It was a good year for science fiction. Especially in cinema, that eyeball-hogging medium that dominates storytelling worldwide. There were great books, yes—William Gibson's The Peripheral, Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation, and MIT's always killer Twelve Tomorrows come to mind. And I'm biased, but the authors behind our Terraform project have turned out some truly stellar, genre-bending shorts. But this year's movies were unusually potent. 2014's speculative film fiction ran the gamut: from smart, well-produced action films to sweeping big-budget dramas to thoughtful art house oddities.
Most importantly, the sci-fi of 2014 did a better job of smartly reflecting our cultural, social, and economic anxieties than the genre has in years: Widescreen speculations about ecological collapse, about income inequality, about self-enhancement, about sexuality and predation offered us a future-tinted mirror to consider our modern moment. There were a few notable absences—perhaps next year we'll get an updated, futurized look at racial politics—but by and large, science fiction in 2014 was ambitious, penetrating, strange, and captivating. Just as it should be.
Below are the ten films that most powerfully drove the conversation about our near and far future this year. And yes, it's ranked, because it's the end of the year, and I just couldn't help myself. (Warning: spoilers aplenty ahead.)
10. Guardians of the Galaxy
Okay, so what? It's a dumb Marvel superhero movie, in space. But Guardians utilized classic sci-fi tropes expertly enough—the scrappy, intergalactic rogue with a heart of gold, the high octane spaceship shootouts, the fantastical world design—giant alien head in space, anyone?—to carry the torch for the brainless swashbuckling sci-fi spectacle. Unlike most of its peers, it didn't take itself too seriously; it was stuffed with solid gags and 70s yacht rock and a breezy sense of fun that's been missing from the Marvel factory. (If I have to sit through another leaden, self-serious superhero film, I'm going to mail Christopher Nolan some shit. Literally.) All that helped make it the top grossing film of 2014, period.
Unlike the other sci-fi-tinged superhero films of the year—Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past—Guardians was a genuinely good time. Mostly, the film was useful for reinforcing the fact that SF films can be huge blockbusters—I'd feared the genre was in trouble after the disappointing box office returns of the likes of Pacific Rim, Edge of Tomorrow, and Oblivion—and ensuring that studios will stay open to investing huge amounts of cash in them. Guardians didn't really inspire much cultural conversation about any issue in particular, except perhaps about sci-fi itself—and why we need films like this to keep the genre planted in the mainstream, to pave the way for more ambitious and complex fare.
Okay, so Lucy wasn't a good film. It might even have been really bad. It was a mess of CGI colors, exploding ephemera, and half-baked aphorisms about human biology and augmentation. But it somehow congealed into an eye-popping stew of sci-fi signifiers that, to me at least, was fascinating in its gleeful overabundance and (probably unintentional) philosophical import.
Sure, the very debunked "humans only use 10 percent of their brains" device makes for a tired starting plot point, especially coming on the heels of the embarrassing Limitless. But as Scarlett Johansson's Lucy begins to utilize more of her brain power, something interesting happens: she becomes indifferent to humanity. She starts doing loads more material damage than good—she murders at will, unleashes killer crime lords who mow down dozens of innocents, and forces Interpol into a police chase through Paris that must have yielded scores of fatalities—all in the name of, ostensibly, furthering human knowledge. And we're supposed to root for her, I think.
She masters biological telecommunication and learns telekinesis; she embraces technology to bend biology to her whim and becomes a total nihilist. In the end, there's a bizarre scene where her arms become tentacled computers, and eventually she literally transforms into a USB thumb drive that contains the secrets of the universe. It is beyond absurd. But the allegory stuck with me—we are willing to fight, to accelerate technology beyond its known boundaries, to augment our bodies, to experiment, to kill, to die, to—do what? We, empathizing with the baffled and world-weary Morgan Freeman, have absolutely no idea.
