The sci-fi genre has given us some of the most popular and memorable films of the 21st century so far, and they come in all shapes and sizes from spectacular blockbusters to innovative indies.
As the technology and tools available to filmmakers continues to improve, the limits on what they can deliver on screen are all but eradicated, with no science-fiction concept too bold or too complex. As a result, futuristic dystopian wastelands nestle comfortably alongside subtle real-world techno dramas.
Due to the extent of this already sizeable pool, when compling a list of the best sci-fi movies of the 21st century it was necessary to set some initial parameters. As a result we opted not to count superhero movies among this selection, a subset which is arguably a genre all to itself.
Even with this restriction in place, it was a huge challenge to limit this list to just 20 entries and plenty of brilliant movies narrowly didn’t make the cut. This included gems such as ‘Primer’, ‘Never Let Me Go’, ‘District 9’, ‘Sunshine’, ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ and ‘Attack the Block’, to name but a few.
Without further ado, and with the release of ‘Blade Runner 2049’ looming, here’s our pick of the 20 best sci-fi films of the 21st century so far.
20. ‘Her’ (2013)
Spike Jonze’s quirky indie romance takes the story of a lonely and isolated man who finds love in an unexpected place, and blends it with an intriguing sci-fi concept of a relationship between man and machine. Joaquin Phoenix gives an incredibly vulnerable performance as the insecure Theodore, a man growing increasingly detached from society who falls in love with an operating system voiced to sultry perfection by Scarlett Johansson. Both leads are perfectly cast (although Johansson was a late addition, replacing Samantha Morton at the eleventh hour) and it’s their stellar performances that help to forge a unique love story that despite its high-concept nature still proves incredibly affecting.
The film’s setting in a recognisable near-future ensures that the neat sci-fi flourishes that are incorporated all still feel incredibly grounded and real. Jonze’s movie takes the issues of loneliness and reliance on technology and uses them to create a story that is sweet, poignant and thought-provoking.
19. ‘Interstellar’ (2014)
Christopher Nolan’s ambitious epic is not without flaws, but for the vast majority of its runtime it’s a bold and thought-provoking adventure. ‘Interstellar’ journeys across time and space, tackling issues of love and loss, and also throws a touch of quantum physics in to the mix as well.
The movie follows Mattherew McConaughey’s former pilot turned astronaut who leads an expedition from a scorched dystopian earth to the far reaches of space in search of a future for mankind. The complexities of interstellar space travel unfold on this journey in a remarkably understandable way and the great pains taken to make the movie as scientifically accurate as possible are clear to see.
The visual effects and cinematography are flawless throughout and Hans Zimmer’s score is a crucial addition that sweeps the story along perfectly. While it does veer into the saccharine in places, the central love story between a father and daughter is also undeniably effective and provides a human edge to the audacious and inventive plot.
18. Snowpiercer (2013)
An audacious adaptation of cult French graphic novel ‘Le Transperceneige’, Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Snowpiercer’ might not have been granted the cinematic release it deserved (it’s still yet to receive a theatrical release in the UK), but this high concept thrill ride is still an extraordinary piece of work. The film is set in a frozen post-apocalyptic wasteland in which mankind’s only survivors circle the globe aboard a perpetually moving train.
At the heart of the movie is a class struggle that sees the deprived lower class passengers seeking to fight their way to the front in order to wrestle control of the train away from the upper classes and the train’s mysterious creator, Wilford. It’s a film filled with memorable performances from its international cast headed by a suitably inspirational Chris Evans and ably supported by a Song Kang-ho, Ed Harris and Tilda Swinton on gloriously OTT form. Joon-ho directs with a keen visual flare, creating a striking world that feels gloriously low-fi and grungy, a world in microcosm that stretches for miles yet still feels inherently claustrophobic.
The director delivers a film that offers a bold and genuinely inventive new take on the cinematic vision of a dystopian future and mankind’s fight for survival after a cataclysmic event. Unashamedly ambitious, extremely violent and furiously chaotic, it’s one of the most refreshingly original movies in recent years.
