Though the last ten years didn’t deliver on technological advancements like self-drying clothes and hovercars, they did treat us cinephiles to some fantastic science fiction. Sci-fi has been around since the birth of cinema itself, with Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon astonishing audiences all the way back in 1902. Every year since, the quality and scope of sci-fi films has only improved, with classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and The Matrix marking new milestones in the genre.
For this list, we’re taking a look at the best 17 sci-fi films that have emerged during the last decade. To qualify, the movies must have been released between 2007 and 2017. It doesn’t matter if they’re big-budget extravaganzas or underrated diamonds in the rough, just as long as they’ve made their mark in the ever expanding world of science fiction. Just to lay down some ground rules, we’re not including superhero movies (apologies to all you Guardians of the Galaxy fans) or anything that borders on sci-fi/fantasy like Star Wars. Other than that, everything else is fair game.
Here are the 17 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the Last Decade.
17. Interstellar (2014)
It may be one of the more divisive films of the last ten years, but you can’t argue that Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar isn’t ambitious. Starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, the story involves a group of space explorers as they travel through a mysterious wormhole in search of a sustainable planet to ensure humanity’s survival.
Nolan’s space exploration film is calculated and visually stunning, reminiscent of sci-fi classics like Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The journey through the wormhole is one of the best sequences of recent memory, especially if you were lucky enough to catch this one in IMAX. Every shot tells a story, but the human drama that Nolan tries so hard to make effective doesn’t always land. The straining relationship between Cooper and his daughter often feels forced, and the message of how the language of love is universal tends to get a little heavy-handed. Still, you have to admire Nolan’s ambition to swing for the fences, and Interstellar hits hard enough to secure the opening slot on this list.
16. Attack the Block (2011)
Clever, funny, and satirical, Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block is a brilliant balance of B-movie madness with sharp social commentary. The story follows a group of rough teenage hooligans in London as they defend their block from a looming invasion of a race of woolly aliens, or “big gorilla-wolf mother******” as the kids call them.
Reminiscent of John Carpenter’s creature-features from the 80s, Attack the Block strikes a chord with its low-budgeted charm. It’s backed by a wonderful range of players, including a young John Boyega who has since become a household name thanks to a galaxy far, far away. The movie manages to make the rough-and-tough gang of lawbreakers surprisingly sympathetic. And while the film seems to glorify the lifestyle of these violent thugs, its really about how society shouldn’t give up on these wayward youths.
The effects and creature designs are solid, especially considering the film’s low budget, but Attack the Block’s biggest strength comes from the interactions of the assorted characters whose dialog and shenanigans are sure to deliver an entertaining ride.
15. Gravity (2013)
Okay, so Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is more science then fiction (it makes use of modern technology that more or less exists today), but for the purposes of this list, we would say that this 2013 space odyssey qualifies as sci-fi. After her space station is wiped off the grid by a series of meteors, a lone survivor (Sandra Bullock) must make her way to the International Space Station if she has any hope of returning to Earth.
It’s impossible to talk about Gravity without first acknowledging the jaw-dropping visuals, truly a remarkable achievement in the last decade of cinema. From the destruction of the space station to Sandra Bullock’s treacherous journey across the infinitely black abyss, the imagery in Cuaron’s movie is astounding.
But while Gravity is a gorgeous film to look at, it falters a bit when it comes to storytelling, with not enough time to get properly involved with Bullock’s character before disaster strikes. Still, Alfonoso Cuaron’s dazzling look at the stars is a beautifully intense 90-minute ride that will no doubt be examined in film classes for decades to come.
14. The Martian (2015)
Ridley Scott made his long awaited return to science fiction in 2015 with The Martian, a film that was nominated for 7 Oscars and took home the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture and Best Actor – Comedy or Musical (although Scott and Matt Damon have made it pretty clear that this sci-fi survival story isn’t really a comedy).
After his team mistakenly blasts off from Mars without him, astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on the Red Planet with seemingly no hope of getting home. Against all odds, Watney manages to keep himself alive on the barren planet by growing potatoes, repairing old drones, and becoming the first official “space pirate.”
