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Best Sci-Fi Movies of the 21st Century

Top Sci-Fi Movies of the 21st Century

The 21st Century was the focus of so  much 20th century Science Fiction. From Blade Runner to Robocop, it was visions of the 2000s that flourished in the scifi that was so popular at the end of the previous century. We're there, so now what do we do?

Luckily, filmmakers have been able to create new, exciting visions of the future, and in the most interesting cases, of our present and our past, with the advantage of an amazing new array of techniques. The advances in computer generated graphics has allowed more visually dazzling films than ever before, and high-tech audio processing and editing has allowed films to become more immersive, expansive, and expensive. What would never have been possible in the 1990s has become commonplace, and what would never have even been considered necessary in decades passed has become such a regular part of the filmmaking process, there's a phrase for it – "we;'ll fix it in post."

The advances in graphics even made it possible for companies such as Pixar and DreamWorks to release computer animated feature films, changing the animation landscape so thoroughly that traditional animation stands out just as much as computer animation had prior to 1990.

1999 had been a banner year for science fiction film, setting up for a wave of new movies. The Matrix, and Being John Malkovich had shown that smart, and weird, science fiction could draw a significant audience, and the return of the Star Wars franchise after fifteen years showed that even classics still had legs! In 2000, the stage was perfectly set for an explosion in new science fiction films, and for new science fiction filmmakers to come to the fore. Michel Gondry, Christopher Nolan, The Washowski brothers, J.J. Abrams, and hold-overs like Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott, would create science fiction films that took exceptional storytelling and applied impressive graphic and art design to create unfathomable new worlds.

Many of the most popular films of all-time were released after the year 2000, including a vast majority of those that have made more than a billion dollars in total revenue. The films of the 21st century have been both bigger brighter and badder, but also thoughtful and intelligent.

Inception is about dreams – literally and figuratively. The film is about hyper-intelligent thieves who steal memories and secrets, but who are tasked with implanting a thought. They do this by manipulating a sleeping mark, and they're good at it. VERY GOOD.  It's also a film about what is possible to do with film. Told using unquestionably vivid images of the world bending to our characters' wills, Inception is telling a story that mirrors what it means to be a filmmaker and have the world of technology at your fingertips. As Leonardo diCaprio's Cobb brings his team about to plant the image in the mind of the man he has been hired to influence, going deeper and further than every before, Christopher Nolan does the exact same thing with the film, bringing visuals that would never been possible before. Every performance in Inception is great, but you can never go wrong with Ken Watanabe and Tom Hardy, who are both so very good in this one. The ending, a source for debate since its release, may be the most maddeningly questionable, and totally appropriate, of all-time. Why it tops the list: A masterpiece of cinematic effects, art direction, acting, and plain old-fashioned heist-y fun! 
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a lot of fun, but none of the other films are nearly as science fictional, or as much fun, as Guardians of the Galaxy. Based on one of the lesser-known Marvel titles, The Guardians of the Galaxy tells the story of StarLord as he kinda stumbles into bringing together a band of miscreants, bounty hunters, walking trees, and talking raccoons. Yeah, it's that kind of movie. The music here is awesome, 1970s and early 80s rock, and the effects are spectacular. There's no denying that the team that made it put a lot of effort into every single frame, and they managed to pull of something that is so rare; they made a film where even the downbeats are fun, and everything feels important and touching. You've got a walking tree who can only say one thing, and somehow, they managed to make us feel for him! The film is a comedy, and an adventure, and a caper film, and a save-the-world movie, all in equal measure, and the result is so smart. Why it's on the list: Two words – Talking raccoon.
Action! That is what the Mad Max franchise has always been about. Sometimes described as what would happen if James Bond had survived the fall of humanity, the Mad Max films made a story of Mel Gibson, and director George Miller. Mad Max – Fury Road sees Tom Hardy takes over as Max, but here he is somewhat secondary to Imperator Furiosa, played with incredible intensity by Cherlise Theron. She is on the run, trying to free several women from their captors. This is a feminist story, but at the same time, it is every bit as breath-taking a thrill ride as the previous ones. The film is shot in a concept that lay somewhere between motorcycle-racing and a classic western. There is dust, and shaky action, but ultimately, you're left feeling as if you're driving alongside, watching the terrain run across your windows and exhausted by the experience. The sound is amazing, and something that could easily be overdone. The feeling of movement becomes a part of the emotional impact, as it pushes us back enough to realize that these are humans running not only for their lives, but for their freedom, and neither is more important than the other. Why it's on the list: It's an amazingly early 21st Century film, both politically and cinematically.
