In a medium founded on expanding one’s imagination and perception of reality, no genre does it better than science fiction. We’ve come a long way from the days when Georges Méliès took us to the moon, for today’s filmmakers look far beyond our universe and into the deepest corners of our soul to reflect the current society.
With the latest entry in the Star Trek franchise arriving in theaters this week, we’ve set out to reflect on the millennium’s sci-fi films that have most excelled. To note: we only stuck with feature-length works of 60 minutes or longer and, to make room for a few more titles, our definition of “the 21st century” stretched to include 2000.
Check out our top 50 below and let us know your favorites in the comments. We’ve also put the list on Letterboxd so you may keep track of how many you’ve seen.
50. The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions (Lilly and Lana Wachowski)
I’ll ignore the wealth of received wisdom that’s surrounded these films for thirteen years and instead provide what’s deserved: praise. Following The Matrix‘s lightning-in-a-bottle success, the Wachowskis embarked upon a two-part sequel that expanded much of their original picture’s strengths (aesthetics, action sensibilities, pacing, easily digestible philosophy) into the higher-stakes realm of be-all, end-all conflict. But even with such intensity and portent on its mind, this duology makes great effort to balance the present moment with overarching narrative and theme. Where do I even start? There’s the infamous rave sequence, a tactile, all-colors celebration of humanity intercut with a sex scene more attuned to sensory experience and emotional connection than just about any other 21st-century example. There’s an extended, Lambert Wilson-delivered monologue regarding causality that’s sandwiched between a) a plot-advancing exchange where Keanu Reeves must make-out with Monica Bellucci and b) a Cornel West cameo. There’s the understanding of how words (e.g. “the Prophecy”) and the voices of those speaking them might attain a mantra-like quality that imbues more emotion than any effect — and yet, still, effects that either continue to awe or now charm in their somewhat-dated status. (Visible seams and all, the final Neo-Smith battle remains the greatest of superhero-villain encounters.) They’re grand in every sense of the word, especially side-by-side — hence their pairing: when treated as one entity (with a sanity-preserving intermission included), Reloaded and Revolutions play as an epic of the highest order. – Nick N.
49. Signs (M. Night Shyamalan)
Signs represents a curious moment in the career of M. Night Shyamalan, as despite being a massive success, on display were some of the earliest examples of his future faults: the bizarre, darkly comic moments that seem tonally out of place; the forced twist at the end that exists solely because he’s M. Night Shyamalan; the hokey dialogue. And yet within the bubble of Signs, which exists mostly as a stylistic exercise in Hitchcockian thrills by way of an episode of The Twilight Zone, these future blunders mostly work. Part of it comes down to the performances: Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix know how to handle the black humor in a way that Mark Wahlberg didn’t, for example. The idiocy of its twist ending is kind of irrelevant to the crux of this picture’s story, so it’s somewhat more excusable than people running away from trees. The score by James Newton Howard is eerie and striking, paying homage to Psycho with its assaulting theme. It’s Shyamalan’s last truly good movie, representing a strong balance of his eccentricities and stylistic quirks, and an unfortunate example of fine work being cheapened by all that came afterward: his subsequent films were so bad that it only caused people to reflect upon Signs with a harsher outlook. – John U.
48. Southland Tales (Richard Kelly)
Somehow more audacious than his feature debut, Southland Tales finds Richard Kelly spinning a thick yarn of post-apocalyptic sci-fi madness. At once extremely dense yet still thoroughly engaging on a level of pure simplistic entertainment, Kelly achieves a rare combination that makes for a special success. While certainly not for everyone, it stands as a testament to a modern director not satisfied with traditional narrative trappings, instead swinging — often wildly, sometimes flailing — at the far reaches of post-modernist storytelling as he tries to turn a mirror on society. Complete with unorthodox musical sequences, the world’s first car-on-car sex scene, and a cathartic, beautifully mad ending, Southland Tales is the realized vision of a true auteur. – Mike M.
47. Predestination (Peter and Michael Spierig)
The fraternal filmmaking duo Michael and Peter Spierig combine neo-noir style and labyrinthine storytelling for the tale of a time-traveling special agent (Ethan Hawke) who, while on the hunt for a terrorist, poses as a bartender in 1970s New York. Hawke might lead this mind-bending, Robert Heinlein-inspired thriller, but it’s his co-star, Sarah Snook, who steals the show as a brooding bar patron with a very complicated past. As the two protagonists talk over a long night of drinks, flashbacks and voice-over deliver one surprise after another, all of which culminate in an unbelievable twist ending. – Amanda W.
46. Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols)
Writer-director Jeff Nichols‘ thrillingly oblique tale of a father and his mysterious son leading the federal government on a cross-country chase, feels like old fashioned sci-fi storytelling at its most eerily engrossing. Beautifully capturing the spirit of the finest examples of the genre with its haunting sense of mystery and wonder, the film is anchored by David Wingo‘s marvelous score, and a handful of emotionally engaging performances from Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton and Jaeden Lieberher. Nichols’ dryly taut screenplay bountifully rewards multiple viewings as the seemingly jargon-heavy dialogue often slyly supplies the audience with answers before we’re even posed the cryptic questions. Heart-wrenching in emotional impact, it masterfully weaves a grounded narrative around fantastic and extraordinary sci-fi concepts to tell an achingly tender story about a very special little boy. – Tony H.
45. The Road (John Hillcoat)
When most people think of science fiction, they picture futuristic cityscapes and bold adventures into the yawning abyss of space. The Road looks closer to home and asks one of the most depressing questions one can encounter when thinking of the future and the fate of our planet: what happens when it all dies? Entropy occurs when no new energy enters a system, and The Road – in washed out shades of grey and brown – posits a world in which entropy has taken hold. Nothing is growing, the sun is blocked out by dust, and the system of human kindness is winding down. Into this dead world the only new energy is the love of a father for his son. Whether that is enough to re-energize the system remains to be seen, but the idea remains and the visceral impact of the film and this world and its attendant horrors cannot be understated. – Brian R.
44. Pitch Black (David Twohy)
The movie that successfully pitched Vin Diesel as action star. As directed by B-movie auteur David Twohy, Pitch Black is a tight, scary creature feature with a head on its shoulders. Radha Mitchell works against Diesel’s antihero admirably, both leads immersed in some, impressive (if a bit dated) production design. Over 15 years later, the Riddick Trilogy (Pitch Black, Chronicles of Riddick, Riddick) exists as a somewhat underrated piece of sci-fi/fantasy storytelling. – Dan M.
43. Coherence (James Ward Byrkit)
The concept of a multi-verse has intrigued people since it first entered the scene. The idea that every choice on a quantum level results in a split universe being created means that there exist an infinite number of worlds in which things are either the same, similar, or wildly different. Coherence entertains this idea not through the eyes of scientists seeking it out, but through the eyes of dinner party guests grappling with its unknown consequences. A passing comment merges multiple realities onto a single street, and the guests at a supremely awkward dinner party have to decide how to keep themselves safe. known where they are, and to decide whether or not they even want to remain in the same place. It’s a devilishly clever film that starts as a taut thriller and turns into an existential horror film. – Brian R.
42. Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
It’s hard to deny the haunting power of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. It’s a cold hard look at the bare facts of how efficiently a fatal disease can spread and instantly change the dynamics of our world while taking out half the population in the process. Featuring an ensemble cast who all deliver understated and subtle performances and a fantastic score by Cliff Martinez, Contagion’s real power comes from it’s raw fear of the unknown. Hats off to Soderbergh for not over-dramatizing his direction; the result is a hard-edged and profoundly frightening sci-fi (thanks to the invention of a fake disease) horror film that will leave you scramming for the hand sanitizer and a hazmat mask. – Raffi A.
41. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)
The Lobster is a bizarre film, which shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous work. To attempt to explain the story is futile, as it just sounds deeply silly: a man who has not yet found a life partner checks into a resort where, if he doesn’t find a mate within a short period of time, he will be turned into an animal of his choosing. The fact that he chooses to become a lobster is just one in a series of darkly funny moments that are played pitch-perfectly by a pot-bellied Colin Farrell, who gives his best performance here since In Bruges. Farrell has repeatedly been shoehorned into mainstream Leading Man Roles like Total Recall, where he consistently falters and is charmless, but it’s in these smaller and quirkier affairs where his strengths shine through and he tends to remind me of why he’s a great actor. The movie is alternately tragic and subversive, and humorous; it would be false to compare it directly to Dogtooth, except to say that the after-effect is similar: you’re left a little moved, a little bewildered, a little disturbed, a little buzzed off the laughs – and craving a second viewing. – John U.
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