10 great sci-fi films of the 21st century

The 21st century was once just a subject for science fiction – now we’re living it. But what are some of the best sci-fi movies made since we crossed into the new millennium?

23 October 2014

By Neil Mitchell

Inception (2010)

Science fiction films have been with us since the advent of the moving image and continue to form a vital part of contemporary pop culture. From Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la lune in 1902, via Hollywood’s thinly veiled ‘Red Peril’ alien invasion movies of the 50s to the release this year of British director Jonathan Glazer’s striking Under the Skin, film directors have regularly presented us with visions of far off planets, dystopian futures, alien visitors and man-machine hybrids.

Visionary, challenging and often reflective of real-world concerns, sci-fi has produced some of cinema’s most memorable films. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Blade Runner (1982), Planet of the Apes (1968) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); these and countless others have thrilled audiences and inspired each new generation to contemplate the future of our planet, the unknown mysteries of the universe and the possibilities that life other than our own may exist somewhere in it.

The 21st century finds the genre in the rudest of health. What was once derogatorily deemed to be for geeks has now been fully embraced by the majority, with science fiction films and television shows a regular part of the scheduling for screens both big and small. Though the box office may be dominated by the superhero movie franchise behemoths, those viewers looking for something more than just popcorn thrills are in no way starved of choices. Here’s a list of 10 of some of the best 21st-century sci-fi movies that deliver both spectacle and substance.

Minority Report (2002)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Minority Report (2002)

Steven Spielberg’s loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story is a convincing, tech-heavy vision of a future world where would-be lawbreakers are apprehended before committing a crime. Aided in his work by three psychic ‘precogs’, PreCrime Captain John Anderton (Tom Cruise) finds himself on the wrong side of the law when it’s predicted that he will commit a murder.

An exhilarating blend of neo-noir thriller, whodunnit and science fiction, Minority Report also features a dizzying range of advanced technology, much of which has since become, if not reality as the film sees it, too close to being so to ignore. Iris recognition, self-driving cars, insect robots and predictive policing itself have all come a long way in the, relatively, short space of time since Spielberg’s well-received blockbuster was released. As the director enlisted the help of a team of futurists to devise the gadgetry on display, perhaps this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.

Primer (2004)

Director: Shane Carruth

Primer (2004)

A degree in quantum physics and the attention span of a chess grandmaster may come in handy when watching engineer-turned-filmmaker Shane Carruth’s dense tale of the accidental discovery of time travel. With impenetrable dialogue, a narrative that seemingly collapses in on itself and written (by Carruth) with a refreshing lack of heavy-handed exposition, Primer demands engagement from the viewer. Shot for the measly figure of $7,000, Carruth specifically wrote the script with verisimilitude in mind, despite the film’s science fiction theme. With many of science’s greatest discoveries coming by accident, often in run-of-the-mill locations, this aspect of Primer’s production works well in establishing a believable milieu where fantastical events occur.

The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Primer is a great example of how sci-fi cinema doesn’t need an astronomical budget to memorably put its visions across.

Children of Men (2006)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Children of Men (2006)

Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation of P.D. James’s The Children of Men may have been a loser financially, failing to break even at the box office, but in all other respects it is an unmitigated success. Set in the UK in 2027, Children of Men posits a world where close to 20 years of infertility have left the world on the brink of collapse. With the barely functioning government struggling to deal with illegal immigration, world-weary civil servant Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is coerced into helping Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), the only pregnant woman on the planet, escape the country.

Gritty, with a tangibly recognisable milieu, and technically impressive, Cuarón’s sci-fi drama was deservedly nominated for three Academy Awards. Themes of faith, hope and redemption underpin a visually striking tale with numerous smart, grounding pop culture references, including Theo’s battered London 2012 Olympics T-shirt and the floating pigs above Battersea Power Station directly drawn from the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals album.

The Host (2006)

Director: Bong Joon-ho

The Host (2006)

Until this year the highest grossing South Korean film of all time, Bong Joon-ho’s wildly entertaining monster movie The Host delivers on fantasy thrills while containing a healthy dose of political satire and environmental concerns. Portraying the South Korean government as largely inept and overly bureaucratic and the US military as uncaring, The Host was partly inspired by the dumping of masses of formaldehyde down a drain by a Korean mortician in the employment of the US military in 2000. After a similar incident in Bong’s creature feature, an amphibious monster causes havoc after emerging from the Han River in Seoul.

Thematically a far cry from Bong’s previous efforts, human drama Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) and crime thriller Memories of Murder (2003), The Host cemented the Korean’s reputation as a director of considerable, genre-hopping talent. A superior popcorn movie with weighty underlying issues.

Timecrimes (2007)

Director: Nacho Vigalondo

Timecrimes (2007)

As far as punchy directorial debuts go, Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes is up there with the best of them. Like Primer, Timecrimes is another low-budget time travel tale, but unlike Carruth’s film, Vigalondo’s entry into the sub-genre is a fast paced, playful romp. Unlike many other time travel movies, if you pick at the threads of Timecrimes’ narrative logic and plotting it tightly hangs together. Constructed like a Russian doll, Timecrimes sees middle-aged Spanish businessman Héctor (Karra Elejalde) unwittingly sucked into a scientist’s experiments with time travel. The head-scratching complexities of time travel are deftly visualised in a narrative that, by design, is chasing its own tail.

