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Most Underrated Sci-Fi Movies

Don’t forget the most underrated sci-fi movies when scrolling through your Netflix cue.

By Matt CatesPublished 8 years ago 10 min read
Top Story - June 2016

Everyone’s been to the classic Hollywood summer blockbusters; We’ve munched popcorn through the whole Terminator series, slurped over-iced $10 sodas throughout the Men In Black movies, cringed and laughed during Aliens, E.T., and Back to the Future. We’ve stood (for longer than we should have) in those opening day lines for all the Star Wars and Star Trek films. We’ve checked out the new Planet of the Apes franchise, nodded approvingly (for the most part) at additions like Oblivion, Edge of Tomorrow, and Interstellar to our beloved genre. But many of the most creative sci-fi motion pictures flame out fast on very limited runs on a small number of screens. Must these glittering gems of imagination go unrecognized forever? Nope; Not in this day and age of online streaming!

Ethan Hawke has had a very hit-or-miss career. By many criteria, Predestination could have been a hit. Suffice to say, it wasn’t. Based on Robert Heinlein’s short story “—All You Zombies—,” for die hard sci-fi fans, this film offers a time travel tale with more loops and twists than the Viper Roller Coaster at Six Flags. Hawke plays a Temporal Agent working for the Temporal Bureau (okay, not that original so far), out on one final mission (yes, it’s always a “final” mission) to stop the dreaded Fizzle Bomber, a time-hopping terrorist who has managed to elude Hawke’s unnamed protagonist. Undercover as a New York bartender in 1970, the agent unexpectedly meets a truly bizarre customer, “The Unmarried Mother,” whose heartbreaking story is so compelling, the agent offers to enlist her into the Temporal Bureau to find her tormentor and extract her revenge. In exchange, the customer agrees to complete the agent’s own mission. However, as the time-traveling hijinks ensue, both agent and customer make profound discoveries about themselves which cause them to doubt their own actions. Imagine Alfred Hitchcock meets The Twilight Zone… with time machines.

Al Gore was right! The ecosystem of planet Earth has been destroyed by year 2267. Everyone’s left home, to live in splendor on the planet Rhea if they can afford to, or on crummy old space stations if they can’t (most can’t; some things never change!). A medical officer, Laura Portmann, decides to raise money for a future on Rhea, by volunteering to go on an eight year deep space voyage onboard the space freighter, Kassandra. Each of the crew must take turns on watch, while the rest remain in cryosleep (the watch shifts are four months in duration). Midway through the journey, Portmann wakes to begin her latest four month stint on watch. Bored of all the admin work, she noses around and makes an awkward discovery about the ship’s cargo. Deciding to wake the captain and the security officer, they investigate mysterious sounds in the cargo hold and the captain gets himself killed! Portmann now decides to rouse the first officer, incurring his (suspicious) wrath as he accuses her of mental illness. Meanwhile, the head of the “terrorist” group known as the Luddites begins filling Portmann’s head with conspiracy theories, hinting that Earth might not be as barren as the space flight corporations would have everyone believe.

Hackers, cyborgs, creepy aliens, and buddy road trips! The Signal has it all…except movie stars. With a budget of only $4 million, the film still didn’t make its money back at the box office. Nonetheless, it featured at the Sundance Film Festival and has been recognized for its themes of humanity and emotion over logic. MIT student Nic has been diagnosed with early muscular dystrophy, and doesn’t want his illness to sabotage his relationship with girlfriend, Haley, who is moving away to California. With their friend Jonah in tow, the group finds themselves teased by a troublemaking hacker known as NOMAD, who leads them into a trap in the middle of nowhere. From there the story gets weird, taking a hard turn into sci-fi land as Nic witnesses Haley’s abduction via the ever-popular light beam from the sky (clearly aliens are getting a discount on these beam devices somewhere, since they all use them). Things go from bad to worse, then sort of good as Nic gets his useless legs removed and replaced with super-powered prosthetics. Meanwhile, his buddies have received upgrades of their own, and together they wreak havoc upon their captors, only to discover—wait, no spoilers! You’ll have to watch and see…

What made prodigious director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, Steve Jobs) delve into science fiction (an effort he called a “spiritually exhausting experience”)? And how did such an award-winning film fail to earn back its modest budget, despite the clout of its director and unique production methods? Perhaps it is the problem of tackling subject matter too heavy for the mainstream audience to consume. Sunshine doesn’t offer any flashy space battles or evil galactic overlords who may or may not be the hero’s dad. Still, featuring fan-fav Cillian Murphy and a giant nuclear bomb attached to a spaceship on a mission to reignite the dying sun, one would think Sunshine might be able to overcome its mundane title and at least captivate the minds of the scientifically curious. But even Captain America (or rather, Chris Evans, here as “Mace the engineer”) couldn’t save this intellectually-stimulating and well-plotted mini-masterpiece from its own heat death. Drawing comparisons in style to 2001 and Aliens, Boyle’s movie deserves a bigger fan base.

