10 underappreciated science fiction films of the 21st Century
In modern cinema, science-fiction fans often have to look toward the Marvel Cinematic Universe or franchise films like War for the Planet of the Apes. Sometimes, they get an Interstellar or an Edge of Tomorrow to get their fix, but not often. Sci-fi films don’t have to have $200 million budgets or massive wide releases to be entertaining. Of course that criteria can provide success (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, Inception, Minority Report), but films with a smaller budget can soar too. Science fiction is about ideas. Some fare cast big stars and have gotten huge critical respect as a result, even if they were not blockbusters (Moon, Under the Skin). Even so, there are a lot of underappreciated genre gems out there that very few know about. Some of them are incredible. A few of them came and went without making any noise. Some premiered on Netflix, which is a great sanctuary for a lot of these small, forgotten features. When the cinema and the studios fail the science fiction fan, they often have to think smaller. Here are 10 underappreciated science fiction films from the past 18 years. Some were just not seen. Others were just met with mediocre reviews and forgotten.
Europa Report (2013)
The only found-footage film on the list. Europa Report follows an international shuttle crew who have landed on Jupiter’s fourth largest moon. The audience is presented with the security footage as actors like Sharlto Copley, Daniel Wu, Dan Fogler, and Michael Nyqvist discover that they are cut off from Earth. Also, they may have been successful in their search for extraterrestrial life. The film falls into the science fiction horror genre, but it does so subtly, carefully, and whimsically. The viewer is given a chance to live in this habitat, to learn who these scientists and astronauts are. They are then invited to get terrified as the crew starts to get picked off one by one. Europa Report has the patience and maturity to realize tension and tone are what makes these found-footage films work.
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In the world of TiMER, citizens have the ability to have a device implanted on their wrists. Once activated, it will display how much time they have until they meet their soul mate. Romantic comedy and science fiction rarely go together, but Emma Caulfield’s performance as Oona really melds the two genres nicely. This kind of predestination device raises many ethical questions. What if you die before the timer reaches zero? What if you are currently with someone and you get a timer? In the film, Oona’s device is currently blank. What follows is a sweet romp as this hopeless romantic tries to track her soul mate down. He may be dead. He may never show up. Maybe he just hasn’t implanted his own timer yet. It is funny, exciting, tense, and sometimes devastating. You know, kind of like love. TiMER must be considered underappreciated science fiction.
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The very talented Andrew Niccol wrote and directed Anon for Netflix. It is also the most recent film on the list. He is the sci-fi guru who gave us such great films like Gattaca, The Truman Show, The Terminal, and Good Kill. In his new film, he presents us with a society where everyone has a Mind’s Eye. It is a technology where your eyes record everything they see and give you a heads-up display describing everything and everyone in your field of vision. In a kind of Minority Report-style of police work, Clive Owen is a homicide detective who only has to download a person’s recorded experience to figure out who the criminals are. That is until Amanda Seyfried shows up with no data and no identity. Niccol imagined a streamlined and frighteningly believable interface technology. When it looks like people can hack into your vision and alter your perception, the movie really takes off. This efficient little movie feels like a solid Black Mirror episode.
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Recently, director Nacho Vigalondo made a name for himself with the Anne Hathaway film, Colossal. Few people knew that he made a great little time-travel film back in 2008 called Timecrimes. This is one of those films that do not require extensive special effects to get the concept across. Actually, it seemingly requires none. Karra Elejalde plays a voyeuristic man coaxed into a machine that apparently takes him back in time one day. Seems simple right? It is not. Who is who? Who is When? It really is an exciting puzzle to watch unfold because seemingly irrelevant sounds and encounters may, or may not, prove crucial to our hero by the end.
