There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that in some ways we are living in a golden age of science-fiction cinema, which is most appropriate for the era that kicked off with the year 2001. For one thing, there’s a lot more of it; I was honestly surprised in some ways to see just how many sci-fi movies have been released since the turn of the century (and millennium).
But more importantly, there have been so many good (and even great) genre efforts released that even the list of runners-up posted at the end of this article represents a formidable survey of some really strong pieces of work. And it’s not all expensive, effects-driven stuff: the cheapest movie on this list cost under $10,000 to make (can you guess it?).
You might notice that a few rather huge blockbusters are missing from this list as well, in particular Avatar and recent Star Wars movies. That doesn’t mean they’re bad films; in fact I loved The Force Awakens. But all that movie does is resurrect the brand and sort of restate the original story, while Avatar’s incredible world-building was let down by the most obvious narrative James Cameron could have chosen. We’ve also left superhero films out of the equation: while many of them utilize sci-fi elements, they’re really a genre unto themselves nowadays.
Sci-fi is above all a genre of ideas, and each of the films selected below offers up something that arguably expands or bends one���s mind and in many cases is relevant to the world we live in right now. That’s truly what the best science fiction does, and that’s why we believe the movies below are the best — so far — of the 21st century.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
At first glance the more humane, optimistic Steven Spielberg taking over a project from the deeply cynical Stanley Kubrick (who asked Spielberg to direct it four years before the former’s 1999 death) seemed odd. But their sensibilities were actually reversed on this, as A.I. turned out to be the first of several mature, more downbeat sci-fi offerings from Spielberg, who retells Pinocchio here by way of Brian Aldiss’s story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long.”
The story of a little robot boy (a fantastic Haley Joel Osment) who looks for love and meaning in the waning days of human civilization is deeply melancholy, technically superb, and often quite moving.
Donnie Darko (2001)
A cult favorite almost upon release, the menacing, often inscrutable and challenging Donnie Darko tells the strange story of the title character (Jake Gyllenhaal), a teenager tormented by visions of an impending apocalypse and his role in it.
Writer/director Richard Kelly’s debut feature is an eerie and surreal work, an almost uncategorizable mix of coming-of-age story, high school comedy and metaphysical sci-fi puzzlebox. But somehow it all works, held together by Kelly’s confident vision and a great central performance from a young Gyllenhaal.
Minority Report (2002)
Spielberg tackles Philip K. Dick in one of the director’s most ambitious works to date. Tom Cruise plays John Anderton, part of an elite unit tasked with preventing murders before they happen thanks to the abilities of mutants known as PreCogs who can see the future. But Anderton finds himself accused of a murder he has yet to commit and must go on the run.
In addition to being a sizzling, highly visceral chase thriller, Minority Report creates a deeply unsettling and immersive near-future world and touches on themes of determinism, government intrusion and media infiltration into our everyday lives — making the movie just as relevant as ever. The only flaw: a triumphant ending that feels almost physically out of place with the rest of the film.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
This masterpiece is one of many of what I call “hidden” science fiction films — stories in which the sci-fi element, while crucial, is subtly integrated into the contours of what appears to be a non-genre narrative. In this case, the option to have one’s memories erased via a scientific procedure provides the framework for a story about memory and love that is poignant, heartbreaking and profound in what it says about relationships.
Michel Gondry’s fragmentary direction suits Charlie Kaufman’s reverse-engineered gem of a screenplay, while Kate Winslet and especially Jim Carrey are flawless as the emotionally damaged couple who elect to forget each other — even if their memories linger on like messages from a ghost dimension.
Shane Carruth wrote, directed, shot, edited, scored, and starred in this extremely low budget ($7,000 — I guess you save a lot when you do everything on the movie!) mind-bender about two engineers (Carruth and David Sullivan) who stumble upon a way to travel through time and proceed to twist the fabric of reality as well as their own lives into increasingly labyrinthine and overlapping duplicates.
The movie’s dry, grounded approach to showing how two schlubs make an earthshaking discovery in a garage and then proceed to let their worst instincts take over and fuck things up give an immediacy that is gripping even if you don’t always know what the hell is going on.
Carruth went on to make the even more impenetrable Upstream Color (2013).
The great thing about writer/director Joss Whedon’s thrilling “space Western” is that you don’t have to know the TV show it was spun off from, Firefly, to appreciate and enjoy it (I still have never seen the series, which had only a brief nine-episode run on Fox).
