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The Top 40 Sci-Fi Movies of the 21st Century

From space-invader thrillers to interstellar-overdrive headscratchers, we’re counting down the best science fiction films since the turn of the century.

Ask any science-fiction movie fanatic what their go-to films are, and you’ll get a lot of great answers back: Metropolis, Blade Runner, 2001, The Day the Earth Stood Still, the original Godzilla, The Thing etc. But let’s face it — those answers are so last century. Great sci-fi movies didn’t decide to party like it’s 1999 then call it a day; a host of thrilling, intelligent, offbeat, funny and frightening SF films have hit art houses and multiplexes since Y2K.

In 2014, we concocted a list of the Best Sci-Fi Movies of the 21st Century — a quick and dirty survey of the best the genre has had to offer since the millennium’s beginning. More than a few major science-fiction flicks, however — from franchise-expanding blockbusters to arthouse headscratchers — have dropped since then, so it was time for an overhaul and an update. We’ve now expanded our list to 40 titles, to better highlight the best and brightest SF films of our still-new—ish millennium. Some noteworthy favorites of ours just barely missed the cut (very sorry, Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer) or some major titles were dinged on quality-control issues. (Avatar may have been a game-changing film for 3D, but “unobtainium”? Really?!?) We’re confident, however, that there’s a place in the canon for these relative latecomers.

By Christopher R. Weingarten, Noel Murray,Jenna Scherer, Tim Grierson, James Montgomery, David Fear,David Marchese, Kory Grow and Brian Tallerico.

40. ‘The One I Love’ (2014)

'The One I Love' (2014)

It’s probably best not to know too much about this sci-fi—inflected indie before you watch — though it’s okay to be aware ahead of time that director Charlie McDowell’s relationship dramedy doubles as a genre piece, and not just some run-of-the-mill story about a bickering married couple (played by Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss). There’s a big twist, which arrives after the spouses head off for a therapeutic weekend at a country estate. In a switcheroo worthy of The Twilight Zone, some supernatural mojo grants both husband and wife the opportunity to get exactly what they want from each other — provided that they’re willing to accept some dire consequences. NM

39. ‘Another Earth’ (2011)

'Another Earth' (2011)

In Mike Cahill and Brit Marling’s quiet indie drama, a mirror Earth is hurtling slowly but surely toward our own. The main focus, however, is on Rhoda (Marling), a young woman struggling to come to grips with the consequences of a terrible mistake from her past. As Earth 2 looms closer, so does the inescapability of our heroine’s actions. The concept is an exciting one: If we could come face to face with another version of ourselves, what would we say? Another Earth never answers the question, but it doesn’t need to; it simply has to spin a moody web around the hope and the anxiety inherent in the asking, which it does in spades. JS

38. ‘Source Code’ (2011)

'Source Code' (2011)

Take Groundhog Day, sprinkle in a bit of Inception and throw in several decades’ worth of space-time continuum headscratchers — and voila, you’ve got this zippy techno-mystery anchored by a strong Jake Gyllenhaal performance. The actor plays a soldier forced into a wonky secret project, in which his consciousness is projected back in time, repeatedly, to the minutes just before a terrorist attack. Writer Ben Ripley and director Duncan Jones blessedly keep the scientific explanations to a minimum and instead focus on the tiny clues the hero gradually uncovers, and the doomed passengers he begins to care about for as he fights to save their lives — over and over. And over. And over. NM

37. ‘The Girl With All the Gifts’ (2016)

'The Girl With All the Gifts' (2016)

In a dystopian future overrun by the walking dead (because of course!), pre-teen Melanie may be humanity’s last hope. She’s also a second-generation zombie — an offspring of the “hungries” who are being experimented on by a group of teachers, scientists and soldiers, including Glenn Close and Gemma Arterton. The hope is that their behaviour (or just their brain stems) holds the key to an antidote. Scottish director Colm McCarthy’s adaptation of M.R. Carey’s book reverses the classical sub-genre’s narrative that portrays the undead as a state of devolution, returning man to the base desires of hunger and destruction. Gifts asks: What if zombies are simply the next phase of mankind? And how can we all coexist without having our brains eaten? BT

