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”.
Although Elysium has been less than uniformly lauded, District 9 proved to much more consistently appreciated. In fact, it is seldom remarked that District 9 is stylistically a bit of a jumble, starting off as a mockumentary before dropping and then picking back up the format in an inconsistent manner. Fortunately, the script, subtext, acting and action are so superb that such nagging flaws don’t affect either our enjoyment or appreciation of one of the best sci-fi debuts for many a Moon.
As the annoying and slightly ridiculous bureaucrat who in trying to clear the eponymous slum winds up becoming infected, Sharlto Copley gives one of the great sci-fi performances of the decade. Desperate to somehow find a way of putting things right as he is hunted by the authorities and watches on in horror as his body transforms in front of him, Wikus goes from being a repellant racist to an incredibly sympathetic victim of circumstance. His distress at being used to fire alien weapons, his horror at the treatment of aliens but his continued conviction that it can all still somehow be “undone” is incredibly well handled and eschews the more obvious Dances With Prawns arc that Blomkamp could so easily have slipped into. Like Minority Report, District 9 takes a compelling issue, this time our treatment of immigrants and our attitude towards those of other races and shackles it to compelling (and at times pretty visceral) action and hard sci-fi. It was always going to be unrealistic to expect Elysium to match up to this.
As with District 9, Moon gives us a debut feature effort from a director who is now getting stuck into bigger budgets and scopes, with that first feature remaining the cream of the crop. Duncan Jones’ Source Code proved to be an excellent high concept follow up and his take on Warcraft will be fascinating, but Moon remains genuinely top-drawer stuff.
Sam Rockwell, always good value for money, gives a rich and varied performance as the lone human at an (obviously) isolated moon base, with no-one but Kevin Spacey’s computer for company and a growing sense of paranoia and anxiety building within him. He feels (and one sympathises) that a three-year solo stint is too long and after being injured he begins to feel that he is becoming genuinely unravelled. Moon is a very simple film – minimal sets, very little in the way of flashy special effects or attention-grabbing sequences, but it grabs our attention in a way very few films succeed in doing these days and its subtly and intelligently delivered points about our humanity, our identity and whether any life is expendable would be found again in Source Code. Moon is affecting and gets under the skin in a way that will leave you wanting to revisit it often. You should.
7. Donnie Darko
Again, director Richard Kelly’s follow-up work has split audiences and critics, but this film wowed seemingly everyone. Jake Gyllenhaal hadn’t done much before this and has become quite the superstar since. Here he delivers in spades as a “troubled” teenager, beset by visions of wormholes, giant rabbits and death.
Donnie Darko takes its sci-fi very seriously and a sequence where our notional protagonist walks through the house, seeing the lines of where everyone is going to and has come from is riveting. Likewise, the climactic atmospheric “disturbance” and Donnie’s sacrifice are visually compelling, narratively coherent and emotionally affecting. “Mad World” proved to be an ideal accompanying track, delivering a sense of melancholy that is matched by Donnie’s increasing conviction that there is only one right way to respond to Frank’s prophecy.
Although much of the weight of the film sits on Gyllenhaal’s shoulders, there is excellent support work from his sister and the late Patrick Swayze and although Donnie Darko is not perhaps the most “fun” of the titles on this list, it is such a gripping and fascinating film that it deserved just as much repeat attention as the rest.