In the last column, I wrote about the worst science fiction films of 2012 and it was like pulling teeth. This was a tremendous year, the kind of year where many of the bombs were actually good movies, so scraping up the worst and nitpicking the flawed was a painful experience. That's not to say that nailing down the best sci-fi movies of the year was an easy feat, but at least the problem here was that I had too much to love and had to make some tough choices. I eagerly await your scathing criticism... but I eagerly await your passionate agreement on every word more.
Ladies and gentlemen: the best science fiction movies of 2012!
Most Pleasant Surprise of the Year: Chronicle
Chronicle looked awful. "A found-footage take on the superhero genre starring teenagers" sound like, on paper, the kind of idea that deserves eye rolls and scorn, a concept that screams "Let's just take these two popular things and mash them together." If Chronicle had been a passable movie, it would've been a pleasant surprise. The fact that it's a pretty damn good (and frequently great) movie makes it the pleasant surprise of the year. Less of a superhero movie and more of an American take on the sci-fi anime classic Akira, Chronicle uses the concept of teenagers being given supernatural powers by extraterrestrial forces to tell a dark, humanistic and frequently terrifying tale of power and morality.
Like Chronicle, there was no reason for Battleship to be any good. The critics hated it, audiences avoided it like the plague and it quickly became the definitive bomb of 2012 (juuust edging out John Carter). But you know what? This goofy, bombastic and so-stupid-it-has-to-be-intentional piece of deep-fried popcorn is more fun than any of the Transformers movies. This is a stupid movie made by smart people, somehow built to appeal to both intelligent audiences (who can see the inner machinations) and dumb ones (who like things that go boom). Give it a chance.
Best Performance in a Good Film: The Cast of Cloud Atlas
What makes a performance "brave"? Isn't all acting, on some level, brave? All actors and actresses have to step into front of hot lights and cameras to bare their soul for a crew (and later, an audience), all in a desperate attempt to create something honest. Well, there's brave and in the case of this category, there's fearless. The ensemble cast of Cloud Atlas jointly take this category because each and every one of them go above and beyond the call of duty in startling and unique ways, playing different ages, sexes and races cross six distinct time periods. Not everything works, but Hugo Weaving as a villainous, heavyset female nurse?Tom Hanks as a Cockney gangster? Doona Bae playing a middle-aged Hispanic factory worker? Incredible. One tight ensemble shares dozens of rolls and everyone (from the movie stars to the newcomers to the veteran character actors) is pulled out of their comfort zone in remarkable ways. Even when it doesn't quite gel, the audacity of it is startling.
Runners-up: Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper, Karl Urban in Dredd and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games
Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance as a futuristic hit man in Looper is, by itself, an impressive piece of cool, action-hero work -- the fact that he does it while pulling off a subtle and pitch-perfect Bruce Willis impersonation is astonishing. In Dredd, Karl Urban takes the role of a violent, dystopic future cop and creates a pop performance for the ages, utilizing an overblown tough guy growl that perfectly walks the fine line between menacing and hilarious. And then there's Jennifer Lawrence, whose grounded, subtle lead performance in The Hunger Games keeps the film's ludicrous subject grounded in humanity.
Best Performance in a Bad Film: Guy Pearce in Lockout
Lockout is an awful movie made completely and totally watchable by Guy Pearce's lead performance. it's that simple. Once you get over the film's amazing concept (commando has to rescue the president's daughter, who is being held prisoner by rioting convicts on a SPACE JAIL), you realize just how cheap and generic the whole thing is. To be blunt, Lockout looks like a movie that was financed to take advantage of some obscure European tax loophole. But then there's Pearce, who takes his Snake Plissken-lite character and imbues him with instantly likable B-movie charm. Pearce delivers absurdly bad quips so well that you just want to put him in a time machine, send him back to the '80s and let him make a decade's worth of movies where he shoots Soviet ninjas while wisecracking. Some actors (like Liam Neeson in the Taken films) elevate action schlock with their performances -- Pearce deliberately chooses to not rise above the muck and instead wallows in the absurdity of it all, creating a performance that will be cherished by lovers of bad cinema for decades to come.
Runners-up: Josh Brolin in Men in Black 3 and Michael Fassbender in Prometheus
In the last column, I named Men in Black 3 the worst science fiction film of the year, but not even I can deny how much fun Josh Brolin is, capturing the cadence of Tommy Lee Jones with eerie accuracy. It's no Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper, but it's a blast. Then there's Michael Fassbender's unforgettable turn as David the android in Prometheus, a performance that would have won this category if the film was an out-and-out bad movie and not a disappointment. In a film filled with boring and unintentionally despicable human characters, there's a definitely an irony to the deepest and most fascinating character being a sinister robot with a Lawrence of Arabia fixation. Since the script does him no favors, all credit must go to Fassbender.
