The release of The Matrix in 1999 marked a pivotal point for modern sci-fi filmmaking. What was once a niche genre reserved for science fiction fans alone has now become part of mainstream pop culture. Sci-fi action films in the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Marvel Cinematic Universe represent some of the highest grossing films ever made. Though those franchises are great, we decided to leave them off this list and focus on films that were more fitting for the sci-fi genre. Here are 20 of the best sci-fi films released since The Matrix hit theaters 20 years ago.
20. District 9 (2009)
This low-budget 2009 debut of writer/director Neill Blomkamp delighted audiences with a breakout performance from newcomer Sharlto Copley, as well as the story’s parallels to South African Apartheid. The film begins in an alternate 1982 where an alien ship appears over Johannesburg, South Africa and thousands of sick and malnourished insect-like aliens are found aboard. The South African government struggles to find a solution and confines them to an internment camp called District 9.
The story explores themes of xenophobia, social segregation, economic class, and racism in a believable world built on a shoestring budget. District 9 features an interesting aesthetic that incorporates the found footage format along with news clips, fictional interviews, and surveillance footage. The film was well received by critics and would go on to earn $210 million at the box office, launching the careers of Blomkamp and Copley in the process.
19. A.I. Artificial Intellegence (2001)
Based on the 1969 short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss, this 2001 adaptation was directed and produced by Steven Spielberg. Set in a futuristic society, A.I. follows the story of David (Haley Joel Osment), a childlike android uniquely programmed with the ability to love and fill the void for a couple who have lost their child. The development of A.I. has an interesting backstory, with producer-director Stanley Kubrick acquiring the rights to Aldiss’ story in the early 1970s.
Production on the film was put on hold because Kubrick felt that computer graphics imagery (CGI) were not yet advanced enough to create the David character and that there wasn’t a suitable actor for the role. Eventually, Kubrick handed the production over to Spielberg, but passed away in 1999 before he could see it brought to the screen. A.I. received mixed reviews with high marks being given for the film’s visual effects and the performance of Osment. Unfortunately, the film wasn’t the financial success that Warner Bros. had hoped for, earning $235.9 million on a $100 budget.
18. WALL-E (2008)
WALL-E is a 2008 animated film from Pixar Animation Studios that follows an adorable trash compactor robot named WALL-E living on a deserted Earth, left to clean a largely abandoned city. WALL-E’s only friend is a cockroach and when he is visited by an EVE probe sent by the Axiom ship, he quickly falls in love with it and pursues it across the galaxy. Passengers of the Axiom, who have lived for generations away from the planet that they destroyed, have become obese and frail due to microgravity and reliance on an automated lifestyle.
Like many Pixar films, WALL-E offers commentary on real-life issues and the film criticizes consumerism, human environmental impact, obesity, and global catastrophic risk. The film was a massive critical and financial success, being nominated for and winning several awards while grossing $533.3 million worldwide.
17. The Martian (2015)
In a fantastic comeback effort for Ridley Scott after a string of disappointments, The Martian hit theaters in October 2015. Based on the 2011 novel written by Andy Weir, The Martian follow an astronaut named Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who is mistakenly presumed dead after a mission goes awry and is left behind on Mars. A Botanist by trade, Watney takes his fate into his own hands and does his best MacGyver impression by fashioning a farm inside his small base of operations, utilizing Martian soil fertilized with human feces, water produced by extracting hydrogen from leftover rocket fuel, and potato rations intended for the crew.
Scott’s film does an excellent job of straddling the line between being hard sci-fi, action, and comedy with the audience feeling invested in the lead character’s survival. The Martian received rave reviews and was nominated for Best Picture at the 2015 Academy Awards, as well as a Best Actor nomination for Matt Damon, who was fantastic in the role.
16. Primer (2004)
Released in October 2004, Primer is an independent science fiction film about the accidental discovery of time travel. The film was written, directed, produced, edited and scored by Shane Carruth, who also stars in the film alongside David Sullivan. Aaron and Abe (Carruth and Sullivan, respectively) supplement their day-jobs working out of Aaron’s garage with entrepreneurial tech projects. One day, the pair accidentally discover an A-B time loop side effect that allows for time travel. Abe eventually refines the experiment and builds a stable time-apparatus (“the box”) large enough to accommodate a human subject.
The film was produced for just $7,000 and is notable for its use of a unique plot structure, and complex technical language which Carruth, a former engineer, chose not to simplify for the sake of the audience. The film was well received and went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. Primer received a limited release in the United States, earning just $841,926 at the box office and has since gained a large cult following.
15. Her (2013)
The 2013 science fiction love story Her was written, directed and produced by Spike Jonez and stars Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johannson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Olivia Wilde. The film follows Theodore Twombly (Phoenix), a man who develops a relationship with his artificially intelligent assistant Samantha, who is personified by the soothing voice of Scarlett Johansson.
Warner Bros. initially provided a limited release for Her at six theaters and after a positive critical reception, it was later given a wide release at over 1,700 theaters across North America. Her received multiple awards nominations including Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Jonze took home the award for Best Original Screenplay. The film was a modest financial success, earning $48.5 million on a $23 million budget.