Whedon’s deft touch with ensemble casts and terrifically drawn characters, his ear for sharp, witty dialogue and his elegant way with narrative and setting are all put to excellent use in this tremendously entertaining, funny and resonant adventure.
War of the Worlds (2005)
Spielberg’s third sci-fi outing of the millennium proved to be his darkest yet, a modern-day retelling of H.G. Wells’ landmark novel that managed to be fairly faithful to the book (including visualizing the alien tripods close to how Wells described them) while using it as a metaphor for the fear and horror that gripped the country in the wake of 9/11.
Tom Cruise is right on the money as an everyman who deals with forces and circumstances beyond his comprehension, while also taking the familiar Spielberg role of the deadbeat dad. Images from this film — running people being vaporized on the street, a burning train roaring down a track and a nightmarish river awash with dead bodies — are among the most frightening Spielberg has ever committed to film.
And don’t blame him for the abrupt ending — it’s right out of Wells.
Children of Men (2006)
Despite not connecting with audiences on its initial run, Children of Men is still revered as one of the best films of the 2000s, let alone as one of its best sci-fi efforts. Director Alfonso Cuaron adapts author P.D. James’ book about the slow descent of human society into chaos — thanks to the complete cessation of new children being born — in harrowing, immersive, yet deeply emotional style. Clive Owen has never been better as burned-out civil worker Theo, who must guide a young woman with a secret through the anarchy descending around them in a last bid for hope and survival.
Technically dazzling from its production design to its stunning single-take sequences, full of sorrow, despair, beauty and ultimately faith in human compassion, Children of Men remains a devastating classic 10 years after its release.
The Fountain (2006)
Like Children of Men, The Fountain was not embraced by audiences upon its release and not altogether beloved by critics either. Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, Noah) tells three different stories — one set in the past, one in the present and one in the far future — all starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz as characters who may be the same in each timeline.
A meditation on love, death, metaphysics, the meaning of existence and the power of time and memory, The Fountain may lack enough clarity to appeal to mainstream audiences but if you can solve its puzzle the message it delivers is a profound one. Jackman and Weisz hold all three stories together and visually the movie is a gloriously kaleidoscopic sensory feast.
Ah, poor, perpetually underrated Sunshine. The third collaboration between director Danny Boyle and novelist-turned-screenwriter Alex Garland is a crisp, tense, gripping space melodrama in which a team of scientists must fly to the sun and plant a nuclear device that will help the dying star reignite and save humanity.
The psychological effects of the journey soon lead to trouble. Cillian Murphy and future Captain America Chris Evans top a sturdy cast that manage to eke personality out of their somewhat thin characters, and the visuals and sense of impending dread are top notch. I even like the third act reveal even if some critics felt it pushed the story into slasher/horror territory.
Sunshine borrows quite a bit from films like 2001, Alien, Dark Star, and Silent Running, but mashes them up in a satisfying and occasionally mind-blowing new mix.
District 9 (2009)
South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature was a stunning surprise when it came literally out of nowhere and became not just a box office hit but a Best Picture contender that year at the Academy Awards. It frankly deserved everything that came its way, because the film was a rousing, breathtaking combination of explosive action, sharp social commentary brilliantly disguised in a sci-fi conceit, and character-driven morality tale in which the alien may be more humane than the human (the latter played by Sharlto Copley in a breakout performance).
Its homeless alien refugees — the “prawns” — who are settled into a slum district outside Johannesburg are a painful metaphor that continues to be relevant today. It’s just a shame that Blomkamp’s assured storytelling and confident direction have been misplaced in his next two films, Elysium and Chappie.
In the same year that Neill Blomkamp made his entrance with District 9, another promising new genre talent arrived as well — director Duncan Jones, who made an equally impressive splash with this indie favorite. Sam Rockwell is outstanding as Bell, a man about to end a solitary three-year mining assignment on the Moon who discovers that nothing he believes about himself is actually true.
The movie pays homage to gritty sci-fi efforts of the late ‘70s like Alien and Outland, while Nathan Parker’s screenplay is an original and moving take on memory, loneliness and what it means to be a real human beings. Jones has gone on to make the excellent Source Code and the less warmly received Warcraft and Mute; but Moon remains as personal and pure an example of sci-fi cinema as anything we’ve seen in years.
