As the 2010s have wound to a close, HeadStuff gathered the collective minds of our Film section to bring you our picks for the best sci-fi movies of the decade. Below are #20 to #1.
After two solid sci-fi/horrors – Undead and Daybreakers – Aussie-German filmmaking duo The Spierig Brothers made their best film to date: 2014’s time travelling thriller Predestination. Ethan Hawke plays an unamed temporal agent, someone who prevents crimes before they take place. While undercover as a bartender in New York in 1975 and on the trail of an elusive terrorist dubbed ‘The Fizzle Bomber’, he strikes up a conversation with a mysterious customer (Succession star Sarah Snook) – someone with their own unusual back story.
Science fiction is often called the literature of ideas. There’s no greater example than Predestination. Despite a reported relatively meagre budget of $9 million and being essentially a two-hander between Hawke and then newcomer Snook, it’s to the film’s credit it feels so epic and vast. This is down to some smart directorial choices by the Spierig Brothers as well as their incredible screenplay – based on the short story ‘All You Zombies’ by Robert A. Heinlein – which feels simulataneously dense yet tight. Exploring heady topics related to love, fate, identity and the taboos of time travel, I still remember the flutter I had in my chest watching the puzzle pieces of Predestination’s plot slot into each other perfectly. Stephen Porzio
19. Source Code
Groundhog Day, Happy Death Day, Russian Doll, the third season premiere of Legion – stories about characters caught in a repetitive time loop with a mission are generally great. Yet, none are as tight as Duncan Jones’ sophomore feature Source Code. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a US Army pilot who unexpectedly finds himself in a computed reality. There, he’s to stop a bombing of a train. With the technology only allowing him eight minutes to complete his mission, he must re-live the same period over and over again until he can identify the culprit.
Source Code doesn’t reinvent the wheel but rather puts a shiny rim on it. Agatha Christie and Hitchcock proved the confined setting of a speeding train is a great place for a thriller and Jones’ movie only re-affirms the fact putting a fresh modern sci-fi spin on proceedings. Kickstarting his miracle run of performances – End of Watch, Enemy, Nighcrawler and Prisoners followed – Gyllenhaal moves between sweaty and paranoid to committed and driven deftly. Plus, at a time when all blockbusters seem to clock in over two hours, Source Code’s 93-minute run time now feels like a minor miracle. Stephen Porzio
Undoubtedly the film which landed writer-director Rian Johnson the Star Wars picture The Last Jedi, the imaginative and inventive Looper stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He plays a hitman working for a mob in the near future who use time travel to dispose of bodies. One day, he discovers the person he is assigned to kill is an older version of himself (Bruce Willis). When the latter escapes, the two seperately try to avoid being captured by their employers while getting caught up in missions to change the future.
Looper starts out a lot more fascinating than it ends – the farmside finale is probably as standard as this sci-fi actioneer gets. That said, its initial premise is akin to Philip K Dick at his best, as is the futuristic vision Johnson creates, resembling our world today but slightly slicker – something evident by the cooler looking guns, the strange drug Gordon-Levitt takes through his eye and the fact that a small number of the population have gained low-level telekinesis (or TK as it’s called in the film). Everytime Looper explores its unique universe it shines, as evident by Paul Dano’s brief memorable turn as a fellow hitman whose character meets a grizzly end thanks to the mob’s particular brand of time travel torture. Stephen Porzio
17. High Life
Just when you think there’s no more you can do with the space sci-fi sub-genre, someone like the French writer-director Claire Denis comes along. High Life stars Robert Pattinson as a convicted killer with a conscience catapulted into space with a variety of murderers and rapists. Prisoners; the reason for their voyage is to venture close enough to a black hole to extract its energy. However, when their captain dies of leukemia, a crazed doctor (Juliette Binoche) begins experimenting on them and the realisation sets in that the journey has a one way ticket, the mood onboard the space craft sours.
