If you ‘know your OWA,’ you know that one of the other things I do outside of Other Worlds is write for AMFM Magazine, covering film, leaning more towards indies and the film festival circuit. A lot of films cross my virtual desk on their own, but I tend to seek out the SciFi ones no matter what. When I started to put my best of 2014 article together (you can read it here), I started to think about what a great year it had been for my favorite genre and figured I would write a similar article for our newsletter. So here I present my top 15 SciFi films of 2014 for you to add to your checklist.
I should mention these are films that received their theatrical or VOD/home video release in 2014. 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. Notably absent on the 2014 list, and I realize I am in the minority here, is the naked Scarlet Johansson movie, UNDER THE SKIN. Although beautifully shot (shooting in Scotland helps), I found the film impenetrably dull with next to no story. Even worse, there is no development; every sequence basically plays out identically. The film would have been far more effective as a short. I do not understand the lavish praise it has gotten, which to me is comparable to people raving about the wings at Hooters. Okay, rant over, onto the good stuff.
1. I Origins – Mike Cahill’s heartbreaking Science Thriller was one of my favorites of the year (actually came in second to Whiplash). The story of a man who looses his wife and then searches for her soul using her retinal-print across the world is equally thought-provoking and emotionally forceful. This is a film about love and god and science and the only things that really matter in this modern world. The performances are brilliant and heartbreaking at times, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the storytelling is effortless. This is a film that atheists and theists can watch together and have a rational discourse after. It’s also a film guaranteed to make you hold on to your loved one even tighter. I honestly don’t know how the rest of the critical world missed out on this film, possibly the most humanist film about science ever made. Mike Cahill and actress/writer Brit Marling last collaborated on ANOTHER EARTH, one of my favorites of all time. SciFi Credentials: Technology with Unintended Consequences
2. Coherence – A SciFi mind-f*ck of a film, Coherence concerns a dinner party on the night a comet passes dangerously close to the Earth. The entire neighborhood looses power except for them… and one other house – which turns out to be another version of their house, with another version of them inside. An expert character study with a great ensemble cast, the film does an amazing job with an obviously low budget. Also, this is a great one for ‘I have to watch it again right away.’ This is not a film for the ‘Marvel set,’ all the explosions happen within the mind, but it’s a thrilling ride. SciFi Credentials: Alternate Reality, SciFi on a budget
3. FREQUENCIES – Released in most of the rest of the world as OXV: THE MANUAL, Australian SciFi thriller/love story Frequencies takes place in an alternate reality where a person’s individual frequency can be measured and often determines their success in society. In writer/director Darren Paul Fisher’s world, this helps explain why some people are just luckier than others; their frequency is more in tune with that of nature. In one sequence, Marie-Curie Fortune, a young woman with off-the-charts frequency, walks across a street not looking, her steps perfectly in time with the seemingly random pattern of traffic. She arrives at the train station just as the train pulls up, finds a £20 note as she gets off, and then goes to pick up an item from a store that should not be in until next week, and it just happens to be in. The exact cost works out to be £20. Isn’t that lucky? When she and negative frequency Isaac-Newton Midgely try to get together, the universe conspires to keep them apart. To change their destiny, they have to change their frequency. A love story in the SciFi world, this film stays with you long after it ends, and is another of those ‘watch it right away again after’ films. I had the opportunity to give the film its US Premiere when I programmed Austin Film Festival, and then write about it the next year for AMFM magazine (you can read the article here). SciFi Credentials: Alternate Reality, Technology with Unexpected Consequence
