Last updated January 22, 2018 at 9:14 am
It’s been the sort of year where escapism doesn’t have a long shelf life, so this list is a murderer’s row of ‘that movie came out just this year? Feels like a lifetime ago!’ On the flipside, remembering these great films will give you all sorts of warm and fuzzy feelings. So here they are, the best science fiction your eyes and ears could get in 2017, in no particular order.
And I can’t guarantee this is a no-spoiler zone! I’ll do my best to keep things vague, but consider yourself spoiler alerted.
Blade Runner 2049
After delivering one of the best science fiction films of 2016, Arrival, Denis Villeneuve does it again. Blade Runner 2049 only gets better upon reflection. The main character, K, is a robot who hunts down other robots, aka a Blade Runner. Basically the Harrison Ford part from the original, except we know from the start of the film that he’s a replicant. While the plot sticks with him as he searches for a potentially dangerous new type of replicant, K is a bit of a cipher. He is grappling with what it means to be sentient, whether he has humanity, and whether he is special, but since the movie cleverly upends the classic ‘chosen one’ narrative, it’s not actually about him at all. There are enough twists and turns to keep the plot moving and engaging, but the pacing keeps it from feeling tacky. What I can’t get out of my head is the film’s obsession with women. Women’s bodies are everywhere, whether they’re human, replicant, artificial, holographic, sculptural, even skeletal. Women’s motivations and capabilities drive this movie – it’s a subversive sleight of hand. As I alluded to, you’re not actually watching a movie about Ryan Gosling or Harrison Ford. You’re watching a movie about women who are good, bad, informed, ignorant, strong, weak, big, small. Apart from Jared Leto as the baddie, the men are just kind of …. there. I’m still turning over what it all means in my mind, but I’m as fascinated by the choice as the movie is obsessed.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
It’s admittedly a bit cheeky treating anything Star Wars as science fiction. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it’s a fantasy space opera– although this is one of the most sci-fi of the bunch. The Last Jedi is an incredible entry into the Star Wars saga, and just an incredible film on own merits. The trailer is actually pretty misleading – which is a good thing, the plot is much richer than the trailer suggests. Rey spends most of the movie away from the rest of the resistance, who are stretched to their absolute limit as they play cat and mouse with the First Order. She’s on two missions – one on behalf of the resistance, to bring Luke Skywalker back, and the other self-assigned – to bring Kylo Ren to the light side. This movie treats the characters – brand new, new-ish, and legendary – with incredible reverence and believable development. Even a cursory recollection of the nuts and bolts of the movie reveals how devastating it is, but it doesn’t leave you hopeless – quite the opposite. Plus it’s really funny!
War for the Planet of the Apes
There’s a saying that your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness, and I think that’s true of War for the Planet of the Apes. Its strength is that it crams a lot of genres into one movie – science fiction, escape heist, vengeful road trip, and (most critically and obviously) war. All of this makes the experience thrilling – yet somehow a little forgettable. Still! I want to include it on this list because I think it is greater than the sum of these parts. At its most fundamental, this is a story of the ape Caesar against the human known only as the Colonel. Caeser wants to build a peaceful community of apes and co-exist with humans, but the Colonel wants to wipe out the apes entirely. By following this conflict, War offers the most direct link to the original Planet of the Apes. In the first two we could make out the general shape of things to come, but with War for the Planet of the Apes we’ve slipped on our glasses and the path the story will walk has come into focus.
It’s fitting that last time we’ll ever see Hugh Jackman as Wolverine is the in best X-Men movie ever. I’d also argue it’s the most sci-fi in the franchise as well. Set in the near future, Logan is working as a driver for an Uber-like service, and caring for Professor Xavier as his mentor dies from cancer. When a driving gig is revealed to be more than meets the eye, a young girl with eerily familiar powers is drawn into the story, and the three need to drive from the southern to the northern border of the USA to keep her safe. The subtle futurism has wona lot of praise, in particular the driverless freight trucks scene. But the other theme is body autonomy, and genetic technologies – should we be messing around with human DNA? Plus, it’s worth highlighting just how amazing Patrick Stewart is. This is a very different Professor Xavier than anything we’ve seen, but he’s still the character we know.