17. The Martian (2015)
‘The Martian’ marked a true return to form for director Sir Ridley Scott and is an unapologetically upbeat and effortlessly entertaining blockbuster that was every bit as smart as it was fun. Based on Andy Weir’s smash hit novel, the film charts the story of Matt Damon’s astronaut who finds himself inadvertently abandoned on Mars. The action follows both his fight to live on the alien planet and the rescue attempt launched by his former crewmates.
Scott’s film embraces the more challenging scientific elements of it’s plot and delivers a grounded and believable take on space travel and life on the red planet. Damon is typically charming as Mark Watney, the ultimate ingenious everyman who engages in the ultimate fight for survival.There’s a strong ensemble cast flanking Damon however and there are plenty of top-draw supporting performances from the likes of Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
It’s part against-the-odds survival epic and part love-letter to the joys of science as Watney uses all his knowledge in order to make his new home habitable. It’s fun, smart, seemingly realistic and comfortably the best film about interplanetary botany to date.
16. ‘WALL-E’ (2008)
A heart-warming and utterly charming slice of animated sci-fi here courtesy of Pixar. ‘WALL-E’ was in some regards a bold step for the studio, given that there is no dialogue at all in the movie for 22 minutes and huge chunks of it play out more like a silent comedy of old as opposed to a family-friendly animated romp.
Luckily however, at the movie’s heart is an enchanting love story between a friendly but lonesome “Waste Allocation Load-Lifter – Earth Class” (Wall-E for short) and a fancy hi-tech robot called Eve. Their courtship starts on a decimated and abandoned Earth circa 2805, and takes them on an adventure into space that ends aboard the spaceship Axiom where the human race now leads sedentary lives completely reliant on machines.
Amidst the sweetness and adventure, ‘Wall-E’ does carry some important messages with regards to our over-reliance on technology, environmental issues and consumerism in general. It’s also a visually stunning movie that ranks among the studios finest work to date.
15. Donnie Darko (2001)
Richard Kelly’s indie time-travel flick has become a firm cult favourite since it was released way back in 2001, despite initially bombing at the box office. Complex, creative and hauntingly strange, it’s a movie that demands further reading and some degree of puzzle solving on the viewer’s part. It’s use of deep concepts surrounding time-travel and reality itself has led to a whole mythology emerging surrounding the movie.
The film revolves around the titular Donnie, played a young and brooding Jake Gyllenhaal, who has visions of an impending disaster after visits by a figure in a rabbit costume named “Frank”. The film’s melancholy tone is harnessed to tremendous effect as the troubled teenager becomes increasingly detached and disaffected as the surreal events begin to play out.
The high-concept sci-fi elements blend perfectly with the more traditional coming of age aspects of the story and together they deliver an eerie one-of-a-kind movie that lingers long in the memory.
14. ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ (2014)
Building upon the solid foundations laid by Rupert Wyatt’s hugely enjoyable ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’, Matt Reeves’ sequel was a true blockbuster triumph and one of those rare occurrences of a sequel trumping its predecessor. The film shifted the action ten years on from ‘Rise’ and thrust us into a world where human survivors are trying to survive and rebuild following the outbreak hinted at in its predecessor’s climax.
The human’s fight for survival leads them into direct contact with Caesar and his band of intelligent apes, who themselves are seeking to live and thrive in this new uncertain world. The battles and action sequences which then unfold are hugely impressive (apes on horseback, dual-wielding machine guns y’all), while the political commentary and questions of human nature are also deftly handled.
Where the movie really shines though is in the development of Caesar as a character as we follow his struggle to retain control and his fight to maintain a fragile peace. Performance-capture technology has arguably never been better utilised (until ‘War for the Planet of the Apes came along) and Andy Serkis’ turn as the ape leader is particularly special. It’s an intelligent and wonderfully ambitious blockbuster.
13. ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ (2015)
Understandably after the lacklustre “prequel trilogy” proved to be major disappointment for many, a certain degree of caution was exercised when a new ‘Star Wars’ sequel trilogy was announced. Luckily though, J.J. Abrams and his team absolutely knocked it out of the park and delivered a gripping, energetic and downright entertaining space adventure that won old fans back round and lured a whole new generation into the ‘Star War’s universe.
