Like horror, science fiction is currently having a mini-renaissance at the box office lately.
The genre keeps pumping out blockbuster IP (thanks, Star Wars) or amazing original ideas (think District 9) that keep audiences wanting to boldly go to galaxies far, far away – or explore their own world, albeit one put through a post-apocalyptic lens (Mad Max: Fury Road) or more of a Rod Serling-esque one (Planet of the Apes).
As Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – director Matt Reeves’ exceptional, compelling sequel in the Apes reboot trilogy – celebrates its fifth anniversary this week, we’re getting nostalgic for the last decade’s output of modern sci-fi classics. Here are the genre’s 13 greatest movies of the last ten years.
1. ‘Wall-E’ (2009)
Writer-director Andrew Stanton hooked audiences in with his effortlessly-crafted romance between two robots that is as visually compelling as it is emotionally engaging. For about half of the run time, it’s the closest thing Pixar has to a silent film – one worthy of its Best Animated Feature Oscar.
2. ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ (2017)
Rian Johnson’s polarizing Star Wars sequel takes big swings at the franchise, which certain fans seem to want to preserve in amber-like nostalgia. The end result is both uneven and impressive, a thematic breaking away from the trappings of the past as The Last Jedi tries to carve a new path for the franchise’s future with the help of increasingly-complicated characters like Kylo Ren and Rey. The special effects, especially Admiral Holdo’s lightspeed suicide run, and that epic throne room lightsaber battle, are franchise bests.
3. ‘Star Trek’ (2009)
Star Trek is director J.J. Abrams’ best Star Wars movie.
Rebooting the big-screen franchise with an alternate universe version of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the Enterprise crew allows Abrams and his collaborators to free themselves of a half-century’s worth of Trek canon while also paying homage and some fidelity to the tenements that make Star Trek, well, Star Trek. This very rewatchable blockbuster puts Chris Pine’s Kirk in a very Luke Skywalker mold as he struggles to find his way to the most famous center seat in movie history. And if you don’t tear up while watching that epic opening battle sequence, where Chris Hemsworth’s George Kirk saves his ship’s crew by sacrificing himself, then you are some kind of wrong person.
4. ‘Looper’ (2012)
Rian Johnson’s second film on this list, a lo-fi movie about time-traveling assassins transcends its great “elevator pitch” premise into a heady thriller about fate and the costs that come with attempting to reach back in time to alter it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, playing two different versions of the same killer, deliver some of the best performances of their career. And while the side-mission to stop a telekenetic super kid feels like it belongs in another movie — seriously, time-traveling killers should be enough story for one feature — Johnson makes sure the timey-wimey action is grounded on the backs of complex, relatable characters. While we can’t time travel, Johnson makes you feel deeply about the ones that can.
5. ‘District 9’ (2009)
Peter Jackson reportedly is largely responsible for why Neill Blomkamp’s landmark feature debut resonated so well with audiences, thanks to its even more timely subject matter about immigration, xenophobia, and identity.
The world is equal parts refuge and shanty town for a race of prawn-like extraterrestrials that have their fair share of human detractors, especially in South Africa’s District 9. Then-newcomer Sharlto Copley gives a literal transformative performance as a government representative who learns how hard life is for these aliens when he slowly and violently becomes one.
6. ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (2013)
Edge of Tomorrow is one of the most underrated Big Studio releases ever made; Tom Cruise’s fun, action-packed time-loop thriller made more of a dent on home video than in theaters. But this clever spin on both the alien invasion and time-travel genres is one of those rare studio films of late that stays with you long after the credits roll. Come for the dizzying Normandy Beach-style attack that opens the film, stay for Cruise’s all-in performance that laughs with but never at the movie’s more sci-fi buy-ins.
7. ‘The Martian’ (2015)
Crowdpleasers don’t get much better than The Martian.
