The 25 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the Last 25 Years, #10-1
Our list of the 25 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the Last 25 Years continues with #s 10-1. If you somehow missed the first 15 on this list, you can check out Part 1 right here.
10. ‘Contact’ (1997)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
The idea itself is simple: What if aliens come to Earth, not in massive fleets of foreboding spaceships, but by way of technology itself? If we were to assume that there are other life forms out there sophisticated enough to find us, why the hell would they risk life and limb to come straight to our planet? Surely, they’ve tapped into our cable channels by now; they know what we’re capable of (war, reality television, knives that can cut through shoes). Robert Zemeckis’ ‘Contact’ additionally presupposes that if aliens were to visit Earth, they’d come looking for precisely the right person. That person is Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway (Jodie Foster, in one of her best performances), who has built her entire life around her desire to connect people and places through science. Bureaucratic B.S. nearly spoils Ellie’s big chance, but once she does make contact with whatever’s out there, it’s one of the most genuinely thrilling, emotional, and unexpected sequences in sci-fi history (and one that only gets better with time). How good is ‘Contact’? So good that we almost always forget that Matthew McConaughey is in it, like some curly-haired bonus sent to brighten up the film’s darkest moments. —Kate Erbland
9. ‘Inception’ (2010)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
There is a moment in ‘Inception’ where Tom Hardy sidles up to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who’s firing an automatic rifle. Hardy casually brandishes a grenade launcher and offers a cheeky bit of advice to his partner: “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bit bigger, darling.” It sounds like a mantra director Christopher Nolan might have told himself as he crafted his follow-up to the wildly successful ‘The Dark Knight.’ ‘Inception’’s remembered now mostly for its BRAAAM-heavy soundtrack; they became such a cliché someone even created a button you can push to recreate it whenever you need it. But ‘Inception’ was so widely copied, BRAAAMs and all, because it was so fresh and original. 2010 felt like the moment Hollywood hit Peak Reboot, when every summer movie was based on an existing IP done and redone many times before. Then ‘Inception’ came along and spun us like Leonardo DiCaprio’s totem. Even when it’s over, the movie stays with you, begging for conversation, discussion, debate and, eventually, another viewing. It may even pop up in your dreams. There’s nothing wrong with that; we should all try dreaming a little bit bigger. —Mike Sampson
8. ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (2014)
Directed by Doug Liman
The smartest part of ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ isn’t the mech suits or the ‘Groundhog Day’-esque concept of a man forced to relive a single day over and over; it’s the clever bait-and-switch of bringing audiences into what they think is yet another Tom Cruise sci-fi actioner, only to reveal that this is actually Emily Blunt’s movie. With a kind of impressive humility, Cruise is great as a cocky but physically inept military public relations officer who’s punished for insubordination by having to actually go to war with the enemy (that enemy being huge, fearsome aliens). Then we meet the real action star of ‘Edge of Tomorrow’: Emily Blunt’s Rita Vrataski, a tough and confident war hero whose battlefield achievements have made her an A-List symbol for freedom. Cruise must rely on Blunt’s teachings if he wants to survive (or become even half of the badass that she is), a power dynamic that pushes viewers to reconsider their notions of what an action hero should look like, and establishes Blunt as a righteous equal (and often better) of her male colleagues and peers. And while the tech and alien design elements are certainly very cool, there’s nothing cooler than Emily Blunt saving Tom Cruise’s butt from danger over and over and over. Someone needs to cast her in a solo female superhero film, like, yesterday. —Britt Hayes
7. ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ (1991)
Directed by James Cameron
