November 7, 2020
Editor’s note: This list was originally published in 2017, but it has been updated with 10 new entries and re-ranked.
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Science fiction isn’t easily defined, but in determining the top 35 sci-fi movies of the last 20 years, we’ve done our best. No fantasy-centric superhero movies here, same goes for space-borne fantasies like “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”; for an action, horror, or animated movie to make it onto this list, it needs to be firmly rooted in sci-fi origins.
And let’s get this out of the way: While we adore these films and consider them among the very best of the century, we decided they didn’t qualify or were better suited for a different list: “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Gravity,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Holy Motors,” and “Battle Royale.” Drum roll, please…
With one room and $50,000, director James Ward Byrkit showed there are no limits to what’s possible in the sci-fi genre. A filmmaking lesson in activating offscreen space and building mystery into the unseen, the story centers around eight friends gathered for a dinner party when a comet swooshes overhead, kills the electricity, and opens up a portal for the dinner guests to pass into other realities, which take 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 involvement in the drama, which does a great job of presenting the characters with existential questions that you can’t help but ponder for yourself. —CO
34. “Midnight Special”
©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection
Jeff Nichols’ remarkable filmmaking career has been marked by deeply felt, refreshingly sincere films that place human experience and emotion at the forefront. On the surface, a sci-fi feature like “Midnight Special” might not sound like the right vessel for such work, but Nichols’ film uses the best tropes of the genre to tell a new story that feels richly lived in and very satisfying.
Featuring his frequent leading man, Michael Shannon, “Midnight Special” evokes classic sci-fi features like “Starman” and “Close Encounters,” all mixed up with road outings and an added dash of supernatural mystery. Shannon plays devoted dad Roy, who has recently liberated his gifted son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from a religious cult that’s built its beliefs around his very special powers. The pair go on the road with an old friend (Joel Edgerton) and Alton’s mom (Kirsten Dunst), in an attempt to reach a very special destination and, oh yeah, escape the scads of government officials that are after them. It’s tense, taunt, and emotional, with a creative sci-fi bent that speaks to an ever-evolving genre. —KE
33. “Fast Color”
Everett Collection / Everett Collection
Despite its quick logline — it’s a superhero movie about a Black woman! — Julia Hart’s winsome and wise “Fast Color” hardly fits into the superhero movie mold that the MCU and DCEU have hammered into place over the past two decades. Instead, it’s really, as IndieWire’s own Eric Kohn put it in his review, “an allegorical story about generations of Black women who are forced to suppress their strengths, and the mounting courage they find in finally taking charge.”
The superhero stuff might be cool (and it is), but the film is less a “superhero movie” than it is a sci-fi-inflected, incredibly earnest exploration of seizing your own power and using it, truly, for good. Bolstered by a class act cast that includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ruth (our primary heroine), Lorraine Toussaint, Saniyya Sidney, and David Strathairn, Hart ably turns a heartfelt family drama into a soaring sci-fi feature that’s built on real ingenuity. —KE
32. “The Endless”
Everett Collection / Everett Collection
Indie whiz kids Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead had already impressed audiences with their captivating, inventive, and DIY-feeling features like “Resolution” (a sci-fi twist on the addiction drama) and “Spring” (a sci-fi twist on the whirlwind romance) before they went whole-hog sci-fi wild with 2017’s thrilling “The Endless” (a dramatic twist on an alien abduction drama, inverting their own obsessions with wondrous results). Playing brothers — named, amusingly, “Justin” and “Aaron” — the film picks up years after the duo have escaped what’s described as a “UFO death cult,” though their interpretation of the group’s motives still differ, even with its presence seemingly long behind them.
Sharing (maybe?) a universe with “Resolution,” the multi-hyphenates journey back to the group, as inspired by the arrival of a creepy video tape (classic), a trip that forces them to reconsider not just their time with the group, but their entire lives, hell, the entire universe. Time loops abound, a dark entity reveals itself, and an extra moon appears in the sky, but the film’s most exciting explorations are internal ones, as Aaron and Justin grapple with what it means to really believe in something. —KE
A queasy and intriguing horror-inflected techno-thriller that gets lost somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle between “Mandy,” “Inception,” and “Ghost in the Shell,” Brandon Cronenberg’s “Possessor” is so drunk on its own sick potential that it doesn’t have the time (or the balance) required to realize most of it. Although set in an alternate 2008 that’s a touch more analog than our own world (a low-key tweak that imagines what the 21st century would look like if we kept the ’90s alive on life support and built the future in Trent Reznor’s image), “Possessor” throbs with recognizably urgent concerns like gender, privacy, and the sins of corporate hegemony.
All you really need to know is that our hard-edged, body-hopping heroine (Andrea Riseborough) is on the vanguard of some violent business, and that every assignment seems to leave her increasingly unsettled in her own skin. “Possessor” is at its best when viscerally peeling a soul out of its body, and Cronenberg is in full command of the material whenever he can visualize the absolute mindfuck of two ghosts competing for control over just one shell. —DE
30. “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
29. “Sunshine” (2007)
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
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
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
26. “Ad Astra”
IndieWire senior film critic David Ehrlich hailed James Gray’s “Ad Astra” as an “interstellar masterpiece” in his A review, adding the film is “one of the most ruminative, withdrawn, and curiously optimistic space epics this side of ‘Solaris.’ It’s also one of the best.” Brad Pitt gives one of his best performances as Roy McBride, an astronaut who sets out on a mission to Neptune in order to solve the disappearance of his father (Tommy Lee Jones).
The narrative allows Gray to project the intimate struggles between father and son on a canvas as massive as the cosmos. As Ehrlich wrote, “‘Ad Astra’ is an awe-inspiring film about the fear of male vulnerability and the fait accompli of becoming your own father — whomever he might be. Despite a blockbuster-sized budget, Gray’s largest film is light years removed from the crowd-pleasing likes of “Gravity” and “The Martian.” This is spare and mythic storytelling; the more expansive its vision gets, the more inward-looking its focus becomes. —ZS
25. “Attack the Block”
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
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
23. “Donnie Darko”
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
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
21. “Hard to Be a God”
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
Source: IndieWire film