2016 has been a great year for science fiction movies and it’s hard to narrow down my list to just a half-dozen of the best films. Science fiction cinema reflects the topics that are gnawing at society when the films are made, so the 50s and 60s were about the dangers of nuclear energy and the promise of space exploration, the 70s were about the population explosion, food, totalitarian governments and a rising culture of ageism. 80s sci-fi films had a more dystopian feel to them, with replicants that were more human than human and robots sent back in time to ensure humans didn’t prevent the ascendency of the machine.
So what’s the theme of 2016 sci-fi movies? Women in lead roles (finally!), reboots, an inability to differentiate between man and machine and an explosion of superheroes, whether caped or covered in scales. Nostalgia is a smart way for a production company to minimize the risk of a completely unknown property, but it also has dangers of its own because sometimes the film that’s rebooted no longer fits the values and predominant thoughts of the nation.
So here’s my list of the best films of 2016 in no particular order:
Which brings us to my first film: ‘Ghostbusters.‘ The original 1984 movie is a campy, self-aware exercise in pure silliness that relies on the comic genius of Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd. With our surprisingly large pool of popular female comics, the 2016 reboot takes place 30 years later cinematically and it’s an all-female cast headed by Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig that has to defend New York City. Again. Unfortunately, most fans couldn’t handle the switched gender of the ghostbusters, crushing the film’s box office grosses in an oft-appalling outpouring of sexism.
But here’s the thing: It’s a pretty fun and entertaining movie. Sure, it’s not my #1 best sci-fi film of the year — repeat after me, films are not listed in order of how much I liked them — but it certainly deserves another viewing now it’s on DVD. ‘Ghostbusters’ 2017 is a fun mix of comic mayhem, snarky lines and excellent production values that make it worth a second shot.
STAR TREK BEYOND
Speaking of reboots, the third entry in the ‘Star Trek’ saga reboot, helmed by action film director Justin Lin, reminded us that the basic premise of the wildly popular TV show can still work pretty well as a movie. Just not a great movie. Let’s face it, with 10 films between 1979 and 2002, the franchise was tired, and goodness knows there were some clunkers in that list. The 2009 reboot by wunderkind director J.J.Abrams was a great recharge, with a new cast and a massive leap forward in visual effects.
Problem is, the subsequent ‘Star Trek’ films, ‘Into Darkness’ and ‘Beyond,’ have shown us that amazing visual effects are insufficient for a movie to be truly great, even with an entirely competent cast and big budget promotion. It highlights the dilemma facing reboot writers: rely too much on old cliches and genre tropes, or come up with a truly different storyline and risk alienating fans?
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
Sometimes, however, new movies in a long-time franchise hit all the notes right and the result is a terrific film that is great fun unto itself and a solid addition to a series. The latest ‘Star Wars’ movie is everything that ‘Star Trek Beyond’ isn’t in that regard, it’s a terrifically exciting and entertaining movie that knows just how to balance visual effects with all the other elements of a successful series.
‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’ both revolve around some sci-fi staples: spaceships, weird aliens, space battles, distant galaxies, and regular folk rising to the challenge for the greater good. The ‘Star Wars’ team, however, keeps adding interesting new characters as we see the fruit of Disney’s reboot of one of the most successful movie franchises of all time. ‘Rogue One‘ is great fun and you’ve probably already seen it, but go see it again.
Indeed, ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ ties for my best sci-fi film of 2016.
Is ‘Deadpool’ science fiction? Maybe, maybe not. It’s just so damn fun, even if it’s crude and inappropriate every few minutes. It’s also goofy fun and while there’s “cartoon mayhem”, it’s one of the first films that’s truly aimed at adult audiences, not teen boys who are a staple of actioners. By contrast, I thought ‘Suicide Squad,’ a very similar film in some ways, was dull and unengaging, with the only stand-out performance from Viola Davis as the tough-as-nails Amanda Waller.
Unlike every other film on my list, this is one that’s not family friendly. And that’s part of what makes ‘Deadpool’ so much fun.
Every so often a sci-fi film comes out that challenges your intellect while engaging you as a viewer. ‘Arrival‘ is just that film and it’s very good, a rare film for smart people that’s still darn entertaining. There are many parallels with the 1997 film’Contact,’ including having a powerful female as the lead character. But it’s more than that, it’s a film where the lead character is smart and interesting and just happens to be female.
It’s an alien invasion movie but at the completely opposite end of the spectrum to the lesser effort ‘Independence Day Resurgence’: it’s not really about the aliens at all, but about our attempts not to kill ‘em, but to communicate with them. ‘Arrival’ also has a fascinating narrative timeline that reveals much more on the second viewing, which I recommend.
Arrival is the other film tied for best sci-fi film of 2016.
You probably haven’t managed to catch this reboot from fabled Toho Studios, makers of all the original Godzilla films, but it’s terrific. A film that’s truly set in modern day, the story is as much about the government bureaucracy that can’t decide how to respond even as the beast is, yes, destroying Tokyo. Thing of it is, the ‘everyone rallies to fight the invader’ trope is so unbelievable that it’s a breath of fresh air when we do get a movie that portrays the cynicism, CYA mentality and institutional incompetence of government agencies. Oh, and a pretty cool monster.
Quite honestly, the more you know about history, about the challenges facing the Japanese military, and Japanese culture overall, the more you’ll enjoy ‘Shin Godzilla.’ If that’s not you, invite a Japanese friend over to watch it with you so he or she can explain why it’s so ridiculously accurate.
One of the best superhero movies of the year, ‘Doctor Strange’ was a bit like ‘Deadpool’ on acid, except Deadpool probably already was taking LSD in his coffee. Hmmm… how about it’s ‘Deadpool’ meets ‘Inception,’ a film that bends time and space as it offers up a hero’s journey of an arrogant surgeon learning that there’s more to the universe than it seems. Great visuals, some weird fight scenes and lots of snarky, sarcastic dialog as Strange tries to figure out the, well, strange world he’s found. Good fun.
AND MY WORST FILMS
There were also some real clunkers this year, starting with the incomprehensible waste of a talented cast ‘Assassin’s Creed.’ I don’t know what they were thinking, but please, skip it and play two hours of the video game instead. Indeed, video game to movie adaptations seem to generally be cursed as it’s incredibly rare for one to be worth watching.
Also on my list as possibly the worst film of the year is the sci-fi political dystopian film ‘High-Rise.’ It’s bizarre and offensive without really having any narrative point or redeeming features. Not heard of it? You’re lucky. Starring the always charming Tom Hiddleston, it’s a futuristic mess about society breaking down in a sterile building in central London. Want to see a film with a similar theme that’s not quite as awful? Try ‘Snowpiercer‘ if you really want dystopia and dry, uber-cynical statements about humans and our base instincts.
There were also some films that weren’t great but were still worth a mention. I liked the sequel ‘10 Cloverfield Lane‘ as a sort of horror/sci-fi movie, and the ending was unusually satisfying for this genre. Also worth checking out is ‘Passengers,’ an unusual sci-fi romance that lacks surprises and is desperately in need of some sort of twist — the ending feels rushed and half-baked — but the visuals make this pop off the movie screen anyway.
That’s it for me. I know we’ll disagree on some films, so tell me what’s on your favorite list, why, and why you didn’t like some of my faves. And it’s okay. You can be wrong in your opinion, I won’t hold it against you.