The first decade of the 21st Century could be called the decade when Computer Animation finally broke all the way through. WALL*E is one of the most adorable, most thought-provoking, and ultimately, scariest films of the decade. WALL*E is a trash collector robot, and the last one on Earth. He's all robot, but for some reason, he's found himself sentience, and a love of classic Hollywood. He's discovered love for another robot who has come to the abandoned Earth to see what's happening. That's the start of a wonderfully big adventure. The animation is typically PIXAR, beautiful and slick and smart, and the sound design tells the story by itself, giving the feeling of past and present melting together. The use of live actors and file footage combined make it so very distinctive. The themes of love at all costs, and the power of human sloth, greed, and discovery, are all-encompassing, and turn WALL*E  into a piece that speaks so strongly about the reality of being a human; a realization that is only possible when viewed through the story of a love-sick robot.  Why it's on the list: The PIXAR team is so strong, and WALL*E might be their best film.
Why is it Danish films are so dark? Even the comedies. Even the  hot summer blockbuster science fiction films. That's what The Substitute is, and it's also one of the most interesting takes on the classic 'Stranger Comes to Town' story. The substitute, played by the magnetic Paprika Steen, who comes to town is put in charge of an elementary school class. The big class trip turns into something sinister, and the kids have to lead the battle! What is better than watching kids fighting evil? This is a summer blockbuster, with stars like Ulrich Thomsen, who you might remember from the Bond film The World is Not Enough, and Steen, two of Denmark's biggest stars, and special effects that are the equal to any Hollywood blockbuster. The way the film plays out, with deep family drama mingling with scifi effects and some creepy comedy action, makes it a film that moves between tones so fluidly, but more importantly, does all of them so very well. When the film is over, it's a fully satisfying experience, and so much fun! Why it's on the list: Any list of great films NEEDS a Danish movie!
The top-grossing film when it was released, it's a bit light on originality, but man is there a level of visual interest you will seldom find. The story of Pandora, the Na'vi, and the lengths humans will go to for conquest isn't the deepest you'll ever see, but the way director James Cameron uses amazing 3D cinematography, an enchanting score, and the kind sweeping action that always marks a Cameron film, it more than makes up for it. The special effects are what folks tend to talk about, but when you've got a cast including Zoe Saldana, Wes Studi, CCH Pounder, Giovanni Ribisi, and Michelle Rodriguez, you really are putting out the star power!  Maybe the best part of Avatar is the lengths Cameron went to get his vision made. There were several technologies invented to allow particular camera movements in the CGI, and even a new form of greenscreen shooting. The Na'vi language was not merely a throwaway faked language, but a fully created language with syntax, vocabulary, and grammar. This is a film that was constructed, and thrilled audiences all the way to the bank! Why it's on the list: A really fun movie, and one that will take your breath away more than once.
There was an uproar when they announced an all-female re-make of Ghostbusters. It pretty much died down when the film turned out to be uproariously funny. The team of Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and especially Kate McKinnon measure up beautifully with the classic team of Ackroyd, Murray, Ramis, and Hudson. They play rough analogues to the originals, but there's so much good old fashioned comedy timing going on and a script that is smarter than it is silly. And it's REALLY silly! The real stand-out among the cast is Kate McKinnion. She's an SNL star, best known for her Hilary Clinton imitation, but here she's weird, funny, and smart all in equal measure. I'm not sure how she managed to be that weird and still manage to become beloved by the audience. She's the basis for the science fiction-y fun of the last half of the film, where we get to see the reason the original Ghostbusters doesn't play as well today – the effects. These are fairly cutting-edge effect works done within the story and not over-powering it. That alone is a miracle when you look at scifi of the last decade! Why it's on the list: It's just flat out funny!
