Superhero Hype’s Top 10 Sci-Fi Films of the Decade
We already ran down our list of the best superhero movies of the decade, but that still felt limiting. As far as heroic epics go, so many more graced our big screens over the past ten years. And since we do cover sci-fi even when the heroes don’t always wear capes, there are more worthy movies to honor.
It was occasionally a contentious process. Sci-fi fans like what they like and hate what they hate, and your SHH editors are no different. But in the end, we came to a fairly solid consensus. Here are our picks for the top 10 sci-fi films of the decade.
Thanks to The Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan’s films have become events unto themselves. However, Interstellar may Nolan’s most ambitious project to date. Matthew McConaughey starred as Joseph Cooper, a man desperate to find a new home for humanity in the furthest reaches of space. But the emotional core of this film is Joseph’s strained relationship with his daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain).
Interstellar also largely stayed within the realm of scientific possibility. But that didn’t stop Nolan from adding a mind-bending finale that brought Joseph and Murphy back together one last time.
Remember when Rian Johnson made a sci-fi movie and everyone liked it? That was only seven years ago. In Johnson’s most emotional, least overly structured story, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a hitman hired to knock off his older self (Bruce Willis). In a world where time travel exists, that’s how organized crime disposes of over-the-hill killers. But wait, there’s more! The hitman’s life is somehow tied into that of a powerful psychic called the Rainmaker. And how he deals with that mystery individual may have massive ramifications for his own life and the future.
It’s easy to see how Johnson scored a Star Wars movie on the strength of Looper. It’s also enough to make us want him to go back to doing more sci-fi films.
There are only so many stories to be told about the legacy of Anakin Skywalker. And while Darth Vader does make an appearance in Rogue One, that’s not why this movie makes the list. Instead, Rogue One earned its place by shaking up the foundations of the franchise. What if we can’t be sure the heroes will survive? How do Rebels prevail if they can’t rely on Jedi or the Force? Why did it take this long for a Star Wars film to have a female lead?
Rogue One was a big test balloon to see if fans of the franchise would accept something different. And they did. This was the most Star Wars out of all of the Disney Star Wars movies.
Could anyone have guessed that the story of a mute woman having a passionate sexual affair with a super-powered amphibian man would win big at the Oscars? But The Shape of Water is just that good. We would have given Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy movies all of the awards. Fortunately, this movie finally gave del Toro the Oscar recognition that he deserves.
Sally Hawkins also makes us truly believe that she can love an underwater creature. Meanwhile, Michael Shannon is as terrifying an authority figure as any man or fish can imagine. Had this been an official Creature From the Black Lagoon remake, that whole ill-fated Dark Universe franchise might have survived.
The Wachowskis go all in when they want to create a new sci-fi world. They commit, as do their actors, which sometimes makes the movies overly easy to mock. Eddie Redmayne’s acting weird…because he’s a centuries-old space vampire with untold riches. And Channing Tatum has dog DNA? We suspect viewers might roll with that in anime, but live-action makes it harder to accept.
Regardless, Jupiter Ascending‘s epic story of a cleaning lady who becomes a space princess and gets caught between three feuding dynasties was a big swing. It wasn’t embraced by moviegoers during its initial release, but it has steadily gained in appreciation since. The action sequences with sky boots are exciting, the intrigue between stellar siblings is suitably dramatic, and the creatures are very cool.
Even Terry Gilliam shows up to give this his blessing. In hindsight, that should have been a sign it would be a wonderful flop. But like most of the auteur’s own movies, it’s very much worth your time.
Movies literally based on video games often fail to capture a key aspect of what playing them feels like. The hero tends to do everything right, but first-time gamers rarely do. Instead, they die over and over until they get the sequence down. They have to keep replaying the same level until every move is correct.
Edge of Tomorrow, previously named All You Need Is Kill, and subsequently called Live Die Repeat, puts Tom Cruise through that video game-like experience. And in this era of Cruise constantly playing the Most Perfect Human Being Alive, it’s refreshing to see him get it so wrong, repeatedly. Luckily for him, Emily Blunt’s there to put things right so they can defeat the final boss.
Cruise’s other major sci-fi entry of the decade, Oblivion, is also pretty great. But since it also involves him living, dying, and repeating, it felt redundant to put it here.
4. John Carter
Before Avatar or Star Wars, there was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, about a Civil War soldier who found himself stranded on the red planet. Unfortunately, it took so long to get a good movie adaptation that viewers who were unaware of the books thought it was a ripoff of everything that came after it.
Disney didn’t help by burying the movie with bad promotion that never made clear it was a Martian epic. However, fans who saw it reaped the rewards. The always underappreciated Taylor Kitsch thrived opposite a digital four-armed creature voiced by Willem Dafoe. And the heartbreak at the end when John Carter is dragged back to Earth is palpable.
We deserved a franchise. But we’ll always have this film.
The original Planet of the Apes film series creates almost a perfect time loop, with very little room to add more. But at this point, it takes place in a parallel timeline. We know that all cats and dogs were not wiped out in 1991. Nor did we take apes as pets and make them slaves.
But what if the original timeline was different, before Zira and Cornelius changed everything? What happened right after Taylor’s spaceship took off? Rise of the Planet of the Apes goes from there. When scientist James Franco searches for a cure for his father’s dementia, it instead creates a super-intelligent ape named Caesar. And Caesar does not like being in a lab.
Andy Serkis deserves much of the credit for the franchise reboot. His Caesar is fully believable as a basic chimp, and it’s a credit to the actor that when he finally speaks, it’s not a risible moment. But Franco deserves credit too. As the series continued, we never got a human quite as adept at interacting with motion-capture Serkis. Ending the first installment with the near extinction of humanity — even though there’s a precedent — took a whole lot of guts too.
This is perhaps the only movie on this list to actually contribute to the common language. Inception typically means beginning. But thanks to Christopher Nolan’s twisty dream heist, Inception has taken on a whole new meaning.
Within the movie itself, Inception means successfully implanting an idea in a target’s mind, while entering dreams within dreams. But the real story is Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb facing his relationship issues. Nolan brilliantly navigates a complicated story with multiple levels of reality. He also pioneered the city folding in on itself visual that Doctor Strange would later run with.
1. Ex Machina
Before Poe Dameron confronted General Hux over the Resistance fleet, Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson engaged in a battle of wills over artificial intelligence. Is the gorgeous female robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) truly independently intelligent, or is she just really good at faking it? And if she is intelligent, who is to say she’s not playing the two men off against each other?
Ex Machina‘s performances kept us enthralled as director Alex Garland kept us guessing. The perfect merging of Vikander’s performance and digital replacement won an Oscar for special effects, amid well-placed, minimalist sets. Vikander would go on to be the next Lara Croft, while her male costars flew to a galaxy far, far away.
Garland, meanwhile, followed up with Annihilation, which would probably be on this list too if we had made it a top twenty.
What are your picks for the top 10 sci-fi films of the decade? Let us know in the comment section below!