Best of 2000s SF Films



  • AI Artificial Intelligence, Dir. Stephen Spielberg, 2001. Based on a Stanley Kubrick idea and a short story by Brian Aldiss: Super Toys Last All Summer Long. Some parts are very re-watchable and visually stunning. Includes machine chauvinism, child robots, a sage computer, and a post-apocalypse setting. Ref: IMDb, MRQE, Wikipedia, Script, Google Directory.

  • Avalon, Dir. Mamoru Oshii, 2001. Has matrix style simulation of video games. Ash, an expert at a virtual game called Avalon, discovers that there are blurry lines between game and reality (her dog goes missing and shows up in the game). More properly, it argues that reality is constructed by her individual perspective and possibly by her choices (she sees the same statue once with its head and once headless). It also makes us ask whether virtual reality is better or worse than reality. I like its gamer ambiance but I don't like the disgusting eating scene. Ref: IMDb, MRQE, Wikipedia.  Misc: Nine Sisters.

  • Equilibrium, Dir. Kurt Wimmer, 2002. Police "clerics" enforce a ban on books and other art forms to prevent excessive emotion, and everyone must take emotion suppressing drugs regularly. Ironically it's a flashy and exciting movie in parts, until I was annoyed by its message. It seems silly to single out emotion when our whole humanity -- reason, freewill, emotion, and will to discover -- is compromised in such scenarios. Ref: IMDb, MRQE, Wikipedia, Fansite, Google Directory.

  • Minority ReportMinority Report, Dir. Stephen Spielberg, 2002. Based on a short story by P.K.D.: Minority Report. I initially hated the idea of the pre-cog seers, but I can't help appreciating the thought provoking consequences that result from this scenario. The pre-cogs were apparently part of genetic experimentation, so we also get a few glimpses of futuristic, genetically altered plants. In any case, it portrays a detailed futuristic city and excellent technology.

    Includes cool spider-robots, an ultra futuristic public transport system, computer chips so cheap that they come with many common products (like musical cereal boxes), awesome computer graphics, gesture interfaces, e-papers, personalized advertisements, and automatic eye identification sensors in common public places (raising major issues of privacy).

    Ref: Technovelgy / Tech News, IMDb, MRQE, Wikipedia, Google Directory, Transcript / Script Draft.

    Misc: Short Story Tech, Ebert Gives 4/4, Virtual Precrime Game.

  • The Matrix Reloaded (2003). See Matrix Trilogy entry (1999).

  • Appleseed (Appurushîdo), Dir. Shinji Aramaki, 2004, Anime. Based on the manga of Masamune Shirow. Many battles and much warfare ensue in a beautiful and technologically advanced future utopia (Olympus). A governing council uses a supercomputer (Gaia) to stabilize and integrate its population with nearly emotionless replicants/Bioroids. But a group of rebels aren't satisfied with all the experimental genetic tampering, cloning, and use of Bioroids.

    This film has unique ideas in that the emotionless Bioroids help to save humans from the negative side effects of their extremes of emotion. But it didn't seem to suggest how the Bioroids achieve this emotional balance. Overall the story wavers and has difficulty holding the viewer's interest, but the artwork is amazing. Ref: IMDb, MRQE, Wikipedia.

  • The Final Cut, Dir. Omar Naim, 2004. Posits a world in which most people have Zoe-memory implants that record everything they do. Covers themes like privacy and technology, memory, and reality vs. fantasy. Ref: IMDb, MRQE, Wikipedia. Misc: Tech news.

  • Innocence (aka Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, 2004). See Ghost in the Shell entry (1995).

  • Garage ExperimentationPrimer, Dir. Shane Carruth, 2004. Includes an extremely cheap looking quantum time machine, but it's the ideas that make this low budget movie so high on the list. Two independent experimenters accidentally invent a time machine. This is one of the great visions of technological advancement in that science and technology does not always progress intentionally and colorfully, it could just be a couple guys out in their garage making an unexpected discovery.

    In his search through the history of science Shane Carruth found that "whether it involved the history of the number zero or the invention of the transistor, two things stood out. First, the discovery that turns out to be the most valuable is usually dismissed as a side-effect. Second, prototypes almost never include neon lights and chrome. I wanted to see a story that was more in line with the way real innovation takes place" (official site).