We’re not talking Paul Atreides from Dune here, but rather another, less human-looking alien… and one of a far greater sense of humor (as one might guess upon learning the voice actor was Seth Rogen). Between stints as Scotty in the Star Trek reboots, Simon Pegg plays Graeme Willy, a UFO geek who has just left Comic-Con and who just happens to be at the right place at the right time…for Paul the alien, that is. Paul has recently discovered the US military has been holding him captive at Area 51 for the last six decades! Hopping a ride with Willy and his pal, Paul finds himself on the lamb from federal agent Lorenzo Zoil (yes, Lorenzo Zoil… as played by a stalwart Jason Bateman). Comic hilarity ensues, as more and more persons are added to Paul’s roster of enemies. Meanwhile, Willy learns that all Paul wants to do is find and thank the young girl who saved his life so many years ago, after his ship crashed on Earth back in 1947. Basically a knock-off parody mashup of the buddy comedy and the sci-fi “hunt the poor misunderstood alien” trope, Paul manages to rise above its lowbrow synopsis and keep the audience entertained. Worth a watch when you’re in the mood for some Seth Rogen/Simon Pegg shenanigans!

Jared Leto is a weird guy, and his bizarre film roles tend to reflect that. Take, for instance, Mr. Nobody, the tale of Earth’s last mortal man (everyone else has achieved immortality but him). Now 118 years young, the underdog Nemo Nobody spends his time dwelling on the past via hypnosis, and on specific critical junctures and the various possibilities which followed as different versions of himself made different decisions in his past(s). With a multilayered, non-linear narrative, Mr. Nobody is more of a philosophical drama set in a sci-fi environment than the other way around. Wrestling with themes revolving around chaos theory, string theory, and the infamous butterfly effect, the film is a visually beautiful exercise in scientific imaginings using one boy’s childhood decision (to stay either with his mother or his father, who are splitting up) as a launch pad into a many-worlds conundrum. Meanwhile, Leto, as ever, is spellbinding.

How many other Earths are there? Well, in Another Earth we know there’s at least one more, and it’s called, originally, Earth 2. Unfortunately for Earth 2, it pops up out of nowhere and creates such a distraction for the citizens of Earth 1 (and vice versa) that accidents happen. One of them is caused by a young high school grad named Rhoda Williams who, after learning she’d been accepted into MIT, partied too hard then drove home drunk, slamming into another vehicle and killing the driver’s wife and child. Williams goes to jail, where she pens a letter to enter into a contest. The winner gets a trip to Earth 2, to begin a new life… but after leaving jail, she decides to first visit the man whose family she inadvertently killed. He doesn’t know who she is; Her identity was never released to the public since she’d been a minor at the time. Quickly falling in love with him, Williams is torn about whether to leave or not. Upon seeing that Earth 2 had, up until the point of each planet learning about the other, been exactly like Earth 1, Williams wonders if her new lover’s family might still be alive on the parallel world. An intriguing puzzle of a picture, Another Earth presents its protagonist with an ethical dilemma for the ages.

“Do you know your friends? Do you know what’s real?” So goes the teaser trailer for this dead-on-arrival box office indie massacre, which has been acclaimed by most critics who’ve bothered to watch it. Filmed shaky cam-style at the director’s home, using his improvisational actor-friends and no script, instead the cast had a carefully-plotted outline to go off of. The premise? An annoying dinner party like thousands of others in snobbish homes around the country, but this particular party occurs as a comet passes near Earth in the night sky above, and its effects are troubling to say the least. All the phones crack. The lights go out. And then the trippy stuff kicks in. Contorting their world like uncooked pretzel dough, the comet is having a “de-coherence” effect on reality, introducing parallel world versions of the party guests. As all hell breaks loose as the guests begin to question which of them are their “true” selves and which might be doppelgängers, crossed over through an unseen dimensional corridor down the street. All mystery, no special effects… but then, the best sci-fi relies on ideas and imagination, doesn’t it?

