It’s traditional to begin articles like these by saying that it’s been a great year for science fiction movies, but I’m not entirely sure that’s true. Don’t get me wrong, there have been some excellent movies this year, but there have also been some stinkers too; Godzilla and Transendence, for example. There was the whole RoboCop fiasco too, and let’s not forget that the Transformers franchise continues to exist. But let’s not dwell on that. It’s New Year’s Eve, and we’re compelled to be positive.
Here are what I consider to be the best sci-fi movies of 2014 (in no particular order).
This understated British sci-fi movie was one of the most pleasant movie surprises of the year. Available on Netflix alongside trashy titles like Doom, Alien Abduction, and all those video game adaptations, The Machine is easily overlooked, but as many have discovered throughout 2014, it’s a diamond in the rough.
In a secret bunker beneath the English countryside (ignore the cityscape that appears on the poster, it’s just stock art), MOD scientists create the world’s first artificially intelligent android and guide her early development. While the robot is innocent and childlike to begin with, plans to weaponize her soon come to fruition. It’s by no means a new concept, and sci-fi fans will recognise some very familiar tropes and themes, but it’s been handled well, and the movie manages to feel fresh as a result.
Under the Skin
Motherboard editor Brian Merchant has listed Under the Skin as the “bona fide sci-fi masterpiece of the year”, calling it “strikingly original, artfully conceived, and chillingly executed”, and he’s not the only reviewer to profess adoration for the film. While I personally found the movie a little underwhelming, I have to admit that it has a lot going for it. What it lacks in substance, it make up for in style.
Scarlett Johansson stars as an alien stalking the streets of Glasgow, luring men into a bizarre siren trap. See Motherboard’s list of top 2014 sci-fi movies for a more enthusiastic review.
Black Mirror: White Christmas
Black Mirror: White Christmas aired in December as a 75 minute TV special, rather than a movie, but it was so damned excellent that I just could not resist including it in this list. This show is so good that sci-fi fans should be willing to beat eachother to death in order to watch it, and the Christmas special is no exception.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Black Mirror (a somewhat modest and underrated show from the UK’s Channel 4), it takes formatting cues from shows like The Twilight Zone, with each episode telling a different story. While not all episodes are strictly science fiction, they at least have a speculative fiction bent, and our ever-evolving relationship with technology is a recurring theme.
Black Mirror‘s ‘White Christmas’ special tells two connected cautionary tales about our future interaction with computer technologies, and specifically social media. While the science fictional elements of White Christmas are strong, well considered, and alarmingly prescient, it’s the human elements of the two stories that make them downright disturbing.
Edge of Tomorrow
There was something about the poster image of Tom Cruise wearing a mech-suit that made me certain this movie was going to annoy the crap out of me, but I was actually pleasantly surprised. The ‘Grounhog Day with aliens’ concept is pretty solid and provides a lot of opportunity for humour, and while it has certainly been done better (the Stargate SG-1 episode Window of Opportunity), it’s still a very enjoyable viewing experience.
The only real gripe I have about this movie is the stupid title. Later attempts to pretend the title was “Live Die Repeat” tickled me. Perhaps it would have been better to stick with the title of the novella on which the movie was based – All You Need Is Kill.
Remember when everybody was talking about Primer – the low budget time travel movie you either adored or didn’t fully understand (or pretended to adore in order to avoid accusations of the latter)? Fewer people are talking about Frequencies, and perhaps that’s because it isn’t quite as clever as Primer, but it’s still probably the smartest sci-fi movie of the year. It also managed to score an impressive 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, beating Primer’s 72%.
Frequencies handles themes such as predeterminism, intellectual elitism, and to a lesser degree love, showing us a world in which a person’s success in life is largely determined by his or her natural ‘frequency’. It’s a complex and ambitious concept, and as the movie enters its third act it inevitably begins to buckle under its own weight, but its fascinating nevertheless.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I’ve never been a particularly big fan of the Marvel cinematic universe – the movies have always been a bit too much “flash”, “biff” and “bang”, and not nearly enough “hmm” and “ooh” for my liking – but this year I started to sit up and take notice of what Marvel Studios is creating. Why? This movie is a big part of it.
Unlike The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a competent action movie, and the way in which it connects with other Marvel properties is rather interesting. The events of this movie change the landscape of the entire franchise, and that makes it pretty hard to ignore.
Snowpiercer was originally released in South Korea back in 2013 (where it’s been a huge success) but it didn’t reach the rest of the civilized world until July 2014. While it may have flown largely under the radar, a hugely positive critical response and a growing cult following made Snowpiercer one of the year’s must see sci-fi movies.
For those of you who have yet to discover this hidden gem, Snowpiercer explores a future dystopian society in which all the surviving members of the human species live aboard a train – a train which endlessly circles a snow covered Earth. If that sounds like a dumb idea, that’s because it is. But don’t underestimate this movie, it’s much clever than it first appears.
Guardians of the Galaxy
This movie has a lot of problems. I’d go so far as to say that it isn’t a really a good movie at all. The plot is weak, the MacGuffin is stupid, the characters lack fully explored back-stories, the aliens are either not alien enough or ridiculous fantasy figurines, and a severe lack of worldbuilding meant that I couldn’t have cared less if the big blue bad guy succeeded in his plot to blow up the planet of the apparent good guys (for whatever reason. I’m sure he must have had one). That being said, I enjoyed this movie immensely.
Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t a masterpiece of cinema (and it’s barely even science fiction), but my ears and eyeballs genuinely had a lot of fun watching it. Fun is good. Fun is entertaining. Fun has value.
I won’t bore you with my thoughts on Interstellar, mostly because I’m one of the few sci-fi fans who has yet to see it (I’m not a Christopher Nolan fan, and the premise just didn’t seem interesting enough to encourage me to drive to the cinema and open my wallet), but also because almost everybody in the Western World has already blogged about it.
Whatever your thoughts on Interstellar, too many people enjoyed this movie for us to ignore it. It also briefly got people talking about science and science fiction (and how important one is to the other) and that’s got to be a good thing, right?
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
I am, and always have been, a huge fan of The Planet of the Apes franchise. I loved the original movies (even the god awful fifth one), and I’m not ashamed to say that the trepidation I felt prior to the relaunch of the franchise in 2011 gave me a gurgle tummy. If they’d raped and ruined this my second favourite franchise in the way that Abrams ruined Star Trek I may very well have spiralled into a deep and dark period of depression. But boy oh boy did they pull it out of the hat! After the travesty that was Tim Burton’s “Some Other Planet With Some Different Apes”, Rise felt like the second coming of Jesus Christ in ape form, and Dawn like his new sermon on the mount.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes more than lived up to the expectations set by its predecessor, Rise. At a time when sci-fi movies try to convince us of their entertainment value with mindless flashes of colour and attempt to hide weak plots behind pithy one-liners, how refreshing to receive a thoughtful re-imagining of a classic series with engaging characters, solid themes, and a powerful emotional core. Thank you, cast and crew of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, thank you for reaffirming my faith in the film industry.