Based on the novel by Andy Weir, the screenplay by Drew Goddard crackles with life, with several great one-liners sprinkled in every scene (“In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option, I’m gonna have to science the s*** out of this.”) And while there are plenty of comedic moments to lighten the tension, The Martian is a drama first and foremost, with Damon’s stellar performance as one of the very best in the last decade of sci-fi.
13. Timecrimes (2007)
Timecrimes, or Los cronocrímenes by its original title, is Nacho Vigalondo’s sci-fi head-trip that mashes a B-movie plot involving time travel with a genuinely horrific atmosphere. Karra Elejalde plays Hector, a regular guy who is in the process of moving into a new house with his wife. One day, Hector spots something peculiar in the woods through his binoculars, starting off a mysterious chain of events that lead Hector into a time machine that travels back nearly an hour in time.
With just a couple locations, a shoestring budget, and a handful of actors, Vigalondo manages to craft a terrific piece of sci-fi. Timecrimes combines the genres of mystery, horror and fantasy while throwing a dash of dark humor in for good measure. The story constantly twists and turns, and just when you think you’ve got it pegged, you’re left scratching your noggin again five minutes later. Though some would argue the structure is more frustrating than anything, viewers that enjoy unraveling mysteries will get a kick out of this time travel enigma.
12. Under the Skin (2013)
One part horror and another part sci-fi, Johnathan Glazer’s 2013 Under the Skin is the spiritual successor to classic sci-fi endeavors like Alien and The Thing. Taking the shape of a young human woman, a vampiric alien entity (Scarlett Johansson) roams the streets of Scotland in search of male victims which she seduces and then places in an otherworldly dimension where they are then stripped down and consumed.
By the end of Glazer’s dream-like parable, the viewer will question whether what they just witnessed is extraordinary or just downright bizarre. In truth, Under the Skin is a little bit of both. The film is a psychosexual web that ensnares the audience much like Johansson’s alien entangles her dumbfounded victims. We are perplexed and intrigued at the same time at Glazer’s ethereal interpretation of sex and loneliness that prizes a dark unsettling atmosphere above an easy digestible plot. It is without a doubt one of the most unique sci-fi pictures of the last decade, and guaranteed to raise eyebrows on a first time viewing.
11. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
After Tim Burton’s horrendous 2001 remake, audiences were skeptical about a second full-fledged reboot of this sci-fi franchise with Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011. To our surprise, the movie was a sleeper hit, and was exceeded in almost every regard with its 2014 sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Picking up where Rise leaves off, the community of genetically evolved apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) is forced to confront humanity once more when a band of human survivors become threaten by their simian neighbors. Meanwhile, a looming danger inside Caesar’s own camp begins to challenge his authority.
The movie, like its predecessor, makes spectacular use of its motion-capture technology. The apes in this film look as real as ever and pull off some surprisingly emotional performances, especially Serkis’ portrayal of Caesar. Add on top of that a compelling story, rousing action scenes, and impressive direction by Matt Reeves, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a rare breed of popcorn sci-fi that successfully explores relevant issues like class distinctions and preemptive acts of violence.
10. Sunshine (2007)
Okay, we know we talk about Sunshine a lot, but it’s only because it’s worthy of so much praise! Released in 2007, Danny Boyle’s sci-fi adventure has since become a cult classic for its intriguing premise, nuanced performances, and striking visuals.
In a not too distant future (like most of the films on this list), Earth’s sun has begun fading out. After the first mission to reignite it using a nuclear bomb has failed, a new team of astronauts are sent to finish the job. They soon find that the task is much more dangerous than they expected as they race against the clock to ensure humanity’s survival.
Given its impeccable reputation, you would never guess that this was Danny Boyle’s first attempt at science fiction. The director effortlessly molds different elements from past sci-fi greats like Solaris, Silent Running and Alien, while managing to hold on to his original vision. With every passing moment, Boyle continues to rack up the tension and confound the viewer, resulting in a highly satisfying sci-fi experience.