Think about this for a second. This is a movie about Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man with the thickest Austrian accent on the planet, playing a killbot from the future who learns how to be human and use “hip” ’90s slang. (“Hasta la vista, baby.”) By all rights, this should have been an embarrassment, a pathetic kid-friendly cash-in sequel to a grim sci-fi thriller about time-travel paradoxes and inescapable destinies. But somehow director James Cameron made ‘Terminator 2’’s lighter tone and humanistic message work without feeling like a sellout, and while some of its finer details look dated (“Hasta la vista, baby.”), most of it holds up surprisingly well almost 25 years later, including a blend of practical stunts (like the high-speed truck and helicopter chase that looks like it should have killed everyone involved) and cutting-edge digital effects (like the liquid metal T-1000 in all his shape-shifting glory) that has arguably never been topped to this day. But let’s not overlook Schwarznegger himself, who’s great in an impossible role: the badass comic relief with a robo-heart of gold. Somehow, he makes this death machine’s emotional journey convincing. And when he says “I know now why you cry” to Edward Furlong’s John Connor at the end of the film, every viewer knows exactly what he means. —Matt Singer
6. ‘Looper’ (2012)
Directed by Rian Johnson
In Rian Johnson’s ‘Looper,’ expansive world-building is so tightly woven into hard-boiled noir that you hardly realize the full creativity of this vision of the future. It’s only on repeat viewings, after you’ve acquainted yourself with the twisted time-travel shenanigans that force a younger and older version of the same hitman together, that you realize just how much detail Johnson packs into every frame. Making a world this lived-in is hard enough; making a world this lived-in home to a story this crafty and pulpy and original is a miracle. Every aspect of ‘Looper’ is confident, from Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s uncanny Bruce Willis impersonation to the bloody, impactful action scenes. Johnson’s mixture of sci-fi, action, and noir feels effortless. It never bends over backwards to sell its wild ideas; the audience simply has to accept them. Everyone onscreen does, so why shouldn’t you? —Jacob Hall
5. ‘The Matrix’ (1999)
Directed by The Wachowskis
Every so often, a movie comes along that cleanly divides culture into “everything before” and “everything after.” ‘The Matrix’ is one of those movies. No amount of imitators or controversial sequels can tarnish this cyberpunk masterpiece. Rewatching ‘The Matrix’ today is as enthralling as it was when it first hit theaters nearly 16 years ago. You can steal its style and mimic its action, but you can’t diminish the raw, giddy pleasures of the Wachowskis’ defining film. One part William Gibson, one part John Woo, one part anime, and one part philosophy class, ‘The Matrix’ is a movie that wears its geek heritage like a badge of honor. In retrospect, it’s shocking that a movie so unashamed of its eclectic influences struck a chord with mainstream audiences. No other movie has so successfully smuggled so much raw nerdiness into a production designed for a mass audience. In many ways, the geek renaissance of the ’00s began right here.
It’s astonishing just how well ‘The Matrix’ has aged (and we’re not just talking about Keanu Reeves). The groundbreaking visual effects still look great and the pulpy, slightly goofy tone is a breath of fresh air in an era where every major studio movie is in a race to out-serious each other. ‘The Matrix’ may be a movie set in a post-apocalyptic world where machines have enslaved humanity in a digital simulation of reality, but it’s also fun and even silly at times. ‘The Matrix’ isn’t just perfect entertainment; it’s proof, contrary to most of the evidence presented by its peers, that big spectacles can be smart, creative, and endlessly inventive. It’s the kind of movie that restores your faith in Hollywood filmmaking. —JH
4. ‘Children of Men’ (2006)
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
‘Children of Men’’s big claim to fame is its stunningly intricate long takes, which stretch on for minutes and span surprisingly complex sequences of action without a single cut. The film’s long takes (shot by director Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) are technically impressive and enormously exciting. But the real reason they’re so important is the way they tie back in to the film’s sci-fi setting, a ruined future where humanity has lost its ability to procreate. A jaded former activist named Theo (Clive Owen) becomes the protector of a young immigrant named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), who is the first pregnant woman on the planet in 18 years.
