That’s right. Publishing a whole big thing on some of the very best fantasy movies of the last 20 years apparently wasn’t enough.
Today, we’re turning to sci-fi, a once-novel genre that has since become one of the most significant categories in moviemaking.
It’s also fair to say that we tend to enjoy sci-fi movies a bit more than fantasy, at least in general, so we’ve got some really great ones loaded up here for you.
Here’s a small sample of what you WILL NOT find on the list. There’s no Star Wars here. No Mortal Engines. And no movies that are simply remakes or reboots of much older properties (with one very notable exception that you’ll recognize as soon as you see it).
We like to reward originality in filmmaking, especially in the sci-fi space which, as of late, has felt just a tad dusty.
Several of the movies on our list are based on books, but we’ve also read those books just by chance and we can say wholeheartedly that each of these adaptations takes that base story and makes it something very different, something all its own.
Cool, away we go to take a look at the best sci-fi movies of the decade.
Denis Villeneuve, in his own words, never really planned on making big Hollywood movies. He made documentaries and seemed very happy doing it.
But after a few early Hollywood entries, Villeneuve took his career somewhere else entirely with Arrival, one of the best sci-fi movies we’ve ever seen.
The premise is simple enough: aliens have landed in several locations across the globe and each affected country is trying to figure out how to communicate with those aliens.
Already, this movie sets itself apart. Nobody’s trying to blow anyone else up and a lot of the movie revolves around frantic conversations between smart people.
Amy Adams plays a language expert who’s doing her best to open channels of communication while also being plagued by memories of her daughter.
Where it goes from there is just something special. This is a cerebral sci-fi experience, and although Villeneuve astounded again with his Blade Runner sequel, Arrival is exactly what it needs to be, and it came at a time when science fiction as whole needed a wee boost.
High Life (2018)
High Life is one of those sci-fi movies where you feel extremely immersed for the duration. And it’s not necessarily that the characters are the most relatable in the world, either.
Rather, you become part of the story simply by bearing witness to the insane and enthralling world that the story inhabits.
You do feel like you’re traveling in space, absorbing all this new information and wondering what kind of darkness is hiding just underneath your fancy gray space-bed.
Robert Pattinson stars in a surprisingly nuanced role, and Juliette Binoche, also known as the best ever and why don’t you already know about her by now plays this scary but also very appealing kind-of-evil space lady who has control over a group of Earth criminals who are now in space.
There are already a good number of truly beautiful sci-fi flicks, thanks in no small part to good ol’ Papa Kubrick, but High Life really is one of the best-looking sci-fi movies we’ve ever seen.
That doesn’t mean that the story or the environments are ‘pretty,’ exactly, but the way it’s all presented is fantastic.
Perhaps best of all, it’s a foreign film where the actors speak English, so you don’t even need to worry about subtitles.
And here’s another rather sad point we need to add, not about the movie itself but about the filmmaker.
This is the only entry on our list that comes from a female director. That’s not at all why we picked the movie; it’s fantastic in its own right and one that you just need to see.
But it does make us sad that apparently female-led sci-fi just isn’t getting produced very often, especially here in the States.
We can guarantee that there are lots of female directors out there with great ideas for sci-fi, or who would be more than capable of handling big-name properties, and we can’t wait for the day when more of those directors get hired so that they can share their vision with the sci-fi community.
Alex Garland is clearly one of the most interesting sci-fi directors to rise to prominence in recent years. And it’s possible that Ex Machina, his big breakout movie (which also features one of Oscar Isaac’s best performances) will always be remembered as his lil stroke of genius.
But Annihilation is definitely bigger, and at least for us, it’s arguably better than Ex Machina, too.
It’s an adaptation of a series of novels about some plants that are up to no good. But in movie form, the story is presented with a great deal of abstract imagery and an overwhelming sense of mystery.
Set up: Natalie Portman is a biologist/doctor lady or something and she needs to join an all-female team of supersmart doctor/scientist/badass ladies who are going to investigate this massive soap bubble-looking thing that keeps getting bigger.
It’s really, really hard not to reference other sci-fi and film content when talking about the tone of this movie, so we’re going to do just that.
It definitely owes a lot to the great Andrei Tarkovsky, specifically his movie Stalker. It also borrows from Kubrick a bit. But one of the standout features of Annihilation is its overall sense of quiet and eerie calm, which reminds us of some of our favorite arthouse movies, none of which have anything to do with science fiction.
