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The 25 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the 21st Century (So Far)

13 July 2017 | Features, Film Lists | by Shane Scott-Travis

In the new millennium, science fiction films continue to flourish, commanding massive box office receipts, inspiring our dreams, and all while making technological innovations along the way. Franchises remain popular, and so many of the big event films have SF underpinnings, but so too, do creative indie films and art house fare as the influence of masters like Kubrick and Tarkovsky are still being reflected, recapitulated, and reintroduced to new audiences.

Following our recent list of 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s sci-fi successes, this 21st Century list continues down an adventurous path of imagined futures, possible pasts, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, stinging satire and so much more.

PLEASE NOTE: While not a definitive list––it’s been a busy, bustling decade (some of the sci-fi fantasy franchises like the Marvel and Star Wars films have been omitted, and a lengthy Honorable Mentions section follows the list)––what follows offers an excellent cross-section of what made the last 17 years so great for fans of speculative fiction and wonder writ large. Enjoy!

 

25. Prometheus (2012)

Prometheus

Prequels: a film category exuding potential – the putty is there to be molded, but with whose questionable capacity? (2007’s Hannibal Rising is almost taking up too much of this word count to even mention. Ugh.) In our case, Ridley Scott returned to the helm and constructed a horror odyssey, impressive in its scale and energy, in the universe of the Aliens series, but removed from its unfuckwithable original story (for now let’s just overlook 2017’s Alien: Covenant).

Scott’s Alien (1977, first in the series) is an obvious classic and still slickly stunning, so maybe you didn’t see Prometheus because, like, why would he mess with that? Or worse, you did see it, but endured the company of a snobby franchise fanboy whose criticisms pummelled into your own psyche, skewing your perception of what is, in reality, sci-fi horror gold.

So watch it, or re-watch it, but this time really drink in all of those lustrous special effects, meditate a bit on those worthy themes, and maybe even make notes because if you’re ever going to have to perform an alien abortion on yourself this may serve as your only reference.

 

24. Inception (2010)

Admittedly I was reluctant to include Christopher Nolan’s handsomely made but intellectually unfurnished Inception on this list, largely because it’s one of the least imaginative films set in the subconscious that I can think of.

But if you can get past that empty promise (these characters can do anything in the dream worlds they inhabit but instead just settle for wearing impeccably tailored suits) and the cliché-addled cop out of an ending (was it all just a dream?) you do get some handsome cinematography from William Pfister, some jaw-dropping practical effects, strong production design, and a first-rate score from Hans Zimmer.

Professional thief Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is also an expert at sneaking into people’s dreams and swiping their secrets from their subconscious. This talent is exploited in the world of corporate espionage (Yawn! I’m sleepy already) but at great personal cost.

An opportunity for redemption arises when Cobb is tasked with planting an idea in someone’s mind (this is called “inception”, get it?).

Nolan takes his ambitious and potentially powerful tale and smartly populates it with an A-list cast, memorable action sequences and the results satisfied audiences the world over. Lots of people loved it, it made loads of money, and Nolan continues to have carte blanche with every overblown project he does. He’s got the technical chops, I’ll give him that.

 

23. District 9 (2009)

South African–Canadian film director Neill Blomkamp made his auspicious feature length debut with District 9. An ambitious and imaginative slice of speculative fiction, inspired by apartheid and set in a Johannesburg where, thirty years prior to the story, aliens arrived on Earth, as refugees from their doomed home planet.

Segregated from humans into the titular District 9, and overlooked by Multi-National United, it’s obvious the interests are not in favor of the aliens themselves, but rather the advanced technology that accompanied them on their escape to Earth.

Added into the mix is Sharlto Copley’s Wikus van de Merwe, an an Afrikaner bureaucrat/field agent who contracts an alien virus that begins to mess with his DNA in unsettling fashion.

District 9 benefits from a topical and intelligent script from Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, as well as the director’s fondness for documentary-style, cinéma vérité techniques––including appropriate and effective use of the hand-held camera––some smart lensing from Blomkamp’s favorite DP Trent Opaloch, and seamless blending of naturalistic and photo-realistic CG effects.

These elements make District 9 feel more like an actual document from an alternate history than a work of fiction, and makes for an immersive and occasionally harrowing experience.