36. ‘Pacific Rim’ (2013)

'Pacific Rim' (2013)

Thanks to Michael Bay’s soulless, endless Transformers franchise, we thought we’d had more than our fill of giant robots punching the crap out of each other. That is until the visionary Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) tried his hand at the kaiju genre — and gifted the world with a movie that gave mecha behemoths a beating heart. Sea monsters from another dimension! Pilots who have to soul-bond with their fighting robots! Martial arts! Idris Elba and that one dude from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia! In terms of summer blockbusters, it brought all the ingredients: stunning visuals, big knockout fights and characters you actually care about. Plus, it’s just gosh-dang fun. JS

35. ‘Sunshine’ (2007)

'Sunshine' (2007)

Set the controls for the heart of the sun: Danny Boyle’s sci-fi opus — about a motley crew aboard the spaceship Icarus II (symbolism alert!) jumpstarting our life-giving star — is a throwback to the genre’s cerebral era, when interstellar journeys doubled as metaphysical head trips (see Solaris, 2001, etc.). If it works better as a chin-scratcher about our place in the universe than it does as an in-space-no-one-can-hear-you-scream thriller, Boyle’s underrated film still provides a few genuinely chilling moments — and, of course, plenty of heat. DF

34. ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (2014)

'Guardians of the Galaxy' (2014)

Superhero movies may be a zeitgeist-defining genre in and of themselves, but most of these colourful characters and concepts have straight-up science-fiction roots. This was never more clear than in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s elaborate homage to the rollicking space operas of yesteryear. As a veteran of the Troma sci-fi schlock factory, co-writer/director James Gunn kept the action properly boisterous, the aliens suitably weird (go ahead, say it: “I AM GROOT”), and the tone fun and frothy. A star-making performance from Chris Pratt as displaced human space-pirate Peter “Starlord” Quill and a cast of crazy characters previously relegated to the margins of Marvel comics sure didn’t hurt, either. STC

33. ‘Donnie Darko’ (2001)

'Donnie Darko' (2001)

Call it the In the Aeroplane Over the Sea of sci-fi flicks — a personal, dense, left-of-center work that time (and a fervent fan base) helped turn into a modern touchstone. Richard Kelly’s gloriously odd cult film about time travel, toothy rabbit-costumed doomsayers, and a misfit named Donnie may not be the masterpiece that some claim. But its skewed look at suburban America and scarred psyches do make it an intriguing and eerily prescient work, one that had the misfortune of coming out right after 9/11 yet somehow anticipated the PTSD mindset of that moment’s aftermath. DF

32. ‘2046’ (2004)

'2046' (2004)

In this sequel to the rapturously romantic In the Mood for Love, Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai goes back to the future, examining the emotional fallout of journalist Chow Mo Wan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who’s exorcising his unrequited love, in part, by writing a sci-fi novel. 2046 ambitiously shifts between timelines and genres, going from the 1960s to the fictional world of Chow’s book, which is set in a sleek, dystopian mid-21st-century landscape where the characters’ ennui mirrors that of their heartbroken author. Although not commonly found on lists like this, the movie reflects what’s best about science fiction: recalibrating how we see the world thanks to its groundbreaking vision of the fluidity of the past and the present — and the fragility of our hold on reality. TG

31. ‘Monsters’ (2010)

'Monsters' (2010)

Before he’d take the reigns of this summer’s Godzilla reboot, director Gareth Edwards made this ingeniously minimalist giant-monster movie, in which two travelers seek safe passage through a post-alien invasion, kaiju-dotted landscape. The idea of offering only glimpses of the creatures and focusing more on the aftermath may have been the result of budgetary concerns, but necessity is certainly the mother of invention here; it’s a clever way of making a familiar sci-fi scenario seem fresh again. DF

