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It’s hard to believe it, but with the close of 2019, we also put to rest a whole decade of sci-fi movies that have come out in the 2010s. Much like any other genre you can think of, there were ups and downs, but those ups were exceedingly memorable.
Come to think of it, there are 10 movies that showcase the best of what sci-fi had to offer in the past decade. Each of the following films we’re about to list off are shining examples of what the best of this particular genre can represent.
Some are flights of fancy, others are grounded explorations into very topical subject matter. All are proven results of what happens when the human imagination takes flight, and shows us either something we’ve never seen before or a fresh angle on a well-worn classic. Here now are the 10 best sci-fi movies of the 2010’s.
10. Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
Our first entry is a young one, as director Robert Rodriguez and producer James Cameron came together to finally bring Alita: Battle Angel to the big screen. After almost 20 years of development and interest, the story of a young cyborg and her quest to defeat an all-seeing evil was brought to life.
The wait was well worth it too, as Rosa Salazar’s portrayal of Alita is at times wild-eyed, while also hardened with the resolve of a warrior. Both her sensitive and badass sides get to play a good game, among a cast that also boasts Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connolly and Mahershala Ali.
But perhaps the most exciting reason Alita: Battle Angel takes its place among the best sci-fi movies of the decade is the fact that it introduced the world of its franchise as a familiar dystopia set in a breathtakingly fresh universe. This film is built much like its protagonist: with wild eyed visuals and incredible action, and its story definitely deserves to continue in a sequel or two.
9. Tron: Legacy (2010)
While fresh concepts rule this list on the whole, there’s a couple of returns to legendary franchises that made for some of the best sci-fi movies of the 2010s. Joseph Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy took a Disney sci-fi movie from the studio’s own dark age and revived it into a modern hit that still resonates with fans today.
Bringing back Jeff Bridges’ Kevin Flynn for a new adventure in the world he created, Tron: Legacy also complimented his return with the introduction of his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) and companion Quorra (Olivia Wilde.) This central trio of characters would fight against the greatest threat to the machine world: Kevin’s program alter-ego CLU (also Bridges) in a battle setting up the future of the entire film universe.
Though Tron: Legacy’s roots were in reviving a previously existing property, the balance between fan service and new, exciting adventures was properly struck. By the time this underrated gem had finished telling it story, there was no doubt that Tron had a good reason to exist in our modern world.
8. Looper (2012)
Writer/director Rian Johnson has tried his hand at several different genres, but sci-fi seems to be the only one he’s really repeated himself with, besides that of the detective fiction. His first foray into that very type of film, Looper, still remains as one of the best films to come out of the man’s career, as well as one of the best sci-fi films of the decade.
Pitting Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis against each other as two versions of the same person, this time travel thriller starts out on a personal level, but soon grows into an epic that spans the decades and puts everything, and everyone, on the line.
It’s an inventive thriller, with an ending that still has audiences talking to this very day about what it all means. And whether you love or hate Rian Johnson’s work on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, this movie was an effort impressive enough to land him in that prime gig.
7. War For The Planet Of The Apes (2017)
“How the hell do you reboot Planet of the Apes?” is a question that people asked themselves shortly before Rise of the Planet of the Apes debuted in 2011, silencing critics and starting a new trilogy of backstory for the classic series to rest on.
While director Rupert Wyatt kicked things off with that film, it was director Matt Reeves that kickstarted the trilogy into fame and fortune, with War for the Planet of the Apes turning out to be the crowning achievement in Caesar’s reign.
Closing out the series with a soulful finale that saw Andy Serkis’ Caesar and Woody Harrelson’s Colonel battle it out for dominance, War for the Planet of the Apes stuck the landing and put a fitting button on a series that asked what it truly means to be human and what it would take for our species to truly lose its way.
6. Gravity (2013)
At its heart Gravity is a very simple premise: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney have a bad day in space. But when that bad day happens to be an intricately planned misadventure that starts with a wrecked space shuttle and ends with a tense re-entry into the atmosphere, those words just don’t seem to cut it.
Throw in the fact that Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone is forced to confront and overcome traumatic circumstances in her life during her fight for survival, and you can see how Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi movie exemplifies everything the genre should stand for.
With a realistic protagonist, an extremely grounded (but equally tense) challenge and visually dazzling photography, Gravity is a very heartfelt story told with the pacing and action of a blockbuster.