Director Ridley Scott and writer Drew Goddard’s take on the popular e-novel is Cast Away on Mars and Matt Damon is more than game to give this movie the exact amount of whatever it needs to pull off this gripping concept. Damon deserved the Best Actor Oscar nom that near, as did Goddard’s witty and heartstring-tugging script.
8. ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ (2014)
Matt Reeves’s blockbuster sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes finds Caesar’s tribe of sentient apes becoming infected with humanity’s worst tendencies in the aftermath of a disease that wiped out most of the planet’s human population.
To say WETA’s motion-capture and CG work here is photo-real would be an understatement, as the line between digital and flesh and blood vanishes every time Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell bring to life friends-turned-rivals Caesar and Koba, respectfully.
9. ‘Annihilation’ (2018)
If 2001 and Solaris had a threeway with The Thing, then their offspring would be Annihilation.
Don’t let Paramount’s unceremonious release of one of the best films of 2018 fool you; writer-director Alex Garland’s slow-burn, unnerving look at how destruction and creation are both similar and essential parts of life is a psychedelic must-see, anchored by a fierce and vulnerable lead performance from Natalie Portman.
10. ‘Blade Runner 2049’ (2017)
Blade Runner 2049 is arguably the best movie based on a Philip K. Dick story. It’s also for most of its two-and-a-half-hour run time better than the 1982 original.
Ryan Gosling gives a very internalized (and tricky) performance as K, a Replicant charged with retiring his own kind – machines more human in spirit than the actual humans issuing their kill orders. Soon, K’s past becomes violently intertwined with that of Rick Deckard’s (Harrison Ford), as the two are forced to team up to solve a future-set mystery plot that feels right home in dime-store paperback novels. Director Dennis Villeneuve (Arrival) and Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins achieve a visual palette that’s both vivid and heartbreaking, stark and alive. The movie’s production design achieves you-are-there verisimilitude, and the performances — especially Ford’s raw and vulnerable Deckard — make you want to live there.
11. ‘Arrival’ (2016)
Dennis Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated Arrival, based on the 1998 short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, is not an easy movie to categorize – and that’s a good thing. Particular credit goes to writer Eric Heisserer, who adapted the unadaptable into a remarkable script.
It’s a story about grief, about how the emotion grounds our linear existence while also defying it. it’s about how no matter where or when we are, past trauma clings to us like a disease and fogs our ability to be present when we spend most of our time in the past. It’s about first contact with an alien race, one that pushes humans Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner to a place of linguistic enlightenment that resonates on an emotional level audiences haven’t felt since Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters. Given all the Masters thesis-level ideas and themes at play here, it’s amazing Arrival found the four-quadrant box office success it did to become a modern classic.
12. ‘Ex Machina’ (2014)
Alex Garland’s second movie on this list is the first feature to be directed by the screenwriter. (If you don’t count the rumors he helped ghost direct 2012’s Dredd, the Judge Dredd comic adaptation Garland scripted).
Ex Machina is a Kubrick-ian take on artificial intelligence, one that could live in the same zip code as Black Mirror, as a low-level employee (Domhnall Gleeson) of a tech conglomerate wins a contest that whisks him off to the private domicile of the company’s eccentric owner, played with weird menace by Oscar Isaac. Once there, Gleeson’s character encounters a very sentient android (Alicia Vikander) and quickly finds the line between man and machine becoming both increasingly blurred and bloody.
13. ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (2015)
“Shiny and chrome!”
George Miller’s sequel to Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome is a full-throttle, adrenaline-fueled assault that makes the 30-year wait between installments worth it.
A monument to the irreplaceable value of doing action scenes practically (or as practically as possible), Fury Road is two epic car chases stitched together and woven around big emotional tentpoles as Max (a mostly silent Tom Hardy) and the instantly-iconic Furiosa (Charlize Theron) struggle to save a small band of women from their keeper, an evil, post-apocalyptic warlord. The desert vistas and gun-metal blues that serve as backgrounds to Miller’s unique brand of edge-of-your-seat chaos are as beautiful as the action is violent. The only problem with this movie is that it ends.