Let’s not waste any time: the year is coming to a close, so it’s time for The Last Sci-Fi Blog to hand out its annual awards for the year. These completely insubstantial prizes represent the best (and not-so-best) of the year in science fiction film and there are way too many this year to deal with a prolonged introduction. Here we go!
Most Disappointing Science Fiction Film: Elysium
After the smart and insane District 9, it’s heartbreaking to see director Neil Blomkamp take such a huge step backwards with Elysium, a lunkheaded parable whose on-the-nose politics never mesh with its violent and admittedly impressive action sequences. Elysium needed to be smarter or it needed to be crazier because right now, it just kind of exists, a fountain of great ideas that just don’t gel.
Runner-Up: After Earth
If there was anything that could resurrect M. Night Shyamalan’s fledgling career, an original science fiction adventure starring the biggest actor in the world should have done it. How could a movie this expensive be so lifeless and dull?
Best Science Fiction World/Universe: Pacific Rim
Pacific Rim wastes little time getting straight into robots vs monsters action, but the movie works because of the tiny details in the background. As cool as epic battles are, director Guillermo del Toro knows that a sci-fi movie is only as good as the world it inhabits, so we’ve given frequent glimpses of a world that’s been irrevocably changed by the arrival of massive rampaging beasts. The only thing more interesting than the already famous Hong Kong battle is the society that’s getting crushed underneath the feet of the Kaiju and Jaegers.
One of the most subtle and realistic depictions of the future ever put on film, Her imagines the world of tomorrow as looking a whole lot like the world of today. It’s shockingly normal, save for some subtle fashion and design choices. How strange is it to see a movie where the future world on screen is fascinating because it truly feels like what we’re heading for?
Most Pleasant Surprise of the Year: Oblivion
Tom Cruise never phones in a lazy performance. Ever. His exceptional movie star presence in Oblivion anchors a flawed but interesting film, keeping us on board as director Joseph Kosinski drags us through all kinds of truly crazy twists, jumping from genre to genre as fast as he can. Oblivion is messy and it wears its influences on its sleeve a little too clearly, but this wacky and massively entertaining movie is the kind of original sci-fi that people are always clamoring for.
Runner-Up: Ender’s Game
After all of the controversy surrounding author Orson Scott Card, the lone-awaited film adaptation of Ender’s Game arrived with a bit of a thud and vanished quickly. That’s a shame, because it’s surprisingly good, capturing most of what works about the source material and finding clever ways to depict some fairly cerebral concepts.
Discovery of the Year: Europa Report
Europa Report vanished into the world of VOD and streaming in the blink of an eye, but this found footage science fiction thriller is a small gem that deserves your attention. Assembled as a faux documentary about an ill-fated, privately funded space voyage to one of Jupiter’s moons, the film mines extraordinary tension out of the dangers inherent in space travel, making it a close cousin to the much wider seen Gravity. Although the special effects leave something to be desired, Europa Report is so full of tension and clever ideas that you’re willing to forgive every poorly rendered CGI shot. It’s only 90 minutes and it’s on Netflix. You won’t regret giving this one a chance.
If Inception was made on a shoestring budget, it would probably look a lot like Extracted, which tells the story of a scientist who finds his consciousness stranded in the mind of a heroin addict after an experiment goes horribly wrong. Like (the superior) Primer, Extracted makes up for its lack of action and effects by delving into big ideas, transforming the mundane into the extraordinary with simple suggestion and smart writing.
Best Science Fiction Movie That May Not Really be Science Fiction: Gravity
The debate rages on as to whether or not Alfonso Cuaron’s stomach-churning, outer space-set thrill ride is actually a science fiction film since it takes place in the here and now. While we can certainly continue debating genre semantics, Gravity is a stunning, terrifying accomplishment that portrays space (which normally just a big highway in most sci-fi) as the hellish and brutal place that it really is. There was no film as purely exciting as this one released in 2013.
Runner-Up: About Time
About Time doesn’t even pretend to be a science fiction film for even a single moment, but this charming romantic drama is all about time travel and how its lead character uses it to improve his lot in life, so it deserves some level of consideration amongst genre fans. If nothing else, see it for Bill Nighy’s truly moving and heartbreaking performance as the main character’s father.
Best Reboot/Remake/Sequel: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
With a bigger budget, the brutal world of Panem truly comes to life in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which takes what worked from the first film and expands it while jettisoning everything that didn’t. A startling improvement on its source material, this is angry and subversive sci-fi, smuggling fascinating politics into a big budget studio blockbuster. And at the center of it all is Jennifer Lawrence, once again proving that she has the chops to back up everyone’s unabashed love for her.
Trashy and weird and gloriously silly, Riddick is nuttier than both of its predecessors and a better movie for it. Although it occasionally looks like a Syfy original movie, it has the violence of a slasher flick and the mindset of a ’70s exploitation film. This is the best junk film released in 2013.