High Life, for much of its run-time, is not a pleasant watch. Told in a non-linear pattern, it begins with Pattinson dumping a host of dead humans into the blackness of space and somehow gets more depressing from there. Yet, the way it uses the endless void of its setting to explore the human condition – particularly what happens when all hope is snuffed from one’s life – is grimly effective and haunting. Plus, all the numbing disturbing terror and violence builds to one of the most surprisingly beautiful final shots in sci-fi cinema – a journey into a black hole signifying not a death but a dance. Stephen Porzio
A long time ago, two young men named Leigh Whannell and James Wan created a small horror movie titled Saw. That film went on to become one of the highest grossing horror films of all time. After continued success for both men and a number of smash hits to their name, in 2018 Leigh Whannell knocked it out of the park again, by himself this time. Enter Upgrade.
Upgrade is like Whannell loved RoboCop, The Terminator and Ghost In The Shell so much he decided to mix them all together into an astoundingly cohesive and impressive sci-fi action horror that stunned audiences around the world. A simplistic tale of revenge twists and turns into something which feels entirely new, at the same time providing action set-pieces which give The Raid and John Wick franchises a run for their money.
Logan Marshall-Green’s performance is a career best with the Prometheus actor revelling in Upgrade’s comedic genius sprinkled among its vicious and ruthlessly violent action sequences. Yet, the real star is the scene stealing Stem, the film’s version of Skynet. If Robocop and The Terminator get you pumped, then you need to see Upgrade. In fact, just stop whatever you are doing now and watch it immediately. John Hogan
15. Sorry to Bother You
Writer-director Boots Riley’s debut, Sorry to Bother You is an ambitious comedy/political satire with elements of sci-fi that leaves you dying to see more from the brain that created it. The film follows young black telemarketer Cash (Lakeith Stanfield) who adopts a white accent to succeed at his job. As he earns multiple promotions, he is swept into a corporate conspiracy involving his company’s CEO (Armie Hammer). Caught in a dilemma, he must choose between profit and joining his activist girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and friends to organise labor.
Wearing its socialist leanings loud and proud, Sorry to Bother You is a molotov cocktail of contemporary themes, tackling the clash between unions and big businesses, race and class divides, modern day slavery and the general dumbing down of society. What’s most impressive though is that the movie backs up its exciting fresh ideas with a killer soundtrack from Tune-Yards and Riley’s band The Coup, dazzling visuals aplenty and A+ absurdist humour, the latter recalling Michel Gondry at the peak of his craft. Stephen Porzio
When I mentioned that Karl Urban would be high up on the list of actors of the decade for me, my brother pointed out that I’m basing it exclusively on his performances in Dredd and Bones in the Star Trek franchise. I had to admit that maybe that’s not quite enough to base a decade’s worth of acting on. But on the other hand, who else could put on such an impressive performance with just their lower face?
In a decade of impressive (and admittedly some not-so-impressive) tower block movies, Dredd remains memorable for impressive action and concepts – Slo Mo, the illicit substance which the violent drug cartels in Mega City exist to manufacture and circulate, has one of the most innovative side-effects around, and certainly provides some of the most interesting visual aesthetics. It also has a brilliant villain in the shape of Lena Headey’s drug lord Ma-Ma (come to think of it, Headey is also high on my list of actors of the decade. Coincidence?).
Immensely entertaining with a devilish streak of irony, it’s telling that Dredd is found on multiple lists of the decade. Indeed, if it weren’t for the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road in 2015, perhaps Dredd would be considered the sci-fi action film of the past ten years. That might be a bold claim to make, but like Dredd I take no prisoners (I also execute justice in a hellish future-scape and have a cool helmet). Sarah Cullen
When critically acclaimed Korean director Bong Joon-ho announced he was adapting the hugely influential French sci-fi graphic novel Le Transperceneige, many believed the source was near unfilmable and that he would fail. He proved naysayers wrong, however, making a film like no other.
Embracing steampunk and approaching its complex narrative with undeniable care, Snowpiercer tests the limits of science fiction and action cinema. It isn’t a movie that spans decades and brings us on a fruitful journey through uncharted lands and an unforgiving galaxy. Instead, Snowpiercer is completely and entirely confined to an ever moving train. Despite the potentially claustrophobic setting though, Joon-ho created a film that feels enormous, where every new train cart becomes an opportunity to explore its strange world.