9. Looper (2012)
One part crime film and another part time travel thriller, Rian Johnson’s Looper is a sci-fi noir that touches on everything from telekinesis to alternate realities. The film’s main character is Joe, a hitman with a particular set of skills tasked with eliminating a target sent into the past where a hired gun waits. Living the good life, things fall apart for Joe when he gets a target that throws him for a loop – his future self.
Though the premise starts off as fairly ludicrous (time traveling has been invented and its main use is rubbing people out of the mob?), Looper changes into a quiet character study halfway through when Joe meets Sara and her gifted son. From there on the film is a melancholic slow burn, with some terrific performances from both Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis, who play the same character thanks to some convincing prosthetics. Though it has plenty of thrilling shootouts, Looper is so much more than just a futuristic action movie; it’s a philosophical study that reflects on fate, greed, destiny, and self-sacrifice.
8. Inception (2010)
Dom Cobb is a master thief who specializes in extraction, stealing valuable information from deep within the subconscious of powerful corporate executives and then selling the information to rival companies. Because of his dangerous line of work, Cobb is a fugitive, but has a chance to wipe his slate clean if he can perform the impossible task of inception, planting an idea inside the subconscious in order to make it appear like a genuine thought.
Once in a while, a sci-fi movie will come along and change the rules of the genre, and of the last ten years, that movie is Inception. Christopher Nolan’s aspiring mind-bender is a movie of sci-fi fans’ dreams, literally. It’s a metaphysical puzzle that shifts the bounds of reality, spinning the viewer’s head in circles without overloading our senses. Though complex, Inception manages to avoid being convoluted, with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb providing a grounded emotional experience without getting bogged down in the logistics.
7. District 9 (2009)
You know a sci-fi film is a classic in the making when it’s nominated for an Academy Award, an accolade that often snubs anything science fiction. In fact, Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 took everyone by surprise in the summer of 2009, taking in more than $116 million at the U.S. box office alone.
Made on a modest budget of just $30 million, Blomkamp’s social satire combines dark comedy, topical messages, and rousing action into a sci-fi film that defied all expectations. It tells the story of refugee aliens that are stranded on Earth that are forced to live in South African slums under harsh conditions. Their cause is made into a worldwide concern once they meet government worker Wikus, who gradually turns into one of the giant shrimp-like aliens after ingesting a mysterious space dust.
District 9 is fantastically gritty and wholly original, something hard to come by when it comes to modern sci-fi films. It takes risks that pay off, and will undoubtedly be remembered in the coming years as not just one of the most original sci-fi flicks of the last decade, but of all time.
6. Moon (2009)
Every decade has a few fantastic sci-fi films that flew under everybody’s radar, but none of them are as criminally underrated as Duncan Jones’ brilliantly fashioned Moon. Starring Sam Rockwell as the lone worker of a mining station on the moon, and Kevin Spacey as the station’s witty computer system, this 2009 film is a mostly one-man show that explores the concepts of isolation, loneliness, and paranoia.
Though every aspect is well executed, including some stellar direction by Jones, it all circles around Rockwell’s mesmerizing performance as Sam Bell, who isn’t sure if he’s just stumbled onto one of the biggest conspiracies of all time, or is simply losing his mind. Rockwell moves from one expressive extreme to the other, from intensely passionate to horrifically paranoid. Through it all is his loyal computerized sidekick GERTY, who is brought to life by Spacey’s humorous voice work. Though there are a few pacing issues, Moon is still a fantastic sci-fi character study that is clever, humorous, and genuinely moving.
5. Her (2013)
In a world where people are more dependent on technology than ever, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely writer in search for someone to love. He decides to purchase the new OS1, the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system. Theodore soon finds himself falling for Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the voice behind his new AI system. As they start to spend more time together, the two eventually find that they’re completely in love.
