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What Are the New SciFi Classics?


Last week the American Film Institute does what it does whenever it needs a little attention drawn to itself — it released a bunch of lists about films, this time listing off the top 10 films in 10 different genres. The lists included one for science fiction and one for fantasy. The fantasy Top 10 list is a tremendous mess — enough so that I don’t want to touch it right now, except to note that you’ll have to imagine me throwing up my hands and rolling my eyes — but the science fiction Top 10 list I find surprisingly acceptable. I have my quibbles with it — primarily I’d drop Clockwork Orange and Back to the Future (both of which I love), replace them with Planet of the Apes and Metropolis , depending on how old school I felt that day), and then resequence the order — but by and large it’s a perfectly respectable Top 10 list for the genre. So well done, AFI.

One interesting thing about the list, however, is that it stops 17 years ago; the latest film to be included on the list is Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which hit screens in 1991. On one hand, this makes perfect sense, because it really does take time to find out which films are influential and which ones aren’t. Remember (as I’m fond of noting) that Blade Runner , arguably the most visually influential sf film of all time (it has to fight it out with Metropolis) was a flop when it first came out. On the other hand, there have been a fair number of genuinely excellent science fiction films since Arnold had his Terminator self dipped in hot metal, and it seems a shame to not give a shout out to them.

So let me do what I do whenever I need a little attention drawn to myself, and offer my own list, this one being the Top 10 Science Fiction Movies Since 1991. But to make it interesting, I’m only going to fill in half of the list — you are going to fill in the rest with your own choices.

To make it even more interesting, the five movies I mention here aren’t necessarily my top five; they’re just five that make it on my Post-’91 Top 10. Got it? Okay then. In no particular order, then, here’s my half of the Post-’91 Top Ten:

The Matrix (1999): Cast your brain back before The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions,
and before everyone and his brother imitated and/or parodied “bullet
time” and you’ll remember how cool this film used to be — the right
balance of action, pop philosophy, techno-angst and special effects.
Remember how everyone wanted an ankle length black leather duster and
inscrutable shades to hide behind? It was all very cool, once. It will
be cool again, trust me.

Ghost in the Shell (1995): Hey, who are those guys over there in the corner? Why it’s the Wachowski brothers, cribbing off Ghost in the Shell director Mamoru Oshii’s homework! The Wachowskis borrowed from this film sort of the same way George Lucas borrowed from The Hidden Fortress,
and good for them, since this film juggles intense action and
philosophical silences in really interesting ways. The fact that Akira doesn’t
show up on the AFI Top 10 list is a clear indication that someone there
hasn’t figured out what a monumental influence anime has on the modern
science fiction aesthetic; we’re correcting that error here.

The Incredibles (2004): The best superhero film ever made — yes, even better than the 1978 Superman, or the 1989 Batman or even Spider-Man 2
(which, frankly, is overrated). Why is it good? Because first it
parodies the superhero genre to devastating effect, then it becomes a
first-rate superhero film, and then it goes beyond the superhero genre
altogether and becomes a paean to home and family and the little things
that make life worth living, even for people with super-strength. That
this all gets done in an animated family film, of all things, makes it
miraculous.

12 Monkeys (1995):
It may not be the best time travel movie ever, it may not be the best
dystopic movie ever, and it may not be the best “saving humanity from
its own damn self” movie ever — and it’s definitely not the best Terry
Gilliam movie ever. But it is the best ever dystopic, time-traveler saving humanity from its damn self film, directed by Terry Gilliam. And that’s
saying something. Also: Best Bruce Willis film ever. Which is
admittedly a lower bar (although not as low as people might think).

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004):
This film about memory, and the lengths people will go to forget and
remember (and sometimes both at the same time) is both goofy strange
and poetically sad, which is an unusual combination, and why it
(ironically) sticks in the brain as well as it does. It’s the only
science fiction film to win the Oscar for screenplay (Original
Screenplay, in this case), which says something interesting, both about
the science fiction genre and the Academy.

Those are my five picks. What are yours? Choose up to five other
science fiction films since 1991 for inclusion in the Top 10 list, and
defend your choices in your comment.

Ready, set… list!

scalzi.pngWinner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies as well as the novels Old Man’s War and the upcoming Zoe’s Tale. His column appears every Thursday.

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