Perhaps more so than any other genre, science fiction holds up a mirror to humanity as it is now and when done well, shows us where we are, much more so than trying to predict where we are going, technologically speaking. Whether it is The Day The Earth Stood Still looking at the recklessness of the nuclear arms race and our propensity to self-destruct, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers channelling Red paranoia, or Aliens providing a fitting and intelligent commentary on the Vietnam war, top drawer sci-fi has always given us something to think about beyond mere spectacle and future-forming.
This century of ours, like every other era before it, has thrown up intelligent sci-fi and some not so intelligent sci-fi. For every District 9 there has been a Skyline. But still, much that is worth saying has been well said and intelligent subtext continues to abound if we know where to look for it. Cinematic sci-fi continues to show itself as capable of stirring our minds, our affections and intelligent debate.
Here, therefore, are ten of the 21st Century’s best and most intelligent sci-fi offerings:-
10. Minority Report
Despite Steven Spielberg seeming physically unable (Munich notwithstanding) to avoid descending into sentimentality, Minority Report remains a thought-provoking, intelligent, thrilling slice of sci-fi. The future world design is excellent, feeling familiar but spruced up in a rightly balanced manner and the moral issue at the film’s core (“is it acceptable to punish people for what they haven’t done, but will do?”) is compelling. Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel, Minority Report opens with a rolling red ball, an analysis of visual clues and finally a SWAT-esque descent on a Georgetown row house, with Cruise’s Chief Anderton presenting an excellently rounded and believable protagonist – focussed, talented, broken and ultimately compromised.
Sequences such as the jet pack fight, the dust up at the car factory and the escape from the shopping mall (Samantha Morton’s Agatha not only keeping Anderton one step ahead of the cops but also taking the time to tell a woman not to go home, because “he knows”). Much of the success of Minority Report lies not so much in the fascinating and coherently presented world of pre-cogs, but in Morton’s subtle and affecting performance of a gifted but pained woman, ruthlessly and heartlessly plugged into a computer so that murder can be prevented. A laudable objective, but time is taken to force us to consider the cost involved and whether it is right to sacrifice one (or in this case three) lives in order to save many more. Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? It is entirely to Spielberg’s credit that such weighty issues do not bog the film down and the action remains sprightly without distracting from an important “message”.