20/20 FUTURE VISION:
A LOOK BACK AT
THE 20 BEST SCIENCE FICTION FILMS OF THE PAST 20 YEARS
To have the audacity to proclaim “The 20 Best Science Fiction Films Of The Past 20 Years” is a rather sweeping statement, we agree. But hey, someone’s gotta do it. It’s also a very subjective hedge of prickly thorns for a great many reasons including, a) everyone has a varying opinion as to what defines “good” science fiction, and b) many amongst that same group of debaters have just as many passionate and opposing views as to what constitutes “science fiction” to begin with. Since the birth of the sci fi film with the turn of the century silents of cinemagician Georges Méliès (A TRIP TO THE MOON - 1902 and THE IMPOSSIBLE VOYAGE - 1904) the debate has raged as many consider Méliès’ seminal works more “fantasy / adventure” then bonafied science fiction: the strictest definition of the genre being “the use of hard science as the basis for said fiction”. As such George Lucas’ STAR WARS films themselves (while containing many science fiction elements, and certainly giving birth to a generation of classics including the sci fi stalwart BLADE RUNNER) really don’t make the cut as they too tend more to fall into the Méliès-like “fantasy” realm. Believe me, while simply “running” the top 20 list past a few friends and insiders, “the great debate” - even before word one was committed to page - had already begun to take to the stratosphere. But that’s okay.
FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966)
True sci fi fans are a vocal and opinionated breed, and have every right to be. For their beloved genre in many respects has always been the “red-headed stepchild” of film history who, regardless of how many impressive accomplishments, will never engender the respect of Mom and Dad the way more “prestigious” and “important” kin do. This cinematic bigotry flying in the face of the fact that the best science fiction films over the years have managed to boldly touch upon hot-button social topics the likes of which many more “important” films wouldn’t dare. And as far as props in the “Ca-ching! Ca-ching!“ department? Well, James Whale’s 1931 classic FRANKENSTEIN (yes, we consider it a science fiction film with horror elements - see how difficult this can be?) actually saved Universal from bankruptcy. Years later, after a string of prestigious big-budget bombs such as CLEOPATRA and STAR! nearly sank 20th Century Fox, it’s financial bacon would be pulled from the griddle by the successes of FANTASTIC VOYAGE and the original PLANET OF THE APES. Then the same story would also unfold across town at MGM with WESTWORLD, LOGAN’S RUN and ROLLERBALL saving the head of that studio from the ever-looming twin guillotines of the auction block and liquidation sale.
So, while a little too late for Valentine’s Day, this one’s a love letter to those who (though Hollywood is hesitant to award Golden Globes and Oscars to our beloved genre) can smell a fake sci fi pretender (That‘s right! We’re talkin’ you ARMAGGEDON!) a mile away. To those of you adroit at separating good wheat from the cheap chaff of so many sub-standard imitators, we (as Mr. Rod Serling used to say) “submit for your approval” this “20/20 FUTURE VISION” list of THE 20 BEST SCIENCE FICTION FILMS OF THE PAST 20 YEARS. We know everyone won’t be pleased with all our selections. But we figure if you concur with half of them, then we’re doing okay. Let us know just the same.
Wait till we get to the list of the top 20 Sci Fi-ers of ALL TIME!
Site Search Index:
play "Also Sprach Zarathustra" - Jazz Vers. (E. Deodato)
20) THE IRON GIANT (1999)
During the height of 1950’s-era Cold War paranoia, young Hogarth Hughes (voice of Eli Marienthal) - being raised by a widowed mother (Jennifer Aniston), finds and befriends a huge 50 ft. metal eating robot from another world (Vin Diesel) who has crashed to earth and lost his memory programming. With the help of local beatnik artist Dean McCoppin (Harry Connick Jr.) the two form a unique bond, which is put to the test when the U.S. military discovers the existence of the Iron Giant, then risks nuclear war to destroy him.
Based on the 1968 novel THE IRON MAN by Ted Hughes, the rights to the popular children’s book were secured by the Who’s Pete Townshend, who turned it into the 1989 album (along the line of the Who’s popular TOMMY) entitled THE IRON MAN: A MUSICAL, then later into a short film. Believing the story would also make a good feature, Townshend sealed a deal with Warner Bros., who eventually brought animation director Brad Bird onto the project. Bird would later helm the hits THE INCREDIBLES (2004), RATATOUILLE (2007) and the live action MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL (2011), but at the time of THE IRON GIANT was known best for television animation on THE SIMPSONS, THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW, THE CRITIC, KING OF THE HILL and the AMAZING STORIES episode “Family Dog”.
