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The line between science fiction and fantasy is a thin one. How are spaceships and super advanced technology capable of shooting fireballs so different from, say, a wizard doing the same? It's not surprising that the two genres have many crossover fans, and it's not too uncommon for movies to cross the two genres as well. You might think the idea of wizards flying around in spaceships and shooting lightning bolts from their hands sounds ridiculous, but there's a movie you've probably heard of that does just that. You know, that little film called Star Wars that perfectly blends fantasy and sci-fi? It has a grand dark wizard who literally shoots lightning from his fingertips and lives in a giant moon castle capable of destroying planets. Sometimes crossing the peanut butter of sci-fi with the chocolate of fantasy can equal an amazing delight of cinema. Here are a few of our favorite sci-fi fantasy movies that form the perfect Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of good, nerdy, cinematic taste.
Faced with the task of establishing an interconnected universe of superhero films that could reign at the box office in perpetuity, Marvel summoned Kenneth Branagh, most famous as a director and star of Shakespeare films, for the fourth film in an ongoing series that began with Iron Man in 2008. Branagh brings a touch of Shakespearean grandeur to a familiar story of two brothers, one legitimate and one adopted, who are both competing for the affections of their father and the right to rule in his place. Chris Hemsworth turns in solid work, though he’s inevitably outclassed in the acting department by Idris Elba’s noble Hemdall and Tom Hiddleston’s unctuous Loki in a breakout performance.
The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a run of cult hits loosely designated as “mind trips”—films that were meant to be analyzed and argued over in dorm rooms for hours after the movie had ended. Donnie Darko wasn’t the most elegant of these films (that would be Memento), or the hardest to sit through (that honor belongs to Requiem for a Dream), but it was definitely the only one to include a prophecy about the end of the world made by a giant rabbit. A very young Jake Gyllenhaal shows signs of promise, while the famously ambiguous ending traffics in such light fare as death, time travel, and the hypothesis of quantum physics. Bonus: this sci-fi fantasy movie almost singlehandedly sparked a revival of interest in lesser-known 80s bands like Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen.
One of the great under-appreciated films of the sci-fi renaissance of the late 90s, Dark City anticipated The Matrix with its story of a man who discovers that he’s living in a world of illusions constructed by mysterious creatures with their own ineffable agendas. There is much to savor in the art deco-inspired set design, and in a screenplay that pits Rufus Sewell and Jennifer Connelly against a race of green-skinned, fedora-wearing aliens who can fly. Keifer Sutherland, as a pathetic and enslaved scientist who’s finally had enough, and Richard O’Brien, as an alien who yearns to experience human feelings, are cast standouts.
The most recent sci-fi fantasy movie on this list, Midnight Special (2016), tells a story steeped in the lore of 1980s sci-fi, recalling early Spielberg films like ET (with its children on the run from government agents) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (with all parties converging at a remote location to witness an event that is beyond this world). In that sense, it may remind viewers of the Netflix original series Stranger Things. Both works hint at the existence of another world outside of this one, and both are more invested in crafting a loving homage than in providing satisfying resolutions to the mysteries they set up.
That rare combination of found footage and folklore motifs, Troll Hunter purports to be a documentary about poaching that takes a dramatic left turn when the film crew encounters something much bigger than they had anticipated. Much of the fun of Troll Hunter derives from its sly humor and deconstruction of troll mythology: trolls turn into stone because of the way their bodies process vitamin D, they fear mountain trolls, and they absolutely hate the smell of Christians. Although by 2010 the found footage genre was showing signs of exhaustion, this Norwegian sci-fi fantasy movie reinvigorated the category by focusing on fairy tales instead of horror, and by subtly elevating comedy (and scenic beauty) above scares.
After a series of commercial flops, the Wachowski siblings made a bold bid for renewed relevance with a space opera about an impoverished young woman (Mila Kunis) who discovers that she is secretly the most special person in the galaxy. While warmed-over hero’s journey tropes seem like exactly the kind of thing The Lego Movie made fun of (that movie is almost a beat-for-beat parody of the Wachowski’s The Matrix), Jupiter Ascending failed with audiences not because it was overly familiar, but because it was so weird. Turns out, America isn’t yet ready for the sight of Channing Tatum playing a super-soldier with dog ears.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Marvel took a huge risk with this movie about a group of obscure Marvel superheroes that includes a deranged, gun-toting raccoon and a tree that only speaks three words. Yet, the result was one of the brightest and most entertaining offerings of 2014, and a conscious attempt to update it from superheroes to space opera and create a Star Wars and Indiana Jones for a new generation. Chris Pratt plays the Han Solo/Jones role to perfection, while adding a uniquely goofy charm all his own. Its only weakness is the third act, which devolves in typical Marvel fashion into a confusing and largely computer-generated battle over possession of a powerful stone.
