No. 5 — 28 Days Later and Sunshine (2002 & 2007) —British director Danny Boyle had a streak of fine films in the new millennium, culminating with the popular “Slumdog Millionaire”. His two sci-fi entries, though not as successful are equally good. Both deserve mention but for the sake of fairness share one position in this list.28 Days Later was a breath of fresh air in the “zombie apocalypse” genre. Shambling corpses were replaced by the “Infected” – victims of a virus which rapidly turns people into rabid, bloodthirsty beasts bent on hunting down and infecting others. This greatly increased the kinetic punch and tension of the action scenes, which Boyle does exceptionally well to begin with. The protagonists are likeable underdogs: a bicycle courier who woke up in hospital after the infection had already spread, a young woman, a cabbie and his daughter. They embark on a journey through desolate remains of England, following a pre recorded radio loop in hope of meeting other survivors. The second half is not as engaging as the first, but the film does remain cohesive all the way to the uplifting finale.No such happy endings for the crew of Icarus II though. A team of scientists sent on a journey to reignite the dying sun, faced with the impossible burden of being mankind’s last hope. Unlike the exaggerated heroism of Bay ‘s Armageddon, Sunshine is a cold and depressing journey into the psychology of people stuck in a confined space, on a task that is unbearable in its enormity. Skillfully directed and backed by a great soundtrack Sunshine has some truly memorable moments. In particular the attempt of Kaneda (the captain) to fix the outer shield of Icarus II, while the inferno of the sun’s rays encroaches on his position. Knowing that he would die, Kaneda turns to look at the blaze amidst the frantic hails of the crew and the hurried whispers of the ship’s psychologist: “Kaneda, what can you see?” a question that is at the heart of Sunshine, the sun being a metaphor for God. Unfortunately the final act is an inexplicable switch to slasher horror, which almost manages to ruin the entire experience. I say almost because Sunshine is the offspring of films like “Solaris” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” and even though it doesn’t approach their ingenuity it still stands head and shoulders above the competition.
No. 4 — Avatar (2009) —It seems that every decade must have its Cameron sci-fi movie. The 80’s had Aliens and Terminator 1, the 90’ had Terminator 2 and just barely making the cut in the 00’s we get Avatar. Now what all of these films have in common, is that they take a concept that should be long obsolete and turn it into a roaring success. The trick is in the presentation. Avatar, much like its predecessors is a pure action-adventure movie that has one goal in mind – to entertain. The story is a fairy tale (albeit with contemporary references), the characters are realized just enough so we can cheer for them, (or hate them) and everything else is Cameron’s magic. The magic, so to speak is his excellent sense of pace, and as far as special effects are concerned – knowing how to put them to full use. Everything about Avatar flows together seamlessly and by the time the credits roll all that’s left – is the experience. The absolute star of Avatar is the planet Pandora, which is in many ways familiar but also profoundly alien. Praise aside, Avatar is a prime example of purely commercial cinema – what most movies in Hollywood strive to be (but nowadays few succeed). However that’s not likely to bother its many fans.
No. 3 — WALL-E (2008) —The people at Pixar must have sold their souls to the devil. There is no other explanation for the constant and enduring quality of their work. With Wall-E however, they crossed the line between greatness and genius. Consider this: in the tale of the lonely trash compactor robot, for the better part of the film – not a word is said! All the audience has to go with are Wall-E’s electronic sounds, the expressiveness of his eyes and movements as he goes about his work in what’s left of earth. Therein lies a cautionary tale for earth is now a garbage filled desert, which humans have made uninhabitable and subsequently abandoned. Wall-E’s routine of compacting rubbish and collecting colorful trinkets is interrupted when a spaceship arrives. In it is Wall-E’s first true companion, the “female” robot EVE. The comical moments that ensue between the timid and gentle Wall-E and the driven, serious EVE develop into an adventure that never fails to surprise and entertain. Some of the subtleties are truly beautiful: the scene where the two robots “dance” in outer space, leaving trails that entwine is especially affecting. That’s what makes Pixar’s films universally enjoyable and long-lasting. Wall-E is perhaps their crowning achievement, although “UP” is a strong contender as well.
No. 2 — Donnie Darko (2001) —
Donnie Darko is a critic’s nightmare. It defies any explanation short of an essay and laughs at attempts of categorization. Nevertheless there is something profoundly engaging about Donnie Darko that keeps us watching and trying to figure it all out. Many themes run through the film: parallel universes, puberty, mental illness, social commentary, individual drama… The wealth of opinions and interpretations reflects this. That points to the essential, palpable, quality of Donnie Darko: like all true art it mirrors the viewer and thus, what you see is what you brought with you. Perhaps the most poignant moment in the film is Donnie’s sacrifice. It carries an almost messianic quality, a sacrifice made for the very society that labeled him insane and all the greater because there was no one to witness it. The one whom they never tried to understand shows ultimate understanding, giving them what all of us desire at some point in our lives – a second chance. Just like Donnie said to his chubby and unhappy classmate Cherita Chan: “I promise, that one day, everything’s going to be better for you.” Or was that meant for us?
No. 1 — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)—
Admittedly its only sci-fi by a hair’s breadth, but with sheer emotional power and original storytelling Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind stands head and shoulders above the competition. At its core a simple tale of love lost: an unlikely couple – the withdrawn, quiet Joel (Jim Carrey) and the chaotic, impulsive Clementine (Kate Winslet) and their search for a release from the memories of their failed relationship. In this search Clementine undergoes “Targeted memory erasure”, a procedure that wipes Joel from her mind. Joel, distraught decides to do the same but as memories of her are irreversibly fading he realizes that blissful ignorance comes at too high a price. The heartbreaking scenes as he tries to hide and preserve Clementine in his mind from the inevitable is are some of the finest in cinema. Through these disappearing fragments of memory the nature of love and loss is explored, down to the film’s bittersweet conclusion. Now if only we could forget what we’ve seen and gain that eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.