In the new millennium, science fiction films flourish, commanding massive box office receipts and inspiring our dreams along the way. This brief list of 10 titles seeks to celebrate the SF films that have shown to be underivative of others, and while some of the choices may surprise you, if you’ve watched these films you’ll be hard-pressed to describe anything here as lacking in imagination and inventiveness.
The following list is sure to spark discussion and ire (this is the internet after all) for what it failed to include (the comments section is sure to be overrun by butt-hurt Christopher Nolan fans, for instance) but let’s quickly clarify a few points before celebrating the most original sci-fi movies of the last nearly two decades.
The films represented here are deemed “original” in that they contain no reboots or remakes (apologies to Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, otherwise it’d have made the cut), and no adaptations (hence no Annihilation or Children of Men, amongst others).
And now let’s explore the most original SF films of the 21st century. Enjoy!
10. Attack the Block (2011)
A near perfect distillation of horror, humor, science fiction and class polemic, writer/director Joe Cornish’s feature length debut, Attack the Block, is a monster movie with bite.
Set in the inner city of South London, the film artfully and carefully follows a teen gang caught up in an alien invasion. Now, as the at risk youths find themselves defending their besieged residential block from extraterrestrial forces Cornish captures the zeitgeist of contemporary England, a country in the midst of urban renewal and retrograde, where, apart from the alien invaders, alienation thrives in the stark and stalwart disconnect between age, class, and race.
The creatures themselves have a unique and distinct look; razor-sharp teeth that glow amidst jet black fur in a posture and stance close to a dog but also with a gorilla’s gait and size. They’re original and unforgettable creations that, combined with a breakout performance from John Boyega as teenage hoodlum Moses, Attack the Block is a modern cult classic and an astonishing directorial debut to boot. Not to be missed.
9. Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
In many ways the ultimate midnight movie, Beyond the Black Rainbow is an artful, experimental, and inspired visual feast that pastiches the seditious leanings of Mario Bava, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and just a dash of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Rarely are small-scale sci-fi films this adventurous and smartly surreal.
Set in the distant year 1983, writer-director Panos Cosmatos (Mandy ) offers up a feverish, chimerical miracle of strange cinema, like an artifact from another era. Stylish to a fault, fantastic to the hilt, the story of a heavily sedated Eva Allan, cursed with ESP, desperate to escape the enigmatic institution that keeps her captive.
The synth-driven score from Sinoia Caves adds immeasurably to the film’s appeal (while also upping the Dark Star-era Carpenter vibe) and helps make Cosmatos’s idiosyncratic, strange, and onerous emotional environment all the more arresting. This isn’t a film for everyone, but those that it will resonate with will cherish this dark, impending treasure.
8. Donnie Darko (2001)
Donnie Darko may well be writer-director Richard Kelly’s Citizen Kane, and is that really such a bad thing? Filled with emotion, humor, and mind-bending undertakings in the suburbs of American (Middlesex, Virginia, to be more exact) in the late 1980s, titular teenager Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) has somehow survived a freak accident.
Now occasionally giving audience to a supremely sinister rabbit named Frank (James Duval)––who really wants him to try out time travelling––Donnie also navel gazes at existence, falls in love, and flirts with secret knowledge of enticing potential to affect not only time, but fate as well.
The 80s-era soundtrack adds to the appeal, as do great turns from cast members Katharine Ross and Patrick Swayze. Also excellent in their supporting roles are Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Jena Malone and some quick cameos by producer Drew Barrymore, Seth Rogen, and Noah Wyle, too.
Unjustly ignored on its initial release––it came out shortly after the 9/11 tragedy and features an alarming plane crash and airplane imagery that were too fluky and unintentionally upsetting at the time––a cult following soon embraced this eerie, intelligent, and exciting psychological sci-fi fable.
“You’re not a bitch. You’re bitchin’, but you’re not a bitch.”
7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Certainly director Michel Gondry’s finest film to date, and one of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s most inspired – with nods to Philip K. Dick – the poetically titled Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an emotionally devastating dissection of an abandoned love affair.
A couple on the outs, Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) opt to undergo an extreme procedure to erase one another from their memories after their relationship has hit the proverbial rocks. Via the mechanism of loss they discover the fragile love they shared and the heart-spurned anguish that follows is gracefully pronounced and wonderfully articulated.
With far-reaching repercussions and sincere sadness, this film is an intricate, and intimate meta-anti-valentine that is, hence, a laudation to lost love. Wonderful stuff.
6. Thelma (2017)
Joachim Trier’s (Oslo, August 31st , Louder Than Bombs ) fourth feature film is about a college freshman from the sticks, new to the big city, with a religious background and telekinetic powers.
So yeah, of course there’s some comparisons to the Brian De Palma classic Carrie (1976) right away, but the ensuing suspense is much more akin to the Nordic tradition of Ingmar Bergman or Carl Theodor Dreyer, though fans of De Palma, and Hitchcock by proxy, will still find reason to pump their fists throughout this deeply moving thriller.
In the titular role is Eili Harboe, and she makes a real star-turn as we watch her mental and physical states unravel in a sometimes overwhelming flood of visual and thematic abstractions (coiling snakes and startling murders of crows punctuate the film with a seeable intensity) and it is a great degree of fright and fun that we see Trier (and his usual writing collaborator Eskil Vogt) loosen up, go off the rails, and freak out with flourish.
Deeply sympathetic, shockingly tender, and expressly romantic, Thelma is so much more than the supernatural thriller it initially appears to be. A coming-out tale, a coming-of-age narrative, an artful estimation of womanhood, an erratic fright flick and a reckoning, Thelma is one of the new century’s most darkly gleaming jewels.