    Primer goes on to speculate about the possibility of time travel by use of quantum theory, so this kind of time travel produces an interesting replication side effect. The story is told in a jigsaw puzzle and the script has some witty comments about scientific discovery and causation.

    Ref: IMDb, MRQE, Wikipedia, Transcript.

    Misc: Official Site, The Primer Universe (fun blog book), Timeline, Ebert's Review: 3.5/4, Director Interview.

  • The Island, Dir. Michael Bay, 2005. Cloners use Orwellian tactics and conditioning to keep clones under control, and they use them for a grotesque commerce. Includes a table top computer (with a gesture interface), an Xbox virtual fight game, and massive invasive monitoring (synaptic nanobots, dream monitoring, and automatic urine analysis). Most of the inhabitants accept such invasive treatment as commonplace. We see analogous uses of power becoming common in our own society, so the film perhaps illustrates that what we call dystopia today could slowly become accepted as utopia. Some of the initial sets are stunning, but the final action scenes and car stunts are a bit out of place. Ref: IMDb, MRQE, Wikipedia, Google Directory, Script. Misc: Official Site.

  • Serenity, Dir. Joss Whedon, 2005. Based on the Firefly TV series. This is a witty western-style space adventure in which a loyal government bounty hunter tracks River, a mentally unstable woman possessing paranormal abilities and training in the martial arts, as she travels with outlaw-like mercenaries. Includes state control vs. freedom and a science experiment gone bad (enter the Reavers). I find the opening sequences especially beautiful. Ref: IMDb, MRQE, Wikipedia, Google Directory, Script. Misc: Official Site.

  • The Man from Earth, Dir. Richard Schenkman, 2007. Based on a story by Jerome Bixby. A conversational and thoughtful film on knowledge, morality, religion, myth, and humanity. It's not hard SF but it covers questions important to anthropology, history, and the difficulty of gaining knowledge of distant historical events. It begins with a group of professors discussing the inexplicable departure of John Oldman.

    John explains his departure by giving away his 14,000 year secret (as a hypothetical) -- what if a genetic quirk allowed a Cro-Magnon man to survive to today? It becomes an interesting discussion of such a person's perspective on humanity, his limited knowledge of certain things, and his first hand knowledge of controversial topics such as the death/resurrection of Jesus. Ref: IMDb, MRQE, Wikipedia.

  • Sunshine, Dir. Danny Boyle, 2007. In the excellent commentary, Dr. Brian Cox speculates about ways the premise of this movie could be possible. Cox maps some themes he finds interesting about the movie, such as nature's immensity and science's power to create a broad sense of perspective of our place in the universe, and then he notes the way that in this modernist context some interpret nature to be purposeless and meaninglessness. The problem with this movie is that Cox's commentary is better than the sf elements in the movie; however, the artwork is well worth watching. Ref: IMDb, MRQE, Wikipedia, Google Directory.

  • WALL·E, Dir. Andrew Stanton, 2008. It's no surprise that Disney backed this type of film; it has all the signs of anthropomorphized robots, for WALL-E sighs, scares, dances, and flirts. The director attempts to use as few anthropomorphisms as possible as if the robot had advanced over many years, but the film definitely fails in this respect (or fails to explain any new advances in programming).

    The good thing is that the movie has many other graces -- an extremely imaginative EVE-flying bot, a high tech automated ship, and a hopeful perspective on enriching our humanity (where humans do exotic things like question and learn). It doesn't force any agenda on the viewer and it has funny influences from 2001 and other SF. Ref: IMDb, MRQE, Wikipedia. News: Compactor, Garbage Bots, Environmental Tech Review.

  • Avatar, Dir. James Cameron, 2009. Begins heavy in SF with remote users virtually controlling aliens from a distance (but not in a virtual world like "The Matrix"; it's in a real alien world), genetic engineering of human-Na’vi life (the blue aliens are called Na’vi), robotic walkers, and high tech computer consoles. Then the movie transitions into an imaginative version of "Alien Planet" in which a scientist (played by Sigourney Weaver) investigates a plethora of alien life (most of the life forms are capable of sharing memories through natural connectors, forming a periodic collective intelligence).