19) THE 13TH WARRIOR (1999)
Based on the 1976 novel EATERS OF THE DEAD by JURASSIC PARK’s Michael Crichton, THE 13TH WARRIOR follows the adventure of Ahmad ibn Fadland (Antonio Banderas), a Muslim poet in the 10th century court of the Caliph of Baghdad who, after an adulterous encounter with a nobleman’s wife, is exiled to the North as ambassador. During his travels he falls in with a group of Viking warriors, then is forced to travel with them to one of their settlements where they do battle with a race of possibly supernatural “man-demons” who raid in the night and devour the flesh of their victims.
Quite possibly the only adventure film ever based on the anthropological sciences (and hence it's inclusion on our list), THE 13TH WARRIOR is a wild amalgam of elements. Part based on (so it claims) actual journalistic Arabic historical writings, as well as on the classic tale BEOWULF, it also contains thematic/literary nods to the genre yarns of H.P. Lovecraft, the prehistoric “Earth’s Children” novels of Jean M. Auel (THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR); and features a climax reminiscent of one of Edgar Rice Burroughs' JOHN CARTER or AT THE EARTH‘S CORE “lost world” sagas. A troubled production (director John McTiernan - DIE HARD, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER - was let go and replaced by Crichton himself) the film was a financial disappointment upon initial release, but has since gained a fervent cult following.
18) I AM LEGEND (2007)
Skeptics balked when the more comically inclined Will Smith was announced as lead in this third filmed adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel of the same name: the first two being THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964) starring Vincent Price, and THE OMEGA MAN (1971) with Charlton Heston. But Smith brought a surprising degree of emotional gravitas to Matheson’s classic tale of one man’s struggle (in this case a virologist) against a post apocalyptic city filled with mutated vampire-like former human beings. More a remake of THE OMEGA MAN (it’s script by Joyce & John Covington given credit in the new version along with Matheson‘s novel) than a faithful adaptation of the original book, the new take ironically captures the tone, brutality and heartrending sense of loss and loneliness of the novel more accurately than either of the previous versions, and as such emerges as the best of the three.
A revolving door of names were attached to LEGEND over the years including Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Ridley Scott, Michael Douglas, Tom Cruise, Guillermo del Toro, and X-FILES‘ Rob Bowman, until the reigns were finally taken by CONSTANTINE director Francis Lawrence, working with a screenplay by I AM LEGEND’s producer Akiva Goldsman (A BEAUTIFUL MIND).
17) THE FORGOTTEN (2004)
Stunningly original TWILIGHT ZONE-ish thriller directed by SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY and MONEY TRAIN’s Joseph Ruben (his first foray into science fiction since 1984’s DREAMSCAPE) stars Julienne Moore as the grieving mother of a deceased child who, while undergoing psychiatric therapy, is told by her doctor (Gary Sinese) and husband (Anthony Edwards) that she never had a child, but has actually concocted an entire “previous life” within the confines of her imagination. When she discovers physical evidence to the contrary, she sets out on a personal investigation which leads to mind-bending results questioning man’s place in the universe.
Interestingly, in the basic cable version of the film, references to children dying in a plane crash are altered to a “bus crash” accident, most likely in deference to memories of 9/11 which were still fresh in the minds of American viewers at the time.
16) DARK CITY (1998)
Kafka-esque “neo noir” sci fi epic written by Alex Proyas (THE CROW), David Goyer (BLADE, BATMAN BEGINS, THE DARK KNIGHT), Lem Dobbs (KAFKA, THE LIMEY, HAYWIRE), and directed by Proyas, follows (not unlike THE FORGOTTEN) a character (Rufus Sewell) who awakens to discover he's out of sync with the rest of existence when his conception of reality drastically changes overnight. As the only one aware that the world around him has altered, he is in possession of a truth which makes him the object of a manhunt by not only the police, but a group of pale “Nosferatu”-like beings (the "Strangers") with ESP abilities heightened to such as degree as to enable them to alter physical matter via thought. "Whew!". Now THAT's a handful
Those who've seen DARK CITY are aware the film opens with a rather irritatingly redundant "voice over" narration essentially spelling out the meaning of the mystery yet to come, andnegating the power of the climactic plot reveal. This was added at the behest of the film's studio, New Line Cinema, who feared audiences wouldn't conceptually grasp the story otherwise.