Emotionally daring and intimate, Spike Jonze’s Her examines the give and take of relationships in a fantasy reality that isn’t too far off from where we are today. Joaquin Phoenix is perfectly cast as the melancholy Theodore, and Scarlett Johansson conveys a surprising array of emotions considering you only hear her voice as the OS1 system. Of course, their performances are only so good because of Joze’s fantastic script, which won the filmmaker an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2014. While there may not be giant aliens or exploding spaceships, Her is one of the most touching sci-fi films of the last decade.
4. Upstream Color (2013)
If you like movies with a linear narrative and traditional storytelling, then Upstream Color is most likely not for you. Writer and director Shane Currath (Primer) crafts one of the most interesting sci-fi films of the last decade, with a story so convoluted we won’t even attempt to describe it.
Although Upstream Color will come off as a tad slow to certain audiences, it is strangely mesmerizing given its gorgeous imagery, powerful performances, and emotional score. The film is so cerebral, so unorthodox, that it at times appears that characters will say and do things that don’t quite make sense. This can be frustrating when trying to piece the movie together, but Upstream Color appeals to the artistic side of the brain as well as the intellectual portion.
The movie reflects on existential themes like mortality, nature, love, human conditioning without spelling anything out. Instead, it relies on its imagery to tell its story, creating a perfect sci-fi puzzle that we guarantee will have you thinking about it days after the first viewing.
3. Snowpiercer (2013)
Set in the near future where a climate experiment has brought on a new ice age, the last human survivors circle the globe on the Snowpiercer, a high-tech train that has its own economy and class system. That class system leads to a violent revolt by the lower-class citizens on the back of the train. Moving from cart to cart, the rebellion fights to the top of the chain in order to secure a better life.
Directed by Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Memories of Murder), Snowpiercer is a sophisticated sci-fi movie quite unlike anything else. It boasts an impressive cast of A-listers, including Chris Evans, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, and Ed Harris, who all deliver top-class performances. However, the real star of the movie is the set design, with each train car given a unique identity like an aquarium, a sushi bar, or even a high-profile club. Add all of this up, and you get one of most unique sci-fi pictures in years with Snowpiercer.
2. Arrival (2016)
Rich in emotional depth, Arrival is last year’s breakout sci-fi hit from director Denis Villeneuve. It stars Amy Adams as Louise Banks, an expert linguist who’s called on to investigate a mysterious spacecraft that lands on Earth. While mankind wobbles on the verge of an all-out war with the alien visitors, Banks and her elite team of linguists race to find answers that could possibly save all human kind.
Anchored by a brilliant performance by Adams, Arrival is a sci-fi drama that likes to think outside of the box. While there are alien “invaders,” this isn’t an action extravaganza akin to Independence Day. Rather, Arrival is more like Contact or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, movies that realistically explore what might happen if spaceships started falling out of the skies. With his impressive resume growing with each film, Villeneuve is a filmmaker that takes big risks with his movies, and Arrival is intelligent, thoughtful sci-fi at its best.
1. Ex Machina (2014)
Among other things, a great sci-fi movie has to have a creative premise, mind-bending special effects, convincing performances, imaginative direction, and a script that leaves you thinking long after the credits are done rolling. No film has better executed those criteria in the last ten years than Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.
Garland, responsible for writing sci-fi gems Sunshine and Dredd, exceeded everyone’s expectations with his 2015 directorial debut. Ex Machina is a dark sci-fi thriller about a lowly programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) who is selected to participate in a revolutionary experiment in synthetic intelligence by at the Alaskan hideaway of his genius boss (Oscar Isaac).
Just when you think you have Ex Machina figured out, it confounds all expectations with twists that seem to come out of nowhere. Garland’s direction is as tight as any seasoned filmmaker, perfectly ramping up the tension with every passing moment. The performances by the three principle actors are all brilliant, especially Alicia Vikander’s chilling portrayal of the humanoid Ava. With sizzling dialog, haunting cinematography, and a bizarre dance scene guaranteed to drop jaws, Ex Machina gets our pick for the best sci-fi film of the last decade. We can’t wait to see what Garland does with Annihilation next year.