 

22. Sunshine (2007)

Director Danny Boyle, working from an imaginative and weighty screenplay by Alex Garland (Ex Machina), get so many things right with his intense sci-fi disaster film Sunshine, that it’s a real tragedy that a seemingly out of nowhere third act plot shift nearly upends it all. That disappointing caveat aside, Boyle and company flirt with Tarkovsky-like convictions and Kubrickian beliefs aboard Icarus II, humanity’s last hope in the year 2057.

Earth’s sun is dying, an impossible to overcome ice age is underway, and all of the planet’s resources have gone into the last-ditch effort to send Icarus II with a nuclear payload to try and revive the sun’s furnace. Will it work? Will the ship and her eight person crew (led by Cillian Murphy and Rose Byrne) be able to save the human race? Or will a distress beacon from the first Icarus project, long lost, create challenges that will have permanent effects on us all?

The film consistently radiates with visual excitement, incredible effects, a stirring score from John Murphy, and deep ideas. The narrative may fizzle out too soon and leave too many promises unfulfilled, but the exhilaration, the spectacle, and the sublimity of it all makes Sunshine golden.

 

21. Looper (2012)

Looper

Rian Johnson (2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi) made his first sci-fi actioner with this time travelling crime thriller Looper. An all-star cast including Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Bruce Willis populate the film, which establishes that time travel is invented in 2074 but is immediately outlawed though is still used illegally by a crime syndicate.

These bad guys send people they want dead into the past where they are executed by the eponymous “loopers”––hitmen who are in on the machinations of time travel. Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is such a looper who encounters an older version of himself (Willis) and from there the shit and the fan are fatefully assigned.

As convoluted as Looper occasionally finds itself, it is nevertheless a fist-pumping white knuckler with heaps of atmosphere and excitement, offering up many new wrinkles in the time-travel subgenre, complete with clever twists, dazzling temporal tricks, and a surprise finish. Inventive and pulpy, Looper is an old school sci-fi yarn with modernistic designs.

 

20. A Scanner Darkly (2006)

a-scanner-darkly-2006

Richard Linklater returns to the surreal rotoscoping process he first used in Waking Life (2001) to adapt what’s perhaps the ultimate sci-fi drug novel, Philip K. Dick’s 1977 masterpiece, “A Scanner Darkly”.

The top-notch cast includes Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder, though the performances are still a tad inconsistent (Downey Jr. always delivers, Rory Cochrane is great in a peripheral role, but Reeves and Ryder frequently falter). That said, the story is instantly compelling—though the intentional druggy haze occasionally muddies the sometimes hard to follow plot—making for often alarming, and scary stuff.

Robert Arctor (Reeves) shares his California home with a shady assortment of pals, and along with his girlfriend, Donna Hawthorne (Ryder), spend a lot of time scoring drugs, taking them, and having deeply stoned discussions. Arctor, it turns out, is leading a double life as an undercover narcotics agent, infiltrating not only his friends lives, but trying to trail a source responsible for bringing Substance D into the city.

Substance D is a powerful new drug, highly potent and addictive, it can render it’s abuser quite crazy as it splits their brain into two distinct identities as the left and right hemispheres slide out of sync. Is Arctor closing in on a major dealer or is it only himself?

For all its gags—Arctor’s ingenious scramble suit, which keeps him anonymous when doing his detective work, is a visual, imaginative wonder—gimmickry, genre kicks and ideas, A Scanner Darkly is, at heart, a deeply sorrowful picture where no one, good or bad, goes unpunished. The film, like the novel, is a subversive classic.

 

19. Snowpiercer (2013)

Based on by Jacques Lob’s graphic novel “Le Transperceneige”, Snowpiercer is a hyper-stylish film from director and co-writer Bong Joon-ho that hinges on a rather outrageous premise that you have to accept in order to enjoy.

Due to a global warming acceleration experiment brought on by a climate engineering accident, a sudden ice age has prematurely arrived, decimating all life on earth under unforgiving ice and snow. Humanity’s only survivors are the passengers of the Snowpiercer; a massive, perpetually moving train on a circumnavigational track that encircles the globe.

The infectious fun comes from Bong’s trademark kooky action, and wild leaps of credibility, all slickly unfolding with satirical stings as class warfare and straight-up revolution erupts on the train as the lower classes, led by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) want their fair share.