In spite of the addition, the film fared poorly at the box office upon initial release. But buoyed considerably by near unanimous critical acclaim (one of the film's loudest proponents at the time being Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert) and a collection of international film awards, it's stature has steadily grown from undiscovered gem, to underground cult hit, to bonafied genre classic. So much so that 2008 saw a Director's Cut edition of the film (sans opening narration and other "tweaks") which restored DARK CITY to director Proyas' original intent.
This intelligent, incredibly original visceral and philosophical ride co-stars Kiefer Sutherland, William Hurt and Jennifer Connelly. Itself visually inspired by Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS (with a nod to Bertolucci's THE CONFORMIST), it has since gone on to thematically inspire later classics such as THE MATRIX and INCEPTION.
15) AVATAR (2009)
a film is as monumentally successful as James Cameron’s AVATAR (the
biggest hit in cinema history, and the ground zero for a new era of
digital 3D film making), it’s easy to forget the film itself and the
more subtextual strengths setting it apart from other genre hits like
say, Roland Emmerich’s INDEPENDENCE DAY and 2012. Cameron’s culture
clash war film/love story really IS a thematically subtle and delicate masterpiece.
On the surface a “boys own adventure” rehash of Burroughs’ JOHN CARTER OF MARS novels (a scarred veteran of an unpopular war is transported to another world and becomes instrumental in a more worthy fight against oppression) crossed with Kevin Costner’s DANCES WITH WOLVES (so much so detractors dubbed it “DANCES WITH NA’VI”), Cameron’s other worldly epic becomes more interesting for, among other things, it’s “Feminine Universe” basis. The film’s strongest leads - those mostly responsible for the film’s PROactive narrative thrust, are all female: Neytiri (Zoe’ Saldana), Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), Neytir’s mother - the matriarchal Mo’at (C.C. H. Pounder), and even the planet Pandora’s mother goddess Eywa, while all of the male characters, including lead Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), Col Quaritch (Stephen Lange) and Administrator Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) are caught up REactively in the events which unfold.
The second most intriguing subtextual aspect is the “Avatar” concept itself. While the classic historical reference (and word itself) concerns an ancient Hindu god taking physical human form, in Cameron’s film it becomes representative of almost every human character stepping into another position or form to make up for a lacking within themselves. Jake “steps into” the “Avatar” of his deceased brother’s life in order to have a new life of his own. Quaritch and his soldiers “step into the Avatar” of their AMP Suits for combat; and even the planet earth wishes to “step into” the new world of Pandora because of depleted natural resources back home.
As political allegory, the “who is the freedom fighter and who is the terrorist”? conundrum is played out within the individual hearts and minds of each audience member. And Cameron himself was stunned by how much the “destruction of Hometree” sequence bore a resemblance to the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11. AVATAR is a film deserving of a much more thorough investigation than it’s ever truly received.
14) THE MATRIX (1999)
The Brothers Wachowski’s multi-homage to cinema (dystopian sci fi, Hong Kong action, Spaghetti Westerns), literature (ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Phillip K. Dick), and philosophy (Descarte, Huey Newton & The Black Panther Party) starred Keanu Reeves as computer hacker “Neo” who one night is awakened by revolutionary leader Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) to the truth that the world he knows is an artifice created by a race of sentient machines. The reason? - to keep human beings placated while their energy is siphoned to feed the machine rulers’ fuel requirements.
While leading to a trilogy of films, comic books, video games and animated shorts, the general consensus is that, regardless of how technically proficient, none of THE MATRIX’s “children” have lived up to the thematic intelligence, artistic cinematic execution, and sheer enjoyability of the original “parent“.
13) X-MEN (2000)
Based on the now legendary Marvel Comics characters created in 1963 by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, Bryan Singer (THE USUAL SUSPECTS, VALKYRIE)’s 2000 film adaptation (scripted by David Hayter from a story by Tom DeSanto and Singer) propelled “old school-er” stage legends Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen to the forefront of cinematic popularity, while making new stars out of Hugh Jackman, James Marsden and Anna Paquin. It’s stunning box office success also managed to inaugurate (for better and worse) a new trend of feature film “comic book film adaptations”; and also managed to be one of the most intelligent and politically trenchant genre films since the 1970s.
