The 10 Best Sci-Fi Movies of 2021 – Paste – Paste Magazine

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At a certain point, the Fast and Furious films should be considered sci-fi, right? I’m saying yes, and I’m saying now is that point. We included the ragtag family’s first venture to space in our round-up of the best sci-fi films of 2021, but it’s also worth considering that pretty much every blockbuster—every superhero, every videogame adaptation—at least has a few elements that blur the line between the fantastic and the technologically-driven. Some on this list blur that line as well, but always approach their speculative ideas with a compelling vision. Does that mean they go to space? Often. How about back into the Matrix? Yep, they do that too. But, sometimes, sci-fi means a control room where you can watch peoples’ lives play out on closed-circuit TVs. Sometimes it means dating a hunky ‘bot. And sometimes, it just means watching Nicolas Cage get his balls blown to kingdom come. If that’s not science, I don’t want to know what is.
Here are our picks for the 10 best sci-fi movies of the year:
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Netflix introduced its audience to Southeast Asian big-budget sci-fi with the Chinese film The Wandering Earth, a mess of a story that was still beautiful to look at. Space Sweepers, from Korean filmmaker Jo Sung-hee, is a much more cohesive and coherent offering with just as much flash. The dystopian setting sees the head of a giant tech company creating an Eden on Mars, essentially consigning most of humanity to poverty and pollution. A ragtag team of space-junk collectors is each looking after their own self-interest when they find a mysterious young girl who entangles them in much larger worries. With compelling characters, thrilling action sequences and an engaging plot, it’s a strong entry for Korea’s first sci-fi blockbuster. —Josh Jackson

A little less than halfway through Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland, Nicolas Cage, swathed and winched within a black leather bodysuit as much The Road Warrior as it is Scorpio Rising, literalizes the overindulgence that’s both vaunted his myth and socked him in the groin for the past 15-or-so-odd years. I’m unsure how long it’s been—we all are, because we remember nothing different, even the absurd notion that he’s an Oscar-winning performer who smoothly moved into action-adventures and then slipped dramatically on a banana peel into financially motivated VOD bacchanalia. All part of the well-known mystique. Where did this begin? Was it with Next and Bangkok Dangerous in 2008, the year of his worst-looking hair, as he ground down his hero persona into bland paste, or do we go back further, to the remake of The Wicker Man and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, both in 2006, to search for the first signs, the initial threads of his undoing? As is the case with many men in his field, time cannot be read on his face. Or in his hairline. Has he always been like this? Will he? Nicolas Cage, our scion of the American spirit on screen—much too game, fearless, ill-advised, hair-dyed—here he displays a new kind of vulnerability, a bloodletting of his most personal bits, so to speak. The moment is gross and seems unimaginably painful. Sono plays it as a punchline. In the middle of the nowhere of Prisoners of the Ghostland is Samurai Town, a typical old west locale that’s little more than an extravagant main street festooned with an alchemy of genre tropes. Geishas beckon and pose behind glass and elaborate masks as samurai and cowboys and samurai cowboys drool and drink and fight and fill the hybrid reality with cinematic shorthand. Hero (Cage), imprisoned for a bank heist years before that still haunts him, receives an ultimatum and a quest from local creepy crime boss the Governor (Bill Mosely) in exchange for his freedom. Shackled with explosives around his neck, wrists, thighs, and balls, the leather bodysuit his super-anti-hero get-up, Hero must venture into the apocalyptic Ghostland to retrieve Bernice (Sophia Boutella), the Governor’s beloved “daughter.” Though Sono seems to prefer style and genre to fill in for major worldbuilding, Prisoners of the Ghostland doles out surprisingly clear exposition—enough, at least, to understand the stakes and care about who lives or who (grotesquely, we can only hope) dies. Like John Carpenter, Sono can, at his best, match style and substance to craft what feels like a perfect object. At his less powerful, in something like the vulgar musical Tokyo Tribe, his visual conceits can get so dense the film becomes lost in a self-contained loop of allusion and homage. Fortunately, writers Aaron Henry and Reza Sixo Safai anchor Sono’s sensibilities in the machismo and cold war paranoia of ‘80s action behemoths. In his English language debut, the director’s invested in his silver screen maven—all of this man, his past and present and future—without giving too easily into Cage’s self-destructive self-awareness. Regardless, he hoots and slinks and mean-mugs his way through Sono’s Ghostland, his instincts as an American actor, alone in his ivory tower head of actorly actorliness, poltergeisting every inch of this lovely and bonkers movie. He has the potential to be breathtaking.—Dom Sinacola

