The best future-focused sci-fi film and TV coming in 2020
Science fiction is well and truly the dominant genre in film and television nowadays and here are our picks for the most exciting visions coming to our screens in 2020. From long-awaited adaptions of classic sci-fi novels, to blockbuster original stories from some of our most creative modern visionaries, the next 12 months are set to deliver a treasure-trove of futurist speculative tales.
Dune is one of those iconic science fiction novels that has never been successfully adapted to the screen. From legendary surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s infamously abandoned 10-hour feature film adaptation in the 1970s, to David Lynch’s deeply strange 1980s misfire, Dune appears an almost cursed novel still awaiting a successful screen adaptation.
Needless to say, Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming two-part film series is nervously anticipated. Villeneuve is a strong filmmaker who recently did an impressive job completing the long-awaited Bladerunner sequel. This adaptation is splitting Frank Herbert’s original Dune novel into two films, while 2020 will also see an adjacent TV series called Dune: The Sisterhood. The TV series will serve as a prequel to the movie with a pilot directed by Villeneuve and a plot focusing on the Bene Gesserit, a powerful matriarchal order who secretly manipulate events.
An original sci-fi blockbuster from writer/director Christopher Nolan is always a major event, and Tenet is shaping up to be no exception. With a budget in excess of US$200 million and a production that reportedly spanned seven countries, make no mistake, Tenet is a big film.
As usual, the plot is still something of a mystery but a recently revealed trailer shone some light on what this thing is all about. It seems Nolan is reaching into his well-worn bag of tricks to give us a full-on time travel movie with a dash of international espionage à la Inception. Whether you're a fan of Nolan’s cinema or not, it’s inarguable that he is a filmmaker with serious skill and there is no one else in the world being given hundreds of millions of dollars to make original, non-franchise science fiction movies, so for that reason alone, this is one of the most anticipated films of the year.
One of the more interesting sub-genres in the field of science fiction are "last man on Earth" stories. Bios presents a strange iteration of that well-worn story, following a brilliant inventor and, obviously, the last man on Earth. As he's dying he builds a robot dog designed to keep his real pet dog safe after he passes away. The trio apparently set out on a strange cross-country odyssey, and that is about all we know of this odd project so far.
Directed by Miguel Sapochnik, best known for the giant Game Of Thrones battle episodes, the film stars Tom Hanks as the aforementioned last man on Earth. So it feels a bit like Hanks in Castaway mode but it’s unclear whether this is a quiet, intimate drama or something else. Sapochnik’s involvement suggests this is not a small-scale film … there will be post-apocalyptic fireworks.
The Tomorrow War (December)
Originally titled Ghost Draft, this big blockbuster is set in a future world where humanity is losing a war against alien invaders. To bump up its dwindling reserves of soldiers, scientists figure out a way to draft new fighters from the past. Chris Pratt stars as one of those recruits, grabbed from the past and transported into the future to help win the war.
Perhaps the big unknown factor behind this blockbuster is the director, Chris McKay. He spent most of his career up to now making animated television, primarily the stop-motion spoof series Robot Chicken, and his only feature film credit to date is The Lego Batman Movie. So will McKay bring a subversive sense of humor to this huge sci-fi war spectacle, or will this be just another paint-by-numbers CGI spectacle?
A film with a very simple, but incredibly promising tagline – Lord of the Flies … in space. A classic sci-fi concept following a group of people on a multi-generational space voyage traveling to find humanity a new home. Of course, as we know, humans tend to revert to primal behaviors when stripped of societal structures.
Colin Farrell, Tye Sheridan, and Lily-Rose Depp star in a film written and directed by Neil Burger, best known for films such as The Illusionist, Limitless, and Divergent. Burger certainly has the filmmaking chops to make a solid sci-fi film, but whether he has the ability to take this kind of story into the dark places it needs to go is yet to be seen.
Other anticipated films
Reflecting the growing popularity of science fiction in mainstream cinema, there are several other fascinating titles coming in 2020 that didn't make this short-list. Ryan Reynolds plays a video game character yearning to break free from a world that is a mash-up of Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite in Free Guy. Stowaway seems like a grim interstellar drama playing a little like Sophie's Choice in space. Boss Level looks to be another Groundhog Day-style sci-fi actioner, but this time with Mel Gibson. And After Yang is a promising art-house spin on Bicentennial Man, from young director Kogonada.
Alex Garland spent several years penning strong films such as 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go, before truly marking his territory as a great sci-fi creator with his directorial debut Ex Machina, and the subsequent Annihilation. Now he has basically been given a blank check to make whatever kind of TV series he wants. So here we are with the eight-part mini-series, Devs.
The series follows a young computer engineer who starts working for a massive and mysterious tech company known for designing complex predictive algorithms. Garland says his main interest in the story is investigating the philosophical concept of determinism, exploring whether free will can truly exist in a world where quantum computers are so powerful they can predict all our future moves.
Brave New World (unknown)
Aldous Huxley’s iconic novel is arguably one of the most prescient science fiction stories of the 20th century. Interestingly, apart from a couple of forgotten TV movie adaptations, the novel has never made it to screen. Ridley Scott infamously tried, and failed, to turn it into a movie around a decade ago. Now Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment is turning it into a TV series.
This certainly has all the hallmarks of a series that could be brilliant or awful. Heading up the creative team is David Weiner, best known for his work on the series Fear The Walking Dead. Also behind the scenes is comic writer Grant Morrison, and Brian Taylor, director of the Crank movies. Adding to the weirdness is a cast that includes Demi Moore. This is easily one of the strangest TV projects of 2020.
Perhaps more is riding on this big-budget HBO sci-fi series than previously anticipated after creator JJ Abrams has been facing the worst reviews of his career with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The project has been pointlessly described as, “an epic and intimate sci-fi fantasy drama,” which is one of those perfectly meaningless Hollywood synopses telling us absolutely nothing.
The Hollywood Reporter claims sources say the series follows a “family who suffer a terrible car crash, putting the scientist mother in a coma. When her daughter begins digging through her experiments, she's transported to another world amid a battle with a monstrous, oppressive force.” Still ambiguous, but closer to something seeming like an interesting TV series.
The return of sci-fi comedy
There are three new, reasonably big, science fiction comedy TV series in the pipeline for 2020, all with strong pedigrees and fascinating concepts. Upload, from Greg Daniels, a writer on The Office and Parks and Recreation, is a 10-part Amazon series set in a future where humans are uploaded into a cyber-afterlife when they die. Also from Daniels is a Netflix series called Space Force, which seems a bit like The Office but set around a group of people working for the new armed forces branch.
Possibly the most exciting sci-fi comedy is arriving on HBO in January. Called Avenue 5, it follows the rescue of a space cruise ship after something catastrophic occurs. The series is from Armando Iannucci, best known for Veep and The Thick of It. Iannucci is one of the best comedy writers around, so there are high hopes for this one to crack the admittedly challenging genre of sci-fi-comedy.
This TV adaptation of a graphic novel previously turned into a successful film has been suffering through one of the most rocky production processes seen in years. It has been in development since 2015, and shuffled through several different show runners due to classic “creative differences.” Despite these behind-the-scenes problems the project has been renewed for a second season, which has already started filming.
Those familiar with the source material may very well wonder how a story set entirely on a single train can maintain even one season of narrative, let alone a second already in production, but we’ll find out soon enough with the first season set to air in (Northern Hemisphere) spring 2020.