While many of today’s big-screen offerings might appear to only offer audiences superficial, throwaway entertainment full of crash, bang, wallop, the last 20 years has also seen its fair share of thought-provoking sci-fi masterclasses. And not just those with super slick (often sexy) neon-laced cityscapes – like Blade Runner 2049 – either. Rather, there’s a small selection of standout science fiction that’s a whole lot quieter than the standard spectacle, making us stop, ponder, and consider where our future is heading. Sure, you might get thrills thrown in but the sci-fi we’re talking about is a whole lot more contemplative than it is flashy.
Of the most thoughtful sci-fi movies released in the 21st century (so far!), the following are intimate, with character relationships, emotion, and a deeper meaning at the core of their lofty narratives. Here are five modern sci-fi classics guaranteed to give you food for thought.
A movie whose chances of box office success — in the UK at any rate — were ironically killed by the sunshine (2007 was a good summer in Blighty), Danny Boyle’s Sunshine stars a who’s who of international actors primarily known at the time for their roles in independent films. This isn’t surprising considering that Sunshine itself was made for a fairly modest budget of just $ 40 million. Not that you’d know it watching Cillian Murphy’s Robert Capa stare into infinity, such is the quality of the film’s effects.
Murphy makes up just one of Icarus II’s eight space-crew members, unceremoniously tasked with reigniting the Earth’s sun using a nuclear payload. While the premise here might appear simple at first, Sunshine revels in raising the stakes, hiking up impossible odds for every crew member to overcome. Some take issue with the stark genre-shift the movie embarks on after Mark Strong’s character is introduced towards the end — but that doesn’t mean the action playing out on screen is any less intelligent.
When Duncan Jones’ Moon released in 2009, the director and co-writer was thought to be the next best sci-fi protégé. Turns out, he’s been struggling to match his debut ever since, but that doesn’t make his original film any less of a space odyssey worth going on. Featuring a career-defining performance from Sam Rockwell as lonely helium harvester, Sam Bell, his performance conveys the toll taken on a man who finds himself alone in space. Rockwell is the man on the moon, but it’s his humanity that makes us empathise with his solitude.
Moon is a modern sci-fi classic unafraid to spend long sequences lingering on moonscapes, taking its time to unfurl, before finally revealing its central mystery of who he is, why he’s the one chosen for the mission, and for how much longer he’ll stay content. Emotions are tugged throughout Moon’s 97 minutes, and by the end, it’s impossible not to get wrapped up in both its story and greater meaning.
No longer bound by the comic-book pages of DC’s Caped Crusader, people had every right to be excited about Christopher Nolan’s next project: an original story set within the realms of hard science fiction. 2014’s Interstellar was that movie, and for the most part, it lived up to the ambition its title suggests. Matthew McConaughey’s Coop acts as humanity’s only hope, tasked with venturing through a wormhole in an attempt to find a new world capable of allowing life to prosper.
What gives Interstellar its credibility is how grounded both humanity’s plight and use of technology feel considering it’s a movie about zipping around space. A central theme throughout is the idea of time slipping away: the time we have left on Earth, the time we let slip away doing worthless tasks, and time spent away from loved ones. These ideas are integrated into what could be, on the surface, enjoyed as a rollicking sci-fi adventure. By the end, however, it becomes clear that Nolan is spinning his story into a web of concepts not too often explored in mainstream cinema.
Ex Machina (2015)
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is proof positive that sometimes smaller is better when trying to deal with the loftiest of concepts. Often, the idea of artificial intelligence becoming self-aware is realised simply as a means of giving our heroes an enemy to fight, but here it’s used as an opportunity to explore the differences between humanity and those engineered by us to mimic us. Alicia Vikander’s performance as android Ava helped put her on the map, and the chemistry she shares with Domhnall Gleeson’s sheepish programmer, Caleb, makes it an electrifying watch.
While the isolated tech centre the majority of the film takes place in looks shiny, sleek, and clean, Ex Machina cleverly evokes an insidious sense of seediness sparked by Oscar Isaac’s power-hungry Nathan. So obsessed with creating a perfect human replica able to pass the Turing test, his overconfidence in controlling Ava is what eventually proves to be his downfall. All three main actors are at the top of their game in Ex Machina, making this smart science fiction at its finest.
Based on Ted Chiang’s acclaimed short story, The Story of Your Life, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is far from your standard alien invasion movie. Whereas most would instantly see hordes of militia swarm the unknown force before it had even a chance to touch the ground, here we see humans take a calm and calculated approach to tackling the potential alien threat. This refreshing shake-up of pace leads to a fascinating dialogue (of sorts) between us and them, allowing room for Amy Adams’ linguist to attempt to decipher their intentions.
This turns out to be much more ethereal than it might at first appear, as we eventually learn that the extra-terrestrial presence hopes to teach us more about our species. Arrival isn’t afraid to keep audiences out of the loop for extended lengths of the running time but, by the end, it mostly manages to click into place eliciting a sense of understanding on the part of the audience for a pay-off that’s elevated by an emotive central performance by Adams. As beautiful as it is smart, Arrival sits with you long after the credits roll.
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