Science fiction cinema is now the most commercially successful genre in film. From massive tentpole franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, to the entire Marvel and DC universe, sci-fi has moved, in the last three decades, from being the playing ground of imagineers and rebels to the core of the output from Hollywood. With such a glut of films being released with a science fiction bent, it’s easy to miss one or two great films that may not have had the budget, release or scope of the more funded films.
There have been some incredible sci-fi films released since 2010 that were independent, but grew in popularity and garnered huge followings – some of these films are on this list. Others, like Shane Carruth’s brilliant but near impenetrable Upstream Color; Alex Garland’s beautiful but somewhat mysoginistic Ex Machina; or Rian Johnson’s ridiculous Looper have grown in their followings or received incredible critical praise.
Many of the films on this list do what great sci-fi does – present us with a world we don’t know, in order to speak to us about the world we do know. In the tradition of the great scifi writers like Ursula K Le Guin, Philip K Dick or Iain M Banks (always look for the middle initial if you want a great scifi writer), the truly brilliant sci-fi films says things about the world that cannot be said in another form – by flipping, inverting or transforming current status quos, sci-fi enables us to explore “what ifs” fully.
Whilst one could argue for each of these films that they are not necessarily “overlooked”, nevertheless they all represent unique visions of the future, or the past, or the future-past, or the present-over-there, and all deserve a watch, as they are far more daring in style, tone and narrative than most big budget sci-fi films are prepared, or allowed to be.
1. The Signal (2014)
In the vein of semi-superhero films like Chronicle or Super – but with an occasional found-footage style like Project Almanac – the Signal is an interesting film with cool special effects and a good, tight narrative.
Not to be confused with the 2012 film of the same name, which is about a zombie apocalypse, The Signal tells the story of three young college students. They have been kicked out of school because a hacker, NOMAD, has been messing with them, and so they’ve travelled to meet with him and cut a deal.
Thinking they have the one-up they go to his house – find some unusual things – and all wake up in containment, being interviewed by a steely Laurence Fishburne, possibly in a section of Area 51.
Cleverly unveiling twist after twist, The Signal is great fun independent film-making from director William Eubank – using the limits of its budget and the relatively unknown cast of Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke and Beau Knapp to their fullest.
There are some truly excellent action sequences, sweaty, committed performances, and explosive surprises. It may have been overlooked due to the confusion of its name – but is definitely a fabulous ride, and deserving of wider attention.
2. The Infinite Man (2014)
The debut film from Australian director Hugh Sullivan, The Infinite Man (not an adaptation of the 1973 novel) is a goofy, light, fun time-travel comedy combining the off-beat characterisations of Jeunet or Gondry with a paradoxical storyline similar to La Jetee or Je Taime Je Taime.
Dean (Josh McConville) and Lana (Hannah Marshall) return to a motel where, a year previous, they spent their “perfect anniversary weekend.” Dean is determined to re-create the weekend, but it goes wrong from the moment they realise the motel is now closed.
Choosing to stay and attempt to recreate the weekend anyway, soon enough ex-boyfriend of Lana, Terry (Alex Dimitriades, having an excellent time, and the definite stand-out of the film) rocks up and ruins everything. Dean then devotes himself to travelling back in time to make the weekend work the way it should, and get his girl back.
Certainly not perfect – the quirky characters are a little grating, at times, and the story stretches credibility pretty far – and the female character is so passive it’s unbelievable – The Infinite Man is still fantastic fun, maybe even a romp.
Proving that Sullivan is an up-and-coming director to watch, and also evidence (like Coherence) that a small budget, contained location and limited cast can actually improve a film – this is time-travel for the light-hearted, which delivers on many levels, especially right to the heart-bone.
3. These Final Hours (2013)
The debut feature of Zac Hilditch, These Final Hours began life as a short, and won a development opportunity from the Melbourne International Film Festival to turn it into a funded feature film.
