This year has been a banner year for Sci-Fi and Superhero blockbusters. Some of my favorite movies of all time in this genre have come out, one after another, and it’s challenging to pick and rank the winners. But I’m not one to give up a fight, so here is my ranked Top 5 list of the best Sci-Fi movies of the year, with a couple of surprises which I’ll explain as I go.
#5: Rogue One
I have to admit some surprise regarding Rogue One: a Star Wars Story. Now there are good surprises and bad surprises, and one always hopes a movie touches on the former not the latter. But in this case, I’m afraid it’s the latter.
Maybe my expectations were just too high coming off of the powerhouse extravaganza that was The Force Awakens last year. While that movie is not without its faults, I truly loved it and it ranks just below The Empire Strikes Back as one of my favorite entries in the Star Wars saga.
Rogue One, on the other hand, was merely good. I appreciated the story arc, the settings, and the characters for the most part. But there were so many little details that rubbed me the wrong way, and I was also bothered by the difference in tone which the movie exhibited compared to the first trailers I saw with regards to the lead character, Jyn Erso. I feel like she got rather bland in the final mix and lost some of the defiant “I rebel!” attitude which I liked about the first trailer. (And I’m not the only one puzzled by the movie’s treatment of her.) On the other hand, Ben Mendelsohn’s portrayal of Orson Krennic as a scheming, insecure Empire man was fabulous, and the scenes of Darth Vader (brief though they were) were a sight to behold. And can I say the way they depicted the sheer terror of the Death Star was truly breathtaking?
Now I’ve only seen Rogue One once in the theaters to date, and I suspect the movie will grow on me over time. Still, when compared to the sheer awesomeness of the other movies on my list, Rogue One gets pushed down to the bottom of the list at #5.
This movie floored me. I really wasn’t sure what to expect going in, as I knew almost nothing about the plot and the trailers hadn’t revealed very much (of which I heartily approve). Thus the experience of watching this movie was quite moving, and I left the theater almost in a state of shock because of the nature of the story and the depth of feeling it brought up in me.
In my opinion, Amy Adams deserves an Oscar (at least a nomination!) for her performance in Arrival. She carries the movie. If the movie had been the same except for a different lead actress who was merely adequate, it just wouldn’t have worked very well. At the start of the main plot, Adams portrays a woman who is bound up in grief and goes through her professional life with an extistential sigh, as if doing her work is preferable to giving up entirely but just barely.
Then the extraordinary happens. Aliens! Well, maybe…we’re not quite sure just what is happening at first during the first act of the movie, and that’s one of the things I love about Arrival. It’s a slow burn. This is not an “action” movie, which is interesting in and of itself as most movies about aliens do fall under the category of high-octane action flick. At any rate, because of Adams’ deep understanding of language and the science of linguistic study, she is pulled into one of the elite teams trying to make contact with them, and the story unfolds from there in a brilliant, emotional, and very original way.
If you haven’t seen Arrival yet, do so at your earliest opportunity.
#3: Doctor Strange
Grinning from ear to ear. That’s what I was doing pretty much from the start to the finish of this movie.
I never really got into comics when I was a kid, but my dad definitely had in his youth, and he still had quite a collection when I young. Every time he talked about his favorite comic-book characters (which, for the most part, were all part of the Marvel universe), Doctor Strange would top the list. I’d hear stories about parallel dimensions and trippy tours through magic realms with all laws of physics as we know them going out the window, and I’d think to myself, “Man, I sure hope they figure out how to do a movie of all that some day. That would be awesome!”
And that’s exactly what Marvel did with Doctor Strange, the latest entry in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). Parallel dimensions? Check. Trippy tours through magic realms? Check. Laws of physics going totally haywire? Check. Oh, and top that with excellent characterization, stunning locations, a surprisingly top-drawer script, and a director that manages to pull off some of the most breathtaking effects visuals I have ever seen on screen, and this is clearly one of Marvel’s best cinematic efforts to date.
I’m counting the days until the home video release!
#2: Star Trek Beyond
Remember what I said about movies surprising you in good ways or bad? Well, Star Trek Beyond definitely surprised me…in a good way. Oh yes, in a very good way.
I’m not a big fan of the first two J.J. Abrams installments in the new Star Trek movie franchise. I enjoyed the first one to a point, but it fell short for me in a variety of ways. The second one was even harder to get into. Listen, I am a Trekkie through and through. I’ve watched nearly every episode in all of the Star Trek TV shows (still have a few in the original series to catch up on). I grew up on ST: TNG. The Enterprise in TNG is my starship. The Star Trek franchise, even more than Star Wars, had a major impact on me growing up. The Wrath of Khan is one of my favorite movies of all time. The way in which Star Trek Into Darkness messed with characters from that movie was extremely jarring to me, to say the least.
Which is why I had relatively meager expectations going into Star Trek Beyond and why it needed to put some real effort into getting this new alternate timeline and cast of characters back into my good graces. And, boy, did it deliver!
I just watched this movie again a couple of days ago, and I love it even more now than when I saw it in the theater. (So many fun little things you pick up on with subsequent viewings.) The plot isn’t genius but it’s an enjoyable ride, the characterization is superb (kudos to Simon Pegg for a script that actually feels like a real Star Trek story), and the visuals are by far the best I’ve seen in any Star Trek movie. I think what makes the movie as great as it is, however, is the introduction of a new character that totally changes the dynamics of the typical Trek voyage. I’m talking about Jaylah.
