‘Tis the season for lists and lists and lists. I already did my top ten movies of 2016, followed by my top ten horror movies of 2016—if we’re being honest, it was a strong year for horror, so there’s a ton of crossover. Now, what the hell, it’s time for my top science fiction films of the 2016.
I’m going to keep this a bit shorter than the others, just five entries. I decided to keep the lists mutually exclusive this time; a title can only show up on one or the other—for example, 10 Cloverfield Lane could have been on either sci-fi or horror, but I went horror, so it won’t pop up again. I’m also leaving out superhero movies, just because, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which I’ve already written about to exhaustion—it’s fantastic, I’m just tired, so very, very tired.
There were some total sci-fi bummers this year, too. Goddamn, I hated Passengers. It continues to make me angrier the more I think about it, which is actually impressive. The less said about movies like The 5th Wave and the franchise-killing TheDivergent Series: Allegiant, the better. And though I enjoyed the sheer lunacy, utter laziness, and total lack of interest in making a coherent movie, Independence Day: Resurgence is nonsensical shit garbage.
But still, 2016 had some sci-fi highlights.
5. Star Trek Beyond
Not the best big blockbuster of 2016, Star Trek Beyond, the third installment in the rebooted franchise, is a huge leap forward from the last chapter, Star Trek Into Darkness. With Fast & Furious’ Justin Lin at the helm, it synthesizes what makes The Original Series so wonderful with what makes the rejiggered universe fun. And most important, it’s set in deep fucking space instead of near Earth like the last two goddamn films. Full of heady genre themes, it doubles down on the hard sci-fi edge in a way its predecessors did not.
4. Midnight Special
The story of a desperate father, uniquely gifted son, and random tough weirdo friend on the run, forms the core of Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special. With top-tier performances by the always great Michael Shannon (dude had a hell of a year), Joel Edgerton, and young Jaeden Liebeher, this Amblin-influenced genre gem plays like a grown-up E.T.. Full of existential themes and ideas, a deliberately paced mystery, a doomsday cult, and dogged government agents, Nichols uses sci-fi trappings to tell a moving human story about the mournful power of fatherhood.
Less overtly bent than her provocateur husband, Gaspar Noe, Lucile Hadzihalilovic has her own twisted aesthetic, and Evolution delivers a unique, surreal, unsettling cinematic nightmare. Set in a picturesque seaside village populated exclusively by young boys and their mothers, the children endure bizarre medical procedures while the women participate in erotic beachfront rituals. Methodical, gorgeous, and sinister, Evolution unfolds like an alternate reality, body horror fever dream.
I adore J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise and I adore the films of Ben Wheatley. Thematically and subject matter wise, it’s a match made in heaven, and the finished product doesn’t disappoint. Sharp, vicious, and dystopian, with a wicked satiric edge, this look at daily life in a modern luxury complex that attends to every need of its residents as it goes off the rails, luxuriates in the normalcy of the bizarre and makes the everyday and mundane unhinged and maniacal. Like the titular building, the film has an initial gloss that’s exciting and sexy, only for it to wear away over time and reveal the darkness and depravity below.
Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival isn’t a typical alien invasion yarn. Esoteric, dreamy, and more concerned with emotional depth and thematic resonance than action or destruction, like the best of the genre, it uses the speculative framework of science fiction to examine our world and delve into the human condition. Gorgeously constructed, Arrival is a timely, vital examination of communication, cooperation, love, loss, and time.