The 11 Sci-Fi Films That Defined 2015
The best films about the future this year.
Image: Mad Max
Yes, 2015 was another banner year for filming the future. A deluge of new sci-fi movies have debuted since last January—we saw big budget sci-fi blockbusters, fun, competent genre exercises, and stellar, mind-bending new concoctions. That meant still more post-apocalypses (but maybe the best yet) and interstellar dogfights, but it also meant fresh, incisive stories about gender politics and transhumanism, and experimental future-weary fables, too. Oh, and it meant a new Star War.
The major themes that bubbled up in the year's science fictional slipstream included income inequality, artificial intelligence, transgender rights, and the power and necessity of the scientific endeavor itself. Young adult dystopias showed signs of flagging, while classic-mold sci-fi mega franchises boomed (with one exception). There were not one but two great feminist-leaning SF films; one a bona fide blockbuster hit, another a powerful, slow-burning indie. There was an already-beloved animated short about our possible futures.
Looking at the year's most impactful sci-fi films is, in other words, a pretty good way to gauge the zeitgeist in how we're processing the future, with a few very big exceptions. Climate change, mass shootings, and racial injustice were conspicuously absent from the cinema scene, despite having been era-defining, society-threatening ills for years now. Maybe those issues were tackled in the 50 some-odd small budget films that came out this year—the new sci-fi B-movie deluge is another sign of the resurgence of the genre—and I just missed them. Regardless, there was a wealth of future fictional ideas to soak in, examine, and debate. These are the SF films that defined 2015.
The Time Travel Tale Gets a Gender Fluid Facelift
The familiarly twisty time travel action narrative—agent goes back in time to stop an atrocity—gets a gender fluid facelift with Predestination. Even though it's based on a Robert Heinlein short from the 60s, thanks in part to stellar acting from Sarah Snook, the story takes on a newfangled immediacy. The protagonist is a gender-swapping Renaissance woman who is capable of kicking ass, topping her class, and traveling through time, but who's never really sure of who she is. The central metaphors are carried a bit awkwardly, blunt as they are—we contain multitudes, can we ever really change who we are, etc—and the film is ultimately more comfortable serving as a classic sci-fi time travel adventure tale. At that, it ably succeeds, grandfather paradoxes be damned.
10. Hunger Games: Mockingbird Part 2, Volume 1, Act 4
The Decline of Young Adult Dystopias
This year may have seen the wearied death shudder of dystopian young adult sci-fi popcorn flicks. In 2015, there were no fewer than three releases in this genre, which, five years ago hardly existed; the final Hunger Games installment, the second Divergent film, Insurgent, and The Scorch Trials, the second volume in the okay I give up who can even keep track of which hero/ine is rising up against which cartoonish oppressor anymore. As the kids who once comprised these films' target audience graduate from the high schools whose social politics the stories are modeled after, and as those kids begin looking to bigger and bolder and more mature franchises, and as the overstuffed genre gets bogged down with more cookie cutter teen heroes and villains, it's finally beginning to wane.
For the second time in a row, a Hunger Game "disappointed" at the box office, and its copycats didn't kill, either. There is fatigue with the format, even though Katniss Everdeen is a great character, and rightly enshrined as a vital Young Adult heroine. Because, well, we get it: The world is unfair, but good prevails and those unfair things all collapse if you try really really hard. Except, not.
9, 8. Self/Less / Advantageous
This year we got not one but two big screen meditations on body transference and our newfangled aspirations toward immortality.
The Anti-Transhumanist, Anti-Capitalist Thriller
Self/Less may actually turn out to have been a bit too far ahead of its time. No, the film isn't great, but the target it's ultimately skewering is still lingering on the fringes: The desire, especially of the rich, to harness technology to live forever. Elite transhumanism, in other words. The film focuses on a wealthy old tycoon (Ben Kingsley) who arranges to be transferred into a younger body (Ryan Reynolds)—a clone, he's told—that turns out to have belonged to a war vet who sacrificed himself to pay his ailing child's medical bills. There's an astute and pertinent allegory here, even if the film devolves into a fairly mindless shoot 'em up: The techno-elite rich are literally sucking the life out of the less fortunate. The message resonates; the urge to immortality is revealed as destructive fanaticism, the greedy rich are given a chance to redeem themselves by returning the resources they plundered from the poor.
