This week sees the release of ‘Jupiter Ascending,’ the latest sci-fi adventure from Andy and Lana Wachowski. And while in all likelihood ‘Jupiter Ascending’ will not go down in history as one of the great works of its genre, the occasion of a new sci-fi epic from two of the modern masters of the form seemed like a good time to assess and celebrate the recent highlights of science-fiction cinema, which has taken audiences from the furthest reaches of the cosmos to the deepest recesses of the human mind.

To create this ranking of the 25 best sci-fi movies of the last 25 years, the staff of ScreenCrush first assembled an enormous (and thus very poorly named) shortlist of contenders that included almost every science-fiction film released since 1991. (Seriously, everything was on it. Freaking ‘Sphere’ was on it.) Each writer picked their 25 favorites from that shortlist; from there, a second round of voting determined the final order of the list you’re about to read.

The films below run the gamut from the smallest of indies (one selection was famously made for just $7,000) to the biggest of blockbusters (there’s even a sequel or cinematic universe or two). Some are intimate character studies; others span multiple planets or planes of reality. They prove that great ideas aren’t defined by the size of their budgets but by the scope of their ideas and the depth of their emotions. It’s easy to be cynical about the state of filmmaking in 2015—until you put together a list of masterpieces like these.

Under the Skin sci-fi list

25. ‘Under the Skin’ (2014)
Directed by Jonathan Glazer

In director Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under the Skin,’ Scarlett Johansson’s nameless alien lands on Earth to harvest men’s insides, luring them into her van with her looks and her charm, and then taking advantage of them the very same way so many men have taken advantage of women since the beginning of time. This brilliant flip of the gender script also functions as a metatextual meditation on the way audiences typically objectify actresses—Johansson is frequently naked, but never in a entirely titilating way. For women, ‘Under the Skin’ hits startlingly close to home, confronting us with the familiar dangers of vulnerability, and the ways in which we often feel punished simply for having a female form. The more Johansson endeavors to empathize and become more “human,” the more she realizes that her body serves no purpose beyond its attractiveness to those she’s made to lure into a fatal trap; it was only created for the pleasure of men, not for herself. ‘Under the Skin’ confronts viewers with the sad and startling thought that to be a woman is to feel alien in your own skin. —Britt Hayes

Gattaca sci fi list
Columbia Pictures

24. ‘Gattaca’ (1997)
Directed by Andrew Niccol

We’d all like to believe that the future will be better than the present, and science-fiction films often offer up a vision of that kind of future; sparkly, shiny, kitted out with helpful technology, gleaming cities, and extremely flattering uniforms. It’s that uniformity that consumes Andrew Niccol’s ‘Gattaca,’ a chilling look at a future that has become so obsessed with perfection that its citizens are screwed with on a subatomic level. The premise of the world of ‘Gattaca’—one that’s not too far off from our own—is that you can increase your child’s chances of success by building them from the very best reproductive materials. Who wouldn’t want to pass on prime genes to their offspring? Who wouldn’t pay for that? Well, the people who can’t pay for that. A meditation on class warfare mixed with a modern Romeo and Juliet romance, Niccol’s 1997 drama may be about a new world, but the future problems that Ethan Hawke’s Vincent Freeman faces in his attempts to fulfill his lifelong career goals (and hook up with Uma Thurman, a dream many people can relate to) aren’t far off from the issues faced by contemporary society. ‘Gattaca’ is about tomorrow, but it’s also still about today and yesterday. —Kate Erbland

Primer Sci-Fi list

23. ‘Primer’ (2004)
Directed by Shane Carruth

Film critic Mike D’Angelo said of ‘Primer,’ “anybody who claims he fully understands what's going on ... after seeing it just once is either a savant or a liar.” Even after multiple viewings, any claims of full understanding of Shane Carruth’s 2004 time-travel classic are dubious. Where other time-travel films dumb things down to keep the audience engaged, Carruth’s hyper-realistic ‘Primer’ actually smartens things up. Carruth has said he wanted to make the film as obtuse as possible, so the audience was left as confused about the events as the characters themselves (who he lovingly referred to as “morons”). Sure, it looks cheap; what film shot for a reported budget of $7,000 wouldn’t? But that homemade aesthetic somehow adds to the appeal. The biggest discoveries are sometimes the ones that are made by a bunch of friends working together in someone’s basement. ‘Primer’ is as cheap as the time machine in the film itself, but it’s no less a marvel (even if we are still trying to figure out its timeline). —Mike Sampson

Gravity Sci-Fi list
Warner Bros.

