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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.

Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss

Everett Collection

40

‘The One I Love’ (2014)

It’s probably best not to know too much about this sci-fi–inflected indie before you watch – though it’s okay to be aware ahead of time that director Charlie McDowell’s relationship dramedy doubles as a genre piece, and not just some run-of-the-mill story about a bickering married couple (played by Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss). There’s a big twist, which arrives after the spouses head off for a therapeutic weekend at a country estate. In a switcheroo worthy of The Twilight Zone, some supernatural mojo grants both husband and wife the opportunity to get exactly what they want from each other – provided that they’re willing to accept some dire consequences. NM

Brit Marling

Everett Collection

39

‘Another Earth’ (2011)

In Mike Cahill and Brit Marling’s quiet indie drama, a mirror Earth is hurtling slowly but surely toward our own. The main focus, however, is on Rhoda (Marling), a young woman struggling to come to grips with the consequences of a terrible mistake from her past. As Earth 2 looms closer, so does the inescapability of our heroine’s actions. The concept is an exciting one: If we could come face to face with another version of ourselves, what would we say? Another Earth never answers the question, but it doesn’t need to; it simply has to spin a moody web around the hope and the anxiety inherent in the asking, which it does in spades. JS

Michelle Monaghan, Jake Gyllenhaal

Everett Collection

38

‘Source Code’ (2011)

Take Groundhog Day, sprinkle in a bit of Inception and throw in several decades’ worth of space-time continuum headscratchers – and voila, you’ve got this zippy techno-mystery anchored by a strong
Jake Gyllenhaal performance. The actor plays a soldier forced into a
wonky secret project, in which his consciousness is projected back in
time, repeatedly, to the minutes just before a terrorist attack. Writer
Ben Ripley and director Duncan Jones blessedly
keep the scientific explanations to a minimum and instead focus on the
tiny clues the hero gradually uncovers, and the doomed passengers he
begins to care about for as he fights to save their lives – over and
over. And over. And over. NM

Sennia Nanua

Everett Collection

37

‘The Girl With All the Gifts’ (2016)

In a dystopian future overrun by the walking dead (because of course!), pre-teen Melanie may be humanity’s last hope. She’s also a second-generation
zombie – an offspring of the “hungries” who are being experimented on
by a group of teachers, scientists and soldiers, including Glenn Close
and Gemma Arterton. The hope is that their behavior (or just their brain
stems) holds the key to an antidote. Scottish director Colm McCarthy’s adaptation of M.R.
Carey’s book reverses the classical subgenre’s narrative that portrays the undead as a state of devolution, returning man to the
base desires of hunger and destruction. Gifts asks: What if zombies are simply the next phase of mankind? And how can we all coexist without having our brains eaten? BT

Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi

Everett Collection

36

‘Pacific Rim’ (2013)

Thanks to Michael Bay’s soulless, endless Transformers franchise, we thought we’d had more than our fill of giant robots punching the crap out of each other. That is until the visionary Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) tried his hand at the kaiju genre – and gifted the world with a movie that gave mecha behemoths a beating heart. Sea monsters from another dimension! Pilots who have to soul-bond with their fighting robots! Martial arts! Idris Elba and that one dude from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia! In terms of summer blockbusters, it brought all the ingredients: stunning visuals, big knockout fights and characters you actually care about. Plus, it’s just gosh-dang fun. JS

Fox Searchlight/Courtesy Everett Collection

35

‘Sunshine’ (2007)

Set the controls for the heart of the sun: Danny Boyle’s sci-fi opus – about a motley crew aboard the spaceship Icarus II (symbolism alert!) jumpstarting our life-giving star – is a throwback to the genre’s cerebral era, when interstellar journeys doubled as metaphysical head trips (see Solaris, 2001, etc.). If it works better as a chin-scratcher about our place in the universe than it does as an in-space-no-one-can-hear-you-scream thriller, Boyle’s underrated film still provides a few genuinely chilling moments – and, of course, plenty of heat. DF

Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Rocket (voice: Bradley Cooper), Zoe Saldana, Groot

Everett Collection

34

‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (2014)

Superhero movies may be a zeitgeist-defining genre in and of themselves, but most of these colorful characters and concepts have straight-up science-fiction roots. This was never more clear than in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s elaborate homage to the rollicking space operas of yesteryear. As a veteran of the Troma sci-fi schlock factory, co-writer/director James Gunn kept the action properly boisterous, the aliens suitably weird (go ahead, say it: “I AM GROOT”), and the tone fun and frothy. A star-making performance from Chris Pratt as displaced human space-pirate Peter “Starlord” Quill and a cast of crazy characters previously relegated to the margins of Marvel comics sure didn’t hurt, either. STC

best sci fi movies, best sci-fi movies of the 21st century, under the skin, godzilla, gravity, science fiction, cult movies

Newmarket Releasing/Everett

33

‘Donnie Darko’ (2001)

Call it the In the Aeroplane Over the Sea of sci-fi flicks – a personal, dense, left-of-center work that time (and a fervent fan base) helped turn into a modern touchstone. Richard Kelly’s gloriously odd cult film about time travel, toothy rabbit-costumed doomsayers, and a misfit named Donnie may not be the masterpiece that some claim. But its skewed look at suburban America and scarred psyches do make it an intriguing and eerily prescient work, one that had the misfortune of coming out right after 9/11 yet somehow anticipated the PTSD mindset of that moment’s aftermath. DF

Everett Collection

32

‘2046’ (2004)

