Debate Club: The 5 most disappointing sci-fi movies of the last 20 years

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Jan 17, 2018

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

In this week's installment, we're looking at sci-fi films from the last two decades we couldn't wait to see — only to have our heart broken by how underwhelming they were. These movies aren't necessarily terrible — OK, some of them are — but their inability to live up to their potential nonetheless makes them feel like failures. Here's our Top 5 most disappointing sci-fi movies of the last 20 years.

Interstellar (2014)

When Christopher Nolan was preparing to release his galactic epic, he cited sci-fi classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner as his inspirations. And the director was on a hot streak, having just completed his acclaimed The Dark Knight trilogy and also finding success with the mind-bending Inception. So what exactly happened with Interstellar? Its visuals are absolutely astounding, and its story about a dark future in which humanity must find a new planet to inhabit is inherently stirring. (Plus, the creative team tapped the mind of brilliant physicist Kip Thorne to guarantee the film's scientific accuracy.)

But as beautiful and ambitious as Interstellar is, narratively it's Nolan’s dippiest film, telling a hokey family drama in which retired NASA pilot Coop (a blissed-out Matthew McConaughey) must save the human race while dealing with grief and the struggles of being a father. The movie tries to balance the cosmic with the personal, but the thin characters aren't nearly as compelling as the fate-of-the-planet stakes. No one wants humanity to end, but can we at least hang out with some better heroes before it does?

Passengers (2016)

This Christmastime 2016 release seemed like a commercial slam-dunk. Jennifer Lawrence, at the peak of her Hunger Games stardom and Oscar win for Silver Linings Playbook, teamed up with Chris Pratt, the beloved Parks and Recreation player who was riding high after Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy. And Passengers had a cool, potentially dark premise: Pratt’s engineer Jim Preston wakes up early from his hibernation pod, discovering that he still has 90 years until his ship reaches its destination, and fiendishly decides to awaken Lawrence’s Aurora Lane so that he has some company. The two start to fall in love, but what will happen once Aurora learns that Jim damaged her pod and doomed her to be trapped with him?

This ought to have been a psychological thriller, examining how romantic relationships are often laced with white lies and selfish motivations. Instead, Passengers blinked, giving us a pretty lame love-conquers-all action movie in which the two characters have to work together to stay alive. A nervy premise only works if you really commit to it — the Passengers filmmakers got cold feet.

Elysium (2013)

It's difficult for any filmmaker's debut film to make more of a splash than Neill Blomkamp's. The South African filmmaker, under the tutelage of Peter Jackson, no less, turned an internet short into District 9, a sci-fi alien action flick that felt like so much more, a massive hit that was so beloved that it was nominated for Best Picture. (An alien movie ... nominated for Best Picture!)

Thus, the anticipation for his follow-up, Elysium, was fevered, particularly when Matt Damon, still hot from the Bourne films, and Jodie Foster signed on and it was clear he had a massive budget to work with. That's why it was so discouraging when the finished product was so ... well, silly. Blomkamp's commentaries on the class struggle and the haves and have-nots were well-worn and tired, and even the action sequences weren't exciting.

Expanding the canvas did Blomkamp no favors. Next thing you knew, he wasn't making the next Alien movie any more ... and don't get us started on Chappie.

Tomorrowland (2015)

What could be more up Brad Bird's alley than a fanciful but propulsive futuristic family thriller about Disneyland's most beloved attraction? With George Clooney, no less? But Tomorrowland was mostly D.O.A., too caught up in '50s period whimsy and too dazzled by CGI doodads to make much of an impact, with yet another Dreamer Who Wants to Believe going up against a Big Evil Corporation. The movie needs to spin out into flights of fancy; it doesn't need to get caught up in silly subplots where Hugh Laurie monologues while our heroes escape. We've spent about a decade waiting for Brad Bird to turn out a Spielberg-ian masterpiece. We're still waiting.

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)

When did you know? When, precisely, did you realize that this film you'd been waiting almost two decades for, a galaxy you couldn't wait to visit again, was going to be a total disaster? Was it when poor lil' Jake Lloyd started mugging for the camera? Was it the midichlorians bit? Was it Jar-Jar? It was probably Jar-Jar, right? Whatever it was, The Phantom Menace remains legendary for how truly devastating it was for its hardcore fans, even the most avid of whom couldn't deny how off the rails it went early and often. We owe George Lucas so much for what he has given us over the last 40 years. But after this splattered across screens ... we owed him a little less.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.