[Editor’s note: This list was originally published in 2017, but it has been updated with additional entries and re-ranked on May 10, 2022.]
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So…what is sci-fi? It’s not exactly the easiest question to ask when “sci-fi elements” permeate so many of the biggest blockbusters, thought-provoking genre concepts flattened into so much franchise fodder. In determining the 45 best sci-fi movies of the 21st century, we’ve drawn a line in the sand — even if that’s the sands of Arrakis. No fantasy-centric superhero movies will appear here, and the same goes for those space-borne fantasy franchises “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”; for an action, horror, or animated movie to make it onto this list, it needs 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: “Gravity,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Holy Motors,” and “Battle Royale.” Drum roll, please…
Samantha Bergeson, Christian Blauvelt, David Ehrlich, Ryan Lattanzio, Noel Murray, Zack Sharf, Graham Winfrey, and Christian Zilko also contributed to this list.
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
44. “Safety Not Guaranteed”
FilmDistrict/courtesy Everett Collection
Sci-fi rom-com isn’t a phrase used often enough. “Safety Not Guaranteed” is a quiet take on both genres, as Jack Johnson and Aubrey Plaza star as two journalists assigned to investigate a curious classified ad seeking a partner to go back in time with. Mark Duplass is the scientist who invented the supposed time travel device. A quest to uncover past loves, while dodging government inquisitions over the time-bending tactics, grounds the Sundance award-winning feature despite its heady premise. And “Safety Not Guaranteed” also heralded the trend of indie filmmakers scoring tentpoles off their buzz of their micro-budget indies. Three years later, director Colin Trevorrow would head up the “Jurassic World” sequel based on this ambitious feature alone. Kristen Bell, Jeff Garlin, and the late Lynn Shelton also starred in the critically acclaimed film. —SB
43. “Source Code”
Summit Entertainment/courtesy Everett Collection
Reimagining “Groundhog Day” as a high-tech, high-stakes mystery, the impressively taut and snappily paced “Source Code” integrates science-fiction elements into a thriller that feels more of-the-moment than futuristic. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Captain Colter Stevens, an Army pilot who keeps having his consciousness sent back in time, where he re-experiences the last eight minutes in the life of a Chicago-bound commuter, before his train explodes. Stevens has been told by his superiors to track down the bomber; but of course there’s more to it than he is initially allowed to understand. Director Duncan Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley smartly keep their audience locked onto a protagonist who doesn’t always know what’s going on, so we get to figure everything out along with him. They also create a whole little society about that train, which becomes a kind of refuge for the hero, even though he knows he lives in a world where those moments of peace can’t last. —NM
©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection
Mike Judge’s sci-fi satire seemed cursed from the moment 20th Century Fox abandoned it at the last minute, making the film an inevitable box office bomb. But despite all of that, the film has persisted and worked its way into American pop culture purely on the strength of its depressingly accurate predictions. “Idiocracy” envisions a futuristic America where everything is dumbed down by a combination of anti-intellectualism, bland commercial entertainment, and the phenomenon of smart people simply not having children. The result is an idiotic populace that is completely incapable of getting through the day, let alone governing itself. This leads to plenty of funny moments, but with each passing year the film seems like less of a comedy and more like intelligent dystopian sci-fi. While the film’s prediction that America would devolve into a kakistocracy may have seemed too bleak in 2006, it now seems like the film’s biggest flaw is not going far enough. —CZ
©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection
Christopher Nolan’s palindrome of a film divided critics, boggled audiences, and single-handedly challenged streaming during the COVID-19 era. What starts as an espionage film quickly turns into a sci-fi headscratcher as a CIA agent (John David Washington) learns how to manipulate time to prevent a future attack that threatens to implode the present world. Robert Pattinson stars as the handler and token time-travel explainer, while Kenneth Branagh and Elizabeth Debicki are the targets for the CIA mission — for a crime that they haven’t committed yet. “Tenet” might be most memorable for explaining time travel, backwards, and then proceeding to capture what it would be like if, perhaps, you would ever need to drive backwards — and that does not mean in reverse — to save the world. —SB