Movie Features

The Best Science Fiction Films of the 21st Century

If you haven’t heard, the hotly anticipated Blade Runner: 2049 has hit theaters and has mildly obliterated minds. It’s one of those wonderful reminders of just how powerful good science fiction films can be, as something that is equal parts introspective, reflective and audacious in its visuals. A genre that’s very easy to love but also very easy to get so, so wrong, we’ve taken the time to look back at the century so far and vote on our favorite science fiction films that have been released.

All of this is likely to change of course when Alex Garland’s Annihilation comes out and captures our hearts in an icy vice grip.

Let us know in the comments what films might’ve made your list.

30. Advantageous 

Our technology has evolved rapidly, but if we do not evolve with it, the technology that’s meant to improve our lives tends to end up reinforcing old prejudices. In the futuristic world of Advantageous, Gwen (Jacqueline Kim) is a single mother who has a high-powered position at a prestigious cosmetics company, but still struggles to provide for herself and her daughter in an era that is hostile to women. When she loses her job, her desperation drives her to consent to a new procedure wherein her consciousness will be implanted in a new, younger body, the ramifications of which will only be fully understood afterwards. Advantageous examines not only what it means to be human, but the high price women have to pay in a society obsessed with youth and beauty. [Andrea Thompson]

29. Holy Motors 

How can you not love a movie that has a sick accordion jam session through a cathedral? That’s just one of the many unforgettable moments in Leos Carax’s 2012 masterpiece, Holy Motors. Denis Lavant embodies multiple odd characters and takes us on crazy cinematic journey as he enters a limo and leaves it each time as a new character. One of the most unique film experiences I’ve ever seen, Holy Motors is rousing and weird in its ambition and solid proof that cinema is more alive than ever. [Gabrielle Bondi]

28. 2046 

There may be no better visual artist in cinema than director Wong Kar-wai. Be it his intimate dramas such as Happy Together or long, gestating romances such as In the Mood for Love , Kar-wai has always had an eye for beauty that plays like an oil painting, breathing tender and soulful life into each and every frame. This is played for intriguing effect in his film 2046, both indistinguishably in his style (as a spiritual sequel to his prior films) and emotional heartache, but differing in that it’s so strictly science fiction for one half of the film. Mesmerizing, the film’s science fiction elements work so wonderfully because it always feels like a natural extension of the drama and loss, a realistic, exaggerated version of our leads’ truths. [Allyson Johnson]

27. World of Tomorrow 

Don Hertzfeldt is a true original. The independent animator behind the hilariously bizarre, demented Rejected and the achingly bittersweet, profound It’s Such a Beautiful Day brings a peculiar richness to each of his individual projects, producing some of the most extraordinarily dense, hysterical and highly memorable works of surrealism and individual expression of the 21st century. His films are often as starkly personal as they are universally relatable. If there’s one filmmaker that can combat the growing insanity of our maddening times, it’s Don Hertzfeldt. With World of Tomorrow, his rightfully acclaimed 2015 science fiction short film, Hertzfeldt went into his latest project attempting to make something with digital animation. What he produced at the end of his journey is a resoundingly powerful mediation of life, death, grief, alienation, sadness, and communication. Following the journey through time and space shared between four-year-old Emily (voiced by Hertzfeldt’s niece Winona Mae) and her older, future-based clone (illustrator Julia Pott), World of Tomorrow captures more about living (and not living) and the beauty and tragedy of life and existence in 16 breathtaking minutes than most movies and shows can produce with many hours at their disposal. From the stunning animation to the warmly provided voice performances to the sensationally honest, soul-searching writing, it’s Hertzfeldt in his element, yet again. We’d say it’s him at his best, but truth be told, he’s always at his best. World of Tomorrow recently got a sequel, which premiered in the film festival circuit. We can only hope that it reaches its way towards the general public sooner than later. [Will Ashton]

26. Interstellar 

Say what you will about Interstellar riding its narrative on the power of love, but it is undoubtedly an example that Christopher Nolan is not the nihilistic director many like to describe him as. Interstellar is powerful in its message, which is simpler than expected for a film that ventures into complicated science and theory. That may be why some were so unsatisfied that it didn’t have a big answer for the big question it asked. Yet, there is something deeply resonating about the film’s eventual focus on our deep connection to each other, our ability to love, which grounds our humanity, ultimately being the thing that will save us. When you pair that with an incredibly talented cast, especially Matthew McConaughey and Mackenzie Foy, the film’s ambitions are appreciated tenfold, and in the end, you get a story that is as much about science as it is to be human. [Gabrielle Bondi]


