2015: The Year in SciFi

I’ve been terribly remiss in preparing my Best of 2015 for AMFM Magazine (I guess I’ll get it done in time for the Oscars), and my usual SciFi Version of that suffered the same problem.  The main issue was, our festival falling the first week of December, and another festival I program (St. Lawrence International) falling the last week of October, I was terribly behind in films I really ‘had to see.’  Joy, Sicario, Room all had to be sought out in dollar theaters or on VOD.  But the problem with both lists was THE MARTIAN, a film I knew I was going to love, and would probably end up on both lists.  It did.

So, now that I’ve seen The Martian, I can get down to my top 15 SciFi films, films for you to add to your own must-see checklists.  I should mention these are films that received their theatrical or VOD/home video release in 2015. There are plenty of SciFi films that I saw at festivals last year (including at our own) that are not eligible for this list – they’ll have to wait until next year. There are also some notably absent films, the main one being the critical darling (I believe in a gratuitous plea to appear hip) MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, which I’ve already written extensively on as just being an extended chase scene, and not a film.  Another big budget film that had lots going for it in design, JUPITER ASCENDING, also misses the list. 

In fact, it was a bad year in general for the studio franchise tentpoles. JURASIC WORLD, probably the most satisfying, asked for some pretty giant leaps in believably and then there are Bryce Dallas Howard’s heels.  TERMINATOR: GENISYS, suffered from a confused plot line trying to take in the various previous Terminators but still wanting to be its own thing.  AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON was just a bunch of CGI fighting with none of the charm that the original film had.  Scarlett Johansson’s character was the only one that showed any real emotion, I wish they would spin her off into her own film, but they won’t, because the Marvel world is still basically a sexist one, run by a bunch of idiots who care nothing about giving a female hero her own storyline. The FANTASTIC FOUR reboot was awful, just plain awful.  Enough said. TOMORROWLAND, a would be franchise, almost made this list (it sits at 16 for me), but is held back by a creepy relationship between silver fox George Clooney and what appears to be a nine-year-old girl (she’s a robot, but still… uncomfortable).

Okay, so what does make the list?

1. EX MACHINA – A thought-provoking film from start to finish about a man called to interview an android and administer the Turing Test.  The android passes so much so that he begins to fall for her. This is one of those films that I find especially terrifying because it could only be a few years from happening.  The three main actors are phenomenal and the production design is gorgeous, this is a film that is going to join the SciFi canon.  As much a character study as a thriller, Ex Machina deals with issues of humanity and trust and whether we really should be allowed to tinker with things we cannot control.  SciFi Credentials: Technology with Unintended Consequences, Robots

2. TIME LAPSE – A brilliant Hitchcockian suspense film about three roommates who discover a giant camera aimed at their window which spits out a Polaroid of what will happen (in that window) twenty-four hours in the future. A triumph, Time Lapse manages to tackle a very heady topic (time travel) in an incredibly simple and understandable form, delivering a true genre film shot entirely in an apartment complex.  With its own distinct world with its own particular rules and logic, the film drawer you in (like Primer or Coherence), and then throws in a great mix of comedy and thriller all delivered by a standout cast.  This is a film smart enough to debate whether or not you can change the past/future etc., but which keeps its feet firmly planted in the ground of a suspense thriller.  You can read my AMFM interview with writer/director Bradley King and writer/producer BP Cooper here.  Time Lapse was the Centerpiece Film for the 2014 OWA.  SciFi Credentials: Time Travel, Technology with Unintended Consequences

3. THE MARTIAN – The knock on this film is that it’s CAST AWAY in space, which is really stupid because Mars is far less hospitable than an island paradise, and Matt Damon has a ton of contact through the movie with Earth and the crew that accidentally abandoned him, which is one of the things that makes the movie so great.  And all the science involved, and Matt Damon is so darn charming.  Not that Tom Hanks isn’t charming, but he ends up befriending volleyball.  Damon has to ‘science the shit’ out of nearly every facet of his journey, and the film really plays as a triumph of man, both science and spirit, over adversity.  SciFi Credentials: Space Travel

4. Z FOR ZACHARIAH – How this film slipped through the theaters so quickly I cannot understand?  It is a moving love triangle in a post-apocalyptic world anchored by phenomenal performances from Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine. Robbie plays Ann, whose family farm, due to remoteness, weather patterns, and a supply of fresh water, has somehow escaped the effects of a radioactive catastrophe that has affected the rest of country. Her mistrust of outsiders is shaken by the arrival of Ejiofor, who has stories of the destruction of society and didn’t think a paradise like this farm could exist.  They develop a tenuous friendship, then a sexual relationship.  Then another man shows up.  It’s a small story fully realized and I think Roadside Attractions really blew it by putting this out on VOD day and date with theatrical release. SciFi Credentials: Post-Apocalyptic World

