There have been many sci-fi movies over the years that were a bit too ambitious and either didn’t have enough money or enough time to execute exactly what they wanted. Sometimes they could be a bit too ahead of their time, so critics and audiences didn’t accept them. Neither of these things is necessarily bad things because this usually means that the people involved were incredibly passionate about the thing that they were making.
With passion from the creatives behind the camera tends to foster great performances from the people in front of the camera. There have been great performances over the years in movies that were either not critical successes or financially successful, or sometimes both. Here are ten examples of underrated performances in ten underrated sci-fi movies.
10 Jodie Foster – Hotel Artemis (2018)
Written and directed by Drew Pearce, Hotel Artemis was his directorial debut was unfortunately met with tepid reviews from critics and general audiences alike. Set in Los Angeles in the not-too-distant future in which Jean “The Nurse” Thomas, played by Jodie Foster, runs a secret hospital (the titular Hotel Artemis) for criminals during a deadly riot in the city. Foster gives an incredibly complex and subtle lead performance in which the world has hardened her because she has seen absolutely awful people doing awful things, yet still tries her hardest to help them.
Her arc of starting the movie off as this tough nurse for bad people is slowly chipped away, making her more and more vulnerable as we see the events of the movie take place. Though this movie was a flop at the box office, it was praised by both critics and audiences for Foster’s performance as well as the distinct visual style. Jodie Foster carries this John Wick-esque sci-fi on her back with support from great writing and directing from Pearce in this solid first-time outing.
9 Sam Neill – Event Horizon (1997)
This cult classic, directed by the *great* Paul W.S. Anderson stars the incomparable Sam Neill, Event Horizon is about a rescue crew of astronauts that were sent after a spaceship that disappeared years earlier suddenly returned. The crew boards the spaceship to investigate what happened to the crew of the ship, and they soon realize that the ship’s new gravity drive has essentially opened a portal to hell.
Sam Neill comes in hot from the beginning of the film, gets even hotter once he is possessed by the portal, and becomes a murderous lunatic trying to kill the crew to prevent them from escaping the ship. Neill is chewing the scenery in this gory sci-fi horror mash-up that is genuinely creepy once he spends the latter half of the movie sightless after gouging his own eyes out. This movie is unfairly considered derivative of a Star Trek meets Hellraiser fever dream, however, it is rather inventive, has impressive practical effects, and is a standout performance from Sam Neill.
8 Jeff Bridges – Tron (1982)
An early Disney classic, Jeff Bridges stars in Steven Lisberger’s Tron as a young programmer whose game ideas are being plagiarized by the evil video game company ENCOM. Through a series of events, Bridges ends up getting transported into the game that he created and has to fight his way out. Bridges is incredible in this movie in that it is a groundbreaking movie, being one of the first movies, alongside The Last Starfighter, to use a majority of CGI.
Bridges was one of the first actors to be asked to act against a completely CGI-imagined world, and he does a very good job at it. With a charming and endearing performance, Bridges makes the movie. Though it was received moderately at the time, Tron is one of the most important films of all time for pioneering the technology of CGI.
7 Every Single Person in Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners (1990)
This criminally underrated sci-fi horror thriller directed immaculately by Joel Schumacher has one of the most impressive casts ever assembled. Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, William Baldwin, and Oliver Platt round out this insane cast, all at the height of their stardom. This is the same year as the iconic Pretty Woman and Tremors which might be why this movie is often forgotten about. It doesn’t help that Joel Schumacher is unfairly remembered for “ruining Batman” a few years later with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin.
Regardless of how Batman fans feel about Schumacher, his skill is on display in this one from the gothic production design, the haunting cinematography, and the amazing performances that he gets out of this cast.
This group of young medical students decides to try to have near-death experiences to try to see if there’s an afterlife, hence the term “Flatliners”. What they find is that each of their pasts has come back to haunt them, literally. Every single one of these stars gives an emotional performance that starts off as rather smug, but quickly turns damaged and horrified once they return from their flatlining adventures. Regrettably remade in 2017, Joel Schumacher’sFlatlinersis an unfortunately forgotten ’90s classic that did not have the same cultural impact as the other movies starring these actors, despite it being a success at the box office and moderately well received by critics.
6 Bruce Willis – Armageddon (1998)
In this classic ’90s blockbuster in which an asteroid is hurdling towards the Earth to kill us all, Bruce Willis leads a team of oil drillers to drill nukes into the asteroid. Willis understands exactly what kind of performance to give in this wild Michael Bay movie and its complete sincerity. The sincerity with which Willis operates completely sells the danger humanity is in and acts as a nice counter to all the other characters in the movie that are giving much bigger performances.
Furthermore, Willis’ surprisingly sensitive performance helps ground the movie in reality, even if the plot is this ridiculous. Mostly known for being a comedic action star from his roles in Die Hard and Moonlighting, Willis takes a tender turn in Armageddon as a man who is willing to risk his life in order to protect his daughter. Armageddon is often dismissed as more grandiose fluff from Michael Bay, however, it is well-made and has a standout performance from Bruce Willis.
