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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 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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