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In Time (2011)
Simultaneously the second Andrew Niccol, second Amanda Seyfried, and second arm device film on this list, In Time starring Justin Timberlake really got a bad rap. But the premise behind this story is quite brilliant. In the near future, aging is a thing of the past. Most everyone looks like a 20 to 30-year-old Adonis, even mothers and sons (Olivia Wilde plays Timberlake’s mom). The only currency in this world is time, articulated by a countdown clock on everyone’s arm. What happens when the clock counts down to zero? You die. The poor have days on their arms. The rich have centuries. Worked a good 8 hour day? Here is an extra 10 hours to your clock, and therefore your lifespan. Niccol really knows how to play off this concept and it is very entertaining. Splurging on food, gambling, gifting; it is all just slick and cool. To put it simply, imagine a movie where every single person walks around with the classic bomb countdown-clock on his/her arm…
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Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel (2009)
The goofiest, silliest, and most lighthearted entry on this list. FAQ About Time Travel is like a pop culture love letter to science fiction nerds everywhere. Chris O’Dowd, Marc Wooton, and Dean Lennox Kelly are three Brits hanging out in the pub, waxing poetic about the various pop culture time-travel premises. When one of them sketches a certain something on a napkin, their world changes immediately and immensely. Anna Faris arrives as some sort of time-travel cop and reveals that they are famous. What follows is a paradoxical farce where these three schlubs try to figure out what happened, why they are famous, and what they have to do to put things right. It can be cheap, but it is never not clever and fun. It is as if Doctor Who, Back to the Future, and Edgar Wright had a child and let it run wild in the bar.
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What Happened to Monday (2017)
It’s movies like this that generate the conflict over Netflix releases versus theatrical releases. On one hand, Netflix giving us these smaller, esoteric films is wonderful. On the other, it is a travesty that Noomi Rapace didn’t receive any award recognition for playing identical septuplets in What Happened to Monday. This is the one film on the list that is much more concerned with performance rather than futuristic sci-fi fare. In this society, families are limited to one offspring. Any more than one child is against the law and the child is taken away and frozen until the overpopulation problem is solved. Willem Dafoe aptly plays their grandfather who named them all after a day of the week. To subvert the law, each girl can go outside and live as a normal person on their day of the week. Sure, it is a bit corny, but Rapace’s performance as the seven siblings is electric. She gives gravitas and uniqueness to each and every sister so that the audience really becomes invested in their safety and security.
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There is an enormous cult following for this micro-budget time-travel film that is pretty legendary. So, Primer may not be underappreciated science fiction after all. Phenom writer/director/actor Shane Carruth scrounged together approximately $7,000 and made one of the most mind-bending, incomprehensible time-travel films ever. After a bunch of eggheads build a device in their garage that seems to defy logic, they upscale their efforts and realize that they could go back in time. A bland, non-imaginative filmmaker would use that set-up for silly hijinks and meeting-yourself corniness. What Carruth does is create a pensive, enigmatic jigsaw puzzle where, like Timecrimes, you never know what “version” of the character you are seeing or what “day” you are presently in. Websites dedicate themselves to trying to solve and clarify what exactly happens throughout the course of the film. Though, the mystery eventually becomes the point.
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Nothing the Spierig Brothers have done could have prepared me for the mind-meltingly incredible film, Predestination. Their adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s story “All You Zombies” is one of the tightest science fiction scripts I have ever seen. To describe too much of the plot would be a disservice to the film because there seem to be surprises around every corner while watching it. Sarah Snook, in an undeniably award-worthy performance, is a woman (or a man?) who is chatting up a barkeep about Life, the Universe, and Everything. Also, Ethan Hawke is a kind of time-traveling detective hell-bent on tracking down a terrorist that has always eluded him. These two characters’ stories intersect through time in ways you couldn’t possibly imagine. Even though the plot becomes more and more ludicrous, the gorgeous logic that it all seems to fall back on makes this adventure one of the smartest, most daring, and therefore, best science fiction films you could lay your eyes on.
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If there was one major theme across this list, it’s that you don’t need a lot of money to pull off great science-fiction. Take this superior film, Coherence, for example. On the surface, it is literally a group of friends having a dinner party. In the night sky, a comet is passing through the heavens, causing cell and television communications to go haywire. One character ludicrously shoehorns the concept of multiple universes into the conversation. Then someone goes out to his car. Upon returning, the house is still full of his friends. Are they exactly the same friends? What would you do if just outside your house, there were a gateway to another parallel universe where another you were talking with another version of your friends? How would you prove you were you and your friends were the “original” friends? This is what this brilliant, frightening, exciting film explores. Coherence has the benefit of showcasing characters that actually act the way people should and would act in the situation, not in a way that only services the plot. Another astonishingly cheap film at only a $50,000 budget, This film will satiate, challenge, and mesmerize every true science fiction fan out there with its genius approach to how laymen would cope with a drastic anomaly in their midst. That cryptic photo above? It makes perfect sense in the exhilarating context of the story. This list is for underappreciated science fiction films like this. Everyone needs to see them.
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