Filmmaking had barely been invented and already it was venturing into science fiction: One of the most famous early movies is Georges Méliès’s “A Trip to the Moon,” from 1902.
Almost 120 years later and the genre is ubiquitous, probing the relationship between time and space, exploring worlds past, future and alternate, and boldly investigating what it means to be human, robotic or alien — or a combination of all three.
At its best, science fiction asks big questions. At its most fun, it prompts even more: Will any writer ever figure out time-loop paradoxes? Why don’t they have self-guided weapons that never miss in the future? Has “Avatar 2” gone through a one-way wormhole to nowhere?
The complicated relationship between a male human and a female android — or at least an android endowed with female physical attributes and a mellifluous voice — has become a favored subject in recent years. Gavin Rothery’s confident directorial debut stands out thanks to its sensitive handling of an affecting story, matched with starkly beautiful visuals (Rothery worked on the design of the Duncan Jones film “Moon”).
A brilliant engineer (Theo James, from the “Divergent” trilogy) is attempting to upload the archived personality and memories of his late wife, Jules (Stacy Martin), into a sentient artificial intelligence that can experience emotion. Alone in a wintry Japanese compound, George builds increasingly sophisticated versions of his J-series robot, until he must confront what exactly he is trying to achieve, and for whose benefit. A thoughtful reflection on grief, “Archive” slowly builds to a quietly devastating ending.
Rambunctious crew of interstellar bad-news bears: check. Chatty android: check. Mysterious little girl who holds the key to the plot: check. Evil C.E.O.: do you even need to ask?
If “Archive” is muted, deliberate and bleakly elegant, Jo Sung-hee’s boisterous, pop-colorful space adventure constantly threatens to explode out of the screen. Powered by excellent special effects, this action-packed Korean movie is light on its feet and smartly fun. The titular crew, led by the handsome pilot Kim Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki) and the charismatic Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), is basically a bunch of galactic scavengers who somehow help save the Earth (note that in the future, the Earth is always dying of a self-inflicted ecological wound). “Space Sweepers” has been called the Korean “Star Wars,” but it’s closer to “Guardians of the Galaxy” — yet still very much its own animal.
Despite no popular demand whatsoever, Greg and Colin Strause’s mediocre alien-invasion flick “Skyline” (2010) landed a sequel seven years later. Surprisingly, Liam O’Donnell’s “Beyond Skyline” turned out to be great fun, with a gang of Laotian drug-runners (good guys!) added to the mix. The sequel introduced the intriguing subject of hybridization between the warring Harvesters (a biomechanical species that looks like an Alien mixed with a Predator mixed with a Transformer) and humans, with the result called Pilots.
O’Donnell returned for a third installment, “Skylines” (not to be confused with the crime series of the same title), which takes place five years later and toggles between a pandemic on Earth and badass adventures on the Harvester base Cobalt One. The heroine Rose (Lindsey Morgan, of “The 100”) leads the resistance and, assisted by a Pilot named Trent (Jeremy Fitzgerald), confronts a rampaging Matriarch (any resemblance to “Aliens” is entirely coincidental, of course). There are big, ridiculous fights, narrow escapes, and Rhona Mitra as a doctor trying to stop the virus. Works for me.
There are so many stories of people getting stuck in time loops that viewers might think they themselves are living that infernal scenario. This Mexican movie makes the most of its tiny budget by getting rid of the fat: A bickering couple (Marimar Vega and Gorka Otxoa) are stuck on a repeating elevator ride that lasts 10 floors; that is not very much time to explore your options before the reset. The director Daniel Bernal makes the most of the self-imposed constraints and manages to come up with interesting-enough variations on both romantic comedy (will the pair stay together?) and the loop genre (there is an explanation, sort of).
Amateurs of this busy subgenre should also check out the lovely “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” (also on Amazon Prime), which follows two teenagers (Kyle Allen and Kathryn Newton) who get to know each other over the course of a perfect day repeated ad infinitum. A big departure from the usual trope: the characters’ sweetness is there from the start rather than drummed into them as the only way to escape the loop.
‘Time to Hunt’
If you want to start a never-ending debate, just wonder aloud whether “Alien” is horror or science fiction. Genre lines are similarly fluid in this movie set in a dystopian world: is it science fiction or is it action? What is certain is that it is relentless — and that once again a Korean movie re-energizes a genre, doing for heists what “Train to Busan” did to zombie flicks and “Parasite” did to Oscar winners.
With its economy ravaged and its currency devalued to near nothing, South Korea is roiled by protests against the International Monetary Fund, while half the lights of a wrecked major city are gone. Having run out of options, four have-nots decide to rob an illegal gambling operation. The writer-director Yoon Sung-hyun barrels through to that stage … and then he really steps on the gas. As the movie progresses, the sci-fi context falls by the wayside as the focus tightens on a manhunt. By then you will be too invested in the characters’ basic survival to wonder about the fate of South Korea as a whole.