Mind-Bendingly Great Scene of the Year: The alien abortion in Prometheus
For all of its flaws, Prometheus still had the single best science fiction scene in all of 2012, a scene so tense and terrifying that, for a few moments, the movie actually managed to properly brush shoulders with Alien. If you've seen the movie, you know the one: Dr. Shaw (Noomi Rapace) has an alien inside of her and it's about to be born... which means a brutal, chestbursting death for her, of course. With no other options, she crawls into an advanced surgical pod and proceeds to program her own alien abortion (with no anesthetic!). As if that wasn't bad enough, her aborted alien baby then tries to kill her before the robotic surgical arm can finish sewing up the gaping wound in her abdomen. For about 10 minutes, Prometheus stops being a frustrating journey about the nature of the universe and it becomes a violent and unforgiving horror movie... and it just sings.
Runners-up: The Bruce Willis flashback in Looper
In Looper, hit men in the near future are tasked with executing victims sent from the future via time travel, all in the name of literally removing all traces of the evidence. Eventually, every "looper" must "close his loop" and execute his older self. There's an early scene in the film where Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) kills his older self (Bruce Willis), takes his massive payday and moves overseas. Then, we see the rest of his life. We see him blow through his money to feed his drug addiction. We see him become a criminal again to pay his debts. We see him grow older. We see Joe become Old Joe. We see him fall in love and clean up and become a better man. Then we see the criminals come for him, to send him back to his younger self to get killed. But Old Joe isn't going to let that happen and when he gets sent back, he changes things, altering his own personal timeline and starting a literal war with his younger self. Time travel in cinema has rarely been this cool and complex and by letting us see how one man grows into a completely different person, the film manages to set up a showdown between two distinct individuals who just so happen to be the same person. This movie, man.
The Self-Righteous Punching Bag Award for a Good Movie That Everyone Hated: John Carter
John Carter is not a great movie, but it's a very good one. Unfortunately, it's a very good movie that went over budget, received a ton of negative press, has a terrible title, has an untested leading man and is based on a series of books that are century old and have been ripped off by every sci-fi filmmaker under the sun. Critics were split on the film and audiences stayed away. But now the dust has settled and it's time to time to reevaluate Andrew Stanton's flawed but fascinating epic. Is it confusing? No, it's just dense and asks you to keep up. Is it too long? Yeah, but that's because so much is happening. Is Taylor Kitsch pretty bad in the lead role? Well... yeah, but not everything can be a winner. John Carter is a huge movie, an ambitious and slightly bloated attempt to create a massive, old-school epic. I'd be exaggerating if I said the film managed to perfectly capture the "David Lean by way of Star Wars" tone it's going for, but Stanton made a blockbuster that is so unlike all of its brethren and full of so much personality that to condemn it is to condemn interesting filmmakers taking chances with big budgets. I hope you all like Transformers 4!
This movie is nuts, guys. If you think adapting a board game is ridiculous, you're right! The movie agrees with you! It's not Starship Troopers level satire, but Battleship knows exactly what it is. Give it a watch. You may be surprised!
Discovery of the Year: Sound of My Voice
To talk about Sound of My Voice is to spoil Sound of My Voice, so don't worry -- details will be kept mum here. But know you really should see this creepy, mysterious and beautifully constructed film that looks like it was made for pennies but packs a serious wallop (for lack of a more elegant phrase). Here's all that you need to know: film follows a couple who investigate a burgeoning cult whose leader claims to be from the future. With no major set pieces and only a handful of locations, Sound of My Voice has to rely on its increasingly strange, layered script and a trio of exceptional performances. The result is a tiny film that feels huge, with just enough left unanswered to get your imagination pumping. Whatta movie.
Brandon Cronenberg, like his father, doesn't seem to like society all that much. In fact, he thinks we're the kind of people who are so obsessed with celebrity culture that we'll pay out of the nose to acquire diseases that were carried by our favorite movie stars. The world of Antiviral is grim (you can buy and consume the cloned flesh of famous people at your local butcher) and just real enough to hurt -- the science isn't that far-fetched. Although he's probably tired of the comparison by this point, Cronenberg is very much his father's son... which is great news.