4. SNOWPIERCER – A perfectly designed post-apocalyptic experience, set on a train, Bong Joon-ho’s locomotive revolution also received a progressive release, proving same day theatrical and VOD can work if done right. The most unbelievable aspect of the film may be that governments actually did something to counteract global warming. In the film, the flooding of Earth with a chemical designed to reduce the temperature plunges the world into sub-polar conditions, creating a new ice age. The sole remaining humans ride a perpetual motion train that makes a yearlong trek around the globe. Even more unbelievable, this experiment apparently happened last year, in 2014, as the events of the film take place near the end of 2031, 17 years after the residents first boarded the train. SNOWPIERCER is a pure joyride of concept, design, and execution. With the help of Chris Evans and Jamie Bell, a revolution moves from the rear of the train car-by-car, getting closer to the revered ‘engine’ at the front where Ed Harris rules over the entire train with Godlike distance. In truth, I haven’t trusted Ed Harris since he ran the Truman Show, and he is perfectly calm as he explains the need to keep the train, which is a closed ecological system, frozen in development. ‘We don’t have time for natural selection,’ he tells Curtis, and warns him that his order prevents the chaos that comes from survival of the fittest. It is a fascinating argument, one of the things that makes SciFi so special as a genre. (You can read my extended review of the film here.) SciFi Credentials: Post-Apocalyptic World, Geo-political Allegory through Alternate Society Example
5. THE INFINITE MAN – The feature film debut of writer/director Hugh Sullivan (another Australian), is a witty comedy that keeps the viewer on edge the whole time, trying to anticipate how the characters are going to escape the infinite time loop that they themselves have created, and constantly paying off moments from earlier in the film by revealing new information. The basic plot of THE INFINITE MAN centers around an anniversary weekend that goes terribly wrong, as over-prepared Dean, a scientist, tries to bring his girlfriend Lana back to the hotel they spent the previous anniversary at, only to find it closed and abandoned. To make matters worse, Lana’s ex boyfriend Terry, an Olympic javelin thrower, shows up and takes Lana away. Dean’s unorthodox solution, building a time machine and sending himself back to this exact moment, seems to work until he and Lana get swapped for the original Dean and Lana and end up in the wrong timeline. How do you fix that? Go back again, of course. With each attempt to ‘fix’ the weekend, Dean only adds another layer of mess and confusion, providing a perfect metaphor to a relationship. This is the SciFi Romantic comedy that we’ve wanted since GROUNDHOG DAY hinted at it. You can read my full review on AMFM here. SciFi Credentials: Time Travel, Technology with Unexpected Consequence, SciFi on a Budget
6. INTERSTELLAR – I have to admit, I was a little underwhelmed when I finally saw this film, which I did a month after everyone else because I was busy, but it is still a beautiful, engaging and thought-provoking film that actually holds together much better than Christopher Nolan’s last foray into the genre (which had critics falling over each other with unnecessarily praise). What makes INTERSTELLAR so exemplary is the depth of the characters, the nuanced performances and the emotional resonance of the whole film. Although the plot is very SciFi (father leaves Earth to search for another planet for our population), anyone can be drawn into the relationships. I think my reason that it comes here at #6 on my list, behind several smaller budgeted films, is that the end of the film (not revealing anything) sort of seemed inevitable and so the third act was just a lot of waiting for the pieces to fall in place in their obvious spaces. That being said, the trip through the wormhole gives 2001 a run for its freakout money. SciFi Credentials: Space Travel, Robots, Dystopian Future
7. MOOD INDIGO – It’s hard to decide if this is even SciFi. It is certainly an alternate reality, but it is so developed and distant from our own, the film plays more like fantasy than SciFi. I remember hunting down everything Michael Gondry did after seeing ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, only to discover I had been a fan for years. Gondry has given us some of the most memorable music video images that ever graced the medium – the conquering teddy bear of Bjork’s “Human Behavior,” the one shot surreal hospital room of Radiohead’s “Knives Out,” and the Lego rock of the White Stripe’s “Fell In Love With A Girl.” MOOD INDIGO is a little bit like the best parts of all those videos, employing stop motion cinematography in a dieselpunk surreal world where people fly in cloud ‘cars’ hung from cranes and miniature humans in mice costumes don’t look out of place running around tubes in