Sam Rockwell. That's basically the entire movie. Sam Rockwell, an actor who may be the best genre performer in the world today. He's so funny, so active, so able to slip from high-highs to low-lows, all without losing either focus or intensity. In Moon, he's one guy, stuck on the moon, and there are clones. He's got to get the world to see what's really going on, and he's not entirely all together. There are big questions in this one, like what makes a person the person they say they are, and what rights do we give to government and business to our lives. There are also little things, like how does a person in space deal with being in space. These are neat little touches, but then you get Rockwell playing his role so well, drawing you in a bit slowly, then making you take the adventure with him. That is what a good genre actor has to be able to do, make an unreal situation into something you feel like you're a part of. In Moon, Rockwell not only manages to do that, he also manages to bring some deep human emotion to the film, and that moves it into a higher orbit. Why it's on the list: Director Duncan Jones is a boss, and Sam Rockwell.
Mark Watney is an astronaut. Oh yeah, he also got left behind on Mars. That's the basic premise for The Martian starring Matt Damon, but really, it's about space-farming, as Watney is forced to grow his supply of food to survive on Mars while he tries to figure out how to get himself rescued. He doesn't just sit back, but he's constantly working his way through every possible scheme, and at times seems like a Mars-bound Job, as Murphy's Law hits and hard! Films where you've got one guy as the focus of nearly all the action can be hard to pull off. Tom Hanks almost managed in Castaway, but Damon plays Watney with all the intelligence, and charming sarcasm, he can muster, and he holds the interest of the audience the entire time. As with the string of hard science fiction films of the second decade of the twenty-first century, the science is there, and it's fascinating, and there's just enough adventure and comedy to pepper up the stew! Why it's on the list: One of the most interesting films of the last decade, and  great performance from Damon.
In the film Serenity, outlaw Malcolm Reynolds and his crew revealed to the entire 'verse the crimes against humanity undertaken by the sinister government--the Alliance. Here, in the official follow-up to the film, the crew has been in hiding since becoming everyone's most wanted, and now they are forced to come out. River uncovers more secrets, leading these former Browncoats on a dangerous mission against the Alliance that, with hope, will bring them together again . . . Television writer Zack Whedon (Deadwood, Southland, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) continues the saga of Joss Whedon's space cowboys!
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed the way movies are enjoyed, and The Avengers is a masterpiece of a comic movie. Featuring the team-up for all the previous MCU faces, plus the Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye and the incredibly locked-in performance of Scarlett Johansen as Black Widow, makes this an actor's film that also happens to be an action-adventure masterpiece. Director Joss Whedon manages to pull together a trio of fascinating stories, while allowing our superhuman heroes to seem almost, well… human. The story of an attack on Earth from beyond is pretty typical science fiction fare, but it's handled with a grace, and more than a good chunk of humour. Watching Loki as portrayed by the electric Tom Hiddleston, is a thing of delight, as he goes over-the-top, then comes back around and makes you realize he was underplaying it the whole time! As a villain, he's just about perfect, and when The Hulk gives him what-for, it is one of the most satisfying moments in recent cinematic history. Why it's on the list: The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a big part of why we're in a science fiction film explosion, and The Avengers is the best of 'em!
Are we our memories? If you go messing with those memories, are you still the same person? If you're lost to the memory of the one you love, did they ever love you? These are big questions, and a director lesser than the great Michel Gondry may well have bungled them, but in his hands, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind manages to become one of the finest film explorations of what it means to have loved, lost, and then to maybe never have loved at all. Lacuna Inc. offers memory erasure services, and Joel's ex-girlfriend, the manic pixie dreamgirl Clementine, has decided to get their relationship erased. Joel goes in for the procedure himself, but ends up regretting his choice, and then things get weird. The entire film begins to examine Joel and Clem's relationship, as well as how it fits into the rest of Joel's life. There's a wonderful set of cinematographic choices that give the entire film the feeling of a slowly fading Polaroid, but at the same time, makes Joel and Clem indelible in your memory. Why it's on the list: One of the all-time greatest art house science fiction films.