In America of the not-too distant future, so-called “mutants” (humans with more evolved evolutionary traits/powers which most of society don’t yet possess) are the new minority - denied Civil Rights in some quarters, and physically abused for “being different” in others. “Martin Luther King”-like Professor Charles Xavier/ “Prof. X” (Stewart) and his Malcom X-like best friend Erik Lehnsherr/ “Magneto”, agree on the need for equality, but are in opposing camps as to how it can best be achieved, with Prof. X, founding a school for gifted children, and Magneto initiating a more militant “by any means necessary” approach to answer a society which seems to understand only the language of force. Into the middle of this conflict enter displaced loner Logan/“Wolverine” (Jackman) and young Marie/”Rogue”, both of whom will become major players in the future of mankind’s evolution towards equality.
A long in-development history for X-MEN involved a series of scripts written by Andrew Kevin Walker (SE7EN, SLEEPY HOLLOW), John Logan (ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, GLADIATOR), James Schamus (HULK) and Joss Whedon (FIREFLY, THE AVENGERS) as well as directors James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez. USUAL SUSPECTS’ Bryan Singer (eager to do a science fiction themed story) signed on after turning down Fox’s ALIEN RESSURECTION.
12) INCEPTION (2010)
By wrapping it’s brain-teasingly multi-layered philosophical narrative (examining the nature of “perception vs. reality”) in the guise of an enjoyably elaborate TOPKAPI / MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE-type “action heist yarn”, Christopher Nolan cleverly made his more “obscure” subtextual aspirations approachable to a mass audience … most of whom went on to argue for months the meaning and implications of the film’s final image.
the high dollar world of industrial espionage, there exists technicians
(versed in psychology) who are able to enter the subconscious dream
states of individuals in order to steal information before they awake. When Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is offered the opportunity to have his checkered past officially expunged if he’ll undertake the task of “implanting” an idea into the mind of a young corporate executive, he leaps at the opportunity … not realizing how much it will take himself (and his team) into the dark realm of his own unexamined psyche.
Originally created as an 80 page treatment about “dream stealers”, Nolan (MEMENTO, INSOMNIA) was able to expand his vision into epic feature length after the worldwide financial successes of BATMAN BEGINS, THE PRESTIGE and THE DARK KNIGHT.
11) IN TIME (2011)
In the dystopian world of future America, genetic advances have reached a point where the physical aging process can be halted at 25 yrs old, insuring perpetual and eternal youth. The new technology has lead however to a new form economic class/caste structure wherein the new monetary commodity has become time itself - paychecks and financial stature now measured in accrued minutes, hours, days, months, etc. instead of dollars. Living in a “ghetto Time Zone” neighborhood (where most of the population buys mere minutes and hours to survive - akin to living on “payday loans”), factory worker Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) - after the death of his hard working mother (Oliva Wilde), becomes a Robin Hood-like outlaw, stealing time from the eternally rich and giving it to those in need.
Accompanying him on his increasingly popular BONNIE & CLYDE-like “crime” spree is sheltered and wealthy young dilettante Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried), who’s never known how “the other side of the tracks” lives until now.
Written and directed (with a slight satirical smirk) by Andrew Niccol (GATTACA, THE TRUMAN SHOW, THE TERMINAL, LORD OF WAR), IN TIME evolves as a sharp sci fi variation on Jean-Luc Goddard’s 1960 new wave “crime spree” hit BREATHLESS. One month before it’s October 2009 debut, the film, it’s studio 20th Century Fox, and producers were slapped with a plagiarism suit by award winning sci fi author Harlan Ellison, claiming elements of the movie’s story had been ripped from his award winning “‘Repent Harlequin’ Said The TickTock Man”(1965). Ellison filed a similar suit against 1984’s THE TERMINATOR, which resulted in an “Acknowledgement to the Works of Harlan Ellison” credit being added to later home video prints of that film … a decision of which to this day James Cameron is still incensed. After viewing IN TIME however, Ellison and his attorneys decided to drop their suit without need of credit or financial compensation.