a house. From the very moment the film begins, Gondry treats us to one ridiculously improbable invention after another, such as a GPS system that is just a live video of a man pointing to a map with an arrow, or the pianocktail, an upright piano that automatically crafts a drink from a variety of possible liquids and fruits (and eggs) according to the notes and chords you play, each one perfectly matching your mood. Although the pictures often overwhelm the action, there is just enough story to keep it moving forward. My only complaint might be that with so much artifice around them, it is hard to really feel anything of depth for the characters. I can see them feeling, and see how it affects the world in which they live, but I always feel like I am watching an expertly crafted piece of art, rather than really being drawn in at an emotional level. You can read my full review on AMFM here. SciFi Credentials: Alternate Reality, Dieselpunk
8. EDGE OF TOMORROW – I knew this was going to be a good year for SciFi when Tom Cruise’s latest was getting so much press and promotion, and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, the only thing that doesn’t work about the film is the title, which says very little. The film would have been better served by the original Japanese novel title ‘All You Need Is Kill.’ Warner seemed to acknowledge that by excessively using the tagline ‘Live Die Repeat’ to the extent that it’s bigger than the title on the poster and Blu ray. That being said, the film is a fun kill-the-invading-aliens in the STARSHIP TROOPERS mode, with the repetition of GROUNDHOG DAY as the conveyance of the plot. Cruise plays a public relations guy forced into combat by his superiors. He finds himself in a time loop that sends him back to the day preceding the battle every time he dies. He begins to train (with Emily Blunt) and every day gets closer to victory. It’s not a deep film, and the assumed emotional connection that Tom Cruise takes on with Blunt works on his side, but never quite on her side as she meets him new each day. The necessity of keeping the plot moving forward doesn’t allow for much time on their relationship, so each ‘day’ she is forced to take leaps that just don’t work. And there is not much intellectual discourse in the film. Cruise doesn’t more deeply understand anything about the aliens that helps us defeat them, he just trains and trains and learns a little more each time he gets closer, so there is not much of a twist at the end. Still, it’s charming, with a fair amount of humor, looks amazing and is never dull. SciFi Credentials: Aliens, Time Travel, Paranormal Abilities
9. LUCY – Scarlett Johansson’s better SciFi film of 2014, LUCY, is a great idea from Luc Besson with empty characters and incredibly questionable science. That being said, it’s a fun ride. The only character with any substance or development at all is Johansson’s title character, a somewhat dumb American girl who gets tricked into being a drug mule. As the experimental drugs take hold in her system, she develops increasingly enhanced physical and mental capabilities, such as telepathy, telekinesis, mental time travel, and can choose not to feel pain. This also makes her a much more interesting character, as she is constantly checking in on her own development. Unfortunately, there is no one else in the film even remotely interesting, especially Morgan Freeman in the now laughable wise-explain-it-all role his agents seem to think is all he can play. Finally the third act is almost non-existent, which is often the case when someone has become all-powerful to the point that they can’t even be challenged. Still, the action sequences are well-done, and the setup is great. I only wish they had realized she had already defeated everyone physically and needed a different sort of challenge for the third act. SciFi Credentials: Transformation, Technology with Unexpected Consequence, Paranormal Abilities
10. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – GotG is Space Opera for the next generation, it’s pretty much STAR WARS with a great soundtrack. The characters are developed just enough to make you want to watch the film, but it’s more about all the crazy places they take you, and the amazing races from other worlds that you meet when you get there. There is nothing complicated about the film, nothing to learn, nothing to think about. But it’s a ton of fun and it’s perfectly executed. Plus with that amount of money at the box office, we are sure to get a few more installments. SciFi Credentials: Space Travel, Robots, Aliens (notice this is the first mention of aliens on the chart – despite the banner year for SciFi, it was not a good year for aliens).
