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The 25 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the 21st Century, From ‘Children of Men’ to ‘Her’

With themes that range from love to fear to humanity itself, the best sci-fi movies of the 21st century all share distinctly original visions.

Sci-fi isn’t easily defined, but in determining the top 25 sci-fi movies of the last 17 years, we’ve done our best. No fantasy-super hero movies here; for an action, horror, or animated movie to be on this list, it needed to firmly rooted in sci-fi origins. And let’s get this out of the way: While we adore these films and consider them among the very best of the century, we decided they didn’t qualify or were better suited for a different list: “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Gravity,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Holy Motors,” and “Battle Royale.”

Drum roll, please…

25. “Coherence”

"Coherence"

“Coherence”

With one room and $50,000, director James Ward Byrkit showed there are no limits to what’s possible in the sci-fi genre. A filmmaking lesson in activating offscreen space and building mystery into the unseen, the story centers around eight friends gathered for a dinner party when a comet swooshes overhead, kills the electricity, and opens up a portal for the dinner guests to pass into other realities, which take the form of nearby houses that mirror the one they are in (low-budget problem-solving 101). Byrkit keeps the rules of his world digestible: They don’t interfere with our involvement in the drama, which does a great job of presenting the characters with existential questions that you can’t help but ponder for yourself. — CO

24. “Sunshine” (2007)

"Sunshine"

“Sunshine”

How does one evaluate a film whose ending undercuts what is one of the most original, exciting and little-appreciated sci-fi films? Starring Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, and Chris Evans, the third collaboration between writer Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle tells the story of group of astronauts sent on a seemingly one-way mission to save humanity and a dying sun with a nuclear fission bomb. A criminally underseen gem cut from the “2001” cloth in the way it ponders man’s place in the greater universe, but contains sharp onboard drama that keeps that film from ever feeling overly ponderous. Brilliant, but flawed. — CO

23. “Primer”

Primer

“Primer”

THINKFilm

Few sci-fi films have packed so much science into 77 minutes as Shane Carruth’s 2004 feature debut, “Primer.” Carruth was working as an engineer when he wrote the script about four aspiring entrepreneurs who accidentally use electromagnetic weight reduction to build a time machine, and he didn’t simplify technical details for the sake of the audience. As the characters make more and more brief trips back in time, it becomes increasingly difficult, if downright impossible, to follow all the “timestreams.” Still, the discussions about scientific theory that serve as the story’s foundation make it feel like you’re watching the real thing. “Primer” also deals with a number of philosophical and moral questions that add hefty emotional weight. Made for just $7,000, “Primer” won the grand jury prize at Sundance as well as the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize for Carruth, who also played one of the lead roles, edited and composed music for the film. — GW

22. “Moon”

Moon

“Moon”

Sony Pictures Classics

“Moon” is a story of Rip Van Winkle in outer space, one that fully captures maddening loneliness of space — a key aspect of the genre that is rarely done right as it requires so much access to internalized thoughts and feelings. The film is a self-assured mood piece as much as it is a strong sci-fi movie. The delicacy and light touch required to hit these elements is not synonymous with first-time feature filmmakers, which is why writer-director Duncan Jones was able to quickly blow past being known as David Bowie’s son. In one of the best performances of his career, Sam Rockwell plays as a man sent on an extended mining assignment on the moon, and with the help of his computer GENTRY, sends resources back home to help Earth’s power problems. — CO

21. “Attack The Block”

Attack the Block

“Attack the Block”

Screen Gems

Set in South London and cast with young local actors, “Attack the Block” may one day be best remembered for discovering “Star Wars” lead and soon-to-be Hollywood star John Boyega. If ever there was a film begging to be rediscovered with the potential to reach a much wider audience, it’s this one. Edgar Wright’s writing partner Joe Cornish slips into the director’s chair for the first time and delivers a film that’s fast, fun, and smart. Built around the simple premise of “What if aliens invaded the wrong part of the city?”, Cornish shows a remarkable ability to direct action and maintain the film’s energy. The film also has socio-political side that gives it a “Get Out” meets “Baby Driver” vibe. — CO

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Comments

Jacob Allen

Interstellar?

Peter

Gravity? lol

    Jon

    Not exactly a sci-fi film, since it was intended to be a current-day look at space junk, and all the technology featured in it was largely real at the time of filming. I remember it being described as a ‘techno-thriller’ as opposed to science fiction

      Gravitas

      Um, you just defined science fiction.

crizliam

I love you!

Bo

I’ve never understood the whole Arrival thing. I walked out of it 15 mins. into it back when it first opened. I’d walked into it for free to after viewing another much better film, Elle. I decided to watch it last night to see if I was correct in my assumptions of it being obvious, simple, maudlin and sentimental. I forced myself to watch the whole thing and I was right in my walk out. It’s just so mediocre and manipulative, but people fall for this kind of stuff so best to acknowledge my gratitude of not being one of them.

    Movie Junkie

    Arrival wasn’t about the aliens’ arrival it was about her daughters’ arrival and the impact on one’s emotions that knowing the future would have. The alien contact in the movie was just the “how” she was able to know the future. It definitely deserved to be on this list. And I agree wholeheartedly that Children of Men deserves the #1 spot.