14. Interstellar (2014)
Interstellar is a 2013 science fiction epic co-written, directed and co-produced by Christopher Nolan. The film stars Matthew McConaughey and a star-studded ensemble cast that includes the likes of Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and Michael Caine. Set in the near future where humanity is on the brink of extinction, the film follows a team of astronauts as they travel through a wormhole in search of a new planet to be inhabited by the human race.
Co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan worked on the script for four years and dedicated himself to learning the scientific aspects of the film by studying relativity at the California Institute of Technology. The film won the award for Best Visual Effects at the 87th Academy Awards and was praised by scientists for its realistic depiction of wormholes and black holes. Interstellar received mostly positive reviews and would earn $677 million worldwide, making it the tenth highest grossing film of 2014.
13. The Mist (2007)
Based on the 1980 novel by Stephen King, The Mist is a 2007 science fiction film written and directed by Frank Darabont. Darabont, known at the time for his work on The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile had shown an interest in adapting the book for the big screen since the late 1980s. The story revolves around inhabitants of the small town of Bridgton, Maine, who gather in a small supermarket after a severe thunderstorm causes a power outage in the surrounding area. A strange mist overruns the town and conceals vicious creatures who slowly pick off the terrified residents of the quiet town.
Considered to be one of the best film adaptations of Stephen King’s work, The Mist received critical acclaim for Darabont’s nod to black and white horror films of the 1960s. The film performed well at the box office too, earning $57 million on a modest $18 million budget.
12. Edge Of Tomorrow (2014)
Also known by its marketing tagline “Live. Die. Repeat.”, Edge of Tomorrow is essentially a sci-fi version of Groundhog Day. The film stars Tom Cruise who plays Major William Cage, a public relations officer with no combat experience. Cage is forced to team up with the seasoned combat veteran Rita Vrataski (Blunt) to improve his fighting skills in order to exit a time loop where he continually dies in battle. It’s an interesting premise that works well on screen and the film is elevated by the performances of Cruise and Blunt.
The film was a big financial success earning $370 million at the global box office and received positive reviews from critics. Tom Cruise has appeared in several excellent sci-fi films since 1999 including 2001’s Vanilla Sky, and 2002’s Minority Report, but Edge of Tomorrow is arguably the best of the bunch.
11. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
The Planet of the Apes series is now almost 50 years old and has been a pop culture staple for even longer than Star Wars. Previous films in the series are a bit of mixed bag, with fans being divided on whether the first series is better than the current trilogy, but one thing they can agree on is that the 2001 Tim Burton film was a misstep for the franchise.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is set ten years after the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and follows a group of people in San Francisco who struggle to stay alive in the aftermath of a plague that is wiping out humanity. The film was met with widespread acclaim with critics praising the visual effects, story, direction, and for Andy Serkis’s portrayal of Ceasar, the leader of the evolved ape tribe. The film would go on to win an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
10. Minority Report (2002)
Loosely based on a short story by famed sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, Minority Report stars Tom Cruise as Chief of PreCrime John Anderton. PreCrime is a specialized division of the Washington D.C. Police Department responsible for apprehending criminals based on foreknowledge provided by three psychics called “PreCogs.” The film’s central theme is the question of free will versus determinism and examines whether free will can exist if the future is set and known in advance. It’s an interesting premise that provides the backdrop for an exciting movie, but what viewers really enjoyed was all of the cool futuristic tech, most of which turned out to be not that far-fetched.
The film featured a unique film noir visual style that added to the stories dark and sinister undertones. Directed by Stephen Spielberg the film was one of the best-reviewed releases of 2002 and solidified Tom Cruises’ position as a bonified sci-fi star.
9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind follows an estranged couple who have erased each other from their memories, only to start dating again. The film stars Jim Carrey as the shy, soft-spoken Joel Barish and Kate Winslet as the unrestrained free-spirit Clementine Kruczynski. The two begin a relationship on a Long Island train from Montauk to Rockville Centre and although they do not realize it, Joel and Clementine are former lovers who are now separated after a two-year relationship.
When Joel learns that Clementine has had him erased from her memory, he’s devastated and forced to undergo the same procedure in order to deal with the heartbreak. The unique premise provides an interesting backdrop to this romantic sci-fi film that incorporates elements of psychological thriller and dark comedy.
8. Looper (2012)
Looper is a science fiction thriller written and directed by Rian Johnson and stars Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Emily Blunt. The film’s story is centered around contract killers hired by a crime syndicate to travel through time and eliminate their target. In 2044, 25-year-old Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is a Looper who works for a Kansas City crime family faced with the task of closing his own loop by assassinating his future self, played by Bruce Willis, who isn’t too keen on the idea and is ready for Joe’s arrival.
The film’s central concept is an interesting one and both Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis are fantastic in their roles and are complemented by Emily Blunt in a supporting role. Looper is a thought-provoking and thrilling film that was well received by critics and has a rating of 93% on Rotten Tomatoes.
