Doug Liman's Edge of Tomorrow, out on Friday, is that rare and wonderful thing: a non-franchise, blockbuster sci-fi movie (one that's attracting good reviews, no less). In a market flooded with sequels, reboots, and multi-genre franchises, it's increasingly rare and exciting to see money devoted to science fiction that isn't rooted in some pre-existing property studios know we can digest (Edge is based on a Japanese young-adult novel, largely unknown to U.S. audiences).
The Matrix in 1999 is still the best example in recent memory of an original sci-fi film coming from nowhere to dominate the box office to such an extent that it demanded sequels. 2009's Avatar will be the second, whenever James Cameron gets around to shooting his follow-up trilogy. But what else is definitively in the sci-fi film canon since The Matrix? Read on for the definitive list.
Rules: Sequels are not allowed, nor are add-ons and reboots to existing franchises (like 2009's Star Trek). If your film firmly straddles two genres, that's a high hurdle to clear. You don't have to have made huge money, or even have been a hit—some films earned their cult status on DVD or Netflix.
Director: David Twohy
Release Date: Feb 18, 2000
Domestic Box Office: $39 million
The only film on this list other than Avatar to inspire sequels, Pitch Black is a truly strange beast. It was a sleeper hit despite featuring no stars (Vin Diesel was not yet famous enough to even receive billing on the poster) and getting generally mixed reviews. But there's just something ineffably fun about the film, which feels like an updated B-movie that John Carpenter might have made 20 years earlier. Crash-landed on an desert planet, a space crew fights monstrous aliens who only come out at night, but can they trust the convict who's among their cargo? Pitch Black's strengths lie in its intimate thrills, a fact Twohy forgot for his space opera follow-up The Chronicles of Riddick, which has its own fans but is too bloated for its own good. A third film, 2013's Riddick, was a perfectly decent action-adventure that re-narrowed its focus on Diesel's titular anti-hero.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Director: Steven Spielberg
Release Date: June 29, 2001
Domestic Box Office: $78 million
A love-hate experience whose fans and detractors have only become more entrenched and embittered as the years drag on. Spielberg's adaptation of a Brian Aldiss short story, which had been mulled by Stanley Kubrick for decades before he died, was decried by many as a flawed imitation of Kubrick's style, and the simultaneously chilling and sentimental ending drove people mad. But I count myself among A.I.'s biggest fans—it's a sad paean to the dangers of humanity's self-reflective nature and desire to create in its own image. The ending's vision of our extinction and replacement, to me, makes the movie. Love it or hate it, A.I. was an ambitious, un-commercial effort the likes of which only Spielberg could convince a studio to fund.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Release Date: June 21, 2002
Domestic Box Office: $132 million
As if he knew everyone would freak out about A.I., Spielberg followed it up almost exactly a year later with this rollicking, dark future-chase movie. Where A.I. was impressionistic in its vision of the future, Minority Report saw Spielberg consulting with experts to predict the weapons, transit systems, and class stratifications of 2054. There's grousing about the over-long, over-sentimental ending to this one, too, but Minority Report has its roots in noir and can easily be ultimately read as the tale of "pre-cog" Agatha (Samantha Morton) pulling everyone's strings to engineer her own escape. Spielberg hasn't had as much fun since.
Director: Shane Carruth
Release Date: October 8, 2004
Domestic Box Office: $424,760
This Sundance champ never played in more than 31 theaters around the country but has lived a long and expansive cult life on Netflix and the like. A no-budget tale of time travel, this film is the kind of puzzle box that still reveals its secrets ten viewings in and prompted detailed deconstructions online of its many looping timelines. Primer is classic sci-fi, though—a cautionary tale about the temptations and dangers that come with new technology. And even when you don't really know what's going on plot-wise, the overriding themes are surprisingly easy to grasp. Carruth's follow-up, Upstream Color, is building up an equally strong head of steam since its limited release last year.
Children of Men
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Release Date: December 25, 2006
Domestic Box Office: $35 million
It's hard to remember that Cuaron's adaptation of P.D. James' novel was initially a big flop, not even making back half of its budget domestically. This is despite critical acclaim and Oscar nominations, which are always a surprise for science fiction. Perhaps the extremely bleak tone did it in—the film is a grim vision of a future where humans have been infertile for 20 years and civilization is in its death throes. Cuaron created an uncompromising epic, complete with sweeping, ostentatious camera-work and truly harrowing action sequences, and Children of Men proved an almost instantaneous cult success.
Director: Danny Boyle
Release Date: July 20, 2007
Domestic Box Office: $3.6 million
It amazes me to this day, but there are lots and lots of people in the world who don't realize that Danny Boyle's Sunshine is a sci-fi masterpiece. More than that, it's one of the best space-mission movies ever made, offering a detailed and lived-in look at a fairly ludicrous premise (a last-gasp Earth mission to restart our dying sun with a colossal stellar bomb) and a well-balanced international cast. Yes, the left turn into hardcore fantasy horror in the last act is jarring, but the world of Boyle's spaceship is so incredibly designed—especially on an aural level—and he manages to convince us of the sun's overwhelming psychological power as the stick-like ship gets closer and closer, cowering behind a giant golden shield. Sunshine was another outright flop, but it's also gained ground on DVD since its release.
