For the low, low price of a six-pack of your favorite beer and the monthly streaming service subscription of your choice, you can immerse yourself in these throwback science fiction gems to make good use of your extra home time. If you shy away from the intoxicants, feel free to substitute the beer for ice cream, or a family-size bag of sour cream and onion chips. If you don’t utilize alcohol or eat junk food, grab some water and an avocado and settle in.
The following five movies are my no-miss, guaranteed enjoyment throwback films from the science fiction genre of 1995-2010. Pre-1995 is a whole ‘nother level of sci-fi, and here, in this article, we’ll just focus on the sweet fifteen year period when CGI and computerized special effects really started taking off. I’m even going to rank them for further enjoyment and titillation on the message boards! If you disagree, I’d love to hear about it!
As a disclaimer, I really struggled with Number 5, as I wanted to plunk both Wall-E and Minority Report in this article. Sorry, but we gotta draw the line somewhere…
Number 5… District 9 (2009)
Director: Neill Blomkamp
This Blair Witch of the science fiction film universe took the world by storm in the late 2000s. Boasting an unheard of cast, a rather not-famous director, and a tiny budget, District 9 soared from South Africa on the wings of producer Peter Jackson, gathering nominations for four Academy awards, including Best Picture.
Writer and director Neill Blomkamp (Elysium, Chappie) investigates complex themes of the human condition wrapped up in very tight action and a very interesting plot. A heavy hand in the editing room also keeps this film under two hours, which makes the story click right along towards the incredible and satisfying conclusion.
District 9 is the whole package, and an absolute must-watch if you enjoy the aliens-landing-on-earth venues of the science fiction genre.
Number 4… Starship Troopers (1997)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Plot complexity, character development, intense Academy Award-winning acting performances…are not present in this movie. Not.Even. Close. You get Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards and Jake Busey all running hither and yon fighting and dying against an insurmountable and brutal form of space bug bent on destroying humanity. You get guns, explosions, brain sucking bugs, shower scenes — male and female — honorable death, revenge kills, and Michael Ironside rallying his troops. I’m out of breath typing all of that.
Despite the simplicity of the flat story line, the benefits of a great movie are all there, and you can also relax your brain and not have to think too much about following the usual complexities of great sci-fi. The bugs are cool, the effects and bloodshed are garish and lovely, and you’ll have a whole new host of one-liners to impress your friends. [Editor Aside: All of that cheesy goodness is punctuated by over-the-top fasci-patriotic news blurbs and recruitment “pop-ups” that felt jarring and incongruous back then, but can now be seen as somewhat prophetic given our current state of technology and the way we watch entertainment.]
We as a society do not expect the actors in this type of movie to possess the ability to say more than one or two sentences at a time, and Starship Troopers does not out-kick the coverage with dialogue. It’s boorish, minimal and exact, and chock full of cool things to say to your coworkers when you finally get back to the office. Do not pass this one up!
Number 3… 12 Monkeys (1995)
Director: Terry Gilliam
This relatively unknown film from Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) stimulates all the parts of your brain just itching for a twisty plot full of time travel and colorful characters. Bruce Willis is a perfect James Cole: a man sent back in time to detect the reasons for the plague that wiped out almost all of human civilization. As such, there are fantastical scenes and settings in a multitude of environments: a futuristic science lab, a dangerous and goofy psych ward (starring Brad Pitt) [Editor Aside: Pitt earned his first of six Golden Globe Awards for Best Supporting Actor for his role.]) a desolate and nature- filled vision of a people-free New York City.
The story rolls out in a ‘whodunnit’ sort of way, but all of that is wonderfully obfuscated by Cole (Willis) trying to navigate his own sort of rebirth. The sudden-but-unavoidable ending provides a chilling circular effect that ties the entirety of the movie together.
In short, this movie is simply a masterpiece of visuals and story woven together with fine, fine acting. By far Terry Gilliam’s best work, and lucky us, indeed.
Number 2… Galaxy Quest (1999)
Director: Dean Parisot
In my ramblings of this Earth, I am shocked at the amount of folks wandering around who have never heard of Galaxy Quest. It’s criminal! On one hand, you have perhaps the greatest assembly of powerhouse acting in the late 90s: Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Sam Rockwell. On the other, you have doofus Tim Allen at the helm of this film… and he absolutely crushes his role of Television Captain Jason Nesmith! It’s like peanut butter meeting jelly for the first time. He’s really that good.
The movie follows the lives of a pile of washed-up, has-been actors from a Star Trek-like TV show. They are eking out a living doing car dealership commercials, ribbon cutting at big box stores, and finding second jobs. The outlook is bleak. Little do they know, an alien species on the brink of extinction have learned about this “never give up, never surrender” ‘crew’ and created a religion based upon the fictional television show and its portrayal of bravery, sacrifice and camaraderie. Sound ludicrous? Great! It totally is.
Galaxy Quest is one of those rare films that refuses to take itself too seriously. It’s written almost to perfection, and the characters are so relatable, you can’t help but cheer for them. It’s not a heavy mind-jack like 12 Monkeys or District 9, nor is it a creature action film like Starship Troopers. Instead, Galaxy Quest slides into a niche all on its own. There’s really nothing like it. You will not be disappointed; I guarantee it.
Number 1… Pitch Black (2000)
Director: David Twohy
To make it all the way to number one on this list, lots of things have to come together in a film to provide an element you can point your finger at and say, “That’s the one!” Pitch Black combines gorgeous camera work, clean dialogue, and a death-dealing criminal as the star. This film went on to spawn two other movies (Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick), but Pitch Black is by far the best of the trilogy.
In his career-defining role, Vin Diesel (Fast and the Furious, XXX) portrays Riddick, a convict who is being transported through space back to a hellish prison. The ship carrying Riddick and crew crashes on a deserted but previously inhabited planet. The survivors scramble furiously to keep themselves safe from not only an escaped Riddick, but also from whatever creature has wiped out an entire outpost. Diesel and Cole Houser (Dazed and Confused, Good Will Hunting) both explore moments of greatness, and their obvious dislike of and grudging respect for each other drives the story until about halfway through the film, when the sun sets for good. The monsters come out when it gets dark. Lots of them. The struggle to fix the ship and leave the planet before being ripped apart and eaten becomes job numero uno for all the crew, and the two sides work together to find a way home.
It sounds like standard plot provisions, but the pacing is so expertly delivered that all of the ingredients mix together with excellence. Pitch Black also delivers a shock at the finale, which all but cements its status as my favorite throw-back sci fi films 1995-2010.
If I missed an obvious choice in making this list, please make a comment below to let me know!
Images courtesy of Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, Dreamworks Pictures