So what is Sci-fi? It’s not the easiest question to answer when “sci-fi elements” permeate so many of the biggest blockbusters: thought-provoking genre concepts flattened into franchise fodder that makes countless titles “feel” and, occasionally, look even out.
Yes, science fiction is rooted in deep origins, exploring humanity’s deep-seated fear of itself and the terrifying possibility of unknown worlds. But the past two decades have seen a metaphorical rush on sci-fi storytelling that has turned the once niche subgenre into an oversaturated movie market. On the one hand, it has produced an onslaught of sci-fi(ish) titles that are not always up to snuff. But on the other hand, it has produced some of the best sci-fi movies ever made. Masterpieces like “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Nope” both came this year, topping our list at number five and number eight respectively.
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Simply put: When deciding the 50 best sci-fi movies of the 21st century, you have to draw a line in the sand – even if it’s the sand of Arrakis. For this, some rules have been set.
No fantasy-centric superhero movies will be shown here, nor will the space-borne fantasy franchises “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.” For an action, horror, or animated film to make it onto this list, it must be firmly rooted in its sci-fi origins and make notable use of its tropes and themes. Also (just to get this out of the way): These movies are considered by IndieWire as some of the very best of the century, but did not qualify for this list: “Gravity,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Holy Motors,” and “Battle Royale ».
Without further ado, here are the 50 best science fiction movies of the 21st century.
Samantha Bergeson, Christian Blauvelt, David Ehrlich, Ryan Lattanzio, Noel Murray, Zack Sharf, Graham Winfrey and Christian Zilko also contributed to this list.
50. “Into the Dark: Culture Shock”
The Hulu/Everett Collection
Tucked away among Hulu’s “Into the Dark” horror anthology (a collection of holiday-themed films of varying quality), director Gigi Saul Guerrero’s 2019 sci-fi gem combines familiar futuristic concepts with thoroughly modern political commentary.
When pregnant Marisol (Martha Higareda) tries to cross the Mexico-US border for the second time, her harrowing story of survival as an undocumented immigrant turns into a colorful “Stepford Wives” fantasy. But the so-called American dream cannot last, and Marisol soon finds herself desperate to escape the country she once planned to call home.
Ranked among IndieWire’s Best Horror Movies to Watch on the Fourth of July, “Culture Shock” not only has an inventive plot (with one heck of a twist), but it uses the ingenious framework to make searing, salient points about human rights. —AF
With one room and $50,000, director James Ward Byrkit showed that there are no limits to what is possible in the sci-fi genre. A filmmaking lesson in activating off-screen spaces and building mystery into the unseen, the story centers around eight friends gathered for a dinner party when a comet whizzes overhead, killing the electricity and opening a portal for the diners to enter other realities, which takes 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 engagement in the drama, which does a good job of presenting the characters with existential questions that you can’t help but think about yourself. —CO
48. “Safety Not Guaranteed”
FilmDistrict/Free Everett Collection
Sci-fi rom-com is not a phrase used often enough. “Safety Not Guaranteed” is a silent 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 travel back in time with. Mark Duplass is the scientist who invented the supposed time travel device. A quest to uncover past loves while evading government inquisitions over time-limiting tactics underlies the award-winning Sundance feature despite its heady premise. And “Safety Not Guaranteed” also heralded the trend of indie filmmakers scoring tentpoles off the proceeds of their micro-budget indies. Three years later, director Colin Trevorrow would helm 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
47. “Source Code”
Summit Entertainment/courtesy Everett Collection
Reimagining “Groundhog Day” as a high-tech, high-stakes mystery, the impressively tight and fast-paced “Source Code” integrates science-fiction elements into a thriller that feels more immediate than futuristic. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Captain Colter Stevens, an Army pilot whose consciousness is constantly sent back in time, reliving the last eight minutes of a Chicago commuter’s life before his train explodes. Stevens has been told by his superiors to track down the bomber; but of course there is more to it than he is initially allowed to understand. Director Duncan Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley cleverly keep the audience locked onto a protagonist who doesn’t always know what’s going on, so we get to figure it all out with him. They also create a whole little community around that train, which becomes a kind of refuge for the hero, even though he knows he lives in a world where these moments of peace cannot last. —NM
©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection
Mike Judge’s sci-fi satire seemed doomed from the moment 20th Century Fox abandoned it at the last minute, making the film an inevitable box office bomb. But despite all this, the film has persisted and worked its way into American pop culture solely because 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 idiot population that is completely unable to get through the day, let alone govern itself. This leads to many funny moments, but with each passing year the film seems less like 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 mistake is not going far enough. — CZ
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