This latest entry marks the return of director Justin Lin, who helped guide the series’ evolution from Tokyo Drift to Fast & Furious 6, and while he struggles with how unwieldy F&F has become, his undeniable understanding of what makes these movies tick keeps the film roaring along. Lin’s still adding new characters and twists to this high-octane telenovela as often as prefixes, retconning deaths and introducing long-lost brothers as easily as he moves from simply defying physics to defying astrophysics—as easily as he turned street-racing spies into globe-trotting superspies. The crew, including the newly domestic Dom and Letty, is pulled back into the world of…whatever it is they do…once again and their impossible mission (which they always choose to accept) has to do with another globally destructive techno-MacGuffin and a globally destructive flesh-MacGuffin: Dom’s younger brother Jakob (John Cena), excommunicated from the family for sins that become apparent over the course of extensive flashbacks. As Dom’s uneasy relationship with Jakob becomes clear—over the course of explosion-laden jungle races, rooftop chases and posh sitting room brawls—F9’s knowing relationship with its own cartoonishness balances it out. One of the funniest gags sees Tyrese Gibson’s Roman openly speculating if he and the rest of the crew have plot armor. Are they actually invincible? The gang realizing that they’re all in a movie seems like it could honestly be the next step, with them turning their cars towards the camera and bursting out of the fiction like Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck. While both come too late in the film for my taste (leaving much of the film hanging on how pleased you get seeing the admittedly amusing returns of Sung Kang and Lucas Black), two innovations keep F9 on the cutting edge of ridiculous action: Magnets and rockets. But such winning ideas, timed as they are to energize a relatively dramatic entry like last-minute nitro boosts, have a hard time standing out amidst the meandering plot and the narrative’s bevy of cameos. Perhaps the most telling way in which you can tell that F9’s action is a little underwhelming is that the standout moment from the film is purely dramatic. A shockingly well-directed “life flashing before your eyes” sequence allows Diesel to undersell a bevy of emotions through little more than a lemon-pursed mouth, while Lin spins his past, present and future around him. It’s not a great standalone entry into the Fast canon, but as the franchise speeds towards its finish line, it’s still satisfying to know that it’s in the hands of someone well-versed in the series’ strengths and still willing to imagine new ways to crash its toys into each other.—Jacob Oller

If you decide to watch the new sci-fi horror offering Oxygen during your latest Netflix and chill, allow me to impart a word of caution: This film isn’t what you think it is. Alexandre Aja, the acclaimed New French Extremism director responsible for the subgenre’s classic Haute Tension, is known for just that: Extremism. He’s no stranger to pushing his characters into heightened, blood-curdling scenarios where the very fabric of their beings dangle at impossibly high stakes. But where Oxygen differs from the rest of his work is that, ultimately, it is a love letter to human survival—a horrorshow with catharsis running through its veins. A woman (Mélanie Laurent), awakens in a cryogenic chamber with no memory of her identity or how she got there. M.I.L.O. (Mathieu Amalric), the pod’s onboard computer system, informs her that she has only 33 percent left in her oxygen reserve. We only see the inside of this pod, making her true location a terrifying unknown. Needless to say, escape couldn’t be more critical.—Lex Briscuso

