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The 50 Best Sci-Fi Films of the 21st Century Thus Far

Written by on July 19, 2016 

30. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)

Edge of Tomorrow

While Tom Cruise is no stranger to being a sci-fi spectacle star (as evidenced by other entries on this list), Edge of Tomorrow gave the spotlight to Emily Blunt as a new-age heroine who owns the role. The Groundhog Day-style of repeating the same day over and over is also played to its full effect, boosted by immersive action that does a wonderful job of selling the alien invasion as a legitimate threat. Edge of Tomorrow (or, rather, Live Die Repeat) may not have gotten its due in its initial theatrical run, but this is a high-concept sci-fi that legitimately soars during endless rewatches. – Bill G.

29. Moon (Duncan Jones)

Moon

Raised by one of Clint Mansell’s most memorably melodic scores – short of the inescapable “Lux Aeterna,” the legato piano trills of the main theme might be the biggest ear worm of his formidable career – Duncan Jones’ ambitious debut, Moon, is an impressive piece of production design and character economy. Propelled by an anxious, shadow mirrored performance from Sam Rockwell, and a structure that peels back reveals without aggravating the carefully cultivated atmosphere, Moon is a tricky balancing act – and a calling card for one of this century’s most slippery, developing filmmakers. – Michael S.

28. The Prestige (Christopher Nolan)

The Prestige

The Prestige is relatively light work by Christopher Nolan, a thematic downgrade from the serial killer cat-and-mouse game of Insomnia; the wonderfully intoxicating and heavy Memento; the unnerving Following; and yes, even the psychological exploration of Bruce Wayne’s demons in Batman Begins. I think when looking back at his career thus far, it stands out as the least substantial in many ways – and yet it is also one of his most memorable films, as one can sense a bit of freedom afforded him by the success of Batman. This is Nolan unshackled from the studio constraints of a comic book tentpole, having fun and delivering a clever and crafty yarn. The performances from all involved are wonderful (I still rank it as one of Hugh Jackman’s best), and the tonal shift towards earnest sci-fi as the picture progresses – the kind of tricky balancing act that could derail a lesser filmmaker – results in a surprisingly moving ending, one where everything we think we know is turned on its head and a bit of tragedy seeps through the picture. The Prestige is Nolan pulling a trick over on his audience just as expertly as Michael Caine’s character explains in the film itself, and yet never once do we feel cheated. – John U.

27. Primer (Shane Carruth)

primer

In delivering the undeniably pleasing (if eerie) experience of seeing history realign itself despite human characters’ attempts to change it, time travel films typically gloss over the logistics of navigating space-time. Primer, on the other hand, obsesses over the technicalities. Drawing on the math and engineering background of Shane Carruth — who served as director, producer, writer, editor, composer, and lead actor—the film leads us to imagine what, exactly, the most rational among us would do if we accidentally discovered how to invent a time machine. Miraculous for a $7,000 film filled with jargony dialogue exchanged in nondescript rooms, Primer is enormously suspenseful, because it’s one thing to see a thinly sketched action hero get duped by the immutability of time, and quite another to see sensible, exactingly meticulous planning meet the same end. – Jonah J.

26. War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg)

War of the Worlds

It’s one of the very best films Steven Spielberg ever made — razor-sharp in its build-up, bold in its elision of details, terrifying in its plausibility (or reliability, if nothing else), admirably bleak in its vision of humanity teetering right on the edge of its extinction — until a Tim Robbins-dominated third act that compacts a film of endless possibilities. Yet even War of the Worlds’ more slippery directions evince a creative boldness, a vitality that’s still put into effect more often than not — e.g. the extended take inside the basement, the brutality of man-on-man violence, the sequence that casts the world’s most recognizable actor as a suicide-bomber — for me to already start backpedaling on my qualification. And, yes, the happy ending is just fine. After everything else that’s happened in the preceding 105 minutes, you’re going to start qualifying something as impossible now? – Nick N.

25. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)

District 9

A problem often brought up by critics of science-fiction — especially many recent works — is that story and character get lost in an array of dazzling spectacle and simplified expository bouts of the science. While still retaining textured, wonderful sci-fi imagery, District 9 is a through-and-through character piece. Charting the transformation of a government employee from coward to meekly heroic (a wonderful turn from Sharlto Copley), while simultaneously serving as a satire on the state of affairs in South Africa, Neill Blomkamp‘s debut is a thoughtful, visually stunning work that never forgets the humanity amongst the aliens and explosions. – Mike M.

24. Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek)

Never Let Me Go

There’s a case to be made that Mark Romanek’s 2010 film, Never Let Me Go, isn’t science-fiction. An adaptation of Kazuo Ishugiro’s 2005 novel, Romanek does very little to tip the film’s hand toward its genre leanings, focusing on the burgeoning love triangle between three students at the gentile, buttoned-up school of Hailsham. There’s only glimpses of the horror of the future outside the gates. But underneath the mannered, layered performances by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley, there’s a prevailing interest in the genre’s themes of pre-determination, the nature of dignity, and a world where an idealized future is just out of reach. – Michael S.

23. Cloverfield (Matt Reeves)

Cloverfield

Science-fiction films don’t get much more immersive than Cloverfield, Matt Reeves‘ thrilling feature debut, putting us directly into the shoes of an alien invasion. One of the rare cases in which intriguing, tight-lipped marketing actually delivered on its promise, this sci-fi found-footage thriller has memorable setpieces at every turn, complete with a sense of genuine panic, a feeling that other post-9/11 films often render as exploitative. Little did we know at the time of its debut (or even last year), it also serves as the ideal franchise starter as it’s able to splinter its stories in countless directions and forms. – Jordan R.

22. Solaris (Steven Soderbergh)

Solaris

The idea of following in the footsteps of Andrei Tarkovsky would be an inconceivable feat for most filmmakers, but in Steven Soderbergh‘s case, he had his own reasons for providing a new take on Stanisław Lem‘s sci-fi novel Solaris. While the 2002 George Clooney-led film received a divisive critical response, audiences were less than enthused, as it received the infamous “F’ CinemaScore — although, one can hardly be surprised, considering its marketing sold an action-suspense thriller from its executive producer James Cameron, the man that brought you Aliens and the Terminator series. As it recently passed its 10-year-anniversary, I still find a great deal to love in Soderbergh’s take, which delivers a striking, emotionally resonant romance, a distinct, worthy deviation from Tarkovsky’s meditative masterpiece. – Jordan R. 

21. Inception (Christopher Nolan)

Inception

Inception is one of the most ambitious blockbusters of all-time, and surely never would have been made if not for Warner Bros. trying to keep their Dark Knight director happy by throwing money at him to bring a passion project to life. Its subsequently enormous success just goes to show that sometimes the concept of dumbing down material in order to appeal to wide audiences isn’t necessary, because on paper this would be much easier to sell as a low-budget, arthouse movie, and if Christopher Nolan had shopped this around as a $200 million picture after making Insomnia he would have been laughed out of town. By this point, everyone knows the twisting, labyrinthine storytelling mechanisms that Nolan employs here; there’s no point in repeating them. What I found upon a recent viewing is how well it all holds up, even that trailer with the braam noise that ended up becoming the blueprint for almost every single Epic Blockbuster in the last few years. At the end of the day, considering its status as a summer blockbuster, Inception stands tall as a cerebral experience that doesn’t talk down to its audience. It just happens to have car chases and explosions, and a finale that at times feels like Nolan auditioning for a Bond movie, which we’d welcome. – John U.

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