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The 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.

Best Sci fi movies

IndieWire

20. “Looper”

Looper

“Looper”

Sony Pictures Releasing/TriStar Pictures

There’s a screenwriting adage that when creating a world, the writer needs to have all the rules clearly defined while not explaining them to the audience; characters should tell us through their actions. For Rian Johnson’s somewhat complicated time-travel film, it almost feels like there too many disparate threads to be tied into a satisfying whole and the film can feel unnecessarily convoluted.

But as the film evolves and we settle into its central drama can Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s protagonist bring himself to kill his future self (Bruce Willis)? the emotional core of the film emerges. With Johnson, who was in the process of taking the reins of the “Star Wars” franchise when this list was first published, it’s clear he’s a thoughtful cinephile from which an original voice and point of view emerged. Kathleen Kennedy chose wisely. —CO

Stream on Hulu via Starz; stream on Amazon via Starz; rent or buy on Amazon.

19. “The Fountain”

THE FOUNTAIN, 2006. ©Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection

“The Fountain”

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Ambition has always been one of Darren Aronofsky’s biggest strengths, but even fans of the “Requiem for a Dream” director find “The Fountain” to be just too ambitious for its own good. Aronofsky has called “The Fountain” his version of a Rubik’s cube, which is an apt comparison for a movie that is forced to bottle up centuries-spanning ideas on love, religion, and mysticism into 96 minutes.

Many fans are convinced there’s a director’s cut of “The Fountain” out there that’s a true winner. And yet, “The Fountain” that got released in theaters remains so fearlessly original in its blending of horror, science-fiction, and romance that it deserves reconsideration as one of the boldest sci-fi love stories of the century. Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz play three different characters in three stories set centuries apart, but in each a romance forms between them that suggest their souls are experiencing second and third lives. Aronofsky cuts all three narratives together with match cuts that erase the constraints of time and place. For as ambitious as “The Fountain” aims to be, it wholly succeeds in telling an epic story about how the relationship between love and mortality defies all scientific logic and religious spirituality. —ZS

Stream on Hulu via HBO Max; stream on Amazon via HBO; rent or buy on Amazon.

18. “Ex Machina”

Ex Machina

“Ex Machina”

A24

As Quentin Tarantino aptly pointed out, there always was a tension in the collaboration between great sci-fi screenwriter Alex Garland (“28 Days Later,” “Sunshine”) and director Danny Boyle. Not that they didn’t get along, but Garland’s distinct worlds weren’t a perfect fit for Boyle’s more prestige-driven vision. That’s why the prospect of Garland directing “Ex Machina” was so exciting: Garland unfiltered! That he would arrive a fairly fully formed filmmaker was a bonus we couldn’t have expected.

“Ex Machina” is one of the more assured and satisfying films about artificial intelligence, as programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) and his brilliant and eccentric boss (Oscar Isaac) test if their android (Alicia Vikander) can pass as human. The cast has a blast with their roles and none more than Vikander, who gets to play a seductress that messes with her owners’ heads. The real joy, however, is the way Garland unfolds a mounting sense of paranoia that envelops this world. CO

Stream on Showtime; stream on Hulu via Showtime; stream on Amazon via Showtime; rent or buy on Amazon.

17. “Paprika”

Paprika

“Paprika”

Sony Pictures Classics

Satoshi Kon isn’t widely known, so many cinephiles may not realize that the animator’s 2010 death (from cancer, at 47) represented a profound loss. Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky have been inspired by his cinematic inventiveness; the roots of “Inception” can be found in Kon’s final film, “Paprika,” about a device that permits therapists to help patients by entering their dreams.

But where Nolan needed to take pause in order to let his audience catch up with dialogue-driven exposition, Kon’s film effortlessly slips through levels of consciousness by creating his own totally understandable sense of time, space, dreams, and reality. If you’re unfamiliar with exactly how next-level Kon was as filmmaker, Tony Zhou’s video essay about his cutting patterns is extremely well-done. —CO

Rent or buy on Amazon.

16. “Edge of Tomorrow”

"Edge of Tomorrow"

“Edge of Tomorrow”

Warner Bros.

In Doug Liman’s snazzy spin on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s smart light novel “All You Need Is Kill” imagines Tom Cruise as a public relations officer killed filming an awe-inspiring alien invasion, but who finds himself in a time loop that sends him back to the day preceding the battle every time he dies. (Hence the film’s original title, “Live Die Repeat.”) Cruise teams with a special forces expert (Emily Blunt) who attempts to train him in the hope that he can survive and discover how to defeat the overwhelming forces. The narrative structure becomes like a satisfying video game, in which Cruise and Blunt must learn to unlock the trick to making it to the next level.

