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

Written by on July 19, 2016 

20. Beyond the Black Rainbow (Panos Cosmatos)

Beyond the Black Rainbow

Well, I might be wrong. I haven’t seen Beyond the Black Rainbow since its “international premiere” at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, and my perceptions and tastes have, I think, changed a fair amount in that time — which isn’t even to account for the fact that it’s been more than five years. But that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten much of the movie in that time, be it in the form of individual shots or jump scares, a distinct cinematographic palette, the fantastic score by Sinoia Caves, or the fact that its sci-fi qualities are best underlined by how little of its concepts are laid-out and how little that lack hurts the experience at hand. I’ll say this much: if giving Beyond the Black Rainbow another look meant Panos Cosmatos could start shooting a new movie, I’d be ordering a copy right now. – Nick N.

19. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly)

Donnie Darko

One of the most audacious, dizzying feature debuts in recent memory, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko has garnered a strong cult following for a damn good reason. A favorite of mine as a teenager, it is only upon a recent revisit that the sheer achievement of Kelly’s mesmerizing, unnerving calling card has become clear. It is a masterclass in atmosphere, lulling viewers into its clutches with oozing cinematography, spectrally seductive sound design, and a young Jake Gyllenhaal’s stupefied, haunted performance. Its unhinged, metaphysical plotting is coupled with some truly unforgettable imagery — namely in a movie theater — and genuine levity amongst the disheartening ruminations of its protagonist that every living creature on Earth dies alone. – Mike M.

18. Looper (Rian Johnson)

Looper

Cultures that have no tenses to delineate variable points in the past of the future make better choices. If someone only thinks in the present tense, they cannot dissociate themselves in the now from themselves in the future. Smoking, bad eating habits, destructive behavior – we like to imagine the effects of these poor choices impacting some shadow self who doesn’t exist yet and is not us. Looper, by writer/director Rian Johnson, takes this idea and envisions it magnificently. A young hitman must hunt down and kill his future self in order to save his own life in the present day. It’s a twisted, brain-bending narrative trick that uses science fiction technology to tell us something about ourselves and our relationships to both time and… ourselves. – Brian R.

17. The Mist (Frank Darabont)

The Mist

One of the great pleasures of any speculative or science fiction story is how they can put people in strange, unforeseeable circumstances and observing how they act. A weird device can be conjured up to alter reality, and through this device an artist can tell a tale that reveals something about mankind, using science fiction trappings to tell a very moral tale. The Mist, another Stephen King adaptation from Frank Darabont, flirts with the idea of portals to other worlds, but only for long enough to explain why a small New England town has been overrun by horrible monsters. Once those monsters are in place, The Mist turns its eyes from science fiction to existential fact. People confronted with the unknown and robbed of agency will grow fearful, and authoritarian regimes based on rigid dogma will fill that vacuum. Like any good science-fiction film, you can look at The Mist, and nine years later draw a direct parallel to our own uncertain present. Let’s just hope real life has a more optimistic ending. – Brian R.

16. Her (Spike Jonze)

Her

Our computers and our phones are pretty much one nowadays. Our friends in the virtual and physical spheres are both equally as important to us. The more we create and invent the less we find ourselves beholden to our old concepts of rigidity of utility. A phone can be our primary computing device; a person we’ve never met can be our best friend. Merge those two concepts and add in a dose of our nascent interest in artificial intelligence, and you have Her, from writer/director Spike Jonze. After Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) installs a new AI operating system on his networked devices, he finds himself slowly falling in love with a personality who is as real to him as the writers of this list may be to you. Its a far out idea grounded in our very real, very new reality. – Brian R.

15. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg)

AI Artificial Intelligence

Steven Spielberg‘s profoundly emotional adaptation of Brian Aldiss’ Supertoys Last All Summer Long was a project originally developed by Stanley Kubrick. Abandoned due to the technological restraints of the early ’90s, Spielberg began working on the project shortly after Kubrick’s death in 1998. At the time of it’s release, some critics were left unmoved by the way the film twisted tones, mixing Spielberg’s inherently warm sentimentality with Kubrick’s detached intellectual coldness, as if either of these master filmmakers were thematic one-trick ponies. Far from it. What begins as a chillingly cerebral cautionary warning becomes a haunting fairy tale-esque meditation on the nature of existence. Wondrously imaginative and often disturbingly prescient, A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a intensely moving examination of the enduring strength of love, played out against an increasingly gorgeous dystopian backdrop. – Tony H.

14. Hard to Be a God (Aleksei German)

Hard to Be a God

A scientist from Earth, Don Rumata, travels to an alien planet where the population has become mired in the middle ages, the majority are seemingly happy to exist in chaotic slime-coated ignorance. They’ve even begun the purging of intellectuals, hideously burning scholars alive and drowning professors in overflowing latrines. Among these deranged citizens, Don Rumata lives like a god while the surrounding society slowly inches toward a hellishly inevitable collapse. Filmmaker Aleksei German shot this sprawling and twisted sci-fi masterpiece over the course of seven years, before passing away prior to the completion of the six-year editing process. Eventually completed by German’s wife, screenwriter Svetlana Karmalita and his son Aleksei Jr, the film is one of the most divisive and challenging labors of love in cinema history. Based on a novel by the Brothers Strugatsky, who also authored Roadside Picnic, which inspired Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Hard to be a God is a hypnotically visceral assault on the senses, placing the audience at ground zero to witness the ensuing madness as the landscape spirals out of control. – Tony H.

13. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)

snowpiercer_6

Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut unfolds around a none-too-subtle central metaphor — a post-apocalyptic train whose compartments are physical analogues of society’s socioeconomic strata — but this plot device is central to the film’s effectiveness. The train’s structural linearity proves the perfect platform for a similarly streamlined narrative that observes as revolution sweeps from the impoverished caboose to the engine room that powers the entire structure. As action cinema, Snowpiercer finds poetry in the simplicity of this tale of means and ends; as political allegory, the film’s narrative linearity conveys the social subject’s inability to see outside the system they inhabit, as the YouTube reviewer Nerd Writer pointed this out in his excellent video analysis. Lastly, the plot’s straightforwardness often guides our attention away from plot altogether — we grasp the uncomplicated narrative in an instant and henceforth acknowledge its existence almost solely in an unconscious fashion. Instead, our focus is redirected to the film’s Kubrick- and Gilliam-inspired art direction, which transforms the train’s interiors into a mobile museum of wonders at once bizarre, horrifying, and beautiful. – Jonah J.

12. Timecrimes (Nacho Vigalondo)

Timecrimes

Some of the best, most twisted minds come from outside the United States and this film announced the break-out of Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo as someone to watch for years to come. Smartly written sci-fi is difficult to pull off, but make that science-fiction into a murder thriller with legitimate time-travel aspects and you have a real head-trip. Thankfully, Vigalondo manages to juggle all of this with a mature, fun sense of humor that will draw one in from its opening moments and never have one lose focus. – Bill G.

11. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

mad_max_fury_road

The fourth entry in George Miller‘s Mad Max series is sci-fi tossed back into the stone age, where arcane technology fuses with blood and sand on the Fury Road in a fiendish struggle for survival. Humanity withers without available water in this post-apocalyptic wasteland, forcing thousands under the patriarchal command of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who controls the aqua life-source of the entire Citadel. In their attempt to carry on, these men and women created a poisonous new Frankenstein world out of the previous one’s rubble. It’s the unlikely pairing of Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) that revives a feeling long thought extinct: hope. While admittedly light on stereotypical science fiction accoutrement, the densely layered world and eye-popping kinetic propulsion of narrative found in Mad Max: Fury Road makes for an iconic and essential addition to any discussion of this millennium’s greatest sci-fi films. – Tony H.

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