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The Top 40 Sci-Fi Movies of the 21st Century

From space-invader thrillers to interstellar-overdrive headscratchers, we’re counting down the best science fiction films since the turn of the century

Ask any science-fiction movie fanatic what their go-to films are, and you’ll get a lot of great answers back: Metropolis, Blade Runner, 2001, The Day the Earth Stood Still, the original Godzilla, The Thing etc. But let’s face it – those answers are so last century. Great sci-fi movies didn’t decide to party like it’s 1999 then call it a day; a host of thrilling, intelligent, offbeat, funny and frightening SF films have hit art houses and multiplexes since Y2K.

In 2014, we concocted a list of the Best Sci-Fi Movies of the 21st Century — a quick and dirty survey of the best the genre has had to offer since the millennium’s beginning. More than a few major science-fiction flicks, however – from franchise-expanding blockbusters to arthouse headscratchers – have dropped since then, so it was time for an overhaul and an update. We’ve now expanded our list to 40 titles, to better highlight the best and brightest SF films of our still-new–ish millennium. Some noteworthy favorites of ours just barely missed the cut (very sorry, Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer) or some major titles were dinged on quality-control issues. (Avatar may have been a gamechanging film for 3D, but “unobtainium”? Really?!?) We’re confident, however, that there’s a place in the canon for these relative latecomers.

Emily Blunt, Tom Cruise

Everett Collection

19

‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (2014)

A sci-fi Groundhog Day, this vastly underrated entry boasts a videogame premise that’s appealing to both Tom Cruise’s fans and haters: What if a whole movie was devoted to killing T.C. over and over again? The diminutive action hero is at his self-mocking, amped-up best as Cage, a military P.R. exec who dies while battling vicious, spider-like aliens – only to discover that, each time, he’s beamed back to the start of that same day. Bourne Identity director Doug Liman dazzlingly stretches and twists that clever concept to its breaking point, finding seemingly infinite variations on how Cage can screw up. But MVP honors go to Emily Blunt as a hard-as-nails soldier who has to teach this lovable cad to become a proper warrior. Together, they’re like a Nick and Nora for a future age overrun by gnarly interstellar monsters. TG

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

18

‘Her’ (2013)

Who among us could not fall in love with Scarlett Johansson’s sultry voice and breezy demeanor as portrayed in Her – even if she is just a computer operating system? Spike Jonze’s post-postmodern love story reeks of all the hallmarks of every other sappy love story – infatuation, inadequacy, infidelity – and that’s what makes it so engaging. Joaquin Phoenix’s character falls in love with his PDA in such an endearing, all-too-human way that it feels real (and portentous), but it’s the way he tries to overcome all the odds of his impossible love affair work that makes the film heartrending. Even she is just an operating system. KG

Robert Downey Jr.

Everett Collection

17

‘A Scanner Darkly’ (2006)

Philip K. Dick’s style of paranoid, mind-bending SF meets one of Waking Life/Boyhood director
Richard Linklater’s low-key slices-of-life in this unusual animated
thriller, about addicts spying on each other in a future America. Keanu
Reeves stars as an undercover cop who’s investigating drug-trafficking
by becoming part of a community of users (played by Winona Ryder, Woody
Harrelson and Robert Downey, Jr.). The electronically-aided
disguises and personality-altering pills align this adaptation A Scanner Darkly with speculative fiction, but the stoned philosophical psychobabble is clearly the work of the filmmaker behind Dazed and Confused – as is the commentary on a culture geared toward
cracking down on harmless libertines. NM

Kang-ho (standing, left), KO Ah-sung (woman, center of frame), Chris Evans (right)

Everett Collection

16

‘Snowpiercer’ (2013)

Don’t get too bogged down by the mechanics of the bizarre premise of this graphic-novel adaptation, in which the remnants of humanity struggle for survival aboard a speeding train in the wake of a global climate disaster. (A train, guys?) Just revel in this stylish, bizarre take on class warfare from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Okja), as revolutionary Curtis (Chris Evans) fights his way to the front of this hierarchical society on wheels, encountering homicidal schoolteachers, an army of axmen and a twisted prime minister (Tilda Swinton) along the way. Snowpiercer wears its strangeness and its singularity on its sleeve. Enjoy the ride. JS

looper

Alan Markfield

15

‘Looper’ (2012)

A person could tie their noggin in knots trying to follow the timeline of Rian Johnson’s time-travelling nailbiter: So future assassin Joseph Gordon Levitt is really Bruce Willis and they’re trying to kill each other? Plus the kid with psychic powers who lives near a corn field has something to do with this? And the hit man’s weapon of choice circa 2042 is a blunderbuss?!? Johnson’s Möbius Strip of a movie is endlessly fascinating – it doesn’t simply reward repeat viewings so much as demand them – and proof that it’s still possible to do intelligent science fiction within the sausage skin of a star vehicle. Kudos, sir. DF