The film follows the familiar Tom Cruise story arc smarmy man in crisis discovers what really matters but because of its “Groundhog Day”-like narrative structure, “Edge of Tomorrow” becomes almost a meta-examination of Cruise’s star persona that is immensely satisfying. Yet, the soul of the film belongs to Blunt. Her character is cut from the Western tradition of a cowboy who carries a deep emotional scar in a stoic strength, and Blunt crushes in the role. Studying this film should be mandatory for every befuddled studio exec who can’t see past the woman being more than love interest to the action film’s male protagonist. —CO

Rent or buy on Amazon.

15. “Wall-E”

Wall-E

“Wall-E”

Walt Disney Pictures

Set in the year 2805, “Wall-E” follows a friendly, curious robot who’s all alone on Earth. The human race didn’t die out, they merely abandoned the planet after overcrowding it with too much stuff. Wall-E stands for “Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth Class,” and he spends his time rooting through old junk, until falling hard for a shiny robot named Eve who visits Earth with an unmanned spacecraft. Wall-E’s attachment to Eve causes him to follow her back to the human starship Axoim, where the charms of this sweet, robotic love story are tested by more nefarious forces. Endless automation has turned humans into obese, sedentary blobs who rely on machines for everything.

The revelation that plant life still exists on Earth, however, triggers a chain of events that could see humans return to their home planet to recolonize it. Though “Wall-E” depicts a dystopia in which humans’ ugly obsession with technology and consumption has banished them to space, this brilliantly imaginative sci-fi tale manages a last-minute course correction that proves the human race always has the capacity for redemption. —GW

Stream on Disney+; rent or buy on Amazon.

14. “Arrival”

"Arrival"

“Arrival”

Paramount Pictures

The rare sci-fi outing that wears its heart firmly on its spacesuit sleeve, Denis Villeneuve’s emotional and rich adaptation of Ted Chiang’s short story uses alien arrival to reveal what it means to be human. Amy Adams is the marquee attraction, running through a true gamut of emotions that never cease to be believable, even when the situation is fantastic.

Much like “Contact,” the film is ultimately about an internal journey and the need for communication between (all kinds of) beings, though “Arrival” doesn’t skimp on showing off massive spacecraft and introducing us to a pair of extraterrestrial friends who scarcely resemble what we’ve come to expect from big-screen alien life. A small story writ large, “Arrival” is all about the journey. —KE

Rent or buy on Amazon.

13. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

20th Century Fox

By the time the extremely promising “War for the Planet of the Apes” is released this summer, concluding Caesar’s (Andy Serkis) trilogy, the series will likely go down as Hollywood’s smartest franchise reboot. What began with director Rupert Wyatt’s fantastic, character-driven origin story, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” evolved into Matt Reeves’ profound and heart-pounding masterpiece.

Reeves plants his flag as one the best directors of action in what is essentially a war film, but beneath the battle scenes is Caesar’s struggle about what to do with the plague-ravaged human population. That Caesar is one of the most captivating characters in recent Hollywood films speaks to the groundbreaking mo-cap technology and performance (can we please give Serkis some awards attention!) that has gone into making this trilogy. —CO

Rent or buy on Amazon.

12. “Minority Report”

"Minority Report"

“Minority Report”

20th Century Fox

Steven Spielberg isn’t the first director you’d imagine for a Philip K. Dick adaptation, but the alchemy on this film is near perfection. There is no director alive who can more precisely and efficiently synthesize exposition, complicated action, and character by knowing exactly how to stage and shoot a scene.

That efficiency pays off in the film’s first 20 minutes, quickly establishing the depth and complexity of Dick’s world as we dive head first into the film’s story. “Minority Report” features some of the Spielberg’s best action set pieces, inspired by the cars and future technology to come up with new tricks. Production designer Alex McDowell’s vision of a high-tech future is visionary without being inhuman, and the film achieves surprising depth in framing how the surveillance-versus-safety question applies to our post 9/11 world. —CO

Rent or buy on Amazon.

11. “Annihilation”

Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Annihilation from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

“Annihilation”

Paramount Pictures

As the first act of Alex Garland’s mind-bending sci-fi horror feature “Annihilation” unfolds, a group of five scientists prepare to head out into an uncharted and uninhabited disaster zone known only as “Area X,” a trip tinged with fear and trepidation. It’s an expedition that’s been launched before, though never with good results. As the film tells us, Area X has been cast in a strange bubble called “The Shimmer” since some sort of object crash-landed on its shore years ago, and the space underneath that bubble has never been quite the same. Teams have been sent in to explore before, but only one person has ever come back from the trip alive (and he’s not in great shape).

It’s already a weird enough mission, but this time holds a special significance: No women have ever participated in an expedition before, and this one’s exclusively comprised of them. “All women,” one of the characters notes as she surveys the group assembled around her, before physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) adds: “Scientists.” Josie’s not caught up in the gender implications of a crew that includes roles for actresses like Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny; she’s just concerned with their professional bonafides. Garland’s film is rife with such intriguing twists that poke at our concept of what a sci-fi adventure can look like, and rooting it in hard science only helps its more jaw-dropping narrative kinks truly (and literally) blossom. —KE

Rent or buy on Amazon.

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