The 2000s was a strange time for genre filmmaking and especially science fiction. While sci-fi cinema was in theory thriving, that was mainly thanks to the presence of franchises that were, in fact, their own mini-genres (like Star Wars and Star Trek). Then there were superhero films, always sort of a cousin to sci-fi, with the X-Men and Spider-Man series both exploding and the Marvel Cinematic Universe making its debut with Iron Man (2008) just as the decade came to a close.
But there were some top-shelf literary adaptations as well. Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) was a flawed yet powerful expansion of a Brian Aldiss story while his War of the Worlds (2005) and Minority Report (2002) were outstanding takes on classic tales from H.G. Wells and Philip K. Dick (there might have been no sci-fi filmmaker more consistent at the time than The Beard). Other remakes or adaptations, however, like ill-advised reboots of Rollerball and The Time Machine, flopped miserably.
And then there were the acclaimed original hits like M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002) and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), not to mention the 2009 one-two punch of Neill Blomkamp’s brilliant District 9 and, of course, James Cameron’s towering Avatar, both of which landed in the running for Best Picture that year—a first for the genre to have two films in contention.
With the blockbuster/franchise mentality in full effect at the studios, and the gap between smaller and more expensive productions widening all the time, it was easier than ever for a few films to fall between the cracks. Some of these were spotted at the time by sharp-eyed fans and critics but many could stand to use a re-introduction today. So in the spirit of our looks at previous decades, here are some of the underrated sci-fi films of the 2000s.
Pitch Black (2000)
The funny thing about director and co-writer David Twohy’s low-key, fairly ingenious sci-fi thriller is that Richard B. Riddick, the mercenary-turned-murderer who can see in the dark and is played with flair by Vin Diesel, is almost not the main character of Pitch Black. He kind of shares that honor with Radha Mitchell’s space pilot, Carolyn Fry. Both are quite good in this gripping yarn in which Fry must trust Riddick to help her save the survivors when her spacecraft crashes on a planet on which predatory creatures come out in the dark—and an eclipse is coming.
This is really one of Diesel’s best performances, so it’s easy to see why he wanted to extend the Riddick brand into its own universe. Too bad that subsequent entries The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) and Riddick (2013) were disappointments, although both had their moments. But the original holds up thanks to Diesel, Mitchell, and the rest of the cast (including the always great Keith David), the frightening monsters, and a premise which keeps the viewer hooked despite the relatively small stakes.
Possible Worlds (2000)
There are several tiny films on this list and this may be, if not the tiniest, then perhaps the most obscure (good luck trying to find a place to watch it). Based on a play by John Mighton, director Robert Lepage’s Possible Worlds follows a man named George (Tom McManus) who seems to find himself shifting between different realities. The only constant is a woman named Joyce (Tilda Swinton), who takes on a different persona in each reality and a mysterious man (Gabriel Gascon) who appears in them as well.
The truth about what is happening to George may become apparent relatively quickly, but the film is still an intriguing look at the nature of consciousness and identity. It’s a little squishy as sci-fi—perhaps “sci-fi adjacent” would be a better term—but the multiple realities are both surreal and compelling, and there’s a powerful performance from Swinton on the cusp of her mainstream breakthrough.
Reign of Fire (2002)
Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey teaming up to fight dragons? Take my money, please. What makes Rob Bowman’s Reign of Fire so unusual, however, is that this isn’t a period piece set hundreds of years ago but a post-apocalyptic sci-fi epic set a few years into the future after tunneling under London awakened dormant fire-breathers and accidentally freed them to wipe out most of human civilization.
Bale and McConaughey play the leaders of two groups of survivors who after initially getting into a pissing contest with each other realize they’d be better off working together. The result is an exciting B-movie with a big budget and pretty top-notch visual effects, with the dragons especially effective. Bale, McConaughey, and the rest of the cast, including a young Gerard Butler, all commit to the concept as well, making Reign of Fire far more convincing and entertaining than you might imagine.
Barely released in theaters, writer-director Kurt Wimmer’s Equilibrium stars Christian Bale as John Preston, a “Cleric” in a post-World War III society where emotion has been outlawed and suppressed through a powerful drug called Prozium. All materials that can provoke an emotional response, including all forms of art, are banned, and it’s Preston’s job to root them out. But when Preston accidentally misses his own daily dose of Prozium, he begins to experience emotions and slowly turns toward joining a nascent revolution against the society’s rulers.
You can spot plenty of influences in Equilibrium from miles away—Logan’s Run, Fahrenheit 451, and Nineteen Eighty-Four among them—but perhaps the biggest is The Matrix: Wimmer invents a new way of fighting called gun kata, a mix of martial arts and gunplay clearly inspired by the breakthrough action of the Wachowskis’ classic. As derivative as the film may be, the kinetic action, atmospheric location sets, and a great cast headlined by Bale, Emily Watson, Sean Bean, Taye Diggs, and Angus Macfadyen make this worth a revisit.