25. Cloverfield 

The fascinating thing about Cloverfield, the second film produced by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot, is the mystique around its marketing, rather than the film itself. Isolated within the simple 90 minute movie, it’s a simple found footage horror flick with a giant monster spin, before Paranormal Activity diluted the novelty of the sub-genre. Many who recall Cloverfield just as well remember its initial teaser trailer in the summer of 2007 that intrigued audiences by its mystique: a scene from early in the film where a monster attack begun on New York City and the head of the Statue of Liberty torn off and thrown down the streets of the Lower East Side – reminiscent of the very famous poster from Escape from New York that never paid off in the final film. The film had no title, only a release date, and the suspect of the destruction would remain unseen for until the film was screened the following January or a figure photo was released from toy magazines online. While overall the film on its own doesn’t have a big impact on the sci-fi genre, it solidified that the Found Footage genre could making a sense of grounded believability for the unbelievable aspects of these films, and even more importantly that a viral marketing campaign could take off so well that it could draw people into the theater just to answer their questions of “What the Heck Is This About? (see this year’s Mother! For the most recent example.) [Evan Griffin]

24. Midnight Special 

Jeff Nichols’ 2016 movie may revolve around a boy with light beams shooting out of his eyes, who is able to disrupt satellite signals and who gets intense power from sunlight, but what makes the movie memorable is the display of boundless parental love that enables the supernaturally sweet finale to take place. Nichols’ films, despite flirting with genre, are always grounded in the bonds of family and this story is no different. Nichols, along with his frequent muse Michael Shannon, turn Midnight Special into an entrancing and thrilling road film about fatherhood, faith, and finding peace with hard questions and harder answers. [Beth Winchester]

23. Melancholia

There’s a reason why the overture in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia stands out as one of the most brilliantly evocative film sequences in recent history; not only is it a haunting juxtaposition that anchors the entire plot through its main elements and symbols, it also establishes the key visual, narrative and even ideological principles of its creator, all in only 16 shots. Stories about the End of the World are meant to be tough, soul-searching experiences, but it’s not the Eschatology what makes Melancholia such a masterpiece, but its emphasis on Justine’s inner Armageddon. It is indeed one of the most poignant depictions of depression in film. Those of us who’ve suffered from it know how every waking hour feels like the apocalypse. [Leonel Manzanares]

22. 10 Cloverfield Lane

How does one follow-up a found-footage monster movie eight years later? According to producer J.J. Abrams, try the most opposite genre possible. Since Mr. Abrams didn’t want to make a romance movie, he instead went with a Hitchcockian, claustrophobic thriller about the paranoia of an alien invasion rather than the invasion himself. Director Dan Trachtenberg managed to wrangle it together in the story of a girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) trapped in an underground bunker with a lowly farm boy (John Gallagher Jr.) and the bunker’s unstable owner (John Goodman). The point of 10 Cloverfield Lane is the looming threat of the unknown and how uncomfortably close it all can be. Tight corners and close-up shots put the audience directly into the tension, especially anytime Goodman is onscreen. [Jon Winkler]


21. Super 8

Is there such a thing as being too-Spielbergian? Sure, just ask Robert Zemeckis (*comedic drum roll *). But while J.J. Abrams’s third time in the movie director’s chair may owe a bit too much to Spielberg’s family-friendly alien movie E.T. (and with Spielberg listed as a producer), that doesn’t take away from the heartwarming story of a group of small town friends making movies on their Super 8 camera and the mystery of a crashed train and the creature that might be inside. While Super 8 does up its tension by revealing more and more about its alien, it’s essential quality is the chemistry between the young actors and the coming of age story at the forefront. If there’s one element of Spielberg that Abrams gets right, it’s honest sentiment. [Jon Winkler]

20. Star Trek 

Speaking of J.J. Abrams (who yes, is on this list quite frequently), the sci-fi savant had proven a man able to create his own crazy projects (Lost) and jump-start dormant franchises (Mission: Impossible III). Who better to revive Gene Roddenberry’s omnipresent intergalactic journey for the 21st century? Abrams’s Star Trek is actually an origin story for the crew of the Enterprise, with rambunctious rebel James Kirk (Chris Pine) and stern intellect Spock (Zachary Quinto) taking on a violent Romulan (Eric Bana) declaring war against the Federation. While Trekkies may accuse this of being too flashy and action-heavy, Abrams’s Trek cruises on gorgeous special effects (the lens flare has never seemed so fitting) and constant propulsion of the plot. The cherry on top is the top-notch cast and their chemistry, from the back-and-forth between Pine and Quinto to the little touches of Simon Pegg’s Scotty and Karl Urban’s ever-grouchy Bones. [Jon Winkler]