The Road (2009)
Director John Hillcoat’s largely faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s incredibly bleak post-apocalyptic book — more a tone poem than a novel — came to the screen after being delayed for a year while The Weinstein Company tried to figure out how to market it. But there’s no easy way to sell this spare, unrelenting, yet ultimately profound and moving film to mainstream audiences.
It’s simply too dark a vision, even if this tale of an unnamed man and boy (Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, both excellent) traveling a blasted end-times America retains a glimmer of hope that some spark of human decency will not be snuffed out no matter what. But if you’re willing to take the journey, The Road is a harrowing, deeply affecting experience.
Christopher Nolan’s brilliant exploration of lucid dreaming and subconscious espionage may be, in some ways, his most complete and satisfying film to date, and certainly the one that bestows “visionary” status on this always ambitious director. His first foray into original science fiction (it remains his sole wholly original screenwriting credit to date) is a truly mind-bending experience as it follows a team of dream “extractors” (led by Leonardo DiCaprio) who must attempt the more difficult task of planting an idea (known as “inception”) in someone’s head.
Yes, the film is exposition-heavy, but the different levels of dreaming are staged with clarity and creativity. Sequences such as Joseph Gordon Levitt’s gravity-free fight with a bodyguard in a spinning hotel hallway are the kind of thing that will be taught in film school years from now. But beyond the dazzling action and fast-paced thrills, Inception is a movie stuffed with ideas about the nature of reality and the mysteries of human consciousness — truly heady (no pun intended) stuff.
Made on a budget of less than $500,000, Monsters was a stunning indie debut for director/writer/cinematographer/production designer/visual effects creator Gareth Edwards, who has since gone onto tentpoles like Godzilla and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
While it suffers from a few novice mistakes and less than terrific acting, Monsters tells a startlingly relevant and frightening tale with large-scale implications, but cleverly keeps the foreground action intimate and the menace (extraterrestrial life which has been brought back by a probe and is spreading through the U.S.-Mexico border area) mostly unseen. The sense of both dread and awe is palpable and the allegorical aspects are still current — trademarks of great sci-fi cinema.
Attack the Block (2011)
More indie mayhem with a socio-political slant, this time from filmmaker Joe Cornish, making his directorial debut after being Edgar Wright’s writing partner on films like The Adventures of Tintin and Ant-Man. Cornish proves quite adept behind the camera as he follows an alien invasion of a gritty, crime-ridden London tenement block and efforts by the residents and members of a local gang to repel it — even as the local police ignore or dismiss them.
Cornish directs with confidence and the film moves at blast speed, but best of all is discovering then-unknown John Boyega as the quiet but steely gang leader Moses — watch him in this film and you’ll understand why the future of the Star Wars franchise has been placed upon his (and Daisy Ridley’s) shoulders.
An ensemble piece directed by the great Steven Soderbergh (his second sci-fi outing of this century after 2002’s remake of Solaris), Contagion is terrifying simply because of the almost clinical, matter-of-fact way that Soderbergh stages the spread of an unstoppable new virus throughout the world. The lean story is told with brevity and complete clarity, his all-star cast not getting a whole lot of individual character development but nevertheless creating memorable impressions as doctors, scientists and other professionals who go about their business because they have no other choice.
Matt Damon is the audience surrogate, an everyman caught in the middle of calamity, and he effectively delivers a combination of frustration, fear and doggedness as the director gradually mounts the details of impending doom. Contagion probably comes pretty damn close to what a worldwide biological catastrophe might actually look like, and it’s not pretty.
Indie darling Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) turns to sci-fi and knocks his third effort as writer and director clear out of the park. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis play younger and older versions of the same man, an assassin for a future crime syndicate whose job is getting rid of targets sent back to him in the past through an outlawed form of time travel. But what happens when the target is himself?
Johnson takes a potentially hazardous storytelling paradox and makes it work, creating two tragic figures in one (old and young Joe) and spinning a story that doesn’t just have brains but a whole lot of heart, especially when it turns in a different direction entirely in the second half. Johnson also handles the action and restrained special effects with flair, and it’s easy to see why he was handed the reins of Star Wars: The Last Jedi — his mastery of filmmaking is fully on display in this modern classic.
This tiny ($50,000) movie from writer/director James Ward Byrkit is another terrific modern example of independent sci-fi filmmaking in which limited resources and intimate settings are used to explore often mind-blowing, vast ideas. In this case, eight people are having a dinner party when a comet passes overhead and the power goes out. It soon becomes apparent that the comet has fractured the fabric of existence, and that people can pass between different realities.