Made on a budget of just $7,000, Primer remains one of the best time travel movies ever made and a model of how to do mind-bending science fiction with literally no money. Writer-director-producer-editor Shane Carruth stars as Aaron, one half of a pair of friends who work on tech projects in Aaron’s garage. Aaron is impulsive and instinctive while Abe (David Sullivan) is more cautious and austere. When they accidentally discover a way to travel six hours back in time—paving the way for them to make changes to the immediate past—who do you think begins causing more chaos?
Yes, Primer is often dense to the point of incomprehension, but that’s part of its charm, as is the low-fi aesthetic in which we watch two men effect changes to reality from inside a garage (hey, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak supposedly started Apple in Jobs’ parents’ garage, so don’t think there isn’t an allusion there). The prosaic setting and unpolished filmmaking lend the actions of Aaron and Abe an eeriness that probably couldn’t be replicated through $100 million worth of visual FX. It’s a shame that Carruth ventured into more obscure territory with 2013’s Upstream Color, followed by destructive personal behavior, as Primer remains a bracing, challenging debut.
We’re not here to relitigate Joss Whedon’s fall from grace or the revelations about the power-hungry, woman-manipulating allegations behind the feminist, nerdy façade, but even shitty people can create fine work. And that’s certainly the case with Serenity, Whedon’s feature directorial debut and a sequel to his short-lived TV series Firefly. It’s strange to think that the series, which didn’t even make it through a full season, managed to somehow get a feature film continuation, but the best part about this is that you didn’t have to watch Firefly to enjoy Serenity (like this writer, who has still never seen the show).
Whedon’s skills with ensemble casts, witty writing, and remarkably developed characters are all on display here, in a scenario that is equal parts space opera and frontier Western. The crew of the title ship, led by the irrepressible Nathan Fillion, go on the run to protect a powerful psychic named River Tam (Summer Glau) and find themselves at the center of a vast interplanetary plot. Whedon and the Firefly universe manage to make the jump to the big screen fairly well, setting him up to direct The Avengers a couple of years later, and the movie’s straightforward storytelling gives it a fleetness that has been missing from, oh I don’t know, the last decade or so of Star Wars projects.
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
We all know the heavyweight adaptations of the works of Philip K. Dick: Blade Runner (of course, the big behemoth that towers above all), Total Recall, Minority Report, the Prime Video series based on The Man in the High Castle. But Richard Linklater’s 2006 adaptation of Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly, in which an undercover law enforcement agent named Bob Arctor infiltrates a drug underground in a near-future dystopia, only to become addicted himself and lose track of his own identity, is strangely forgotten today, if only because it’s nothing like those other sci-fi blockbusters.
Linklater shot principal photography with his actors—Keanu Reeves as Arctor, plus Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, and others—over six weeks in Austin, Texas, then turned the digital footage over to a team of animators for rotoscoping, which is the laying of animation over the live-action footage frame by frame. While this led to numerous delays, the finished film is not only a bleakly funny look at a drug-damaged society on the brink, but has a surreal, dreamlike quality that is found in Dick’s books, if not always in the movies based on them. It’s no kiddie cartoon, that’s for sure.
Satire and science fiction have gone hand in hand for decades (Dr. Strangelove, Dark Star, Galaxy Quest, etc.), but Idiocracy took the pairing to a whole new and unnerving level. Directed and co-written by Mike Judge of Beavis and Butthead and Office Space fame, the film stars Luke Wilson as a U.S. Army librarian named Joe who is placed in hibernation during a military experiment—along with a prostitute named Rita (Maya Rudolph)—and stays there for 500 years. When they awaken, it’s to a world in which stupidity, consumerism, and consumption are the dominant traits of humanity, and the president of the United States (Terry Crews) is a former wrestler and porn actor.
All but buried by 20th Century Fox (reportedly because the studio did not want to offend some of the corporations lampooned in the movie), Idiocracy is even more prescient today, what with a former reality show host and possible convicted felon vying once again to seize the government he tried to overthrow while a blithely ignorant populace sits drooling in front of their TVs. It’s goofy and scathing at the same time, and a stark warning of what could be coming our way… if it’s not here already.
The Fountain (2006)
The Fountain is in many ways an excellent example of a filmmaker pushing to get his vision onscreen no matter what. Writer-director Darren Aronofsky originally planned to shoot the movie with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as his leads where they’d play characters in three different time periods, and he got $70 million to work with thanks to those names. But when Pitt dropped out, Aronofsky was forced to reconceive the project, slicing the budget in half as he got Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz to fill the lead roles instead.
It was a box office failure despite all that, which is a shame because The Fountain is Aronofsky’s lost masterpiece. Set in the past, present, and far future, with Jackman and Weisz playing variations on the same characters, The Fountain is a meditation on death, loss, and life (and the acceptance that comes with the first two) that may be a bit hard to follow but is deeply moving and richly rewarding if you stick with it. Aronofsky’s ambitions don’t always land, but with The Fountain they came pretty damn close.