Courtesy Universal Pictures

14

‘Serenity’ (2005)

Should you think this list is filled with nothing but philosophical chin-scratchers, here’s a good old-fashioned romp brimming with spaceship chase scenes, laser gunfights and not one but several Han Solo-type ruffians. Joss Whedon’s decision to bring back his gone-too-soon TV show Firefly as a bespoke blockbuster (in feel, if not actual box-office returns) was a bold gamble that pays off beautifully; you don’t have to be fan of the series to dig the thrills, spills and chills here – though it doesn’t hurt, of course. We’re still holding out hopes for a sequel. DF

Courtesy Sony Pictures

13

‘District 9’ (2009)

As a metaphor for apartheid, Neill Blomkamp’s faux-documentary about aliens ghettoized in South African shantytowns is nothing if not blatant. As a genre-based action movie, however, the movie works its gritty, you-are-there feel to great effect, especially once Sharlto Copley’s bureaucratic lackey starts to experience a few, shall we say, physical changes of his own. It’s also doubles nicely as the announcement of a major talent who, Chappie or no Chappie, could very well influence the shape of science fiction to come. DF

Kate Winslet, Jim Carrey

Everett Collection

12

‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (2004)

A masterful collaboration between visionary music-video director Michel Gondry and mercurial screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich), Eternal Sunshine succeeds as both sharp speculative fiction and heartbreaking romance. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are star-crossed Long Island lovers who hire a fly-by-night agency called Lacuna, Inc. to erase the painful memories of their failed relationship. Then he decides he doesn’t want to forget their time together. It’s a movie that toys with time and space, past and present, mind and heart like some sort of melancholy mad scientist. STC

Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron

Everett Collection

11

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (2015)

It took 30 years for action maestro George Miller to follow up his Beyond Thunderdome with another Mad Max … so long that he had to replace Mel Gibson with Tom Hardy
as the leather-clad anti-hero. With Fury Road, the director
delivers something close to a two-hour chase scene, as Max joins forces
with steely warrior and slave-liberator Imperator Furiosa (a badass
Charlize Theron) to rescue a group of young women from a resource-hoarding
death-cult. From the unexpected character-depth to the geometry-defying
high-speed standoffs, the movie is a prime example of how to balance
thrilling postapocalyptic spectacle with a sober social message. It’s sci-fi with its pedal to the metal. NM

John Boyega, Daisy Ridley

Everett Collection

10

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ (2015)

The first Star Wars film made outside the aegis of creator George Lucas, TFA set to recreate the magic of the original trilogy – and damned if it didn’t largely succeed in channeling the world we first saw a long time ago. This extension of modern pop culture’s definitive pop saga – in which a new generation of dark lords, derring-do heroes and determined orphans step up to the plate – was fueled by the power and charm of its hugely charismatic cast, from relative newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega to A-list actors Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac. And you didn’t need to have owned New Hope bedsheets back in the day to feel nostalgic seeing returning icons Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and, albeit briefly, Mark Hamill. Warm, funny, and unafraid to get truly emotional (RIP, Captain Solo), it made that galaxy far, far away feel closer to home than it had in ages. STC

Matt Damon

Everett Collection

9

‘The Martian’ (2015)

Almost four decades after Alien, Ridley Scott returned to space
in his adaptation of Andy Weir’s hit self-published novel, in which astronaut Mark Watney (Matt
Damon) from our Big Blue Marble finds himself marooned on the Big Red Planet. Quicker than you can say Robinson Crusoe on Mars, our hero is figuring out how to survive – and how to eventually get home. Blending Scott’s vision of life in the far reaches of our solar system with
Damon’s witty, charming performance, the movie translates old-school hard sci-fi into a mainstream multiplex-friendly adventure – and gives us the cinema’s first cosmic botanist superhero. It’s not
only enough to get people interested in space travel again but to pay
more attention in science class. Doing so could save your life one day, kids. BT

CILLIAN MURPHY

Everett Collection

8

’28 Days Later…’ (2002)

Some science fiction movies do more than depict frightening innovations of a fictional kind – they unleash such advances themselves. Such is the case with the film that set the concept of the “fast zombie” loose upon an unsuspecting world. Technically, the ravening hordes in Danny Boyle’s groundbreaking movie are not undead, but “infected”: living humans contaminated by a viral rage-inducing epidemic. Naturally, they now kill the uninfected on sight … which does not bode well for hospital patient Cillian Murphy when he wakes up to find London has been overrun with mindless, rabid citizens. (The similarities between this movie’s opening and The Walking Dead pilot are uncanny.) A subgenre was revitalized, and one look at the angry world around us today is all you need to see how prophetic the Trainspotting director and writer Alex Garland (Ex Machina) really were. STC