A gritty, raw, dark and unrelenting suburban-apocalypse movie, it features intense performances, gut-churning sequences and bold design. Nathan Phillip’s James is suitably muscled, and morally torn – and up-and-comer Ingourie Rice, (who smashes it this year in Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, and is sure to be a big star) is brilliant and steals every moment of screen time.
There is a lovely cameo from Lynette Curran, the relatively-unknown Jacqui Weaver clone, as James’s hard-done-by Mum. The film strives a little hard for intensity at times, but remains truly gripping throughout and presents one of the darkest visions of the end-of-times.
Troubled, Aussie-as-vegemite James wakes up with his lover, (her non-characterisation and super-sexualised presentation being the weakest link in the film) in a beach-house, on the morning of the last day on earth.
A comet has already taken out half of the world, and the remaining population are just waiting for the shock-wave to finish them off. James almost stays with his lover but instead intends to go to a party – on the way saving a little girl from some creepy bogans. Rose (Angourie Rice) just wants to get to Aunty Janice’s – and James just wants to get to the party – but he’s a good enough man that he can’t leave her behind.
Going at full-throttle from beginning to end, These Final Hours is not without its flaws, but has ambition, suspense, and some shocking, surprising sequences that twist the guts, and make you consider how you would unravel on the last day of life. It could have been yet another boring apocalypse film, but partly due to Rice’s magnificent presence, and the realistic feel of the film, These Final Hours really works.
4. Robot and Frank (2012)
Sweet and funny, Robot and Frank gradually woos you in, so that by the end one feels a little sad to be farewelling these lovely characters. Frank (Frank Langella) is a retired cat-burglar who is losing his memory. His kids Hunter (James Marsden) and Madison (Liv Tyler) are too wrapped up in their own lives to really communicate with Frank, and he is so gruff and anti-tech that he’s pretty hard to engage with anyway.
Hunter brings a robot carer in for Frank – and of course Frank begrudgingly falls into an endearing odd-couple relationship with Robot (Peter Saarsgard, doing his best robot-Kevin-Spacey impersonation.) The great fun in this film is to watch Robot shift from his role as carer, into an assistant to Frank’s robberies, so that he and Frank can go out on the prowl.
Simply told, excellently performed, and living in that world of sci-fi that is just one or two hairs away from reality, Robot and Frank is witty, fast and even a bit of a tearjerker. Frank Langella is especially great as the grumpy old man who comes to love his robot, and Susan Sarandon has a nice cameo as Jennifer, one of the last Librarians.
Perhaps because it has an old man in the lead – perhaps because of the slightly awkward title – for some reason Robot and Frank failed to register widely when it was released in 2012, but still holds its own, and would be a great movie for date-night.
5. Never Let Me Go (2010)
Spare, remote, beautifully photographed and superbly performed, especially by Andrew Garfield, Never Let Me Go is an extremely faithful adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel of the same name. Kathy (Casey Mulligan, in delicious form), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Kiera Knightley) are three students of an unusual boarding school, Hailsham. Here they are taught the virtues of good health, and the importance of art and creativity, but are forbidden from leaving the grounds.
A renegade teacher, Miss Lucy, cracks and s to the students they are in fact clones, created to be organ-donors for future sick people. Their lives are merely lived to die for someone else. Never Let Me Go is a heartbreaking alternate-history sci-fi; taking place in England throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s. Alex Garland secured the rights for the screenplay before he finished reading the book, and his love for the subject matter is clear – the script is concise, meditative, and extremely moving.
Mark Romaneck directs the film with ease, and though very simple, it is beautifully paced, wonderfully shot, and elegantly designed. Perhaps because it doesn’t look like a sci-fi film from the poster, title, casting and imagery, Never Let Me Go was never quite the break-out hit it deserves to be, and perhaps also because it is really, really sad, it seemed to disappear without making its mark.
With all round excellent performances, precise film-making and a crushingly beautiful story, Never Let Me Go is an unsung gem of the genre.