One of those rare movies that represented a tectonic shift in filmmaking, The Matrix was a mashup of cyberpunk, wuxia, postmodern philosophizing, and Joseph Campbell mythologizing. It should not have worked. That it worked as well as it did is a testament to its revolutionary-for-the-time special effects and a perfectly structured screenplay that adapts the hero’s journey for the digital age with a precision that recalls the first Harry Potter novel (released only two years earlier). Keanu Reeves’ stoic demeanor is a liability in other contexts, but it proves an asset here, while Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Hugo Weaving, and Laurence Fishburne all do tremendous work.
The first installment in the ongoing Underworld franchise tells a Romeo and Juliet story of doomed love between a vampire (Kate Beckinsale) and a werewolf (Scott Speedwell). If the concept seems simple and familiar, the mythology is surprisingly complex. Selene is a werewolf hunter in a world where werewolves are almost extinct. She falls in love with Michael, the only man genetically capable of combining and thus saving the two bloodlines. The situation is made even more complicated when Michael is bitten by a werewolf and begins to transform. Underworld’s elaborate mythos helps ground a sci-fi fantasy movie that might otherwise flaunt its own exquisite sense of style at the expense of substance.
The Book of Eli
Denzel Washington lobbied heavily for the creation of this sci-fi fantasy movie in which he plays a man wandering across the ruins of what was once the United States carrying a Bible and savagely killing anyone who gets in his way. The specter of country-western singer Johnny Cash looms over The Book of Eli, which careens dizzyingly between moments of shocking violence and some remarkably pensive meditations. Philosophical undercurrents include cultural preservation, God’s existence or lack of it, and the nature of faith in a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-inspired hellscape. Some shocking (but heavily foreshadowed) twists in the third act and a script that evokes biblical themes without being preachy elevates this film above the average summer blockbuster.
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome
The third film in the long-running Mad Max series, Beyond Thunderdome is neither the most commercially successful of the quartet nor the most critically lauded. However, it retains director George Miller’s singular vision and flair for outrageous details, which in this case includes a society of lost children, a methane factory in the form of a small house, a spinning wheel that can send a man to imprisonment or death, and a gladiatorial arena where men fight to the death in single combat. It’s here that Mad Max (Mel Gibson, playing the role for the final time) is sent by Aunty Entity (Tina Turner), who needs his help to dispatch a couple of mooks who have been causing trouble in the desert. Like the third Indiana Jones movie, Beyond Thunderdome is lighter and more whimsical than the two films that preceded it, which makes for a refreshing change of pace in a series known for its unrelenting grimness. Miller began working on a fourth film immediately after wrapping production on this one, but the world would have to wait 30 years for the release of Mad Max: Fury Road.
Before Gareth Edwards unleashed Godzilla and was assigned the task of making the first Star Wars standalone movie, he made this low-budget horror/suspense film about an alien probe that crash lands in Central America. The story of a government effort to prevent millions of aliens from crossing the Mexican border into the United States might seem a touch on-the-nose, but Edwards wrings the setup for maximum tension by sending a man and woman on a train ride into the heart of the quarantined zone and then (inevitably) having the train break down. His unusual style of filming (walking around with a camera and having actors improvise—a method he would use again when making Star Wars: Rogue One) and the eeriness he evokes from creatures rendered on a shoestring budget makes this film a must-see.
Children of Men
After he left Hogwarts and before he traveled to outer space, Spanish director Alfonso Cuaron made this film about a near-future dystopian world where no babies have been born in over eighteen years and the human race is nearing extinction. Events take a sudden, seemingly miraculous turn when a single woman becomes pregnant. Clive Owen plays a man dealing with his own griefs who agrees to escort her across Britain to a ship that may or may not exist. The movie works both as a terrifyingly realistic peek at the world our current political climate might be creating, and as a religious allegory with deep, if implicit, Christian undertones.
Blockbuster auteur Christopher Nolan reportedly spent ten years constructing the screenplay for this sci-fi epic about a man who travels into dreams to steal ideas. The result was the most discussed, most argued-about movie of the summer of 2010. A bewildering and at times infuriating movie about dreams within dreams, solidly anchored by Leonardo DiCaprio as a man with deep regrets and a fierce hunger to be reunited with his two children. It says something about Nolan’s genius that this may not be his first, or second, or even third best movie, but is just one more masterpiece in a career full of them.
Star Wars: A New Hope
Easily the grand-daddy of sci-fi fantasy movies, Star Wars is the ultimate king of this spliced genre. Now some people might argue that Star Wars is more sci-fi and that it isn't fantasy-based given all the robots or spaceships running around in the galaxy far far away. But there are more than a few indicators of its fantasy status. For one thing, every opening scroll starts with "in a galaxy far far away," indicating that the stories of Star Wars take place in a mythological past. The other thing is the presence of the force and Jedi. The force is essentially space magic, and the Jedi and Sith are wizards using spells. But the real genius of George Lucas is how he managed to incorporate these elements and make them palatable for a mainstream audience.