30. ‘Reign of Fire’ (2002)

'Reign of Fire' (2002)

If this movie was made today, with exactly the same leading men and exactly the same premise, it would be a summer-season tent-pole. It might not be better though: Reign of Fire, released to little fanfare in 2002,is a thrillingly loopy, classic B movie — with dragons. Set in the not-so-distant future of a post-apocalyptic 2020 England terrorised by flying, fire-breathing beasts (who have awakened, ornery, from a eons-long hibernation), the film features an intense, shaven-headed Matthew McConaughey as an obsessive dragon hunter and Christian Bale as a meek farmer. Deliriously over-the-top and riotously fun, Reign is a reminder that in addition to parables about human progress, sci-fi is uniquely suited to ram cinematic wows down an audience’s throat. DM

29. ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ (2014)

'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' (2014)

The Empire Strikes Back of the Apes prequels — darker than the first instalment and operating on a grander canvas — Dawn is where Caesar takes his rightful place as this franchise’s towering central figure. Played by Andy Serkis, the reluctant ape leader tries negotiating a fragile truce with the surviving humans (including Jason Clarke and Keri Russell), but distrust on both sides soon proves tragic. Director Matt Reeves delivers a robustly epic sequel, crafting spectacular action sequences — the 360-degree tank scene is already a classic — alongside deft political commentary that touches on everything from the patriarchy to Israeli/Palestinian tensions. TG

28. ‘Attack the Block’ (2011)

'Attack the Block' (2011)

Evil extraterrestrials versus British hood rats — guess who wins? This funny, fast-paced sci-fi comedy (featuring future Force Awakens hero John Boyega and future female-Doctor-Who Jodie Whittaker) pits a bunch of neighbourhood kids in a rough section of South London against an otherworldy invasion. And damned if their street smarts aren’t the only thing that stands between our species and total annihilation. The fact that it flips the script and makes the so-called underclass the heroes was reason enough to embrace this scrappy take on Eighties blockbusters, but it also brings its action and alien-scares A-game (those glowing teeth!) as well. DF

27. ‘Cloverfield’ (2008)

'Cloverfield' (2008)

Even though Cloverfield plays out in the now-tired “found footage” format, its terrifying CGI destruction of New York City and its Godzilla-like monster is visceral enough to set it apart from the other style copycats. Plus, its cast (which includes Lizzy Caplan of Mean Girls/Masters of Sex fame as a party guest and former Silicon Valley actor T.J. Miller as the documentarian) perfectly captures the terror of New Yorkers seeing landmarks — the Time Warner Center and the archways in Central Park collapsing, the Statue of Liberty being beheaded — a few years after 9/11. Most chilling is the film’s final line, heard in a pre-destruction flashback: “I had a good day.” KG

26. ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ (2001)

'A.I. Artificial Intelligence' (2001)

Steven Spielberg was already toggling between his “serious movie” phase and his crowd-pleaser mode at the start of the 21st century — and this tricky futuristic, hard sci-fi fable, which openly undercuts the optimism of E.T. and Close Encounters, attempts to balance both sides. Based on a Brian Aldiss short story that was one of the late Stanley Kubrick’s abandoned projects, A.I. tells the story of an ultra-realistic robot boy (played by Haley Joel Osment) who’s abandoned by his human masters and left to search the world to learn his purpose. At once dazzling and despairing, the film is a sprawling odyssey that asks what makes us human — and doesn’t offer many reassuring answers. NM

25. ‘Primer’ (2004)

Shane Carruth’s 2004 mind-bender was made on the cheap — reportedly just $7,000 — though this little film doesn’t shy away from asking big questions: the philosophical implications of tampering with time, the weighty responsibilities of playing God, and, if you’ll indulge us for a second, what the heck is happening? From its tech-heavy dialogue to the loop-the-loop storyline (so complex it requires a chart to comprehend), Primer is the rare film that makes no attempt to pander to its audience. Sure, it’s confusing, but that’s partially the point. No one ever said Sci Fi should be easy. JM