Director: Duncan Jones
Release Date: June 12, 2009
Domestic Box Office: $5 million
Basically released to theaters packaged as a cult film, with creepy posters and mind-fuck premise (a man living alone on a lunar space station, with only a computer to talk to, encounters another version of himself). Duncan Jones' debut was widely hailed on its release. It's actually not nearly as loopy as its sounds—its premise is pretty crisply explained about halfway through the movie. But Sam Rockwell's deeply felt work as both versions of Sam Bell, coupled with a fantastic Clint Mansell score and great attention to detail in production design, made for a memorable small-scale sci-fi flick.
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Release Date: August 14, 2009
Domestic Box Office: $115 million
This is another sci-fi hit that we were all very taken with at the time (it also got a Best Picture nomination) but now seems a little silly in retrospect. Blomkamp's on-the-nose apartheid allegory makes for a nice, lived-in world to set a movie around, as we follow an uprising from a group of rebel insect aliens who have been subjugated in South Africa for years. We quickly get the point, but District 9 is still a pretty cool body-horror movie, charting a human's (Sharlto Copley) transformation into one of the aliens. The closing action sequences, though, are very samey and drag on forever.
Director: James Cameron
Release Date: December 18, 2009
Domestic Box Office: $749 million
It feels like no one wants to talk about Avatar anymore, despite the staggering amount of money it made only five years ago. Yes, Cameron's Ferngully in Space plot is often too on the nose, and Sam Worthington is not the most arresting or charismatic lead, but Avatar is almost getting to the point where it's underrated. It's motion-capture visual effects are still pretty spectacular, and the excessively awe-inspiring, exotic world of Pandora is eclipsed only by Cameron's crisp, next-level epic action sequences, still a skill most blockbuster directors have yet to master. Get ready for a trilogy of sequels, the first due in 2016.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Release Date: July 16, 2010
Domestic Box Office: $292 million
Inception is a bit of a borderline case—it's more of a heist thriller than anything, modeled after films like Heat, but it's still very sci-fi, especially in its methodical approach to portraying dream universes, which are basically elaborately constructed mazes for our heroes to run around in. There's lots and lots of explaining going on in this movie, and lots of internal rules to follow that maybe don't make sense when you step back for a second. Despite all that, Inception is a very fun watch the first go-round, and was hailed as refreshingly original in a sea of summer sequels in 2010. It's just on re-watch that all those Ellen Page questions get tiring.
Director: Rian Johnson
Release Date: September 28, 2012
Domestic Box Office: $66 million
Is Looper beloved? Might be too soon to tell. The twisty time-travel parable, about an assassin (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who kills people sent from the future and is one day faced with a vision of himself as an older man (Bruce Willis), was well-received on its release and greeted with much internet clamor. It's beautifully put together by Johnson, who always blends style nicely with substance, and it has a lot of fun playing with timelines (that guy's limbs suddenly disappearing)! Plus, Edge of Tomorrow star Emily Blunt doing terrific supporting work as the shotgun-toting protagonist of the final act. Looper's complex plot doesn't really hold together when you poke at it too much, but the film moves so nicely and is well-acted enough for you not to care.
Director: Spike Jonze
Release Date: December 18, 2013
Domestic Box Office: $25 million
Also straddles a couple of genres, but Her is undoubtedly a well-realized vision of our future and an exploration of how we interact with technology. Yes, its laden with metaphor about break-ups and loneliness and how we idealize a new relationship, but my favorite thing about Her is the evolution of Scarlett Johansson's AI character Samantha and how much of it happens off-screen and is left to the audience to fill in. And there's that future video game with the foul-mouthed little blob! Oh, Her, you seem better and better to me the further I get away from the experience of actually watching you.
Donnie Darko (the sci-fi is the worst thing about it), Cypher (flawed but fun), Equilibrium (good action, horrendously derivative storytelling), Solaris (beautiful but I am one of its few devotees), Code 46 (just not that good, despite the talent involved), Serenity (based on an existing franchise), War of the Worlds (same), A Scanner Darkly (great film, but more psychologically focused), Southland Tales (all over the map), V for Vendetta (very crappy in retrospect), I Am Legend (a horror film more than anything), The Mist (same, also great), Doomsday (same, also worth seeing), WALL-E (sci-fi avenues are its worst feature), Splice (cute but not definitive), Another Earth (annoyingly emo), Battle: Los Angeles (dreadful), Cowboys and Aliens (worse), In Time (great concept, ponderous execution), Paul (horribly disappointing), Source Code (boringly gooey), Super 8 (a monster movie), Cloud Atlas (too many movies), Dredd (comic books), Prometheus (a huge disappointment), Europa Report (underseen), Oblivion (solid but not remembered), Gravity (an adventure film), After Earth (well…you know why).