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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 be 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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