5. ADVANTAGEOUS – Another masterful film hurt by an incomprehensible release plan (Sundance premiere then direct to Netflix), Jennifer Phang creates a vivid dystopia where women are judged based on their looks, ages and racial appearance (no, it’s a dystopia, it’s not here, it’s in the future). Gwen (Jacqueline Kim) faces a rough decision when she is fired from her spokesmodel position for a cosmetic corporation and considers a radical new procedure to transfer her consciousness into a younger, more ethnically neutral body, all to ensure her daughter’s education.  It’s a powerful film, full of difficult issues that hit pretty close to home (as good scifi does), and with very strong performances (including a rare serious role from Ken Jeong). SciFi Credentials: Dystopian, Future as Allegory for Present Issues Geo-Political Allegory through alternate society examples

6. COOTIES - This was my absolute favorite film at Sundance in 2014 and I’ve been desperate for it come out. Then it does and they don’t even promote it (this seems to be a trend this year, right?) Working at an elementary school can be hell, especially when the children have fallen victim to a virus that turns them into pint-sized flesh eating zombies. Teachers finally get to take their frustrations out on their students, and the ensemble (Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, Jack McBrayer and co-writers Leigh Whannell (SAW) and Ian Brennan (GLEE)) must hack their way through the student body. Hilarious and action-packed, this is the most fun I’ve had at a zombie pick since SHAUN OF THE DEAD. SciFi Credentials: Human-Created Virus/Disease turning people into Zombies.

7. TURBO KID -- In a post-apocalyptic world of deserts and lone cantinas where people barter for water supplies, and villains have chainsaws instead of arms, one hero has the power (or power glove) to save us all, TURBO KID. In film that feels like “The Last Starfighter” and “Flight of the Navigator” meets “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (yes, specifically that one because it’s the most ridiculous), kiwi collective The RKSS have crafted a fun world ripped out of the video games of our childhood. Even better, the film opens with a weighty voice over that tells us all about this wasteland of the future, the future of 1997. You can read my AMFM interview with the RKSS here. SciFi Credentials: Post-apocalyptic, Robots

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8. THE RECONSTRUCTION OF WILLIAM ZERO - William Blakely, a cutting-edge geneticist, wakes up from a mysterious accident with fragmented memories and must re-learn his identity from his twin brother. But as William digs deeper, he realizes the shocking truth: This is not his life at all. A gripping drama full of moral quandaries we are mere years from facing, The Reconstruction of William Zero features a phenomenal cast including UPSTREAM COLOR’s Amy Seimetz and an emotional core seldom seen in science fiction. It’s a beautiful and at times heart-wrenching film about dealing with guilt in the wake of a terrible personal tragedy. The Reconstruction of William Zero was the Closing Night Film for the 2014 OWA Festival.  SciFi Credentials: Technology with Unintended Consequences

9. CIRCLE -- Could you trust a jury of your peers with your life? The contestants of a mysterious death game must make harrowing decisions as they strategize for survival in this psychological SciFi thriller. Arranged in a circle after what they remember may have been an alien abduction, the participants come from all walks of life and have to decide which among them is most worthy of living.  This is a film that just throws you in the deep end and it’s sink or swim, just like all the characters experience. A ticking clock drives the action, and you never quite get enough information to know where anyone stands. A very original concept done very simply. Also, another film that made a high profile premiere (Seattle International Film Festival) then just opted to go straight to Netflix. Their loss is everyone else’s gain. SciFi Credentials: Aliens?  Geo-Political Allegory through alternate society examples

10. PREDESTINATION -- Predestination follows a temporal agent (played by Ethan Hawke) who has spent most of his career tracking the infamous flitter bomber. Given one final clue, he shifts one last time in an attempt to discover the criminal before he can set off a bomb in New York City and take out 11,000 civilians. The key to the case might be Jane/John Doe, a mysterious bar patron with a story to tell. I’m not ruining anything here, it’s fairly clear in the first 2 minutes that John used to be Jane. Hawke offers John the chance to go back in time and face the person responsible for all his pain. Would he kill him, if given the chance? An Australian film with fantastic production design and a tour-de-force performance from Sarah Snook, who plays Jane/John. This is a movie about love. Not a love story, but but about the absence of love. There is nothing more alone than being lost in (or out) of time, out-of-step with everyone around you.  You can read my full review on AMFM Magazine here.  SciFi Credentials: Time Travel

11. THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 2 – The Young Adult series comes to a rousing close, after a lackluster third film.  Despite the fantastic action sequences, there is still enough political theory and emotional interaction that the film delivers anything the die fan could want.  It has really been a privilege to watch Jennifer Lawrence grow up on screen, in this series and in the David O. Russell films.  She is a great hero, driving the action far more than Harry Potter ever did, and possessing a quiet reserve of strength and honor that we rarely see in a big budget film.  In fact, the emotional relationships in this film are so much deeper than anything Star Wars even attempted, and are based in true human behaviors, thing not dependent on being ion a galaxy far far away.  SciFi Credentials: Dystopian, Future as Allegory for Present Issues Geo-Political Allegory through alternate society examples

12. LISTENING -- Mind Games. Once a John Lennon song, now a cautionary tale for the world. A breakthrough technology that allows users to share thoughts directly from brain to brain is at the center of writer/director Khalil Sullins' debut feature.  LISTENING is exactly my favorite kind of Science Fiction movie.  It starts small, with a couple of renegade scientists trying to solve a problem in their garage. But technology is often more complicated than just the formulas behind it. Plus any time you throw a bit of sex into the mix, everything gets murky. How is a scientist ever able to keep their priorities straight?  Available now on Netflix. Listening was a 2015 OWA Year 'Round Event. SciFi Credentials: Technology with Unintended Consequences

13. THE LAST SURVIVORS (THE WELL) -- Teen scavenger Kendal remains one of the last hold outs in a dust-covered valley slowly being taken over by ‘water baron’ Carson. The once titular ‘well,’ which has kept Kendal and her boyfriend alive in the wake of the mass exodus, has dried up, and now Kendal must find a way out. Her quest for a distributor cap that will fit their broken-down plane becomes desperate and her search leads her further away and closer to the gas-masked goons that do Carson’s dirty work. The post-apocalyptic wasteland is so thoroughly designed it feels like it is right outside our window.  Add to that the fantastic live action fighting and swordplay from lead Haley Lu Richardson, as well as Nicole Fox as Carson's daughter. You can read my AMFM interview with writer/director Tom Hammock here. THE LAST SURVIVORS was the Opening Night film for OWA 2014 back when it was called THE WELL. SciFi Credentials: Post-Apocalyptic

14. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS – It would be impossible to live up to all the hype, but it would be nearly as impossible to not rise above The Phantom Menace, The Force Awakens succeeded because it gave Star Wars fans exactly what they wanted.  Basically, Star Wars, again.  Yes there are new characters but the plot line is so similar its like JJ Abrams did a find a replace on their word doc first, then rewrote from a draft of A New Hope.  That being said, the rogue Stormtrooper angle is one of the most exciting developments in the Star Wars universe since Boba Fett.  It looked amazing, it was fun, and it brought Han Solo and Leia Organa back together.  I would be insane to complain.  I just hope the next one has a little more character development and a little less things blowing up.  Oh, and really, another giant spaceship that looks like a planet and blows up planets?  That’s the best you could come up with? SciFi Credentials: Space Travel, Aliens, Paranormal Abilities

15. UNCANNY – The story of a woman brought in to interview an android, UNCANNY bears a striking resemblance to Ex Machina, but in this version of the story, the interview quickly turns to the two ‘men’ vying for her attention and her affections. She can’t spend time with one of them without inciting the jealousy of the other, which shows just how human-like the robot is.  The film is a contained, almost romantic, drama about the strongest human urges we have, and just how (or why to recreate that).  Available now on Netflix.  Uncanny screened as a 2015 OWA Year Round Event. SciFi Credentials: Robots

Honorable Mention: CRUMBS - The first Ethiopian SciFi film follows a journey across a post-apocalyptic wasteland where plastic toys are traded for store credit to buy parts for a rocket ship, and Santa Claus is a real man you can go visit and make direct requests. It’s a mystical, other worldly experience, which doesn’t always work but there is so much creativity shoved into this short running time, that you can only wonder what the director could do with a larger budget.  This is more of an arthouse foreign fare pick than the other scifi films on this list, but its still worth checking out to see our favorite genre reaching every corner of the world.  Needless to say, there is a lot more heart in this than say ANT-MAN. SciFi Credentials: Post Apocalytic World, Space Travel?

Still not satisfied?

16. Tommorrowland
17. The Phoenix Project
18. Parallels
19. Jurassic World
20. Terminator Genisys

© 2014 OWA SciFi Film Fest, LLC