Let’s just start by saying you’re not going to agree with me, either in terms of what I categorize as science fiction or what I think are the best films. Good.
If we’re going to categorize “most profitable” as best, then the top box office sci-fi film of 2011 was ‘Transformers: Dark of the Moon’ ($352mil). But while it was better than the stupid ‘Transformers 2’, it’s still more explosions and all the trademarks of Michael Bay’s visual extravaganza, and not so much a smart storyline. It’s not on my list.
In alphabetical order, my favorite science fiction films of the year with their box office grosses in parentheses:
The Adjustment Bureau
A surprisingly engaging romance, this paranoid thriller based on a Philip K. Dick short story of the same name was one of the standout sci-fi films to come out this year. ‘The Adjustment Bureau’ starred Matt Damon as the man who inadvertently peeked behind the veil of the Bureau that secretly keeps the world on track, Emily Blunt as a very appealing love interest and Anthony Mackie as the sympathetic Bureau member who has a niggling feeling that people should have free will, even if they make poor decisions.
The marketing campaign for ‘Apollo 18’ prior to release was terrific. With Warren Christie and Ryan Robbins as the hapless lunar astronauts, the “secret 18th mission where they encountered something too horrible for the public to know about”, the film was interesting and gripping, but flawed with its over-reliance on the found footage cinema verité style of ‘The Blair Witch Project’.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Aren’t we sick of comic book movies yet? Apparently not, and just as well, because the adaptation of ‘Captain America’, long debated in the comic and sci-fi community, turned out to be surprisingly smart, exciting and engaging. Chris Evans (and some amazing computer graphics visual effects) shines as the 98-pound weakling Steve Rogers who is then transformed into the überman Captain America. My one disappointment: Hugo Weaving was lackluster as Red Skull and was far too easy to kill, making it feel like they just needed to keep the story moving rather than have a pivotal mortal combat scene between good and evil.
‘Contagion’ is science fiction with an emphasis on science, a very cerebral and rather surprisingly dispassionate thriller about a lethal airborne virus that devastates the world population, even as we see the struggles that the Centers for Disease Control and related agencies go through trying to identify and characterize the virus, then come up with a vaccine, all as people are dying by the thousands. Matt Damon again stars as the hapless civilian, with Kate Winslet as the lead medical researcher and Laurence Fishburne as the CDC head who faces the inevitable ethical dilemma of a pandemic. This’d make a good backstory for ‘The Walking Dead’ too, now that I think about it.
Dylan Dog: Dead of Night
This is the least successful film on my list, and I remember walking into the screening with zero expectations. I mean, it was a shlocky comic book, why would ‘Dylan Dog’ make a good movie? To my surprise, it was good, really good, and a fun, irreverent supernatural thriller starring Brandon Routh as the babyfaced title character and Anita Briem as his romantic interest. A good one to catch with your DVR when it hits cable.
I know, ‘Hugo’ is more of a fantasy than a science fiction film, and it is a bit flawed by director Martin Scorsese’s obsession with old cinema and film restoration, but it’s such a lush, amazing world that he’s created, a 1930’s Paris that never was, that I’m adding it to my list just as a way of hoping to goad you into seeing it in the theater, in 3D. Starring an amazing Asa Butterfield as Hugo Cabret, with the stalwart Ben Kingsley as one of the first auteurs in cinema, George Mélies.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The original ‘Planet of the Apes’ was a terrific film, with many classic scenes, the best known of which is when Charlton Heston comes across a half-buried Statue of Liberty. The remake (directed by Tim Burton) was lame and never really clicked, even with Marky Mark, uhm, Mark Wahlberg in the lead. Fortunately, ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ serves as a prequel, a backstory, and does so splendidly, offering up a believable and logical — and frightening — explanation for how humans become second class creates and simians rose to the top of the food chain. Exciting performances by James Franco and, as the chimp Caesar, Andy Serkis.
Another cerebral thriller, this revolves around Air Force officer Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is sent back in time to the minutes just before a terrorist bomb explodes on a commuter train heading towards downtown Chicago. On the train he meets Michelle Monaghan, but since they’re both going to die in just a few minutes, well, there’s not much point in making friends. Or is there? Is he really on the train at all? ‘Source Code’ is a twisty and interesting sci-fi thriller that deserved to do better in the box office.
Steven Spielberg returns to his roots with this delightful film set in the early 1970s about a group of kids in suburban Ohio who are making a zombie film for a super 8 film competition and get caught up in a real life mystery about a .. something … that has escaped from a terrible train wreck. The military is gung ho about recovering the thing and there are all sorts of odd occurrences in town. What’s going on? Notable for the snappy and entertaining dialog and arguments amongst the kids, a Spielberg trademark. I found ‘Super 8’ to be a delight, and better the second time I watched it.
X-Men: First Class
I’m always intrigued by prequels and the challenge of explaining how characters we know became those characters. The rich world of X Men is prime for this, and setting it during the Cuban Missile Crisis was terrific: the tensions of the Cold War perfectly presage the tensions between mutant and normal human. With strong performances by James McAvoy as Charles Xavier, Michael Fassbender as Magneto and Jennifer Lawrence as Raven, ‘X-Men: First Class’ is a surprisingly human and personal film, with, yes, some terrific visual effects.
Here at Science Fiction.com, it’s no surprise that other folks have different opinions about their favorite films. Here’s what they shared with me:
Patrick Ruddell: ‘Limitless’.
Zezura Ruddell: ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’.
Janice Kay: ‘Battle Los Angeles’.
Matthew Delman and Cathy Kammer: ‘Captain America’.
Jeremy Wade: ‘X-Men: First Class’. . Who knew we were such an evenly split crew!
Now, what are your favorite sci-fi films of 2011?