A naked woman. A menacing man with bloody bandages wrapped around his face. A mysterious machine that sends you back one hour in time. These are the delicious ingredients for Timecrimes, the film that launched the quirky, continually offbeat career of Spanish writer-director Nacho Vigalondo. Time travel is always a hell of a big swing to take, especially for a low-budget debut indie, and while the film’s plotting doesn’t always make sense, the ride is fun as hell.
Karra Elejalde stars as Hector, who’s sitting in his backyard with his wife when he spies the naked woman in the forest through his binoculars. That leads Hector on a mad quest that includes multiple copies of himself, all overlapping and interacting with each other in an increasingly convoluted scenario. The film’s lack of special effects and dark humor give it an immediacy that smooths over its more bizarre turns. It’s an audacious debut, and Vigalondo has continued on his weird way with films like Extraterrestrial (2011) and Colossal (2016), in which Anne Hathaway plays…a kaiju.
We suppose that when you’re Danny Boyle and you’ve made films/cultural events like Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, and Steve Jobs, some of your other projects are going to slip through the cracks. That seems to be the case with Sunshine, Boyle’s sole, perennially underrated venture into pure science fiction. The film takes place in 2057 when a team of astronauts set out on a mission to reignite a fading sun before the Earth turns into a ball of ice. Obstacles arise, including the psychological breakdown of the crew and the mystery of what happened to a previous mission seven years earlier.
Clearly influenced by the likes of Alien and Solaris (and a bit by John Carpenter’s debut, the satirical Dark Star), Sunshine is visually magnificent and relentlessly gripping, bolstered by a fine cast led by Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, and—in a role that showed off his range and arguably made him a plausible Captain America—Chris Evans. Some critics found the movie derivative and its third act reveal unbelievable; we disagree on the latter. It adds a creepy bit of existential horror to the proceedings. Still, we agree that in some ways Sunshine doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel. Yet it’s superb enough on its own terms as a traditional sci-fi shocker that we love it anyway.
Right at Your Door (2007)
This tiny little indie from first-time writer/director Chris Gorak, whose only other directorial credit was 2011’s alien invasion pic The Darkest Hour, benefits greatly from its claustrophobic setting and all-too-real tone and atmosphere. Rory Cochrane stars as Brad, an unemployed musician who is idling at home when a string of dirty bombs detonate across Los Angeles. He and a laborer who was working nearby seal up the house while Brad desperately tries to get in touch with his wife Lexi (Mary McCormack), who was at work in the city. When Lexi returns, covered in potentially toxic dust, Brad realizes to his horror that he cannot let her in.
Gorak uses the movie’s small scale to reinforce the frightening sense of isolation that would occur in a scenario just like this. With limited communication to the outside world, how would we really know what’s happening? There are inklings of civil breakdown and government overreach throughout the film, heightening the tension and adding to its verisimilitude. A last-minute twist seems somewhat contrived, but Right at Your Door is still effective at showing how we might react in one all-too-possible situation.
Based on a novel by Portuguese author José Saramago, Blindness was director Fernando Meirelles’ follow-up to his brilliant 2005 adaptation of the political thriller The Constant Gardener. But Blindness is a different beast, though no less somber, as it follows the complete breakdown of society after a mysterious affliction causes everyone to lose their sight—all except one woman (Julianne Moore), who does her best to protect her afflicted husband (Mark Ruffalo) and a small band of other survivors (the loss of one or all senses has been kind of a minor sci-fi trope, from the classic The Day of the Triffids through more contemporary offerings like 2011’s Perfect Sense).
The novel was more allegorical in nature. On the page, the characters aren’t given names, an aspect the movie retains, but only while setting the story in a more specific, though unnamed, urban landscape and making it more concrete in nature. The violence and cruelty that inevitably follow as civil order breaks down make Blindness a tough watch, and critics called it out for its unrelenting atmosphere of despair. Yet it is challenging filmmaking to be sure, and an example of the way in which the genre can stretch itself to encompass world literature of the highest order.
9 is the only feature film to date from director, writer, and animator Shane Acker, who based the movie on his Oscar-nominated short of the same name. Despite the backing of heavyweight producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov, however, 9 failed to catch on with audiences and many critics; Acker, who has worked as an animator and previs artist on films like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Oz the Great and Powerful, has since had subsequent projects trapped in development hell.
That’s too bad, because 9 exhibited great potential for Acker as an animated filmmaker. It’s simply gorgeous to look at and imaginatively designed, even by the always rapidly changing standards of the medium. His storytelling instincts are not as confident, but this tale of a strange doll-like robot (voiced by Elijah Wood) that must reunite with eight others of its kind in a devastated world ruled by a machine that steals souls still hints at a fierce creativity that was never properly tapped.