The Feminist, Anti-Transhumanist, Anti-Capitalist Thriller
Advantageous is by far the better film. It's sort of A Handmaid's Tale meets Black Mirror. Directed by Asian American filmmaker Jennifer Phang, it just drips plausibility in its depiction of a patriarchal future where there's no safety net, the inequality gap is yawning, and women are cast out of jobs when their looks fade. It's a somber, deeply claustrophobic film that makes you feel this sterile but desolate future through its aching, struggling, and desperate characters. It's another piece in which a protagonist opts into a body transfer, for entirely different, and heartbreaking, reasons. Nothing short of a misogynist, institutionally racist, and greed-driven capitalist society is in the sights here, as the men, even the execs, are either impotent or pathetic.
I can't think of another SF drama I've seen recently that so vigorously and comprehensively examines gender politics and projects them into the future. It's not perfect—the last quarter lags, and the ending feels a bit like a compromise—but it will shove your nose in a rapidly-arriving tomorrow with iniquities intact.
7. Hard to Be a God
The Repulsive World Where Science Never Happens
This is probably the most repulsive, unpleasant film I've ever seen. It is teeming with feces, blood, guts, bodily fluids of every stripe, and it is crowded with the thick textures of death. There's barely any plot, it's in washed out black and white, and it is three hours long. It's also fascinating.
Insofar as there's a story (adapted from a 1964 Boris Sturgatsky novel by Alexei German, who spent decades on God, his final project, before dying just short of its completion, in 2013), it's that scientists from Earth have been sent to a planet much like our own, with a human population that's apparently a few hundred years behind in terms of development. Anton, one said scholar, is to study the emergence of the brutal medieval culture's Renaissance, firsthand. Only thing is, enlightenment never comes; power-mad rulers, warlords, and cultish sects start snuffing out the emerging intelligentsia, free thinkers, and just about everyone else, really.
The insinuation is that it's pretty miraculous that we Earthbound humans have come as far as we have—there are plenty of possible futures where we're stuck in the middle ages. It's also a stirring comment on the anti-science, anti-progressive voices of our own era. Hard to Be a God makes the case better than any film I know of that life without progress is not just nasty, brutish, and short, but eventually, torturous and hellish. More visceral and disturbing than any post-apocalyptic fantasy, this depiction of a world without science is among the most gut-wrenching, original, and affecting science fiction films yet made.
6. Inside Out
Sci-Fi as a Storytelling Device
I was hesitant to see Inside Out at first, notwithstanding my (our, everyone's) love of Pixar. The central conceit—that the human body is robotic; to be monitored, administered, and repaired as if it were machinery—had me worried that it'd act as a tacit endorsement of our Ritalin-happy attitude toward mental health. But Inside Out was less a pusher than a taker; it simply used sci-fi trappings like spaceship command centers, arcing screens, and control panels an ultra-modern metaphor for the emotional turmoil of growing up. Nothing inhuman was needed to overcome Riley's distress. She took no pills, pulled no levers. The film was just using a brand new, sci-fi-indebted language to enrich its allegory. It was a whole new kind of great.
5. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
The Affirmation of the Sci-Fi Mega-Franchise
If we're talking purely in terms of reach, then Star Wars: The Force Awakens is, hands down, the SF film that defined 2015. It's already made well more than a billion dollars. In like ten days. Its promotional campaign will now set the golden standard for future mega-films; a slow drip that pools to total saturation with such precision that nobody noticed it happening—yet everyone knew they had to see the thing, immediately.
Like the year's previous mega-earner, Jurassic World, Force Awakens barely brings anything new to the table in terms of ideas. (Same goes for Terminator: Genisys, which disappointed critically and domestically, but was nonetheless a megahit overseas, and Mission Impossible 5, which pulled in big bucks, too.) But it's roundly decreed, box office-verified mega-success means that the Marvel Universe model will now expand to include any successful film or franchise capable of bearing sequels or spinoffs. A Star Wars shared universe is on the horizon; Rogue One is up next year. This has pros and cons: These massive financial investments fly the banner high for science fiction, but they do so by leaning on well-worn narrative curves and mining nostalgia; the bane of a genre that should thrive on innovation.
4. The Martian
Sci-Fi for the Age of IFL Science
The Martian was a both a celebration of science itself and a damned fun movie to watch. The film is set in an optimistic near-future (for once) that both feels and looks plausible, and the story is essentially an extended paean to human ingenuity. It's a tribute to NASA, to botanists (and physicists and astronomers and engineers), to the spirit of collective achievement and international cooperation, to progress itself. There is no villain. No vastly pie-in-the-sky technology. And importantly, no wasted time. It's exciting as hell. It was everything Tomorrowland tried to stand for but couldn't muster.