As a very vocal advocate of the original Gojira—still the most powerful allegory for nuclear holocaust ever put to tape—I was eager to see a Godzilla remake that did its forebear justice. Needless to say, I was disappointed. After Bryan Cranston's early and pointless demise, it was hard to care about the characters, and the movie had a bizarre pacing and plot structure that seemed explicitly designed to sap the film of narrative tension.
But there was one fascinating aspect of the film, and that's how it recast Godzilla as a sort of elemental hero. Humanity's extractive tendencies have unleashed a handful of giant bug-monsters—the main one crawled out of a mine in Southeast Asia, implying that we've again dug too deep, meddled where we shouldn't. Godzilla, though terrifying, and prone to leveling city blocks in the process, does gladiatorial combat with these other fouler beasts.
Read as allegory, it too presents something of a nihilistic view—yes, humanity has unleashed great ills upon itself (perhaps by mining for fossil fuels) and we've little choice but to brace ourselves and watch as the devastating forces of nature violently clash to restore the world to order. Even if that means watching San Francisco turn into Pompeii in the process.
7. The Congress
A half-animated, half-live action mashup of the cult sci-fi classic The Futurological Congress, the real-life story of Hollywood actress Robin Wright, and a trippy critique of the entertainment industrial complex, this film is a deeply bizarre beast. It doesn't always work—much of the first act is marred by bad dialogue and acting, and the last act is aimlessly existential—but it's so stuffed with ideas and so gleefully kaleidoscopic it's hard to look away.
Wright, playing herself, holds most of the thing together (she and the bravura animation from Ari Folman, of the masterful Waltz with Bashir fame). She's offered "the last role of her life"—her likeness is to be digitally uploaded for use by the film studio for all time. She does it, to save her son, naturally, and 20 years laters travels into a "special animated zone" to renew her contract.
There's a lot under the microscope here—the corporatocracy of Hollywood (the big studio is, humorously, the Miramount-Nagasaki Corp.), the commoditization of actors and actresses, and that old crucible, entertainment as an opiate of the masses. Eventually, the characters land in a utopic animated world they can bend to their will: there's no competition, no violence, no anger, just technicolor fun. The real, non-animated world is a dystopic ruin, of course—but who knows? Maybe it can just as easily be escaped again with a self-induced hallucination.
6. Edge of Tomorrow
Should have been a blockbuster. It's almost inexplicable that it wasn't—it is the platonic ideal of the marquee SF action epic. With a slam-bang elevator pitch—it's like Groundhog's Day with aliens—a top-form Tom Cruise and game writing, casting, and acting, the fact that it limped through the box office makes me question everything I know about Hollywood. Cruise must have done some serious ill by the Scientology gods for this thing not connect with global audiences.
Around these parts, Edge of Tomorrow, or Live Die Repeat, as it has desperately been rebranded in hopes of finding new life on VOD, inspired discussions about the nature of networked aliens, and why destroying their mothership, aka, giant womb, always seems to be the key to taking them offline. It's also a very Hollywoody look at the nature of valor, blah, blah, and a parable about sacrifice and endurance. But mostly, it's the best-made action flick of the year.
5. The One I Love
One of the pleasant revelations of 2014 was the continued rise of low-budget, high-concept indie sci-fi. The One I Love is a fine example: A struggling couple retreats to a vacation house for the weekend, only to find it inhabited by idealized cloned versions of themselves. Though the film unravels a bit as it attempts to explicate and evolve its central conceit, it's still a powerful vehicle for raising those questions about the inevitably flawed ones we love:
Do we really want them to change? What is it about them that we really do love—their personality, their loyalty, their kindness? When something has gone awry, do we really want to change things back to how it was before? Are we permanently nostalgic for our partners' past selves?
The film offers no easy answers, and its conclusion is both a bit of a dodge and an apt reflection of the unknowable nature of the terrain it treads.
Like The One I Love, Coherence is ultra-low budget speculative fiction that hones in on domestic turmoil. An anomalous passing comet has fragmented space/time, allowing who knows how many parallel universes to co-exist. This slice of said universe is inhabited by a group of dinner partying yuppies who harbor, obviously, a variety of inner anxieties that spring to the surface when they all suddenly become Schrödinger's cats, and are forced to question who their friends really are, who they really are, and who they want to be in the ideal universe.