A spaceship full of couples is on the way to settle a new planet, but before they get there they decide to respond to a distress call. When they land, the basic Alien plot ensues. Infection, quarantine, chest-bursting, death. Rinse and repeat. But look, this movie is literally on my ‘best’ list for one specific scene. Chest bursters are great and I’ll never get sick of a rad chick with short hair use a futuristic bit of tech to kill a xenomorph. I’m even okay with the retcon-ing going on – it doesn’t ruin the originals for me. But what puts this movie over the top is how it examines humanity, intelligence, creativity and growth. I’m talking about the scene between David and Walter – two models of the same robot. It’s just the two of them talking about how they see and interact with the world, but its captivating. It helps to have an actor as talented as Michael Fassbender doing such heavy lifting. As artificial intelligence becomes more normal and part of our daily lives all the time, science fiction gives us the opportunity to forward project and think about what sort of future we really want.
If you haven’t seen this movie, you might be wondering why it’s on a science fiction list. To which I say – stop reading this list and go watch Get Out, because the answer is a massive spoiler. This is the sort of movie it is absolutely worth seeing with fresh eyes. Daniel and Rose are a multiracial couple who head to her parents place where they’ll meet Daniel for the first time – and he’s concerned because Rose hasn’t told them he’s black. Things get weird really quickly, and the third act of the movie is where things get science fiction-y. Wrapped up in the brain transplant science fiction are themes of human consciousness and the always fun mad scientist trope. It’s one of the smartest films I can think of, and its social themes make it one we’ll be looking back on for a long time to come.
This film might seem like it’s not for everyone. Everything is just a little over the top, verging on slapstick. But this is a feature, not a bug, and it’s thanks to director Bong Joon Ho marrying Korean cinema with Hollywood. Amidst all the spaceships and robots and superheroes, it’s refreshing to see something totally different in style and in substance – in this case, genetically modified organisms and factory farming. This film has clear good guys: Okja the superpig and Mija the Korean farm girl; clear bad guys: the Mirando Corporation who breed and sell the superpigs; and some in-the-middle-but-probably-ultimately-good guys: the Animal Liberation Front activists who want to bring down Mirando. The movie is set in the present day, and apart from the fact that the superpigs are as big as hippos and have dugong faces, it doesn’t show a fanciful view of our current food system. Whether it will change people’s behaviour or if it’s even trying to, I’m not sure, but it does a good job of showing that you can’t fix everything all at once, and that you have to take small wins where you can.
We were a bit obsessed with Cleverman this year, and with good reason. Over the course of season two, the show tackled DNA testing and scanning, artificial wombs, technology hacking modern steampunk style, Australian geology, indigenous astronomy, wound self-healing, and heaps and heaps of delicious science fiction tropes. Cleverman manages to be classic, yet like absolutely nothing else you’ll see on screen. This season, we saw Koen at his highest and lowest, and his villainous brother Warru turn against his own people and down his own dark path. I can’t get enough of seeing Australia on screen in the way that Cleverman gives it to us.
Star Trek: Discovery
I love having one episode of Star Trek at a time. This series is centred around Michael, a human raised by Vulcans who has an early fall from grace. It doesn’t take long before she ends up a crucial member of the crew of the Discovery. Among the monster-of-the-week episodes is the larger shadow of the Klingon war, and much of the action takes place on-board Klingon ships. Once this show gets going, it’s like being with an old friend. But fair warning – it takes a while to get there. It probably shows why the logic driven character – like Spock or Data – hasn’t been the main character before. It’s not that during their show’s runs they didn’t become amazing characters with rich inner lives and character development, but Michael’s Vulcan-like demeanour isn’t immediately inviting. Thankfully other characters come along who are bursting with personality – Tilly we need you! Never leave us!
Honourable Mention – Thor: Ragnarok
Okay, so the only thing that’s vaguely science-y about this is the spaceships. And maybe that Bruce Banner brags about his PhDs. But it’s just such a great movie! In the same year, we got the best X-Men movie, and the best Avengers movie. What a world. The Thor: Ragnarok action only takes place on Earth for the briefest of scenes, mostly we see the planet Sakaar or the realm of Asgard. Thor’s previously unknown older sister Hela is wreaking havoc there, meanwhile Thor is stuck on Sakaar, trying to get together a rag tag bunch of heroes to save the day. Don’t overthink it – it’s the sort of movie where the plot doesn’t really matter – let’s just look at the costumes and jokes and action.