22. ‘Gravity’ (2013)
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

The 3D resurgence of the late 2000s brought with it a lot of films that never should’ve been in 3D (we’re looking at you, ‘Clash of the Titans’). But, Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’ was one film where the 3D actually added something to the narrative experience, not just to the ticket price. The 3D (and IMAX) immersed viewers in the experience, letting space become another character in the film. They also made ‘Gravity’ an essential theatrical experience that home viewing could never hope to duplicate. As Sandra Bullock’s astronaut spins around, untethered in the great expanse of outer space, you're as disoriented as she is. In both the literal and figurative sense, it’s breathtaking (as Bullock slowly loses oxygen, you find yourself counting your own breaths). And while it works incredibly well as a sci-fi suspense thriller, ‘Gravity’ is also a beautiful meditation on the cycle of death and rebirth. It’s only in accepting the end, in leaving the womb of the space station and crawling up out of the primordial clay, does Bullock’s character find a new beginning.  —MiS

AI Artificial Intelligence Sci-Fi list
Warner Bros. 

21. ‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ (2001)
Directed by Steven Spielberg

The tension between humans and robots—between the “real” and the “fake,” the creator and the created—is just the sort of kinda/sorta real-world issue that works best on the big screen. It’s entertainment! And it is scary! And it’s ... the future? Steven Spielberg’s 2001 drama imagines a world where robots have been invented to serve all our flesh-and-blood needs. The mechas that populate Spielberg’s brave (and flooded and just kind of awful) new world are capable of so much (though they don’t realize it, and we don’t let them), but we’re principally preoccupied with young David, who just wants to be a real boy. This reimagining of the Pinocchio mythos translates seamlessly to Spielberg’s cold and distant tale, and Haley Joel Osment’s portrayal of the little mecha that could is gut-wrenching to the point of being actually painful. Spielberg shows that a “fake” boy can inspire real emotion from even the most hardened of audiences. —KE

District 9 Sci-Fi list
TriStar Pictures

20. ‘District 9’ (2009)
Directed by Neill Blomkamp

Neill Blomkamp’s incredible debut feature immersed us in a highly-detailed alternate reality in which aliens landed in South Africa in 1982, only to be segregated in a section of the community called District 9. A parable of the real-life horrors of apartheid, ‘District 9’ is a moving and wildly original entry in the sci-fi genre, enhanced by Blomkamp’s careful eye for the intricacies of production design. Rather than the sleek, sophisticated futuristic tech of traditional sci-fi, Blomkamp made his weapons and gadgets look used and worn, lending the film an additional degree of realism and believability. The fictional technology accessorizes a story about the complexities of humanity rather than serving as its focus, a rarity among large-scale Hollywood productions. Blomkamp remains a promising and intriguing talent regardless of the disappointment of ‘Elysium’ and the worrisome trailers for ‘Chappie.’ At the very least, his sci-fi movies don’t look like anyone else’s, with a specificity and inventiveness all their own. —BH 

Galaxy Quest Sci-Fi List

19. ‘Galaxy Quest’ (1999)
Directed by Dean Parisot

If ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’ and ‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’ had a baby, and that baby grew up watching ‘Trekkies,’ it would eventually become ‘Galaxy Quest,’ a satirical but warm-hearted look at the world of ‘Star Trek’ and its fandom that’s also a full-blooded sci-fi adventure complete with alien worlds, plasma-armored spaceships, and rock monsters. The ingenious premise follows the cast of a long-cancelled cult sci-fi series as they’re plucked from the convention circuit by honest-to-goodness E.T.s (played with genuine, otherworldly weirdness by Enrico Colantoni, Missi Pyle, and a pre-‘The Office’ Rainn Wilson). The aliens have mistaken the ‘Galaxy Quest’ television show for “historical documents” and recruit the desperate actors (Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Daryl Mitchell, and a hilariously paranoid Sam Rockwell as the ‘Galaxy Quest’ version of a “Red Shirt”—the nameless cannon fodder crew members who were always the first to die on any given ‘Star Trek’ episode) to aid them in their war with a ruthless tyrant. Written by David Howard and Robert Gordon with an exhaustive knowledge of—and an obvious affection for—the tropes of ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Galaxy Quest’ manages to send up the stuff that makes ‘Trek’ silly—captains who always find a way to lose their shirt in battle, goofy made-up alien customs—while capturing the essence of what makes it great: The inspiring message about teamwork and hope for a brighter future—even for washed-up, spotlight-stealing actors. —Matt Singer