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

7

‘Gravity’ (2013)

The idea of being lost in space has never been portrayed in such a realistic and frightening way as director Alfonso Cuarón’s agoraphobic nightmare. Sandra Bullock may get top billing as an astronaut struggling to survive a deadly meteor shower while coming to terms with her own all-to-human inadequacies, but the movie’s real star is its villain: the absolute, all-encompassing nothingness of space. Thanks to dizzying CGI and Bullock’s 90-minute panic attack, Gravity is horror as much as sci-fi, because sometimes there is nothing scarier than being alone with your thoughts – and a finite amount of oxygen. KG

Courtesy Pixar Animation Studios

6

‘Wall-E’ (2008)

Thought it’s set in space circa 2805, the real world of Wall-E is 20th century American film. Our bumbling hero putters around a scorched Earth silently but expressively as Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp; his attempts to romance an iPod-like female counterpart resembles a romance like a robot version of Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer; vistas recall Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the cynical political humor recalls his Dr. Strangelove. There’s no musical numbers, but an actual clip of Hello Dolly plays. Plus, the Pixar team has probably seen a few Disney movies in their day. CGW

inception leonardo dicaprio

Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment

5

‘Inception’ (2010)

Christopher Nolan’s big-budget, big-concept, big-everything (filming took place on four continents) 2010 blockbuster works on so many levels – subconscious, visceral, temporal – that there are endless ways to appreciate it, though as we follow a team of dream “extractors” deeper and deeper down the spiral, one can’t help but marvel at the film’s structure most of all. Nolan’s script is a multi-layered latticework of timelines and realities, dead-ends and false ledges, one that ultimately provides few answers, but asks plenty of questions. Is Leo’s top is still spinning? When does a shared dream become reality? Are we awake right now?!? Heavy stuff, man. JM

Jeremy Renner, Amy Adams

Everett Collection

4

‘Arrival’ (2016)

The aliens are here … but are they friend or foe? That urgent question powers Denis Villeneuve’s sober sci-fi drama, which balances the cerebral and the emotional as gracefully as those interstellar spacecrafts hovering just above Earth’s surface. Amy Adams is a linguist still grieving for her dead daughter when extraterrestrials appear across the globe, speaking in a sophisticated language only she can unravel – that is, if she can stop wary superpowers from declaring war on our visitors first. From the elegant alien design to the screenplay’s eloquent chronological jumble, Arrival eschews the genre’s pulpier tendencies for a realistic portrait of humanity facing down its destiny – leading to an ending that’s both a mindbender and a tearjerker. TG

Courtesy A24 Films

3

‘Under the Skin’ (2013)

A Man Who Fell to Earth for millennials, Jonathan Glazer’s cryptic tale of an extraterrestrial femme fatale who discovers her inner human being is, in the truest sense of the word, awesome. Lots of movies have tried to channel that old Seventies sci-fi feeling, but Glazer’s visually sumptuous, genuinely unnerving movie is one of the few that feels as if it actually came from that fertile era of space oddities. There’s a sense of exploration in its elliptical storytelling that feels light years ahead of most modern aliens-among-us tales – and who knew that it would take playing a predatory, largely nonverbal creature to convince us that Scarlett Johansson was capable of such nuanced work? DF

Alicia Vikander

Everett Collection

2

‘Ex Machina’ (2014)

Much like its impromptu dance scene, which launched a thousand glorious GIFs, writer-director Alex Garland’s movie is hypnotic, hip – and also profoundly unsettling. This gripping thriller twists the knife on one of sci-fi’s great themes – what it means to be human – by placing mortals and androids in the same confined space and then consistently shifting our sympathies. Alicia Vikander electrifies as the seductive, seemingly subservient robot that slowly gets under the skin of the male programmers (Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac) who are under the mistaken impression that they’re studying her … and not the other way ’round. A relatively low-budget film that nonetheless walked off with the Best Visual Effects Oscar, Ex Machina is a marvel of smarts over spectacle, dissecting sexism and power dynamics with a cold-blooded efficiency worthy of its steely heroine. TG

Jaap Buitendijk

1

‘Children of Men’ (2006)

Director Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of PD James’ novel is a chilling nightmare, set in a future where human infertility has rendered society increasingly unstable (morality matters less when extinction is in the offing). The film’s rumpled, weary atmosphere, as embodied by conflicted hero Clive Owen – playing a cynical bureaucrat drafted into a potentially species-saving plot – and stubborn optimism (personified by Michael Caine’s aging hippie weed-dealer) combine to create a  movingly tangible sci-fi tale that suggests that the end of the world, and its salvation, might not come with a bang, but a whimper. Emotionally resonant, daringly prophetic and disturbingly plausible, Children of Men is modern sci-fi storytelling at its apex. DM

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