24. ‘Minority Report’ (2002)

'Minority Report' (2002)

In which Hollywood brings out the Howitzers — Spielberg! Cruise! A script based on a Philip K. Dick story! — and still manages to deliver a savvy, smart sci-fi blockbuster not aimed at the lowest common denominator. Never mind that it moves with the director’s customary thrill-ride efficiency; the more times you watch this story of a future cop dedicated to stopping murders before they’ve occurred, the more you marvel at how it seems to anticipate the NSA/drone-strike zeitgeist of the here and now. There were precogs on the set, weren’t there, Mr. Spielberg? DF

23. ‘Moon’ (2009)

'Moon' (2009)

Message to anyone considering a solo three-year assignment on that hunk of grey rock that orbits our planet: watch out for space madness, it’s a doozy. Duncan Jones’ debut feature keeps you wondering whether its hero — played by an on-point Sam Rockwell — is losing a battle with what appears to be his “double” or if he, is, in fact, losing his mind. We won’t spoil the fun by spilling the beans on that question, but we will say that, even burdened with a few stock elements (unethical corporate interests? a less-than-trustworthy computer with a monotonous voice?), this sci-fi indie does a helluva lot with very, very little. DF

22. ‘The World’s End’ (2013)

'The World's End' (2013)

They say you can never go home again … especially if the town where you grew up has been colonized by some sort of sinister, not-of-this-Earth force. A genius riff on growing up, growing apart and Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type sci-fi/horror movies, writer-director Edgar Wright juggles a host of genre elements with an impressive agility and somehow makes the most lad-cultural premise ever — dudes recreating a legendary pub crawl from their school days — into the least bro-tastic comedy ever. All that, plus a robot fight in a bathroom. What more do you need? DF

21. ‘Midnight Special’ (2016)

'Midnight Special' (2016)

Director Jeff Nichols (Loving) pays homage to Spielberg’s Seventies and Eighties classics with this moving story of an unusual child and the father who would go to any length to protect him. Alton Meyer is a strange kid who has a penchant for tuning into frequencies no human ears can pick up (like, say, intelligence agency satellites) and can do amazing things with his eyes. Naturally, this makes him a person of interest to both religious cults and government spooks. As we hit the road with our confused on-the-run hero, we realise that Midnight Special is more about our terrestrial problems than extraterrestrial invaders. It’s a powerful example of how to use adult-friendly sci-fi to illuminate the human condition as opposed to merely thrilling and distracting us. BT

20. ‘The Host’ (2006)

'The Host' (2006)

Giant-monster flicks have always been about ecological destruction, and this one is no different. Using a 2000 incident of formaldehyde dumping in Seoul as inspiration, this South Korean tale of a creature emerging from the Han River — who not only attacks people, but infects them with a virus — broke box office records in its native country and set a new standard for nature-run-amok parables. It’s equal parts politically sharp, brutally hilarious, incredibly suspenseful — and totally icky. CGW

19. ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (2014)

'Edge of Tomorrow' (2014)

A sci-fi Groundhog Day, this vastly underrated entry boasts a videogame premise that’s appealing to both Tom Cruise’s fans and haters: What if a whole movie was devoted to killing T.C. over and over again? The diminutive action hero is at his self-mocking, amped-up best as Cage, a military P.R. exec who dies while battling vicious, spider-like aliens — only to discover that, each time, he’s beamed back to the start of that same day. Bourne Identity director Doug Liman dazzlingly stretches and twists that clever concept to its breaking point, finding seemingly infinite variations on how Cage can screw up. But MVP honours go to Emily Blunt as a hard-as-nails soldier who has to teach this loveable cad to become a proper warrior. Together, they’re like a Nick and Nora for a future age overrun by gnarly interstellar monsters. TG

18. ‘Her’ (2013)

'Her' (2013)

