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One of the greatest pleasures of cinema-going is opening your mind to new ideas and viewpoints. And there’s no better genre than science-fiction for that. As a genre, it asks – what if? What if robots were sentient? What if there were life on other planets? What makes us human, and how can we look beyond ourselves to relate to other kinds of intelligence?
Since the turn of the 21st century, sci-fi filmmakers have been getting ever more creative – and ever more weird – with their ideas. Here, then, are ten of our favourite modern classics of the genre – all guaranteed to change the way you think about the world:
Amy Adams stars as a linguist who’s brought in to help the military communicate with the mysterious aliens who’ve suddenly arrived on Earth in Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of a Ted Chiang short story. With no common tongue (or common life experience) to draw on, Adams’ character has to use all of her ingenuity to develop a way to talk to these beings before interplanetary war breaks out. Impossibly clever and deeply affecting, Arrival is an extraordinary experience.
A “looper” is a kind of futuristic assassin who kills his targets in the past: the future version of the looper sends his marks back in time for his younger self to execute, and if you’re already scratching your head, just wait until you watch the film. Rian Johnson combines brain-melting science-fiction with all the intrigue and violence of a gangster film, and somehow manages to pull it off without creating paradoxes… at least, as far as we can see. Maybe we’ll watch it again just to make sure.
An argument for holding onto the bad memories as well as the good ones in the shape of a film, Eternal Sunshine sees Jim Carrey on then-uncharacteristically downbeat form. Joel is broken-hearted following a breakup, and goes to a memory-wiping company to help him forget his ex – but in the process, rediscovers the sweet moments they shared and rethinks his decision. Director Michel Gondry and writer Charlie Kaufman craft a tender, bittersweet tribute to the ways we remember one another.
Richard Kelly’s smash hit debut film introduced the world to Jake Gyllenhaal… and a terrifying six-foot-tall rabbit called Frank. Troubled teen Donnie receives a frightening message while sleepwalking: the world is going to end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. With some help from his science teacher, local legend Grandma Death, and, of course, the menacing Frank, it’s down to Donnie to figure out the philosophy of time travel. Even if you can’t quite get your head around the film’s twisty logic, its evocative 80s soundtrack will keep you glued to the screen.
Sam Rockwell stars as Sam, the only worker on a high-tech mining facility on the far side of the Moon. Almost everything is automated, requiring only the one human caretaker… but the job, and the isolation, take their toll. After an accident on a lunar rover, Sam discovers his employers are up to something deeply unethical and existentially horrifying. Another brilliant directorial debut, this time by Duncan Jones, Moon centres on a fantastic and heart-rending performance by Rockwell.
Officially forbidden to build artificially intelligent robots, engineer Deon Wilson installs a prototype AI in a damaged police robot… only for that robot to get stolen by gang members. Under the guidance of Ninja and Yolandi (members of zef rap-rave group Die Antwoord, playing versions of themselves) the robot develops his own personality – but Chappie’s battery unit is broken, and his time is limited… Daring, outré, and tear-jerking, Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to District 9 and Elysium asks some difficult questions, and offers only difficult answers.
Not content with controlling onscreen graphics, the titular gamers in Neveldine/Taylor’s boundary-pushing thriller use nano-technology to control actual people. Criminals serving life sentences are offered an apparently easy out if they’ll only let themselves become living avatars in ultra-violent shoot-‘em-up Slayers. Turns out it’s only easy if they get controlled by an elite player – otherwise, it’s deadly. An ambitious and oddly prescient portrayal of callous gaming culture, Gamer is frenetically paced and packed with ideas.
Scarlett Johansson provides the voice of Samantha, a virtual assistant along the lines of Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa – except that Samantha is far more convincingly human. Samantha is so convincing, in fact, that Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore falls in love with her… and she even seems to reciprocate. Can an artificial intelligence feel love? What even is love, anyway? Spike Jonze’s film asks some of the biggest questions imaginable in this sci-fi romance that’s far more tender than a film about falling in love with your computer has any right to be.
Michael and Peter Spierig take the classic time travel paradox about accidentally preventing your own birth and turn it thoroughly inside out in this headscratcher of a thriller. A time-traveller trying to prevent a bomb from going off in the 1970s ends up chatting to a man in a bar about his adventures, but as the stranger gets drawn deeper into the time traveller’s world, things start to get… complicated. This one’s probably the most headache-inducing of the lot: just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, the Spierigs throw in an extra twist or five. Pro-tip: make sure you’re fully caffeinated before watching this one.
Something weird is happening out in Area X. After a meteorite hits a lighthouse, a weird bubble forms, and no-one who goes in ever comes back out. The US government assembles a team of biologists, physicists, and other assorted experts, and sends them in to investigate. What happens inside the Shimmer is… weird. A psychedelic and psychological thriller by Alex Garland, Annihilation is a nightmarish take on depression and identity – with the weirdest-looking bear you’ll ever see.