This year promised a number of great original science fiction movies from Hollywood, and then it turned out most of them weren’t even good let alone great — the sort that left us with way too many unanswered questions regarding their plot holes. Meanwhile, in the fantasy genre, we continued to see the studios churning out one YA adaptation after another in the hopes of it being the next Hunger Games (or still the next Harry Potter or Twilight or even Star Wars in the case of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) and ironically having no clue how to find the *magic* in the appeal of these kinds of stories. And of course there’s the ever-growing subgenre of superhero movies, which really only disappointed this year because they arrived in the wake of 2012’s The Avengers, not simply because most of the output was sequels (Iron Man 3; Thor: The Dark World; The Wolverine) that were merely okay rather than totally awesome.
As I’ve noted in the past, I don’t consider Gravity to be sci-fi (even after learning that some tech in the film doesn’t exist yet), but I’ll let it be known that if I were to qualify the outer space thriller, I’d put it in the number 6 slot on account of its gripping visual storytelling and little else. As for another popular choice (one that made a few FSR staffer’s best of lists, as well as our democratically voted top 10), Pacific Rim might have made this list if it went to 15, as there are a few scenes I like amidst the dumb, clunky spectacle. And it was still better than Oblivion, After Earth and maybe even Elysium. And definitely better than Star Trek Into Darkness. Regarding other omissions, I haven’t seen About Time, which seems unfortunate after realizing how much of this year’s best sci-fi involves love stories. I also haven’t seen any of the animated features that might qualify. Of course, lists like these aren’t meant to be set in stone. Maybe there’s an obscure foreign fantasy film out there that technically was officially released on DVD in the U.S. and could have made the cut.
Hopefully some of my choices are unfamiliar to you, and you go and check them out. I want to encourage smart, creative and visually stunning sci-fi and fantasy movies, because otherwise one day we’re just going to be stuck with garbage like Sharknado.
13. Beautiful Creatures
The one surprisingly decent YA adaptation this year was the one that didn’t seem to be trying to ape the hits of the past. Sure, there is something Twilight-esque in there being a romance between a fantasy creature — this time a witch — and a mortal human, but whatever, that’s a scenario going back many millennia to the dawn of storytelling. Written for the screen and directed by Richard LaGravenese (who also scripted Behind the Candelabra this year), Beautiful Creatures is more like a relic from the ’90s, when everyone was slipping in copies or mentions of Vonnegut, and Tim Burton was still enjoyable. But the real delight is in the performances, from the campy Southern Gothic charms of Emma Thompson, Emmy Rossum and Jeremy Irons to the more grounded Alice Englert, who is a tremendous new talent and is worth watching this movie solely for that reason.
It’s quite the norm for Westerns (including the Eastern samurai variety) to be reworked into sci-fi stories. Just throw the situations into outer space and you’ve got a whole new movie. This third installment in the Riddick franchise is only sci-fi for the fact that it features hover bikes and unfamiliar “alien” creatures in place of horses and Native Americans. Otherwise, it belongs on the list of best Westerns of 2013. One thing I really love about the movie is that it feels like a transitional piece yet it isn’t necessarily. Riddick (Vin Diesel) is stranded on a strange planet and it doesn’t matter how or why (though the explanation is given). The only objective is for him to survive and find a way off. And he survives and finds a way off, dealing with obstacles of different sorts along the way. The ending is not a cliff hanger but it does promise a continuation in a fashion that doesn’t require another film so much as it feeds our imagination. If it wasn’t so inappropriate for young viewers I could see a movie like this inspiring kids to further the adventures of Riddick on their own in their backyards.
11. The History of Future Folk
One 2013 release about folk singers is the best fiction film of the year (Inside Llewyn Davis), yet it doesn’t have aliens and laser guns and a threat to the human race, so really it could have been better. Fortunately we also got the theatrical run of John Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker‘s original indie sci-fi flick, which many discovered and fell in love with at Fantastic Fest 2012. It’s about a pair of soldiers from the planet Hondo who’ve been tasked with destroying the present Earth dwellers so that their kind can re-inhabit the planet. But they discover music and realize that humans can’t deserve extinction. Also, they become a cult favorite in the NYC folk music scene. It’s not a big expensive movie but it also never feels cheap or in need of greater production value or special effects. And as the two leads, Nils d’Aulaire and Jay Klaitz have a lot of charm and chemistry. I’d watch them in a sequel or in something else, maybe anything declined by Simon Pegg and Nick Front that would be better with a much tamer duo.
10. Man of Steel
I came into this reboot worried about how much it was going to rehash a lot of the material from Superman and Superman II, both of which are among my favorite superhero movies of all time. What made it a new entity most for me is in the way writers David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan focused on the sci-fi elements of Superman’s origins and his existence on Earth as an extraterrestrial. The opening sequence on Krypton is some of the best otherworld-building space adventure sci-fi action material we’ve seen in at least a decade. And once we get to Earth — specifically Smallville and Metropolis — it’s an alien invasion movie not unlike The History of Future Folk. One guy wants to wipe out the humans and terraform the planet for Kryptonian settlement while the other guy wants coexistence among the people of Earth. However, this one is expensive and filled with lots of effects and it is a marvelous, epic blockbuster. Exciting from start to finish. And if you have any issues with some of the choices in the third act, you’re probably taking it too seriously.
And another alien invasion movie. This one is of the very familiar sort of a small town being overrun with creepy creatures from outer space. The model, with its mix of comedy and horror and sci-fi, very rarely gets old, and if everyone got excited about its recent return in the UK with Attack the Block they should be into this one as well. Directed by Jon Wright (who is now working on a bigger movie involving robots and Ben Kingsley), Grabbers is entirely based on an Irish stereotype joke by centering on squid-like aliens who feed on human blood, but only if the blood doesn’t have a lot of alcohol in it. So the big standoff involves all the townsfolk getting hammered at the local tavern. It works because the joke is just background for a sweet and funny story of the two cops who save the day and fall in love. Also, I love the wordplay employed with the aliens needing to stay wet but “dry” and the people needing to stay dry but “wet.”
8. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Related to what I like about Riddick, there’s something about a middle installment of any trilogy that offers a sense of existential enjoyment. It’s not the beginning nor the end, and looked at on its own it’s representative of what fantasy adventure stories are all about: grand, continuous storytelling with little importance in origins and conclusions. Aside from the moral fables, early mythological stories were about the bracketed chapters of an ongoing odyssey, and that’s how The Desolation Smaug comes across more than any other Tolkien installment from Peter Jackson. The proof is in the isolated thrills of the river escape sequence or the giant spider attack or the inconsequentially failed plan to cover a fire-breathing dragon in molten gold — all fabulous on their own. Smaug ends with a sudden cliff-hanger meant to have us needing to return to the story in a year, but I’m thinking I’d prefer to pretend like that third part doesn’t exist. It certainly doesn’t matter.