‘The Force Awakens’ acted as both an enthralling introduction to a whole new set of adventures, while at the same time providing strong and effective links to the beloved original trilogy. It may perhaps share more than a passing resemblance to ‘A New Hope’ in terms of narrative, but there’s still plenty of originality and spark in there to enjoy. The ensemble cast is all in excellent form, with newcomers Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega all standing out. The film’s emotional beats strike a real chord, and its special effects are simply superb. It was a cinematic thrill ride of a movie that reinvigorated the entire franchise.
12. ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (2014)
Doug Liman’s all-action sci-fi makes great use of its central time-loop concept which sees Tom Cruise’s cocksure military PR guy stuck reliving the same alien invasion over and over again. Every time he dies he simply wakes up and starts the day afresh. The ‘Groundhog Day’ structure of ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ works well with each new attempt at “completing” the battle giving Cruise’s character that little bit more insight into what he must do.
The action sequences are all extremely exciting and include some top draw CGI work that gives the battle scenes a real sense of grit and heft. Cruise gives one of his strongest performances in years as the smarmy wiseass who gets brought down to earth and embarks on a path of redemption. However it’s Emily Blunt who steals the show as the tough “full metal bitch” all-action veteran who helps Cruise along the way. The twists and turns ramp up neatly as the plot reaches its intriguing finale in one of the more original and underrated blockbusters of recent summers.
11. Moon (2009)
The stark loneliness of space is utilised to great effect in this tense and moody drama from director Duncan Jones. ‘Moon’ charts the experiences of Sam Rockwell’s “Sam”, a lone astronaut seeing out his three year solitary assignment manning a mining station on the moon with only an on-board computer (voiced by Kevin Spacey, no less) for company.
As he nears the end of his stint, Sam discovers that he may not be as isolated on the station as he first thought. Things take a turn for the surreal and it becomes unclear whether the years alone in space have truly gotten to him, or a far more chilling explanation can be offered. Rockwell gives a superb performance in what is essentially a one-man show of a movie. Vulnerable and intense, he delivers a character that we visibly see struggling to maintain a grip on reality. ‘Moon’ is a low-fi and no-frills sci-fi that tackles the weighty concept of what it means to be human and turns it into a riveting and poignant drama.
10. ‘Looper’ (2013)
Rian Johnson’s smart neo-noir is an intriguing time-travel action movie with a central premise that’s played out to precision. The film follows Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Joe, a man who works as a “looper”, killing anonymous bodies sent back from a future point where time-travel has been invented but outlawed. The film takes a dramatic turn when one day the body sent back for him to dispose of is Joe’s own future self (Bruce Willis).
The paradoxes and complexities of time travel are a vital part of the film’s DNA and an essential part of its narrative. The rules and regulations surrounding its usage in ‘Looper’s world are well honed and perfectly utilised. The movie’s plot does open up further at one stage and turns into a gripping and visually impressive thriller involving Emily Blunt and her eerily gifted son that builds to a stunning climax. It’s a wonderfully constructed high-concept thriller that is stylish, gritty and inventive.
9. ‘Minority Report’ (2002)
‘Minority Report’ sees Steven Spielberg at his blockbuster best, delivering a typically entertaining thriller that takes intriguing themes of determinism, free will and intrusive surveillance and blends them with a wonderfully styled neo-noir future, and a twisting central mystery.
The movies is set in a future where, thanks to three gifted humans with the power of foresight known as “precogs”, police are able to stop murders before they actually take place. The action follows Tom Cruise’s John Anderton, an elite “precrime” cop whose life is turned upside down when he himself is identified as a future criminal. Cruise is on typically charismatic form as the wronged man on the run, while Samantha Morton and Max Von Sydow both stand out as the ethereal “precog” and elderly director of “precrime” respectively.