John McSweeney

Mad Max Fury Road?, Prometheus?, Elysium?, Oblivion?, 28 Days Later?, Matrix Films????
The list is missing many major sci fi movies as well as several bad choices.

    Max Oxley

    Fury Road & 28DL are dystopia, not sci-fi, and none of the other films you listed are generally better thought of than the ones on this list (other than the 1st Matrix, which came out in ’99)

      pleb

      Children of Men is dystopian too,so is Dawn of the planet of the apes, Her is utopian/dystopian(it is subjective for this film I guess) and Paprika and The Host are borderline fantasy.

    Alasdair

    I know it’s been widely mocked, but Avatar really should be on the list as well.

Rich SB

“The Man from Earth” should definitely be on this list. The most shockingly provocative low budget sci-fi movie ever made.

powellpressburger

Children of Men was pooooor! Come on!!! If that is the no. 1 the rest of the list is discredited.

mat

(Being John Malkovich was 1999 not 2009)

Jared

This looks like a list sci fi by someone who does not like sci fi. I love sci fi movies and have not seen a lot of those. Not mention the movies I did see in this list were not good.

Amber

Blade Runner, Alien, Akira (animated version) should be here.

    Smiles

    TWENTY FIRST CENTURY. Those are all TWENTIETH CENTURY. Damnit.

Alasdair

I agree with much of the list (particularly Children of Men at #1), but Under The Skin was one of the most boring and plotless films I’ve ever seen. Avoid.

    Dustin

    Under the Skin should be number one in my opinion. Different strokes

Predator

All good except for no1. What a boreass movie was that. Probably the worst scifi movie ever..blaah

    Alex

    And you go by the username Predator so… yeah no need to explain where you are coming from. See you after puberty.

Andrada

While I thoroughly enjoyed Paprika, “totally understandable” are not words I would use in correlation with that film. Great work on this list, there a few I haven’t watched yet and will try to remedy that soon.

tinae

Monsters in the honorable mentions is really good. I’d have listed it among the top five. Children of Men is amazing. It feels a lot like it was a comic book adaptation, the aesthetic reminding of Enki Bilal maybe.

ryan

Props for putting Children of Men so high on the list.

Alex

I take Interstellar over Inception any day

Daniel

Meh, I don’t agree with this list.

P.M.

I also recommend Melancholia and Another Earth.

    Cate

    Melancholia isn’t really SF, though. He only uses the gas giant as a metaphor. If you try to look at it through a physics lens it becomes ridiculous. Then again, if Eternal Sunshine can be on here, why not Melancholia? I loved Eternal Sunshine, but I don’t think that qualifies as SF, either.

PGLM

Snowpiercer over something like Prometheus? C’mon, people, Snowpiercer!?! Suspension of disbelief has a limit when it comes to this train’s ecosystem.

Dudeplz

Wowwww really?… These deserve to be on the top, Dark City, The 13th Floor, Cube, 12 Monkeys, and even 5th Element, Event Horizon, Terminator, Predator.

    Patrick

    Dudeplz, you’re trolling right? I mean, the title of the article clearly states, “of the 21st century,” and every movie you listed came out in the 80’s and 90’s.

    Jeff J

    Dark City is not sci-fi. It is religious fantasy.

    The aliens are doing all that stuff because they’re jealous that humans have souls. Terrible.

    Nope, no spoiler alert. I hated that movie *that much.*

John Kosto

The Edge Of Tomorrow was the most overrated movie I have ever seen. It wouldn’t even make my top 100 sci-fi movies of this millenium list. The Fountain and Interstellar should have been in top 10, not just top 25. And Donnie Darko in top 5.

theschu

Edge of Tomorrow’s original title was All You Need Is Kill. Live Die Repeat was just the copy line on the poster and in the trailer.

Cliffardo

Can’t believe Blade Runner was not on the list! #1 on mine.

    X Trapnel

    Dear God. Read the bleeding headline.

Jack

To be honest, if we’re picking Tom Cruise movies, Oblivion was really quite good.

    Rick

    While Oblivion had its faults, it made an attempt to be though provoking and succeeded beyond a number of others on this list.

Rich

What ever happened to entertaining, real undiluted Scifi? Now we have these over thought, over cerebral, mish mashes with a few scifi elements. Give me a good space opera, Kaiju, or alien invasion movie any day. Even when they reboot a classic, they seem to screw it up. Soo many REAL scifi films were overlooked on this list. What did make it for the most part is drek.

Jeff J

The correct #1 is Moon.
Also, Spacey’s character was GERTY, not GENTRY.

Rick

Children of Men seems far over-rated to me. Everyone seems to love that it was a long-take, regardless of the quality of the story. While it has some good points, it is far from great. It also feels so dated that I was surprised it made it into a 21st C list. I would have guessed it for a late 80s to 90s film.

Jon

Good enough list. Assuming Mad Max doesn’t count, my top 5 would be:

05. Eternal Sunshine
04. Inception
03. Her
02. Children of Men
01. Under the Skin

So pretty close.

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