After finishing filming, Joon-ho battled with distributor Harvey Weinstein to bring his creative vision to the big screen as intended. In the West, Snowpiercer only received a limited release and was nearly forgotten. However, the few English speaking audiences that saw it were greeted with a truly audacious sci-fi, one that transcends its minimal setting and gives viewers something truly fresh and captivating. John Hogan
Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, Alex Garland’s sci-fi action film and sophomore feature Annihilation features some stand-out moments of horror which will most likely linger in your mind after viewing. It follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist who embarks on a military expedition into the Shimmer, a zone of unexplained animal and plant mutation.
Annihilation has plenty going on, leaving it open to interpretation regarding grief, memory, and climate change. My own current theory is that it’s about the destructive nature of heterosexual relationships, as evinced by the centrality of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s 3-part harmony “Helplessly Hoping” to the film. Sarah Cullen
11. A Quiet Place
Occasionally a premise to a movie is so ingenious one just wants to stand-up and give the screenwriters an applause. A Quiet Place turns cinema’s biggest advancement into an adversary: sound. Co-writer and director John Krasinski stars as a father who must protect his wife (Emily Blunt) and children from blind alien invaders who terrorise his farm, viciously killing anyone who makes a noise.
Given this plot, every diegetic sound in the film provokes terror from the viewer. Yet, what’s most impressive about A Quiet Place is how it resonates emotionally. Whereas it could be a simple rollercoaster ride of a movie, Krasinki turns it into a powerful parable about parenthood, particularly the responsibility to protect one’s children in a world where danger is around any corner. As a result, the film is a blend of the high-octane thrills of early M. Night Shyamalan with the thematic meat of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Stephen Porzio
10. Blade Runner 2049
It fits that the long-awaited sequel to a critically lauded box office failure would also be a critically lauded box office failure. So it went with Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. Set 30 years after Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) ran away with replicant Rachael (Sean Young), a new generation of replicant Blade Runners are created. One of them, K (Ryan Gosling), finds evidence of Deckard and goes on the hunt. Hounded by the Wallace Corporation’s CEO Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his replicant enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) K seeks Deckard in order to find out about his own identity.
The Blade Runner films, all two of them, are about memory and identity and how those two things interact. In the first we are left asking whether Deckard was ever really human. In Blade Runner 2049 we’re left to contemplate our importance and overall place in the world. K is eventually revealed to be just as unimportant as everyone else. He may be the main character but only out of luck and happenstance. Roger Deakins’ gorgeous framing of an isolated Gosling as well as the only love he receives coming from an AI named Joi (Ana de Armas) all hint at K’s position in this cruel, uncaring world. For a blockbuster film in the 21st Century that’s incredibly brave. In the future with all its techno-pyramids, rain squalls and irradiated wastelands, the universe doesn’t care but the people still do and that’s what matters. Andrew Carroll
9. Edge of Tomorrow
The 2010s were undoubtedly the decade of Groundhog Day with a twist, and all the better for it. In Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow Tom Cruise plays Major William Gage, an American military PR goon who finds himself on the front line of an alien invasion. After unintentionally receiving an injection of a super serum he begins to relive the same day over and over again. Picture Captain Darling from Blackadder saving the world.
And indeed, this is a science fiction story where the conceit is used to impressive effect: the looping battle scenes Gage is forced to endure over and over endow him with a rather ingenious way of formulating battle plans while in media res. They also remain some of the most consummate action cinematography of the decade and introduce a clever element of comedy to the mix as Gage dies in more outlandish and unfortunate ways only to respawn instantly. It’s not hard to see why Edge of Tomorrow is considered one of the best manga adaptations to come out of Hollywood. Sarah Cullen
The second of Christopher Nolan’s massive scale original sci-fi’s of the 2010s, Interstellar stars Matthew McConaughey mid-McConaissance as Cooper, a single father and astronaut in the mid-21st century; where humanity’s not only on the brink but seems to have given up hope of survival. A series of strange messages lead him to a secret NASA base. There, scientists say a wormhole near Saturn can catapult astronauts to a distant galaxy where a habitable world for humans could exist. Joe is tasked with piloting a spacecraft, abandoning his children on Earth for possibly ever in order to save them.