Funny, clever and twisted, Vigalondo’s self-penned brain-teaser laid the narrative and stylistic groundwork for the director’s equally playful, sorely under-seen Extraterrestrial (2011) and his upcoming English-language debut, Open Windows (2014).

District 9 (2009)

Director: Neill Blomkamp

District 9 (2009) poster

While Neill Blomkamp’s big budget, Matt Damon-starring Elysium (2013) was only passable sci-fi fare, the director’s 2009 debut District 9 provided an unexpected adrenaline shot to the genre. Adapted from Blomkamp’s own short film, Alive in Joburg (2005), District 9 tackles xenophobia and social segregation, as their human hosts forcibly ghettoise a stranded alien race. Government oppression of the unfortunate ‘prawns’, implemented by a corporate funded military company, forms the backbone to a narrative where man’s inhumanity is brutishly laid bare. Sharlto Copley’s timid bureaucrat Wikus van de Merwe learns empathy the hard way as an everyman forced to confront his own blindly ingrained prejudices. 

Shot in mock-documentary style, District 9 is both a blistering action movie and a shaming allegory of apartheid era South Africa that also features some of the finest contemporary effects work, courtesy of Weta Workshop, Image Engine and the Embassy.

Moon (2009)

Director: Duncan Jones

Moon (2009)

Human cloning has periodically been addressed in sci-fi movies, and in the 21st century, as the possibility of real-life clones inches eerily closer, these occurrences have become more regular. Impostor (2001), The Island (2005), Never Let Me Go (2010) and Clone (2010) have all broached the subject with varying degrees of success. But Duncan Jones’s Moon, another impressive debut feature, packs far more of an emotional punch than these and features a poignant, beautifully judged performance by its lead, Sam Rockwell.

A terrific, minimalist score by former Pop Will Eat Itself frontman Clint Mansell perfectly complements Jones’s stripped back tale. As Rockwell’s Sam Bell nears the end of his solitary three-year spell mining Helium-3 on the moon, he is plunged into an existential crisis of shattering proportions. This haunting homage to the more studied entries in the sci-fi canon is matched in emotional gravitas by its visually striking production design.

Inception (2010)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Inception (2010)

Dream worlds, alternate realities, virtual reality and memory manipulation are all, naturally, recurrent themes in sci-fi literature and cinema. Christopher Nolan’s Hollywood blockbuster, populated by a fittingly starry cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy and Michael Caine, slickly manages to combine depth and bombast in the director’s self-penned reverse-heist film. Inception is a love story, a film noir, crime drama and action flick wrapped around a sci-fi narrative framework; it’s ambitious and brash, it’s also smart and exceptionally well realised. Dream worlds have rarely, if ever, looked so dazzling on screen, and Nolan’s intricately plotted screenplay is grounded by the interweaving of real human drama into the fantasy elements on display.

Conceptually grandiose and with dream landscapes that are themselves reflective of the design and technical construction of films and video-games, Inception showed that the words cerebral and blockbuster needn’t be mutually exclusive.

Europa Report (2013)

Director: Sebastián Cordero

Europa Report (2013)

The sheer wondrous size of the universe, and the awe-inspiring nature of exploring it, shines through in Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero’s slow-burning sci-fi mystery. One of the few films to employ ‘found footage’ in genuinely successful fashion, Europa Report recounts the first manned mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. As realistic a fictional sci-fi movie as you’ll see, Cordero delivers a stylish, engrossing experience that foregrounds science over fantasy.

An international cast including Anamaria Marinca, Embeth Davidtz and Sharlto Copley take on the roles of the astronauts seeking out new life beyond our own planet. What they find is both beautiful and terrifying, as you would imagine a discovery of such magnitude would be. Non-linear and unfolding before the viewer’s eyes in increments, Cordero’s film is impressively controlled, making the moments of tension and revelation all the more impactful. An intelligent and plausible vision of mankind coming face to face with the unknown.

Under the Skin (2013)

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Under the Skin (2013)

Jonathan Glazer may not be prolific, with just three features to his name in 14 years, but when he does direct a movie the results speak for themselves. Sexy Beast (2000), Birth (2004) and Under the Skin have all been narratively bold and visually distinct. Under the Skin, a very loose adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name, is a viewing experience unlike many others. Glazer strips Faber’s source material back to its very essence, creating an undeniably disturbing and oppressive film that, like all boundary-pushing works of art, has been as vociferously derided almost as much as it has been championed.

Scarlett Johansson perfectly fits the bill as the alien seductress who lures unsuspecting men to their deaths. Very much a spiritual sibling to Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Under the Skin is as captivating and otherworldly as its central character.

Your suggestions

Looper (2012)
  1. Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012)
  2. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
  3. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013)
  4. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)
  5. Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
  6. Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007)
  7. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
  8. Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006)
  9. Robot & Frank (Jake Schreier, 2012)
  10. Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, 2013)

The space-time-continuum-bothering blockbuster Looper ran rings around the competition when we asked you what we’d missed from this list. The 2012 Bruce Willis-Joseph Gordon Levitt vehicle beat out artier big hitters like Spike Jonze’s Her and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. This groundswell of popular support will be good news for director Rian Johnson as he embarks on Star Wars Episode VIII.

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