Animation would seem to be the most natural medium for science fiction. It literally has infinite creative freedom--anything a creator can envision can be drawn and animated on screen.
Unfortunately, at least in North America, the potential of the medium in scifi has been slow in catching on. Fantasy stories and comedies have dominated American animation for decades, while science fiction has usually been a creature of live-action films. This is not to say there hasn't been a lot great live-action scifi, but it would be nice to see Hollywood really cut loose and see what it could do with animated science fiction. But the situation has improved, haltingly, in the last decade. If I'd done this list ten years ago, it would have been all Japanese anime with one exception (The Iron Giant.) I'm glad to say that this list has a number of very strong American entries, and I hope that trend continues.
And it is probably Japanese anime that has shown, and continues to lead the way, in what can be done with animated science fiction. Though the anime industry has become infamous for certain banal cliches (big-eyed schoolgirls, giant robots, tentacles...), it has also produced some truly classic works of science fiction such as Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Cowboy Bebop. Its too bad that people in North America still tend to turn up their nose at these works simply because they're animated, because they stand shoulder to shoulder with the best live-action science fiction Hollywood has ever produced.
Now for the actual list, which includes both movies and TV series. Please keep in mind that these choices are MY OPINION only. I'm sure many people will disagree and will have their own picks, which is the way it should be. lists like this are always very subjective. Also, I haven't been able to watch everything; its certainly possible that there are some works that blow these all away that I just haven't seen.
First up are the honorable mentions. These works are all great in their own right and deserve to be seen, but lack that certain extra je ne sais quoi that could put them in my top 5.
The Incredibles (movie)
Justice League Unlimited (TV series)
Code Geass (TV series)
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (TV Series)
Last Exile (TV Series)
The main picks:
5. LILO & STITCH (2002): A dysfunctional little girl, still mourning the death of her parents, prays for an angel so she can have a friend. She gets the most unlikely one imaginable: a vicious, violent, super-powered monster from outer space.
There's a school of thought that science fiction has to be serious and profound, like Battlestar Galactica and Lost, to be good. I reject that outright. It not to say serious works can't be high quality, but in fiction, its much harder to make people smile and laugh than to make them frown, and takes just as smart a story. With its stylized design, sharp story, and quirkily-realized players, Lilo & Stitch has smarts in spades. From Lilo with her bizarrely skewed worldview to Stitch's gleeful vileness to the awesomely named Cobra Bubbles, the movie is an inventive, fun and character-driven romp that both sends up and greatly improves upon the science fiction monster movie.
4.THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME(2006): Makoto, a 16-year old student in Japan, discovers on the verge of a fatal accident that she can literally leap backward through time. At first using her newfound ability frivolously, she finds that interfering with past events can have unpredictable and often disastrous consequences. The more she tries to correct them, the more things veer out of her control, until someone dear to her is threatened by the same accident she herself avoided. And when the source of her new power is uncovered, it brings a heart-wrenching revelation.
A much more thoughtful and intelligent take on time travel and romance than the clunky Time Traveler's Wife, this Japanese anime film is fun, intelligent, surreal, and at times profoundly moving. Too often teen-age protagonists are just stand-ins for cynical 40-year-old screenwriters, but Makoto comes across as a real 16-year-old, a tomboy who can be very cocksure one minute and very hesitant and vulnerable the next, especially when she begins to confront her first real romantic feelings. The director Mamoro Hosada very skillfully crafts his tale, allowing the heroine, and the audience with her, to take her time to react and think about developments naturally. I can count the number of truly good time travel movies on the fingers of one hand, and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is one of those.
3. WALL-E (2008): On a future Earth choked lifeless by human garbage and neglect, one last robot spends year after year, century after century, clearing away mountains of trash long after all his fellows shut down. Slowly becoming self-aware, he longs for more from his existence, having only human junk and one lone recording of an old movie musical to guide him. Then, one day, a mysterious probe from space lands nearby...
WALL-E is the very best film created by Hollywood's very best animation studio. It has won scads of awards, even the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation. Its been described as lyrical and enthralling, full of a gosh-wow sense of wonder that is missing too much from modern science fiction. The first half of the film, which goes almost completely without dialog, has been called as close to a true work of art that computer animation has yet come. The robots of the film come across as much more fully-realized characters than the humans that are eventually weaved into the story, and the production's attention to detail is no less than astounding. It is the best animated scifi film of the decade, and one of the best overall science fiction films ever, for that matter. A true classic.
2. PLANETES (2003-2004): By the year 2075, an economic and energy boom created by exploiting Helium-3 on the moon has allowed humankind to expand wildly into space, with many small stations, nine large orbiting colonies, and even a full scale city of a hundred thousand on the Moon. However, all that activity generates an enormous amount of orbital debris that can pose a hazard to all the new orbital real estate. Enter the Debris Section, blue-collar stiffs working out of second-hands spacecraft to clean it all up. This 26-episode Japanese anime TV series follows the lives and happenings of these spaceborn garbage collectors.
I cannot reccommend this series highly enough. I've written about it before as a Hidden Treasure Of Science Fiction. For those who love truly hard science fiction, the series is a treasure trove, showcasing very believable near-future technologies with nary a hyperdrive or giant robot in sight. It should be required viewing for would-be scifi writers just for that aspect alone. But this realism extends also to most of its cast of internationally diverse characters, treating nearly all of them with complexity and maturity. Though the series can at first seem a bit off-putting--its main female character starts off as very annoying--it quickly builds up to a number of astounding, smartly-plotted, and at times deeply affecting stories. Combining gritty realism with aspirations toward humanity's greatest hopes, this series may be the single best work of on-screen science fiction Japan has produced since Cowboy Bebop.
1. FUTURAMA (1999-present): Lowly delivery boy Fry accidentally gets frozen for a thousand years and wakes up in a very oddly skewed Thirty-First Century. Befriending cynical robot Bender and the sexy one-eyed Leela, he finds his true destiny--as a delivery boy.
Futurama is to on-screen science fiction what The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy is to literary science fiction--all at once a mainstream comedy, a tour-de force parody of all things science fiction, and a great work of imagination in its own right. I also predict it will ultimately the most long-enduring and popular work of on-screen science fiction to be produced in the last decade, live action or animated, on small screen or large. It just seems to have that kind of populist resonance, that will ensure it will be a well-remembered classic decades from now.
The first thing that stands out about the series is its wonderfully demented characters: Fry, dimwitted and hypnotized by pop culture; Leela, sexy and heroic but self-conscious about her single gigantic eye; Bender, the joyfully amoral, alcoholic robot; Doctor Zoidberg, a clueless sadsack lobsteroid; and many more. There's more detail and dimension just in many of Futurama's walk-on characters than in many works' main ones. Then there's the universe it inhabits, a vast collection of of visual-puns, gonzo scifi motifs, and skewered sacred cows. An alien race addicted to thousand-year-old Earth TV programs; space bee hives; a planet-sized retirement home; a museum that resurrects celebrities just so they can spend all eternity as heads in a jar. It is a world where literally anything can happen, where the creators' imaginations can be fully unleashed, often to highly humorous effect.
It also helps that the series has consistently had some of the smartest writing on TV. As stated earlier, comedy is harder than drama to write well, and the fact that the show so consistently hits the funny bone is proof of the quality of its scripts. Surprisingly, its not all just laughs either. Very occasionally, it waxes both profound, such as when Bender postulates the nature of God, and heart-felt, such as when Fry learns the fate of his time-lost brother and nephew. Futurama is definitely a show for the ages.