This year was a bumper crop for good science fiction, with one truly great entry. I couldn’t be happier about that. Here are those that I consider added to the cannon of ‘worthwhile science fiction’.
Technically this was not a 2014 film, but, it didn’t get wide US release until this summer, so I’m counting it for this year. This movie has the additional distinction of being added to my top 5 all time favorite sci-fi*. Bong Joon-ho creates a somewhat preposterous world that manages to achieve suspension of disbelief for me instantly, every time I watch it. He manages to represent humanity in the form of the inhabitants and mechanics of a luxury passenger train circuitously clinging to life in a frozen world. On screen, facing left takes the viewer toward the back, facing right takes you toward the engine. Tilda Swinton portrays a deliciously exaggerated chief bureaucrat and steals the show. For me, this a science fiction as art in a world not meant to be taken literally. I haven’t tried to pick this one apart for technicalities because I don’t want to. Here, we are presented a world that’s courageously small. A mere 20-some train cars where each car represents a social class or an early habitat. Humanity is reduced to this microcosm, yet compared to the expansive frozen globe, the perpetual engine lunges forward with it’s cargo of a comparative Eden. After watching, I recommend this excellent analysis.
Tom Cruise demonstrates why he deserves respect as an action figure, regardless of his off-set beliefs. He starts out playing a character who is not Tom Cruise, and in a surprise to no one, evolves into Tom Cruise playing himself. I can’t complain, it’s just done so well and we have so much fun on the ride. Emily Blunt is excellent as the no-nonsense teacher. By no-nonsense, I mean I relished every scene where she kills our protagonist to save time. The battle scenes are intense, generally brief, and plentiful. The ending is overly Hollywood-ized, but I forgive. I enjoyed ‘mech’ design that was more utilitarian than dominant, for example, the batteries run out. Touches like that grounded the movie and made it somewhat plausible.
While the case can be made this is not science fiction, but more of a space opera, I’m counting it because it’s just so damn much fun to watch. I completely bought into this rag-tag group of criminals who learns to work together. The more time I saw it, the more I enjoyed Michael Rooker as Yondu. His character is so deliciously awful, but how can you hate a guy who collects ‘dollies’ for his dashboard? Only one of the gag call-backs makes me groan. That’s pretty good for an otherwise excellent 2 hour romp. Other than a silly ‘living through exposure to deep space’ scene, nothing about the story made me groan out loud.
A late entry, very close to the holiday season. I count this movie because the scope is audacious. It’s beautiful, it’s epic, it’s also guilty of so many movie (specifically sci-fi) tropes that I cannot give it full standing with the other picks for the year. As an ISS modeler, I love that they chose ship designs very much inspired by current technology, including laptops bungee-corded to the interior. Most of the character tension is hokey, but, all the characters who should be scientists or astronauts ARE, and, HALF of them are women! The surprise appearance by Matt Damon was thoroughly surprising, except that his assigned dialogue is weak. Watch this for the sheer breadth and depth. We are presented a dying earth, intergalactic travel, a mother ship, exploration of new worlds, and black holes, all portrayed with daring realism. The story is given real sci-fi meat with time dilatation, Plan A / Plan B for humanities survival, and revisionist history in an attempt to ‘ground’ those struggling to live in a world where the limiting resource is food. These are enough for me to forgive the cheap characters and plot short-cuts. It’s nowhere near as abstract as 2001, so it’s hard to grant artistic license here.
This movie is not science-fiction, nor is it technically post-apocalyptic because the collapse of society is an implied a global economic disintegration. Filmed in desolate stretches of Australia, comparisons to Mad Max is inevitable. Don’t fall for this simple trap. This a character study introduces a broken protagonist who doesn’t display his humanity until then end while his codependent ‘partner’ steals every scene he’s in. The desolation brings The Road to mind, but here we don’t have nearly complete hopelessness. The people of this world still have a core of humanity, but the struggle to survive provides few opportunities for expression. I enjoyed the portrayal of a sort of law and order, although their struggle for survival is no less acute. I suspect I’ll be haunted by this for quite some time.
* Blade Runner, Alien, Aliens, District 9, Snowpiercer. Then, in no particular order, runner-ups are Solaris (Russian version), 2001, Brazil.