2014 | An unusually good year for sci-fi films

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A decade on, we take a look back at the year 2014, which saw the release of some truly great sci-fi films of all kinds…

Looking back, you can see the pop cultural ripple effects that cause one movie to prompt the making of other movies. Without the success of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and particularly Star Wars in 1977, Fox boss Alan Ladd Jr almost certainly wouldn’t have greenlit Alien, which came out two years later. And without the success of those sci-fi movies in the late 1970s, we likely wouldn’t have had the extraordinary, bumper year of 1982 – a period which saw the release of (to name but a few) Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Tron, Blade Runner and The Thing.

Much has been written about 1982 and those films – from the critical reassessment of the initially dismissed Blade Runner and The Thing (the latter being so poorly-received that it derailed John Carpenter’s career) to the enduring brilliance of The Wrath Of Khan.

As its 10th anniversary dawns, though, it’s worth taking a quick look back at 2014 – another year which brought us an unusually high number of science fiction films. None have quite cut through and made such an indelible impact on the cultural psyche as The Thing and Blade Runner (at least, not yet…) but there really were some magnificent genre films released that year.

On the big-budget, franchise end, Marvel branched out into pure space opera with Guardians Of The Galaxy – a febrile, funny outing from James Gunn that effortlessly toed the line between goofy pastiche and a heartfelt affection for its own comic book source material. There was also Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes – Matt Reeves’ ambitious, widescreen post-apocalypse that, for this writer, still stands as one of the best-ever entries in the series so far.

Then there was Godzilla, Gareth Edwards’ take on Ishiro Honda’s 1954 classic. It wasn’t perfect (as Edwards later admitted, the script was being written while it was being shot), but it had scale, style, and – strikingly, after Roland Emmerich’s not-brilliant 1998 effort – made its central monster feel truly big and threatening again. It’s a characteristic that has gradually ebbed in the North American Godzilla films made in its wake, but pleasingly regained by Japanese filmmaker Takashi Yamazaki in last year’s Godzilla Minus One.

Away from the franchise stuff, there were expensively-made original films emerging in 2014, too. Perhaps the best was Edge Of Tomorrow, Doug Liman’s clever, crisply-paced action adventure that took in chunks of anime stylings (it’s based on the Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka), Groundhog Day time-loops, and defeat-the-aliens heroics from stars Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. The victim of some pretty woeful marketing (the studio couldn’t even agree on a title – it was only later they finally adopted Live Die Repeat, which Liman always wanted), the film wasn’t a huge hit, but remains one of the most entertaining sci-fi action flicks of its era.

Following Edge Of Tomorrow into cinemas a few months later was Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar – a mind-expanding trip into time and space that felt like a conscious effort to marry the cerebral tone of Stanley Kubrick with the warmth of Steven Spielberg (the latter was originally going to direct). For this writer, it’s not an entirely comfortable union, partly because Nolan himself tends to gravitate more towards the coolly intelligent than sentimentalism in his work, but there’s no denying the spectacular design work and craft that went into Interstellar – nor the commitment of its cast, with Matthew McConaughey (at this point at the height of his career ‘McConaissance’) giving his all as the former NASA pilot turned farmer charged with saving our doomed planet.

At the opposite end of the budgetary spectrum, 2014 was also a banner year for independent sci-fi films. Sarah Snook, long before she shot to fame in Succession, provided an early look at her acting talent in Predestination, shot for $5m by The Spierig Brothers. Based on a short story by Robert A Heinlein, it’s a complex, elegantly-woven mystery that twists and turns around the connected fate of a New York bartender (Ethan Hawke), one of his bar’s best customers (Snook) and a mysterious terrorist called The Fizzle Bomber. It’s an absorbing, knotty mystery, but also emotional and unforgettably human.

Although technically put out in festivals the previous year, Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin and James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence both got theatrical releases in 2014, so just about qualify for inclusion here. Under The Skin hardly needs much of an introduction: starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien predator stalking unsuspecting men in Glasgow, it features some truly nightmarish imagery that still lingers a decade later; certainly, the creators of Stranger Things must have admired Glazer’s gonzo sci-fi, given that they casually ‘borrowed’ the filmmaker’s minimalist, oil-black concept of what an alien craft might look like for their own show’s black void.

Coherence, like Predestination, is one of those tiny yet ingenious films that got a deserved second life on streaming services. About a cosy, terribly middle-class dinner party rudely interrupted by a life-altering cosmic event, it’s an engrossing, often deeply unsettling film, despite its lack of jumpscares and expensive special effects. Seriously, it’s brilliant, and all the more remarkable given it was made for about $140,000 – which was probably less than the catering budget on the overstuffed X-Men: Days Of Future Past, also released in 2014.

Like 1982 before it, we can look back and see the ripple effects which led to the sci-fi bonanza of 2014. In 2009, James Cameron once again defied predictions that he’d made an expensive flop with his ecological sci-fi fable Avatar. It was expensive to make, certainly, but also made almost $3bn. The following year, Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a heist thriller with Philip K Dick underpinnings, proved again that people would flock to the cinema to see original genre films.

It’s arguably thanks to those huge successes that other filmmakers could get their own sci-fi films made – especially if they could get a big name like Tom Cruise attached. Director Joseph Kosinski once cited Avatar as one of the reasons he managed to get Oblivion off the ground, and once Cruise signed on, what was initially envisioned as a low-budget, Twilight Zone-esque sci-fi mystery got blown up into a $120m epic, released in 2013.

Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey in 2014’s Interstellar. Credit: Syncopy/Warner Bros.

Throw in the likes of William Eubank’s flawed yet briskly entertaining thriller The Signal, the violent dystopia of James DeMonaco’s The Purge: Anarchy, and the blockbuster success of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, and you have quite an extraordinary year for genre films of all kinds.

In fact, of the 10 highest-grossing films of that year, eight of them were either outright sci-fi films, or had elements of sci-fi in them. (The number one film of 2014 at the box office was Transformers: Age Of Extinction, but we’ll gloss over that.)

It’s rare to see a year go by without the appearance of at least one great sci-fi film, and the years on either side of 2014 certainly had their own fair share of cracking genre pieces. Nevertheless, we’d argue that 2014 was a pretty special period for science fiction, whether it was expensive and cinematic or indie and intimate. When it came to big ideas, ingenious plots and beautifully-designed futurism, we really were spoiled for choice.

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