While legitimate science fiction has all but vanished from television, it lives on in movie theaters as dozens of science fiction films continue to be released every year. Almost every Hollywood blockbuster contains at least a sci-fi element or two, but for this list I’ve stuck with the films that are truly a part of the genre. If you love science fiction make sure you didn’t miss any of these 2011 films. These were the best sci-fi movies of 2011.
1. Attack the Block
Attack the Block is so good it’s one of two movies on this list that made my best films of 2011 list over on Cinema Blend. Here’s why. This little indie movie from writer/director Joe Cornish takes the worn out alien invasion genre and injects new life. In large part it’s because, though it has plenty of it, his film is about more than reveling in man on alien violence. Attack the Block goes its own way by creating characters who don’t fit any of the usual stereotyped molds. Instead our heroes are a bunch of teenage thugs, completely unlikable idiots who only become worth rooting for after they’ve been changed by their experience. Attack the Block is content to let you hate everyone in it when the movie begins, certain you’ll love the kinds of people they’re starting to become by the time the movie ends.
Attack the Block manages to come up with something new in a genre that hasn’t even been trying. From creature design to story structure to its completely unflinching take on some pretty scary alien violence, it succeeds. A violent, gory, action movie which also comments on the lives of frightened people living in a crummy apartment complex full of absent parents and pre-teen drug dealers? What’s not to love? Cornish’s sci-fi movie is a grand mix of alien entertainment and subtle social commentary. It’s relevant without being preachy, violent without being gratuitous, and action packed without skimping on character. Attack the Block is proof that you don’t need a big Hollywood effects budget to do science fiction right.
Thor is the perfect expression of the third of sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke’s laws. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Every frame is packed with eye-popping achievement in telling the story of mythical gods who are actually aliens living on a far off planet connected to Earth. On Asgard the family intrigue between Thor, his father, and his brother plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy. Maybe it helps that Thor is directed with verve by Kenneth Branagh.
On Earth it’s a more traditional superhero movie and the story flips almost seamlessly between the fantastic, beautifully realized outer space world of Asgard and a rather more normal small town in New Mexico. Chris Hemsworth is utterly convincing as Thor, a born fighter with a heart of gold, and the film’s anchored by firm performances from talented actors like Portman, Hopkins, Skarsgaard, and Idris Elba as Asgard’s fiery-eyed guardian, in supporting roles. Thor never gets bogged down in rehashing complicated comic book mythology, the movie asks its audience to be smart enough to accept things as strange and wonderful as the Rainbow Bridge as fact. Thanks to perfect pacing, stunning visuals, and great performances from the cast it all works to create one of the most engaging and purely fun superhero adventures yet.
3. Source Code
Director Duncan Jones’s follow-up to the fantastic sci-fi movie Moon goes a different direction from his previous work. Source Code is a big Hollywood blockbuster with Jake Gyllenhaal as a man who awakens on a train in someone else’s body. He discovers he has only a few minutes to find a bomb, planted somewhere there with him, before the train blows up. If he fails, he’ll start all over again, back on the train in exactly the same place, with a few minutes to find out not only where the device is hidden but who planted it. On paper it sounds like Groundhog Day with a ticking clock, but the fantastically skilled Jones manages to find something more in it.
In particular it’s the movie’s big sci-fi twist at the end which really grabs your attention. It’s rooted in fresh ideas about the nature of consciousness and leaves you with questions about parallel worlds and the human soul. The movie’s an intense ride, no small feat when you consider that most of it happens in the same small train car, watching Gyllenhaal go over what’s happening again and again while the world crumbles around him and he tries to save lives. But the real question all along is, can he save himself?
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost star as two British nerds on vacation in America. They visit the San Diego Comic Con then head off on a road trip to Area 51. Along the way they accidentally encounter an alien, recently escaped from the secret government facility and in need of transportation. Since they’ve obviously seen E.T. our heroes offer to help out… but Paul is nothing like E.T. On the run from government agents Paul and his friends smoke and swear and drink their way through the desert in a mad race to get him to his ship.
You might be tempted to dismiss Paul as just another stoner comedy, but it’s a pretty good stoner comedy, one with an alien in it. More than that, it has some pretty big sci-fi ideas, involving the nature of the universe and humanity’s ignorance. It subverts your sci-fi expectations with gags like the one in which the alien, Paul, resurrects a bird only to eat it. It comments on modern society, by converting religious zealots into science-rooted skeptics when Paul shows them the wonders of the universe. Yes it’s raunchy and ridiculous, but it’s also smart, well done, and flat out funny.
5. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
This Planet of the Apes origin story takes the 1972 movie Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and reworks it to make the whole thing feel more modern. In doing that Rise ditches most of the specifics of the 1972 movie, which was set in a future society on planet Earth, and instead sets itself in modern times. It keeps only a few nods to that movie’s premise, such as the name of the movie’s simian lead: Caesar. James Franco may get top billing on the movie’s posters, but at best he’s only a supporting character, the irresponsible but well meaning scientist who accidentally gives a baby chimp super-intelligence in the course of searching for a cure to Alzheimer’s.
Franco’s character sneaks a super-intelligent chimp (Caesar) out of the lab and raises him at home as a pet, setting the wheels in motion for the Ape-run world we’ve already seen in the other Planet of the Apes films. Caesar starts a revolution and we watch as he rails against the bondage of his brothers and hatches a plot to set them free. The film’s biggest achievement, beyond making these CGI apes seem entirely real, is its ability to make us sympathize with Caesar’s cause. It does it slowly, allowing us to be scared of Caesar while also admiring him, it builds an ethos around him, makes more than a monkey out of him. Maybe for some it didn’t happen until the movie’s final few frames, but eventually, you likely found youreself rooting for those damn, dirty apes. Why cookie rocket, indeed.
Other Good 2011 Sci-Fi Movies: Melancholia, X-Men: First Class, Captain America: The First Avenger, Super 8, Limitless, Cowboys & Aliens, Real Steel, Another Earth