Based on a story by Philip K Dick, the film makes great use of its fascinating central conceit to raise intriguing questions surrounding the nature of free will and guilt. Spielberg created a highly-stylised noir influenced future, drained of colour and rendered stark and unforgiving thanks to a process known as “bleach-bypassing”. This unique look combined with the director’s knack for a pulsating action sequence combined to deliver a striking blockbuster thriller.
8. ‘Under the Skin’ (2013)
‘Under The Skin’ is a slow-burning and enigmatic movie from Jonathan Glazer that lures you in to its deeply unsettling story and grows increasingly more unnerving as its strange events begin to unfold. The films follows the experiences of a femme fatale alien (Scarlett Johansson) who has arrived in present day Scotland and is busy preying on the lonely men of Glasgow whom she seduces and then dispatches of into a mysterious black void.
Johansson gives arguably a career-best performance as the deadly creature that gains a unique perspective of life on earth and begins to learn vital lessons as to the very nature of humanity itself in the process. The film’s surreal imagery, including the terrifying black void to which she delivers her victims, is both mesmerising and often distressing, which can also be said of Mica Levi’s award-winning score. The blend of gritty inner-city reality with uniquely strange and other-worldly activity is a chilling mix and the film is filled with scenes that lodge firmly in your subconscious and lingers with you long after the movie has finished.
7. ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (2004)
Any collaboration between a pair of artists as innovative and distinctive as director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kauffman was always going to be something fairly inimitable and ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ did not disappoint.
The film does, of course, have a strong sci-fi thread running through it of course. The plot focuses on Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet’s Joel and Clementine, a couple who undergo a procedure that erases all knowledge of their seemingly doomed relationship and follows Joel’s experiences within his own mind as he relives the highs and lows. Where the movie really shines however is in the heart-breaking tale of lost love, regret and longing that emerges as a result of this procedure and the deeply romantic story it generates.
Carrey and Winslet are both absolutely impeccable throughout, with the former especially shining as a lovelorn man desperately attempting to cling on to the past. Visually striking as one would expect from Gondry, the films multi-layered existential narrative is wonderfully complimented by his eccentric style. It’s a film that’s every bit as smart and creative as it is romantic
6. ‘Ex-Machina’ (2015)
‘Ex-Machina’ is the unforgettable debut from director Alex Garland in which the concept of consciousness and what it is to be human is utilised to thrilling effect. Domhall Gleeson is Caleb, a low-level computer programmer who is invited to stay with his reclusive boss and technological genius Nathan, played with typical charismatic intensity by Oscar Isaac. Nathan has requested Caleb’s presence in order to carry out the Turing test on a robot he has created (Alicia Vikander), in order to see if she can pass for human.
There’s a tension and paranoia that pervades throughout the entire movie. Fairly quickly, Caleb begins to suspects something wrong is afoot, and it soon becomes clear to us as viewers that this mysterious android may be far more sentient than she is perhaps letting on. As the trio begin to carefully analyse one-another, it delivers an unsettling and cerebral psychological thriller which tackles the issue of artificial intelligence and the master/slave dynamic to gripping effect. The film also benefits hugely from having three incredible young actors all of whom are in absolutely top form.
5. ‘Arrival’ (2016)
Based on a short story by sci-fi author Ted Chiang, ‘Arrival‘ is an emotional and intelligent sci-fi drama that saw French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve turn his hand to sci-fi in stunning style. The story follows a team of linguists who are recruited by the US Army to help communicate with an alien craft after a fleet of them suddenly arrive on earth. It’s a thoughtful and philosophical movie that offers a plausible take on what first contact may be like and which focuses on communication as an understated and increasingly vital tool.
As thought-provoking as the movie is, there’s also a strong emotional centre provided by Amy Adams’ determined linguist who experiences a major emotional upheaval once alien secrets begin to unfurl. The film also deals with the issue of human cooperation and mankind’s propensity for its own destruction in a subtle and perceptive manner.
Another key area where the film really excels however is in its exquisite production design. The scenes taking place aboard the alien craft are especially impressive, delivering a genuinely distinctive vision of what alien life may in fact resemble. Advanced linguistics has never seemed so thrilling.
4. ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (2015)
‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ saw director George Miller return to the franchise he created some thirty years earlier in empathic style. His fourth Mad Max movies was a stunning piece of action cinema, a relentless, frantic and mesmerising slice of operatic chaos that demanded to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Set in a brutal post-apocalyptic scorched future, the film sees Tom Hardy play the titular Max, a gruff man of few words who teams up with a fearsome breaker of chains Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to lead a band of concubines to freedom from vicious cult-leader Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). It’s essentially one long chase movie, and it’s utterly immersive and gripping from start to finish. Adrenalin pumps through the entire movie and scenes such as the sandstorm-set altercation are a thing of genuine cinematic beauty. Fury Road is not only an intense thrill ride, but also an incredibly striking one thanks to some inventive cinematography, visceral stunt-work and peerless production design. Strap in and feel the rush.
3. ‘Gravity’ (2013)
A 90-minute masterclass in tension, ‘Gravity’ sees Alfonso Cuaron tapping into our natural human aversion to being stranded perilously in the black emptiness of space, delivering a truly one-of-a-kind cinematic milestone. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are the two astronauts stranded in space after their shuttle is wiped out in a freak accident. What we see unfold is their desperate attempts to survive in these dangerous and unforgiving environs.
Bullock excels as the film’s focal point, a woman with a painful past who is forced to fight with every ounce of her being to survive, showing tenacity and vulnerability in equal measure. While the story itself is gripping and the performances first rate, it’s the film’s awesome visuals that really make it stand out. Demonstrating arguably the best use of 3D yet committed to film, it’s an immersive and utterly compelling movie that lures you in and allows you to feel every perilous obstruction along the way. The vast, unyielding darkness and haunting beauty of space has never before been better captured.
Cuaron ensures you feel the loneliness, the despair and the hope as the horrific implications of what is unfolding become increasingly clear. It’s a technical marvel that delivers nail-biting, serve-shredding tension from start to finish.
2. Children of Men (2006)
‘Children of Men’ is a grimy and bleak dystopian nightmare from director Alfonso Cuaron that sees humanity reaching a low ebb in the not so distant future. In a world where no new children are being born and mankind is slowly waiting to die out, society as we know it has all but collapsed. In amongst this disorder we follow Clive Owen’s cynical former revolutionary Theo, who is unexpectedly tasked with transporting mankind’s last real hope, a young pregnant girl, to safety.
It’s masterful work from Cuaron who delivers an impeccably designed dark and dingy near-future that still feels alarmingly believable. Cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki also deserves great credit for some bravura tacking shots that immerse you into this hellish world where danger lurks around every corner. The woodland ambush and Theo’s frantic stumble through a raging street battle in particular are both incredible moments that thrust you right into the middle of the chaos.
It’s a movie that is at times harrowing and brutal, but also one that possesses glimmers of hope in amidst the anarchy.
1. ‘Inception’ (2010)
Christopher Nolan’s status as a master of modern cinema was cemented with ‘Inception’, a bold, imaginative, and utterly unique action thriller. The high-concept premise is meticulously sketched out as Leonardo DiCaprio and his team of dream-thieves embark on a complex heist that sees them bend time and operate on multiple simultaneous levels of the subconscious. DiCaprio’s Cobb is the film’s centre, and it’s his past sins and lost love that give ‘Inception’ an affecting emotional core.
There’s some incredible imagery throughout, the city of Paris being folded in on itself and the amazing zero-gravity corridor fight among them, and these gripping action set pieces compliment the labyrinthine and multi-layered plot perfectly. Nolan’s direction is exceptional, as he presents the overlapping stories in a (relatively) clear and understandable manner, while Hans Zimmer’s score is the perfect accompaniment, a vital piece of the intense puzzle that spurs the whole story along.
It’s a mesmerising film that is designed to entertain, challenge and provoke discussion. It’s high concept, innovative filmmaking at its finest and the sort of game-changing movie that comes along all too rarely.
Missed any sci-fi films that you love? Let us know in the comments.
‘Blade Runner’ arrives in UK cinemas on 5 October. Watch the latest trailer below…