19. Moon

It’s a little too apt that the first feature film of Duncan Jones – the son of the original Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie – would be about a Spaceman trying to get back to Earth. It’s an ingenious first film, using the regular budget restraints that come with that to its full benefit. Primarily starring Sam Rockwell and the voice of Kevin Spacey as a droid crossed between HAL 9000 and your emoji keypad, the film is set on a moon base, where Rockwell’s Sam Bell lives and works alone – or so he thinks. The lean film picks and chooses some of the best sci-fi tropes to craft a fresh story told with humor, heart and weariness as Rockwell and Jones steer us towards an unexpectedly emotional catharsis. [Beth Winchester]

18. Looper 

The sad thing about time travel films is that, by the end of the movie, it’s so riddled with paradoxes and loopholes. Looper takes these paradoxes and embraces them. It takes a very talented writer to make a film as smart and tricky as Looper. Director/Writer Rian Johnson takes a tired trope and transforms it into something new and refreshing. Joseph Gordon Levitt is nearly unrecognizable as Joe, who has to fend off attackers lead by his future self (played by Bruce Willis). The film is thought-provoking and set against a very stylish, grungy dystopia. If you needed any convincing that Johnson is the best choice for Star Wars, then just watch Looper. It showcases Johnson’s dedication to character-driven films rather than pretty spectacles. [Yasmin Kleinbart]


17. Attack the Block 

It is infuriating that it has taken until this year for their to be a newly announced film by director Joe Cornish following his exciting debut Attack the Block. Introducing both the wonderful John Boyega to a wider viewing public, it also sold Cornish as a talent worth keeping our eyes on. Equal parts horrifying, sometimes comedic and action packed, the science fiction elements are so joyous because it takes aspects of films we’ve come to know with monster movie tactics while putting its own unique stamp on the proceedings. [Allyson Johnson]

16. Donnie Darko 

It’s appropriate that this remarkable film is set in the late ’80s, because time-travelling is a central part of its premise. I think. It’s hard to be entirely sure; a bit like David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., released in the same year, it’s hard to be sure of anything with regards to the plot. And yet despite the disregard for narrative convention, try not getting caught up in its hypnotic sway. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as the title character, who starts seeing a rabbit called Frank, who tells him that the world is about to end. Donnie starts to suspect this might have something to do with a jet engine that landed on his house and wormholes. But is Frank real or imaginary? Can Donnie really travel in time, or is he mentally ill? Is this even a sci-fi film at all? You must watch and decide for yourself. [Oliver Hollander]

15. Cloud Atlas 

Certainly far from a perfect movie, Cloud Atlas – perhaps the most Wachowski thing the Wachowski’s have ever produced – is however, a perfect, beautiful disaster of a film. A product that positively bellows its “BIG IDEAS” at you, subtlety is lost on the film, and controversy followed, but the sheer bombastic nature of the film smothers the viewer in stunning imagery and lasting moments. Ludicrous in nature, sure, but when it comes to creating something epic in science fiction, the best bets often come from those who refuse to compromise their vision. Who else could’ve pulled off a scene as visually sumptuous, lyrically poignant and foreshadowing of devastation, and genuinely absurd as this? [Allyson Johnson]

14. Minority Report 

Steven Spielberg has given us a great many sci-fi throughout the years, but his best foray into the genre happened when he married his compelling visual style with the high-concept ideas of Philip K. Dick. Minority Report has everything you look for in an action sci-fi and even some things you didn’t know you wanted. The visual world Spielberg creates is as gorgeous as it is recognizable. Even though it is set into a future we aren’t close to achieving, you can see the glimpses of our civilization in it. That includes the thought-provoking moral dilemma in the film. The unexpected surprise is a fantastic performance from Tom Cruise near the end of a peak in his career. [Jon Espino]

13. Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go is an extraordinary, underrated film written by Alex Garland (director of Ex Machina and upcoming Annihilation). Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley star in this sucker punch of a film which places itself in a not so distant, dystopian style future where people are raised to serve as nothing more than organ donors. Uncompromisingly bleak and just so, so soul crushing (don’t believe me, watch this) the film, just like the best of low key and internal science fiction storytelling plays on fears we have of loneliness, the feeling of being meaningless and the desperate and dire search for companionship and meaning. Thrilling in its silence and beautiful in literally ever other way, don’t sleep on Never Let Me Go , especially as Garland’s influence continues to grow. [Allyson Johnson]

