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The 20 Best Sci-Fi Movies The 2010s Had To Offer
As we look back at the 2010s, it becomes immediately apparent that it was a great time for science fiction. Visual effects technology was quickly maturing and opening up new options for storytelling. New masters of the genre like Guillermo del Toro, Alex Garland, and Denis Villeneuve came to the forefront.
This list has something for everyone, from hard near-future sci-fi and superhero stories to post-apocalyptic wastelands and intimate, otherworldly drama. The films raise questions about artificial intelligence and climate change and play with the idea of time over and over.
These are the films that will be iconic when we’re looking back at the 2010s from the 2050s; right now they’re just killer science fiction, and every one of these films is worth watching and rewatching.
20. The Martian (2015)
Ridley Scott’s astronaut survival flick is sci-fi in its truest form; it imagines a near future where we have the technology, budget, and brains to take people to Mars. After a windstorm seems to kill Damon’s character Mark Watney, his team takes off without him–only to find out that he’s quite alive. Watney has to survive with his combined ingenuity and limited resources and hope the government back home is willing to put the money and manpower into bringing him home. It speaks to the incredible training Astronauts go through before missions, and to the will of a man to survive in truly hopeless circumstances. Throughout the film, Scott never loses focus on how exacting both Watney and his rescue team must be, making for a tense movie from end to end that never dips into melodrama. Similarly, he never lets us forget how cold, dangerous, and unforgiving Mars would be. For all of that, we’ll forgive the film for birthing the line “I’m going to have to science the s*** out of this.”
19. Snowpiercer (2013)
Bong Joon Ho is best known for his stunning 2019 film Parasite, but half a decade earlier, he brought us Snowpiercer, a movie about an endlessly-circling train on an Earth ravaged by climate change. It’s one of the few sci-fi films that feels truly original thanks to this simple premise. The forward-moving nature of a train makes both for really interesting fights and a narrative that feels unstoppable. It has things to say about class warfare, climate change, and revolution, but isn’t afraid to give us great action along the way–the fight scene between the rebels and the axe-wielding soldiers partway through stands out in particular as a demonstration that Bong is equally comfortable with big ideas, minimalist sets, and exciting action.
18. Inception (2010)
Are you still thinking about the spinning top? We are. So often when we talk about a movie using dream logic, it’s about how hazy and weird David Lynch films are. Christopher Nolan, however, is no David Lynch. He’s precise almost to a fault. Inception is what you get if you take that dream logic and filter a heist movie through it. It has all the precision of a heist movie and all the weirdness of a dream. This movie hit theaters hot on the heels of The Dark Knight and Batman Begins, and it was hard to imagine Nolan failing. This is a gorgeous film that is as engaging as it is technically impressive, and it still holds up 12 years later.
17. Looper (2012)
This tightly-made sci-fi flick flew under the radar for many people, but it’s part of what helped bring director Rian Johnson into prominence and in charge of a Star Wars movie. Looper takes some big, high-level concepts–time travel and telekinesis–and treats them as a fact of life in an otherwise pretty normal near-future world. We see signs of science fiction here and there–transparent cell phones that are just handheld squares, trucks with solar panels and external wiring, a floating bike. The story itself is easy to make sense of thematically, even when the time travel shenanigans get a little confusing; this is a movie about perpetuating and ending a cycle of violence. Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character is part of the cycle, but in closing his own loop in the film’s final moments, he ends the cycle. The Bruce Willis makeup he wears through the whole film is still a little unsettling, but Gordon-Levitt deserves major kudos for working so hard to emulate Willis’ little ticks and facial expressions.
