For Hollywood, summer is the time for the big blockbusters—typically, straightforward sci-fi action-adventure spectacles, followed by the more cerebral futuristic movies in the fall (although there are exceptions to this pattern, such as July 2010’s Inception or June 1982’s Blade Runner). Here’s our pick of the movies we think you should have on your radar, along with their U.S. release dates:
Star Trek Into Darkness (May 17)
The most eagerly anticipated science-fiction movie of the year is the latest installment in a 47-year-old saga. Can director J.J. Abrams top his 2009 Star Trek film, which resurrected an aging franchise with terrific cast chemistry, fresh visuals, and an engaging plot? At the very least, there is good reason for optimism in the casting—the core crew of the starship Enterprise is back, joined by Benedict Cumberbatch, best known for his lead role in the BBC’s contemporary take on Sherlock Holmes, “Sherlock.” Cumberbatch has a compelling screen presence that is perfectly matched to the difficult task of playing a Star Trek villain big enough to fill the screen with menace without becoming cartoonish (special shout-out, though, to the late Ricardo Montalbán, who somehow managed to play the villain Khan in 1982’s Star Trek II as genuinely dangerous while still chewing the scenery).
World War Z (June 21)
Has the zombie-apocalypse genre run its course? If this movie, starring Brad Pitt and directed by Marc Foster, fails, then the likely verdict will be “yes.” Unfortunately for zombie fans, early buzz has been negative—not surprising for a movie based on a difficult-to-adapt book. Max Brooks’s globe-spanning 2006 novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, eschews a main protagonist in favor of a series of largely unconnected personal narratives in which economics turn out to be a more powerful weapon against zombies than a shotgun blast to the head. It’s possible, though, that the movie could find a new audience willing to take it on its own merits, even as it alienates fans of the book.
Pacific Rim (July 12)
Gigantic humanoid robots fight monsters from another dimension that spill out of a portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. At first glance this looks like the plot of a terrible B-movie, but Pacific Rim is directed by Guillermo del Toro, who directed 2006’s imaginative Pan’s Labyrinth, so it could be one of those over-the-top movies that turn out to be surprisingly watchable, like 1987’s RoboCop. Del Toro also gets points for using the voice of GLaDOS in the trailer, the wonderfully deranged artificial intelligence from the Portal and Portal 2 video games. (However, while del Toro is indeed using the same voice actor, Ellen McLain, for his computer system, in the actual movie her voice will be modulated differently to make her sound less like GLaDOS, according to the QMI Agency.)
Elysium (August 9)
Expectations are high for Elysium, following writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s surprise success with 2009’s District 9. Starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, Elysium centers on a man trying to escape an impoverished Earth and infiltrate an orbiting space colony that houses the wealthy. As can be seen from the trailer, the movie evokes the familiar artists’ impressions of space colonies from the 1970s, with a clever inversion: What if all those happy, good-looking, colonists enjoying their wine and cheese parties were evil?
The World’s End (August 23)
The final entry in the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg—following 2004’s zombie rom-com Shaun of the Dead and 2007’s buddy cop send-up Hot Fuzz—The World’s End is a science-fiction comedy focusing on a set of pub-crawling buddies who come face to face with, well, the end of the world. Despite lampooning the tropes of their respective genres, the earlier movies work as well as they do because of their creators’ obvious and deep love of the source material. This bodes well for The World’s End, as there can be no doubt that this love extends to science fiction. Before moving into film, Wright directed “Spaced,” a British sitcom written by Pegg and Jessica Hynes that is liberally laced with science-fiction references, including Pegg’s character getting fired from his job at a comic book store for screaming at a child trying to buy a Jar Jar Binks action figure—something we can all sympathize with, if not, of course, condone.
Riddick (September 6)
In 2000, Vin Diesel had a breakout success playing the antihero convict Riddick in the relatively low-budget Pitch Black. The character, again played by Diesel, returned in 2004 in the much-bigger-budget film The Chronicles of Riddick. The second film attempted to enlarge the canvas of Riddick’s universe, going from a claustrophobic escape-the-monsters plot to a full-scale interplanetary space opera, with mixed results. (We won’t mention its animated prequel, The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury, released the same year.) Riddick is an attempt to return to the scale of a single planet, with the protagonist once again stranded and battling carnivorous local life forms. So, will the film be a reboot or just a rehash? Perhaps writer and director David Twohy is hoping to tip the karmic scales toward the former with his casting, as Vin Diesel will be joined on screen by two veterans of highly successful revivals: Star Trek’s Karl Urban (who also appeared in The Chronicles of Riddick) and Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff.
Gravity (October 4)
Originally scheduled for release last year, Gravity is directed by Alfonso Cuarón and written by Cuarón and his son Jonás. Cuarón is probably best known for helming the third Harry Potter movie, 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, perhaps the most artistically successful installment in the eight-film series. Cuarón followed this with 2006’s Children of Men, a brilliant view of a dystopian near future, where the fertility rate has fallen to zero. Little is known about the plot of Gravity: Two astronauts posted to the International Space Station, played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, are stranded in space and presumably have to figure out a way home.
Ender’s Game (November 1)
The stakes are high for this adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel. Ender’s Game is directed by Gavin Hood, who also directed the 2009 film X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which received poor reviews but performed well at the box office. The story line revolves around a gifted child who is trained, alongside other children, in a military school to defend against an insectlike alien species that almost succeeded in a prior invasion of the solar system. The book is beloved by many, and it is even included in the United States Marine Corp.’s recommended reading for enlisted marines, so expect every onscreen deviation from the page to be dissected. Asa Butterfield, who starred in the 2011 Martin Scorsese film Hugo, plays the titular hero, Ender Wiggin. He’ll be reunited with Hugo costar Ben Kingsley as the man who defeated the aliens last time around, and joined by Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff, the commander of the school.
Stephen Cass is the special projects editor at IEEE Spectrum. He currently helms Spectrum's Hands On column, and is also responsible for interactive projects such as the Top Programming Languages app. He has a bachelor's degree in experimental physics from Trinity College Dublin.