11. HONEYMOON – A couple comes to a cabin(-in-the-woods) to celebrate after their wedding, and in the middle of the night, newlywed Bea (played by Rose Leslie from Game of Thrones) wanders out into the woods, and is ‘taken’ by something. In the grand tradition of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, she returns just a shell of a human. HONEYMOON is a rare film, it is honestly frightening, and not in the cat leaps on the windowsill way, or even in the killer jumping out of a closet way. This is a film that scares you to the core because the central premise is so disturbing. The slow burn of Bea transforming from something very human and loving to something unknown and alien is nuanced and chilling. And there are moments of cringe-inducing body horror that are some of the most alarming I’ve ever seen, more so because they are not in the midst of some slasher gore-fest or torture porn. Honeymoon works because it is actually a relationship drama. It’s a relationship that turns horrific, but the aesthetics of the film are built around a very real, emotional relationship between a married couple. You can read my AMFM article here. SciFi Credentials: Aliens, Transformation
12. THE ONE I LOVE – This film is just confusing enough that I don’t even know if it IS SciFi, but it’s definitely one worth watching either way. A romantic dramedy, THE ONE I LOVE follows Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss as they take a weekend away together at a house suggested by their relationship counselor. Once they get there, they discover something strange: alternate versions of each other living in the guest house, although only visible when they enter alone. Each member of the marriage is treated to an almost ‘best case’ version of their partner when they leave their real spouse behind. What starts as experimentation turns into infatuation and obvious jealousy. It’s an excellent character study, and a great way to think about how we reflect our prejudices on our partners. SciFi Credentials: Aliens? Transformation? Paranormal Abilities?, SciFi on a Budget
13. AUTOMATA – A mere fifty years in the future, planet Earth is in the midst of gradual desertification. Mankind struggles to survive as the environment deteriorates and the slow regression of the human race begins. Technology, planes, cellular phones, the satellites we used to carry their signal, all gone. On the brink of life and the reality of death, we combat the uncertainty and fear with the creation of the first android, the Automata Pilgrim 7000. This is classic SciFi in the OMEGA MAN or original PLANET OF THE APES film model, a film that uses its science fiction setting to talk about the human condition. Antonio Banderas plays Jacq Vaucan, an insurance adjuster who investigates malfunctions in robots in the service of humans. Vaucan discovers a robot making its own repairs, in direct violation of its programming, leading him to believe robots are evolving right under our noses. A heady exploration of what life truly is, AUTOMATA is sparkling SciFi in the old-school tradition, a worthy answer to Blade Runner, and a fresh herald of the coming robopocalypse. You can read my AMFM article here. SciFi Credentials: Robots, Post-Apocalyptic World
14. FOREVER’S END – Alone in a rundown house miles from anything, Sarah has only herself to face the harsh reality of life in the post-apocalypse. Until out of nowhere her sister shows up… and just as Sarah begins to deal with the fact that she might not be the only one left on earth, a strange man shows up. Do they trust him? What exactly is out there, past the empty fields that surround the house? Beautifully shot and captivating, writer/director JC Schroder’s FOREVER’S END teases the audience time and time again with what may or may not be going on. Read my article on AMFM. SciFi Credentials: Post-Apocalyptic World
15. DEAD WITHIN - Zombie films have been with us since 1932’s WHITE ZOMBIE; they always offer us one sure-fire way to frighten, a battle against mindless, unstoppable bloodthirsty monsters. There is no reason why these creatures want to kill us, they just do. Zombies themselves seldom are interesting characters, but the world around them, the world that created them, and the world they create by their very existence is often very rich and compelling. Writer/director Ben Wagner focuses on this in DEAD WITHIN, a film which made its US Premiere at an Other Worlds Austin event last September. In the film, a couple waits out the Zombie Apocalypse from inside a small cabin. Their marriage coming apart due to distrust and delusion, Kim and Mike have no one but each other. Everyday Mike leaves the cabin to forage for food; everyday Kim expects him never to return. She doesn’t even know what’s out there. It’s a great way to concentrate on just what makes these kind of films interesting, and to keep the costs down. You can read my full story on AMFM Magazine. SciFi Credentials: Post-Apocalyptic World, SciFi on a budget
Honorable Mention: LFO, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, DIVERGENT, HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1, MR. JONES