Best Reboot/Remake/Sequel of the Year: Dredd
Most Americans weren't familiar with the character of Judge Dredd when Sylvester Stallone yanked the British comics icon to Hollywood in the '90s and made a forgettable bomb. That hasn't changed -- Americans still don't know the character and they didn't go see the reboot, letting Dredd die on the vine. Their loss. Dredd is an ultra-violent, hilarious and outright bonkers experience, anchored by Karl Urban's wonderfully nutty lead performance and Lena Headey's memorable villain. The whole movie feels like it escaped from the 1980s, a decade where apocalyptic dystopias and macho, merciless killing-machine protagonists were commonplace. In a year where The Expendables 2 reared its cheap and ugly head, Dredd showcased what a truly great throwback really feels like.
After playing coy for so very long, the final shots of Prometheus made it very clear that yes, this whole thing takes place in the Alien universe. It's a tenuous connection and to be perfectly honest, the film as a whole would have benefitted from being a more straightforward entry in the franchise, but the film presents a rare opportunity -- we get to see an established universe from a completely new perspective. What's going on in the galaxy while the crew of the Nostromo is fighting the alien? What's going on back on Earth while the Marines attempt to escape LV-426 with their lives? These questions can't be answered, but Prometheus gives us a glimpse at a different kind of adventure happening among the same stars where Ellen Ripley and the Xenomorphs tread. Watching Prometheus is like watching a movie that takes place in the Star Wars universe but doesn't feature anyone named Skywalker and it's a weird, fascinating feeling.
Best Universe: Looper
A near future on the verge of financial collapse, where present-day criminals are recruited by criminals from the future to kill people that they send back in time. Yeah, nothing else this year came close to touching the sheer originality of Looper's universe, a world where the plausible science of the near future sequences coexists with the impossible (time travel!) science of the more distant future. There's no debate in this category.
Runners-up: Antiviral, Dredd
Both of our runners-up suggest two very different kinds of pitch-black futures. In Dredd, it's far more traditional: the cities are sprawling urban nightmares surrounded by radioactive deserts and policed by brutal judges. In Antiviral it's more grounded and more chilling: celebrities sell their diseases for exorbitant prices to obsessed fans who want to feel closer to their idols. Dredd paints a delightful but familiar apocalypse and Antiviral turns the mirror on us, letting us know that we're already pretty close to the end.
Special Prize for "It's Barely Sci-fi, but You Should See It": Safety Not Guaranteed
As the title of this category implies, Safety Not Guaranteed is not, strictly speaking, a science fiction film -- it's a romantic comedy. However, it's a romantic comedy with just enough sci-fi flavor to pique the interest of genre fans, who will come for the time travel and stay for the droll comedy, beautiful performances and the lump that will surely form in their throat by the end. Aubrey Plaza stars as an intern for magazine who, along with a veteran reporter, is tasked with researching a puff piece about a classified ad requesting a partner for time travel. What follows is the best and sweetest rom-com of 2012, a no-budget indie that grabs a genre that tends to take the easy way out and shakes it up in ways that cannot be discussed at length without fear of spoiling the film.
Best Sci-fi Film of the Year: Looper
Here's the thing about most modern science fiction films: most aren't sci-fi. Not really. Dredd is a tremendous action movie in a science fiction universe, but it's not real sci-fi. Battleship is a great big pile of incredible lunacy, sci-fi in that it features aliens but little else. John Carter, like Star Wars, is less sci-fi and more fantasy. But Looper? Looper is real science fiction. It may be the original brainchild of writer-director Rian Johnson, but the film feels like it's based on some kind of lost classic. In an alternate universe somewhere, Looper is lean, gripping, smart sci-fi noir paperback, published in 1973 and readily available in every used book store, shelved somewhere between Harlan Ellison and and Robert Heinlein. There were better films than Looper released in 2012, but there were no films more original and no science fiction films more pure. This thing is the real deal.
Runners-up: Cloud Atlas and Sound of My Voice
Cloud Atlas is a brave, bold, astonishing and utterly unique movie that deserves to be a part of the 2012 science fiction... even though only about one third of the movie is proper science fiction. Still, the sci-fi aspects of the film envelope the whole thing and lend it a cosmic grandeur that's missing from more traditional genre efforts. Similarly, Sound of My Voice, while a terrific movie, just isn't overly enough sci-fi to knock Looper off its perch.
Sci-fi Top 10 of the Year (for better or worse)
2. Cloud Atlas
3. Sound of My Voice
6. John Carter
8. The Hunger Games