5 Great Original Sci-fi Movies of the 21st Century
Hollywood’s obsession with franchises and reboots is higher than it’s ever been. With the fifth installment of Mission: Impossible and a continuation of the iconic Vacation series both now in theaters, and another attempt at Fantastic Four out this week, many wonder if there are just no original ideas left or if studios are too afraid to work with this kind of material anymore. Both Tomorrowland and Pixels, two of this summer’s more original blockbusters, underperformed at the box office and neither received glowing reviews.
Particularly in the realm of science fiction, it’s hard to find movies in this genre today that aren’t based on a novel, existing franchise, comic or TV show. Alien 5 is already in the works, along with Blade Runner 2, Avatar sequels, Minority Report becoming a TV series, and too many others to name.
Yet despite the growing list of classics turning into franchises, there remain a number of great and original sci-fi films which have come out since 2000. Some, believe it or not, have even been released in the last two to three years. So before you support the next wave of unnecessary reboots and sequels (please Hollywood pull the plug on a Big Trouble in Little China remake), let’s take a look at some of the non-franchise gems which have graced cinemas in recent years. Here are 5 great original sci-fi movies of the 21st Century.
Before he was hired to helm Star Wars: Episode VIII, filmmaker Rian Johnson wrote and directed the critically acclaimed futuristic sci-fi thriller Looper starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis. In it, Gordon-Levitt’s character Joe is one of the Loopers, a special class of mob hitmen whose targets are sent back in time for them to kill. Yet things take a turn for the worst when Joe discovers that one of the men he’s supposed to eliminate is an older version of himself (Willis) from the year 2074. The pair then teams up in a time-traveling mission to hunt down the powerful Rainmaker who has gained control of the criminal organizations.
Beyond the film’s spot on casting as Gordon-Levitt pulls off a brilliant younger Willis, along with Emily Blunt as the shotgun-wielding Midwestern mother of the child Rainmaker, it’s Johnson’s style and execution which makes this film so memorable. He combines elements of crime dramas with sci-fi thrillers to provide a unique futuristic noir film and delivers excellent action sequences. Hopefully his vision will shine just as well in 2017 with Star Wars.
The premise makes it sound pretty cliche and there are plenty of ways this one could have flopped. A nerdy high school kid and his friends (or actually his cousin and one of the jocks who’s with them at a party) stumble upon a mysterious object in the woods and soon acquire superpowers. Things take a dark turn when Andrew (the nerdy kid played by Dane DeHaan) uses his abilities to hurt those who treated him harshly and eventually goes completely mad.
While that may not sound like anything we haven’t seen before, director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis deliver a gritty superhero film which is both engaging and original. Shot almost entirely from the perspective of Andrew’s handheld camera as he’s filming a documentary, this tactic makes the film feel authentic and thus compels us to become emotionally invested in its tragic climax. Though I’m still not sold on the idea of Trank’s gritty Fantastic Four reboot, and judging by early reviews neither are critics, the filmmaker’s feature-length debut remains a must see for sci-fi fans and moviegoers in general.
District 9 (2009)
Neill Blomkamp hasn’t had much luck in recent years with films like Elysium and Chappie, which both received largely negative reviews. But back in 2009, he made quite an impression with his widely acclaimed feature-length debut District 9. Centered around an extraterrestrial species forced to live in a militarized ghetto on Earth, the film acquired four Oscar nominations and was the first documentary-style film to be nominated for Best Picture.
As a South African filmmaker, Blomkamp uses the film to provide sociopolitical commentary on apartheid, with the aliens as a reflection of oppressed minorities. It’s a delightfully original take on the idea of extraterrestrials, given that they’re most commonly portrayed as invaders bent on either enslaving or destroying humanity. Though it’s technically an adaptation of a short film, both were done by Blomkamp and as such it deserves a spot on this list.
Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending sci-fi action thriller Inception has often been described as “James Bond meets The Matrix.” While it does contain plenty of espionage and philosophical themes, the film is so unlike anything else that it’s hard to compare it to other movies.
Set in a world where people are able to enter each other’s dreams and steal information from their subconscious, a thief named Don Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is tasked with the ultimate mission of planting an idea in the mind of an heir to a major corporation. Desperate to be with his children again, Cobb takes the job and hand picks his team of highly skilled forgers and architects.
Nolan’s 2000 indie Memento provides just a taste of the filmmaker’s capacity for nonlinear storytelling and high-concept films, which he displays in full with Inception. Between its questioning what is real and what isn’t and its visceral action, it’s no wonder it won four Oscars and received four other nominations. With his Batman days behind him and having just made Interstellar last year, another excellent and original sci-fi film, all of us are eagerly anticipating the announcement of Nolan’s next project.
Ex Machina (2015)
28 Days Later screenwriter Alex Garland made his directorial debut in this year’s Ex Machina, one of the latest films to explore artificial intelligence. The film tells the story of a young programmer selected for an experiment in which he is assigned to study a breathtaking A.I. in a remote area. The plot soon evolves into a Frankenstein-like tale, as the A.I.’s creator has his own secret agenda.
Not only is this film captivating and original, but it does so with an amazingly small cast of only four central characters, one of whom barely speaks. As such this is an intimate story, but at the same time it delves into big picture ideas. The conversations and themes deal with elements of science, philosophy, art and history and Garland earns this by giving these characters a depth which is rarely seen today. It’s an added bonus that two of the film’s leads, Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac, are both in the upcoming Star Wars installment, as they each give stellar performances.
Conclusion: Despite the headache-inducing number of franchises, reboots and sequels (not all are bad but there is an excess), these are just a few of the original sci-fi movies to come out in recent years. What are your favorites? Sound off in the comments!