    The mystical-religious seeming parts make sense in a naturalistic interpretation, but you have to give imaginative flexibility to its vision of alien life (and notice the incredible and diverse things life is capable of here on earth). Otherwise, the movie stands in a tradition of pro-ecology SF movies (Silent Running, Soylent Green, etc.). And the conflict between alien-human cultures reminds me of fears that an alien life (in this case us) would be more interested in a world's resources than respect for its indigenous life forms, especially if the indigenous life forms are at a lower level of intelligence or cultural/technological advancement than us.

    However, it has a critical flaw in logic: it has the Na’vi drop silent and motionless when the remote user disconnects as if the alien body doesn't have a local brain at all. If the engineered Na’vi have brains, it's absurd to suggest that the alien body wouldn't develop local memories, attitudes, and skills of its own (or at least stumble around like Frankenstein's monster once released by a remote user). This virtual death reminds me of a classic Daniel Dennett article, "Where Am I?", in which a remote user experiences himself in an empty shell of a body only to discover that he's a remote brain in a vat or an intelligent computer program. Ref: IMDb, MRQE, Wikipedia.

  • Gamer (2009). Imagines virtual games that allow players to control real people. Prisoners or volunteers (depending on the game) have neural implants that radically alter their brain and allow external access, so a player can use video game commands to control them for fun. Shows a better understanding of the impact of remote users than "Avatar" by having the prisoners bicker with their distant users. The movie refers to speculative spyware removal and has Michael C. Hall portray a reclusive and nutty software titan, even surpassing the success of Bill Gates. "Gamer" has plenty of mindless action, but listen to 5 seconds of the awful commentary to understand why the movie gets such low ratings (I wouldn't have noticed otherwise since the movie is so interesting). Starring: Gerard Butler, Michael C. Hall. Written and directed by Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor. Ref: IMDb, RT, MRQE, Wikipedia

  • Helium 3 RetrievalMoon, Dir. Duncan Jones, 2009. Sam Bell works alone on the Moon, repairing Helium 3 harvesters and sending the collected energy back to Earth. The plot makes sense of this loner situation later and further cuts off Sam in many psychologically interesting ways. Sam is joined by a GERTY computer/robot. We discover that Sam Bell may receive some programming too, but I can't say much more without spoiling the psychological aspects of it.

    The best part is that it seems like a composite of SF influences: the harvesters reminded me of Dune, the screen text of Alien, the plant obsession of Silent Running, and the space mining of Outland. Ref: IMDb, MRQE, Wikipedia, SciFi Cool Resources.

  • Star Trek, Dir. J. J. Abrams, 2009. It has so many close-ups I had difficulty getting any sense of the ambiance of the movie, but it did take my breath away when it finally pulled back some and gave me a chance to briefly see the bridge of Enterprise. It includes the use of black holes as weapons, talk of red matter, time travel, cool Vulcan educational machines, flashy modern computer consoles, and distant tracking of human vitals. But it's best for people who don't like the ethos of classic Star Trek (it even seems to mock and humiliate alien cultures like the Vulcans and breaks from the Star Trek norm that has us struggle to accept ideas foreign to our own). Ref: IMDB, MRQE, Wikipedia, Wikia. Misc: Official Site.

  • Inception (2010). It adds layer upon layer of possibilities until you either want to run out and become an Architect, a God like master of designing mind-worlds, or let the images take over as they lead you through a labyrinth of dreams within dreams. Penrose steps showcase the creativity of the mind in dreams, dream projections take on a life of their own (but without their former humanity), and dreamers experience time distortions and weightlessness.

    Ariadne (the Architect) is the first major chess move before the memory inception begins: she creates a dream world perfect for tricking the target (Fisher Jr.) with similar deceptive traits as "The Truman Show" or "Dark City". But if the target's subconscious dream-people get suspicious of Cobb's team, they attack in unison (like white blood cells fighting a disease, or like the pod people in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers").

    With so many interesting themes, here is a quick list:

    Reality: Dreams appear as we feel them in Nolan's film, and not as they seem to us when we wake up. So we don't see wavy or distorted images (as in the movie "Waking Life"); instead, we get a clear image to take as reality, emotionally. The rules are more understandable than in "The Matrix". When you die in a dream, you simply wake up (unless you're in deep sedation, in which case you get lost in dream limbo, possibly dreaming a whole life of experiences while you figure a way out).

    Gravity: Whenever a dreamer feels like he's in a free fall, his subconsciousness changes the rules of gravity in the dream world, making everyone float around as if weightless. Einstein seems like an influence, by the way, since he used similar examples to weightlessness (such as falling back in a chair).