7. The Man from Earth (2007)
The Man From Earth is 2007 sci-fi drama that feels more like a stage play than a feature film and in fact, was later adapted to the stage. The film stars David Lee Smith as John Oldman, a departing university professor who claims to be a Cro-Magnon caveman who has secretly survived in society for more than 14,000 years. The film’s setting is entirely focused around Oldman’s cabin during his farewell party and is composed almost entirely of dialogue. The plot advances through intellectual arguments between Oldman and his fellow faculty members, some of who struggle to come to grips with his claims.
The low budget film features some inconsistent performances but features a unique concept and some fascinating dialog and interactions between the various characters. The film never received a wide theatrical release and only had a limited DVD release in 2007, but the word slowly spread about this unique sci-fi film and it was widely distributed through peer-to-peer networks.
6. Inception (2010)
This sci-fi heist film written, co-produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a professional thief who steals information by entering a target’s subconscious. Things get interesting when he is offered the chance to have his criminal record expunged as payment for planting information into a target’s subconscious. The film features an excellent ensemble cast that includes Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, and Michael Caine.
Inception is known for it breathtaking and mind-bending dream sequences, made all the more impressive by the fact that Nolan used little computer-generated imagery, opting for practical effects whenever possible. Inception received critical acclaim and was praised for Nolan’s screenplay, visual effects, and performances from the experienced cast. The film would go on to earn several Academy Awards and a worldwide box office gross of $828 million.
5. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
The original Blade Runner, released in 1982, is a neo-noir sci-fi classic that had a profound influence on the science fiction genre. The 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049, was initially met with skepticism by fans but once it was confirmed that Harrison Ford would reprise his role as a Rick Deckard and that Denis Villeneuve was directing, anticipation grew considerably.
Blade Runner 2049 is set thirty years after the first film and Ryan Gosling plays K, a blade runner who uncovers a secret that threatens to disrupt the rocky relationship between humans and replicants. The film was praised for its performances from an accomplished ensemble cast as well as its faithfulness to the original film. Despite being well received by critics the film was a box office disappointment, earning just $260 million on a $185 million budget.
4. Children of Men (2006)
Children of Men takes place in 2027 in the wake of the death of the world’s youngest citizen and two decades of human infertility having left society on the brink of collapse. Set in the United Kingdom where the last resemblance of a functioning government imposes oppressive immigration laws on desperate refugees, Clive Owen plays Theo Faron, a civil servant charged with escorting a young refugee woman to safety after it’s discovered that she is miraculously pregnant and may hold the key to future of humanity.
Children of Men features themes of hope, redemption, and faith and the unique premise provides for an interesting sci-fi thriller based on a dystopian future. The film received a limited release and was considered a failure at the box office. Despite its struggles financially, Children of Men was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing.
3. Moon (2009)
This 2009 sci-fi gem is directed by Duncan Jones and stars Sam Rockwell as astronaut Sam Bell. Bell is on a three-year solo mission mining helium-3 on the far side of the moon and begins to experience hallucinations and enters into a personal crisis. The film features Kevin Spacey as the voice of Sam’s robot companion GERTY in a performance that mirrors that of HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The isolation of Rockwell’s character leads to some interesting scenes as he navigates through the fully automated space station with only GERTY to interact with.
Unfortunately, this is another film that most people missed out on, as it received a limited theatrical release. Rockwell was praised for his performance and the film won several awards on the film festival circuit. Produced on a modest budget of $5 million, Moon would earn just $9.8 million worldwide.
2. Sunshine (2007)
Directed by Danny Boyle, the 2007 film Sunshine is a sci-fi thriller that incorporates elements of classic sci-fi films such as Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris, and Ridley Scott’s 1979 science-fiction horror film Alien. The film takes place in 2057 where the sun is dying and the earth is becoming dangerously cold and threatening the survival of humanity. A crew of eight astronauts from around the globe pilot a colossal nuclear bomb aboard the spaceship Icarus II, with the intent to jump-start the sun and return to Earth.
The film is a sci-fi epic that received positive feedback from critics and was nominated for several awards for its acting, directing, and production merits. Unfortunately, Sunshine failed to earn back its estimated $40 million budget, earning just $32 million at the global box office.
1. Ex Machina (2015)
Ex Machina is a fantastic sci-fi thriller that blew audiences away when it was released in April of 2015. As is the case with many films on this list, it was overlooked by most moviegoers outside of dedicated sci-fi fans. The directorial debut of Alex Garland, the film stars Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac and revolves around Gleeson’s character Caleb Smith, a programmer invited by his CEO (Oscar Issacs) to administer the Turing test to an intelligent humanoid robot played by Alicia Vikander.
Ex Machina addresses themes of artificial intelligence, humanity, compassion, and love and the performances from the three lead actors provide a compelling dynamic that will have viewers engaged throughout. The film received widespread critical acclaim being recognized for its visual effects and performances. Ex Machina was a modest success financially earning $37 million at the global box office.