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. 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.
24. 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.
23. 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.
22. Looper (2012)
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.
21. 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.
20. 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.
19. Predestination (2014)
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.
18. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is a fast-talking PR jerk, and an officer who’s never seen combat who unluckily finds himself thrust into a D-Day-like battle against a race of world-threatening aliens called “Mimics” in director Doug Liman’s energetic and surprisingly comedic Edge of Tomorrow.
Adapted from Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s 2005 novel “All You Need is Kill,” Cage doesn’t last long in battle before he meets a grizzly fate, but he’s thrown into a time loop and faster than you can say “Groundhog Day meets War of the Worlds,” our hangdog hero relives the same brutal battle and nasty death, again, and again.
Fortunately he crosses paths with Sergeant Rita Vrataski, played by a kiss ass Emily Blunt, someone who’s been in a similar loop and might be able to not only steer Cage out of his, but bring the Mimics to their knees (or knee-like appendages) while they’re at it.
Edge of Tomorrow is edge of your seat entertainment, and while fans of video games and explosion-addled actioners will be blissed out, cerebral sci-fi fans will have fun figuring out the clues to this unfolding mystery. And with a sequel in the works, it’s likely this could be a franchise with some exciting places to go.