5 Michael Clarke Duncan – The Island (2005)
Another movie from Michael Bay that is dismissed as a hollow exercise in shaky cam and over-the-top action, and they’re right. The Island is not a particularly strong outing from anyone involved in this movie, except for the remarkable Michael Clarke Duncan. He stars alongside Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson as people who live in a futuristic colony where they have been told that they are the last survivors in a post-apocalyptic world, but there is one beautiful tropical island left that is unaffected and people are periodically chosen to go to live on that island.
The twist happens when they learn that they are the clones of wealthy individuals as a life insurance policy, harvesting their organs in case they get sick. Michael Clarke Duncan’s character is chosen to go to the titular “Island”. While Duncan is under and the doctors are mid-procedure, he wakes up, understandably full of terror, and tries to escape.
An already escaping McGregor unfortunately has to watch the whole thing play out because he knows there is nothing he can do. Duncan spots McGregor and tearfully pleads for help until he is put back under and whisked away again by the doctors. This performance is key to this movie because, through Duncan, we see that though they are clones they are still living creatures with real feelings, thus getting the audience on McGregor and Johansson’s side in their mission to be free. Michael Clarke Duncan in one scene gives a surprisingly human performance in a movie that is otherwise rather mediocre for the talent that had been assembled.
4 Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – Southland Tales (2006)
Richard Kelly’s follow-up to the magnificent Donnie Darko was the insane and scatterbrained Southland Tales. Intended to be a satire of American politics, celebrity culture, and the “War on Terror”, instead it just ends up being a jumbled mess of a movie with way too much on its mind. Yet it is still impressive that a movie this overzealous was produced, and it was an early movie in Dwayne Johnson’s long career. Before he was known for being “franchise steroids” and shifting the power dynamics of the DCEU, he was hot off of WWE and trying to launch a serious career as an actor, choosing interesting projects that pushed his acting abilities.
Jumping onto Kelly’s train seemed like a safe bet after Donnie Darko, however, this was a huge box office bomb. Johnson still manages to give a skillfully unhinged performance as an action star who has lost his memory, and manages to stand out among an accomplished cast of actors. Though this was the first nail in the coffin for Kelly’s career, The Box being the final, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s career was still beginning and went on to have a pretty successful career.
3 Hayden Christensen – Jumper (2008)
Though this movie was critically panned, it was still a huge financial success and was directed by Doug Liman, the tremendous director of the first two episodes of The O.C. and the amazing Edge of Tomorrow. A young man who finds out that he has the power of teleportation is then hunted by an evil group of people that view him as an abomination. Jumper is a bit of a mess, it still manages to have a lot of fun with its inventive action sequences and an interesting visualization of the teleportation powers and stars Hayden Christensen.
With no disrespect to the late great Paul Walker, he and Christensen live in the same space in that they may not be the best actors, but they both have an innate charisma that is just so much fun to watch. Known for portraying Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels, these movies are similar in that they may not have the strongest writing, Christensen still manages to give a compelling performance. Somehow likable and mesmerizing, Christensen gives an underrated performance in this fun sci-fi romp.
2 Eddie Redmayne – Jupiter Ascending (2015)
As Griffin Newman would say, Eddie Redmayne is “bathing in the river of ham” because he is hamming it up as the villain in Lily and Lana Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending. This impossibly sincere sci-fi film is about a young woman, played by Mila Kunis, who discovers that she is the queen of an intergalactic empire that owns the Earth. Oscar-winner, Eddie Redmayne plays the villain who is trying to stop Kunis from rightfully inheriting the Earth.
Just like the movie, Redmayne is taking a big swing with his performance and though it may not work at times both are trying to do something new and interesting. Flamboyant and commanding, Redmayne is having a blast, in his unfairly maligned performance, because he understands the stakes of the movie – especially for his character – and is acting to match them. Just like the Wachowski’s, Eddie Redmayne leaves it all on the screen and whether or not you liked the movie or the performance, both give it everything they’ve got.
1 Rosa Salazar – Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
Undeservedly flopping and receiving moderate reviews from critics, Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel stars Rosa Salazar at the core of the movie. Set in 2563, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds a bodyless cyborg in a scrapyard and repairs her to bring her back to life and make her better than she was before. When she eventually wakes up with no memory of who she is, Ido names her Alita after his late daughter. She gets wrapped up in a Rollerball-esque sport that involves some very fun action sequences and impressive special effects.
Salazar does an amazing job of playing Alita, taking you on her journey to remember her past and figure out who she is now and who she wants to be. Salazar displays her marvelous acting abilities as she plays an exceptionally strong young woman while also showing her vulnerability, which is tough for a lot of actors to pull off.
Hopefully, there will be a sequel produced in order for her to showcase her skills even more. Co-written by James Cameron, this is a sci-fi movie that deserves more credit, not only for it being a rather inventive and entertaining film but for Salazar’s lead performance as well.