12. Edge of Tomorrow 

The “Groundhog Day” structure is overused in films and television alike. But Edge of Tomorrow managed to put a sci-fi spin on it and tell a meaningful story within the confines of repeating day. Tom Cruise’s character development is one of the most believable transitions on film, as he goes from a public affairs officer with no combat experience to a war hero against an alien race called Mimics. Emily Blunt gives a nuanced performance of a hardened war veteran who trains Cruise and helps him uncover how to break the cycle of the repeating battle. Though the film doesn’t seem to have stayed in relevant in the minds of audiences, it’s a movie that takes advantage of the Groundhog Day formula to tell a believable journey. [Katey Stoetzel]

11. The Prestige

While many would consider 2008’s The Dark Knight to be Christopher Nolan’s finest film, there are others that would consider the movie he made prior to his second Batman feature to be his masterpiece. Released one year after Batman Begins and also starring Batman himself, The Prestige is a story of competition between two magicians: the bright-eyed showman (Hugh Jackman) and the street-wise student (Christian Bale) in a game of who can perform the most shocking trick of all. Based on the Christopher Priest novel, the movie plays with the audience’s expectation of how far back the curtain of magic will be pulled. In one scene, Bale seems to have cheated death after being shot at point-blank range. The next scene is David Bowie using the Tesla coil. [Jon Winkler]

10. Star Wars : The Force Awakens

In the ten years since the prequels concluded, Star Wars had been thought of as a joke. Robot Chicken, Family Guy, and other comedic shows consistently parodied the franchise, mostly using Jar Jar Binks, midichlorians, and Anakin Skywalker as their prime targets. After Disney announced that they bought Lucasfilm and intended to continue the Skywalker saga, it was met with extreme reluctance. After the prequels became something of a joke, fans just wanted this franchise to be laid to rest.J.J Abrams may not have had the support of fans at first, but Episode VII: The Force Awakens delivered in so many ways and had made us excited for Star Wars again. In just two hours and 15 minutes, we grew to love Rey, Finn, and Poe. While certainly having some familiar characteristics from the original big three, they have their own distinct personalities, which they fully embrace. Abrams also leaves room for nostalgia but doesn’t let it overpower the film. He may weave in some familiar plot point, but he gives the film its own identity in the process.

Abrams successfully kickstarted a property that many thought would fail. And now that he will be directing the conclusion, it’s safe to say that he knows what he’s doing. The Force Awakens may not be the best Star Wars film to some (I think you all know what takes that title), but it’s certainly a fantastic start to this new universe that he’s helped update. [Yasmin Kleinbart]

9. The World’s End 

They say you can’t go home again, but The World’s End takes this concept to an extreme after Gary King (Simon Pegg) gathers a group of his old friends together to try and finish the epic pub crawl they didn’t quite get through 20 years before. As they reluctantly head back to the small town they grew up in, they soon realize it’s gone through quite a few changes, and the reasons why may just determine the future of humanity. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s chemistry anchors the film in the midst of all the insanity, which is almost as interesting as the questions The World’s End explores about aging, and how some people refuse to, friendship, and just how many freedoms we are willing to sacrifice for all our modern conveniences. [Andrea Thompson]

8. Gravity

There are few cinematic experiences that compare to Gravity, and even fewer still that can pull off such a simple premise with astounding technical complexity. Alfonso Cuarón creates a sci-fi journey that verges on the 4D. The performances are humble but powerful and affecting. The visuals are arresting, keeping the viewer anxiously transfixed at the beauties of space while simultaneously trying to fight back a panic attack. This is one of the few films that needs to be seen in 3D. The sound design is so complementary to establishing the emotion in every moment of the film that it feels like a character all its own. This isn’t a film you just watch, but instead experience. [Jon Espino]

7. Inception

As a little side project, Christopher Nolan released Inception in between Batman films. But what at first just seemed like something do in between the major blockbusters, Inception quickly became one of the best sci-fi dramas in recent history. It’s technically riveting, with a thundering soundtrack, intense action (Joseph Gordon-Levitt hallway scene!), and a complicated premise that is expertly explained as the story unfolds. The central character conflict of Leonardo DiCaprio as a grieving widow is emotionally engaging, even if at times it gets overshadowed by the spectacle of the dream within a dream structure. Even still, the film has one of the more satisfying endings, though it’s still debated today about whether that top falls over or not. (Which isn’t even the point). [Katey Stoetzel]

