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10 Best Sci-Fi Movies Of The 21st Century

Sci-Fi has significantly shifted focus in recent years. Where once there was a bigger focus on the grand escapism of things like Flash Gordon, most science fiction nowadays has a real sharp motive. There’s always been philosophy at the core of sci-fi, but contemporary genre movies are paying even closer attention to our own lives than ever before.

Terrorism, climate change and social relations are the hot-button topics of most science fiction these days. If not, how’s about the slew of movies focusing on our paranoia around technological advances and how we risk being overtaken by the machines?

Either way, the 21st Century has been an amazing one for the science fiction genre…

10. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

DreamWorks

Global warming drastically erodes Earth’s population and wipes several coastal cities clean off the map. To combat this loss of human life, we get Mecha; humanoid robots who are capable of complex emotions like love. David is one such child.

A. I. thrives on human paranoia over the seemingly inevitable takeover of technology. David is created as a solution to a problem, but when he’s brought home to his new family all he does is inspire jealousy in his human brother. A. I. simply asks us to consider how we can continue to co-exist alongside technology that’s going to get more and more dynamic; how can David’s family abandon him, and why can’t the humans in the story co-exist with something that just wants to feel the same sense of community with them?

An amalgation of the work of two of Hollywood’s greatest directors (Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick), A. I. is a film that deals with the optimism and the bleak nature of the future. It’s not always perfect, but there is a certain profundity to David’s arc as he grapples with being not-quite-human and what his place within our society is that would warm even the coldest of hearts.

9. Interstellar (2014)

Universal

Interstellar deals with the complex issue of spacetime, and our own perception of how time passes and can be measured. If you don’t know what spacetime is, that’s okay: screenwriter Jonathan Nolan had to knuckle down and study the theory of relativity at the California Institute of Technology to research the accuracy of his screenplay.

Interstellar’s scientists are inspired to take off into the great expanse of space by an Earth that by the mid-21st Century has been ravaged by crop blights and dust storms. Naturally, space travel involves a lot of complex science, but the Nolan brothers were careful to not overload us with too much theory and remained committed to producing an entertaining film with wonderful performances by an all-star cast including Matthew McConnaughey and Michael Caine.

Given the collaborations with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, Interstellar remained scientifically accurate where it could stay true to the fundamental laws of physics. By sticking to the many laws of gravity and the current thoughts on how black holes function (yes, that really is what is currently thought would happen to beams of light at the centre of a black hole), Interstellar shows how science fiction and cinema are a perfect match.

8. Minority Report (2002)

Fox

You might have forgotten about Steven Spielberg’s neo noir detective story, but it rewards a rewatch.

Minority Report centres on the desire for the murder rate of a futuristic Los Angeles to brought down to 0; this is helped by the abilities of three mutant officers called “Precogs” to predict murders before they happen, allowing police to go in and prevent the grisly act and imprison said would-be killers in virtual, happy realities.

What does this say about the responsibilities of the police? Or the abilities of those higher up to control our lives? These are issues that are grappled with everyday in a post-Snowden world, so it seems Minority Report really was able to predict some aspects of modern society.

Minority Report is also a Tom Cruise vehicle, so naturally we see Chief John Anderton thrown into pulse-pounding chase scenes once a precognition reveals Cruise’s character to be a future murderer. This is the titular ‘minority report’, an alternate, future prediction that may or may not come true. Minority Report tests whether we are ready to take control of our own futures.

Philosophical conundrums, exciting future tech and striking social commentary all come together to make Minority Report an excellent thriller.

7. Wall-E (2008)

Pixar

Placing us in the shoes (or tracks) of the titular trash-compacting robot, Wall-E sees the little guy yearn for some compassion as he has grown self-aware of his menial task cleaning up after our big mess after corporate greed and an over-reliance on technology left humanity completely incapable of looking after ourselves or the environment.

Pixar have made full use of the genre they set Wall-E within. They’ve constructed a complex society of robots that all cater to our now-passive future selves, and take our projected failings to the environment and economy to task, all the while weaving in a personal quest for contact and friendship along the way. The gorgeous depiction of space and the visual comedy only adds to the overall tone of wonder and intrigue.

Wall-E is both an example of interesting, intelligent science fiction, but also remains an excellent family friendly film touched by classic Pixar magic. This is still a wonderfully charming, tender story with a charismatic protagonist at its heart, even if that same protagonist possesses the same range of vocabulary as your average Pokémon.

6. District 9 (2009)

TriStar Pictures

District 9 has all the hallmarks of more hum-drum science fiction on the surface: there’s extravagant alien technology, experimentation and military pressure abound. But District 9 is more than that, precisely because of how it bridges the distinct divide between alien and human by having our protagonist, peppy Wikus (Sharlto Copley) slowly transform into one of the very beings he is employed to oppress.

The encounter with the “other” has been one of the most common angles in sci-fi, as aliens provided a critical shorthand for those from other cultures. Here, the relationship between oppressive defense force MNU and the so-called “prawn” aliens who got stranded above Johannesburg is a thinly-veiled exploration of racial politics, re-interrogating ideas of apartheid. Whilst the depiction of Nigerian gangs hasn’t aged nearly as well, the prawns are framed sympathetically and given emotional warmth that brings the viewer firmly onto their side alongside Wikus.