Who among us could not fall in love with Scarlett Johansson’s sultry voice and breezy demeanour as portrayed in Her — even if she is just a computer operating system? Spike Jonze’s post-postmodern love story reeks of all the hallmarks of every other sappy love story — infatuation, inadequacy, infidelity — and that’s what makes it so engaging. Joaquin Phoenix’s character falls in love with his PDA in such an endearing, all-too-human way that it feels real (and portentous), but it’s the way he tries to overcome all the odds of his impossible love affair work that makes the film heartrending. Even she is just an operating system. KG

17. ‘A Scanner Darkly’ (2006)

'A Scanner Darkly' (2006)

Philip K. Dick’s style of paranoid, mind-bending SF meets one of Waking Life/Boyhood director Richard Linklater’s low-key slices-of-life in this unusual animated thriller, about addicts spying on each other in a future America. Keanu Reeves stars as an undercover cop who’s investigating drug-trafficking by becoming part of a community of users (played by Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey, Jr.). The electronically-aided disguises and personality-altering pills align this adaptation A Scanner Darkly with speculative fiction, but the stoned philosophical psychobabble is clearly the work of the filmmaker behind Dazed and Confused — as is the commentary on a culture geared toward cracking down on harmless libertines. NM

16. ‘Snowpiercer’ (2013)

'Snowpiercer' (2013)

Don’t get too bogged down by the mechanics of the bizarre premise of this graphic-novel adaptation, in which the remnants of humanity struggle for survival aboard a speeding train in the wake of a global climate disaster. (A train, guys?) Just revel in this stylish, bizarre take on class warfare from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Okja), as revolutionary Curtis (Chris Evans) fights his way to the front of this hierarchical society on wheels, encountering homicidal schoolteachers, an army of axmen and a twisted prime minister (Tilda Swinton) along the way. Snowpiercer wears its strangeness and its singularity on its sleeve. Enjoy the ride. JS

15. ‘Looper’ (2012)

'Looper' (2012)

A person could tie their noggin in knots trying to follow the timeline of Rian Johnson’s time-travelling nailbiter: So future assassin Joseph Gordon Levitt is really Bruce Willis and they’re trying to kill each other? Plus the kid with psychic powers who lives near a corn field has something to do with this? And the hit man’s weapon of choice circa 2042 is a blunderbuss?!? Johnson’s Möbius Strip of a movie is endlessly fascinating — it doesn’t simply reward repeat viewings so much as demand them — and proof that it’s still possible to do intelligent science fiction within the sausage skin of a star vehicle. Kudos, sir. DF

14. ‘Serenity’ (2005)

'Serenity' (2005)

Should you think this list is filled with nothing but philosophical chin-scratchers, here’s a good old-fashioned romp brimming with spaceship chase scenes, laser gunfights and not one but several Han Solo-type ruffians. Joss Whedon’s decision to bring back his gone-too-soon TV show Firefly as a bespoke blockbuster (in feel, if not actual box-office returns) was a bold gamble that pays off beautifully; you don’t have to be fan of the series to dig the thrills, spills and chills here — though it doesn’t hurt, of course. We’re still holding out hopes for a sequel. DF

13. ‘District 9’ (2009)

'District 9' (2009)

As a metaphor for apartheid, Neill Blomkamp’s faux-documentary about aliens ghettoised in South African shantytowns is nothing if not blatant. As a genre-based action movie, however, the movie works its gritty, you-are-there feel to great effect, especially once Sharlto Copley’s bureaucratic lackey starts to experience a few, shall we say, physical changes of his own. It’s also doubles nicely as the announcement of a major talent who, Chappie or no Chappie, could very well influence the shape of science fiction to come. DF

12. ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (2004)

'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' (2004)

A masterful collaboration between visionary music-video director Michel Gondry and mercurial screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich), Eternal Sunshine succeeds as both sharp speculative fiction and heartbreaking romance. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are star-crossed Long Island lovers who hire a fly-by-night agency called Lacuna, Inc. to erase the painful memories of their failed relationship. Then he decides he doesn’t want to forget their time together. It’s a movie that toys with time and space, past and present, mind and heart like some sort of melancholy mad scientist. STC

11. ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (2015)

'Mad Max: Fury Road' (2015)

It took 30 years for action maestro George Miller to follow up his Beyond Thunderdome with another Mad Max… so long that he had to replace Mel Gibson with Tom Hardy as the leather-clad anti-hero. With Fury Road, the director delivers something close to a two-hour chase scene, as Max joins forces with steely warrior and slave-liberator Imperator Furiosa (a badass Charlize Theron) to rescue a group of young women from a resource-hoarding death-cult. From the unexpected character-depth to the geometry-defying high-speed standoffs, the movie is a prime example of how to balance thrilling post-apocalyptic spectacle with a sober social message. It’s sci-fi with its pedal to the metal. NM

10. ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ (2015)

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' (2015)

The first Star Wars film made outside the aegis of creator George Lucas, TFA set to recreate the magic of the original trilogy — and damned if it didn’t largely succeed in channeling the world we first saw a long time ago. This extension of modern pop culture’s definitive pop saga — in which a new generation of dark lords, derring-do heroes and determined orphans step up to the plate — was fuelled by the power and charm of its hugely charismatic cast, from relative newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega to A-list actors Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac. And you didn’t need to have owned New Hope bedsheets back in the day to feel nostalgic seeing returning icons Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and, albeit briefly, Mark Hamill. Warm, funny, and unafraid to get truly emotional (RIP, Captain Solo), it made that galaxy far, far away feel closer to home than it had in ages. STC

9. ‘The Martian’ (2015)

'The Martian' (2015)

Almost four decades after Alien, Ridley Scott returned to space in his adaptation of Andy Weir’s hit self-published novel, in which astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) from our Big Blue Marble finds himself marooned on the Big Red Planet. Quicker than you can say Robinson Crusoe on Mars, our hero is figuring out how to survive — and how to eventually get home. Blending Scott’s vision of life in the far reaches of our solar system with Damon’s witty, charming performance, the movie translates old-school hard sci-fi into a mainstream multiplex-friendly adventure — and gives us the cinema’s first cosmic botanist superhero. It’s not only enough to get people interested in space travel again but to pay more attention in science class. Doing so could save your life one day, kids. BT

8. ’28 Days Later…’ (2002)

'28 Days Later...' (2002)

Some science fiction movies do more than depict frightening innovations of a fictional kind — they unleash such advances themselves. Such is the case with the film that set the concept of the “fast zombie” loose upon an unsuspecting world. Technically, the ravening hordes in Danny Boyle’s groundbreaking movie are not undead, but “infected”: living humans contaminated by a viral rage-inducing epidemic. Naturally, they now kill the uninfected on sight … which does not bode well for hospital patient Cillian Murphy when he wakes up to find London has been overrun with mindless, rabid citizens. (The similarities between this movie’s opening and The Walking Dead pilot are uncanny.) A sub-genre was revitalised, and one look at the angry world around us today is all you need to see how prophetic the Trainspotting director and writer Alex Garland (Ex Machina) really were. STC

7. ‘Gravity’ (2013)

'Gravity' (2013)

The idea of being lost in space has never been portrayed in such a realistic and frightening way as director Alfonso Cuarón’s agoraphobic nightmare. Sandra Bullock may get top billing as an astronaut struggling to survive a deadly meteor shower while coming to terms with her own all-to-human inadequacies, but the movie’s real star is its villain: the absolute, all-encompassing nothingness of space. Thanks to dizzying CGI and Bullock’s 90-minute panic attack, Gravity is horror as much as sci-fi, because sometimes there is nothing scarier than being alone with your thoughts — and a finite amount of oxygen. KG

6. ‘Wall-E’ (2008)

'Wall-E' (2008)

