“Every science fiction movie I have ever seen, anyone that’s worth its weight in celluloid, warns us about things that ultimately come true.” – Steven Spielberg
Science fiction, in all its mystifying enormity, was once considered a genre reserved for comic-store ‘geeks’ and young boys, depicting lands and characters inaccessible to the everyday film lover. In contemporary times, science fiction dominates, be it in the continuing juggernaut of the Marvel cinematic universe that ruthlessly chugs on or the atmospheric exploration of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.
Nowadays, the ‘geeks’ of yesteryear have disappeared, with the notion almost totally obliterated as everybody is seemingly now a fan of Marvel, D.C, Star Wars and enigmatic board games. The reason as to why such attitudes have shifted is unclear, though perhaps speaks to a thirst for complicated stories that demand intricate knowledge, particularly in an existence of such fleeting momentary joys as social media and 20-second TikToks.
As such, the 21st-century has enjoyed 21 years of a flourishing sci-fi genre, where smaller independent films such as Primer and Upstream Colour have gone on to inspire the likes of Looper and Tenet, in a constant symbiotic feedback loop. In a crowded genre, none of the aforementioned films made the lucrative cut, with the following ten films claiming science fiction supremacy.
The 10 best sci-fi films of the 21st century:
10. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)
The concept of a virus bringing a nation to its knees is unfortunately no longer such a fantasy, albeit the crippling coronavirus was nowhere near as violent as the bloodthirsty horror show of Danny Boyle’s riveting 28 Days Later.
Changing the very perception of the zombie sub-genre, Boyle’s film, written by Alex Garland turned the idiotic meat parcels of old into the most frightening contemporary foe. A visionary masterpiece, 28 Days Later establishes an apocalyptic London with genius imagination whilst containing an excellent, isolated story of human desperation, fragility and violence, starring Cillian Murphy at the helm.
9. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)
In Christopher Nolan’s glittering career of superhero movies and bombastic sci-fi’s, Inception comes out on top as his greatest effort to date, well combining his own spectacular visual storytelling together with a surprisingly touching human story.
Itself inspired by Paprika by Satoshi Kon, a film that narrowly missed the cut, Inception is a wild science fiction journey, as well as an inspired cinematic tale. Starring the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard and Elliot Page, Christopher Nolan’s film became a cultural staple upon its release in 2010 becoming a spectacle ubiquitous with the most enigmatic science fiction films ever since.
8. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)
Among one of the finest animated films of the current century, as well as a great of science fiction, WALL-E is one of the few films to truly use climate change as a basis for a compelling, spectacular story.
Sure, it’s a tale that has been used before, but never to the extent and imagination of Andrew Stanton’s film that is staggeringly ambitious in narrative and cinematic scope. Following a mute lead character and his adventure across space, Pixar created one of its greatest ever lead roles, with the film having to work harder and more dynamically to elicit the emotions of an old, rusty robot. Somehow it works and a science fiction marvel is born.
7. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)
Well-illustrating the cultural mood and sentiment of an imminent millennial generation, Donnie Darko is an angsty coming-of-age tale fuelled by some ingenious sci-fi elements from director Richard Kelly.
Creating a story following a troubled teenager who narrowly escapes a bizarre accident before being plagued by visions of a man in a large rabbit suit, Kelly pushes the envelope of science fiction by synthesising the genre together with a compelling coming of age tale. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze and Seth Rogen, Donnie Darko is an elaborate story that manages to access a truth about the sentiment of modern-day youth that seems more pertinent now than it was in 2001.
6. Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)
Audiences, and indeed filmmakers, are largely bored of the evil alien stereotype, the large boneheaded green creatures who shoot nondescript lasers at fleeing movie stars. Certainly, Denis Villeneuve looked to make a change.
In what can surely be described as one of the most realistic alien-invasion films ever made, Arrival follows a linguist who attempts to communicate with a new lifeform as several spacecraft land across the world. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, Arrival is a scintillating science fiction thriller that succeeds in defying expectations and presenting a story more about human communication than an alien invasion.
5. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
If the shape of the genre in the 21st century has taught us anything, it’s that you don’t need spaceships, aliens and ray guns to tell a science fiction story, sometimes all you need is a great story about people and relationships with modern technology suffused within.
Representative of a burgeoning science fiction genre that focuses on the nuanced changes of everyday living, much like Netflix’s Black Mirror has done for years, Her by Spike Jonze is a pertinent cultural fable. Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara and Scarlett Johansson, Her is a painful 21st-century tale that shows just how far technology has brought us, whilst demonstrating just how much it’s holding us back.
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
Utterly heartbreaking, there are few films as beautifully melancholy as Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, thanks to a compelling screenplay from the iconic modern great, Charlie Kaufman.
Led by an emotionally stirring Jim Carrey alongside an equally impressive Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind tells the story of a couple who decide to erase their memories after an impassioned breakup. An ingenious tale, captivatingly told, Gondry’s film is a thrilling toybox of varying cinematic thrills that is spiked with a tragic heart that palpitates with raw human emotion.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
This diesel-powered thrill ride through desolate madness in the post-apocalyptic outback is the reimagining of the Mad Max universe that we never knew we needed, with George Miller’s modern take on the tale causing a cultural whirlwind.
Essentially an extended action chase movie, the film stalks a lonely traveller Max (Tom Hardy) escaping the savagery of Immortan Joe’s savage gang whilst leading a group of women across the wastelands into pastures new. Fabulously bonkers, Mad Max: Fury Road is an ode to the 1980s action genre where rules didn’t apply and individuality was embraced. There is truly no other film quite as unique as Mad Max: Fury Road.
2. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
Continually deconstructed, even to this day, the technical mastery of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is unparalleled, telling the story of a world on the verge of extinction due to infertility and a woman who becomes miraculously pregnant.
The greatest film of sci-fi lover Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men presents a gripping tale adapted from the novel of the same name by P. D. James. With the likes of Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Caine, the tale follows a bureaucrat (Owen) who is tasked with finding and protecting the pregnant woman whilst facing the breakdown of social order. It’s a magnificent production that seamlessly brings together cinematography, sound, set design and more to create one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time.
1. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2014)
This strange, dark sci-fi tale is a cornerstone of contemporary cinema with Jonathan Glazer taking the viewer on a cinematic voyage that merges inconceivable visuals and a masterful score to form a human story from the point of view of a curious alien lifeform.
A bewildering journey, Glazer’s film stars Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan and Adam Pearson and takes the genre to visionary new heights, defying the very definitions of science fiction. Experimental and surreal, the film follows the apparent birth of a seductive alien, played by Johansson, as she stalks the streets of Glasgow searching for both prey and purpose. Underlined by Mica Levi’s spellbinding audiovisual score that assaults and traumatises the senses, Glazer’s film takes your mind to places of the mind you had not yet discovered.
A dark, cosmic, ethereal piece of cinema, Under the Skin is a cinematic experience like no other.