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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.

5.“Upstream Color”

Upstream Color

“Upstream Color”

erpb

We won’t pretend to be smart enough to completely understand Shane Carruth’s examination of the science of love. Even with the proper philosophical, literary, and scientific background to grasp all the references, it might still be impossible to fully appreciate the film’s layers. Yet what is amazing about this groundbreaking work is that because it perfectly fits together in Carruth’s big engineering-trained brain – and he’s using the formal language of cinema to express himself – there’s an internal logic that keeps an open-minded audience engaged. Made for $50,000 – which seems virtually impossible considering the film’s elegance – Carruth is the embodiment of an independent filmmaker. Not only is he free from working with Hollywood’s sense of story and film language, he also found a path to self distribute this film and build a devoted audience. In a film world where everybody is explaining how they are doing something new and groundbreaking, Shane Carruth is one of the very few walking the walk. — CO

4. “The Host”

Bong Joon-ho The Host

“The Host”

Most creature films would be a better fit for a horror list, but the story origins of Bong Joon Ho’s “The Host,” which was inspired by the deformed fish in the filmmaker’s beloved Han River, makes this one of the more interesting genre films to incorporate environmental science into its genre thrills. Joon Ho is not a politically subtle filmmaker, but the joy he takes in creating his symphony of not-so-bright characters is one of modern cinema’s delicacies. Thankfully, “The Host” became the biggest box-office hit in South Korean history and led to Joon Ho being able to uncompromisingly paint on a bigger international canvas with “Snowpiercer” and now Netflix’s “Okja.” -CO

READ MORE: Bong Joon-ho’s ‘The Host’ Is The Defining Monster Movie Of The 21st Century

3. “Under The Skin”

Under the Skin

“Under the Skin”

A24

What does it mean to be human? It’s an ambitious question at the heart of many of the best science-fiction films, but few answer it with the kind of evocative beauty and abstract intrigue of “Under the Skin.” Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 masterpiece studies humanity through the eyes of a seductive alien, played by a never-better Scarlett Johansson. The more humanity begins to take hold of her subconscious, the more her sense of self is rattled. This is not didactic filmmaking; it’s a full-bodied experience. The shock and discovery of something new settles in as the alien roams Glasgow, the camera studying her from afar like a stranger in a strange land. Then, Glazer expertly realizes the unexplainable sensation that overcomes her as humanity seeps in. He creates a visual and aural understanding of what it means to discover humanity, and how warm and dangerous that can be. Glazer depicts this awakening with his own transfixing cinematic language: bursts of kaleidoscopic colors, a percussive score, and set design more akin to an art installation than traditional cinema. He forces you to confront what humanity is, and whether it’s a sin or a blessing. The ultimate discovery is cinema at its most singular and essential. It’s science-fiction at its puzzling and thought-provoking best. — ZS

2. “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind”

Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

Focus Features

There’s an ephemeral quality to the visual poetry of Michel Gondry that captures both the beauty and sadness of being alive. It’s Gondry’s nature as an artist not to stay grounded in reality or in the confines of narrative, which can result in films that are brilliant but not fully realized. That’s why Charlie Kaufman’s metaphysical time travel script for “Spotless” is such a gift for Gondry, and subsequently us. In the story of two lovers — a never-better Jim Carrey and the always-great Kate Winslet — who chose to forget each other, the sci-fi device melts away and the film becomes a visual meditation on the memories that can’t be erased. — CO

1. “Children of Men”

Clive Owen Children of Men

“Children of Men”

Universal Pictures

Deciding what would be number one was the easiest part of assembling this list. The virtuoso long-take filmmaking of director Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is the filmmaking equivalent of Mozart. It’s so jaw dropping in certain sequences that it feels like flexing, but that uninterrupted camera draws us into the film’s tensest scenes in a way that makes Clive Owens’ noble struggle against this dystopian nightmare uniquely immersive. This authoritarian London, where women have stopped giving birth, feels all too real. Interior spaces are almost like characters themselves, which makes its bleakness so palpable, so relatable – and this film projected our current refugee crisis eight years early. The pebble of hope, and the film’s narrative drive, comes in the form of the Kee, played with remarkable grace by Clare-Hope Ashitey, a young pregnant refugee. For two hours we are right there with Owens in believing nothing else in the world matters but getting her to safety. Quite simply one of the true masterpieces of 21st century. — CO

Honorable Mention: “2046,” “Timecrimes,” “Europa Report,” “Godzilla,” “Monsters,” “The Fountain,” “Solaris,” “Interstellar,” “A.I,” “Beyond The Black Rainbow,” and “The Clone Returns Home.” Honestly, at one point all of these films were on early drafts of this list. It’s really hair splitting to determine the difference between #16 and #26.

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