1. District 9
You would think that a film nominated for Best Picture among other Oscars in 2009 would be popular, but District 9 remains one of the most criminally under watched films of any genre. Directed by Neil Blomkamp, who later went on to make Elysium and Chappie and is attached to the Alien series, District 9 is a sci-fi classic tackling themes like xenophobia and social segregation, themes that are too heavy for the usual campy popcorn science fiction film. Set in an alternate Johannesburg in the 1980’s where a group of aliens have curiously decided to settle, District 9 tells the story of a man, Wikus who is sent to the impoverished alien slum for carrying out a relocation. The film features the most harrowing portrayal of aliens, far from the traditional trope we see in other popular franchises. The movie is smart, thrilling, and has tons of heart. That’s more than we can say for most movies.
Snowpiercer is Korean auteur director Bong Joon-ho’s first film in English, and he does a fantastic job of adapting this film from a French graphic novel. It follows a rebellion featuring the downtrodden end section of a train and the privileged rich people at the head section of the train. The train is no normal train, but a seemingly perpetual motion machine carrying all of what is left of humanity after a climate engineering experiment to counter global warming erased most of mankind. Far from the traditional apocalyptic depiction, the film instead uses the genre to elevate ideas of class structure and evolution. It features a brilliant performance by Chris Evans who leads the tail section rebellion and is visually stunning. There is one action sequence in particular that almost feels like poetry on screen, so visceral is it’s choreography. Watch Snowpiercer if you enjoy intelligent films that use the medium of film not only for thematic and visual exhibition, but for social and cultural commentary as well.
3. 28 Days Later
Much before Danny Boyle became popular with Slumdog Millionaire he made an underrated post apocalyptic thriller called 28 Days Later. The movie centres around a group of four people trying to survive amidst the outbreak of a lethal virus. You could call this film a zombie adventure but the treatment makes it stand out among other popular zombie fare like Resident Evil. This movie is actually credited with starting the zombie boom in cinema. Written and shot in a unique style, 28 Days Later features scenes of the usually bustling London stripped of all activity. It’s an extremely entertaining movie, horrifying and thrilling in equal measure. But unlike usual horror movies, it’s not content with just giving you chills but also functions as a human drama. 28 Days Later is a unique film that blends elements of horror, adventure and futurism with a stamp of artistic beauty that Danny Boyle has made his own.
4. Donnie Darko
Donnie Darko is a complex psychological drama. No wonder it flopped when it released way back in 2001. However, over the years the film has formed a cult following among movie lovers who enjoy a film with a blend of supernatural and humane elements. Sure, the movie might be too strong, for lack of a better word, for some. But there is no denying that beneath the confusion lies a story that keeps you thoroughly invested. Donnie Darko follows a certain teenager Donnie who frequently sees visions of a rabbit Frank, who informs him of an impending doomsday. The film builds on this tension with such subtlety that a feeling of eerie dread keeps mounting. Donnie Darko with its cocktail of time travel science fiction and teen drama is a bright spot on science fiction genre classics. Watch it. It’s a film experience unlike any.
5. Children of Men
Children of Men is easily one of the best science fiction films of the last decade. Sadly though, the film never received it’s fair share of eyeballs. The film follows the journey of a man who rallies to save a woman who is pregnant, a miracle in a post apocalyptic Earth ravaged by two decades of infertility. It is exquisitely detailed and the action scenes are shot with such technical artistry that you are transported right into the moment. Children of Men has an intriguing premise and it complements that intrigue with breakneck pace and visual brilliance that makes for mandatory viewing. Expertly crafted and loaded with visual metaphors, ultimately, Children of Men is a film about the triumph of hope over a sense of futility. Oh, and by the way, Children of Men is directed by Alfonso Cuaron who made Gravity and shot by master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who won a hat-trick of Oscars for Gravity, Birdman and The Revenant.