Adapting short fiction has yielded some of the finest science fiction films of all-time, like They Live! and Charly. Arrivial is based on a short story by the amazing Ted Chiang, and deals with a Louise's life as a mother… and the fact that aliens have made first contact. The story deals with a linguist's attempt to establish two-way communication with the aliens, and then with how she deals with her relationship with Ian, a physicist also working on the alien scenario. This is a human film, about how humans deal with human emotions in a setting that is starting to turn a bit unhuman. The way the relationship between the aliens (who are brilliantly rendered via CGI) and Louise evolves is so smart, and it's not long into the film when you realize that this is all going to end up aplaying out as humanity's most basic urges against our own sense of morality, and mortality. Amy Adams is fantasic as Louise, and Jeremy Renner proves why he's one of the best actors for big time movies today. The music, in particular, is powerful and moves the entire production forward. Why it's on the list: A beautifully made adaptation of a beautiful story.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe started with a bang named Robert Downey, Jr.. When he was cast as Tony Stark in Iron Man, a lot of folks wondered what the plan was, especially since he wasn't too many years removed from his legal problems. Casting Downey in the role was just about the best decision a producer has ever made, as he gave Stark a swagger that made the film into something special. The film also did something that won over fans – it gave them the traditions without becoming fan service. First generation Iron Man appears, but with a justification that not only makes sense, but feels absolutely right. The film is full of great performances, and the effects are amazing. The music is really good, but more than anything, it's just a lot of fun. Between Downey's brilliant tightrope-walk between funny and serious, Paul Bettany's voice-work as JARVIS, and Pepper Potts as interpreted by Gwenyth Paltrow, the performances are all excellent. Jeff Bridges as the villain is just about perfect for a bad guy who doesn't look like a villain! Why it's on the list: Iron Man established the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and left a lofty mark for all the movies to live up to.
Philip K. Dick. He's a trip, man. He's probably most heady of all the science fiction authors of the 1960s, and adaptations of his work tend to give a thoughtful look at the possible worlds around us. A Scanner Darkly may be the one that rides closest to the line that Dick walked in his day, and it's a remarkable piece of science fiction. The story of a street drug, the quest to combat it, and how reality is dilated when users try to climb their way out. The film is one of the most visually striking animations of all-time. It uses a rotoscoping technique in which animators color over existing footage. The effect is at once flattened like a Nagle painting of the 1980s, as well as flowing like the music video for Take On Me. That flowing combination allows the mystical quality of Substance D to come across to the audience. Even with the animation, the performances here are so strong, especially Robert Downey, Jr. and Winona Ryder. Even Keanu Reeves, who can be a bit one-note, gives a strong performance, all in this surreal atmosphere. Why it's on the list: it's a marvelously thoughtful film.
Some films are unjustly ignored, and Disney's Treasure Island might be the chief among them. One of the most thrilling animated features Disney has ever produced, it's absolutely beautiful, and when seen along-side the Pixar films of the last decade, it is almost an entirely different world. The film is glorious, a combination of traditional animation and computer-generated techniques all with a bent towards creating a world that is science fiction meets pirate times. The scenes like Jim solar surfing with an incredible score that rivals the flight themes from Superman or E.T.. The story is an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic Treasure Island, brought into space, with a steampunk feel that makes sense in both the pirate and science fiction world. The animation is incredible, and the score is solid, but the story is the driver, and the voices employed, including a pre-big time Joseph Gordon Levitt, make the most out of every moment. The film took four-and-a-half years to produce, and almost twenty years in pre-production, and it looks like they spent every minute perfecting each frame, making it totally worth the weight. Why it's on the list: One of the best science fiction animations of all-time.