5. Ex Machina (2014)
It’s time now to get into the top five sci-fi movies of the decade, and from this point on, it could be argued that each film we’re about to discuss will be a classic in its own right. Fittingly enough, we start with a movie that’s definitely built on the bones of classic sci-fi lore: Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.
There are so many ways to interpret what exactly goes in Ex Machina, as at times Domnhall Gleeson’s Caleb and Oscar Isaac’s Nathan seem to be playing a game of wits against each other. At other times, it feels like Alicia Vikander’s synthetic being Ava is playing them both. With both of those schools of thought in play, the film plays with the audience’s expectations, as well as their minds.
No matter how you look at it, this existential crisis in a remote location boils over into the larger argument of just where the line between humans and machines lies, and if it could ever be crossed in either direction. In true Garland fashion, the solution is left for the audience to decide, but not before Ex Machina takes some extremely unsettling twists and turns.
4. Inception (2010)
Speaking of mindbenders, let it be known that writer/director Christopher Nolan is one of the foremost practitioners of such a prospect. Inception is arguably still the man’s masterpiece of manipulation, as both the concepts of time and memory are used to tell a layered narrative that plays like a jigsaw puzzle and a thrill ride.
Leonardo DiCaprio leads a team of memory extractors (including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy and Ellen Page) that try to win the freedom of their leader by playing a game of mental espionage and deception. Of course, the longer Inception gets, the muddier the truth of its protagonist becomes, ultimately arriving at a cathartic ending that everyone still chooses to dissect.
While the surface of Inception looks like a simple adventure thrill ride with a stereotypically “difficult” question to answer, the finale of the film is so open to interpretation that you can’t get a definitive solution from anyone. Even with evidence firmly in hand, there’s always someone who’ll force you to question what you know to be real, which is extremely meta considering Inception puts DiCaprio’s lead character through that exact same ringer.
3. The Martian (2015)
Science fiction isn’t always about complicated, outlandish narratives, nor is it constantly about other walks of life. Some of the best sci-fi, like in Ridley Scott’s adaptation of author Andy Weir’s The Martian, deals with realistic situations in scientifically creative ways.
Harkening back to stories like Robinson Crusoe or any other tale involving a shipwreck, The Martian sees botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) survive the harshness of Mars as if he would an extended period of time in any wilderness.
There’s sci-fi at work to be sure, as the film does focus on a manned mission to Mars, but without shortcuts such as terraforming, hyperdrives and cryogenic sleep, The Martian is firmly planted in the world of practical solutions and very human risks. At times thrilling and hilarious, it should serve as the inspiration for the next generation of astronauts to reach for the stars.
2. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Blade Runner is an undisputed classic of sci-fi, as so many stories that came after it were inspired by its existence. It is a bedrock of modern cyberpunk, as well as any story involving the quest for artificial life to be seen as actually living.
And yet, there was still room to make lightning strike twice, as Blade Runner 2049 stepped right back into the world of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and continued the story that started 30 years prior in a way that expanded the original film’s meaning, without compromising its quality.
As Ryan Gosling’s K digs around history familiar to those in love with the original film’s mythos, Blade Runner 2049 pushes further with those same questions, weaving a story for director Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to really sink its teeth into. The past and the future collide to make for a film that’s artistically beautiful and thematically haunting.
1. Arrival (2016)
It was completely unintentional to put Denis Villeneuve films into the top two slots of this list. And yet, the only film that could beat Blade Runner 2049 for the best sci-fi film of the decade is the much more contemporary, and radically more grounded tale, Arrival.
Denis Villeneuve’s first sci-fi film, and arguably his best by a hair, the story sees a linguist (Amy Adams) racing against time and military machinations in order to preserve peace between a newly discovered alien species who are trying to communicate with humanity for the very first time.
While there are aliens and a new form of language involved, Arrival is a tense, but heartbreaking drama that sees Amy Adams deliver a performance so nuanced, she should have won (or at the very least scored a nomination) the Academy Award for Best Actress the year she was eligible. It is a movie that preaches a message of peace and communication without getting too sentimental or outlandish.
It’s grounded, but fantastical, and it’s a film that’s as relevant today as it was a couple of years ago. If there was one film to be selected as a stone cold classic on this list, you’re looking at it.
Sci-fi at its best makes us think about who we are, where we’re going and how we can be better. These ten films show the best examples of how such stories are told and how they should continue to be told in the next decade and beyond.
Let’s enter this new era remembering how these films touched our hearts and minds, and here’s to the next decade of sci-fi, ready to bring us fans new and exciting treasures to behold one step into the future.