Thought it’s set in space circa 2805, the real world of Wall-E is 20th century American film. Our bumbling hero putters around a scorched Earth silently but expressively as Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp; his attempts to romance an iPod-like female counterpart resembles a romance like a robot version of Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer; vistas recall Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the cynical political humor recalls his Dr. Strangelove. There’s no musical numbers, but an actual clip of Hello Dolly plays. Plus, the Pixar team has probably seen a few Disney movies in their day. CGW

5. ‘Inception’ (2010)

'Inception' (2010)

Christopher Nolan’s big-budget, big-concept, big-everything (filming took place on four continents) 2010 blockbuster works on so many levels — subconscious, visceral, temporal — that there are endless ways to appreciate it, though as we follow a team of dream “extractors” deeper and deeper down the spiral, one can’t help but marvel at the film’s structure most of all. Nolan’s script is a multi-layered latticework of timelines and realities, dead-ends and false ledges, one that ultimately provides few answers, but asks plenty of questions. Is Leo’s top is still spinning? When does a shared dream become reality? Are we awake right now?!? Heavy stuff, man. JM

4. ‘Arrival’ (2016)

The aliens are here … but are they friend or foe? That urgent question powers Denis Villeneuve’s sober sci-fi drama, which balances the cerebral and the emotional as gracefully as those interstellar spacecrafts hovering just above Earth’s surface. Amy Adams is a linguist still grieving for her dead daughter when extraterrestrials appear across the globe, speaking in a sophisticated language only she can unravel — that is, if she can stop wary superpowers from declaring war on our visitors first. From the elegant alien design to the screenplay’s eloquent chronological jumble, Arrival eschews the genre’s pulpier tendencies for a realistic portrait of humanity facing down its destiny — leading to an ending that’s both a mindbender and a tearjerker. TG

3. ‘Under the Skin’ (2013)

'Under the Skin' (2013)

A Man Who Fell to Earth for millennials, Jonathan Glazer’s cryptic tale of an extraterrestrial femme fatale who discovers her inner human being is, in the truest sense of the word, awesome. Lots of movies have tried to channel that old Seventies sci-fi feeling, but Glazer’s visually sumptuous, genuinely unnerving movie is one of the few that feels as if it actually came from that fertile era of space oddities. There’s a sense of exploration in its elliptical storytelling that feels light years ahead of most modern aliens-among-us tales — and who knew that it would take playing a predatory, largely nonverbal creature to convince us that Scarlett Johansson was capable of such nuanced work? DF

2. ‘Ex Machina’ (2014)

'Ex Machina' (2014)

Much like its impromptu dance scene, which launched a thousand glorious GIFs, writer-director Alex Garland’s movie is hypnotic, hip — and also profoundly unsettling. This gripping thriller twists the knife on one of sci-fi’s great themes — what it means to be human — by placing mortals and androids in the same confined space and then consistently shifting our sympathies. Alicia Vikander electrifies as the seductive, seemingly subservient robot that slowly gets under the skin of the male programmers (Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac) who are under the mistaken impression that they’re studying her … and not the other way ’round. A relatively low-budget film that nonetheless walked off with the Best Visual Effects Oscar, Ex Machina is a marvel of smarts over spectacle, dissecting sexism and power dynamics with a cold-blooded efficiency worthy of its steely heroine. TG

1. ‘Children of Men’ (2006)

'Children of Men' (2006)

Director Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of PD James’ novel is a chilling nightmare, set in a future where human infertility has rendered society increasingly unstable (morality matters less when extinction is in the offing). The film’s rumpled, weary atmosphere, as embodied by conflicted hero Clive Owen — playing a cynical bureaucrat drafted into a potentially species-saving plot — and stubborn optimism (personified by Michael Caine’s aging hippie weed-dealer) combine to create a movingly tangible sci-fi tale that suggests that the end of the world, and its salvation, might not come with a bang, but a whimper. Emotionally resonant, daringly prophetic and disturbingly plausible, Children of Men is modern sci-fi storytelling at its apex. DM