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The Most Underrated Sci-Fi Movies of the 2000s

Equilibrium (2002)

Barely released in theaters, writer-director Kurt Wimmer’s Equilibrium stars Christian Bale as John Preston, a “Cleric” in a post-World War III society where emotion has been outlawed and suppressed through a powerful drug called Prozium. All materials that can provoke an emotional response, including all forms of art, are banned, and it’s Preston’s job to root them out. But when Preston accidentally misses his own daily dose of Prozium, he begins to experience emotions and slowly turns toward joining a nascent revolution against the society’s rulers.

You can spot plenty of influences in Equilibrium from miles away—Logan’s Run, Fahrenheit 451, and Nineteen Eighty-Four among them—but perhaps the biggest is The Matrix: Wimmer invents a new way of fighting called gun kata, a mix of martial arts and gunplay clearly inspired by the breakthrough action of the Wachowskis’ classic. As derivative as the film may be, the kinetic action, atmospheric location sets, and a great cast headlined by Bale, Emily Watson, Sean Bean, Taye Diggs, and Angus Macfadyen make this worth a revisit.

Primer (2004)

Made on a budget of just $7,000, Primer remains one of the best time travel movies ever made and a model of how to do mind-bending science fiction with literally no money. Writer-director-producer-editor Shane Carruth stars as Aaron, one half of a pair of friends who work on tech projects in Aaron’s garage. Aaron is impulsive and instinctive while Abe (David Sullivan) is more cautious and austere. When they accidentally discover a way to travel six hours back in time—paving the way for them to make changes to the immediate past—who do you think begins causing more chaos?

Yes, Primer is often dense to the point of incomprehension, but that’s part of its charm, as is the low-fi aesthetic in which we watch two men effect changes to reality from inside a garage (hey, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak supposedly started Apple in Jobs’ parents’ garage, so don’t think there isn’t an allusion there). The prosaic setting and unpolished filmmaking lend the actions of Aaron and Abe an eeriness that probably couldn’t be replicated through $100 million worth of visual FX. It’s a shame that Carruth ventured into more obscure territory with 2013’s Upstream Color, followed by destructive personal behavior, as Primer remains a bracing, challenging debut.

Serenity (2005)

We’re not here to relitigate Joss Whedon’s fall from grace or the revelations about the power-hungry, woman-manipulating allegations behind the feminist, nerdy façade, but even shitty people can create fine work. And that’s certainly the case with Serenity, Whedon’s feature directorial debut and a sequel to his short-lived TV series Firefly. It’s strange to think that the series, which didn’t even make it through a full season, managed to somehow get a feature film continuation, but the best part about this is that you didn’t have to watch Firefly to enjoy Serenity (like this writer, who has still never seen the show).

Whedon’s skills with ensemble casts, witty writing, and remarkably developed characters are all on display here, in a scenario that is equal parts space opera and frontier Western. The crew of the title ship, led by the irrepressible Nathan Fillion, go on the run to protect a powerful psychic named River Tam (Summer Glau) and find themselves at the center of a vast interplanetary plot. Whedon and the Firefly universe manage to make the jump to the big screen fairly well, setting him up to direct The Avengers a couple of years later, and the movie’s straightforward storytelling gives it a fleetness that has been missing from, oh I don’t know, the last decade or so of Star Wars projects.

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