Moon is the kind of smart and ingenious film that comes very rarely. The director of Moon, Duncan Jones, is David Bowie’s son. The movie does have some serious science fiction pedigree! The setup is fairly simple. Sam Rockwell plays the last employee of a mining operation on the moon, accompanied only by a robot. But when he discovers something out of place on the surface of the moon things take a turn for the worse. The storytelling is so impressive and the visual effects so minimalist and hence timeless,that the film feels like the unfolding of a classic Asimov book. On the outside, even though the plot feels too thin to fill out an entire feature film, the director uses the struggle of a single man to tackle a variety of sci-fi concepts. The film stays with you and remains a fulfilling experience partly because of Rockwell’s incredible and understated performance and partly because of how human and personal his character’s story is, despite the science fiction underlining. Moon is a brilliant film, sci-fi, drama, whatever category you want to bracket it as.
7. The Man from Earth
If you are the kind of person that enjoys dialogue heavy films full of insightful discussions and lacking any visual razzmatazz than Man from Earth is just the right film for you. The film tells the story of a Professor who at his impromptu farewell party claims to be have been alive for more than 14 millenia. What follows is a to and fro discussion involving the Prof. and his colleagues each of whom contribute questions and views from his/her field of expertise. There is a historian, an anthropologist, a psychiatrist, a biologist and even an archeologist, so there is a real breadth of knowledge on display. Man of Earth is a sharply scripted, engaging, and intelligent film, one that demands your attention and intellect. The film might not be everyone’s cup of tea but there is no denying that Man from Earth demands to be watched. It manages to be a compelling film, without a single recognizable actor, or any effects or grand sets. That’s no mean feat!
8. Mr. Nobody
Mr. Nobody is the last surviving mortal, 118 years of age, in a world where mankind has achieved a sort of quasi immortality. Naturally he is a sought after man, asked to recount his memories of a life on earth plagued by mortality. It’s a novel premise that is made even more refreshing by the fact that Mr. Nobody recounts not one but multiple versions of his history. Making use of a non-linear screenplay to bring forward elements of a classical many worlds - many lives construct, Mr Nobody is a deeply satisfying film bolstered by a great performance by Jared Leto as the lead, nifty visual effects, and a beautiful soundtrack. The film functions as an ode to the role of choice and randomness in life, how a small split in your timeline can lead to infinite possible futures. It’s as much a visual and musical treat as it is a brave film and a worthy addition to the many science fiction installments that have tackled the subject of chaos.
Much before Joss Whedon made the Avengers he made a critically acclaimed but under watched sci-fi adventure called Serenity. Following after the abruptly canceled TV series Firefly, Serenity follows the story of the crew, in particular the captain (Mal) of a spaceship - Serenity, after the arrival of a psychic occupant (River) with dangerous government secrets disrupts their way of life. The movie charts the adventures of Mal as he is involved in a constant struggle to save River from the man hired by the government to capture her. It sounds like a traditional Good vs Bad tale set in space but Whedon loads the movies with loveable characters which remain relatable. The CGI might be garrish in places, but Serenity has its heart in the right place. It’s a human story, punctuated with frequent humour and bordering on light political satire. Sometimes films with major themes can be slow, boring even, but Serenity keeps its pace brisk and strikes a fine balance.
Probably the only sort of comedy on this list, Idiocracy is what people would call a sci-fi satire. Basically, it uses a story set in the future, throws in some sci-fi elements and ridicules current society. But not in the laugh out loud way, but in a smart, subtle and razor sharp way that famous filmmaker and writer Etan Cohen infuses in all of his projects. Directed by Mike Judge of Silicon Valley fame, Idiocracy tells the story of two people who participate in a hibernation experiment and wake up 500 years in the future only to find that idiocracy has ravaged the Earth leading to a complete collapse of cultural and social ideas that once existed. In today’s World of Trump, Idiocracy is the kind of movie that shows you a bleak future and at the same time induces a weird sense of deja vu. It’s hardly a science fiction film in that sense. It derives it’s entertainment by making fun of it’s audience, extending the current state of Earth’s occupancy to present a nightmarish future. In Idiocracy the Earth isn’t hit by an Ice Age, Global Warming or any other apocalyptic event. Rather it’s a manmade driven disease that plagues the world : stupidity.