Although it takes place in just one house (well, parallel versions of it), Coherence delivers an eerie sense of a large, indifferent universe in which small humans hoard their petty grievances and secrets, and are all too willing to throw their current lives under the bus in hopes of finding a better one (i.e. quickly crossing from one reality to the next). The mostly unknown cast brings a sense of naturalism to Byrkit’s creepy little exercise in existential dread — multiplied by who knows how many realities.
Spike Jonze’s fourth feature film is perhaps his most personal yet, exploring themes of loneliness and human relationships that have permeated all his previous work yet doing so in the context of genre and making them more universal than ever. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a depressed, isolated, socially awkward professional writer of personal letters who falls in love with his computer’s operating system — an artificial intelligence he names Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).
The development of their relationship and eventual destinies form the spine of Jonze’s allegory about our own increasing distance from each other and absorption in technology. Phoenix is heartbreaking as Theodore, but Johansson — never known for great line readings in her other movies — is terrific as the ever-evolving Samantha.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
No one knew exactly what to expect from 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but it turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of that year: an intelligent, character-driven reboot/origin story featuring a ground-breaking motion capture performance from Andy Serkis as the enhanced chimp Caesar.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes didn’t just fulfill the potential laid out by Rise but surpassed it, as a nascent ape civilization led by the now mature Caesar grappled with the question of whether it could exist alongside the remnants of a plague-ravaged human society. The answer provided by director Matt Reeves’ story was both poignant and bleak, and the movie itself was in turn gripping, thrilling, funny and somber…and perhaps the most fully realized Apes movie since the 1968 original.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Based on the Japanese light novel All You Need is Kill, this elegant future war thriller finds Tom Cruise caught in a seemingly endless time loop, dying in battle against alien invaders and then waking up the day before to do it all over again. A commentary on the futility and repetitive, insane nature of armed combat, Edge of Tomorrow benefits from a sense of humor, typically strong work from Cruise and an outstanding action turn from Blunt (doing her second time travel movie in two years and showing why she’d be a kick-ass Captain Marvel).
Edge of Tomorrow may get a little lost in its own paradoxes toward the end, but it’s still a crackling good thriller that manages to squeeze some fresh new insight out of well-worn time travel tropes.
Christopher Nolan’s mix of astrophysics, environmental thriller and family melodrama is huge in scope and ambition, with some of the most awe-inspiring visions of the cosmos since its spiritual ancestor 2001: A Space Odyssey. It also contains one of Nolan’s shaggiest scripts (co-written with his brother Jonathan) and is almost too cluttered for its own good. But it’s ultimately grand and even haunting entertainment, and the first movie in a long time to truly get across the vast distances involved in deep space travel.
It’s also perhaps Nolan’s most emotional film, as the clan led by Matthew McConaughey is slowly torn asunder by those same distances as McConaughey leads a team of astronauts through a wormhole in search of a new home for humanity. Flawed yet still majestic, Interstellar literally reaches for the stars.
Ex Machina (2015)
After writing several brilliant screenplays for films like 28 Days Later and the woefully underseen Dredd, Alex Garland made his directorial debut with this original tale of a search engine programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), his reclusive and arrogant genius boss Nathan (a riveting Oscar Isaac) and the seductive android (Alicia Vikander in a breakout performance) that the latter creates — and to which he wants Caleb to apply the Turing test to determine if artificial intelligence can pass for human.
Garland fashions a mounting sense of dread and paranoia as Nathan messes with Caleb’s head — and then as the android, Ava, subtly begins to mess with them both. Consciousness, sexuality, and the singularity — the long-theorized moment when artificial intelligence may surpass that of humanity — are all woven into Garland’s literate screenplay, which he directs with confidence and verve.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
George Miller’s Mad Max films — this, the fourth, arrived 30 years after the last of the original trilogy was released — have always been a blend of pyrotechnic action thriller and post-apocalyptic parable, and he pushes both aspects to the extreme in this hyper-kinetic, jawdropping tornado of a movie.
Tom Hardy is a terrific Max — but he is almost secondary to Furiosa (a fiery Charlize Theron), the righteous woman who leads five concubines in an escape from the warlord who rules the local populace. Max follows a predictable path from self-interested loner to reluctant hero, but Miller builds an incredible, immersive world for him and the women, while staging one tour de force action sequence after another. An instant masterpiece.