In our moment of renewed action on the united space front, with SpaceX launching reusable rockets, Virgin Galactic's orbital tourism creeping closer, and Elon Musk and Mars One contextualizing the idea of colonizing the red planet as a generational possibility, this can-do spirit is firmly in the zeitgeist. Even if it isn't really competence porn, it's the sort of highly aspirational, exciting, and rewarding narrative the times call for—especially as Republicans are trying to defund NASA, NOAA, and other scientific institutions in Congress. This is precisely the kind of movie I'd love to show my unborn son when he's old enough.
3. World of Tomorrow
A New Brand of Fable for the Future-Weary
No, not Tomorrowland. This 16-minute animated short probably cost less than Harrison Ford's trailer on the Force Awakens set, but it's as stirring a portrait of the future—and how we think about the future—as anything that emerged this year. World of Tomorrow was a two-year labor of love, borne out of acclaimed animator Don Hertzfeldt's experimentation with digital tools. If at first it seems overly cutesy, watch on; the future that unfolds is poignant, absurd, funny, melancholy, and true as anything blasted onto a big screen canvas.
The protagonist is 4-year-old Emily, who receives a visit from a time-traveling clone of herself, generations and hundreds of years into the future. As future-Emily explains all of the progress that's set to unfold, from the immersive Outernet to solar-powered moon-harvesting robots to memory-mining, current-Emily happily mumbles on in toddler-speak. Even in the face of "we are all going to die horribly" Emily points at the shooting stars—that are actually human bodies burning up upon reentry—and calls them pretty.
"Do not lose time on daily trivialities," future-Emily intones. "Do not dwell on petty detail. For all of these things melt away and drift apart within the obscure traffic of time. Live well and live broadly. You are alive and living now. Now is the envy of all of the dead." You could also read it this way: Don't spend too much time worrying about the future. It's a fitting metaphor at a moment when so many trajectories seem to lie before us; a singularity there, a mass extinction here, total digital devolution everywhere. And we're like children in the face of it all, with no idea how it will all ultimately play out—but optimistic, whether we should be or not.
2. Ex Machina
The Rise of the Machines (and the Paranoid Indie SF Thriller)
Slyly paranoid, creepy and captivating, Ex Machina is the perfect film for our techno-moment. We're both hooked on and terrified of our smartening world; that world is constantly breaking down, after all. At its core, Machina is a fairly old school Frankenstein story about the perils of creating lifelike robots that, yes, eventually run amok. But it draws in interesting questions about human-on-robot sexual politics, too, as it considers and skewers the modern tech guru who literally wants to fuck the future.
Machina is the deepest gray in science fiction's color spectrum—a representative of the fast-ascendant genre of technophobic indie films that, like Advantageous, work insidiously to lodge a particular question in your brain. Machina's is: What is it that we're after, really? Companionship? Pleasure? Conquest? Are we creating just for the sake of creating at this point, and will we know when to stop? Apparently, no one really seems to think so.
1. Mad Max: Fury Road
What the End Feels Like
The biggest surprise of the year was delivered in our tiredest genre. Max breathed new life not just into the erstwhile Mel Gibson vehicle, but the entire post-apocalypse playground. This film was alive with the stench of death. For once, the world actually felt ended. The environment thoroughly decayed, in a deeply resonant aesthetic for a parched planet. The tribes that filled the vacuum felt menacing; plausible in their macabre surreality. Of course a bizarre machine-worshipping cult takes power, seeking to cage and destroy and control women. And of course women will take it back.
Putting the rebelling general Furiosa at center stage was brilliant—the empowered heroines not only rebel, but win the day, take power, literally ascend from the ashes of primitive patriarchy. The film's final moments are anarchic and joyous, capping off an onslaught of inventive big screen thrills.
It was an expert feat of action filmmaking, too—a long surge of adrenaline through a bleak, expertly detailed future wasteland—and it gave feeling, a pulse, to that grimmest possible outcome. The world could be wrecked, and if you're not a Furiosa or a Max, you're probably not going to survive it. It's going to hurt. It's a dirt-stained, exclamation point-addled note to humanity, delivered to multiplexes around the globe: Don't blow it.