With so many genre movies disappointing in the first few months, there just aren’t enough to make a proper list.
Last week, I planned to post a list of the best sci-fi and fantasy movies of 2018 so far. We got started early here with first-quarter rankings of the best horror and best action movies, as well as the best films overall, as of this point in the year. The sci-fi/fantasy list would have joined them. At the start of 2018, I expected this to be a great and easy feature because the genres had so much promise back then. On the fantasy side, we were getting imports that had already done well overseas, namely Paddington 2 and Mary and the Witch’s Flower. And on the sci-fi side, we were getting new original works from Duncan Jones and Alex Garland, plus another cool-sounding Cloverfield installment, an adaptation of a classic novel from the great Ava DuVernay, and rounding out the three months, a nostalgic throwback from Steven Spielberg.
Unfortunately, most of the sci-fi hopefuls were met with severe disappointment. Jones’s Mute turned out to be far from the second-coming of Moon we’d anticipated. And after all the hype over its surprise release on Netflix after the Super Bowl, The Cloverfield Paradox fumbled, to the point that it was sort of an embarrassment. DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time was received somewhat awkward, lukewarm in response but with a caveat of respect for its earnestness. Then there’s Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated sci-fi effort Isle of Dogs, which was also made with utmost sincerity but still has some issues regarding its cultural appropriation that is complicating its chances for full-on love and appreciation (see Justin Chang’s enlightening review). And now Spielberg is also deservedly being censured for his latest, Ready Player One, for not being more woke in the wake of Gamergate.
Meanwhile, Garland’s Annihilation is an incredible experience when watched theatrically, and quite substantial in its cancer allegory, but it’s hardly a landmark film. A lot of it seems conventional while also being, as is typical of Garland, very cold. There are memorable images, but the film left me with no emotional resonance. On the other hand, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther was, and I’m telling the honest truth, the first Marvel movie to make my eyes well up. And it actually happened twice, once when a certain character dies midway and then again at the climax. Still, it’s a superhero movie with some imperfectly directed action sequences. For all its merits of (fantastically) complex politics, standout characters, and spectacular design, it’s still hard for me to say it’s one of the best movies of the year, even early on.
With that, I realize I am nitpicking, as I can be faulted for doing especially with my favorite movie genres. It’s true that most of this year’s big sci-fi movies have disappointed. It’s true that some of them are even an absolute mess, as released. But I also realize that some of the disappointment has had to do with unfair expectations. Should Mute be better? Yes. Does it have some good moments? Sure. Did I have Moon too much on the brain while watching — especially when the film actually references Moon — and that adversely affected my experience? Definitely. Is A Wrinkle in Time a gorgeous-looking fantasy adventure that shouldn’t have been sold as something more than a simplistic kids’ movie? That’s right. Even The Cloverfield Paradox is entertaining if you fast forward through all the forced-in Cloverfield tie-in stuff.
Maybe it’s because I finally watched Paddington 2 and it made me all warm and fuzzy inside. Or maybe it’s because I watched Pacific Rim Uprising and found no reason to malign such dumb fun so I went back and took the same approach to everything else. I didn’t even include the original Pacific Rim on my final year-end list of the best sci-fi and fantasy movies of 2013. Part of why I disliked the first movie is because I wanted it to be something more, something smarter and more interesting, especially because Guillermo del Toro being at the helm implied greater significance than what was delivered. With Uprising, I accept the sequel’s B-movie cheesiness, but I’m also genuinely impressed with its storytelling decisions and how the movie creatively builds off from the plot of the original instead of just easily and lazily repeating it.
Basically, I just have to forgive that most sci-fi and fantasy isn’t going to be perfectly written or truly original anymore. The Maze Runner: Death Cure is a satisfying enough finish to a trilogy that starts out intriguing then scatters all over the place over the next two installments. But its main ensemble, the young actors who had me invested in the Lost-in-a-courtyard plot of the first movie, held my attention through some derivative yet well-executed set pieces involving trains, buses, and a citadel in need of tearing down. Even without the Cloverfield add-ons, if we were to rework The Cloverfield Paradox (similar to how 2016’s Passengers could be improved with a “rearranged” fan cut) so that it’s just God Particle again, its script is still totally preposterous yet the movie has some neat moments and fine performances. Really, I’m just down with anything in which a character’s arm is detached and then has a mind of its own.
There is no forgiving the offenses of “willful ignorance” on the parts of Anderson and Spielberg, however, and that’s a shame for all of the joy and entertainment value that I, for one, found in Isle of Dogs and Ready Player One. It’s especially upsetting because Isle of Dogs could have been made without all the tribute to Japanese cinema and culture that winds up coming off as fetishization. And Ready Player One could have avoided controversy by being more careful with the way its fanboy protagonists act like gatekeepers of the internet’s arena of fandom. Sometimes not going for deeper dives in sci-fi — Ready Player One could also have certainly made stronger statements on Net Neutrality and nostalgia and remix culture and so much more — the result can be not so much mindless entertainment but a naive diversion.
On top of its serious problems, Ready Player One is also part of a trend that’s getting old fast. Pop culture mashups are fun in small doses on YouTube and have worked in brief or limited groupings in animation going back to Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Toy Story. But Warner Bros. is overdoing it with the Lego Movie franchise and now Spielberg’s latest, where the studio is packing in as many familiar faces (and masks) as if just to keep the IPs in our consciousness. Their success is bleeding into other fantasy films with nothing better to do than cross public domain characters from Shakespeare and Doyle in Sherlock Gnomes or similarly go for broke like Disney’s upcoming sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-it Ralph 2, which will feature iconic video game characters, Disney Princesses, Marvel heroes, and Star Wars droids.
Is there any hope for the rest of 2018’s upcoming sci-fi and fantasy releases? Will this year’s Star Wars installment be worth all the production changes? Will Jude Law as a young Dumbledore be enough for us to ignore Johnny Depp in the Fantastic Beasts sequel? Could the return of Mary Poppins do the character justice? Is Incredibles 2 going to be incredible, too? I’m going to keep expectations at bay for these major releases as well as even the already acclaimed works that have been seen at film festivals, such as Sorry to Bother You and I Think We’re Alone Now. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised by the handling of so many characters in Avengers: Infinity War and additional characters in Deadpool 2 and just the one character in Aquaman. Hopefully, there are also some amazing films on the horizon that aren’t on my radar.
As for 2018 so far, only three sci-fi/fantasy films are exceptional enough for me to want to fully recommend them and feature them on a list of “the best.” As it turns out, they’re also the top three titles on our general list — albeit in a slightly different order. The rest, I’ve decided to rank as well, just to do it. And do so honestly in spite of feeling guilty now about enjoying and still mostly liking Isle of Dogs and Ready Player One for what they do right and well, and about not caring enough for the well-animated but overly familiar and unaffecting fantasy of Mary and the Witch’s Flower. Also, in the spirit of its alternate-universes plot, I’ve included multiple versions of The Cloverfield Paradox. Here goes:
The Best Sci-Fi and Fantasy Films of 2018 (So Far):
1. Paddington 2
2. Black Panther
The Rest of the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Films of 2018 (So Far), Ranked:
1. Isle of Dogs
2. A Wrinkle in Time
3. Ready Player One
4. Maze Runner: The Death Cure
5. Pacific Rim Uprising
6. Mary and the Witch’s Flower
7. God’s Particle (The Cloverfield Paradox Recut)
8. Sherlock Gnomes
10. The Cloverfield Paradox