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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.


Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


‘Moon’ (2009)

Message to anyone considering a solo three-year assignment on that hunk of grey rock that orbits our planet: watch out for space madness, it’s a doozy. Duncan Jones’ debut feature keeps you wondering whether its hero – played by an on-point Sam Rockwell – is losing a battle with what appears to be his “double” or if he, is, in fact, losing his mind. We won’t spoil the fun by spilling the beans on that question, but we will say that, even burdened with a few stock elements (unethical corporate interests? a less-than-trustworthy computer with a monotonous voice?), this sci-fi indie does a helluva lot with very, very little. DF

world's end

Laurie Sparham


‘The World’s End’ (2013)

They say you can never go home again … especially if the town where you grew up has been colonized by some sort of sinister, not-of-this-Earth force. A genius riff on growing up, growing apart and Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type sci-fi/horror movies, writer-director Edgar Wright juggles a host of genre elements with an impressive agility and somehow makes the most lad-cultural premise ever – dudes recreating a legendary pub crawl from their school days – into the least bro-tastic comedy ever. All that, plus a robot fight in a bathroom. What more do you need? DF

Jaeden Lieberher

Everett Collection


‘Midnight Special’ (2016)

Director Jeff Nichols (Loving) pays homage to Spielberg’s Seventies and Eighties classics with this
moving story of an unusual child and the father who would go to any
length to protect him.
Alton Meyer is a strange kid who has a penchant for tuning into frequencies no human ears can pick up (like, say, intelligence agency satellites) and can do
amazing things with his eyes. Naturally, this makes him a person of interest to both religious cults and government spooks. As we hit the road with our confused on-the-run hero, we realize that Midnight Special is more about our terrestrial problems than extraterrestrial invaders. It’s a powerful example of how to use adult-friendly sci-fi to illuminate the human condition as opposed to merely thrilling and distracting us. BT

the host

Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection


‘The Host’ (2006)

Giant-monster flicks have always been about ecological destruction, and this one is no different. Using a 2000 incident of formaldehyde dumping in Seoul as inspiration, this South Korean tale of a creature emerging from the Han River – who not only attacks people, but infects them with a virus – broke box office records in its native country and set a new standard for nature-run-amok parables. It’s equal parts politically sharp, brutally hilarious, incredibly suspenseful – and totally icky. CGW

Emily Blunt, Tom Cruise

Everett Collection


‘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


‘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


‘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


‘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


Alan Markfield


‘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


‘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


‘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


‘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