As excitingly fresh and ambitious as The Matrix was in its approach to cyberpunk cinema in 1999, The Matrix Resurrections is just as devoted to its bold and disruptive vision in 2021. By returning us to Neo (Keanu Reeves), Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and the Matrix within a framework keyed into, amused with and ultimately intrigued by remake/reboot culture, Resurrections is a stimulating and often joyous meta narrative—all stuffed into a conventional enough sci-fi suit and tie to pass as Mr. Anderson for those happily horking down blue pills. This clever commentary comes packaged as the life of ol’ grown-up Thomas Anderson (Reeves), famed programmer living off his revolutionary-yet-fleeting videogame, The Matrix. Anderson is seeing a therapist for that nagging splinter in his mind—and we get the impression that the hot mom he’s been bashfully eye-banging at his local coffee joint, Tiffany (Moss), might suffer a similar affliction. They need saving, which requires going back down the rabbit hole and confronting their shared past. To reunite, to find that old magic, to resurrect, they—and the movie—need to jump through some hoops. But, as it does, you begin to see its stance towards itself shifting: What once was an easy joke, a Super Bowl commercial where Neo puts on some VR gear and says “Woah,” villainizes that same crassness to become an optimistic and reclamatory piece of sci-fi playing with new and relevant phenomena (fandom, auteur expectation, canon, the idolization of IP) just as the original trilogy played with the burgeoning cyberpunk and hacker scene. Bugs and her real-world crew are really into The One. How they relate to this new Matrix, how the citizens of Zion live, how the uneasy relationship between machines and humans turned out post-Revolutions (or, to be even more specific, post-The Matrix Online)—we get glimpses of it all, but it’s not servicing fans. It’s in service of itself. It is a shift from corporate pessimism (the very analysis and identification of which and other themes like it are lovingly mocked in that same montage-heavy opening) to a subversive positivity. Returning characters don’t just need to be callbacks. Twisty hallways or underground brawls can be more than reference material. There is value in looking back as long as that experience moves you forward. At its best, which is mostly when Reeves and Moss share the screen and their red-hot chemistry and intimate warmth are able to embody these abstractions, Resurrections leaps from staggering heights and confidently soars. Sometimes literally.—Jacob Oller
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Both technologically innovative and narratively faithful to the original text, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is bolstered by its seamless special effects and starpower above all else. Considering the director’s previous work in these arenas—namely Enemy, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049—he should be totally adept for the challenge. Yet there exists a nagging query that begs to be quelled: How much of this film is predicated on the sheer fact that cinematic advancements have finally rendered Dune an attainable possibility? Though it remains true to the first part of the text’s unhurried pace and detailed world building, Villeneuve’s adaptation feels overlong and void of subtext. It’s important to note that the film only adapts the first part of Herbert’s novel, which is notoriously kind of a slog. Much of the plot is focused on worldbuilding and creating an incremental immersion into the immaterial political hierarchies that shape this unknown yet familiar world. Admittedly, Villeneuve evokes and embraces this unhurriedness—a choice that just might predicate Dune’s future fortune. By limiting the scope to Part I, Villeneuve’s Dune maintains a consistent tone and sense of time—though it invariably drags over the course of two and a half hours. However, the meandering pace may perfectly suit fans of the original novel, which captures a certain pensive density indicative of the text. To be fair, there is a plain reason as to why Villeneuve opts for a subdued and sedated Dune. With so many failed attempts at adapting Herbert’s novel preceding it, how could the project ever fully embrace auteur-driven artistic risk? It translates as Villeneuve playing it safe, expending all of his energy on ensuring that his remake can’t possibly flop. Though Dune is faithful and fantastical in vision, its existence is merely proof that the enduringly popular novel can, in fact, be adapted into a box office hit.—Natalia Keogan

Anytime someone makes a concerted effort to shake up rom-com formulas, I’m all in. While the bougie and hyper-literate can poo-poo the whole genre as trite or corny, they’ve either got no heart, or they’ve never truly seen a great rom-com hit the admittedly rare sweet spot of story, actor chemistry and tonal execution. German director Maria Schrader almost achieves that sweet spot with I’m Your Man, but gets a little muddled in her storytelling in the last minutes. That doesn’t take away from her subtle and mature study of loneliness and intimacy via technology. Set in the very near future, Alma (Maren Eggert) is an expert researcher at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Falling short on funds, she agrees to be part of a three-week research program where she’ll provide her colleague an in-depth report advising for or against the ethics of a new technology: Entirely lifelike robots algorithmically programmed to be the perfect partner. For Alma, the tech company has programmed Tom (Dan Stevens), a handsome, smart, blonde specimen who also speaks German with a slight British accent because she likes the exotic. Eggert does a beautiful job modulating Alma’s slow thaw towards Tom. Stevens is also pitch perfect as he moves Tom away from his initial cloying programming and assimilates to Alma’s pragmatic needs. Watching him make that transition is like witnessing an expert race car driver shift for the most efficient ride possible; you weren’t aware it was happening but they sure did win that race. And it’s delightfully unexpected that the film doubles down on robot Tom as the romantic, doggedly undeterred in figuring out how to be the best partner he can for Alma. I’m Your Man succeeds in breathing gentle life into the well-worn genre by proving that, just like Tom, the perception of something’s value can actually be hiding something surprisingly deep.—Tara Bennett

Animated generational divides have never been more like a sci-fi carnival than in The Mitchells vs. the Machines. Writer/director Mike Rianda’s feature debut (he and co-writer/director Jeff Rowe made their bones on the excellently spooky, silly show Gravity Falls) is equal parts absurd, endearing and terrifying. It’s easy to feel as lost or overwhelmed by the flashing lights and exhilarating sights as the central family fighting on one side of the title’s grudge match, but it’s equally easy to come away with the exhausted glee of a long, weary theme park outing’s aftermath. Its genre-embedded family bursts through every messy, jam-packed frame like they’re trying to escape (they often are), and in the process create the most energetic, endearing animated comedy so far this year. And its premise begins so humbly. Filmmaker and animator Katie (Abbi Jacobson) is leaving home for college and, to get there, has to go on a road trip with her family: Rick (Danny McBride), her Luddite outdoorsy dad; Linda (Maya Rudolph), her peacemaking mom; and Aaron (Rianda), her dino-freak little brother. You might be able to guess that Katie and her dad don’t always see eye-to-eye, even when Katie’s eyes aren’t glued to her phone or laptop. That technocriticism, where “screen time” is a dirty phrase and the stick-shifting, cabin-building father figure wants his family to experience the real world, could be as hacky as the twelfth season of a Tim Allen sitcom. The Mitchells vs. the Machines escapes that danger not only through some intentional nuance in its writing, but also some big ol’ anti-nuance: Partway through the trip, the evil tech companies screw up and phone-grown robots decide to shoot all the humans into space. This movie needed something this narratively large to support its gloriously kitchen-sink visuals. The Sony film uses some of the same tech that made Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse look so crisp and unique, adding comicky shading to its expressive CG. In fact, once some of the more freaky setpieces take off, you wouldn’t be surprised to see Miles Morales swing in to save the day. The Mitchells vs. the Machines’ spin on the Spidey aesthetic comes from meme and movie-obsessed Katie, whose imagination often breaks through into the real world and whose bizarre, neon and filter-ridden sketchbook doodles ornament the film’s already exciting palette with explosive oddity. This unique and savvy style meshes well with The Mitchells vs. the Machines’ wonderfully timed slapstick, crashing and smashing with an unexpected violence, balanced out with one truly dorky pug and plenty of visual asides poking fun at whatever happens to be going on.—Jacob Oller

