The 2000s were a great time for science fiction. Thanks to The Matrix closing out the 90s, studios were more willing to give the green light to stories about science gone awry, leading to favorites such as A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Paprika, as well as superhero hits like Spider-Man 2, X2, and Iron Man.
With so much good stuff out there, it’s no surprise that some really good movies would pass by audiences. Sometimes, these movies simply got buried by higher profile and more popular works. Sometimes, they were rejected by audiences disturbed by their audacious or disturbing ideals.
For anyone who wants to catch up on some sci-fi movies they have missed, here are ten great overlooked entries from the start of the millennium.
After the 1-2-3 punch of Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Ocean’s Eleven, Steven Soderbergh could do almost anything he wanted, especially since his star-studded experimental low-budget movie Full Frontal turned a profit. But even with George Clooney at the height of his celebrity in the lead, Solaris still seemed like a bad idea. Why remake an existential science fiction film from Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, a director more admired than enjoyed?
Unsurprisingly, the movie flopped hard, grossing only $30 million on a $47 million budget. But over the years, Solaris has enjoyed a critical reevaluation. While Soderbergh has an indie filmmaker’s imagination, he also has Hollywood blockbuster instincts, which allows him to put an enjoyable sheen on even the most difficult material. There’s a warmth to Soderbergh’s Solaris missing from the Tarkovsky original, retaining a human core within all of the strange happenings.
Ask any Star Trek fan about great directors and they’ll probably say “Jonathan Frakes.” The man who entered the franchise as Captain Picard’s trusted XO Commander William Riker has carved out a second career as a director, working on every live-action entry besides The Original Series, and helming both Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Insurrection. But Frakes’s feature career outside of Trek has been far bumpier, with the kid-friendly adventure Clockstoppers earning only a small profit and Thunderbirds bombing.
To be fair, Thunderbirds was always going to be a hard sell. Gen Xers might have warm feelings toward the British TV show, but even they probably only know the show for its use of marionettes. Frakes decided to forgo the puppets and choose live-action instead which, for many, stripped away the one notable part of the property. But anyone who got over that fact would find a light-hearted and colorful adventure that deserves a Speed Racer-like reclamation.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
Even people like me, who shelled out money to see Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow in theaters and still own a copy of the DVD, have to admit that it isn’t a great movie. Writer and director Kerry Conran brought a love of adventure serials to the early 2000s and took advantage of the rise of digital filmmaking pioneered by movies such as Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The result may not be the most exciting story in the world, but it is unique.
Sky Captain stars Jude Law at his most handsome as the titular hero, an adventurer and the leader of the Flying Legion. Alongside Gwyneth Paltrow as sharp-tongued reporter Polly Perkins, the Sky Captain searches for mad scientist Dr. Totenkopf (then-deceased actor Laurence Olivier, recreated using archival footage). Law and Paltrow struggle to act in these unreal spaces, but Angelina Jolie owns the screen as an eye-patch-wearing anti-hero and there’s no denying the novelty of the CGI visuals.
Children of Men (2006)
Children of Men opens with a haunting sequence in which Londoners mourning the death of the youngest person in the world get killed in a terrorist bombing. As a ringing sound tears through the soundtrack, audiences catch a fleeting glimpse of a victim retrieving a severed arm before the screen cuts to title. In short, it’s easy to see why moviegoers still reeling from 9/11 would turn off Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. The movie made only $70 million on a $76 million budget, disappointing studios and fans of the P.D. James novel it adapts. But critics sided with the movie from the start and it earned many award nominations.
Since its rocky release, Children of Men has found an audience today, and with good reason. In addition to bravado filmmaking by Cuarón, which includes two breathtaking oners, Children of Men captures both the horror and hope of the modern world. The story of a downtrodden man (Clive Owen) trying to save the first woman to get pregnant in 18 years (Clare-Hope Ashitey), Children of Men remains one of the definitive works of the War on Terror era.
In 2006, writer/director Mike Judge was associated with not one, not two, but three cult hits: Beavis and Butthead, Office Space, and King of the Hill. And yet, the execs at 20th Century Fox saw fit to hobble Idiocracy by refusing to market it and dumping it in only 130 theaters a year after its initial planned release. Why? Because Idiocracy savages corporations such as Fox, Costco, and Gatorade as part of the forces dumbing down humanity. Thanks to Fox’s shenanigans, Idiocracy earned only $495,303 during its theatrical run.