16. Dredd (2012)
Dredd is the perfect example of a tight, fun, pulpy B movie that knows exactly what it is and is ready to have fun with itself. Judge Dredd got a bad rap when Sylvester Stallone took on the role in the 1990s, but give Karl Urban brings us a perfect adaptation of the character that’s a blast to watch. Urban has proven himself to be a blast to watch in roles like Butcher on The Boys, and he plays Judge Dredd with egoless enthusiasm; not once throughout the movie’s runtime does Dredd’s helmet come off. His acting is all from the nose down. Dredd is a guy who believes equally in the the brutality and honor of his job. He comes up against Lena Headey’s gang leader Ma-Ma–a role that hit just as Game of Thrones’ Cersei was becoming everyone’s favorite character to hate. Ma-Ma is ruthless and cruel, and Headey isn’t so much chewing scenery as she is tearing off whole chunks of it with her teeth. The film puts those two into a locked tower full of goons, action setpieces, and creative visual effects that make the film a blast to watch. In both 2012 and today, it feels more prescient than fantastical.
15. Attack the Block (2011)
Some of the best sci-fi movies have very local, individual stakes. Attack the Block isn’t concerned with the world, with all of England, or even all of London. It cares about one tower block and its residents. Moses (John Boyega, Star Wars The Force Awakens) and his friends make a hobby out of robbing people and making trouble. One night, while robbing a nurse named Sam (Jodie Whittaker, Doctor Who), something smashes through a car: a small, toothy, and seemingly feral alien creature. The boys chase it down and kill it, but soon find themselves besieged by bigger, meaner-looking ones with glowing green teeth. The boys’ fight for survival feels at times like a Spielberg adventure, and the story highlights the daily struggle they experience living in a housing project in south London, from targeting by cops to recruitment by local gang bosses. It’s easy to see how this film led directly to John Boyega being cast in Star Wars films (and then being all but abandoned by the scripts of the second and third films).
14. Bumblebee (2018)
To those of us who grew up with the Transformers, Michael Bay’s films look and feel like an affront to our tastes. Even if the stories are no more or less silly, they feel as much like endless spinning gears as they look. The heart of the Transformers is missing, replaced with complicated nonsensical plots meant for international audiences to consume–ideally without the need for subtitles. Bumblebee, however, brought things back around in all the best ways. It swapped out the end of the world for an intimate story about a girl and her rad yellow beetle. Hailee Steinfeld is a kid in the 1980s who accidentally ends up the owner of a transforming car that helps her work through her fears and grow into herself. The movie is as full of heart as we remember the Transformers being, and managed to find a visual happy medium between the chaotic metal of Bay’s movies and the toy-selling visuals of the cartoons.
13. Edge of Tomorrow/Live Die Repeat (2013)
Whatever name you want to call this movie, Edge of Tomorrow came and went at the box office and has been largely forgotten by the audience. Give it a second look, though. This film is an action-packed sci-fi story that not only gives us the deep pleasure of seeing Tom Cruise die over and over again, but it turns Emily Blunt into a bona fide action hero and gives us, arguably, the best video game movie yet, despite not being based on a video game. Tom Cruise’s character is a PR guy for the military but ends up killed and covered in alien goop almost immediately when he’s sent out into the field, trapping him in a time loop. What is a video game about if not dying over and over to save the world? This movie is about banging your head against a tough situation and overcoming it with the help of an ally. That “Edge of Tomorrow” title may sound like it was pulled out of a marketing hat, but this movie is absolutely worth a look even if Tom Cruise drives you bonkers.
12. Pacific Rim (2013)
Guillermo del Toro’s Kaiju feature Pacific Rim is nothing short of a love letter to Japanese Kaiju, mecha, and sentai heroes. In just over two hours, Del Toro paints us a world both under siege by and evolving on the backs of giant monsters from the sea. We meet dozens of colorful characters and their twin-pilot mechs, the scientists who study the Kaiju, and the criminal underworld that traffics in the disasters their battles leave behind. Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, and Idris Elba all work hard to make this world vibrant and fun. It’s like power rangers for grown-ups, but without taking it away from the kids that helped make it popular. It’s also totally different from anything else del Toro has done before or since, making it stand out in his own filmography as well as in greater science fiction.