Since 1995, Neon Genesis Evangelion has penetrated the cultural consciousness with giant robots, angsty teens and esoteric Biblical references. It is the story of Shinji Ikari, a young boy destined to pilot a giant robot called Unit-01 in a future where creatures called Angels are destined to destroy humanity. But Shinji resists his fate, complaining at every turn and freezing with indecision as the survival of humanity lies on his shoulder. It is truly a one of a kind franchise, the brainchild of the genius and deeply depressed Hideaki Anno. It is a franchise that has plagued him for over 25 years, from a series to a slew of movies that worked to rewrite a dissatisfying ending. Now, Anno is finally done. With the release of his latest and last piece of Evangelion media, Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time, the time of the Angels has come to an end. Thrice Upon a Time is the fourth Rebuild of Evangelion film, which is a complete retelling of the events from the original series. The final film in the universe of Shinji, Asuka, Rei and EVAs may not be the best place for franchise novices to start, but it should be a great motivator. Rarely do anime franchises end on such a pitch perfect note, but Anno shows it is possible with Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time. After decades of grappling with what this series means to him and using it as a mechanism to process his own emotional baggage, Anno has finally found closure within his broken world full of angst and hope. This is a gasp of relief, a stifled sob of pride that punctuates a cultural milestone. With the release of this film, Anno is finally free.—Mary Beth McAndrews

In a small house, alone in the desert, Will (Winston Duke) watches. Nine Days, the wrenching feature debut from writer/director Edson Oda, understands that we are an existence of voyeurism. We’re only truly living to our fullest when we can see, share, feel the experiences of others. Will is a sort of hiring manager for life itself. As painful as it is for him to accept (he’s obviously grown fond of his previous picks), there is a new vacancy, and there are a few candidates. Over a nine-day process, almost like an audition for a reality show—especially fitting considering that the plane they would leave behind houses a watcher carefully and compassionately taking in a televised wall of literal life-streams—Will and his friend/co-worker Kyo (Benedict Wong) whittle down the applicants to find the best person suited for the gift of worldly existence. Oda’s compact, stirring, metaphysical sci-fi stageplay about the ends and beginnings of life—and all the wonder ripe for the sharing contained between—is as moving a debut as you’ll see all year. First, it takes some real creative brass to try to tackle such an ambitious, heady and easily trite topic. Second, it takes some major storytelling talent—both in the crafting of the script and the handling of its actors—to overcome those obstacles while keeping the dignity of all involved intact. Nine Days has quiet confidence, written in the way that some of the best sci-fi is, where it feels like a massive text that’s been erased down to the barest elements necessary for a perception imagination to piece together—a painting of overwhelming sentiment depicted with the simplest strokes possible. Oda’s script has been visualized with a similar restraint, nearly contained to Will’s home and its screens before it slowly pushes at these boundaries. But, at first at least, Will’s hopefuls—including Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, David Rysdahl, Arianna Ortiz and a last-minute Zazie Beetz—are roped into routine. As the would-be humans continue to prove themselves through a series of psychological tests, their growth or stagnation metered out in compellingly restrained segments overseen by Duke’s stoic yet compassionate shepherd, we become as invested as Will in their prospects. The gravity of what they’re after hits us. The ultra-sincere Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze-esque premise (Jonze executive produced the film) moves beyond its high concept and starts digging into its emotional implications. Scene after scene of appreciation for the magical moments of life hammer our hearts. Rarely do movies so tenderly tenderize you. It can be shatteringly bittersweet even without the soaring strings of Antonio Pinto’s score, and when they come in, it’s not even fair. Admirably ambitious and bracingly sincere, Nine Days leaves you raw and refreshed. Nine Days marks Oda as one of our most exciting new directors, a filmmaker possessing an innovative cinematic mind with a heart to match.—Jacob Oller
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