Sunshine Sci-Fi List
Fox Searchlight

18. ‘Sunshine’ (2007)
Directed by Danny Boyle

Science fiction often presents a pessimistic view of our planet’s future. Last year’s ‘Interstellar’ trod the same territory as Danny Boyle’s ‘Sunshine,’ imagining a dying Earth that can only be saved by the bravery of a motley coterie of scientists, explorers, and total whack jobs. Boyle’s ability to weave a mighty story with a compelling cast of characters is on full display here, as he immediately steeps us in life on board the Icarus II as it approaches its final (like, really final) destination. Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland are both adept at world-building—even tiny worlds, like the kind someone might find on a tricked out spaceship bound for glory—and that’s perhaps the boldest thing about ‘Sunshine’: After just a few minutes of screen time, we know this place and these people extremely well. Even as their motivations and desires flicker and flame, almost everything about ‘Sunshine’ stays bright and tight. It’s practically Shakespeare on a space vessel as the interplanetary drama continually boils down to the most personal of motivations. Let’s live, Boyle and Garland and their characters (played by a stellar cast that includes Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, and Cillian Murphy) demand, even if it kills us. —KE

Minority Report Sci-Fi List

17. ‘Minority Report’ (2002)
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Not even a psychic would have predicted that the Philip K. Dick short story ‘The Minority Report,’ first optioned back in 1992 as a potential sequel to the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie ‘Total Recall,’l would eventually become a Tom Cruise vehicle directed by Steven Spielberg. The results were as satisfying as they were unexpected, a brilliantly constructed mystery (written for the screen by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen) set in a future where a trio of “Precogs” anticipate murders and a special unit of police officers led by Cruise decode their visions and prevent the killings before they take place. Cruise’s belief in his job is shaken after he himself is accused of killing a man he’s never met; he goes on the lam to prove his innocence while a Department of Justice agent (Colin Farrell) assigned to determine the true efficacy of the “PreCrime” division stays hot on his trail. ‘Minority Report’ is a suspenseful thriller, a moving portrait of loss and guilt, and a very plausible vision of a possible future (particularly the part where future advertisements recognize customers and personalize their pitches to their tastes and habits, a trick your web browser already does for you). But what puts this sci-fi film among the elite of the last quarter century is the way its possible future reflects on our actual present, and what it has to say about the post-9/11 world’s obsession with security at all costs, even if that cost is personal freedom. —MaS


16. ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (2014)
Directed by James Gunn

Strip away the Marvel Studios logo and the pointless cameo by Thanos, and what’s left in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ isn’t really a superhero movie; it’s a mega-nerdy sci-fi comedy about a quintet of misfits who reluctantly band together to retrieve an all-powerful stone from a blue-skinned despot. There are no costumes, capes, or secret identities, but there are futuristic gadgets, exotic spacecraft, and sentient space trees that sound like Vin Diesel. He’s just one member of an outstanding cast that includes Bradley Cooper as the voice of wise-cracking raccoon Rocket and Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer, a vengeful warrior whose alien brain does not understand the concept of figures of speech. (“My reflexes are too fast, I would catch it!” he says when Rocket says metaphors go over his head.) The vast mythology of ‘Guardians’—intergalactic wars, races of space cops, blue dudes with power staffs—could be off-putting or confusing, but a few canny choices by co-writer/director James Gunn—a seen-it-all wisecracking human hero (Chris Pratt), a soundtrack of familiar golden oldies—make a potentially alienating concept seem inviting and familiar. Even with all the crazy imagery and geeky concepts, ‘Guardians’ is, at its core, a very relatable story about feeling like a weirdo, and then finding your home amongst other weirdos. The uncharted corners of the universe have never felt so universal.  —MaS

Attack the Block Sci-Fi List
Screen Gems

15. ‘Attack the Block’ (2011)
Directed by Joe Cornish

One look at ‘Attack the Block’ and you just know that Edgar Wright had something to do with it. The Wright-produced debut feature from Joe Cornish has a rowdy, boundless energy and awesomely fresh alien designs. But it’s not the threat of furry aliens with glowing teeth or the desperate fight for survival that makes ‘Attack the Block’ so damn good—it’s the cast of troublemaking teens who sell the experience, including future ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ star John Boyega. Although ‘Attack the Block’ wasn’t a major hit, the film quickly gathered a cultish following, and anointed Joe Cornish as one of the most exciting young directors on the planet. While we patiently await his follow-up project, we still have ‘Attack the Block’ to watch over and over, marveling at the sharp editing, fiercely fun concept, and fantastic creature designs. It’s an Amblin adventure for the modern age; a throwback that also’s forward-thinking. —BH

