super-mutants in a world that learns to fear them, this movie does a better job of portraying what makes superhero comics so awesome than almost any live-action film. And we love the Omnidroid.
The Host. Sorry, Cloverfield — this was the monster-rampage movie we loved from the past few years. Unlike Clovey, the Host actually has a decent if snarky origin story, including weird chemicals dropped in the water by a callous American, causing one of the local creatures to get a little too big (and rambunctious) for comfort. More than almost any other monster movie, this film sucks us into caring about its main characters, a hapless family who operate a failing fast-food stand on the beach — we laugh at their antics and then get hopelessly, tragically, wound up in their fate when they tangle with the monster. Rob and Hud just don't quite measure up.
28 Days Later. Purists may hate this film's "fast zombies," but they're not even really zombies — they're the victims of a "rage" virus that stupid animal-rights activists cause to be released onto an unsuspecting world. Of all the apocalyptic scenarios we've seen in the past decade, 28 Days provides the best dose of terror and the sheer horror of society unraveling. When Christopher Eccleston's vicious soldier says the words, "I promised them women," your gut sinks. And the idea that the rage-virus outbreak will cure itself because the quasi-zombies will starve is genuinely clever. We were tempted to include Danny Boyle's other great SF film of the decade, Sunshine, but 28 Days is clearly better.
Paprika. A parade of nonsense images stomps through a man's dreams, forcing him to jump out a window... and it's just the beginning of the mayhem as the dream world collides with reality, in Satoshi Kon's weird exploration of dreams and their potential to tear our world apart. A machine that allows you to enter someone's dreams therapeutically gets stolen, and soon reality itself is being torn apart. Trippy, insane and mind-expanding, this is a film you need to watch more than once.
Primer. Speaking of films you need to watch more than once... few, if any, science-fiction movies talk down to their audiences less than this one. You don't even realize, for a good chunk of the movie, that the geeky characters are building a time machine. and it comes with very realistic and fascinating limitations, even as it allows the main characters to cross their own timelines over and over again, rewriting history in more and more psychotic ways. The walkman scene makes the whole thing worthwhile, just by itself.
Moon. It's interesting how many of the great science-fiction movies of the past decade are about loneliness, one way or the other — but none of them delve into isolation as hauntingly as Duncan Jones' debut feature. Sam Rockwell is amazing as the two versions of Sam Bell, who's tantalizingly close to finishing out his contract on a lunary mining station — until he finds out that things aren't ever what they seem. Add paranoia to the list of things this film does better than almost any other.
Iron Man. As we wrote when this film came out, it's actually more of a cyborg narrative than a superhero one. Jon Favreau and company wisely chose to focus on the heart of Tony Stark's origin — literally, the fusion reactor that keeps his heart from stopping, and turns him into a part-machine badass whose armor is just a shell that goes over his cybernetic body. Tony Stark's uneasy relationship with the military technology that he created parallels his unease with his new technological body — he's like the heroic flipside of Spider-Man 2's Doctor Octopus. And yes, any movie that talks about our dependence on, and unease with, technology automatically gets to leap over the pile of by-the-numbers superhero films.
The Dark Knight. See here for our argument as to why this film really is science fiction. Shorter version: Batman's fantastical technology is at the heart of the story. If Batman Begins showed how Bruce Wayne used technology to become Gotham's fearsome crime-fighter, then The Dark Knight is about how far he's willing to take that approach in the face of a mad bomber.
District 9. Most science-fiction movies, you come out of furiously debating the science or the finer points of the storyline... but this one, people walked out of speechless and shellshocked. Perhaps the ultimate "humans oppress aliens" movie, this film confronts us with a perfect allegory of our own inhumanity, through the story of a crashlanded group of aliens who are forced into shantytowns. Even before the main character, Wikus, starts turning into one of the aliens, our loyalties are getting more and more divided.
Wall-E. The other Pixar movie we couldn't help including on the list, this may have been the greatest blend of post-apocalyptic dystopia and cute robots. The love between Wall-E and Eve is both lovable and genuinely moving, and the trademark Pixar humor is in full effect with Wall-E's junkyard slapstick and spaceship antics. The funniest, and maybe the best, robot uprising we've ever seen.
Serenity. Just pretend for a second that this wasn't the continuation of a beloved TV series, and that Joss Whedon had created a whole new universe from scratch just for this film — it would still be one of the most audacious, most memorable, science-fiction films of all time. The story of the Alliance, which maintains a tenuous grip on a sprawling star system after a brutal civil war, and the lengths to which the Alliance will go to try and make people "better," Serenity is one of the great action-adventure films as well as one of the neatest SF concepts ever. When you discover the secrets of Miranda and see how River Tam becomes both the messenger and the avenger of Miranda's people, it's hard not to jump up and down in your seat.
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. How far are you willing to go to get over a lost love? Are you willing to injure yourself — by erasing a huge chunk of your brief time on this planet from your own mind — just to get back at your former lover? This Charlie Kaufman/Michel Gondry joint does what all the best science fiction does: it creates a fictional technology that has the potential to change who we are as people, and then it uses it to tell a deeply personal story. The scenes where Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are wandering through Carrey's childhood memories are both unsettling and poignant, as Carrey tries to hold on to the love he was in the process of throwing away — by letting her into more of his mind.