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The 45 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the 21st Century, from ‘Tenet’ to ‘Dune’

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.

The 45 best sci-fi movies of the 21st century.

The 45 best sci-fi movies of the 21st century

30. “Beyond the Black Rainbow”

BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, Eva Allan, 2010, ©Magnolia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

“Beyond the Black Rainbow”

©Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

The feature directorial debut of Panos Cosmatos is one of the most audacious and mind-bending pieces of 21st century science fiction. The story takes place in a futuristic version of 1983 where a young woman is forced to fight through heavy sedation in order to escape from a secluded commune.

Some viewers may knock “Beyond the Black Rainbow” for being an incoherent audiovisual extravaganza for its own sake, but Cosmatos succeeds in thrusting the viewer in the subjective sensory overload of his protagonist. The filmmaker’s vision is a wacky, carefully designed, and totally inscrutable science fiction puzzle that defies logic in favor of a hypnotic rhythm that is impossible to resist for those paying close attention. —ZS

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29. “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

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28. “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

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27. “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 impressive 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. What happens when he realizes he’s not the first person to undertake this mission leads to a thrilling, often very emotional inner exploration. —CO

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

26. “2046”

2046, Zhang Ziyi, 2004, (c) Sony Pictures Classics/courtesy Everett Collection

“2046”

©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Call it the Wong Kar Wai multiverse. It’s a concept so de rigueur in multiplexes now that it’s starting to lose currency, but on the arthouse side, Wong was ahead of the game with his heady, lushly melancholic drama “2046.” The 2004 film revisits the places and characters established in “Days of Being Wild” and “In the Mood for Love,” with Tony Leung reprising his role as Chow Mo-wan, now in the fallout of his failed affair with Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) in 1960s Hong Kong. An ever-looping timeline coalesces around the number of the film’s title: it’s a date, a place, and the number of a hotel room next to Mo-wan’s own, from which doomed loves will come and go.

Amid the film’s ambitious sprawl is a retro-futuristic sci-fi short story of its own, where a passenger played by Takuya Kimura falls in love with a humanoid woman (played by Faye Wong) on a train to or from nowhere and filled with yearning. The cyperpunk-inspired visuals make for one of Wong’s biggest leaps, in terms of both scale and time, and invite dreams of what else Wong could do with the sci-fi genre, even though this movie is perfect as is. —RL

25. “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 distinctly smart “Get Out” vibe. —CO

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

24. “Snowpiercer”

Snowpiercer

“Snowpiercer”

RADiUS-TWC

In typical Weinstein fashion, the story of the release of this highly anticipated film became about Harvey being Harvey (delays stemming from a demand of cutting 20 minutes, shifting from a wide release to a last-minute cockamamie VOD strategy) rather than how Bong Joon Ho’s first English-language film was visionary. Yet as the Korean director’s body of work continues to evolve, the greatness of “Snowpiercer” seems to be catching on.

The film relishes its conceptual lunacy: a train travels around the world after a failed climate change experiment has killed off everyone else. Director Bong has an Almodovar-like playfulness about cinema and performance Hollywood stars being yet another tool he knows exactly how to use but delivers sharp insight into class divisions, with his signature tinge of political bleakness. —CO

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23. “Donnie Darko”

Donnie Darko

“Donnie Darko”

Newmarket Films

A blindingly original mash up of sci-fi, horror, and dark comedy, “Donnie Darko” stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a troubled teenager in 1988 who’s visited at night by an imaginary friend named Frank, a haunting figure in a terrifying and quite large rabbit suit. Frank tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, six hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds, and when Donnie returns home, he learns a jet engine has fallen out of the sky onto his bedroom. It’s at this moment that the film’s unexpected shift into sci-fi takes hold of the viewer, never letting go until the movie’s mind-bending conclusion.

Richard Kelly’s feature debut had a disastrous premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where audiences didn’t know what to make of the bizarre story, but after flopping at the U.S. box office, “Donnie Darko” became a hit overseas, eventually achieving its much-deserved cult status. The supporting cast includes Gyllenhaal’s sister Maggie, Patrick Swayze, and Oscar nominees Mary McDonnell and Katharine Ross. —GW

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22. “Inception”

Inception

“Inception”

Warner Bros.

If you’re one of the people who got lost somewhere in the middle of Christopher Nolan’s two-and-a-half-hour sci-fi epic “Inception,” you’re not alone. The film follows an “extractor” named Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who steals secrets for corporate espionage through the use of dream-sharing technology that allows him to penetrate the minds of his targets. Things get particularly tricky when he’s assigned a more experimental form of mind control, called “inception,” which involves planting ideas into the mind of another person. Cobb’s objective is to induce the heir to a corporation (Cillian Murphy) to break up the company he’s soon to inherit, a tall order that may or may not be possible.

It’s easy to get lost in the dreams within dreams that take us deeper into the make-believe worlds of the characters, but Nolan’s limitless imagination is too awe-inspiring for us to look away. The stunning visualizations of cities folding on themselves and action sequences that break the rules of space-time plunge us into cinematic territory that not even “The Matrix” could conjure. It’s a world few filmmakers could bring to life without buckling under the weight of their own imagination, and Nolan is up to the task. —GW

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21. “Hard to Be a God”

Hard to Be a God

“Hard to Be a God”

Kino Lorber

Late Russian director Aleksei German put one of the better arthouse twists on the sci-fi genre with a film that dared to ask, “What would you do in God’s place?” A group of research scientists is sent on a mission to a planet nearly identical to Earth, but where the inhabitants live in an oppressive society that invokes the Middle Ages. As scientists, the men are forbidden to interfere, but when Don Rumata (played by great Leonid Yarmolnik) is recognized as a futuristic god, he’s driven by a need to save a group of local intellectuals from a murderous tyrant.

German created a bleak world (even by Russian standards), but it’s also a wandering, visually rich, and cinematically exciting journey that takes advantage of sci-fi’s ability to ask some deep questions and deliver devastating political commentary. —CO

Stream on Amazon via MUBI.

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