The film is unsettling, funny, and organic, if ultimately a little unsatisfying. Sort of like life, in many plausible outcomes.
Ah, yes. The infinitely divisive and most-talked-about sci-fi epic of the year. It swings for the fences with granite-faced grandeur, and at least ends up somewhere fairly new. Sure, it's fatalistic; the Earth will end, as we have failed to care for it, one way or another—the blight will consume us all—and a little derogatory towards our blue marble. Matthew McConaughey wistfully laments that we're stuck eking out a living in the "dirt" when we used to look up at the stars—until, by happenstance, he realizes that a secret cabal of NASA scientists still are looking at the stars, even as the rest of the world falls to dust, and is soon hurtling through the cosmos to find a suitable Earth 2.
The alien environs are immaculately well-rendered—the water planet scene is one of the best in sci-fi movie history—and the voyage is often white-knuckle. Some found it overblown, others exhausting, others inexplicable; it was probably a bit of all three.
But it was also undeniably epic, and advanced a number of the real-world issues currently under hot debate—how are we dealing with the fact that climate change is ruining the planet? Are we abandoning our space program at the moment when we should be advancing it? What would it actually mean to seek out life on other planets, as so many real-world Mars One aspirants are actually keen to do? Interstellar revels in those questions, and points our pondering engines far beyond Earth.
Imaginative, immersive, and unlikely, Snowpiercer is ambitious speculative fiction about humanity on the brink. The film was notable both for its fantastically gloomy premise—the last dregs of humanity struggle to survive a world wracked by climate change, having reestablished a rigid class system on a high-tech locomotive that circles the icy globe—and for the fact that movie mogul Harvey Weinstein refused to release the version of the film the extraordinarily acclaimed director Bong Joon-ho wished, dooming the train to stop only at art house theaters and view-on-demand.
But the content was right on—this film is about straight-up class warfare, about the impact of social division and the strain it causes when resources are spread thin. Which of course, is what many economists and scientists peg as the twin worrisome trends of our time. Naturally, it's all set to the backdrop of climate change; we've tried to geoengineer our way out of the mess and instigated an ice age.
The tone of the film refuses to settle; it's darkly comic (see Tilda Swinton's sniveling factotum), gruesomely sentimental (see the recounting of forced cannibalism in the final act), and sickeningly brutal (see the in-the-dark ax-fight where the poor are cut down). The final twists lessen its impact somewhat, but the climate of inequality that spurs a humanity-threatening future-riot is compelling enough to resonate far beyond the rails: The polar bears could plausibly survive here, though we may not.
1. Under the Skin
Strikingly original, artfully conceived, and chillingly executed, Under the Skin is the bona fide sci-fi masterpiece of the year. Featuring Scarlett Johansson as a curious, man-eating android that lures sexually expectant males to their prey before developing sentience, then empathy, this is the film that's most explicitly focused on examining what it is that makes us human.
For one thing, Skin harbors the most gut-wrenching scene to grace the cineplexes in any genre this year—the alien robot looks on emotionlessly as a mother drowns trying to save her dog, then the father perishes trying to save her, and their child is left alone on the grey shores where, we can only assume, he freezes or starves to death. But the film is filled with numerous pathos-filled brushes with humanity like that; the desperate club-goers who stare into Scarlett's eyes and never return, the lonesome, good-natured townsman who awkwardly tries to do all the right things, the disbelieving, deformed soul that finally inspires her/it to transcend.
It's stark, odd, and deeply unsettling. Reviewers have commented that the film effectively turns the tables on sexual violence, forcing men to empathize with the prospect of being exploited and destroyed at the hands of a predator. But it's more than a feminist parable, if it even is that; it's a film that draws a fractured, brooding lens over the knee jerk impulses and heartfelt empathies of human beings. Even if—or because—it ends with an alien exoskeleton exploding in the woods, far from any trace of civilization.