Part of the appeal of science fiction cinema and literature has been gazing into possible futures where current social trends have run rampant, technological innovations have grown askew and to their fullest extent, and what looks to be a utopian society on the surface is actually anything but.
The following list does a spectacular job of compiling and critiquing the finest sci-fi thrillers ever to be wed to celluloid. And while these films are all excellent entertainment, they also make for cautionary warning signs that we’d all be very foolish to ignore. Enjoy them while you can!
15. Timecrimes (2007)
After his 2003 Oscar-nominated short film 7:35 de la Mañana, Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo (who would go on to make 2016’s savvy genre mashup Colossal) made a startlingly impressive feature length debut with Timecrimes. A thriller with steady surprises and subversion at every step, this is a time travel yarn that jumps genres with alacrity and very dark humor.
Timecrimes hits the ground running as Héctor (Karra Elajalde) spies on his disrobing neighbor in the woods outside his home, and soon finds himself running from a stab-happy assailant swathed in bandages. While trying to escape Héctor runs into a scientist who convinces him to hide in his experimental time machine. It is here that our browbeaten hero is thrust back in time an hour to observe himself and the chaotic encounter that sent him running.
Vigalondo reaps maximum effect from a minimalist of means but never does the film’s low budget slow down the creativity and the momentum at the crux of this fun, wonderfully confused, and circuitous Möbius strip. If you’re a fan of time loops, paradoxes, causality complications you can’t afford to miss this mini-masterpiece.
14. Predestination (2014)
Australian twin brothers Michael and Peter Spierig take Robert A. Heinlein’s 1958 time-travel fixated short story “All You Zombies” and produce one of the most exasperating, touching, and entertaining sci-fi thrillers of the millennium.
Ethan Hawke is a temporal agent on his last time-traveling charge, which is to stop the ever elusive “Fizzle Bomber” from a terrorist attack that will claim the lives of thousands. And from there I won’t say much more –– the less you know going in, the better –– that will eventually culminate in an affecting, and spectacularly byzantine parable on gender, identity, and divine will.
Sarah Snook also deserves praise for her impassioned, sensitive, and multi-layered performance (she deservedly won an Australian Academy Award for her considerable efforts), which helps sell the occasionally perplexing trajectory that Predestination so boldly tracks. Strongly recommended.
13. District 9 (2009)
South African–Canadian film director Neill Blomkamp made his auspicious feature length debut with District 9. An ambitious and imaginative slice of speculative fiction, inspired by apartheid and set in a Johannesburg where, thirty years prior to the story, aliens arrived on Earth as refugees from their doomed home planet.
Segregated from humans into the titular District 9, and overlooked by Multi-National United, it’s obvious the interests are not in favor of the aliens themselves, but rather the advanced technology that accompanied them on their escape to Earth.
Added into the mix is Sharlto Copley’s Wikus van de Merwe, an an Afrikaner bureaucrat/field agent who contracts an alien virus that begins to mess with his DNA in unsettling fashion.
District 9 benefits from a topical and intelligent script from Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, as well as the director’s fondness for documentary-style, cinéma vérité techniques –– including appropriate and effective use of the hand-held camera –– some smart lensing from Blomkamp’s favorite DP Trent Opaloch, and seamless blending of naturalistic and photo-realistic CG effects. These elements make District 9 feel more like an actual document from an alternate history than a work of fiction, and makes for an immersive and occasionally harrowing thriller experience.
12. Alphaville (1965)
Reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s final silent screen epic Frau Im Mond (1929), Jean-Luc godard’s meditation on technological advancement at the expense of humanity is one of the coolest sci-fi noir freakouts you’ll ever encounter. “It’s one of the great cinematic works of romanticism,” raved New Yorker film critic Richard Brody, adding “as well as a sort of filmed revelation of the very essence of science-fiction movies and German silent classics – their blend of social critique, emotional liberation, and paranoia.”
Eddie Constantine is nothing short of iconic as Outland secret agent Lemmy Caution, dispatched to the dystopian megacity of Alphaville in the galaxy’s far reaches. Hot on the murderous trail of rogue agent Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff) and cruel scientist named Professor von Braun (Howard Vernon), the mad genius creator behind the mind control computer Alpha 60.
Caution, assisted by the daughter of his corrupted quarry, Natacha von Braun (French New Wave icon Anna Karina), must negotiate the deadly avenues of Alphaville, a city where love is illegal, and deadly threats lurk in the shadows at every turn in this hard-boiled, decidedly strange, and ultimately very moving slice of agit-pop and speculative fiction.
11. Ex Machina (2015)
Alex Garland first made his name as a novelist (The Beach), then as a screenwriter (his works include 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Never Let Me Go), cut his director teeth with Ex Machina (which he also wrote). A voyeuristic sci-fi thriller, that’s also essentially a chamber piece, Garland’s philosophical tale starts with Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer for a search engine called Bluebook, who’s invited to meet and stay with it’s illusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) on a new project.
This project involves artificial intelligence in the form of Ava (Alicia Vikander), and instantly an objectifying gaze falls upon her — this objectifying is fitting, considering she’s a robot — and soon tenets of male/female Weltanschauung abounds. It’s more subversive and thoughtful then its surface suggests, and interestingly, Charles Perrault’s classic fairy tale Bluebeard is reworked and given eerie homage (consider bearded Nathan’s “robot wives” and Ava’s self-aware relation to them, for instance).
Ex Machina grasps for big ideas while articulating a dystopia that’s magnanimous to AI but not so much towards humanity. The thrills are often unexpected, and the results both bleak and brilliant.
10. Primer (2004)
The feature-length directorial debut from Shane Carruth (Upstream Color ), who also wrote, produced, edited, scored, and stars, Primer is one of the most impressive and odd time-travel sci-fi thrillers ever produced. And while it may be something of a hard sell, it’s also the type of densely layered head-scratcher that demands and rewards a repeat viewing or two.
Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are engineers who build and sell error-checking tech with the assistance of their brainy chums Robert (Casey Gooden) and Phillip (Anand Upadhyaya) and before too long Aaron and Abe unwittingly develop, through a sheer fluke, a time machine. Before long Abe has modified their invention to be capable of transporting a human and tests it on himself. And soon they men are obsessing over their discovery, and their actions and the subsequent actions get darker, and more and more complex and terrifying.
This micro-budgeted thriller firmly established Carruth as a filmmaker of intellect and ingenuity, prompting New York Times critic A.O. Scott to commend him in his glowing review for having “the skill, the guile and the seriousness to turn a creaky philosophical gimmick into a dense and troubling moral puzzle.”
Primer will leave you reeling.
9. Hard to Be a God (2013)
The long-gestating final film from Russian cinema heavyweight Alexei Gherman (My Friend Ivan Lapshin ) spent decades in pre-production, was begun in 2000, filmed over a six year period, spent years after that in post-production, and was finally finished posthumously by Gherman’s son, and released theatrically in 2013. Hard To Be a God is that rare reward of visceral cinema, and an epic in every sense of the word.
Adapted from the underground sci-fi cult novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky –– the sibling duo who penned “A Roadside Picnic”, the basis for Tarkovsky’s Stalker –– Gherman’s crowning achievement takes place on an alien planet Arkanar, eerily like our own only here the Renaissance never happened, resulting in a never-ending Middle Ages nightmare.
Gherman’s richly detailed black-and-white cinematography recreates Bosch-like tableau and Brueghelian details of barbarity and beauty. If a more immersive, ingrained, indulgent, and extravagant sci-fi thriller than this exists, I’ve yet to see it, and no one who’s seen Hard To Be a God will ever forget it. Whoa.