Blending the scope and visuals of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with the heart and blockbuster spectacle of Steven Spielberg in his prime, Interstellar is as big and bombastic as sci-fi gets. Yet, amongst its many unforgettable scenes – planets with mountain sized waves or Nolan taking us inside a black hole – it is the smaller intimate moments which resonate the most – Cooper’s tearful goodbye to his young daughter (an amazing Mackenzie Foy) or the astronaut breaking down watching his children grow up lightyears away via satellite transmissions. It’s these which underpin Interstellar’s major thematic argument, that love is the most powerful thing in the universe and is capable of transcending the so-called impossible. As we hurdle towards our own apocalypse, we’d be wise to take Nolan’s message to heart. Stephen Porzio
7. Ex Machina
Critically acclaimed author of The Beach and The Coma, as well as screenwriter of 28 Days Later and Sunshine, Alex Garland made his directorial debut with this dazzling and intelligent three-hander starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander. Gleeson plays computer programmer, Caleb. After winning a raffle within his company, Caleb is given the opportunity to spend a week with the CEO of his company, Nathan (Isaac), in his lush and extremely secluded home (the location is never stated, although the film is shot in Norway). Nathan is working on creating artificial intelligence and employs Caleb to perform the Turing test on his newest creation, the gorgeous humanoid robot, Ava (Vikander).
As well as openly exploring the notion of what makes one human and examining the way men perceive women and beauty, the film works equally well as a B-movie thriller. Gleeson adds a wide-eyed innocence to the role of Caleb, while Isaac’s intelligent millionaire playboy is a wonderfully bizarre character, partying hard even when no one else is present and dancing to disco at random. However the true star of the film is Vikander and the special effects used to create Ava’s appearance. She adds a surprising amount of depth and humanity to her robotic character, yet still has the iciness of a classic femme fatale. Her body is a bizarre blend of human and mechanical parts which not only manage to trick Caleb into thinking she is human, but the audience as well. Stephen Porzio
Boasting arguably the best twist since Bruce Willis was a ghost, Arrival stars Amy Adams as Louise, a linguist who is recruited by the US Army. This is when 12 alien spacecrafts land across the world and the beings onboard begin attemping to communicate with several countries through their written language, a series of complicated circular symbols. While many nations are quick to perceive the extraterrestrials as a threat and world wide panic sets in, Louise begins to believe the otherworldly messages are something else entirely.
Arrival features director Denis Villeneuve’s now trademark epic sweeping painterly panaormic shots and a stunning score by the late Johann Johannson – its droning soundcapes so much of what makes the film’s aliens feel like tangible authentic presences. Yet, what’s really genius about the film is Eric Heisserer’s screenplay. Based on Ted Chiang’s short story ‘Story of Your Life’, it not only uses the way audiences typically perceive information to blindside viewers, it is also a plea for humanity to see reason and prosper peace, as opposed to becoming divided and violent out of fear. It’s in Arrival’s final act reveal – one which doesn’t cheat its audience but rather deepens the sci-fi’s themes – where these two elements come together beautifully. Stephen Porzio
5. Under the Skin
Striking a fine line between mesmerising and disturbing, Jonathan Glazer’s third feature is an unconventional and uncompromising gem of a sci-fi horror. Scarlett Johansson gives a career best performance as an unnamed woman driving through Scotland picking up men for what first appears to be intimate encounters. However, it’s clear within the first couple of minutes that Johansson’s character is not of this planet and her pursuit of these local males might be for something else.
Under the Skin is very experimental in how it’s structured. There are moments shot with hidden cameras while some of the local men are not actors – adding a level of authenticity to the film. But there are also other moments that showcase a variety of horrific special effects. This is as the males suffer a nasty fate at the hands of Johansson.