11. Her (2013)
Falling in love with a sexy cyborg is an enduring fantasy in popular culture, all the way back to one of the earliest sci-fi films, Metropolis, and appearing in every off-shoot of sci-fi. Remember Futurama’s Lucy Liu-bot? In Spike Jonze’s Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a man who falls in love with an operating system built to fulfill a user’s every need. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Samantha is an AI that learns and grows with experience. As the romance between the two grows, the movie asks the viewer to look at how we interface with technology and how it affects our relationships with people around us. Eventually, it brings us to the logical endpoint of developing an actual general artificial intelligence (hint: it’s not apocalyptic war). It’s a touching film that tries to reconcile the human need for interaction and the isolating effects of technology.
10. Black Panther (2018)
Black Panther stands out from the rest of the MCU by taking us into Black Panther’s home nation of Wakanda. Here, we see science fiction inspired by decades of afro-futurist literature and art, brought to life on the big screen. While some of the visual effects are admittedly pretty unimpressive, that’s about the only thing about Black Panther that doesn’t work. Wakanda is a bright, vivid place that should look like a paradise to anyone looking in. Michael B. Jordan and the late Chadwick Boseman brought Killmonger and T’Challa to life with a depth rarely afforded to Marvel characters. Killmonger had an undeniable point despite the violence of his crusade, and that forced T’Challa to examine Wakanda’s past and future and to face directly the experience of Black people outside of the fairytale wonderland of Wakanda. It’s the rare Marvel movie that manages to both highlight real-world issues in a real way and get introspective, while also fitting snugly into the MCU canon as one of its stronger entries.
9. Annihilation (2018)
At the nexus of science fiction, fantasy, and horror lies the genre called “new weird,” a genre of storytelling that delves into the metaphysical and unexplainable, wondering about what lies beyond our understanding of science–and how terrifying it might be. Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is one of the best-known examples of New Weird. Alex Garland brought the first book in the trilogy, Annihilation, to life in his movie of the same name. Capturing the unknowable on such an objective medium as film is a tall task, but Garland did an admirable job with this film, taking the team of women beyond the Shimmer and into an increasingly weird world where life doesn’t obey the standard rules. While the film struggles with pacing at times, the gorgeous visuals and mystery make it more than worth the journey.
8. Arrival (2016)
Telling a story about changing perception of time is anything but easy in a linear format like film, but Arrival might be my favorite example (alongside the HBO’s Watchmen episode A God Walks Into Abar). Denis Villeneuve’s talent for massive, stark shots helps give us one of the few examples of extraterrestrial beings that aren’t simply people in makeup. They feel incomprehensibly huge–and just plain incomprehensible–but we can believe by the end that Amy Adams’ character has come to truly understand them, uncoupling herself from the human perception of time in the process. It’s a tough trick to pull off, but boy does it work.
7. Ex Machina (2014)
With Ex Machina, director Alex Garland gives us what might be the ultimate Turing test, built on manipulation, betrayal, and lies told to and by an AI. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. This is a complex story about what makes humans human, what makes us intelligent, and how we treat each other. The primary cast of characters is played by Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander, and throughout the movie, each of these characters attempts to manipulate both of the others to their own ends. The ending of the film is the very definition of F*** Around and Find Out, and it’s the kind of chilling ending that sticks with you long after the credits roll. All the main performances are excellent, but Vikander’s stands out. Careful use of CGI and a perfectly balanced performance from her combine to make her entirely believable as a robot quickly figuring out how humans operate. Alex Garland’s list of films and television is relatively short, but every one of them is remarkable, and Ex Machina is no different.
6. Under the Skin (2013)
What would it look like if David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive) directed a movie by Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation)? Under the Skin would be pretty close. Directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) and starring Scarlett Johansson, the film follows an unnamed woman who seeks out lonely men, luring them into a black void. As she seeks out prey, though, she has more and more human experiences–only for that humanity to be brutally stripped away. The film has a dream-like quality; long wordless sequences, filled with silence or the haunting soundtrack. Dialogue is awkward, as it would be between an otherworldly creature and a man disconnected from his own surroundings. Johansson brings an alien strangeness to her character; she seems confused or upset by her own body as if isn’t sure where her body ends and she begins. Compared to her role in Her, Johansson’s performance is almost entirely physical, and it’s unquestionably one of her most memorable.
5. Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Sorry to Bother You doesn’t look like science fiction at first blush, but it’s there. This is a movie about the modern view of labor and labor movements in American society, about workers finding success for themselves at the expense of others, and finally about the logical endpoint of allowing ourselves to become willing cogs in the machines of megacorporations that are far too large to care about our safety and happiness. When things turn in the third act, it’s impossible to miss where the story is going, but it’s worth sticking around for.
4. Shape of Water (2017)
If Pacific Rim was del Toro’s biggest film in terms of scale, Shape of Water is one of his most intimate. After movies like Blade II, Hellboy II, and Pan’s Labyrinth, Shape of Water feels more like his 2001 film Devil’s Backbone. The stakes are extremely personal despite what they imply about the world around the characters. The mute Elisa works as a cleaner in a top-secret government facility, where she discovers that the American government has captured a humanoid amphibian akin to the Creature from the Black Lagoon. A sci-fi romance turns into a harrowing escape. Without speaking a word, the two main characters persuade us of their intense bond, helping del Toro to take home his first Academy Award for Best Film.
3. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
There are a few movies like Blade Runner on this list–sequels that shouldn’t work. Blade Runner was an incredible standalone movie that flopped when it hit theaters in 1982. 35 years later, the same thing happened again: Blade Runner 2049 hit theaters and struggled at the box office. But like its predecessor, it’s a triumph of atmosphere, updating the original cyberpunk neo-noir story successfully against all odds. It necessarily treads similar ground–replicants will always be at the center of Blade Runner stories, even though they’re ostensibly pretty rare in the actual Los Angeles of the future. Despite that, it finds its own ground both visually and thematically, focusing on the truth of memories and questions about what it means to be alive and sentient. Meanwhile, director Denis Villeneuve’s talent for creating huge, desolate visual landscapes makes the story feel very different. It’s just as beautiful as Ridley Scott’s film, but the two won’t be mistaken for each other. Both movies are about how small their characters are, but the bigness of their surroundings couldn’t be more different. Blade Runner 2049 shouldn’t work, but it does.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
George Miller basically codified leather daddy and post-apocalyptic imagery all at once with the first 3 Mad Max films. Then he made Babe: A Pig in the City, Lorenzo’s Oil, and Happy Feet. He returned to Max’s world in his 70s with Fury Road and made the most energetic, visceral, and satisfying action movie in years. He found a new take on Max in Tom Hardy, centered the movie on Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, and found a new enemy, without us doubting for even a second that we were watching Mad Max. The science fiction in Mad Max Fury Road is mostly in the apocalypse referenced around the edges, but it’s there in the stilt-walking people in the swamps, the plastic breathing apparatuses that Immortan Joe and his body-builder son wear, and the way people talk about water, bullets, and guzzoline (gasoline). For a movie about people who go out into an empty desert and turn around to go home, Max is an engaging movie with energy that would exhaust someone half Miller’s age.
1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Few superheroes have as many movies as Spider-Man, but for as much as we’ve enjoyed the Home trilogy, this animated feature is the best of Spider-Man. It sounds like a disaster: a bunch of Spider-Persons from different universes all come together to fight Kingpin. But what we get instead is, somehow, every part of the Spider-Man experience, all at once, and none of it feels like it’s being done a disservice. Spider-Man fights to the death, watches his marriage fall apart, mourns a lost friend, and finds a Rubik’s Cube–and those are all different Spiders. Peter Parker lets us see Spider-Man in a fight to the death–what it looks like when Spider-Man truly fails. New Spider-Man Miles Morales holds the group together and gives us a coming-of-age origin story for Spider-Man filtered through the eyes and experiences of a young Black man. The writers know what we know about the Spider-Man mythos and happily play fast and loose with it in a way that welcomes both new and old Spider-Man fans. There isn’t another movie that looks like Spider-Verse; it’s an instant classic and a genuine work of animated art, with heart and humor to spare.