The Martian (2015)
We admit it — a lot of this century’s sci-fi has been rather bleak and grim, but can you blame it with the state the world is in? That’s why The Martian is so enjoyable to watch: this is a movie (adapted from the book) that feels as optimistic about science and intellectualism as the peak years of the actual space program must have been.
Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut must get home from Mars, and the movie follows both his struggle to survive and the pursuit of a rescue plan in crisp, instantly engaging style, making this director Ridley Scott’s best movie in years.
The cast is uniformly excellent, the movie is a feast of visual splendor, and the prevailing message is a nice reminder that science can be good for us.
Midnight Special (2016)
Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ second genre offering (following 2011’s brilliant apocalyptic tale Take Shelter) is a humane and deeply moving story of parents and children, featuring another fantastic central performance by Michael Shannon. As a father on the run with his gifted son, Shannon balances exhaustion, anger and, above all, unconditional love as he tries to stay one step ahead of the forces massing to take his son away from him.
While many plot elements are familiar, the film has a keen sense of wonder and mystery, with the narrative driven by the ideas and the characters. It’s only in the end, as the film’s climax takes a somewhat more conventional route, that Midnight Special falters a bit. But it’s still an ambitious piece of work that keeps the people at the heart of the story.
Arrival is simply the closest we’ve come in a long time to literary science fiction — and no surprise there, since it’s based on a story by one of today’s most acclaimed sci-fi writers, Ted Chiang. The movie’s embrace of hard sci-fi concepts and its exploration of the effects those concepts have on the human race pretty much embody the notion of what science fiction is, as defined by the genre’s rich written history.
Not only is it genuine sci-fi, but Arrival is a thrilling, gripping and emotionally powerful tale as well. With a terrific and heartfelt performance by Amy Adams at its center, the movie spins out a narrative that encompasses both an epic sense of space and time and an intimate portrait of how much the human heart and intellect are both capable of carrying. As frightening as some aspects of the story are, Arrival is ultimately optimistic about the future of humanity — another hallmark of great sci-fi filmmaking.
War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
While 2014 predecessor Dawn of the Planet of the Apes might still be our favorite of the rebooted simian franchise, director Matt Reeves delivered a worthy and moving follow-up with this epic finale to the trilogy centered around the intelligent ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis in another stunning motion capture performance). This film was bigger in scale and ambition, taking its cue from old-school Biblical epics just as much as the original Apes movies.
If the storytelling didn’t seem as tight and focused, with the movie’s second half featuring a number of loose ends, it still brought the saga home with a deeply emotional finish. The new Apes films have been one of the most surprising success stories of this decade, and we’ll be curious to see if they continue from here.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Perhaps the most divisive science fiction film of its year (or perhaps second most divisive after a certain movie about a Jedi) was also one of its most visionary. Blade Runner 2049 swung for the fences in terms of its design, scale and world-building, and mostly hit it out of the park; it took the dystopian future brilliantly realized in Ridley Scott’s 1982 original and added new layers of imagery and invention to it.
Even at its extended length (165 minutes), the movie was never less than eye-popping to look at. But was the storyline equal to it? That’s where the debate will continue to rage for years, we think. Blade Runner 2049 may or may not be a truly great sci-fi movie, but like the original, it will be one we continue to talk about.
Director/screenwriter Alex Garland’s brilliant follow-up to 2015’s equally riveting Ex Machina, adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s eerie novel, is an unsettling hybrid of horror and sci-fi. Annihilation follows four female researchers (led by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh), each with their own agenda, as they investigate a mysterious alien zone encroaching on an American coastal region from which a dozen earlier expeditions have not returned.
The way that Area X transforms a familiar and bucolic setting into a haunted house of mutations and decay, while also working its way into the psyches of the women, is the stuff of ecological/psychological nightmares. Garland wrings the situation for maximum dread — both metaphysical and visceral — while the women dig under the surface of their ambiguously drawn characters. Garland freely changes the details of VanderMeer’s story while retaining its tone and meaning, with masterful results.
And now the runners-up:
Battle Royale (2000)
Pitch Black (2000)
Reign of Fire (2002)
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
V for Vendetta (2006)
The Host (2006)
Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
Never Let Me Go (2010)
Another Earth (2011)
The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Source Code (2011)
The Hunger Games (2012)
Under the Skin (2014)
The Signal (2014)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
That’s our list — did we miss any of your favorites that you’d like to add? Let us know below!