But as if to prove the point of Idiocracy, Fox’s plans proved to be stupid and only raised interest in Judge’s film. The story of a mediocre man from the present (Luke Wilson) who awakens after five hundred years as the smartest person in the world, Idiocracy provides insightful satire about the damaging effects of commercialism and mass media. And after the rise of Donald Trump, the election of Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews) seems like a foregone conclusion.
Today, James Gunn is a household name, a guy in charge of one of the most important divisions of Warner Brothers’ studio and a director who makes blockbusters. But in 2006, he was just the guy who wrote a Troma movie and the Scooby-Doo flicks. What’s more, the marketing for Slither highlighted the grosser parts of the film, promising a stomach-turning flick and nothing more. The film made just $12.8 million, falling short of its $15 million budget.
To be sure, Slither isn’t perfect. It wears its influences on its sleeve, cribbing a lot from the Cronenberg movie Shivers and directly referencing A Nightmare on Elm Street. However, it also showcased many of the qualities that would make Gunn so popular later on, combining wry humor from lead Nathan Fillion, and legitimately moving scenes between Elizabeth Banks and Michael Rooker, even with the latter covered in gooey effects. Throw in a great soundtrack, and Slither becomes a sign of great things to come.
Southland Tales (2006)
Richard Kelly’s feature debut Donnie Darko didn’t exactly tear up the box office, but it did bring back a small profit in theaters and became a cult hit on home video. That success emboldened Universal Pictures to give Kelly a $17 million budget for his follow-up Southland Tales. Kelly used that cash to hire some of the hottest names of the mid-2000s, including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Justin Timberlake. Following the lead of Donnie Darko, Southland Tales told another ambitious alternate reality story, one involving America’s extreme response to a 9/11-esque terrorist attack. It grossed $374,743.
Now, to be clear, Southland Tales is in no way a “good” movie. Kelly seems to cram every single idea that he has into the script. Even an incredibly talented cast would struggle to make audiences believe a romance between an action hero with amnesia called Boxer Santaros (“The Rock” Johnson) and an adult film star called Krysta Now (Gellar), let alone a pair of mid-level talents making a bid for respectability. And yet, Kelly has visual instincts just as deranged as his writing impulses, which make Southland Tales a striking, and often beautiful, movie to watch. In an era of big-budget genre movies with terrible visuals and a paucity of imagination, Southland Tales only grows more special.
How do you make a time-travel movie on a budget of just $2.6 million? If you’re Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo, you do it by making your time machine a nondescript bit of equipment and keeping the cast to five people, including yourself. In place of splashy special effects, Vigalondo pens an incredibly twisty tale in Timecrimes about a middle-aged man called Héctor (Karra Elejalde) who gets chased through the woods by a knife-wielding figure masked in red bandages. The figure chases Héctor to a hidden lab, where he hides in a machine and goes back in time.
Despite its ingenuity and fairly strong reviews, Timecrimes made just $564,474 in theaters. It has had a long afterlife on home video, appearing regularly on Netflix, Shudder, and other streaming services. Vigalondo has had a successful career after Timecrimes, making good movies such as Open Windows (2014) and Colossal (2016). It may not be perfect, especially for those who have no patience for inconsistent time-travel rules or unnecessary nudity, but Timecrimes is worth a watch.
A space horror movie? Produced by Paul W.S. Anderson? Completely flopped on release? Sounds like we’ve got an Event Horizon situation! Well, Pandorum does have some similarities with that 90s classic. It involves people going mad on a spaceship and experiencing a type of Hell. But in this case, the Hell is of the mind, as Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) and Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid) discover. The duo wake up from cryosleep while searching for a new home far from the over-polluted Earth, but of course things go wrong, resulting in bodily and psychological pain.
Pandorum doesn’t quite deserve the love that Event Horizon now enjoys. However, it does deserve more than the paltry $20.6 million it earned at the box office, less than its $33 million budget.
Despite coming from Vincenzo Natali, director of the cult hit Cube, and starring Academy Award winner Adrian Brody and future Academy Award winner Sarah Polley, Splice fell just short of earning back its $30 million budget, drawing just $27.1 million. The problem wasn’t the sci-fi heavy concept, nor its updated take on the Frankenstein story. The problem was that Splice was just so weird.
Brody and Polley star as married scientists working on fusing animal and human DNA. After several failures, the couple finally gets a breakthrough with a figure they call Dren, who quickly ages into an adult (Delphine Chanéac). From there, Splice goes in upsetting directions, exploring the darkest sides of humanity. It’s not for everyone, but anyone who wants an unforgettable experience should definitely check it out.