The John Carter Memorial Award For a Good Movie That Everyone Hated: Riddick
See the paragraph right above this one. Although it was quickly dismissed by many critics, Riddick is one of the best times I had in a theater this year. It’s sexist and nasty and inconsistent, but it’s a complete and total blast just waiting to build its real fanbase when it hits DVD. As I wrote in this very column, this is a sci-fi Friday the 13th film where Jason is the hero. It’s totally bonkers and you have to see it.
Reviews where mixed-to-negative on Oblivion and I get it. The movie never gels and many of its beats are familiar, with the script following a common template. To explain why this movie is worth seeing would be to delve into spoilers, but let’s just say that its left turns are just bizarre enough to warrant your attention. In fact, the final revelation about Tom Cruise’s character is so crazy (and conjures such a bizarre image) that you have to see it to believe it.
Special Award Just So I Can Give The World’s End Something Nice: The World’s End
As I compiled these awards, I noticed something awful: Edgar Wright’s The World’s End was getting shut out of most categories. Since this is one of the absolute best films of 2013, this would certainly not do, so I went ahead and created this category to give this smart and hilarious comedy/adventure/satire its proper due. Perfectly balancing goofy jokes with beautifully choreographed action and genuine hard science fiction, this is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie should have been.
Runner-Up: The World’s End
And now it has two awards!
Best Science Fiction Scene of the Year: The Hong Kong Battle in Pacific Rim
With two giant Kaiju marching toward Hong Kong with destruction on their tiny dinosaur brains, the only think standing in their way are the handful of remaining Jaegers, robots designed to take down these vicious monstrosities. The resulting smackdown is the epic action set piece of the year, a battle that does scale unlike anything since…ever? There is more imagination in a single shot of this sequence than there is in entire films.
Runner-Up: The Showdown With the Computer in The World’s End
The World’s End doesn’t climax with another battle between our drunken heroes and the hive mind army of robots. Rather, it ends with Simon Pegg’s Gary King yelling at the master computer and convincing it that the human race is too stubborn and flawed to let itself join a universal alliance. It’s like reverse Star Trek: our hero argues that humanity will never excel amongst the stars and dooms the world to a post-technology apocalypse.
Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix in Her
There’s something inherently silly about a man falling in love with an operating system, but you wouldn’t know it from Joaquin Phoenix’s warm and beautiful work in Her. Since the film takes place in a near future where the norms are ever-shifting, Phoenix plays his role with straightfaced realism, bringing true joy and heartbreak to every interaction to his A.I. lover. He’s a romantic leading man for the 21st century, a lonely and likable and sweet and painfully human man who represents the best and worst in all of us.
Runner-Up: Simon Pegg in The World’s End
Simon Pegg never gets enough credit for his range, which gets pushed to new limits in The World’s End. As unstable slacker and alcoholic Gary King, Pegg nails the big laughs and the tender moments, never failing to expose the crippled soul beneath the clownish, bumbling exterior.
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock in Gravity
The vast majority of Gravity finds Sandra Bullock alone and stranded in space, interacting only with herself and CGI satellite debris. That’s tough for any actor, but Bullock makes it look easy. Strong but vulnerable, she’s not only the best action hero of the year, but one of the most quietly complicated. Plenty of films have seen their protagonists battle mental and emotional trauma in the face of a disastrous situation, but few have done it with Bullock’s humanity and power.
Runner-Up: Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Scarlett Johansson in Her (TIE)
How do you choose between Jennifer Lawrence’s steely and badass turn in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Scarlett Johansson’s moving voice performance as a complex and loveable operating system in Her? You don’t. You just call it a tie.
Best Science Fiction Movie You Didn’t See: Upstream Color
Look, it’s okay that you haven’t seen Upstream Color yet. It’s a small film, so maybe slipped under your radar. It’s reputation for being intimidating viewing experience precedes it, so maybe you’re afraid to give it a chance. The only thing I can say is to give it a chance. This is a complex film that holds its cards close to its chest, but stick with it and you’ll find the year’s smartest science fiction movie…which is actually a disguise for the year’s second most moving romance (behind Her, of course). Shane Carruth set out to break your brain with Primer, but he’s out to break your heart with Upstream Color. Let him do it.
Runner-Up: Europa Report
Didn’t you read about this one earlier? It’s on Netflix! Come on!
Best Science Fiction Film: Her
Her is science fiction at its absolute best, doing what no other genre can do. It gives us a chance to re-examine our own lives and beliefs by filtering them through the impossible. By telling a story about a man falling love with an advanced computer program, writer/director Spike Jonze examines long distance relationships, learning to let go, learning to grow up, the perils of loneliness and what it means to be in love. Even a relationship that ends badly can change a person for the positive and Her, as heartbreaking as it is, is ultimately one of the most hopeful science fiction movies ever made.
Runner-Up: Upstream Color
Based on what I wrote above, this has to take the runner up spot, huh?
Sci-Fi Top 10 of 2013:
10. About Time
7. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
6. Europa Report
5. Pacific Rim
3. The World’s End
2. Upstream Color