Weird, witty, and bursting with vibrant visuals and OTT action sequences, Snowpiercer is an exuberant spectacle with subversive sci-fi thrills abound.

 

18. Predestination (2014)

Predestination

Australian twin brothers Michael and Peter Spierig take Robert A. Heinlein’s 1958 time-travel fixated short story “All You Zombies” and produce one of the most exasperating, touching, and entertaining genre adventures of the millennium.

Ethan Hawke is a temporal agent on his last time-traveling charge, which is to stop the ever elusive “Fizzle Bomber” from a terrorist attack that will claim the lives of thousands. And from there I won’t say much more –– the less you know going in, the better –– that will eventually culminate in an affecting, and spectacularly byzantine parable on gender, identity, and divine will.

Sarah Snook also deserves praise for her impassioned, sensitive, and multi-layered performance (she deservedly won an Australian Academy Award for her considerable efforts), which helps sell the occasionally perplexing trajectory that Predestination so boldly tracks. Strongly recommended.

 

 

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  • Zwei

    Hard to Be a God should be at number one .I am unable to summarize the greatness of this masterpiece, something so exorbitant, so cosmic, so brutal. It has things from Sokurov, from Parajanov, from Bela Tarr … but also from the Quay brothers, Zulawski, Terry Gilliam, Fellini, and Pasolini, and drives me mad more than most of them. It’s three hours of radically anti-narrative chaos. An abysmal cinema experience.

    • I’ve been putting off watching this for a long time. I remember being captivated by the trailer before it came out, and don’t doubt that it’s great, just looks like such a difficult watch. Gotta force myself to sit down and check it out

      • taustin

        VERY difficult watch. I finished it, eventually, and yes, it is a work of singular genius: a filthy, f**ked-up / drunken, disturbing, dream-/nightmare-like, brilliantly-filmed, claustrophobic genius.
        I don’t regret making myself watch it.
        But I also never want to see it again.

  • David Pollison

    I don’t agree with A Scanner Darkly and Predistination. I’d add 2000’s Battle Royale, 2008’s Terra Nova and 2009’s Cargo.

    • Predestination alone is enough to make this list easily. Such an underrated sci-fi along with Snowpiercer.

      • Snowpiercer most definitely is not underrated (you can argue under-seen) but it’s heralded by many critics, and many lists [especially on ToC] as one of the best Sci-fi films in recent years.

        For the record, I disagree with the acclaim.

    • Giorgio Palmas

      2000 is technically the last year of the 20th century.

  • CatKitten Amy

    Arrival ? Over Mad Max,Eternal Sunshine, Upstream Colour ?

    • Gilles Ello

      Totally. Arrival is brilliant. If you ever lost a loved one you might think so, too.

  • Solid list. I really liked the high placement of Upstream Color, although I woulda slid Primer in there.

  • Deepesh

    Vanishing Waves

  • Mortimer

    I agree with the list but in my opinion ‘Her’ needs to be in top 5 (unless this is more romantic than Sci-Fi film)

    • Adrian

      Totally agree.

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  • Gilles Ello

    Great list. And I don’t like Nolan at all, either.

  • Rudi

    This list feels very random. Some great movies, but also several mediocre crowd pleasers.

    Good thing Never Let Me Go is in there, though.

  • Thomas Culver

    I thought it was sacrilege to not include Primer on a list such as this.

  • Nyggatron420

    What about Interstellar or Her? In my opinion theyu both should be on this list.

  • ntinos ntinos

    wtf is sunshine doing in a ‘top’ list?? this piece of shit is only top at the list with stupid trash movies

  • Il Verme Conquistatore

    boring list :/

    • Gilles Ello

      Boring comment. No insight. ADD teen maybe? Didn’t read the article?

  • Hector Nuno

    The hell is Mad Max doing on this list, that’s more of a dystonia action film as opposed to Sci-Fi.

  • Bergkamp

    I would slide Primer here, and probably remove the fountain and sunshine. But that’s just me.

    One viewer mentioned: cargo and terra nova, I haven’t seen those, would the rest of you guys and gals recommend these?? I’m curious.

  • Juan Diego

    Pretty solid although many of the film include here have mainstream success. Is a crimen to left out Primer in the list.

  • Tugg Speedmann

    Oblivion needs to be in the top 5.