The long takes (and the accidental splatters of blood that collect on the lens in the midst of the chaos) lend ‘Children of Men’ the immediacy of a vérité documentary, but more importantly they make the audience hyper-aware of the passage of time, in the film and in life in general. All the long takes come at moments of crisis—and, with one exception, moments of death—and the jarring violence that punctuates them reinforce the random and sometimes cruel nature of existence. For Theo and Kee—and really for every human being alive—time is the most precious and fleeting thing, and we never know when the proverbial final cut is coming. —MaS
3. ‘Jurassic Park’ (1993)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
It’s commonly noted that the visual effects in 1993’s ‘Jurassic Park’ are better than most movies released in present day. But they’re not the only thing about ‘Jurassic Park’ that still looks good all these years later. While Steven Spielberg is more frequently praised for the way he photographs wonder (see: “The Spielberg Face”), he’s proven equally adept at capturing terror. From the brutal opening sequence when a worker is brutally dragged to his death by a gaggle of raptors, to the “We’re back in business!” jump scare, ‘Jurassic Park’ is loaded with scenes that feel directly out of a horror movie.
And, then there’s the T-rex attack, an eight-minute master class in suspense and action filmmaking. The scene starts and ends with two iconic moments: the ripples in the glass of water, and close up shot of the T-rex as it roars for the first time. The tension escalates as the characters struggle to stay quiet then succumb to panic as their jeep is slowly crushed by the dino. Through all of this, there’s no musical score; instead, Spielberg relies on sound designer Gary Rydstrom to build tension with all the stomps, roars, and screams. In a movie filled with showstoppers, this sequence still stands out. If ‘Jaws’ created the concept of a “summer movie,” ‘Jurassic Park’ perfected it, ushering in a new era of blockbuster filmmaking. Smart, scary, and thrilling, ‘Jurassic Park’ is some of Spielberg’s very best work. —MiS
2. ‘Her’ (2013)
Directed by Spike Jonze
Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ is a gorgeous and glorious exploration of our need to connect, to be loved, and to know that we exist. In the not-too-distant future of ‘Her,’ Joaquin Phoenix’s pitifully (and somewhat willfully) lonely Theodore Twombly works in an office writing personal letters for people who have become so reliant on technology that they can’t organically express their own feelings. More comfortable conversing with interfaces than actual faces, Theodore falls in love with his computer’s sentient operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, who is quickly becoming the queen of modern sci-fi).
But ‘Her’ isn’t just poignant commentary on our relationship with technology—it’s a remarkable exploration on the nature of all relationships, and the urge to define ourselves through the existence of someone else. Jonze, Phoenix, and Johansson collaborate to deliver a beautiful monument to the human condition and our pursuit of love and happiness. Relationships are a gamble; everyone is constantly growing and changing, and we hope that as we change minute by minute, hour by hour, that we won’t grow and change away from each other. Just as Johansson’s Samantha begins to evolve beyond Theodore (and her own technological limitations), so do most intimate relationships, for better for worse. ‘Her’ hits on something so specific and so intensely relatable that it feels like one of Theodore’s personal letters, tailored to your individual experience, as if this film knows you better than anyone else, living or digital. —BH
1. ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (2004)
Directed by Michel Gondry
Science fiction is consistently at its best and most engaging when the “fictional” edge melts away and everything suddenly feels blindly, brightly real. Michel Gondry’s 2004 masterpiece takes an understandable (and fully human) problem—How do you heal a broken heart?—and solves it with the kind of imaginative (and imaginary) solution that doesn’t feel so wild that we can’t speculate about the probability that it will someday exist in our world. ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ merges Gondry’s signature whimsy with co-screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s relentless curiosity about the inner-workings of the human mind to near-perfect effect. Science fiction has long explored what it means to be human, but ‘Eternal Sunshine’ zeros in on that idea, asking what it means to be a human in love, in pain, and in confusion; in some ways, what it means to be the most human, without ever feeling cloying or ringing false.
Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet both exhibit so much vulnerability as they explore an entire internal universe of human emotions and memories (and jeez, can we get these two to star in another film together some time this century?), and the production is so vivid and so real, that the film’s big ideas—of which there are many—almost don’t matter. But that still doesn’t reduce its creativity and imagination. ‘Eternal Sunshine’ is truly unforgettable. —KE
Those are ScreenCrush’s 25 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the Last 25 Years, but what are yours? Are there any movies we forgot? Or overpraised? Give us your thoughts in the comments below.