Every year, more than a few science fiction movies are released. Many of them are ambitious spectacles—and while that might not always pay off, at least the genre does seem to be willing to take risks or dazzle the audience. 2016 saw more than a few really great science fiction movies—along with more than a few busts.
Here are the best sci-fi movies of 2016.
10 Cloverfield Lane
The first 90% of 10 Cloverfield Lane is tense, thrilling filmmaking with great acting – especially from John Goodman – and off-putting atmosphere. If it managed to stick the landing, it’d be a classic thriller, maybe just a tier below the best of the best. And it’s well worth watching for that first 90%. Those thrills still exist, after all.
The ending is a massive disappointment and, while I won’t spoil it, suffice to say that it leaves you with a nasty taste in your mouth afterward. It’s like eating a meal from a Michelin-Star restaurant only to be force fed Burger King afterward. You still got the great meal; it’s just that the experience has been soured somewhat by what came after.
Aliens have arrived on Earth in Arrival. Their only form of communication is weird symbols. So the military enlists the help of a linguist in order to try to figure out what the aliens are saying. Meanwhile, other divisions and countries want to blast the aliens out of the sky, even though they haven’t attacked us.
It’s a thrilling and intellectually challenging movie about the importance of communication that may cheat with its devices a little bit, but nonetheless is effective.
For the Love of Spock
For the Love of Spock is a documentary about Leonard Nimoy. Is it, itself, technically a science fiction movie? No, but it’s about one of the biggest stars of one of the most important sci-fi shows to ever exist, and I think fans of the genre will enjoy it. As most of you probably know, Nimoy died in 2015. His son, Adam, made this documentary as something of a tribute to his father – while also functioning as a way to examine the troubled relationship the two men had. That part makes it even more emotionally compelling. It’s a good movie outside of that, but the insight that comes from Adam about their relationship is what solidifies it as great.
Into the Forest
Into the Forest is like the beginning of a post-apocalyptic movie, prior to society completely collapsing. It’s set in the near future, and focuses on a family after a widespread power outage. How they deal with that, how that transforms both them and the people around them – showing that becomes the primary objective of Into the Forest. The acting is fantastic – the leads are Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood – the situations they get into are compelling, and the looming idea that the entire world could end gives everything an eerie feeling.
The Lobster is one half of a great movie and one half of an okay movie. It takes place in a future in which single people are given 45 days to find a romantic partner or they’re turned into animals. The first half follows our protagonist as he goes to a resort in order to find someone to be with after his wife leaves him. The second half … goes in a different direction, let’s just say that.
Most people I’ve spoken to love one half and tolerate the other – interestingly, which half they prefer changes from person to person. There’s no consistency to it. Personally, I loved the first half and its absurd black comedy. Either way, it’s an interesting movie that’s unlike almost any other, and well worth the time.
So, there’s this kid who has special powers. He can mess with telecommunication devices and he can shoot light beams out of his eyes. His father believes that, if he doesn’t get this kid to a specific location by a certain time, the world will end. The FBI is trying to track him down, since an Amber Alert was issued after the father kidnapped his child. The child was born in a religious cult, and they also want him back.
That’s the plot of Midnight Special, a deliberately paced but incredibly engaging road trip sci-fi movie directed by Jeff Nichols, whose films are all deliberately paced but incredibly engaging. That’s what he does. And he does it well.
You have no idea how much I wish Morgan was better than “just okay.” It’s about a genetically engineered being who is being studied in a lab and then, well, you can probably guess what happens when a being that grows in age and intelligence multiple times faster than we do decides it doesn’t want to be an experiment anymore. What should have been an Ex Machina type of movie becomes something far less interesting. It’s not dull and it does have some thematic depth, but it does feel like a missed opportunity.
Operator is a rare comedy for these sorts of lists. Sci-fi movies, for whatever reason, rarely try to entice laughter. Maybe they think it’ll ruin the tone and we’ll start laughing at the premise by proxy. There are certainly a few great sci-fi comedies – but fewer than one might hope.
Anyway, Operator sees a programmer create a call center answering machine that can empathize with the customer. You know, instead of all of those “for option X, press 1; for option Y, press 2” types of things. It’s effectively a very smart A.I. He uses his wife’s voice for the program … and then falls in love with the A.I., neglecting his wife in the process. It’s Her-lite, basically, but it’s interesting and pretty funny, and you probably haven’t heard of it, so check it out.c
Passengers is more interesting than it is good, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t without merit. It’s the type of movie that makes you question what you’d do in the situations presented to its characters. The main situation here is that a man awakens 90 years too early from an induced hibernation, unable to go back asleep. Does he wake anyone up or does he live out the remainder of his days alone? If you’ve seen the trailer, you probably know how it answers that, which got criticism from some for being morally wrong.
Characters can do morally wrong things. They don’t have to always act perfectly. That can tell us about how humans behave. And I bet you most people would make the same decision if presented with the choice.
It’s a moderately entertaining movie beyond that. It’s got some laughs and some peril and some drama. Is it great? No, but it’s entertaining and thoughtful.
Star Trek Beyond
Star Trek Beyond is also one of the best action movies of 2016. It has an engaging plot, solid action scenes, good characters, and is the first of the Trek reboot films that actually worked on pretty much all levels. It’s a shame that it didn’t make as much money as its predecessors; it deserved it.