    Time: Time is relative to the different levels of dreams. Cobb tricks Fisher by using dreams within dreams within dreams (yes, three, and more as needed), but each level increases the experience of time slower and slower (sort of like how you age slower the closer you get to the speed of light, or here, the deeper you go into the subconscious realm). The film seems correct (by its rules) when a white van falls very slowly relative to the passage of time at the lower dream levels. But Cobb's watch shouldn't change speeds erratically within a dream level, for then it would be difficult to precisely calculate the time differences between the dream levels (as they do in the film).

    Dream images as A.I.: Cobb has an internal struggle with his deceased wife, nicknamed “Mal” (Marion Cotillard). A subconscious remnant of her keeps causing chaos during his dream missions. The film explains that Cobb isn't able to get rid of her because thoughts are like a virus, sometimes taking over our mind to the point of defining us or consuming us, and his wife has become a virus. Mal is a bit like an internal life form to him. Would she pass a Turing test? Will the first aliens we meet be the ones inside our minds?

    Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan.

    Sources: IMDb | RT | MRQE | Wikipedia | Official Site


Other 2000s SF and Related Movies

  • Quick mentions (future possible entries): Natural City (Dir. Byung-chun Min, 2003), I, Robot (Dir. Alex Proyas, 2004), Children of Men (Dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2006), District 9 (Dir. Neill Blomkamp, 2009), Terminator Salvation (Dir. McG, 2009).

  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Dir Michel Gondry, 2004. Joel Barish decides he wants to erase some of his painful memories. A couple humorous hacker types leisurely conduct the targeted memory erasure (or procedure to cause intentional mild brain damage). It depicts our fuzzy minds as a network of links, and it captures the influence of subconscious desires and forms a complicated picture of our psyche. Ref: IMDB, MRQE, Wikipedia, Google Directory, Script. Misc: Official Site, Lacuna.

  • The Prestige, Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2006. See the novel by Christopher Priest. An insider look at the tactics of magicians, with an interesting magician-scientist and a quantum machine. Perhaps its message is that the power of science and technology are only 'magical' to those who fail to understand them, so the movie relentlessly lifts the curtains and shows that 'magic' disappears in the devilous technical details. Ref: IMDB, MRQE, Wikipedia, Google Directory.

  • The Sky Crawlers (Sukai kurora) (2008). Yuichi Kannami, a mysterious young ace pilot, joins a small group of pilots and copes with everyday life between war missions. One rare adult fighter pilot, called "The Teacher", is their nemesis, but the purpose or history of the war wasn't clear from the movie. The film imagines the existence of Kildren -- children who don't age -- and the consequences of being an immortal child. It seems silly to place Kildren in such a technologically backward context, but the movie dwells on the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life (excellently demonstrating the existentialism of Albert Camus) and has Kenji Kawai's addictive music. The finale has other SF elements that we can't spoil (be sure to watch the scenes after the credits). Adapted by Chihiro Itô. Based on a novel series by Hiroshi Mori. Directed by Mamoru Oshii. Sources: IMDb | RT | MRQE | Wikipedia

  • The Time Traveler's Wife (2009). Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana) jumps between key moments in his life without any control, which is a fantastical time travel device similar to "Slaughterhouse Five". But the film has a rare love for fate or determinism (or shows that fate is lovable). Henry believes in fate since he fails to change the past, and the film has an amazing wedding sequence in which his wife, Clare (Rachel McAdams), dances in a daze as she accepts multiple versions of Henry (the gray hair Henry that marries her and the young Henry that dances with her).

    She wonders whether she's engaging in bigamy, but fate solves the problem because all versions of Henry (that are close in time to one another) have similar causal histories. She can love Henry at many different points in his causal chain (perhaps except at the far extremes where his identity might be much different). Although she suffers from freewill withdrawal at times, she discovers the beauty and tolerance of determinism as so many other thinkers have (Buddha, Spinoza, etc.). This determinism has compelling side effects: Clare doesn't need to label her experiences as good or bad; instead, she can tolerate painful or tragic events as necessary.

    Starring: Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams. Screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin. Based on the novel by Audrey Niffenegger. Directed by Robert Schwentke. Sources: IMDb | RT | MRQE | Wikipedia


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