Alan Moore hates this movie. The Dark Wizard's comic was a masterpiece, but the film version, which is less about Thatcher's Britain than it is about Bush's America, is a very strong piece in and of itself. The story of the terrorist/freedom fighter V and Evy is, at once, a love story and a massively troubling story of abuse as pathfinder. While Natalie Portman is pretty good, it's Hugo Weaving who handles the entire heart of the film, and manages to do so without ever showing his face. That kind of physical acting is so difficult he should have won an Oscar! The story is dark, violent, sad, and triumphant, all in equal measure. The story of tyranny and the lone, brave soldier who stands against it is as moving as they come. In a way, he's Batman; V is all the training and dedication towards what is right, though without that whole moral code to keep his perfected human form in check. Why it's on the list: A powerhouse of a film, with a great cast, a brilliant script, and some of the prettiest cinematography in years.
Christopher Nolan knows what he's doing. In Interstellar, he's taken his love of complex storytelling, and brought it to the vast arena of space-time. The Earth has suffered terrible from humanities hubris, and now a team must ensure the survival of the human race. Two plans are established, and now it's all about seeing what can happen, and who survives the attempts to implement them. The really impressive thing about Interstellar is the way the actors are in several different movies at the same time. Anne Hathaway, at her most impressive, is in a straight-ahead science fiction film, rushing to save mankind.  Jessica Chastain, in perhaps her best genre role, is in an emotional science fiction film that touches on elements of the supernatural. Matthew McConaughey is in a straight-up Philip K. Dick story. They all mesh, somehow, to produce a film that looks at all the angles of what it will take to save human kind after Earth, and more importantly, how we'll finally manage to get there. Add to that the typical Nolan look and the amazing score, and you'll see why this all works. Why it's on the list: A very smart, twisting, and sprawling film
Super 8 is the best Steven Spielberg movie JJ Abrams ever made. It feels so much like the kind of film Spielberg would have created in the 80s that I had to do a double take more than once. All the signs are there, including all the filters that you'd expect from Spielbergian cinema. The story of a group of kids who are making their own movie (using a Super 8 camera!) when a train derails and something is unleashed on their little town. That Story should feel pretty familiar, it's E.T. meets Close Encounters meets War of the Worlds and Jurassic Park. The way the story is told, with nods not to the direct ancestors, but to the feeling and connections those films of the 1980s made in all of us, that is so satisfying. It's not just a nostalgia trip, it's a well-made, well-told, and touching story about what it means to grow up loving film, and understanding the impact it can have on the world. It makes sense that it feels like Spielberg: the man himself produced it! Why it's on the list: It's equal parts Stranger Things and The Thing, and just a great popcorn movie.
Japan has been making wonderful science fiction films since before the Second World War. Sadly, those early films were pretty much destroyed in the War, but through the 50s with the Tojo films, and the 60s and 70s with low-budget action hero fare, they've stayed with Scifi all along. With Battle Royale, they manage to make a film that would change the way people looked at teen-oriented scifi.  A dystopian Japan has devolved into madness, and a school class is gassed and set against one another in a dangerous game. It's incredibly brutal, and the entire scenario is played out for the whim of… well, that's the play and we wouldn't want to give it away. The film is based on a popular novel, and once released in English, would influence everything from The Hunger Games to Kill Bill. The film was hugely popular in Japan, and is still shown as a midnight movie in the US, and has made several of the stars into cult figures on both sides of the Pacific. Why it's on the list: Japan's most influential film of the last twenty-five years.
If any one kind of film can be used to define movies since 2000, it's the re-boot. The countless franchises that have been re-imagined, re-considered, re-packaged, and re-launched is starting to get ridiculous, but then one of them turns out as amazingly smart as Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The fact that it's given rise to a new series of films in the line that are far better than the Tim Burton attempt is a good sign, too! Technically a prequel to the 1960s and 70s films, the story tells of a researcher obsessed with curing long-term mental degradation, coupled with a powerful form of the flu, turns the world upside down. It's an amazingly humane start to a series that is often called out for its violence. John Lithgowe, often overlooked for his fine genre performances, is solid, and a just-pre-superstardom James Franco hits it out of the park. Plus, there's the kid who played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies, bein' a bad guy. Why it's on the list: It's a strong movie, with great effects, and a message that's not hard to miss, but also doesn't beat its chest about it.