In this sequel to the rapturously romantic In the Mood for Love, Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai goes back to the future, examining the emotional fallout of journalist Chow Mo Wan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who’s exorcising his unrequited love, in part, by writing a sci-fi novel. 2046 ambitiously shifts between timelines and genres, going from the 1960s to the fictional world of Chow’s book, which is set in a sleek, dystopian mid-21st-century landscape where the characters’ ennui mirrors that of their heartbroken author. Although not commonly found on lists like this, the movie reflects what’s best about science fiction: recalibrating how we see the world thanks to its groundbreaking vision of the fluidity of the past and the present – and the fragility of our hold on reality. TG

Courtesy Vertigo Films

31

‘Monsters’ (2010)

Before he’d take the reigns of this summer’s Godzilla reboot, director Gareth Edwards made this ingeniously minimalist giant-monster movie, in which two travelers seek safe passage through a post-alien invasion, kaiju-dotted landscape. The idea of offering only glimpses of the creatures and focusing more on the aftermath may have been the result of budgetary concerns, but necessity is certainly the mother of invention here; it’s a clever way of making a familiar sci-fi scenario seem fresh again. DF

Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

30

‘Reign of Fire’ (2002)

If this movie was made today, with exactly the same leading men and exactly the same premise, it would be a summer-season tent-pole. It might not be better though: Reign of Fire, released to little fanfare in 2002,  is a thrillingly loopy, classic B movie – with dragons. Set in the not-so-distant future of a post-apocalyptic 2020 England terrorized by flying, fire-breathing beasts (who have awakened, ornery, from a eons-long hibernation), the film features an intense, shaven-headed Matthew McConaughey as an obsessive dragon hunter and Christian Bale as a meek farmer. Deliriously over-the-top and riotously fun, Reign is a reminder that in addition to parables about human progress, sci-fi is uniquely suited to ram cinematic wows down an audience’s throat. DM

Andy Serkis

Everett Collection

29

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ (2014)

The Empire Strikes Back of the Apes prequels – darker than the first installment and operating on a grander canvas – Dawn is where Caesar takes his rightful place as this franchise’s towering central figure. Played by Andy Serkis, the reluctant ape leader tries negotiating a fragile truce with the surviving humans (including Jason Clarke and Keri Russell), but distrust on both sides soon proves tragic. Director Matt Reeves delivers a robustly epic sequel, crafting spectacular action sequences – the 360-degree tank scene is already a classic – alongside deft political commentary that touches on everything from the patriarchy to Israeli/Palestinian tensions. TG

attack the block

Courtesy Screen Gems

28

‘Attack the Block’ (2011)

Evil extraterrestrials versus British hood rats – guess who wins? This funny, fast-paced sci-fi comedy (featuring future Force Awakens hero John Boyega and future female-Doctor-Who Jodie Whittaker) pits a bunch of neighborhood kids in a rough section of South London against an otherworldy invasion. And damned if their street smarts aren’t the only thing that stands between our species and total annihilation. The fact that it flips the script and makes the so-called underclass the heroes was reason enough to embrace this scrappy take on Eighties blockbusters, but it also brings its action and alien-scares A-game (those glowing teeth!) as well. DF

cloverfeild

Sam Emerson

27

‘Cloverfield’ (2008)

Even though Cloverfield plays out in the now-tired “found footage” format, its terrifying CGI destruction of New York City and its Godzilla-like monster is visceral enough to set it apart from the other style copycats. Plus, its cast (which includes Lizzy Caplan of Mean Girls/Masters of Sex fame as a party guest and former Silicon Valley actor T.J. Miller as the documentarian) perfectly captures the terror of New Yorkers seeing landmarks – the Time Warner Center and the archways in Central Park collapsing, the Statue of Liberty being beheaded – a few years after 9/11. Most chilling is the film’s final line, heard in a pre-destruction flashback: “I had a good day.” KG

HALEY JOEL OSMENT

Everett Collection

26

‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ (2001)

Steven
Spielberg was already toggling between his “serious movie” phase and his crowd-pleaser mode at the start
of the 21st century – and this tricky futuristic, hard sci-fi fable, which
openly undercuts the optimism
of E.T. and Close Encounters, attempts to balance both sides. Based on a Brian Aldiss short story that was one of the late Stanley Kubrick’s abandoned projects, A.I.
tells the story of an ultra-realistic robot boy (played by Haley Joel
Osment) who’s abandoned by his human
masters and left to search the world to learn his purpose. At once
dazzling and despairing, the film is a sprawling odyssey that asks what
makes us human – and doesn’t offer many reassuring answers. NM

ThinkFilm/Courtesy Everett Collection

25

“Primer’ (2004)

Shane Carruth’s 2004 mind-bender was made on the cheap – reportedly just $7,000 – though this little film doesn’t shy away from asking big questions: the philosophical implications of tampering with time, the weighty responsibilities of playing God, and, if you’ll indulge us for a second, what the heck is happening? From its tech-heavy dialogue to the loop-the-loop storyline (so complex it requires a chart to comprehend), Primer is the rare film that makes no attempt to pander to its audience. Sure, it’s confusing, but that’s partially the point. No one ever said Sci Fi should be easy. JM

minority report

Courtesy 20th Centrury Fox

24

‘Minority Report’ (2002)

In which Hollywood brings out the Howitzers – Spielberg! Cruise! A script based on a Philip K. Dick story! – and still manages to deliver a savvy, smart sci-fi blockbuster not aimed at the lowest common denominator. Never mind that it moves with the director’s customary thrill-ride efficiency; the more times you watch this story of a future cop dedicated to stopping murders before they’ve occurred, the more you marvel at how it seems to anticipate the NSA/drone-strike zeitgeist of the here and now. There were precogs on the set, weren’t there, Mr. Spielberg? DF

moon

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

23

‘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

22

‘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

21

‘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

20

‘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

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