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

Written by on July 19, 2016 

10. 2046 (Wong Kar-wai)


So large is In the Mood for Love‘s place within contemporary cinephilia that it can be somewhat easy, even among Wong Kar-wai devotees, to forget its rather remarkable, in-many-respects-just-as-fine sequel, 2046, which simultaneously resembles its predecessor in rather exact ways and uses said predecessor’s emotional fallout to create an ultra-futuristic landscape. This is perhaps the closest we’ll ever got to Wong’s sci-fi movie, and its rather thorough display of colors, particular placements of the camera to wring maximum emotional resonance, step-printed photography, and oblique narrative (both the future segment itself and within the surrounding film) make it a perfect entry – so perfect, in fact, that I can’t help but wait for a full-fledged version. – Nick N.

9. Minority Report (Steven Spielberg)

Minority Report

Steven Spielberg was in top form when he helmed Minority Report, a high-concept, high-wire neo-noir that remains one of the new millennium’s snazziest blockbusters. Playing yet another version of his improbably athletic onscreen self, Tom Cruise is a police chief on the run after his “Pre-Crime” law enforcement program implicates him in the future murder of someone he’s never met. This doozy of a premise asks us to ponder the ethicality of jailing would-be criminals based on not-yet-perpetrated crimes and, by extension, the question of fate itself. Is this system flawless or irreparably flawed? Can Cruise’s hero not kill his supposed victim? Minority Report is popcorn cinema bold enough to wax philosophical in these ways even as it pushes ever-forward through visual virtuosity and a pleasingly twisty storyline. – Jonah J.

8. The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky)


Death is the ultimate villain. It has no conscience, it has no compassion, and it has no sense of justice. It comes for all and takes all with nary a care for time or place or circumstance. The story of The Fountain, from writer-director Darren Aronofsky, follows a man who grows tired with the tyranny of death and seeks to destroy it. Told through literal fantasy, cutting-edge medical science, and fantastical science fiction, his journey takes him to the edges of the earth and cosmos. What is amazing is how this film walks up to the edge of medical and astronomical science and then uses them as a means of creating a very internal revolution for a single man. Death is not the end; it is the road to awe. – Brian R.

7. Melancholia (Lars von Trier)


The end of the world is here, but the characters in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia can’t help but make it about themselves. In the second of his “Depression Trilogy,” and one of the most potent portrayals of mental illness’ daily effects from the past few decades, von Trier honors and judges these characters in their final fits of narcissism. For Justine (a career-best Kristen Dunst), the end is a sweet, caressing lullaby — a confirmation of her most inalienable beliefs. Meanwhile, Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) panic attacks ebb and flow with the accuracy of her husband’s scientific calculations, and in a mordant touch — her personal estimations with a coil of wire. Doom rarely feels so inevitably poetic. – Michael S.

6. Sunshine (Danny Boyle)


A lot of science fiction films are so caught up in ideas that they don’t really have time to focus on details of the science they are exploring from a purely theoretical or concrete way. Sunshine (written by Alex Garland, who would go on to direct another entry here, Ex Machina) is a story of global cataclysm told almost entirely through the eyes of people who are not on earth. The death of the planet is an abstract concern as we, the audience, are shown the effect of extended space travel, the importance of our nearest star, and the almost incomprehensible scale of that same star. Every fact regarding the sun is so mind-blowing that it makes even the more banal parts of our days a source of awe and mystery. Space action and slasher trappings aside, Sunshine is a true celebration of the scientific method and the truth of our physical reality. – Brian R.

5. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)


There was a mystique that was hard to escape when Under the Skin finally made its way to screens. The modestly budgeted sci-fi thriller, which garnered much anticipation in certain circles, has little expositional dialogue and focused on an alien that was preying on men using the body of Scarlett Johansson. Even the production was pulled off in a rogue way by filming with unsuspecting locals in Scotland. The end result is a truly eerie and stunning work of boundless imagination and flawless execution that shows, when given creative freedom, the closest thing we’ll get to the realm of Stanley Kubrick. – Bill G.

4. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth)


Nature. Technology. Humanity. The intersection of these elements is where we find the best science fiction, the stories that truly wrap in the totality of human experience and social understanding to create something special. To explain how Upstream Color, from writer-director Shane Carruth, manages to weave these things together would rob its audience of one of this film’s great joys. Suffice it to say, Upstream Color paints a tapestry of experience and life and the cycles that bind us together that will alter the way one looks at the world and their place within it. – Brian R.

3. Holy Motors (Leos Carax)

holy motors

It’s a bit eye-rolling, this “cinema is like the most amazing sci-fi creation of all” idea, and Holy Motors is more than willing to poke fun at this while embracing its medium’s incredible possibilities. Leos Carax‘s goodbye to (physical) film is only a true genre entry at the most necessary moments, utilizing the bizarre, inconceivable, and their many possibilities when necessary — which doesn’t at all discount its place, mind — until the final sequence, talking cars and all. And, as it goes without saying, Denis Lavant is more thrilling than any alien creature or computer-generated sight. – Nick N.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 1

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind plays out a fantasy many people have of erasing past regrets and then makes us witness the loss we would have experienced had our wish actually been granted. The film’s premise is one for the ages: a man in an unhappy relationship discovers that his girlfriend has had all memories of him wiped from her mind, so he decides to undergo the same operation himself. As his past with her grows foggier and foggier, however, he starts remembering the joyful moments in addition to the painful ones and realizes that all will be lost with the operation’s completion. Perfectly acted by an uncharacteristically mellow Jim Carrey as the amnesiac protagonist and Kate Winslet as his girlfriend, Eternal Sunshine is a beautiful treatise on love, and possibly one of the saddest films ever made. – Jonah J.

1. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón)

Children of Men

Some of the best sci-fi stories ask one simple question and then imagine a world in which that question becomes a real concern. What happens when the sun dies? What happens when AI becomes indistinguishable from a person? Children of Men, flawlessly directed by Alfonso Cuarón, asks a question that is painful to consider and even more painful to observe: what happens when people can’t reproduce? The world that is created in the wake of this question is one in which hope and progress have died together, the last vestiges of society and technology crumbling simultaneously. But, as with all science fiction that truly endures, Children of Men finds salvation within the only place it could remain, even in the worst of times: the heart and soul of humanity. – Brian R.

Honorable Mentions: There was much division amongst us over Christopher Nolan‘s Interstellar and James Cameron‘s Avatar, while Duncan JonesMoon follow-up Source Code nearly made the cut as did Splice, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Guardians of the Galaxy, Frequency,The Adjustment Bureau, CJ7, The Hitchhiker’s Guide the Galaxy, Serenity, Trollhunter, and About Time. Smaller-scale sci-fi like The One I Love, Ink, Monsters, and Another Earth left us equally impressed.

We also considered entries such as Skin I Live In, Gravity, Enemy, Idiocracy, and Battle Royale, but they either fell more into other genres, or had none of “fiction” to go with the “science.” The same goes for more fantasy and/or horror films such as Pan’s Labyrinth, Godzilla, Lord of the Rings, The Cabin in the Woods, etc.

Lastly, in order to mention more films here, we stuck to strictly live-action, so see below for out thoughts on Wall-E, A Scanner Darkly, Titan A.E, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Spirited Away, Monsters, Inc., and more great sci-fi animations.

The 50 Best Animated Films of the 21st Century Thus Far


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