District 9 helped launch the career of Sharlto Copley, brought us a punchy, found-footage style documentary that deals with the struggle of being human and our kindness to one another as well as critically starting a discussion around racial politics. It’s important to sci-fi’s continued development, and isn’t one to be missed.

5. Inception (2010)

Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan’s best pictures work well by distilling down ideas that seem really difficult to more simplistic terms, hence why Inception is such an interesting and engaging picture. Inception is ostensibly a heist movie, one which sees a team of professional thieves implanting an idea into someone’s subconscious by invading their dreams.

Based loosely on the concept of lucid dreaming and how little we understand it, Nolan developed a technically stunning and intelligent thriller that touches on issues of privacy control and growing concerns over personal data, perhaps making it arguably even more relevant now than when it was initially released. The threat of being locked outside of consciousness in “limbo” also makes for a genuine, palpable threat to the characters.

Inception also deserves praise for the absolutely stunning visuals found in many of its stunning action set-pieces. Whether that’s the insane city-bending by sculptor Ariadne, or the infamous topsy-turvy hotel corridor fight scene, Inception is filled to the brim with visual treats.

Inception is a deeply enthralling story that features brilliant practical and visual effects.

4. Blade Runner: 2049 (2017)

Warner Bros.

Blade Runner 2049 is a perfect sequel; it builds upon the original in every way. There is a fundamental, canonical choice of ending from the myriad of cuts of the original movie, and the beautifully drab urban environments have continued to thrive, creating a diverse skyline littered with holograms and adverts for what to us would be long-defunct companies like Panam and Atari as opposed to today’s tech giants.

Following Officer K (Ryan Gosling) as he uncovers the mystery surrounding long-gone officer Deckard is thrilling. His relationship to other technology in the world is engaging, whilst the story hooks are revealed at just the right pace to keep you firmly rooted in your seat for the nearly three-hour run time. There isn’t a single frame that feels wasted, and there are some wonderful easter eggs thrown in around Blade Runner’s unique ideas like the Voight-Kampff test that reward fans of the original too.

Roger Deakins and Denis Villeneuve accomplished some of the most beautiful cinematography in science fiction in the breathtaking urban landscape that 2049 plays out in. Even if you mind Blade Runner’s philosophising tiring, Blade Runner 2049 is stunning not only in story, but in world design too.

3. Ex Machina (2015)

Universal Pictures

Ex Machina thrives on the apparent cultural paranoia over the inevitable development of self-awareness within artificially intelligent beings. Here, programmer Caleb Smith (Domnhall Gleeson) is tasked with understanding whether the artificially intelligent android called Ava (Alicia Vikander) developed by his CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is truly capable of consciousness.

What follows is a manipulative triangle of doubts and deceit as Ava tries to negotiate her escape and builds a relationship with naive programmed Caleb against her supposed prison warden. We see glimpses into previous models, the amazing domestic technology within Nathan Bateman’s luxurious private retreat, and are kept on our toes throughout by a well-paced, engaging and intelligent screenplay. Ex Machina proves that film can be just an intelligent as any other medium, asking you to reflect on who’s really to blame at every point in the action.

Ex Machina launched Alex Garland’s directorial career and continued to prove he’s a writer to be admired within modern cinema. Ex Machina is full of twists throughout, and we’re never quite sure who to trust or believe right the way through. It’s a full thought experiment that really tries to explore what our relationship with robots might eventually look like.

2. Children Of Men (2006)

Universal Pictures

Children of Men is a tour de force of an experience that’s wrought with tension from the get-go. Every sequence, whether full of action or not, ratchets up the atmosphere to eleven. A technical marvel and achievement for single-camera framing, Children of Men places you firmly at the heart of the action with gripping tracking sequences and single takes that put your view right in step with lead Clive Owen or the revolutionaries who kidnap him.

With mass hysteria over the sudden inexplicable infertility of women and the descent of Britain into a country not too dissimilar from a totalitarian state that teeters on the brink and then collapses firmly into a revolution, it’s safe to say the film isn’t exactly set on promising ground. Children of Men is so brilliant precisely because it uses this nmotivation to tell a heartfelt tale.

Children of Men is many emotions all at once: hopeful, depressing, beautiful, ugly. It tries to tell us an awful lot about humanity and about our culture, all the while telling a moving story about perseverance and not giving up hope in an environment that tells every one of its characters to pretty much do just that.

1. Arrival (2016)

Paramount Pictures

Arrival is distinctive in part for being told from an engaging, female perspective. You might expect a typical close encounter narrative, but what you get is a deeply human story that will continue to cause the most common sci-fi narrative (meeting alien races) to evolve for years to come.

It’s notable that the antagonists in Arrival are the US government. Unlike other alien encounter narratives such as Independence Day, here the military are framed as brash, headstrong and jumpy. Rather than wait for Amy Adams’ linguistics expert Dr Louise Banks and her team to comprehend the language that the visitors speak, they instead want to jump the gun (quite literally) and issue ultimatums for them to vacate Earth immediately.

Incorporating the evolving perceptions within science on the nature of time, the alien language enables Dr Banks to experiences memories of things that have yet to occur. This makes for compelling sci-fi because the story sticks with the human experience. Rather than cheer on the military, Arrival encourages us to reflect on the development of Banks’ newfound powers as analogous to how encounters with things distinct from our own culture can enrich and expand our perception now.

 

 

 

 

 

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