20th century sci-fi was about looking forward to the future and wondering at what it may be like; now that the future is here, and we live in a world of cellphones and wireless internet, the expectations of what constitutes “good” sci-fi have risen dramatically.
No longer beholden to the old, hoary tropes of alien invasions and fantastic inventions or post-apocalyptic doom, sci-fi films in the 2010s have to think even further outside the box to be effective to an audience that largely already lives in the classic vision of “the future” that the genre once detailed so effectively.
It seems that instead of eye-popping spectacles, the sci-fi genre has decided to turn a little more inward this decade and use its fantastic themes and conceits in order to highlight the core story involved instead of being the central focus itself.
The films detailed in this list use their sci-fi elements–whether a humanoid robot, a parallel Earth, or music-loving aliens–to aid in telling effective and personal stories. Long gone are the heroes that battle for control of the galaxy: instead, these characters are fighting for love, identity, and inner peace.
1. Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
A young woman with psychic powers is held hostage in a retro-futuristic complex known as the Arboria Institute and is subject to the treatment of the menacing Dr. Nyle, who hopes to harness her powers for his own gain. Daily interrogations performed behind black glass by the doctor are psychological torture sessions, and the young woman attempts to escape, finding disturbing and surreal happenings around every corner of the Institute along the way.
The plot is only half the story, however: Beyond The Black Rainbow is a feast for the retro sci-fi fan’s eyes, evoking the detached aesthetic of 2001: A Space Odyssey and THX-1138 while director Panos Cosmatos creates a dynamic interior world of the Arboria Institute.
The surreal flourishes of the film, accompanied by a droning synth soundtrack, casts a creeping dread throughout,, and the cosmic horror that the doctor’s psychotropic approach to enlightenment unveils is like something from H.P. Lovecraft by way of Philip K. Dick.
2. Never Let Me Go (2010)
In a strange boarding school, the students are kept separate from the rest of the world but grow up with the same ups and downs as everyone else, with romantic jealousies, unrequited love, and developing friendships with each other. However, they are eventually informed by a guilt-stricken teacher that their purpose in life is to be organ donors; soon thereafter, they are rehoused and meet other students like them, and it is further uncovered that they are all clones.
Their existence is the reason why life expectancy around the world has gone up to over 100 years old; however, they are all doomed to live short lives as their organs are taken from them one by one until they are dead, or have “completed” their lives as “donors.”
What makes this movie (an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of the same name) so compelling isn’t the sci-fi elements but that its focus stays on a group of these clones as they grow up and struggle to accept their grisly fates.
It’s also a heart-wrenching story as a love triangle forms between three of them (Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield) and they become desperate to find a way out of their ultimate purpose in the world. A horrifying take on “the ends justifies the means,” Never Let Me Go puts a human face on the victims of in inhumane world.
3. Another Earth (2011)
On the night another Earth suddenly appears in orbit, a promising young student (Brit Marling) drives drunk and causes an accident that kills two people; she’s sent to prison for manslaughter for four years and re-emerges with her life in ruins.
Feeling deep guilt, she seeks out the man whose family she killed in the accident and begins to bond with him while concealing her true identity. Meanwhile, contact has been established with the parallel Earth that now dominates the sky and a worldwide contest is held to select passengers to send to the second Earth and make first contact.
Like Never Let Me Go, Another Earth is a drama that uses a sci-fi concept as a plot device: with the concept of another Earth looming large in the sky, it adds a philosophical dimension in what would normally be a tragic drama.
Its sci-fi conceit also provides an ethereal tone to the film where our characters live in a reality that is suddenly so different, shifting the dramatic portent of the central drama to the side as larger implications of a parallel world widen the film’s narrative frame, expanding the focus from the earthy to the metaphysical. For those that dream another Earth is waiting for us somewhere among the stars, this film frames that fantasy in realistic terms and all that it may suggest.
4. Love (2011)
In 2039, an astronaut is sent to the long-abandoned International Space Station to attempt to restore its dilapidated conditions and make it fit once more for habitation. While he’s there, however, a cataclysm on Terra Firma occurs while he watches helplessly from orbit and he loses contact with CAPCOM. Years pass, contact is never re-established, and he struggles to survive and keep his sanity in the most extreme isolation conditions possible. And then he makes contact with something else entirely…
Love was a labor of love for the band Angels & Airwaves, who produced the film, and was the first feature film directed by cinematographer William Eubank. A fascinating film that takes a novel idea and then makes the most out of its small budget to great effect, Love is a great sci-fi film that came and went outside of the festival circuit under the radar.
For the loner who still feels alone, this film may provide some much-needed perspective as to what real loneliness may feel like, and how necessary human contact and the possibility of love is for our continual survival.
5. Robot & Frank (2012)
Tired of having to do a weekly visit, an elderly man with dementia is given a robot by his son to provide him with help and companionship. While hesitant at first, Frank (Frank Langella) realizes that the robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) can help him restart his career as a cat burglar. After meeting an arrogant and wealthy man who wants to take over the local library and turn it into a community center, Frank sets his sights on burglarizing his house with his robot.
Part comedy, part drama, and part sci-fi, this film is set in the near future where technology has replaced many of the older technologies, and the protagonist sees the world forgetting its past as quickly as he’s forgetting his own. It’s a sci-fi movie you could recommend to your parents, or watch for some light entertainment while still enjoying its satire on the digital age and its meditations on ageing in general. And, of course, it has a robot in it.