What is Really the Best Sci-Fi Film Since ‘The Matrix’?

By  · Published on September 29th, 2012

Rian Johnson’s new film, Looper, is a pretty awesome time travel flick, one with as many elements that are clever and original as there are purposefully derivative and influenced. It’s the kind of smart and stylish sci-fi cinema we expect every once in a while on the festival circuit, like Sound of My Voice (which hits DVD and Blu-ray this Tuesday), rather than from a major Hollywood studio. Looper does fit the indie model, though, since Sony/Tristar picked it up for distribution only after it was done shooting, yet as Brian’s review of the film attests, we can still consider it a good sign for mainstream movies of this genre, and we can hope that Hollywood will see Johnson as the sort of directorial talent they need.

But is it the best science fiction film since The Matrix? That’s a question posed in a headline from Time magazine yesterday, though its respective post doesn’t address such a discussion let alone attempt to answer the inquiry. Well, if we exclude superhero movies, animated features (Pixar, Miyazaki and The Iron Giant among them) and the Star Trek reboot, Looper is currently one of only two original studio films of its order to be battling for the status of best reviewed since the Wachowskis’ groundbreaking modern classic. The other is Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men.

Also with the same Tomato Meter ranking are two Charlie Kaufman-scripted fantasies, Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Close behind and still higher than The Matrix are Minority Report, District 9, Galaxy Quest, the director’s cut of Donnie Darko and Duncan Jones’s Moon and Source Code. Foreign competitors include Timecrimes and Save the Green Planet.

Critically speaking, they’re all better than The Matrix rather than any one being the best since. But are we to just go by reviews? And shouldn’t it matter that as good as all these films are, none have been quite as innovative and influential as the Wachowskis’ movie? Certainly its iconic cultural legacy hasn’t been topped, and it’s hard to distinguish what has had the closest level of distinction and impact over the past 13 years. While Looper is excellent and memorable, it’s hard to imagine it inspiring so many copycats, parodies and followers.

Reviews have pinned the “best sci-fi film since The Matrix” label before on such very recent features as Prometheus (Ball State Daily News) and The Hunger Games (Box Office Magazine). Meanwhile, in a piece for Fandango, Erik Davis wrote that while he overheard people at Fantastic Fest saying Looper is the best sci film since The Matrix, he recognizes District 9 and Moon as other more likely contenders but at least calls Johnson’s movie the best of the year in the genre, which would scratch out both that Alien prequel and that initial Suzanne Collins adaptation.

According to a Guardian list from two years ago, Miyazaki’s Spirited Away ranks higher than The Matrix among the greatest sci-fi and fantasy films of all time. Popular Mechanics favors Children of Men and Wall-E. Total Film just barely favors Inception. Other lists don’t place something more recent than the Wachowskis’ film higher, but the next highest ranking films on these charts to come out in the past 13 years are Inception (Film.com), Serenity (MSN) and Avatar (IGN).

Perhaps we have to wait some time for both the perspective and the need to update our lists to see where Looper falls in the big universal picture. For now, here are some other ideas spouted round the Internet of what it is the best sci-fi film since:



Minority Report

Children of Men

Source Code

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.