I absolutely love this character. I love Jaylah so much that I’m going to be sorely disappointed if they don’t bring her back in the next Star Trek movie. She’s funny (without necessarily trying to be), smart, capable, intriguing, and, frankly, she just kicks ass. Strong, powerful women that don’t have an overt sexual undercurrent aren’t always easy to find in Trek lore, unfortunately, which is why I appreciate Jaylah so much. (It’s quite a contrast from the weird sexy thing going on with Dr. Carol Marcus in Into Darkness.) Also, her character becomes absolutely vital to the success of our heroes’ mission, which is an interesting change from previous movies where the plot generally revolved around the crew of the Enterprise at all times.
The villain of Star Trek Beyond is also the best villain I’ve seen in Trek stories in quite some time. He’s not Khan-level (and by that I’m of course referring to The Wrath of Khan), but he gets rather close at times. At first he comes across as a generic sci-fi baddie, but during the course of the movie, he gains depth and nuance, and there comes a time when we’re led to feel rather sorry for the fellow. (That time is very short, however!)
I feel like Star Trek Beyond deserved a much better marketing campaign. The trailers were lousy. The descriptions of the story ahead of time sounded dull. The collective world of sci-fi fandom was just coming off the over-the-top hype train of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and this whole marketing push felt cheesy by comparison. I’m just glad the movie itself was superb, and did well enough at the box office to pave the way for a fourth installment in the new movie franchise. BRING BACK JAYLAH!!!
#1: Captain America: Civil War
I apologize for the hyperbole, but I really do consider this to be the finest comic-book movie ever made. And that’s high praise indeed, considering the previous Captain America movie was quite excellent, and so many other Marvel movies are worthy of consideration (including Doctor Strange in this very Top 5 list!).
From the very first frame to the very last, everything about this movie is delightful (I’m stealing that word from film critic John Campea, thank you very much!). The sharp, witty banter that’s come to define the tone of Marvel movies is done perfectly. The palpable tension that develops between characters we’ve all come to know and love, most notably Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, is done in a way that never feels forced or fake. The way in which new characters are introduced to the MCU, such as Black Panther and the newly Marvel-controlled Spiderman, is nothing short of genius. The continuing subplot of Captain America’s controversial relationship with The Winter Soldier (aka Bucky Barnes) makes this movie feel like part of a continuum, yet at the same time, one could watch this movie on its own and still get plenty of emotional juice out of it.
Let’s talk about “The Airport Scene” for a moment. Everybody came out of the theaters raving about this particular part of the movie. While I don’t consider the scene to be a make-or-break aspect of Captain America: Civil War, it nevertheless is one of the coolest bits of cinema you’ll see in the comic-book genre. If you’ve ever dreamt of seeing a large throng of top-tier superheroes all fighting each other on the silver screen and looking badass while doing it, this is the movie for you.
I think the ultimate touch that makes this movie as great as it is really the core of the movie’s premise: the rift that grows between Iron Man and Captain America. As I said, this tension never feels forced, and, in fact, the stakes that turn this into all-out war feel like honest issues that any of us might struggle with. In a world where people have incredible powers, how are those powers managed within a legal and moral framework? Should people with enhanced abilities go unchecked? Should they be tracked and monitored? Do they deserve our unconditional approval and respect? Or are they merely people who make mistakes, only their mistakes have the potential to destroy entire cities or nations? (Or the world?) How important is the right to privacy, even for those with extraordinary powers? What is the government’s role in all of this? These are valid and timely questions to wrestle with, and the way in which our heroes in Captain America: Civil War wrestle with them and the implications going forward for the MCU are endlessly fascinating.
So there you have it: my Top 5 list of favorite Sci-Fi movies for 2016. To recap:
- Captain America: Civil War
- Star Trek Beyond
- Doctor Strange
- Rogue One: a Star Wars Story
And 2016 isn’t even quite over yet! I still want to go see Passengers, even though I hear it’s not very good. UPDATE: I did see Passengers over the holidays and found it surpringly enjoyable. It still doesn’t make my Top 5 list, but it’s certainly worth watching and far better than its critics made it out to be.
I should also make mention of some hyped-up sci-fi/comic-book blockbusters which sort of crashed and burned, namely, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justic and Suicide Squad. I haven’t even bothered to see the latter yet, but I did see BvS, and while there were aspects to the film I enjoyed (particularly the treatment of Batman and Ben Affleck’s take on the iconic character), overall it was a pretty dismal affair. SPOILER ALERT! Unlike in Civil War, the epic showdown between Superman and Batman did feel forced…in fact, it was quite literally forced. I didn’t like Batman falling for the con concocted by Lex Luthor to get him to hate Superman, and I really didn’t like Superman just sort of being a passive victim to Luthor’s mad schemes during a good portion of the movie. In addition, I felt like the introduction of Wonder Woman to set up future installments of the “DCEU” was done in a very confusing manner and felt almost like a secondary plot entirely unrelated to the primary story arc of the movie. END SPOILERS
I still have hopes that the DCEU films will get better. The upcoming Justice Legue and Batman movies sound intriguing, and I really like the trailer for the upcoming Wonder Woman movie. So we’ll see. I’m a massive fan of the CWDCU shows (Arrow, The Flash, etc.), so if they can somehow find a way to transfer the magic of those shows onto the big screen, I’ll be quite pleased. (Speaking of which, the 4-part crossover episodes as part of “DC week” on The CW were mindblowing and almost deserve a collective #6 spot on my list!)
If you saw any or all of these films on my Top 5 list and would like to offer your thoughts, let me know! Here’s to another banner year for sci-fi fans in 2017!