The 10 Best Sci-Fi Movies of 2014

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).

The Machine

TheMAchine-PosterThis 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

under-the-skin-posterMotherboard 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_TV-104850915-largeBlack 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

edge-of-tomorrow-international-poster-600x888There 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.

Frequencies

Frequencies OXV the Manual 2013 movie posterRemember 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

Captain-America-The-Winter-Soldier-UK-PosterI’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

snowpiercerSnowpiercer 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

Guardians of the galaxyThis 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.

Interstellar

hr_Interstellar_7I 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

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-official-posterI 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.

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  • John H Reiher Jr

    I’m an unabashed Kaiju otaku so the new Godzilla 2014 movie rates high on my scale. I’ve seen every Godzilla movie, so I’d put it in the top 10 of my favorites. It’s heads over heals better than first all American Godzilla movie, and it’s tons better than the worst Godzilla movie of all time: Godzilla’s Revenge.

    I’ve not seen Interstellar, and probably won’t see it. Wormholes don’t work that way, a planet that’s close enough to a black hole to experience time dilation would be ripped apart by tidal forces. The fact that it has a “touchy-feely” ending doesn’t bother me, it’s the fact that they tout it as hard science fiction, but everything I see says otherwise. It’s Hollyweird Science Fiction.

    I’ll put Dawn of the Planet of the Apes up there too, and applaud the studio for having the balls to put Andy Serkis at top billing, acknowledging that motion capture acting is still acting. Mark, in the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, did you notice the little nod to the Charlton Heston Planet of the Apes movie with the launch of the Icarus? 🙂

    • Paulo R. Mendes

      I agree fully with you about Godzilla, but I intend to watch Interestellar because I love this type of sci-fi (space exploration). As The Planet of Apes, I always depised this frachise – IMHO the premise of the movies is too stupid (worthless).

      • John H Reiher Jr

        Well, the premise was made by a Frenchman. :-p

        • Paulo R. Mendes

          I think that explains all… :-p

        • One could argue that a Frenchman was more or less the father of Science Fiction. Jules Verne was in his times quite “Hard SF” Much hard fiction is still based on speculative science.
          Lets take Black Holes for example . Do you know that by nature of what we understand a Black Hole (MIGHT) be it can’t be observed. Physics are not even close to really explain the actual conditions . What is observed are effects not the cause.

      • Mapes

        I’d argue for the movie as a monumental work of science fiction on the grounds of being a mainstream (A-tier cinema) media example of hard sci-fi. The plot might not make sense when put in context, but the human commentary serves instead as the driving factor. The fact that it provided another avenue for hard sci-fi to be witnessed by the general public, as well as its simple, and yet pointed and understandable, themes raise it to meet my bar of acceptability.

        • Paulo R. Mendes

          Eeeeerrr… are you talking about interstellar, right?

          • Mapes

            Aha, no. Apes was what I was talking about. Interstellar was an underwhelming film for me. The best part was outside of the film itself, where they generated the first working model of a black hole. That was neat and groundbreaking.

            • Paulo R. Mendes

              Sorry Mapes, but I will never consider Planet of the Apes “a monumental work of science fiction”. To me, it is – and it will forever be – pure weapons-grade (CENSORED!!!). 😛

        • So readers of Hard SF are not the “General Public”? More like an intellectual elite?

          • Mapes

            Nah, just a subset. You could make generalisations about their general intelligence, but the point being that this is a SF site and it’s assumed that we want more people to interact with/understand SF, yes?

    • Indeed I did. Do you think it means they’re going to remake the original movie soon?
      Personally I think this series of movies doesn’t need to go there, but if anybody’s going to remake it I’d prefer it be these guys.

      • John H Reiher Jr

        It was more or less an easter egg for fans of the series. You have to remember that the series is not a repeating loop. When Cornelius and Zira went back in time, they changed events that were to occur. When we get to the Battle for the Planet of the Apes, humans have not regressed, but are treated as equals… for the most part. The live action TV series is a direct follow on to the movies, more or less picking up when the Icarus arrives on the future earth. Humans wear clothes and speak, and both humans and apes are oppressed. It’s a great example of time travel with the travelers making significant changes.

        • I never thought about that. I just assumed that humans talked in the TV series because the writers wanted it to be a better allegory for slavery, or that they thought nobody would notice.

  • Jason Chapman

    Really enjoyed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.Transformers 4 sucked, loved Guardians and have yet to see interstellar.

  • What about Guardians of the Galaxy – Maybe not hard SF but a Space Opera of
    great Characters that suprisingly worked well and better than SW anytime. (IMHO). Since Captain America is my favorite hero. It technically could be counted as Sci Fi (Fleet of Heli Carriers) I also liked Automata – How about “The Signal”? And for animation: Appleseed Alpha.
    Since I work in the movie industry my views on the other offerings are quite mixed..And I never be able to get into the story of a movie I worked on

    • Mapes

      I’d disagree with your choice of Guardians over SW from a plot standpoint. The plot of Star Wars is very definite, with cause and effect playing a large role, and all events follow basic character motivations, and occur with or without idiocy. My biggest gripe with Guardians was when Drax causes the entire second half of the plot by making what was possibly the dumbest decision in cinema history (Jar Jar Binks excluded). I’m interested to hear why you thought they were great characters; I wasn’t very impressed.
      I do, however, agree that Cap can be called SF. I’d even argue for the first one being SF because of the anachronistic hydra weapons and super serum.

      • I’m with Mapes. Guardians had major plot issues in my opinion. Star Wars has its faults, but there’s a reason it’s still popular all these decades on. It follows a classic formula.

        • There is also a reason why Guardians was so successful…just sayin’

          • Yeh, but I don’t think it’s the plot, more the characters, the humour, and the action sequences.

            • Could not the same said about SW? The SW plot isn’t exactly deep. But then “Deep plot SF” has not exactly been a commercial success, every time it has been tried. Isn’t SW’s success based on the same : Characters, humor, action sequences? R2D2 / CP3O = Stan and Oliver, Darth Vader = Menacing Evil guy, Space Battles, Light saber battles…
              Plot: Good vs. evil – Underdog vs. Big Guys – Underdog wins

      • I didn’t say SW is bad. The “1” one, I mean the movie that started it all was ground breaking in so many ways. The “2” Star Wars “Empire strikes back” has and is my favorite of them all. What I have gripes with, (SW) is what followed. But then I always have been a Trekkie.
        Okay I am a Marvel comic book reader when Stan still was actually writing conics, when my all time favorite artist Kirby drew the Silver Surfer and GALACTUS (As you can see he he is one of my all time favs) Anyway the GotG are around in the Marvel comics for a long time. To me Ronan the Acuser was not a nobody, but a Kree . He looked as Ronin should have looked and then there was Thanos and a glimpse of the Infinity gauntlet . Even the Collector. How lf can I explain it best… Imagine yourse

    • I watched Appleseed Alpha as research for this article. It didn’t hold my attention. I didn’t engage with the characters, enjoy the action sequences, or become involved in the story.
      Maybe there’s something in it for Appleseed fans, but I thought it was pretty much a waste of my eyes’ time.