Scotland never gets enough attention in movies, but Doomsday sets out to correct that. Unfortunately, it does so by killing half the population with a futuristic virus. The rest are quarantined and forgotten for nearly 30 years behind a giant insurmountable wall (well, that is one way for Scotland to exit the United Kingdom). But the Reaper virus returns, striking London this time, and it’s up to Major Eden Sinclair and her crew of scientists to stop the lethal spread of the plague before England ends up the same as their northern neighbors. Sinclair’s group is packed off to the wastelands of Glasgow, where they discover the sorrowful condition of humanity, which has left only two types of citizens—cannibal “marauders,” and not-so-chivalrous “knights.” Escaping both groups, Sinclair attempts to return home with the depressing news about any hope for a cure… but upon her rescue by the government, a final revelation challenges her notions of which side is worse. An exciting blend of Mad Max, Escape from New York, and 28 Days Later, Doomsday managed to turn a profit and develop a small cult following.

Now we are bringing in the big guns, with director Robert Zemeckis adapting renowned astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s novel and starring Jodie Foster (at the height of her career) and Matthew McConaughey (not a bad lineup for a cerebral sci-fi outing that preceded Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar by almost two decades). Working with the SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), Foster’s character, Dr. Ellie Arroway, monitors the skies for signals indicative of intelligent life. Eventually, she finds them—a series of repeated numbers, coming from the Vega system, about 26 light years off. A more complex signal is later picked up, detailing the precise construction method for a vessel capable of reaching Vega! Arroway is the first in line to go on the mission, until McConaughey’s devout Christian character Palmer Joss undermines her bid and gets the job himself (I think it may be clear, Sagan was not a fan of religion). In the end, things work out, as they tend to do for Jodie Foster… meanwhile, the movie went on to gross $171 million. Not a bad haul, but still, the film had a short shelf life, which is why it is considered underrated these days.

For those who can’t get enough Ethan Hawke, here’s another offering! 1997’s Gattaca was something of a risk for its time, tackling equality issues in a very uncompromising way. In a future where designer babies are commonplace, any adult who wasn’t genetically modified before birth is considered subpar. And subpar persons are inherently inferior; They are lower class, and barred from the best jobs (or even decent jobs, really). This does not stop Vincent Freeman from dreaming of being a space pilot, though. It only stops him from doing it legally. Enter Jude Law’s genetically-enhanced Jerome Morrow, the perfect man who had the misfortune of being crippled in an accident. Striking a devil’s bargain, the two agree to exchange identities, but living a life of identity fraud is rife with its own complications. Freeman easily passes the entrance test to enter the space pilot training program (all he had to do was submit a sample of Morrow’s perfect urine, which he pretended was his own). A complex and serious examination of the consequences of future DNA tampering, Gattaca is perhaps even more relevant today, as we draw ever closer to the reality of such an existence and the prejudices it might bring.

This 2009 jewel of a movie out of England is, as one can probably predict even without using a time machine, a light-hearted sci-fi comedy. Out for a night of drinking and lamenting their miserable existences, Ray and Toby begin to banter about inevitable geeky hot topics while Pete, who loathes such discussions, heads to the bathroom to escape. Instead of a break, however, he blunders into a “time leak” and beholds the horrendous near future of the very bar he and his friends are sitting in (perhaps this is where Avengers: Age of Ultron got the idea for the Tony Stark vision sequence, where Iron Man sees the Avengers lying dead at his feet?). Meanwhile Ray encounters Cassie, an attractive woman (played by Anna Faris) who claims she’s from the future and who apparently has a time machine built inside of her… a fact she eventually convinces them of, as they continually cycle back and forth through time, all within the confines of the pub! When a second time traveler presents herself, Cassie suspects there’s trouble afoot. FAQ About Time Travel tends to go slower than similar American-made movies, but pays off for those who appreciate the British sense of humor or just like buddy time paradox flicks.

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About the Creator

Matt Cates

Freelance writer and owner of Cates Content and Copywriting; retired Air Force Veteran; former administrative assistant at Oregon State University; author of Haveck: The First Transhuman, the greatest sci-fi novel in the multiverse.

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    Matt CatesWritten by Matt Cates

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