If Fun can be displayed on the screen, Eight-Legged Freaks has to be what it would look like. The story of a town attacked by giant spiders is just about as b-movie as you can get, and in Eight Legged Freaks, they lean into it and manage to make one of the most fun films in science fiction history. Toxic waste is spilled on the private collection of an arachnophile (played the world's creepiest man – Tom Noonan) and a variety of spiders grow to ridiculous sizes. It plays like one of those Japanese Kaiju films where all the monsters come together. Only they're spiders. All of them. Super, terrifying spiders. Kari Wuhrer plays our gorgeous cop, and she's just about the best version of that role you'll ever seen. David Arquette, never known for giving it his all, actually plays it like he cares! Plus, it's an early role from Scarlett Johannsen, so how can you lose? Why it's on the list: Yes, spiders are scary, but this is a treatment of the giant monster that gets that weirdness can be fun!
The idea of a digital assistant coming to life isn't new. In fact, the legendary anime series Chobits is just that story, but Spike Jonze's Her takes the idea and turns it into a near-future story that feels as much about today and it does about tomorrow. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a man going through a divorce from his wife who decides to install a new operating system, an AI who takes the name Samantha. Samantha and Theodore's relationship becomes romantic, and the movie pulls us along, showing how our world today is so dependent on electronics for all our needs OTHER than love, and AI may be coming for that. No other film makes as strong a case for the future of human-computer interaction of the future. Jonze's work with his own script shows amazing nuance within a story that easily could have gone deep into the weeds. Why is it on the list: A beautiful film with subtle special effects, a glorious script, and voice performances that are just about the best you'll find in an American film.
Ah, Steampunk. The anime Steamboy is one of the finest examples of the genre ever put to film. The second film from the director of the legendary anime Akira, Steamboy features gorgeous animation and character designs and a story that digs deeply into an alternate 19th century London. A film that took ten years to bring to the cinema that actually looks like it made the best use of that time is a rarity. Both the Japanese original, and the English-dubbed version, are well-worth watching, with the English featuring Patrick Stewart and Anna Pacquin. Steamboy, which did poorly in the US, plays with the classic steampunk imagery of trains, early automobiles, and 19th century factories, and adds that layer of science fiction maximum funSteamboy plays with elements from classic films like Metropolis, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and even The Magnificent Seven. The visuals are stunning, and the story is every bit as complicated as Akira, only with a world where you can lose yourself in the artistry. Why it's on the list: A very fun anime film with images that will soak in deep.
There are Nazis on the Moon. Literal surviving Nazis on the Moon. That's the basic premise of Iron Sky, a science fiction comedy satire that skewered every political aspect of the world today. The Finnish film, which was a massive co-production of European production companies, took a classic science fiction model, the invasion of Earth from the Moon, and added layer upon layer of satirical political commentary. A Sarah Palin-analog as President of the USA who embraces one of the remaining Nazis, remaining Space Nazi, in as her right-hand man. We're shown the UN as a quibbling mass of backhanded confusion, and how racism is still with us, and even stranger when it's from Nazis who are divorced from their traditional belief structure. The actors are pitch-perfect in playing the comedy, but never descending too far into slapstick! Why it's on the list: Dark Finnish comedy is always a good thing, and Iron Sky doesn't disappoint as a comedy thrill ride.
The rise of robot sentience has long been the fodder of sci-fi cinema, but none so chillingly portrayed as in Alex Garland's brilliant psychological thriller, EX MACHINA.Ex Machina is a thoughtful and scary treatment of how an Artificial Sentience just might come about and the effects of that on the people who interact with it.Forget 'I Robot' and other rubbish cinematic treatments of AI, Ex Machina is by far the best film on the subject and a deep look at the dangers of AI. Unlike the other movie about AI (Her) on this list, Ex Machina is not a whimsical look at AI as a beneficial companion to man, but rather a look into the dark side of what might be.With the rapid progress and development of AI technologies the past few years (and a seemingly big new improvement in AI announced every year), it may not be long before we too must struggle with the idea of sentient AI, at least in the not-too-distant future.A must watch for every science fiction fan.Why it's on the list:The most thoughtful look at the implication (and dangers) of AI sentience that's been done yet on film. It's also a gripping film from start to finish that won't let you go.

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