According to Quantum Mechanics, multiple realities exist but don’t interact, each evolving independently from a branch point. Coherence is a film built over the foundation of this theory, called the many worlds interpretation. In this film, the passing of a comet opens up a window for another reality, allowing the characters of the movie to interact with their alternate selves. It leads to a whole lot of pandemonium and makes for a thrilling drama. The film is basically about how people react when faced with people issues but add to it the complication that comes with having to interact with alternate versions of themselves, from an alternate universe possibly, and it makes for an interesting premise. The film keeps you engaged with its grippping narative without ever resorting to heavy handed philosophy or exposition. Coherence is a little known gem of a movie that must be on the must watch list of any film buff.
Pandorum didn’t receive much love from either the critics or the mainstream audience when it first released but the film has enough potential to act as film deserving of your time. The world building, characters and design are impressive. The film is about a group of people on a spaceship venturing into deep space. When a certain crew member wakes from his sleep chamber not only does he suffer from a mental disorder called Orbital Dysfunctional Syndrome, frequently descending to paranoia, but the crew also has to contend with alien creatures that eat people, which are on the ship for some inexplicable reason. Although ridden with plot holes the film’s portrayal of a space crew suffering from acute psychosis is unsettling, horrifying and even scary at times. You can stay for the cheap thrills provided by screeching aliens feasting on people, or you can ignore that failing and be hooked to the pure dread of the crew, all of what’s left of humanity, stranded on a ship on a mission doomed to fail.
Primer is one of those films that doesn’t pander to the audience by dumbing down it’s content. It goes all out with its complex time travel plot and nonlinear screenplay. Shot at a measly budget of just 7000$ by Shane Carruth, an engineer with a degree in mathematics, Primer tells the story of a duo that accidently discover a means of time travel and try to use it to make profitable stock market trades. But as it is with time travel, the timelines soon begin to mess up, the degree of chaos is amplified by even a small event in the past or future. It’s as intelligent a film as any and demands repeated viewing just to fully appreciate its bizarre complexity and tie all the loose ends that crop up in your head after the film ends. As far as time travel films go, Primer knocks it out of the park. It’s a deeply technical and demanding film, but all that work you put in is worth it as the film rewards you with a brilliant story and firmly occupies its place as an indie classic and cult sci-fi gem.
Danny Boyle’s underrated science fiction film follows a group of scientists sent on a mission to reignite the dying sun by using a nuclear bomb. It’s a seemingly impossible mission with a high chance of death, fraught with dangers all the way. Boyle highlights these dangers and along with powerful acting performances across the board, crafts a space film that is supremely entertaining and visually engaging. As with most successful movies, the film hands its emotional core to the struggle of the crew, building the entire premise around that setup. Every failure and decision - emotional or technical - is heightened and keeps you invested. It is precisely this sense of involvement that makes Sunshine such a fulfilling film experience. Directed with Boyle’s typical visual splendour and featuring CGI that never feels out of place, Sunshine is one of the best films set in space, ever.
15. Ex Machina
One of the more recent films on this list, Ex Machina deals with a question that has plagued our minds for a long time : Can machine intelligence ultimately beat humans at their own game? The question lies at the heart of the Turing Test, a test that is used to determine if an artificial form of intelligence can hide from a human interrogator the artificial nature of its intelligence. Ex Machina deals with this very question. Caleb, an employee at a large software firm is called upon by his firm’s secretive CEO to administer the Turing Test to an intelligent android he just created. Ex Machina has a slick, cool and modern feel to it. It keeps its story grounded and doesn’t indulge in showing too many futuristic concepts. The story only has two humans, mostly interacting with a single humanoid, and yet the film succeeds in building tension, guiding the viewer to its shocking climax. In keeping with its realistic feel, Ex Machina’s visual effects are similarly minimalistic. The film however bagged an Oscar for visual effects in 2016, beating heavyweights like Mad Max : Fury Road, The Martian and Star Wars Episode VII : The Force Awakens.
This article was first published in our 15 year Anniversary Special June 2016 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit's articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit e-magazine app. You could also buy the Anniversary Special June 2016 issue here.