6. Snowpiercer

As a British person, I’m ashamed that this clever and exhilarating apocalyptic thriller never had an official release in my home country. It didn’t fare much better in the US either, with only a limited release in arthouse cinemas before Netflix acquired the rights. All of which is a shame, because despite some ropey CGI, this is an all-round great production that deserves to be seen on a big screen. Director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Okja) paints a dark, surreal, and frequently funny picture of a future in which humans have caused a new ice age and managed to wipe themselves off the face of the planet; all that remains of our civilisation is the high-powered train of the title and all the people on it. Chris Evans gives a career-best performance (Captain America with relatable human foibles) as the reluctant leader of a working-class revolt against the mysterious Wilford, who runs the train, and Tilda Swinton clearly relishes the lip-smacking overacting she’s allowed to indulge in playing Wilford’s second-in-command. It’s all a lot of fun, but also bleakly despairing in its view of humanity. [Oliver Hollander]

5. Arrival

To paraphrase Dr. Louise Banks, the protagonist in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, Language is the building block of civilization. Everything in our culture, our cognitive processes and even the way we remember the past and imagine the future are defined by it, which also means that our prejudices, our societal evils and our spiritual limitations are embedded on it as well. When the visitors from space come, they bring a great gift, but to discover what it is puts humanity to a test that we almost fail. Regardless of our advancements as a species, and the extent of our material achievements, human beings are still deeply divided, imprisoned and fragmented. The main lesson in Arrival is that perhaps we do need some kind of universal language in order to move forward, and maybe we already have it: It’s called empathy. And it can and will change our fate. [Leonel Manzanares]

4. Her 

Her is a science fiction film that opens our eyes to the world of technology and our attachment to it. As Theodore comes out of a marriage, we see how he deals with it and soon becomes consumed and equally fascinated by a new operating system. Though his attachment to the operating system seems a bit extreme to the viewer, it really isn’t much different than our attachment to our smartphones. With technology becoming more ingrained in our lives, this film may be closer to the truth than we want to admit. We live in a world where it’s common to check our social media sites one too many times and be more glued to our screens than focused on creating real human relationships. It begs the question of wondering what happened to human interaction and if the Internet is more so hurting than helping us. Her is breathtakingly beautiful, so raw and honest about the type of world we live in today. It leaves viewers questioning our relationship with technology and causes us to ponder whether or not our attachment to smart home devices and smartphones is a healthy one. [Camille Espiritu]

3. Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind 

Have you ever woken up to find that you’ve been crying because of a dream, only the dream has already slipped away before you can remember why it was so sad? That feeling is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry craft a universal story of heartbreak, regret and foolish optimism out of emotions and situations that many must have thought unfilmable. The premise is simple enough: a company has invented a device that selectively deletes memories, primarily for the purpose of forgetting an ex loved one. Joel (Jim Carrey) finds out that his ex Clementine (Kate Winslet) has undergone the procedure to delete him, and so he does it too. As the film unravels – with flashbacks we don’t know are flashbacks and the majority of the film taking place in Joel’s soon-to-be-altered memories – everything becomes more complicated than that premise might suggest. The inspired casting of all roles, as well as the perfectly executed dream-logic effects contribute to the absolute beauty of this film. It’s technically science fiction, but at times it feels more truthful than the best documentary. [Beth Winchester]

2. Ex Machina 

With 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd, writer Alex Garland is no stranger to sci-fi. With his first turn in the director’s chair, he took the classic sci-fi story of robots and men and pulled strings like an ace puppeteer. The game is the scientific Turing Test: a programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) meets his genius boss (Oscar Isaac), who ask him to interact with an A.I. modeled like a gorgeous woman (Alicia Vikander) to see if she is believably human. On top of some gorgeous production design and cinematography. Garland plays with how humans feel towards the power of creation and how easy emotion can play into truly dangerous decisions. And Vikander herself, in one of her three breakout roles of 2015, seems to embody human curiosity and the evolving awareness of the egos of man. [Jon Winkler]

1. Children of Men

There are few sci-fi’s that can remain as fantastically compelling while staying grounded in a future that actually seems like a grim possibility. If anyone could achieve this, it would have to be Alfonso Cuarón. Cuarón uses a gritty, visceral filming style to give it a natural aesthetic, simulating the anxiety of war. Instead of catering to the typical sci-fi crowd that expects flashy, futuristic gadgetry, this film focuses its scope on its thematic elements, favoring substance over style. Children of Men takes the sci-fi genre and combines it with elements from action, suspense and thriller genres to create a hybrid the likes we have yet to see again even today. [Jon Espino]