Yet, the movie is not simply a predator hunting prey type of story. It’s a tale of existence, connection with others and how the perception of beauty has become corrupt in a modern day society. While the movie is strange and singular, all of its individual puzzle pieces eventually click nicely together and as the title suggests, it will definitely get under your skin. Sean Moriarty
Jumping on the boat of another 2010 sensation, sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror, Her tells the melancholic story of just how advanced the technology of the future very well might become, specifically as it relates to AI becoming human.
It’s a testament to the film that the love story between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and his AI Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) is so engaging. From the warm colorfully palleted textures of the sets and dresswear, to director Spike Jonze’s careful attention to detail in his depiction of a futuristic Los Angeles, the movie is a mesmerizing sci-fi drama – one which feels like the truest depiction of how concepts of love and desire will change thanks to the double edged sword of technology. Brandon Doyle
3. The Lobster
A lot of the comedy in Yorgos Lanthimos’s work comes from the brazen antics of his characters: I often find myself shrieking – half in disbelief, half in terror – at characters lashing out at each other in bizarre (though perhaps not unexplainable) acts of anti-social behaviour. The Lobster is no exception. Here the adults all have the mental capacities of a teenager and the patience of a toddler.
This makes for some seriously strange interactions as Colin Farrell’s introverted David attempts to navigate the social demands of his dystopian society. There, heterosexual partnership is prized above all else and anyone who remains single is sentenced to live out their lives as an animal: the good news is you get to choose which one. As a result, the dissociative performances characteristic of Lanthimos is used to great effect, with each character appearing to have learned English by rote and trying (and frequently failing) to appear human. “It is more difficult to pretend that you do have feelings when you don’t, than to pretend you don’t have feelings when you do” David astutely observes. You’ll probably find yourself laughing, but it won’t be a comfortable laugh. Neither should it be. Sarah Cullen
Kicking off the last decade in spectacular style was Christopher Nolan’s 2010 effort Inception. Leonardo Di Caprio stars as a professional thief who steals information by infiltrating people’s minds. He’s offered a chance to have his criminal history erased as payment for the implantation of another person’s idea into a target’s subconscious.
Arguably every original sci-fi film which follows in Inception’s footsteps is indebted to it, the film proving that complex, heady and intelligent stories can make serious bank at the box-office. Yet, none have come as close to the thrill of Nolan’s film, one which not only doesn’t dumb down for the multiplex but urges viewers to keep up with its dizzying journey through the levels of a human mind. While Leonardo Di Caprio is forced to deliver an almost heroic amount of exposition in order to explain the wholly original concept at the heart of Inception, it’s all worth it for the movie’s back half. Its blend of jaw-dropping set-pieces, vast yet intricate cinematography, the most iconic score of the decade from Hans Zimmer (*BWONG!!!*) and an enigmatic perfect last shot is truly symphonic filmmaking. Stephen Porzio
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
There is no other film that makes you feel like the metal caught between the hammer and the anvil. There is no other film that feels like adrenaline is being mainlined into your aorta. There is no other film that feels like a fever dream composed of fire and thunder, oil and chrome, blood and bone, spray paint and guzzoline, warmth and love. Mad Max: Fury Road is a desperate howl dredged up from the bottom of our lungs and aimed at an uncertain future dominated by nuclear winds, painted tyrants and their skeleton entourages. It’s a bug-shit crazy ride out of a black pit and into the light beyond. It’s a goddamn miracle movie.
From George Miller the director of the original Mad Max trilogy as well as Happy Feet came a vision uniquely his own but funded by one of the biggest studios in the world. Miller replaced Mel Gibson with Tom Hardy, strapped a garden fork to his face for the first half of the film and made women, including Imperator Furiosa (action all-timer Charlize Theron), the focus of his fiery apocalypse story. He conjured up explosions and nightmarish cars built of spikes and buzz saws. He hired an army of stuntmen, acrobats, pro-wrestlers and a former bank robber to play the Immortan Joe’s (Hugh Keays-Byrne) war boys. Mad Max: Fury Road conquered 2015’s box office and steamrolled the technical awards at the Oscars winning six out of ten nominations. But more than that it felt like a vision drawn from a not-too distant future. A vision of war and death yes but also a vision of hope, of love and of family. Andrew Carroll