The World's End Sci-Fi List

14. ‘The World’s End’ (2013)
Directed by Edgar Wright

It’s easy to label Edgar Wright as a comedy director, but that would give him only a sliver of the credit he deserves. ‘Shaun of the Dead’ is as good a horror movie as it is a comedy, ‘Hot Fuzz’ is as thrilling as it is hilarious, and ‘The World's End’ is a whip-smart science-fiction adventure that also happens to pack tons of laughs into every scene. It's his best movie, which is saying an awful lot. Like Douglas Adams before him, Wright uses a blend of grand science-fiction concepts and comedy to explore what makes humanity tick. Initially an ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ riff about a group of friends who pub crawl their way into an alien attack, the film evolves into a satire of the human race’s willingness to embrace corporate control (eat your heart out, ‘They Live’) and a touching examination of friendship, sobriety, and maturity. It's a dizzying blend of concepts that have no right to work together at all, and yet they do. Like the other entries in his “Cornetto Trilogy,” ‘The World’s End’ respects its story and characters. When someone dies, the audience feels it. When the crazy sci-fi takes center stage, the ideas are just as captivating as the jokes. —Jacob Hall

WALL-E Sci-Fi list

13. ‘WALL-E’ (2008)
Directed by Andrew Stanton

Pixar, the home of Woody and Buzz Lightyear, hardly seems like the place for a sci-fi film about a post-apocalyptic wasteland growing in the ruins of an environmental disaster. But somehow director Andrew Stanton was able to pull if off, and somehow he was also able to make ‘WALL-E’ an adorable love story. While the veneer of ‘WALL-E’ (at least the spectacular 40-minute opening sequence set on Earth) is covered in dust and junk, what’s underneath is as colorful and lively as anything else in the Pixar oeuvre. There are friendly nods to past sci-fi films like ‘2001’ (the film’s villain looks curiously like HAL-9000) and Stanton has said he was heavily influenced by Dan O’Bannon and Walter Hill’s ‘Alien’ screenplay, but the movie is most curiously obsessed with the 1969 Barbra Streisand musical ‘Hello, Dolly!’ From the very opening of the film, as Michael Crawford sings “Out there, there’s a world outside of Yonkers ...” you know you’re in for a very different and very lovely sci-fi film. —MiS

Moon Sci-Fi List
Sony Pictures Classics

12. ‘Moon’ (2009)
Directed by Duncan Jones

Duncan Jones’ ’Moon’ is so good it feels like a long-lost story from the golden age of the sci-fi genre. If you were to say it was based on a recently uncovered novel from Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein, no one would blink an eye. It’s that smart, that inventive, and, most importantly, that human. ‘Moon’ may quietly utilize some of the most astonishing special effects of the past 25 years, but it feels timeless. One of its greatest pleasures is watching its plot unfold for the first time, so let’s stick to the basics: Sam Rockwell, giving a career-best performance, plays the sole employee of a mining operation on the moon. Bored and on edge, his only friend is a robot voiced by Kevin Spacey. So when he uncovers something very peculiar out on the surface of Earth’s only natural satellite, things only go downhill. Rockwell is our doorway into this future, a blue-collar everyman whose mundane existence in an extraordinary scenario instantly grounds us in this world. Through suggestion and design, Jones blends extraordinary sci-fi concepts into what’s actually a fairly straightforward story of a man going through a devastating identity crisis. This is the very best kind of science fiction; a personal inner struggle given concrete form. —JH

The Weinstein Company

11. ‘Snowpiercer’ (2014)
Directed by Bong Joon-ho

Audiences who demand logic and realism from their films may take issue with Bong Joon-ho's ‘Snowpiercer,’ which gleefully throws any semblance of reality out the window in its opening minutes. This is not a science-fiction film interested in predicting a plausible future; instead, it wants to use the malleable landscape of genre fiction to delve into big ideas. Set entirely aboard an advanced train that continuously shepherds the last remnants of humanity through a second (man-made) Ice Age, ‘Snowpiercer’ tracks the revolution that brews in the squalid rear cars, where the poorly-fed lower classes plot to battle their way to the engine and seize control. It doesn't make literal sense, but the resulting blend of satire and wild visuals is worth suspending disbelief. Each car, each battle between the downbeat lower classes and the fascist forces of the front brings a new surprise. Some are violent, some are hilarious. All of them are totally unexpected. At the center of it all, Chris Evans proves himself to be so much more than Captain America, embodying a hero whose dark past is so audacious you may have to rewind his big monologue to make sure you heard everything correctly. ‘Snowpiercer’ rules. —JH


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