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The 20 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the Last 20 Years

The 20 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the Last 20 Years

Head-scratching doesn’t begin to describe Shane Carruth’s “Primer.” Yet, there’s something so scientifically ambitious and aesthetically grounded about the entire production that it’s simply astonishing, even if you have no idea what the hell is going on. Carruth and David Sullivan play two engineers who accidentally create a time travel machine (known as “the box”), but it’s not the kind of science fiction plot device you’re used to seeing. Describing exactly how the box works would take paragraphs (the internet has devoted entire threads and infographics to getting it right), but that somehow works to the film’s advantage. By presenting the convoluted mess of time travel in such an unadorned way, Carruth gives the viewer a front row seat to the head-spinning nightmare that awaits anyone who dares mess with the space time continuum. You may not understand the science, but the emotions hit deep as these two friends and co-worker spiral apart from each other and themselves (in more ways than one). — ZS

Children of Men

The only thing more disheartening than a dystopia is an immersive one. Rather than try to build a sense of this alternate, infertility-stricken version of London through a random selection of central characters, “Children of Men” wisely filters its vision through the journey of an average resident. Thrust into unusual circumstances as a witness to (and subsequent caretaker of) the last remaining pregnant woman on the planet, Clive Owen’s Theo becomes a counterintuitive protagonist through sheer determination rather than extraordinary ability. Instead the other-wordly talent on display here comes courtesy of the dynamic duo of director Alfonso Cuarón and DP Emmanuel Lubezki. Their camera-based wizardry, whether it’s in the execution of two of cinema’s finest long takes or in the moments like the streetside explosion that opens the film, gives everything an expansive feel, even in the tightest of spaces. While this future that has little hope for the future is rife with sniper attacks and cinder block bashings and urban detention centers, Cuarón lets a few stray rays of light shine through the murkiness. Even if some of the issues in this parable feel achingly close to global headlines, there’s an indelible image that offers some hint at redemption: to see a group of combatants hold their fire to make way for a miracle, it’s a reminder that are still things in this world that have the power to transcend conflict and uncertainty. – SG

The Fountain

A divisive film all the more rewarding because of its singular vision, Darren Aronofsky’s first foray into studio filmmaking remained as challenging, gripping and stunning as his previous two indie efforts (if not more so). “The Fountain” is a lavish spectacle with a throbbing heartbeat impossible to ignore, and, while mainstream audiences largely did — ignore the film, that is — the Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz romance should be a modern touchstone for the genre. For the last 20 years, science-fiction has been pushing the boundaries of how stories are told, and bits and pieces of “The Fountain” can be seen in such modern masterpieces as disparate as “Inception” and “The Tree of Life.” Its grand philosophical questions are matched by an ambitious visual palette, just as its three-tiered story is grounded by two courageous performances. “The Fountain” may not be for everyone, but the grand experiment certainly benefitted us all. — Ben Travers

The Host

No, no, not “The Host” starring Saiorse Ronan and adapted from “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer’s perhaps ill-planned foray into adult sci-fi offerings. “The Host” from South Korean auteur Bong Joon-Ho, now best known for films like “Snowpiercer” and “Mother.” On its surface, Bong’s feature is a vividly imagined monster movie, pitting a massive, river-dwelling monster who looks and moves like the unholy love child of Godzilla and the Loch Ness Monster against a wildly out-of-their-depth family, whose youngest he snatches away to his river lair. Yet Bong also finds the time to imagine what such a large-scale disaster would do to a sprawling city (in this case, Seoul) in ways that are both believable and very entertaining. While Bong and his cast work to make the abduction and subsequent fallout have a real emotional root (and they succeed! you care about these people!), the film isn’t without some biting laughs that nicely balance out all the terror. Put this way: There’s a scene that involves a mourning family sobbing in concert that is initially heart-wrenching before it switches gears into one of the most absurdly, wonderfully dark comedic moments of the last decade. — Kate Erbland


Whether by narrative efficiency, budgetary demands or directorial vision, Nacho Vigolando’s time-travel story benefits from its small-scale trappings. It’s a compressed timeframe (our everyman lead character Hector discovers an ominous-looking time-travel device that only spits him back one hour into the past), and Vigolando takes full advantage of the recursive nature of the mystery. As the layers of the timeline begin to stack higher and Héctor becomes an increasingly bigger threat to himself, it becomes a representative case study in fatal overcorrection. Although this was Vigolando’s feature debut, he’s stayed sci-fi-adjacent, spinning in romance (“Extraterrestrial”) and technology (“Open Windows”) along the way. But nothing he’s done in the genre has quite topped the overarching Hitchcockian dread he harnessed for this, a story where knowing what the hero looks like is only the first step. – SG

Up next: Angry aliens, of the furry and monument-beheading variety

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