It has some great action but it’s not an action movie. It has some deeply powerful horror scenes but it’s not a horror movie.
Maybe this amorphous shape of the movie itself is why it didn’t even get a theatrical release in Europe, ya know, where it might have actually done pretty well.
Shut up, it’s a sci-fi movie.
No, really. Lars von Trier, filmmaker extraordinaire and maybe not such a great person in real life, maybe, crafted this fantastic mammoth of a movie that’s all about the world ending.
And that’s not even a spoiler. In the opening sequence, which you should watch on its own even if you’re not going to watch the full movie, shows the world ending.
That’s the whole point here: talking about depression by submerging the viewer in some small version of it.
This is a long movie, and the whole time we know what’s going to happen. We have to watch as characters do nothing to escape the surface because what are they gonna do? This is modern-day planet Earth and casual space travel isn’t really a thing.
It’s a miserable movie. That’s what you’re getting into when you start this one up.
But there are lots of reasons why Melancholia is considered a modern classic in any genre.
To sum up, the filmmaking and the performances are pretty much untouchable. Very few people, very few people anywhere, are making movies that feel like this one does. Very few people are making movies that look like this one.
The slow-motion shots alone are worthy of academic papers published in big fancy journals that are probably based in New England.
Bong Joon-Ho is now an Oscar-winning director and he’s pretty close to being a household name.
Snowpiercer comes from a time when a much smaller chunk of the American public was familiar with his work, and if you sit down to watch the movie, it would be fairly difficult to work out that it came from a Korean director. Well, outside of the graphic violence anyway.
This is a little movie about a train that runs forever through the unforgiving wasteland of what used to be a place where people lived.
The rich folks get to have luxurious rooms up front and the poor people all get crammed into the back without enough food.
Yeah. The social commentary going on here is not winning any medals for subtlety, and Parasite largely explores similar themes, just in a very different setting with funnier characters.
But Snowpiercer is exactly what you’d want it to be, with plenty of action, that graphic violence we talked about earlier, and well-drawn heroes and villains who earn their place on the screen.
The Lobster (2015)
Ok, so The Lobster isn’t our favorite sci-fi movie here on this list, and there’s a fair chance that you won’t be super into it, either, especially if you’re not into quirky, dry comedy.
But The Lobster earns soooo many points for its worldbuilding, and more specifically for its first half.
Single people are bussed into a resort/hotel/estate place where they need to find a mate for life. If they fail, they will be transformed into an animal of their choice.
This could have been a very bad movie, but the writing is just enough to help it stand out from just about any sci-fi movie you’ve ever seen.
There’s still a very strong sinister undertone, but it’s rather distant, and the humor helps stave it off as well.
The second half is not great, and it’s not super focused, either, but only because that’s when the movie taps into this expansive fictional world that would take many more movies to actually explore.
Under the Skin (2013)
Under the Skin is based on the novel of the same name from author Michel Faber. If we told you the premise of that book, it would probably change your viewing of the film version, so we’ll hold off on that.
What you can see even from the trailer is that Scarlett Johansson is talking to men. That’s most of what we see, in addition to some wild visuals with no explanations.
In fact, even when watching the full movie, there are a number of different visuals that don’t explain themselves right away, if they do at all.
This is another sci-fi masterpiece that earns its place thanks to its tone and its visuals. There’s lots of nightmare fuel here, too, and that’s good news.
Mad Max (2015)
Good lord. Here it is, the definitive post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the 2010s.
Ok, yeah, it’s also a bit of a throwback since the property originated in the 1980s, and the sheer level of dumb fun action also hearkens back to the earlier days of big giant blockbusters, and some may see the more heady work of Villeneuve or Garland as somehow more ‘contemporary.’
But Mad Max proved to the world, and especially to Hollywood, that there’s still plenty of room for well-paced action movies that still deliver at least the bare minimum of character investment.
If you have somehow managed to miss out on this monumental movie for this long, then first of all, we give you our sympathies. But also, just go ahead and watch the opening minutes of this movie, as far as the opening title.
The logo alone communicates exactly what kind of movie this is. If you’re on board, you’ll love it through and through. And if you’re not on board, then you probably will be at some point in the future, so just watch it anyway.
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